Our first few minutes in Meknes are spent wedged into a tiny Isuzu minivan, probably from the early eighties. Bernhard, Lorena and Casey sit in the windowless back, while I’m next to the driver, whose XXL figure is comically oversized for a car like this. The chassis seems to have been repaired – poorly – several times, and I’m so far forward in the car that in case of an accident, I would probably be the main component of the crumple zone. All of this makes me even less enthusiastic about the driver’s preferred method of minimizing the time spent per ride: inventing extra lanes whenever there’re cars moving slower than he’d like, squeezing his sardine-can-on-wheels inbetween trucks and busses with admirable precision, too much speed and a whole lot of confidence in the bus and truck drivers.
Our hotel is fairly basic, but quiet, clean and cheap. Our plan is to have a stroll in the medina, which will hopefully have less hustle than the one in Fes. But instead of getting lost in the medina, we get lost just trying to find it! After enlisting the help of some local kids and an unplanned tour past the royal palace and the mausoleum of an important sultan, we finally find Bab Mansour, the gate to the old city. The clouds have turned a yellowish gray, as if it’s going to snow. The medina itself is pretty much as we had hoped: there’s plenty going on, but there’s no hustle to speak of. In the women’s clothing quarter, fabrics are being made with noisy machines using bicycle wheels, and countless rolls of colourful threads. Meknes’ Medersa Bou Inania (named after the same person as the one in Fes) is quieter but no less beaufiful. The decoration on these islamic buildings is incredible, with plaster, woodwork, and mosaics from floor to ceiling, all with fine but abstract detailing (since depicting objects or people could lead to idolatry and is therefore prohibited by the Quran). The only recognisable decoration is a narrow band of finely calligraphed Islamic texts. The rooftop terrace of the medersa gives a great view over the medina, but due to the narrow streets you can’t see much specific other than distant minarets. Casey and Lorena are interested in buying some silver jewellery frim a shop full of wonderful oddities, that doesn’t look particularly touristy; while they haggle, I wonder how often in his career the friendly salesman has spoken the phrases ‘real silver’, ‘made by berber jews’, ‘for islamic good luck’, and ‘all handmade!’… In the twenty or thirty minutes we spend in his store, he must’ve spoken each one of them at least fifty times!
Once outside, Casey (who studies something related to the Middle East) explains some things about the Arab language, as we wonder what the muezzin says in his call to prayer (some just say Allahu Akhbar, god is great, several times, but others add more poetry to it). Also, it’s apparently not always possible to know even vaguely how to pronounce a word just by looking at the spelling; often, you just have to know the word. Add to this the differences between Moroccan Arabic and standard Arabic, and the result is that Casey unfortunately cannot be our translator. That’s too bad, as there’re some wonderfully odd signs painted on the walls… The day ends with some really good street food and a tricky card game called Durag.
We say goodbye to Casey the next morning; Bernhard, Lorena and I have a day trip in mind. We ask a guy and a girl for directions to the taxi stand. Instead of just pointing us there, they accompany us while chatting about their lives and plans for the future. They study economics at Meknes university; the girl plans to move out of Meknes upon graduating, just to see something new… A pretty modern and very recognisable wish! At the taxi stand, they negotiate with different taxis to get us a price that’s as close to a local (non-tourist) price as possible, which takes quite some effort. After experiencing the endless hustle in Fes, where seemingly nothing is done without some expectation of money, we’re all hugely grateful for their kindness. We do get what we pay for though; the least shiny of all the 1980’s Mercedes taxis,
with an elderly gentleman as driver, a bumper that hangs off, an engine that sounds like it’s from the twenties, and a steering wheel that has to be pointed in the 10 o’clock direction to keep the car going straight. I seriously wonder if the brakes will do much braking, but thankfully neither car nor driver seems to be willing or capable of reaching truly dangerous speeds. The destination of our trip is Volubilis, the most important city of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana. It’s located on a mountainside amidst fields of wheat, olive and apricot trees, while further up the mountain is Morocco’s most important pilgrimage site, the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss (who founded the first Islamic dynasty of the country; it’s said that five pilgrimages here are worth one to Mekka).
The archaeological site itself is covered in wildflowers; a stunningly beautiful setting for the ruins. It’s easy to imagine living here, with the streets and basic layout of the villas (which were really luxurious and advanced!) clearly visible. Lorena is our guide for the day, using her Morocco guidebook to point out the buildings, mosaics and history; her excellent explanations only cost us a freshly picked wildflower (Bernhard) and some dried figs (me) 🙂
On the way back it starts to rain, so we use the rest of the day to eat and stock up on supplies for our respective onward journeys, and say goodbye as Bernhard and Lorena leave to get the nightbus to the desert. Unfortunately (for them) I see them again a few hours later, as they got caught in a lovely bit of Moroccan “efficiency”, being sent from bus station to bus station and arriving at the correct one just in time to see their bus leave.
The next morning, I leave on a fruitless train trip to Tanger (hoping in vain that Morocco’s only Victorinox dealer will have the Swiss army knife model I lost; as it turns out, they sell a stunning range of three different models, all grossly overpriced even after haggling). After wasting most of my day on that, I go to Rabat, the nation’s capital. The most exciting thing that happens to me here is a hustler who tries to take off with a few of my Dirhams (after I refuse to change them for his Euros; perhaps I would’ve trusted him more if he hadn’t first tried to sell me some hash?), but as I give him my best “don’t mess with me” face he gives up (although apparently I am ‘a fucking person’). Besides that incident, it’s nice to unwind a bit at the patisseries (Morocco’s favourite bit of colonial heritage) and the beach, and to join the thousands of people who go for an evening snack of street food.
After I get my Mauritanian visa, which is the purpose of my visit, I decide to stay for a few more days to sample a different side of Morocco. Both the people and the buildings of Rabat are pretty modern, and even the medina is laid out in an orderly grid (although my hotel takes the prize for the most basic yet, with a squatting toilet and a shower curtain that’s actually a carpet that’s been fixed to a rail with safety pins). There aren’t many spectacular sights, and the kasbah (castle) that guards the old city is closed due to some event involving the Venezuelan ambassador. I don’t mind, after the barrage of sensory inputs of the Fes and Meknes medinas, particularly since my next destination will be Marrakech…