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The next morning we packed off to Marrakech on the excellent Moroccan railroad.

All went smoothly for about an hour, and then, while we were on the cell phone, the window exploded. My first reaction was purely political, and I flinched wildly, thinking it was a gunshot. And in fact, there was a hole in the center of the mass of glass splinters that still stood upright in the window frame (plastic safety glass, of course). Terrorists had stalked me, I was sure, having determined that I was from the Axis of Good. But my paranoia was proven foolish, for within minutes the train police arrived to assure us that it was a stone shot from a sling, and that it had become a persistent problem of late. They were very sorry, but the car was full and there was no place to move us. Worse, we would have to share our compartment with four other people, the car was a smoker (we had overlooked that detail) and the air-conditioning was not working. Well, we thought, at least it was not a bullet.

Train to Marrakesh - with the back door opened

To our pleasant surprise, the new arrivals were all engaging French-speaking people, a male engineer, a female biology student, and two other women who by their dress and demeanor were obviously professionals of some sort. When they determined that we had come from New York, they became fascinated, and of course wanted to hear what it was like to actually be in Midtown New York on September 11. Since I was the only one who had seen things (from my office window; Angelique works in a first floor lab) I had to tell the story from a personal standpoint, and it was amazing to see their reaction. They were deeply sympathetic, went on at length about their affection for American culture, their admiration for American principles, and both hostile to and rather puzzled by the Bush government. This was a reaction that we got repeatedly, also from casual encounters with people who learned I was Americans. (As an aside here, I should mention that Fundamentalism is insignificant in Morocco. There was not even any public religion, and when the muezzin called five times a day, we saw not a single person begin the prayer (as opposed to Egypt, where there would always be a few people who would withdraw some place to pray).

Train to Marrakesh - A queasy Angelique

By the end of our journey, the air conditioning had stopped working and the heat of the crowd and the smoke from the endless cigarettes became really oppressive, all the more because Angelique was starting to feel sick with what she thought at first was a cold, but turned out to be a lot more serious and unpleasant. We retreated to the rear of the train where a nice gentleman opened the train door so that we could sit in the doorway, feet dangling over the steps of the train. Letting the dry desert air blow across our faces, we watched the desolate landscape flow by, feeling like we were in the ‘train scene’ in some desert adventure movie. Certainly no European or American train staff would let you ride with the car door open over the tracks. It was a pleasant way to arrive in a city that would soon bring us both some difficult evenings.

Amoebic Dysentery is not as much fun as it sounds...

We are not talking traveler’s runs here, but a high fever, crippling cramps, liquefication and sudden expulsion of the contents of your viscera from both ends. This is not something to have in polite company.

It struck poor Angelique just after we arrived at our Marrakesh house (in the Kasbah, but that no longer seemed so interesting.) She crawled to her bed while I called the doctor (a Frenchwoman who kept a clinic in the city) who confirmed the obvious and prescribed the relevant medicine. I then ventured out to the tiny Kasbah pharmacy where tidy little boxes on pristine shelves and the tidy little pharmacist in her white lab coat were a sharp contrast to the sooty alley outside and the line of female customers in full veil (a more common sight in the Kasbah than in the new city.) I returned to the little patient and administered the medicines, but it was a major act of trust to ingest chemical substances in strange packages marked only in Arabic.

Our view of Marrakesh...

Marrakesh, the Kasbah and Royal Palace gardens as seen from our accommodation the Atlas mountains can be see in the background

During the night, I was awakened by the sound of distant chanting, as if from a loud-speaker somewhere in the Kasbah. Something Koranic I assumed, but it was much too early for the first call to prayer (which one recognized instantly anyhow, from the familiar “Allahu Akbar!”.) The King has just arrived in town and his palace was not far away, so I thought the sound might be from there. I went up on the roof to simply sit and listen. The moon by then was three quarters, the sky had just enough wisps of clouds to be painterly, and one or two bright stars were visible. It was inexpressively serene, almost kitschy, and I was only sorry that my feverish chickadee could not share it.

It was nature’s last gift to me for a while, for the next morning I began my turn at amoebic dysentery (see above).

Archaeologista belgianensis

Fortunately, Angelique was soon on her feet again, and so, while I descended into the pit of the damned, she was able to look after me. In fact, the day after that, while I was still fever-demented, she connected up with the Faculte de Science at Marrakesh. Thus, on the third day, when I rose again from the wishing-they-were-dead, there she was in the doorway, in her fedora, Indiana Jones desert gear, leather gloves and holding three jars.

Yes, Angelique, the Scorpion Queen had them. Two large black Androctonus mauretanicus and one small Buthus atlantis. All three extremely deadly. (Aside: scorpion venom, a neuro-toxin, is far more toxic than cobra venom since its delivery system is so much less efficient. The cobra injects while the scorpion relies on an instantaneous sting which must be of high quality to be effective.) They had been captured alive. So, while I admired her scientific prowess, Angelique photographed the critters from every conceivable angle with her incredible digital camera.

Buthus atlantis ready for her close-up

Taking pictures of lethal scorpions isn't that easy

Djmaa el Fna at sunset

Djmaa el Fna 10 minutes later

The baboush (slippers) souq

Well, now our main job was done, and it was time to get down to some serious sight-seeing.

Djmaa el Fna is not a sneeze. It is the name of the big square in Marrakesh where half the city and all the tourists seem to gather every evening for food and entertainment of the most rudimentary, pre-technology sort; jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers, henna painters, all rather shabby and jaded, but one of the Marrakesh experiences.

Its main aesthetic appeal lies in the fact that it has no central electric illumination, no street lights that is. Thus as dusk falls, one sees first only the spectacularly colored sky from the murky square and then little by little, the individual lights of the food stands ringing the square. At the center, there is either darkness, or the lantern lights at the center of each of the little sorts of entertainment, the acrobats, snake charmers, etc. The overall effect is impressively archaic, at times even savage. But when you are close, you see how very unromantic it is. The snakes are curiously limp, and certainly abused, and the acrobats, like the boys you see in street shows all over the world’s cities, are ragged and straining to charm a paltry income from a faintly interested wandering public. The square should be experienced of course, but for my taste, it was too reminiscent of the old hangouts of international hippies: Marrakesh, Goa, Katmandu. The souq attached to it was also more thrown-together, less “organic” and than the older and larger one at Fez. It was also denser, more carnival like, more colorful and a trifle seedier than Fez. What struck me most was the interconnection of the shops, so that to get to one workshop, you often had to thread your way through half a dozen others. There seemed to be no distinction between indoors and outdoors, since the streets and alleyways were covered with lattice work in any case. Everything seemed attached to everything else, and when you began negotiations to buy something, a dozen other merchants watched, and some even gathered around to get your attention the minute you were finished with the first transaction.

Still a bit weakened from our bout with dysentery, we both petered out sooner than we had in Fez, and rather than looking around, we focused on buying the gifts we wanted to give our friends when we returned. Although we were still quite far from the big desert dunes, and nowhere near the Tuaregs who lived and worked in them, the Marrakech souq made the most of the tourists’ interest in the mystique of the “Blue Men”. Everywhere there were copies of their blue tunics and head scarves, as well as the curved knives and muskets which hadn’t been used in a century.

Angelique trying her luck at traditional medicine...

When we got back out to the Djmaa el Fna, we watched some jugglers until a young woman, veiled except for her eyes, seized hold of Angelique’s hand and began painting a design on the back of her hand. We knew about, but had elected not to purchase, the art of hand-and foot painting with henna. It must have been a slow day, because the young lady was determined to paint that hand and would not stop until she had laid down an elaborate floral pattern. She stepped back finally and demanded twenty dirhams for the unrequested art work. Since that was only two dollars, and we had that much in small coins in our pockets, we consented, and left the square with a souvenir we had not counted on. It lasted about a week before finally fading.


Casablanca - The train station, departure and end of all adventures in Morocco

Marrakech was supposed to be the jumping-off point to our biggest adventure, a wilderness excursion into the big dunes at Merzouga. The dysentery had forced us to postpone that venture, but we have scheduled it for the coming Spring. For the time being, we were ready to knock the sand off our boots and return to Casablanca for the flight home. In Casablanca, Angelique paid her respects to the Mosque of Hassan II, the largest in Morocco, and after packing up our musket, curved desert daggers and exotic spices, we began the trip home.

Next April, the deep Sahara. Stay tuned.

Casablanca's Hassan II mosque

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© 2002 by Elaine Sutherland and Angelique Corthals. All Rights Reserved. Last Modified Friday, January 03, 2003