Trip Start Mar 11, 2007
Trip End Apr 13, 2007

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I met a young backpacking couple on the bus to the border.  They were from York, England and were part of a university program that encouraged students to hitchhike their way to Marrakesh once a year as part of a fundraiser.  Sponsors pay if they make it.

We made fast friends and went through customs together.  Quite a difference from other countries.  Border towns usually suck, especially when one country is poor.  This one was bad.  Dozens of seedy men hung around looking to scam someone.  Several tried to push an immigration form in my hand and ask for a fee.  The form is free at the immigration counter.  Others tried to sell things, anything.  Yet others offered taxi rides already.

Passing through was relatively uneventful.  The staff could hardly be bothered.  With anything.  Thank god it was pretty quiet that day.  I've seen a video of the crossing during summer break when thousands of Moroccans living in Europe make their annual pilgrimage home.  The line stretches for miles.

It was late in the day and I managed to change some Euoros to Dirhams at a money changer for a poor rate.  I only changed 20 Euros to get a bus out and then I'd go to an ATM, a real godsend for the modern traveller.  Gone are the days of dealing with the cheats at borders.

The couple I was with didn't get a chance to change and planned on usinf Euros.  Once outside the gate, we were met with more touts offering rides to Tetouan and Chefchouen.  I was going to settle on Tetouan, a large city away fro, the coast, but I heard it didn't have a lot to offer.  We agreed to try to haggle a grande taxi all the way to this city, a small mountain backpacker hangout.

Grande taxis run between cities on rural routes or between buses.  Here, they were all 20 plus year old blue Mercedes that had seen better days.  Their first offer was 400 Dh or about 45 dollars.  Of course we scoffed and walked on asking others, bu the price was the same and we saw the eye contact between the taxi rank boss and the several drivers.  Obviously, this was a cartel and they didn't dare undercut each other.

It would have been much cheaper to go to Tetouan and try for a bus, but were they still running after dark?  They are few and far between in general.  Finally, we agreed on the 400 and accepted our lot.  It's probably triple the local price, but we did get a private taxi for the 2 hour ride up into the mountains.  I was amazed at all I'd done in one day.  I climbed the Rock and was in 3 countries and made it all the way to Chefchouen.  Such an American.

And it was a good thing we took the taxi because it immediately started raining a cold windy rain as soon as we hit Tetouan.  I could have easily been lugging 45 pounds on my back looking for a bus or hotel.

But I slid into home safely.  We hiked into the medieval Medina, or old city and found a room reasonably quickly.  I splurged on a 7 dollar room.  Then it came time to explore, find a meal, and partake in the national pastime: chilling out and sipping mint tea.

I had dinner with the British hitchhikers later that evening.  They ran into some other Brits from the same program and it was fun hearing their stories and adventures.  Whoever came up with this idea should get an award.  All their experiences were positive.  But they seemed to miss out on a lot of the cities they passed through.  Many times they didn't even get into the city proper.  You went around Barcelona?  Are you kidding me?  But they did get to hear Spanish truck drivers lament the demise of the prostitution scene in Algeciras.  "He really had no shame!" Briana exclaimed.
They left the next day and I spent the day wandering and taking photos and taking advantage of the cheap internet cafes.  It costs from 30 cents to a dollar per hour here.
It's a small town, so it's pretty mellow.  There are touts for restaurants, hashish, knickknacks, etc but they take no for an answer.  For a city of only 40,000 there are a lot of people strolling around.  At around 7 pm the plaza is packed with families shopping and just talking with neighbors.  It's quite nice.
But it's also damn cold.  I'm wearing almost every piece of clothing I brought.  I'd say it's about 55 at it's warmest up here in the mountains. And it rains often. And for 7 bucks the hotel doesn't come with heat.  I can see my breath in the morning. Reminds me of college.
There's only one thing to take the chill off.  Even cupping my hands around mint tea won't do it.  I've got to head to the Hamam, or public bath.
My book said the old Hamam is open to men in the early morning, then open to women during the day, and open to men again after 7.  I ate an early dinner of Kefta (spicy lamb meatballs in a tomato sauce) a grilled tomato and pepper salad, flatbread, and olives.  Delicious.  So far all the meals have been good: tajines (stews) couscous, omelletes, bread, coffee, mint tea (super sugary), and good sweets.  After 7:30 or so, I walked past a curtain at the Hamam and was shocked to see women inside.  One let out a shriek and I back pedaled as fast as I could.  Mark that as my first faux pax.
After 8, I went back and waited outside until I saw a man and his son go in.  It cost 3 bucks to bathe yourself in buckets of hot water.  There was no steam room, bit it was nice and toasty.  Compared to the Hamams I went to in Turkey, this one was lame.  I'm hoping for better ones in Fez and Marrakech.
In a couple hours I take a 5 hour bus to Fez, an ancient city whose Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site and both the bane and boon for any backpacker.  Its winding lanes hold countless souks (stalls and shops), blind alleys, thieves, fake guides, and touts.  It should also be fascinating place to get lost in.  Wish me luck.
By the way, I'm adding photos to previous posts when I can, so check back periodically for any new photos.  Next stop: Fez.
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