Wednesday 2nd June, Meknes, Morocco.
Hoo wee! Is it hot down here in Meknes! What a change from Asilah and Larache, and when I tell people where I'm headed next, they just shake their heads and fan themselves. After spending a few days each in Meknes and neary Fes, I plan to venture first to Azrou, to visit some Barbary apes, then right out towards the Algerian border to Rissani and Merzouga. Merzouga is famous for its huge Saharan sand dunes, and if I find a good looking camel, I might even go for a ride. And it's going to be hot. I'm sure I'll have to buy an African robe, and one of those head scarf thingies, or my brain will get fried! But I'm getting ahead of myself.
From Larache to here, the cheapest and simplest transport would have been bus, but on a bus all you see is tarmac and trucks. On a train, you clatter through people's backyards and past ghettos and backstreet markets and all sorts of little surprises that you'd never see otherwise. Only problem was, Larache isn't on the train line. So I caught the bus as far as Ksar-el-Kabir, about forty kilometres out of Larache. I could catch the train from there. It was about midday when I arrived in Ksar-el-Kabir, and I was pretty sure the train I wanted left Tangiers at one. Perfect timing, I was pleased with myself.
Just as I walked up to the ticket window at the gare (that's the train station) I was intercepted by, you guessed it- a friendly guy who spoke perfect English *warning bells*. He informed me that I would have to wait until seven o'clock in the evening for the train to Meknes. I thanked him, but assured him he was mistaken, and stepped up closer to the counter. "Oh, there is one at two o'clock" he said, "and then another one at seven." I stared at him as if he was an idiot, and said "well, why would I want to wait for the seven o'clock train, if there's one in two hours?" To cut a long story short, I ended up spending my time at the cafe across the street while I was waiting. My new friend either owned the cafe, or pretended to own it (I'm guessing the second) and sat with me. Anyway, after the pleasantries- which involved him telling me how sad it makes him that a lot of Moroccan people just see the tourists for the money they can make from them- the inevitable questions started; would I like to go with him to eat something, would I like to look in his friend's shop, did I want to buy some hashish, did I have one tshirt to give him, could I give him some money to buy fruit and vegetables for his children, and so on. He was making me tired, so I told him I was going to lie down in the shade at the gare. How much did I owe him for the coffee, the coke and the bottle of water to take away?
So the train ride was quite scenic, nothing that had me leaping to the window for a photograph, but certainly pleasant, and surprisingly varied. We passed huge strawberry farms, then rolled through vast fields of sugar cane, the sunflowers. At one stage, the landscape on the right hand side of the train looked just like the part of Australia around where I come from- dry sandy hills wooded with eucalypts- whereas out the left window it looked like central England, with rolling hills, and grids of pasture. We trundled through half a dozen sleepy towns, and stopped for an inordinately long time at each one, considering usually only one or two people got on or off. Every now and then, a little village would flash by, no more than a handful of small mudbrick buildings, and a couple of raggedy children waving to the train. It felt like this was really Africa now. It reminded me of eastern Senegal and southern Mali.
The train itself was a mild disappointment, but not a surprise. I like the old trains that clatter and shake, with windows that roll down, or even better no windows at all. With cracks between the old wooden floorboards and smoke and dust blowing in from outside. But strangely not too many people prefer that type of train, and subsequently they're becoming a scarcity. They're all these new smooth, quiet airconditioned jobbies now. I bought a second class ticket- the man staring at me when I asked if there was a third class- and took my place on a big soft orange seat, hermetically sealed in from the country that I was here to feel, and hear and smell. But my carriage did have a bit of atmosphere though, after the aircon stopped working as soon as we pulled out of the station. The two old ladies and I were wilting by the time we reached Meknes.
When you first arrive in a city, you're really at the mercy of the touts and hustlers. It's been said that some of them can spot a tourist with a full backpack from six miles away, and if you open your guidebook in public, they'll sta each other to get to you first. That's when they know they have the advantage, you're new in town, you're disoriented and you're vulnerable. It's comical to watch them sometimes, actually racing each other to get to the tourist first. I was in no mood to face that crap, so immediately outside the train station, I jumped into my first Moroccan taxi. Five minutes and eight dirham later, I was delivered unflustered to the front door of the Auberge de Jeunnes, the Youth Hostel. It made me wonder why I'm usually so stubborn, and insist on walking everywhere. I've been convinced that the taxi drivers would try to rip me off, and they always did in Mali. Maybe I'm learning as I go along.
The youth hostel is very quiet and relaxing. It's a little out of the way, but that's fine too. I've been right in the thick of the action everywhere up till now. I'll stay here for a few days I'd say. I met an Aussie couple here this evening, and it was such a refreshing change to have a normal conversation, knowing that they weren't about to turn around and try to scam you.