There are travelers and.. there are travelers.
For some reason, of all the people in the ramshackle splendour of the dorm room, the Italian latches on to me. This is clearly not his scene. Everyone else is attaching a brief African jaunt to their time in Europe. He is returning from his latest six-month sojourn across the continent. I don’t know why he latches on to me, but he has fantastic stories to tell, and I am hanging on his every word. It’s amazing that he’s not dead yet.
The medina of Marrakech is a labyrinth of hustlers, dealers, thieves, donkeys and the occasional carpet-seller. It is a constant point of discussion in the dorm; how deep we dared to go alone, what we found, how we almost got lost, how we did get ripped off. The Italian disappears into the medina for whole days, navigating its convolutions, bantering with its dealers. He speaks decent Arabic, and he’s on the hunt for a particular relic; five silver stars twisted together into a cross. It’s his lucrative side project; he brings back relics – jewelery of polished black stone, cruel masks made of hide and bone, daggers of pure silver – and sells them for absurd prices to New Age stores back home.
Lounging about the disheveled patio, wreathed in blue smoke, he rolls another immaculate joint and tells me that he hasn’t been to Marrakech for years. He just came to search for the silver cross. He doesn’t like it here; too many tourists, too many hostels like the one we are staying in. In a few days he’ll head for Casablanca. That’s where you go to see the real, gritty Morocco, he says.
We stay in Marrakech for Eid al-Adha. No one really knows what that is or how to pronounce it. The dorm has heard, though, that every family in the city is going to sacrifice a goat in observance of the day.
The big day arrives and the city is transformed. All the colour and aroma fades away. The carts selling fresh orange juice and explosive ginger tea disappear over night. The medina is a desolate warren of locked up stalls. Without the market bustle, we can hear the muezzins calling the city to prayer. We wait on the rooftop, clutching our cameras, staring into adjacent courtyards where sheep and goats are tethered, oblivious.
The Italian disappears too; he is not content to stand back and take culturally insensitive photos. He wanders through the city, meets feasting families and neighbours, shares the sacrificial meal with them. He is welcomed everywhere, embracing and embraced by the hospitality that we of the dorm have no idea about.
By the time he returns the animals have all been slaughtered in solemn privacy. He has a full belly; we are as clueless as we were at the beginning of the day. As a late consolation we dare to saunter through the silent medina, dumbfounded by its transformation. We pass a group of men; they are spattered with blood and one is carrying a slick knife. Today, apparently, this is no cause for alarm.
The next day the Italian and I leave for Casablanca. It wasn’t on my original itinerary; I am supposed to be back in Spain. One night though, he insists. Otherwise I haven’t really seen Morocco. My guidebook warns me that Casablanca has a very hard edge. Its medina is not a tourist destination; caution should be exercised.
On the train he shares more stories with me. He has spent the last few months on SÃ¤o Tomé. He shows me a picture of the six-foot shark that fisherman pulled from the waters he was surfing. They’d told him that the waters were safe, but they meant for them, in a boat; they’d never seen a surfboard before.
He tells me about the wild Saharan frontiers. He never bothers with visas because he never knows where he’s going. He brings hashish from Muslim countries to bribe the border officials in Christian countries. He brings alcohol from Christian countries to bribe the officials in Muslim countries. If booze doesn’t work he bribes them with porn. A perfect economy, he insists, except in Algeria. He was told at rifle point that he couldn’t enter Algeria without a visa.
Casablanca: a faded-white city sprawling along the faded-grey coast. It would be daunting alone, but the Italian knows the city well. He mercilessly argues the taxi driver down to a fair price, has him take us to one of the medina gates. We plunge into the medina; he always stays at the same hotel, and is welcomed warmly. They offer us goat meat from the previous day’s sacrifice. The Italian eats hungrily. I hang back, stuck on my hesitant vegetarian principals.
He shows me the tiny room, really more of a closet with a mattress, that they keep locked just for him. In it he stores artefacts that he has not been able to carry back to Europe. These are not priority pieces, he tells me. Then he shows me his horde of magnificent masks, weapons, instruments and jewelery.
From the hotel rooftop we look down on the crooked medina streets. They are quiet; today is also a national holiday. No sacrifices though, everyone is still recovering form yesterday’s feast. Fresh fleeces are hanging from every building. He points out the local dealer, the guys that work for him, and the guys that don’t. It just looks like a bunch of shady guys on the street to me. Kids weave among them, chasing a tiny ball.
I decide to visit the Hassan II Mosque. It’s really the only tourist site listed in my guidebook. I don’t know quite what else to do with Casablanca. The Italian accompanies me out of the medina, speaks to the taxi driver for me, sends me on my way.
The mosque soars up out of the vague coast. It is impressive against the grey of the sky and of the sea. It is, however, closed for the day; I am the only person standing by its forlorn gates. The whole city feels bleak and abandoned.
I turn to go, stand facing the inscrutable city. Where exactly am I going? Far away across the plaza is the road. I find a taxi driver to take me to the medina. He’s a little confused, but offers the kind of price the Italian said I should pay, which gives me confidence.
The taxi pulls up at the white gates of the medina. The driver looks at me quizzically. I’m not sure whether or not these are the same gates. They look kind of the same, and kind of not. I pay him; he looks confused, like this shouldn’t really be the end of the ride. My confidence drains away and I realise that I don’t even know the name of the hotel.
Still hoping that this gate of all gates is the right one, I wave the taxi on and pass through the gates, trying to project calm certainty. Everything is closed and there are very few people around. Every street leading away from this one looks the same. With the sun almost down every building is a gloomy grey.
I stay on the main road, hoping it is a main road. It twists and turns and then there is a sharp corner that I recognise. The hotel is just ahead. I swing around the corner and watch the road twist away in completely the wrong direction, coming to a plaza I have never seen before. There are some guys in the plaza; I keep my head down, not wanting to look lost. One of them calls out to me.
I try to look confident as he struts towards me. His arm is in a sling and below his cap he has a black eye. The other guys stand watching us. You are lost, he says. I’m not sure whether or not it’s a question. I really should not be standing here like this, searching for an answer. Yes, I tell him. Come, he says, and starts walking.
As I follow him, the other guys fall in around us. There is no question of me going wherever they want me to go. They mutter among themselves. There is no one else around and it is getting darker. What else could have come of blindly following the Italian? I was amazed that he wasn’t dead yet; now I’ve put myself in a situation far dumber than any he’s ever ended up in. Every kidnap-and-organ-harvest backpacker story comes back to me as my pulse pounds in my throat.
In a street like every other the guy turns to face me. The other guys form a pack around us. Street lamps have come on but it’s not dark enough for them to brighten the chill streets. The guy with the black eye points to a building. Is this your hotel?, he asks. I look up at it; no it is not. He turns and we continue walking.
After a few more twists we stop and form up again. Is this your hotel? No it is not. We continue walking. Dumb, obedient truth is all I can manage: no this is not my hotel, no this is not my hotel, no this is not my hotel. None of the other guys speak to me, but they haven’t shanked me yet either.
It is fully dark when he asks me if either of two hotels is mine. I don’t recognise either of them. I’m about to bleat no, when I notice the shady guy on the corner. It’s the dealer that the Italian pointed out. I look at the hotels again; I vaguely remember the Italian standing in one of the doorways helping to cook some goat kebabs. Even if it isn’t my hotel, this can’t go on forever.
Yes, I say; that one is my hotel. The guy with the black eye looks at me. I wonder how much this service will cost. My cash or my kidneys? Whatever it is I will pay it. OK, he says, and turns with his buddies, striding away into the night. I don’t even have time to stammer thank you. Surely there must be some terrible consequence still lurking in the dark, waiting for me. I scamper for the hotel.
The Italian is on the roof, arranging some hash on a paper. His eyes are glazed; he didn’t see the little scene on the street below. I don’t tell him anything.
He suggests we go to a café; there are a couple still open. We drink mint tea and buy pre-rolled joints that lack the craftsmanship of The Italian’s. We watch some pirated Keira Knightley film; its dubbed into Arabic and the subtitles are Cyrillic. He regales me with more stories, but I can’t really follow them.
Freighthopping in Mauritania, hitchhiking across minefields in Western Sahara, being mugged and then mugging his muggers in Senegal; he may have far more confidence and far better navigational sense than I do, but all I’m hearing now is how lucky he has been. I can’t shake the feeling that sooner or later he’s going to end up dead.
I swallow that thought. We finish off the tea and the joint and go back to the hotel. He’s passed out by 9 o’clock, wrapped in a grubby blanket, still wearing his boots. The next morning he puts me in a cab that will take me to the train that will take me to the ferry that will take me back to Europe. At least for the time being, Europe and the smugly developed world is where I belong.
Needless to say, I haven’t seen or heard from the Italian since.