Nervously avoiding eye contact with the clusters of glaring men huddled in the doorways of each shop that we passed, I was fumbling my way through the narrow streets of the ancient medina. Medinas are common in the cities of Northern Africa. They were typically walled in and the streets were twisted to purposely confuse invaders. It was a labyrinth. There were no street signs, no indicators, and no flashing, neon signs pointing you in the direction of your hotel, just one winding street leading to another winding street. I didn’t want to admit to my three female companions, which I was leading, that we were more than lost in this Moroccan maze. We had become the invaders that the medina was designed to trap and it was working.
Allow me for a moment to digress and take this opportunity to embarrass my mother a bit. At the time of this Moroccan trip, I was living in Spain. My mother wanted to visit me but was very nervous about traveling alone internationally. Now, she’s going to kill me for writing this but if we were to rank those with exploratory personality traits, I would not exactly put my mother in the same category as Marco Polo and Neil Armstrong. A trip from the suburbs into the big city took a bit of courage on her part. Any good, sympathetic daughter would have done anything and everything to make sure that her mother felt comfortable during her travels, but not me. My first thought: how can I push my mother well beyond the limits of her comfort zone and get her to have experiences unlike anything she’s ever encountered before? Obviously, take her to a Muslim country in Africa! However, for “comfort zone” purposes I chose the city of Casablanca. My mother was at least familiar with the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman film bearing the city’s namesake. So, she made the trip. First, we went to Paris to meet with two American friends and the four of us ladies were off to Africa!
As it turned out, getting to Morocco was going to the easiest part of this excursion. While buying train tickets and navigating to Casablanca, we encountered a language barrier straightaway. Morocco’s official language is Arabic, which none of us spoke or could even read for that matter, and while it’s not an official language, there’s a strong French influence that became immediately apparent; yet another language absent from our repertoire. Signs were not exactly useless, but they took a bit of decoding.
Finally on the train, we were able to enjoy the exotic Moroccan landscape of silhouetted palm trees against setting sun. As we pulled into the station, darkness had fallen. I wasn’t concerned though. The train station was right outside the walls of the medina and I was picking up a strong signal from the GPS on my phone. I’ll admit, we easily could have stayed in the Hyatt hotel down the street but I was looking for an authentic Moroccan experience and I wanted the four of us to stay somewhere with a more traditional feel. For this reason, I had booked two rooms in a small hotel in the very center of the medina. Just down the street from the train station, we found the first entrance in the medina wall and headed through the first narrow, carless passage, toting our backpacks and luggage.
It quickly became apparent that we were not in Kansas anymore. There were no people in the streets. Shops were already closed or closing. The streets were dark and quiet, except for the sound coming from the wheels of my mother’s suitcase being dragged over the dirt and rocks and cobblestone. There was absolutely no disguising our foreignness. I immediately realized we had another problem. The GPS stopped picking up signal. It had no idea where we were and we had even less of an idea.
I had no backup plan. I didn’t speak the language and so I couldn’t ask for help. We were up a creek without BOTH paddles! All I could think was, ‘what did I just do to my poor mother?’ My mind was spinning. I was trying to remain calm but inside I was stricken with panic. Suddenly, as we passed another group of men in front of a shop, one of them approached us. He first addressed us in French. I assumed French was his first choice because we were a group of white chicks tromping around a medina late at night and he probably predicted he wouldn’t get too far with Arabic. Little did he know, the odds of us conversing in French was almost equivalent to Arabic. I asked if he spoke English. He didn’t. It was a real shot in the dark, but my next questions was in Spanish. He understood! He told me that he studied for a short time in Spain but that his Spanish was not very good. I was understanding him and even a single word was more than I could have hoped. I told him the name of the hotel we were so frantically trying to locate. He told us that he knew this place because the owner is his friend. He said it was no problem for him to show us where it was.
Our new Moroccan tour guide led us through one zigzagging passage after the other. As we walked, he asked me where we were from. When I told him we were from the US, he stopped, looked at me with a big smile, and very carefully exclaimed, in English this time, “We . . . love . . . America! We . . . are brothers!” I smiled and we continued on with him.
Finally, we arrived to the hotel. He took us inside and greeted the owner. It was evident that they knew each other by their warm embrace. I was struck by this stranger’s selflessness. He didn’t know us. He could have simply given us directions and sent us on our way. Instead, he took the time to walk with us all the way to our hotel. In the end, it was the incredible hospitality of this Moroccan man that salvaged our disastrous arrival.
Unless you are willing to find a Spanish-speaking, Moroccan man willing to drop everything and chaperone you to your hotel, I would not recommend depending a GPS to guide you through parts of any ancient/old city. Get good at reading the old-fashioned map. The best part is that they never lose satellite signal!