The beauty and the beast of Morocco

Willie sits on top of the city wall in El Jadida Morocco

In my life, I have found myself meeting some very interesting people in very odd situations. Some have become close friends. In 1994 I lost my high paying job at the post office and was forced to take a job at the mall selling shoes for minimum wage. I think everyone in the world should work at a shoe store at least once as the experience you get can be used in almost any job you have afterwards. It was there that I met my friend Mario. He was working as the manager and the night we met I asked him if he could drive me home after work. He agreed, but at the end of the night as we walked out to the parking lot and I asked where he parked he admitted that he did not have a car! He was new to the country, so maybe there was a miscommunication. After asking why he said he could drive me home, he said that his friend was picking him up and would be able to take me home. The only problem was that his friend was still working delivering pizza, so we had to wait.

We went to a coffee shop and talked and waited. We were there for 4 hours, and in that time I heard stories of how Mario illegally escaped Iran. It was a story that involved him being hidden by families and being chased by dogs at the border, a story that could be made into a movie. This conversation reminded me of how easy I had it even though I was now working for minimum wage. He went through mental and physical pain to get to my birthplace of Canada. The time passed quickly, and we became best friends. Whenever I need a different perspective, all I have to do is talk to Mario.

Over 20 years passed and Mario was married with two children and then and divorced. It took about four years for him and his wife to relate toward each other in a friendly way. As soon as they got to this point Mario’s ex-wife started dating someone new. He talked to me about it and expressed jealousy. I was not sure if it came from his middle eastern upbringing or if he just got used to his ex-wife being available whenever he needed her. Whatever it was appeared to lack love. I asked him why he felt this way and he said that he would always feel this way. She was the mother of his children.

A year after Mario’s revelation Willie and I found ourselves in Tarifa Spain. A city where the locals are all suntanned, single-parent, middle-aged surfers that somehow all look related to each other. A few days of gazing across the straight of Gibraltar toward Morocco and we decided to jump on the ferry to Africa.

We had never been to Morocco before and did not know what to expect. French and Arabic were the two main languages and being from Canada I tried hard to recall my French education from 20 years ago. It’s amazing what you can remember after so long with just a little practice. We also were travelling with Tamsi, a friend from France, so communication was not an issue.

We rented a car and headed south along the coast. After ten days of driving, I was surprised at what Morocco had to offer. There were vast grassy green fields and lush vegetation, beautiful coastal beaches, an amazing mountain range and desert. A beautiful country in many ways with just about everything for any traveller.

On the other hand, Morocco also had a good number of unfriendly and territorial stray cats, some of which tried to attack Willie. The Muslim culture there was also not very warm to dogs as they’re considered to be a dirty animal. I recall a moment on the ferry where Willie walked over a young gentleman’s foot causing him to jump up and quickly lick a napkin and clean off his shoe. For once willie’s super powers of cuteness did not get him anywhere.

There was also pressure from many locals who wanted money for helping with the simplest of things like directions. There was never a mention or negotiation of money until after the service was rendered and at that point, it was always a ridiculous starting point of how much was wanted. The usual request was 400 dirham or 40 USD no matter what it was they provided. If we didn’t pay what followed would be a speech that involved a lot of accusation, guilt and bad feelings.

In one instance we took a photo of Willie on a camel that took all of one minute, and the fee was 40 USD when the cost of the 30-minute camel ride was only 15 USD. The amount of hassle and pressure pushed Tamsi to speak back with anger “T’es fou?” (Are you crazy?). I spoke to him after about his loss of cool and how it appeared that we would get into a physical fight. He remarked that the French express anger very quickly, but they rarely are wanting to fight. He contrasted this with his experience in England where everyone was polite for a very long time until their patience is lost and in that case, they would be ready for a fight. You learn a lot when you travel with a well-traveled Frenchman.

As we travelled north to colder climate cities like Fez the pressure to buy something or pay for a service was a lot less. It was interesting how different the people could be in such a small country.

A beach of washed up plastic confetti

Finally, we reached the end of our trip in Casablanca. It was here that we came upon the one true beast of Morocco and possibly the rest of Africa. Early Sunday morning we went for a walk on a beach covered in confetti garbage. Garbage that had travelled out to sea to be broken down and now returned to cover the entire beach. Garbage that was ending up in the food chain of sea life. Garbage so small that made it very hard to clean up.

It was at that point that I began to think of how life was so different in this part of the world. So different that love for the planet was not a consideration that existed. It affected our friend Crystal that was travelling with us. Having her on the trip gave us a different perspective. A perspective of a young, environmentalist, woman from South Africa. She was well aware of what was going on, and it hurt her to see it that morning.

It was common for kids, and even adults throw garbage onto the street. On a few occasions, Crystal would pick up the garbage, chase down the offender and then hand it right back to them with the request that they properly dispose of it. All would look at her as if she was crazy and would drop the garbage right where they stood without any hesitation infuriating her even more. Her approach was different and may not have changed anything, but I do believe that she made an impression that they would never forget. She was a young, blond, non-Muslim woman, smoking a cigarette, and baring skin both above the knees and elbows, telling them not to litter.

Just watching Crystal made me feel that it would only take a small handful of people with passion like hers to start the motion of change. Her small thoughtful and dramatic actions inspired me. Thinking that one person cannot make a change and then excusing oneself from being responsible is part of how we got here. Just because everyone is doing something does not make it right.

So she took some time to do a short video that you can see below. In the end, she means to say “Willie says stop littering”. Enjoy 🙂

Berber mountain man steals my ex-girlfriend

We ventured inland to Imlil. A small village in the Atlas mountains. Arriving at night, we were greeted by a sky of stars that stretched from horizon to horizon. It was like putting glasses on after so many years of living with bad vision. Everything there was clear, and the air was clean.

After a peaceful night of rest, we woke early to meet our hiking guide for the day, Hassan. I quickly noticed how healthy he looked. Life in the mountains for Hassan included light meals and a daily exercise. He also had the whitest teeth, that I had seen in Morocco, with absolutely no dental decay. I had to ask what he used. Hassan told us that he did not brush his teeth, but did chew what was called a miswak twig from the Salvadora persica tree. A tree that can provide many dental benefits that are not widely known of in the West.

For a young person like Hassan life in the mountains could be less than exciting. For some, it could be too peaceful with each day feeling the same as the other. He had been to the city a few times and did love where he lived. He had no desire to move to the city for any reason, and I admired this choice that many youthful people would not make.

Hassan started us with a steady 45-minute hike up a steep incline. It was hard for me. I had to stop on many occasions to catch my breath. Whenever stopping Hassan would try to inspire both Willie and me to continue and keep the exercise going. I appreciated the push, but after the second time I stopped to look back and noticed Hassan leading Crystal by the hand, smiling and laughing in conversation with her. Now Crystal was a good friend, but she was also an ex-girlfriend of mine. It did not bother me that another man was interested in her, but something was stirred up within me.

hassan with crystal in imlil moroccoHassan & Crystal in Imlil, Morocco

At that moment I was quickly reminded of my friend Mario’s feelings when his wife found a new boyfriend. I searched, and it wasn’t jealousy, it was more an irritation like being bitten by a mosquito that you cannot see. I was irritated by the fact that he did not know or care whether she was my girlfriend. I had to slap myself for thinking this way. I had no ownership of her or any person for that matter, and the choice is entirely hers to entertain someone whether I was with her or not. The way I was feeling was my problem alone, and I worked hard to eliminate it. I can’t blame Hassan. Crystal was a young beautiful blond foreigner. A dream for him. If I were living isolated in the mountains and had to wait for someone new to come into my world, I would be all over her as well.

The next day we left the mountains refreshed, but willie’s legs were so sore from the hike that we had to carry him all the way back to Spain.

To this day Hassan still writes to Crystal hoping she will return to be with him. He really did like her, and I hope he finds what he is looking for in life.

It was an amazing ten days that opened my eyes to many things. Thank you, Morocco.

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