We woke up early in the morning, mercifully un-hungover somehow, and had one final breakfast on the terrace, served by peaceful Jamal.
“Avec plaisir,” he nodded, as we thanked him once again for the food.
When we’d finished eating, he asked us, in French, what time we would like our taxi to the train station.
“Dix heures,” I answered.
Jamal looked at me as though I’d just materialised out of thin air.
“A dix heures?” I tried again. “Ten?”
Jamal, for some reason, switched to English.
“At what… hour… you are… wanting… to take… the train?”
“Le train, c’est a dix heures,” I replied. “At ten o’clock.”
Jamal looked at me as though I’d just emerged from a flying saucer. Surely my French couldn’t be that shit.
Thankfully, another employee was passing at that moment, and understood at once. With our taxi booked, we thanked the staff and waved goodbye to Jamal.
“You know, I’m starting to think that it wasn’t my French that was the issue at all,” I said to Sam, as we rode the taxi to the train station. “I think Jamal was just a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”
The train to Fez was every bit as odd as I’d imagined it would be. We were in Hogwarts Express-style cabins, with six other local people in our cabin. There were two young-ish girls, a twenty-something guy, and three middle-aged women in floral dresses and hijabs.
The woman to my left was extraordinarily broad, and took up the entirety of the armrest for the majority of the journey’s duration. She also burped at regular intervals of around twenty minutes – and when I say burped, I don’t mean ‘a polite little exhalation of air’. I mean fucking belched, like Barney Gumble. I mean – come on. I’ve travelled, man. I get it: cultural norms, different rules, etc etc. But even if burping is more chill in Morocco, I have to know: why force them out? Why expel them with such force in a public space? It might be amusing if you were alone or with friends, but in a hot, cramped carriage surrounded by strangers? Why, god?
Burping aside, the view was cool: desert, and a lot of it. The journey was six hours, and I’d forgotten to take either my headphones or my book out of my rucksack before slinging up onto the overhead luggage rack – which was now out of reach – and so I steeled myself for a very long afternoon.
It wasn’t long before another annoyance began: phones on full blast. This isn’t a Morocco thing; this is just an idiot thing – it’s not tied to any one country. Watching video after video on full blast without headphones: it fries my circuits, instantly. There are two cheat codes in this world that can bypass my patience and send me into a foul mood immediately: the first is littering, and the second is blaring phones in public spaces. Because, just… HOW. How can you not realise that by throwing crap on the floor or blasting your shit music in a confined space you are actively ruining everybody else’s day. It’s not some profound, abstract notion; it takes, at best, 4 seconds of conscious thought. If you drop litter in public or blast your phone in public places, there are only two possible reasons: you are either very, very stupid, or a massive bastard.
So yeah the journey mostly sucked.
Sam fell asleep at one point with his Airpods in, and I chuckled to see him slowly nodding off – head lolling a little more with each lurch of the train – until finally he rolled forward and jerked awake with a start. He caught my eye and saw me laughing at him.
“Mate, I was miles away,” he said. “And look what came on while I was asleep.”
He showed me his phone: he’d nodded off to an instrumental version of Livin’ La Vida Loca. I was giggling for about ten straight minutes after. Waking up from a nap is disorientating at the best of times – never mind waking up on a train blasting through the desert, surrounding by camel-burping old women and blasting phones, while a karaoke version of Ricky Martin’s smash hit plays in your ears.
We arrived in Fez in the mid-afternoon, and headed straight for the bathrooms in the train station. We almost made a grave error immediately: beside three squat toilet cubicles, there was a long trough with taps which, to us, looked very much like a urinal. Thankfully, before we could defile it, two locals began washing their hands and feet in said trough ahead of their daily prayers, which took place in a room down the hall.
“Jesus,” we mumbled, upon leaving. “That could have gone horribly wrong.”
Fez is a lot more chill than Marrakesh. There are still goat heads and hustlers, sure, but they are fewer and further between, and the hustlers are much less persistent. One polite but firm ‘no thank you’ is enough to deter them.
I also found Fez preferable to Marrakesh because it’s hillier, which means you get some pretty amazing views of the surrounding hills and sandy mountains. You get a very powerful sense of being far from home: Yorkshire this ain’t.
For Fez, I’d opted to book a hostel rather than an AirBnB. Sam had never stayed in one before, and I thought it’d be a fun experience. Turns out, hostels in Morocco are cheap, huge, and absolutely beautiful. For £8 a night, we were booked into a palace: a gigantic central chamber going up five stories, overlooked by balconies on each floor, with cascading lights tumbling down through the empty space in the centre and every brilliant colour of the rainbow diffracted through dangling ornaments. Intricate wooden carvings and complex tiled patterns adorned every surface, and crushed blue velvet sofas sat on the ground floor. I was thrilled: for Sam’s first hostel, this had been a very good choice.
We checked in with the reception guy, whose name was Abdul. When taking our details, he learned I was a writer, and he grinned and told me he was a writer too. He writes stories about adventures, in every genre. Abdul gave us a tour of the building, from our dorm to the roof terrace. The terrace was a sight to behold: decked out like the luxurious sailing ship of some great pirate sultan, it offered views over the whole city to the wavy-heat hills beyond. We could see giant Moorish gates with the iconic bell-shaped doors, sandy turrets on fort battlements, and prayer towers from mosques.
We didn’t explore much the first day, as it was already growing late. We grabbed some food at a nearby place (pizza, comfort food), and decided to go for a walk to find a supermarket so we could buy some soft drinks to sip on the hostel terrace.
It was dark when we set off, and Abdul’s directions to the supermarket (right, left, right), soon got us hopelessly lost. It was while slowly navigating back home from this failed expedition that we had one of the strangest encounters of our whole journey.
As we were trudging home, in the dark alley before us we saw a boy, aged around twelve years old. He was dressed in shorts, t-shirt and sandals, and carried a little puppy fat still. He was by himself, sauntering along quite slowly, without a care – until he saw us. He quickened his pace over to us and drew up alongside – but he didn’t say hello, or even acknowledge us. Instead, he began to kick at things on the floor, rocks and litter. And then he began to dance.
The strange boy danced in a way that you might dance if you’d just banged a pinger and a half-gram of ket at a wedding: arms spread wide, dopey grin, legs buckling and springing at random, emitting an occasional squawk of euphoria. Sam and I watched this odd spectacle with unease, attempting in vain to continue our conversation.
“So as I was saying, what we ought to do when we get home is– is…”
The kid made himself impossible to ignore; with a banshee shriek, he pulled his t-shirt off, threw it on the floor and kicked it down the street. He drew his hands over his belly and chest, stomping around like a velociraptor, then bent over backwards to look at us through upside-down eyes. The shadows of the alleyway made the spectacle almost grotesque. He held out a single palm, fingers opening and closing. His eyes were wide and gleefully mad.
“No chance,” I said, stepping around him.
The kid squealed and skipped ahead of us again, stumbling all over the path like a chicken. He held out his palm once again.
“No, go away.”
He trilled a note and booted his t-shirt further down the path, then picked it up and began whipping it into the floor. He did the backwards-bending thing again, and once more held out his palm.
“Look mate, you were fine about fifteen seconds ago. We’re not giving you any money. Bugger off.”
Finally, he gave up. With a shrug, he picked up his t-shirt and pulled it back over his head, and wandered away down the alleyway to find some other sucker.
“Well that was horrible,” we agreed, when we were safely back on the roof terrace – a statement that was fast becoming the refrain of our whole trip.
“If you’re going to try and swindle people, why not pick a more dignified scam?” I wondered aloud. “Who gets up one day and decides ‘I’m going to spend my evening screaming and rubbing my nipples at strangers in the hopes they give me a quid’?”
“I was just glad it was only a little kid. If that had been an adult or some old woman doing that dance, it would have been awful,” said Sam.
“I was half worried he was going to pull a knife and come for us,” I said.
“Mate, I was about to panic and knock him out,” said Sam. “We’d have had to have left him spread-eagled and topless in the alleyway.”
From the terrace, somewhere out in the night we heard a sudden series of shrieks, followed by cursing, and then silence. I laughed through my nose.
“Well, it sounds like somebody else has beaten you to it.”