Warning for speakers of UK English: The word ‘pants’ is used widely throughout this post in reference to TROUSERS. Not undies.
Leaving behind a treasure
Just before leaving Agadir, I laid out everything I had with me on the hotel bed. As I was flying Ryanair, I only had my small backpack with me (my old school bag!). I decided to leave the sunhat – it was cheap and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing any more sun for a while, my book, a few other bits and pieces and… the original Thai fisherman pants.
I ummed and aahed for a while, and eventually decided to take one final photo, and leave my beloved blue stripey fat-man pants behind. *Fade to dreamy-nostalgia scene* It was January, 2004. These were the first ever pair of Thai fisherman pants I’d ever seen. They were cool, funky, and very original. I was on Khao San Road in Bangkok for the first time, even though I’d already been in Thailand for months. My spoken Thai was good enough to haggle a little, and I was met with warm smiles every time I sneakily pulled out the perfectly-intoned “Can you please give me a discount?” It was possibly the only time being blonde in Asia worked to my advantage – they were so surprised to hear a blonde speaking Thai they almost fell over themselves trying to be nice to me. I saw these pants and liked them straight away. I’d never seen what they looked like worn by anyone, and on the table they just looked like a giant rectangle of material, but I knew I wanted them. I ended up paying 90 baht (many backpackers in Thailand would say “that was no bargain – you’re a crap haggler” – but these were surprisingly good quality and I wore them regularly for almost 7 years) and took them home to try them on. It took me a while to figure them out, but when I did, I knew I’d love them for a long time to come. I wore them in Thailand and found them comfortable and lightweight, but heavy enough to keep the mosquitoes off. I wore them in New Zealand and got strange looks and comments (“Those are the baggiest pants I’ve ever seen!” – this was back when I was much thinner and they were indeed enormous on me. It was also before these kinds of pants were widely available in shops like Yaks n Yetis, Cosmic Corner and Funk That). They were my favourite pants for years. I wore them everywhere. My friends dubbed them the Fat Man Pants because they were so huge. My flatmates laughed at me when I hung them on the line to dry when I did my washing, because they were almost as wide as they were long. My mum asked to have a look at them so she could figure out how to make them herself. Soon I was seeing them everywhere. Others who had travelled in Southeast Asia came home with them and people started making their own. I’m not trying to pretend I started the trend – it’s just that I had never noticed anyone wearing them before. Now I was seeing them everywhere and it was a wonderful world where everyone wore fat-man pants and everyone was oh-so comfortable! In Finland, my Spanish friends told me that one day I would have 8 children, and they (my friends) would know which children were mine because they’d all be wearing the wraparound Thai fisherman pants.*Fade back to real life*
Even after they began to fray at the edges, I continued to wear them. Even after a small hole developed on the hip, I continued to wear them. Even after I put on weight and they no longer actually looked good on me, I continued to wear them because I loved them and they were comfortable and lightweight and perfect for travelling. I’ve had other pairs – red and blue and brown – but none I’ve been as attached to as the originals.
You will always be remembered.
Arrival in Fes
A night of disturbed sleep on the overnight bus followed, and I arrived in Fes. It was chilly and far less exotic-seeming than the south of Morocco. I found a taxi and asked to be taken to the Youth Hostel. The guy nodded and asked for 150dH. I laughed and said “20.” Turns out he had no idea where it was and ended up refusing to take me. He talked another, much younger taxi driver into taking me, told him I’d only pay 20dH and scoffed, as if I was kidding myself. I don’t know what the problem was – I had a map and could see it was only maybe a 20-minute walk away, but I was tired and didn’t know which direction to take. The younger taxi driver took me to the correct street, but wasn’t convinced it was actually the place I was looking for, because it wasn’t in the tourist area. He seemed very concerned and wanted to take me somewhere else. I indicated that I was sure this was the right place and got out of the taxi. I tried to pay him, but he refused to take my money. He watched as I walked down the street until I found the right place and smiled and waved. He tooted his horn, smiled a victory smile and drove off.
The man at the Youth Hostel was very friendly and gave me some helpful advice as well as a map for getting around town. He told me to take buses, as taxis were a rip-off, but to be fair, I felt one or two pounds for a taxi ride was plenty cheap enough for me, and I left to hail a cab.
Before heading into the medina and the tourist area, I had some gruel-type something for breakfast, eating with my hands and a piece of bread like the locals, who sent me sideways glances and cheered when I got something into my mouth without dropping it or spilling it down my front. I also went into a souvenir shop that looked like it hadn’t been visited in years. The shop-keeper was just opening up and doing his daily round of dusting. He chatted amiably to me as I wandered around, peering at all the treasures and the tat (great British word, that!), found a t-shirt for my little brother and learned a little Moroccan Arabic by talking to the friendly shop-keeper and asking questions, which he was only too happy to answer. I felt like he was desperate for someone to talk to, but he was actually really interesting, which is not a common combination.
About 9 in the morning, I hailed a cab and headed for the medina and the souk. Another bustling market-place, more twisting, turning back streets through a maze of houses, stalls and the mosque. I walked for hours, finally finding some beautiful gifts for the Pax Lodge girls (the guy looked surprised when I told him I wanted 14 of everything).
I got lost, I found the same streets over and over, I walked up and down and through. I constantly looked over my shoulder to be sure no shady characters were following me or getting too close to my bag.
At one point, while I was lost and looking for an exit (much more pleasant in an open-air market place than the Louvre, the Hermitage or other scary art galleries where I always seem to find myself getting lost), I was following a man on a donkey. As I watched this half-mystical, half-comical view, I thought of how, so often, it’s the animals of a place that take my heart. In Mexico, my weekend with the sea turtles is my enduring memory. From the Philippines, I’ll always remember the yoda-like tarsiers. The reindeer in Finland, the monkeys and elephants in Thailand, the tuataras and penguins in New Zealand – these are the things I love the most about these places. Even captive animals – I’ll never forget the disgust I felt as I watched two polar bears pacing back and forth in a living-room-sized space at the Children’s Grand Park in Seoul; or the lion and tiger cubs, just one month old, taken from their parents to be petted and poked by tourists at a zoo in Thailand; the bear cub with a chain around its neck in central St Petersburg, Russia; or the enchantment at watching them play: the red pandas at Ocean Park in Hong Kong, the otters at feeding time in the wildlife refuge just outside of Pnomh Penh, the giant pandas lazily rolling over to reach some more bamboo in Chiang Mai. And so it was the same with Morocco. Goats in Trees. Camels with their big pouty lips. Donkeys. Real life donkeys being ridden by men in pointy-hooded cloaks, like in an ancient fairy-tale land.
I’ve always had a soft spot for donkeys. Blame Eeyore. He’d expect you to anyway.
Time to go home
After more than enough time in the market, and not particularly hungry, I made my way back to the train station of Fes, thinking “I’ll go to the airport early, use the wi-fi there, grab some food and relax before my flight.”
At the train station, I sat down, leaning against a pillar for a while. I read my book for half an hour or so, and at one point looked up to see the light falling through the giant keyhole-shaped windows in a particularly photogenic way. I took a photo, scrolled through some of my holiday shots and congratulated myself on some good snaps. Then I remembered a dream I’d had on the bus the night before, and got out my phone to type it in as a memo, because it seemed worth remembering. While I had my phone out, I checked my schedule for the next week or so, read through some notes I’d written myself and made sure I’d added Jan and Susann’s email address to my address book – so that if I lost the scrap of paper in my wallet, I’d still be able to send them the photos. Switching off my phone, I checked the time, got some coins from my wallet for the bus, packed everything away securely and headed for the bus stop, just outside the train station.
It was busy. Much busier than it had been earlier. There were people everywhere. Homeless people begging, hawkers trying to sell things, touts waiting to take foreigners to hotels for commission. I told everyone who asked me that I didn’t need a hotel. I smiled and shook my head politely when they offered to take me in their taxis. I made my way to the bus stop. Just as I arrived, bus 16 pulled up and a pushing, shoving crowd swarmed towards the back door where everyone was getting on. I felt squished and pushed and pulled as I fought to get on with everyone else, and felt very exposed once I was on, still crowded by people, but now the only fair-haired person. I paid my 3dH, took my ticket and moved away from the boisterous crowd at the back of the bus to a seat near the front, where there were mostly women, children and elderly people.
Relieved, I sat down, shrugged off my back pack and checked, as I regularly do, to see that it was still securely zipped up.
Only it wasn’t.
It was hanging open.
I could have sworn I zipped it up properly.
I looked inside. My stomach flipped.
Souvenirs? Check. Dirty laundry? Check. Drink bottle with warm water? Check. Crushed crackers? Check. Bruised apple? Check. Wallet? ?? Camera? ?? Mobile phone? ?? No. Gone. The bus lurched forward. The young men at the back shouted at each other. I looked around me. Everyone was looking at me because I was blonde and obviously a tourist on a local bus. My shoulders slumped. They wouldn’t understand if I tried to tell them. I sunk into my seat and sulked.
At the next stop, too far away for me to consider getting out and walking back, a little old lady got on. I gave up my seat for her and that simple act lifted my spirits. Everything would be okay. I’d get to the airport, report the theft, relax and wait for my flight… only 7 1/2 hours to go. I had my credit card and an emergency 50 Euro note hidden away, separate from my wallet. I was okay. I still had my passport. I hadn’t been hurt. I’d lost my holiday photos and the notes I’d written on my phone – countless ideas for stories, pieces of poems, lists of authors to look up and films to see – but for everything else, I had insurance. Things were okay. I felt a little violated and very disappointed in whoever had taken my things – after a week of meeting well-meaning and friendly people – one loser had to go and leave me with a bad memory for my last day in Morocco.
The bus, having dropped off most of its rowdy passengers, including the young men at the back who kept breaking into fist fights, finally arrived at the airport and I’d never been so happy to be at an airport in my life. Food! Wi-fi! Police! A place to relax!
At the airport
I walked in and it was a single long room, information desk empty, no-one manning the check-in desks, no food, not even a handful of chairs or benches. The arrivals board showed nothing until 6pm. Departures the same. I looked at my watch: 1pm. Shit. Excuse my language, but s*%# $^#@!*~ㅇㅗ!
I thoroughly investigated the information desk. Definitely no-one there, and definitely no information. Over by the departure cards was a sign in a bunch of languages: “Ask officer on duty for assistance if required.” Definitely no officer on duty, and definitely no assistance being offered. There were a handful of people hanging around the edges of the room. All looked old, non-English speaking and not very useful to me (once more: Curse my monolinguality!)
I sat on the ground in the middle of the room. No police report = no insurance. All gone. Not even a money exchange kiosk or ATM around. My 50 Euro note was useless, as was my credit card.
I saw a pot-bellied man leaning over a conveyor belt at the end of the room where the empty check-in counters were. “He must work here. He must know where the police are!” I approached and timidly said, “Excuse me?” He didn’t hear me. I tried again. He looked up. Listened as I explained. Shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. No English.
All of a sudden, I felt drained. It must have shown on my face, because the man warmed and paid more attention to me. “Police,” I said, “Polizei, poliisi,” I took my bag off my back and opened it, demonstrating how I had found my things gone. I was getting a bit panicky. He took my arm, said, “ok, ok,” and something in Arabic, and led me to the exit.
On the steps outside, he handed me over to a young man he seemed to know and said something I didn’t understand except for “Gendarmerie.” The young man tried to talk to me, but the pot-bellied man explained (probably) that I was too stupid to know any languages that might resemble usefulness in Morocco. The young man nodded, looked kindly at me, and began walking away. The older man indicated that I should follow. We walked away from the airport along a nondescript street and came to a compound where buildings stood around a car park with a proud-small-town-style flower display in the centre. The man I was following led me into a building, up some stairs and knocked on a door. A uniformed man answered and the young man said something to him. The new man asked me something in French. I tried to look apologetic and shrugged my shoulders. He went to search for someone who could speak English. I was left alone.
I was feeling much more hopeful now. I never quite knew if there was any difference between police and the gendarmerie, but I assumed I was in good hands. The uniformed man returned with a guy in a leather jacket who resembled Kirk Torrance somewhat, and I almost laughed. He spoke in heavily accented English interspersed with French words that I guess he thought were English, and I eventually managed to explain to him what had happened. He told me bus 16 was bad and I should never have gotten on it.
We established that I still had my passport.
That meant the gendarmerie couldn’t really do anything for me. He asked if I was hungry. I really wasn’t, I just felt sick and panicky again. I also started to feel really cold. I forced myself to calm down and asked for a bathroom. I layered on nearly all the clothes I had, tucking my t-shirts into my tights do stop draughts getting in. I felt angry with Fes for making me feel cold and miserable and for stealing my things. I had a little cry, washed my face and went back to the office I had been in. After some discussion, it became clear I would have to go back into town to report the theft to the tourist police. I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a few coins. Not even enough to get back on the bus. I had to laugh. Fake-Kirk-Torrance offered to take me in his car.
We walked past all the shiny bright cars, the kind I imagine family-oriented policemen might own, to a dingy little rust-infested red car with a blue door, a mighty mess inside and a curious stench. I slipped into the passenger seat and fake-Kirk-Torrance folded himself into the driver’s seat. We drove about half way, then stopped at the side of the road where a police van had pulled over two cars, and people were standing about looking sullen. It was near a busy intersection, and I felt exposed, the only blonde on the side of the road, amongst police and what I could only assume were criminals. People slowed as they drove past to peer at us. Fake-Kirk-Torrance left me with a friendly-looking police officer who reassured me that everything would be okay, then ignored me for about 20 minutes while they seemed to resolve the issue with the passengers and drivers of the two cars. I stood on the grass verge trying to be inconspicuous. Eventually, friendly policeman loaded me into the back of the police van, where I imagine they usually put the bad guys, and we headed into town.
The smell of piss and stale cigarettes
The first thing I notices at the station was the smell. It reeked and I struggled to keep a straight face and not retch. Everyone spoke around me, I was led behind the marble-look counter to sit on a wooden bench with an angry drunk man in handcuffs. I deduced that he was at least part of the reason for the piss-smell. Every time he started shouting in his slurred speech, the police officers seemed to tell him to stop scaring me. He kept trying to inch closer to me and the police officers kept uttering short sharp warnings to him. I had no idea what was happening and I started to worry that perhaps they had misunderstood me. Perhaps they thought I’d stolen someone else’s things! What if… no, they weren’t going to put me in jail. Don’t be ridiculous, Emma!
For about an hour and a half, I stared at the dust piles on the floor as things happened around me. They’d been swept together under the counter, but the rough concrete floor still looked dirty. Pieces of toilet paper, chocolate wrappers and cigarette butts were among the dust. There were wet patches on the floor, too, but I was too tired to care where my bag went. It sat in the filth.
Three youths were brought in and questioned. They looked at the drunk man and got angry. They looked at me and seemed to be saying they’d never seen me before. One of them looked like a scrawny Michael Jackson in his Thriller days. One of them, in a blue t-shirt, was being particularly helpful, it seemed, and was treated much better than the other two. He spoke to the officers for a long time.
Eventually someone took the drunken smelly man away, and I was left with an officer. He picked up a blank report sheet from the pile and blew his nose on it, throwing it under the counter when he was done. The friendly policeman came back and helped me explain what had happened. He had to leave again when the report was nearly finished, but he patted me on the shoulder. 2 hours after arriving back in town, I had my police report and the man told me I could go.
I looked at him hopelessly. I dug my hand into my pocket again and pulled out all the money I had: shrapnel – three coins. He frowned. He motioned for me to sit on the bench again. I asked for a bathroom and was directed to the stinkiest room I’ve ever had to enter. The floor was wet with yellow ‘water,’ and I cringed, but I had to pee. From what I understood, I was being a bit of a rebel by actually using the toilet to go instead of the floor. I tried not to think about my shoes touching the floor, and was careful not to let the frayed hems of my pants touch the ‘water.’
It was another hour again until the friendly policeman returned and loaded me into the back of the police van again. I thought he’d be taking me back to the airport. I was wrong.
Back to square one
When the van stopped and I was let out, I discovered I was back at the bus stop where the day had first begun to turn bad. Friendly policeman pointed at the stop where I knew bus 16 would stop, and smiled. I looked at him in panic, “No!” I said and he looked at me. I pulled the change from my pocket again and showed him. His eyebrows arched and he took me to a corrugated iron shed at the side of the bus park. He spoke with an ancient-looking man and then told me that that man would help me get on the bus without paying. The ancient man called over two men who I can only describe as ‘heavies’ and they flanked me as we walked into the shed. They pointed at a crate and stood outside the door, guard-style as I sat on the crate and waited.
It was dark in the shed, with only two small barred windows letting in light. These were the ticket windows, and long queues waited outside while an even more ancient man counted change and tore tickets. I was in the back corner in the shadows, but still people peered in at me. I wondered what they were thinking.
A boy of about ten years came into the shed and greeted the old man. He dropped his satchel, turned two crates on their sides and sat on one, setting up a gas burner on the other. He poured something from a bottle into a small pot and heated it over the flame. It looked like water with two or three slices of onion in it. He poured some into a mug, tore a piece of bread from a stale loaf and handed it to the ancient man before doing the same for himself. He never looked at me, but chatted all the while, pulling reluctant grunts from the old man in response.
Bus 16 arrived and my stomach flipped, but I got ready to leave. The heavies motioned for me to step out of the shed. We stood and watched as crowds of people rushed the bus. The first ancient man (not quite as ancient as the one inside the shed), shook his head and indicated that I would not be going on that bus. I looked at my watch. One hour until my flight. I went back to my crate-seat.
Just after the bus left, a handful of western back-packers arrived and asked around for the bus to the airport. They were told it was gone. An incredibly attractive curly-haired guy peered in through the window and looked as if he were about to ask me a question. Shamefully, I averted my eyes. I could have helped him, but I didn’t.
5 minutes later, the ancient man from outside opened the door and beckoned to me. He pointed at a bus on the far side of the bus-lot that looked significantly less run down that every other bus I’d seen or been in that day. In fact, it almost looked as good as some of the older buses that run in Dunedin. The heavies escorted me to the bus and one sat in the drivers seat, looking like he was trying to figure out how to make it go, while the other ran energetically around the bus-lot, trying to encourage people to get on the bus, I think.
An eastern-European girl boarded, smiled shyly at me and sat down. The energetic guy asked her for 20dirhams (approximately 2 pounds). She looked shocked and got off the bus, waiting for bus 16. I wished I could tell her to come back. Ten minutes later, the bus rumbled into action and we set off. I was the only passenger. The heavies joked with one another. I stared out the window at the darkening day.
We got almost half way to the airport when we stopped and picked up an old lady carrying her shopping home. She tried to say no, I think, but the heavies loaded her and her bags onto the bus. They dropped her right outside her house and waited until she was inside the small concrete building before setting off again. It was significantly out of our way. I was so confused about whether to like or dislike Fes. Some people were so good, and some were just nasty.
The adventure is not over yet
Finally on the plane, I found I was starving. Not properly starving, like people who actually haven’t eaten in days or weeks, but I’d had nothing since my gruel 11 hours ago. I examined the ‘menu’ as I relaxed and spoke with an amiable British guy next to me. I pulled my credit card from its secret hiding place and handed it over, asking for the tomato soup (in a polystyrene cup), a packet of biscuits (I wanted the carbs) and a bottle of water. 9 pounds.
The lady handed me my water and searched her trolley for the biscuits. They were out. I took a packet of chips instead. They were cheese flavoured. I handed them back and asked for anything without cheese or ham. They had nothing. She said she couldn’t do a reversal on my card and asked if I’d like anything else. I took another bottle of water.
15 minutes later, I pressed the buzzer and asked after my soup. They were out. They had just given the last one to a man three rows back from me, who had ordered after I had. They offered me another bottle of water. I asked for a ham and cheese sandwich and gave it to the British guy sitting next to me. He offered me a ride home from the airport, but I declined, explaining that I’d already booked my bus.
But wait, there’s more
I was in a bit of a daze as I got off the plane, clutching my bus ticket (Luton to Finchley Road) in my hand. As I stood in line at customs and longed to be in bed, the thought occured to me that the airport was different to the last time I’d been here. It took me another 15 minutes to realise I wasn’t at Luton. I was at Stanstead. I checked my bus ticket. Luton to Finchley Road. I sighed and realised I’d made a stupid mistake. I thought about trying to find the guy who’d offered me a lift, but figured he’d have left by then, so it was off to the ticket counter.
Another 12 pounds down, and I was on a warm bus, headed home. A handsome firefighter from New York sat next to me and asked me the obvious questions before settling into a book. He got off at the first stop, and I had two seats to myself. Twenty minutes later, the bus came to a halt. Flashing lights were everywhere, traffic was backed up, and I squinted, half awake, through the fogged-up windows to see a house on fire. We were at a standstill for half an hour. By the time we moved again, I was sleeping.
In the wee hours of December 13, I walked home in the freezing night from Finchley Road to Pax Lodge. I threw my bags on the floor, set my alarm and climbed into bed. Tomorrow was going to be much better.