In our newest travel series, we here at Falchion are very excited to have Elitsa Dimitrova, travel expert extraordinaire, take us through miles of urban exploration and adventure.
We arrived in Morocco a bit tired, yet curious and excited to experience everything the country had to offer. I greeted the group with the pronouncement that our adventure had now officially begun. Of course, I had no idea how portentous my words would be…
Well, let me back up for just a moment…
I am a travel coordinator for a firm based out of Sofia. As someone who travels a lot with large groups, I am always a bit antsy before a trip. I tend to sit and fret about all the things that could go wrong, and plan for them in the event they do.
On this particular journey, I was in charge of a group set to quench their thirst for wanderlust by journeying through Tangier, Casablanca, Marrakesh, Fes, and Rabat.
And while this was by no means my first sojourn into Arabic lands, and even though I was curious and excited about the trip, I approached it with a degree of trepidation. You see, I was responsible for not only myself, but about fifty bright and sunny professionals who expected to be shown a good time. A hundred eyes would be locked in on me in anticipation of a memorable experience, consisting of equal parts safety, organization, and adventure. The stakes, as they say, were high. Such were my thoughts as the airplane left the tarmac in Sofia and took to the sky, heading in the general direction of North Africa.
Morocco is an ancient, mystery-filled land; one where one can lose oneself in the splendor and the exoticism of its people and cuisines, in the layers upon layers of tradition and culture. It is a wonder-filled place.
We first crossed over into Tangier, nested within the Maghreb coast where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Upon our arrival, our local guides had assured us that Morocco is a country which reveals itself gradually. At first, they said, everything would seem customary. But once we had gone deeper and cut through the superficial layers, they urged, only then would things begin to seem unfamiliar. And so it was.
After Tangier we stopped briefly for lunch in Rabat, and then continued on to Casablanca. Here, in this legendary city, we were to spend our first night.
Of all the towns in Morocco, Casablanca is perhaps the most Western-oriented. It is a beautiful, European-style city, and even though many of the typical Arabic symbols are present, given the sense of familiarity, one feels at ease and even, at times, loses sight of the very exoticism of the locale.
When one hears of Casablanca, often the first association is the emblematic film with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman – a funny thing, given that the movie wasn’t shot there. Arriving to Casablanca, I could not have known that it would be precisely here, in this place of cinematic myth, that I would participate in a film of my own, but of an altogether different sort and quite unlike the masterpiece of Michael Kurtis. And yet, for me at least, it was equally memorable.
Here is how it all started…
In the late afternoon we entered the outskirts of Casablanca. In the beginning, the views before our eyes were of ghettos and impoverished districts – images so haunting they grab you by the throat. The deeper into the city we went, the more diverse the landscape became.
At some point our Moroccan guides had put us on alert, urging us delicately not to stroll through the town in the late hours. Nonetheless, they emphasized that as tourists we had nothing to fear. In Morocco, they continued, there was the secret police – those who constantly guarded travelers and who would undoubtedly ensure our safety. I took all this in with a grain of salt. All the talk about “secret police” unfortunately seemed to go right over my head. I am a modern woman, you see, and my first thought is always to take things into my own hands; to trust myself to do what is necessary to look after myself and those within my charge. I didn’t really consider it necessary, or even rational, to put my faith in some invisible, perhaps even imaginary, secret group, benevolently watching over us wary travelers as we traversed various urban environs. My skepticism and excessive self-reliance, by the by, would soon land me in a bit of hot water! But more on that in a moment.
It is worth noting at this point that tourism is of pivotal importance to the government of Morocco, and thus they take every measure to guarantee safety and security.
So anyway, I was feeling quite comfortable as we got into our hotel that evening. We had already passed through two major cities without incident, and were now ensconced in the fabled Casablanca. I was on a role. I gave instructions to everyone for the next day, wished everyone a good night, and went summarily to bed. Early the next morning we were out an about early, eager to explore. The atmosphere was all high smiles and jokes.
Our Moroccan guide, Rashid, briefed us on our itinerary for the day, which would conclude with a visit to the most famous site in Casablanca – the Mosque of Hassan II (a world renown mosque with a 210-meter minaret, at the top of which is housed a sci-fi looking laser pointed toward Mecca).
We took off for the United Nations Square, the entrance point of our tour. The streets were calm and sparsely populated – the town was clearly shaking off the doldrums of slumber. Eager to do some sight-seeing, we strolled through city-center on foot, casting our gaze on anything and everything that could be of interest to the general tourist. Since there was plenty of time left to the visit of the Mosque of Hasan II, our guides suggested we separate so that everyone might have opportunity to experience the town individually. The obligatory warnings were once more issued: personal belongings should be kept close to hand and one should be vigilant. Frankly speaking, I was growing weary of the constant notifications, and with a casual smile I let their alerts slough off me like so much innocuous banter.
I hopped into the first open souvenir shop I spotted, bought the obligatory magnets, and went out. On a whim I decided to have a coffee and freshly squeezed juice on the Square of Mohamed V. I approached the only working cafeteria and saw that people from our group were already gathering there. I sat down, ordered, and sat there relaxing, enjoying the empty square. The tables were distributed theatrically, which made it easy for me to observe my surroundings. And I was content to watch as the square began to slowly fill with people as the morning wore on. we engaged in talk about who went where, what we saw, what small treasures everyone had found, and so forth. We still had time for our scheduled visit, so everyone had something to drink and sat around chatting for a little longer. Our discussions and laughter, though, apparently attracted the attention of some locals. Street hawkers began soliciting us; others were content to stare with open curiosity; and yet a third group tried to engage us in conversation. It was splendid, and I could tell everyone was really beginning to relax and enjoy the experience.
Finally, the time came for us to leave for the mosque.
Our group members began paying their bills. It was right about this time that things started to get a bit chaotic. Here in Morocco, as in many Arabic countries, bargaining is part of the culture and, if one doesn’t take it too seriously, it can be a fun way to do as the locals do.
My juice and coffee were $6, but I attempted to bargain with the server. Everybody was laughing and trying to persuade him to lower the price to $5. He laughed good naturedly but refused. I took my purse, which up until that point had been hanging freely from my chair, and inserted my hand into the inside side-pocket where I kept an cash envelope. I always keep my money in this pocket because it is hard to reach, and anyone unfamiliar with my purse would be hard-pressed to reach it. Or at least so I thought. I took out some small change and gave the server what I owed him, and then thanked him.
But as I was in the process of replacing the envelope to its semi-secret side-pocket home, the lady next to me was asking me why I had caved and given the man $6 instead of $5. She thought I should have stuck to my guns. I smiled, but saw out of the corner of my eye (and with burgeoning horror) how my yellow envelope, seemingly of its own volition, was detaching itself from my purse.
The following minutes transpired in a blur of frantic activity…
I caught the merest glimpse of a young man flying like the wind through the crowd in the square, my envelope flapping in his hand as he ran. There amidst the chaos most people had not taken note of anything extraordinary. But at this point I stood up, and from that point on I distinctly remember the episode as if it were an out-of-body experience, and I looked at myself as if from above, watching what followed as if I and it were part of a slow motion cinematic sequence. With abject disbelief, I said to myself: “My money!” stringing the words out as if I had been stung with a tranquilizer dart. After the briefest of moments I attempted a recovery, of sorts. I did not scream, mind you, or panic, but rather shook off my doldrums and intuitively began pistoning my legs, maneuvering myself as quickly as I could into a dead sprint, trying all the while to keep the flapping envelope within my field of vision.
You would have thought I was trying to qualify for the Olympics. But I am no Olympian, as it turns out, though for no lack of tenacity.
As I ran I saw in my peripheral vision that the square had filled with rather large Arabic men. Alarming, to say the least. Were they chasing me? I asked myself as I continued my dash through the square. If so, I was in big trouble.
Then I realized something. They weren’t after me. They were chasing the little thief. The very one that had in his grubby paws my precious envelope.
And these particular men were much faster than me (maybe they would be trying out for the Olympics, who knows). They managed to get to the boy first, shortly thereafter forming a circle around him. By the by I reached the outer perimeter, and then, pushing through, got inside the circle. The only thing I could see was my envelope passing from hand to hand. My momentary relief fled like a herd of wild Arabian stallions. Shit, I thought, now I’m good and thoroughly screwed. They must be part of an organized gang, all working together to take my precious cash. If so, I was shit-out-of luck, for I didn’t have a shot against so many.
I refused to give up my money. I know, I know, better to have let the whole thing go. Personal safety, after all, is more important than anything else. But there was something about being victimized, right there in the square, in front of all the people I was charged with taking care of, I just couldn’t let it stand.
I gritted my teeth and clawed through the crowd, and through some small miracle caught hold of a small corner of the envelope as it was being passed from hand to hand. It was still full! there was no power that could force me release it.
Go ahead and pry it from my cold, dead hands!, as the late Charlton Heston would say.
The other corner, however, was still being held by one of the other men in the crowd. He saw my resistance and began shouting something, but I couldn’t make out exactly what. In a desperate effort to get the envelope away from him I kicked him — hard — in the shin, and then for good measure pinched him with as much strength as I could muster. Shocked, he let go. Success! You see, I thought with growing triumph, formidable am I! Undefeatable am I! Woman am I, hear me roar! Quickly I stashed the envelope in my jeans pocket.
The entire crowd was by this point screaming. I still had no clue what was happening, and it was next to impossible to make sense of anything, given the pandemonium. The men around me continued screaming, and it was at this point that I finally made out some words: “Police, Police, Madam! Police!” Those closer to me began pulling identification cards from their inside pockets. I was staring at them, still not quite sure how to react, until at last the server – the very one that had talked me into the $6 coffee – got through and told me to calm down and not worry. He informed me that fall the men were police officers and were trying to help. Finally, it dawned on me – this was the secret police our guide had been telling us about!
By this time the entire square had filled with police cars, journalists, photographers, and people running from every corner of the square. The crowd had somewhat dispersed, and I saw the local guides and part of my group running towards me, just catching up to the event. I remember looking at them, smiling. My adrenaline levels had peaked during the ordeal, but were now stabilizing. Approaching me, one of my group members said:
I have to hand it to you – your agency is the greatest! Everything was so real, like a true action movie!
“Ha!” I thought, “he thinks my agency staged the whole thing for their benefit!” In fact, come to find out, all my group were convinced of the same. They, to a man, believe we had arranged a bit of stage-show theater on how to catch a thief in Morocco.
Even after I assured them the whole thing had not, in fact, been staged, but was, in fact, real in every way, they refused to believe, noting the fact that I had ran after the boy with a kind of smile pasted on my face, and had even fought the police men when they had surrounded me.
Meantime, photographers took shots of me, the young thief, as well as the by now famous “rescued” envelope.
The crowd was yelling at the boy (it turned out he was only 16), and it looked as though they might mete out his punishment themselves.
My Moroccan colleague Rashid told me later that for the people of Morocco it is of great importance to aid tourists to mitigate theft. To do so ensures a viable Moroccan economy, reliant as it is upon tourism.
I thanked publicly the policemen, realizing somewhat sheepishly how much I had undermined the whole process, as well as how I had ignored the warnings of my Moroccan guides. Perhaps in response to my irritation with respect to the incessant warnings, my favorite screenwriter her majesty Lady Fate had played a little joke on me, and made me a direct recipient of karma.
For some reason I no longer felt anxiety or horror. Call me practical, but for a fact I was already thinking of how to get my group to the next scheduled place on the itinerary; that of the Mosque of Hassan II (at this point we were seriously in danger of missing our time slot). I explained to the police officers the situation, but Rashid looked as though he had swallowed a plum. The police officers didn’t look much better.
They informed me there would be forms to fill out; and so, instead of seeing the inside of the Mosque of Hassan II I saw the inside of a police station. Here I issued a statement, and thanked once more the officers who had done such an amazing job in such a quick time-span (and who were, in fact, the real heroes of the hour). A little while later I was a free tourist strolling once more the streets of Casablanca.
While I had been at the police station giving my statement the group members had gone on to the Mosque. Everybody was waiting for me – calm, smiling, carefree. An immense sense of relief settled into my soul.
However unorthodox, my reaction had prevented panic among my group, helped them retain that sense of mystery and majesty that was part of Morocco. I couldn’t help feeling good.
But this is a story for another time…