Here Thar Be Monsters!

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5.10.10

The Road to Marrakesh, Part 1

The cool thing about backpacking around the world is that you could meet all sorts of people, travel together for a while, then split at the crossroads. Almost immediately, you would meet someone else going in your direction and you would have a companion or three or four.

I was in Madrid, having just survived a close encounter with the Guardia Civil with Tim from Waco. Tim had to go back to work and so I was casting about trying to figure out my next destination. I was at the central train station in Madrid, staring up at the big tote board: Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Munich...all the great cities of the world waiting for my decision. I had already done Paris and had no interest in going back, but where to now?

I looked over at the guy next to me, also staring up at the board with the same gape-mouthed expression. He was well-built, chisel jawed, blond hair, with grey eyes. In other words, the poster child for Aryan perfection.

"Where are you going," I asked in German.

"Oh, you speak German," he replied. "That's good. I'm going to Morocco."

My imagination immediately took flight. Scenes from Cassblanca filled my head and I thought of sitting in Rick's Cafe American or the Blue Parrot, living the terrestrial version of the cantina scene in Star Wars.

There was also the matter of the elusive zero-zero, a black, tarry hashish made in Morocco that was well-known for its hallucinogenic effect and unusual flavor. Around these parts, hash was smoked by breaking it up and mixing it with tobacco, and then rolling the mix into large 'spleefs' with a cardboard tube inserted into one end to act as a sort of filter. This had the effect of being rather harsh when smoked, but the legendary zero-zero blended with the tobacco to make a very smooth and enjoyable experience.

"Who are you traveling with," I inquired.

"Oh, I am traveling alone. Maybe I will meet some friends at the concert, if they come."

"Which concert," I asked.

"Bob Marley and Frank Zappa. You haven't heard about it?" He looked at me as if I were from another planet, since it was all the buzz across the continent. "They're giving it in a kief field."

My knees almost buckled. This was too much! Bob Marley and Frank Zappa, both of whom I really grooved on, were jamming together in a field of marijuana! Someone needed to pinch me and fast!

"Can I travel with you," I practically begged.

"Yes, of course! It will be nice to have some company. My name is Klaus. I'm from Duesseldorf."

I introduced myself and after figuring out the train schedule, we moved to a small cafe to pass the time with a couple of expressos. A few hours later, we were standing at the ferry port in Algeciras, the famed northern Pillar of Hercules. Ahead lay North Africa and Terra Incognito.

We set off on the ferry at dawn and sailed for six hours across the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. I sat on the deck and enjoyed the vast nothingness that is any great body of water. There is something both alluring and unsettling about that view. It is a grand desolation that makes the sight of land all the more startling.

In this case, it was the sight of Gibraltar rising from the smooth line of water on the horizon. It's shape was so familiar, from the logo of Prudential Insurance to the thousands of photos one comes across in history books, travel guides and the like. But there is something that takes your breath away when you see such a famous site. It's like standing in the Roman Coliseum or lying in the center of Stonehenge: the abstract legend becomes reality. The mind struggles to take the intangible concept that was instilled in your brain from childhood and turn it into a real memory with solid textures.

We sailed past the eastern side and rounded out on the south. Then it faded into the distance at almost the time that Africa rose up at the bow. By the time we docked in Ceuta, my heart was pounding with anticipation. I was about to set foot on my third continent and enter a radical adventure, and I could hardly wait!

Ceuta is a curious place. Barely bigger than the Rock of Gibraltar itself, it is Spaish territory held since the Moors were chased out of Europe. This was the southern Pillar.

According to legend, when Hercules was captured by Zeus, he was imprisoned on the Rock of Gibraltar, with his chains terminating in southern Spain and northern Africa. Using his massive strength, Hercules eventually broke the chains, but in the process he pulled the two continents together, resulting in two large capes that form a sort of gateway to the Mediterranean.

My mind was swirling with these thoughts as Klaus and I stepped off the ferry and walking into the city. We weren't really interested in Ceuta, and we had three days to get to Marrakesh for the concert, so we made our way to the bus station and boarded an old rattle-trap to the frontier. When we got down, we were on a small hill at the Morrocan border overlooking the town of tangiers. There were dozens of young 20-somethings like us in line to cross, obviously on their way to Marrakesh, as well.

The city of Tangiers looked a lot like Mos Eisly in Star Wars. It was hundreds of two-story brick and plaster houses, punctuated by minarets and domed mosques. Everything was whitewashed. The only colors that stood out were the ochre sands and the white building under a blue sky. It was almost as if colors were at a premium and only the three cheapest were used in this scene. I imagined that the same view had greeted visitors and armies for centuries. The only things that showed any indication of 20th century were the cars and buses, and thousands of TV aerials sprouting like mushroom skeletons from every rooftop in sight. The whole picture was rendered surreal by the heatwaves shimmering in the distance.

Klaus and I looked at each other. He was obviously struck by the same sort of 'other world' feeling as me. We got in line and began chatting excitedly with other folks about the experience we were all here to have. At one point, two young Moroccans got next to us and befriended us as we waited.

Little did Klaus and I know, but Fate had just dealt us a couple of wild cards and things were about to get rather interesting.

(to be continued)

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