It was clear from the get-go that this breakfast was destined for failure. We had arrived in Rabat, Morocco’s humble capital, the day before, and so had my friend Will and a bottle of rum. The combination of all of these things had led to a night of debauchery and a morning of hunger. We woke up late to the Moroccan marina heat, and stumbled about showering and desperately trying to get on the Wi-Fi to find us the mother of Moroccan breakfast establishments. Breakfast, as we all know, is the most important meal of the day, and to test the calibre of the country you’re traveling in, you have to find out what food gets the locals out of bed in the morning. Ironically, I would find something that would keep me in it for a matter of days.
Tripadvisor found us the perfect looking café, Chez Ziyad. The reviews brimmed with ‘delightful’s and ‘charming’s; the food looked fresh and delicious; and it had a beautiful, shaded garden for us to relax in. Shade!
The thing is, two miles is a long way to walk for any breakfast, let alone on a hangover in the African midday heat. So we wandered up the high street of Sale – Rabat’s partner town that straddles the other side of the River Bouregreg – and settled for a pleasant enough looking fruit juice cafe, a booming industry in Morocco it seems. In fact, you’ll often find several of these adjacent to one another.
It’s worth taking a minute just to comment on Moroccan businesses apparent immunity to common market forces. Not only is it normal to find dozens of shops in one place all selling the same products, it appears to have been a conscious effort to ensure it. In Tangier, for example, we found ourselves walking along a narrow street that was the total reserve of jewellery sellers. For 100 metres, one was blinded by the same shiny rings, watches, necklaces, bracelets, earrings and pendants. How can they all survive as competitors? Across Morocco the same seems to be the case for souvenir shops, bakeries, and the abovementioned fruit juice cafes.
And such was my bad luck that we walked into this one. We didn’t want their fruit – perhaps that offended them – but the eggs and bread on the counter looked like they were waiting for a couple of hungry fellas like us to arrange for them to be cooked into something tasty and filling. The ensuing conversation, though, in which we requested two omelettes and a bit of bread, somehow spiralled into talks more complicated than that of Brexit’s Article 50, leaving all parties disgruntled and embittered. I’m still talking about the breakfast by the way.
A few minutes of eager anticipation passed, when two small plates were plonked… no, let’s say slammed… down in front of us. With a sigh I looked upon my mash of egg and chunks of cheese, swimming amongst uncooked egg. I looked over to James’s not-all-that-more-appetising plate, although his was at least cooked through. He’d eaten most of it before the plate touched the table anyway.
I’ve got to send this back, I thought, I can’t eat this. I looked again at James’s plate with hungry eyes; he’d demolished it. No way, I can’t be this hungry, I said to myself, I’m going to complain.
But we can’t just do that, us English, can we? Even though it was undeniably clear that no less effort could have gone into what was on my plate,to ask them to do anymore would be to really put them out. I couldn’t handle the awkwardness of complaining, then for them to have to take it away and slam it back down in front of me again. Plus they’d probably spit in it. Plus I wouldn’t have the first clue where to begin all this in French. Plus it’d probably be fine anyway. I’ll just eat it. It’ll be fine.
Twelve hours from this moment I would discover that being an Englishman is a wholeheartedly dangerous affair, and it’s amazing that our genetic resistance to sending back food hasn’t wiped us out via natural selection. It began with a stomach pain as we sailed through the night from Rabat southwards to Mohammedia, and it didn’t take much longer for signs of a fever to kick in. By the time we were anchoring in the harbour at 3AM, things were really not feeling pretty.
Three days of pain and discomfort passed with no sign of improvement. I suspect had a female been present, the doctor would have been called somewhat sooner. As blokes, however, I imagine James and Will were thinking I should just jolly well see it off with my manly immune system, and my thoughts were roughly along the same lines. On that third day it became apparent even to us, though, that a professional opinion should likely be sought.
By this point I’d traded in my hovel in the forecabin of Blue Eye for a Riad (a Moroccan hotel) room in Marrakech. The whole idea of stopping in Mohammedia was that we knew we could leave the boat there safely and catch a four hour train inland and enjoy the sights of this famous city. Of course my current predicament somewhat complicated matters, but I’d reasoned that the boys would have little else to do in Mohammedia and at least in Marrakech I could rest in an air-conditioned room if I needed to. And it would most likely be better for medical attention should it be required…
In reality though, the biggest factor was the fear of missing out on the train ride, because I bloody love train rides. If there is a method of transportation more relaxing and peaceful, more conducive to drifting off into the landscape with your thoughts, then I am yet to find it. This train ride, however, was shit. On top of a stomach in agony, the compartment was hot and cramped, the cheese sandwich was dry and tasteless, and the views were mostly uninspiring. Just a flat, red, barren land lay beyond the window. It didn’t have a smidgeon on a journey across the green, rolling hills of Dorset, although to be fair to the Moroccan train company they were equally unpunctual.
When the doctor arrived to our Marrakech Riad room it took embarrassingly little time for him to diagnose the gastroenteritis, a bacterial infection of the stomach. He prescribed antibiotics, painkillers and, erm, defecation tablets, let us say. I do not know what the average standard of doctor in Morocco is like but I was very impressed with professionalism, his English, and his friendly efficiency. He took his cash and was on his way, promising me I’d be better in a couple of days, which I was
So, I guess don’t eat raw egg is the moral of the story: a somewhat bland and well-documented conclusion.
Do, however, make time to visit Morocco. Far from bland, it is a culturally rich and fascinating nation with some beautiful sights and truly the friendliest people I have ever encountered in a country. Yes, there are individuals looking to make something from you, some of whom are very persistent and will take it upon themselves to become your unwanted tour guide – it takes a firm stance to rid of them. But we never felt unsafe and the vast majority of locals are smiley and helpful. This seems to be particularly true of places that encounter less tourism, and if – like I – you really can’t stand to be hassled in the streets then Tangier and Marrakech might be places to avoid. The likes of Rabat and Essaouira, however, have all the qualities of these cities and more, and you can enjoy them in blissful ignorance from the locals.
Indeed, we took great joy in walking through the Medina (or Old Town) of Rabat, taking in the vibrant city life that thrived within the ancient walls. The outer streets were quiet and enchanting, with cobbled lanes and beautifully crafted doors on every house. Then, turn a corner, and you suddenly become very well
acquainted – such is your proximity – with the bustle of people perusing the vast range of stalls, as you pick your way through the centre of the Medina. After a while we found ourselves amongst the food stalls, where a gentleman weighed out his fruit produce on traditional cast iron scales; and along from him an array of fresh fish hissed on the barbeque; and further on from that colourful hills of spices towered high alongside the mountains of olives that the sellers had proudly piled up that day.
We delved further in still, and found ourselves admiring some large and stunning local art that had been casually leant up against street walls; we paid a man to inscribe a leather wallet for us with the words ‘Blue Eye’ in Arabic; and we haggled with a stall selling Argon oil, a natural resource of Morocco that is renowned for both its culinary and cosmetic uses. I am not a materialistic person, and as such I am very rarely inclined to part ways with the contents of my wallet when out and about, but it required an unparalleled amount of self-restraint to walk through Rabat and not buy something in every other shop. Traditional rugs, decorated tagine pots, hand-crafted wooden boxes, jewellery, local paintings… the list went on and I was captivated.
But amongst these charming scenes we also found ugliness. A man sold turtles for 50 Dirhams (the equivalent of 5 Euros) out of the crates he had crammed them into, but only half seem to be alive and one doubts the life left in the other half. Rotting fish littered the streets, attracting flies and stray cats with eye infections, and bits of cardboard that had been used to cover muddy patches of the street emitted smells that made me nostalgic for the final days of Glastonbury Festival, when the sun had started to dry out the filth left behind by the masses.
We left the Medina to wander through the roads of modern Rabat, only to be struck that the blatant disregard for garbage disposal we had experienced both in the Medina and in the rest of Morocco was very much present in the capital city too.
Now, in our discussions on this, we acknowledged we were in a developing country, and that Moroccan’s are far from alone in the world in having to wade through their own rubbish to get to work, but we wander by what process does a country learn the health, environmental and quality of life benefits from proper waste disposal? Or, perhaps more suitably, what prevents them from acting on this? Should the blame lie with the (corrupt) government, who clearly are not allocating enough funds to what is undeniably the responsibility of the public sector? Or is it unfair to hold them fully accountable for something that appears ingrained into the culture, one of us suggests, as we watched a man nonchalantly drop rubbish out of his car.
Whatever it is, it was my biggest qualm with what is otherwise a beautiful country. It was a desperate shame that the water we sailed in was disgusting, the streets were overflowing with garbage, and the smell of discarded fish along the docks was enough to make one gag: but I would not hesitate to return to Morocco. I’d love, however, to return to a cleaner one and one where they cook their omelettes.
Indeed, Richard H. Davies said ‘Morocco as it is is a very fine place spoiled by civilisation’, and in some respects it is hard to disagree with him. That being said, the same civilising process that has filled the towns with litter also filled the streets with delicious food, the shops with delightful gifts, and our travels with wonderful people.