Tuesday was New Years Eve

by Will Sanders on January 11th, 2013

So Latoya got up looking like she had just flown around the world without much sleep only to get herself stuck at the airport without money, which she did. I was bouncing up and down about going to Fez, but realized she may need a bit to adjust to the shock of it all and to the exhaustion. Hassan met us at his favorite café for lunch and we introduced Latoya to tagine and Moroccan mint tea. The food here so far always comes with an endless basket of bread to soak up all the flavors, always more than you can think about eating at one go, always delicious. We ate outside the café on the street, it was a really nice afternoon and Latoya was still soaking it all in. A pair of street musicians in traditional clothes strolled by rocking drums and bells. A man from somewhere else in Africa came asking for money, he explained he wanted to make it to Spain to find work. I gave him a small coin and wished him luck. After he left Hassan laughed, ‘Spain? People from Spain come here for work, there is no economy in Spain.’

That afternoon we did some grocery shopping then back to the flat. I cleaned the fungus out of the refrigerator and Latoya tried to nap. I tried to do the same, but the pillows on the couch have started making me sneeze too. I think it’s either dust or mildew. When Latoya got up she was having trouble breathing. Not sure what to do about that dusty sneezy no breathing asthma causing flat.

We walked to the train station and it occurred to me that it was New Year’s Eve that day and we were heading out of town at night to a major tourist city. The train station was shoulder to shoulder, we had to work our way through to get to the platform. The train pulled in and we could see through the window that the middle isle was clogged with people standing. The people climbed on slowly and finally Latoya and I found ourselves standing, crammed in with walls and walls of riders. I was thinking the whole time about how many beers I would drink that night, it being New Years in a new country.

Latoya insisted that I tell you guys this story even though I was against the idea. I am still mortified by what I am about to tell you but here goes. The train was lurching like a ship at sea and people were climbing over one another like an ant hive. Me, (being more expressive than some) was just in the middle making some point of crucial import which could only be punctuated with some grand arm gesture. I felt a bump on my elbow and turned to see a sweet, little old lady in Muslim clothes holding her mouth where I had inadvertently popped her. Shocked at my own clumsiness I tried to express my deepest nonverbal physical sorrow and repentance, I was honestly horrified. A man nearby explained the whole thing to her in Arabic, and when he did I demonstrated a stagey pantomime of me talking and raising a careless arm. She actually started to giggle and with two hands in prayer in front of her face bowed to me in order to offer her forgiveness, along with the kind grandmother smile. It could have gone much worse, I still felt really crappy about it. I am pretty sure no matter what culture one finds oneself in, going around punching old ladies is pretty much a universal no-no.

An hour or two in people started to get off and we snagged seats. Latoya promptly passed out in her chair with her head up straight, once she sat down it took seconds and she was gone. I started looking through my lonely planet guidebook to find adventure options. We were passing Roman ruins, but it didn’t seem to be on the train line. There were possible bus connections but time seemed a bit prohibitive, we only had a couple of days here, then the internship would start and we’d be working six days a week. Day trips will have to do, which is sad indeed but remember I am here to learn and teach, not for holiday. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyways.

Then my mind started wandering as it tends to on long night time train trips. Lights in the distant hills floating on the horizon like lightning bugs had looked like Christmas an hour ago, now they were fewer and fewer. Shadows of the Moroccan country side flashed and instantly vanished past now and then with the clickity-clack, but mostly all was black out there. I thought back on stuff from years ago that really shouldn’t bother me anymore, and people that I didn’t even know now.

A man came and sat in the bench across from and facing Latoya and I. He spoke English and we started chatting, his name was Muhammad Iman. He had been to New York several years ago, he told me. He was there for heart surgery but got a month of just hanging out and seeing the place and seemed keen to tell me all the things he had seen. I told him I had been there just last month, and so we talked about different places in New York for a while. He mentioned the Ancient Roman ruins nearby which I had been reading about. We started talking about history, I told him about the last battle of Hannibal when he lost to Skipio Africanas somewhere in North Africa. He told me about the Ottoman Empire. He was a Berber, which is a tribe that lives in the High Atlas mountains, although his mother was from the Sahara. He was also half Arab, which made him cappuccino, he called it out whooping with a wide smile. He worked in his family business for his father, artisans who worked in mosaics and plaster carvings. When I told him I was on the way to Fez, it turned out so was he and he whipped out his cell phone and booked us a cheap room in a hotel right around the corner from the train station. Nothing fancy, he warned, but clean and affordable. This was a relief and a huge load off my mind. It meant not having to schlep around on New Year’s Eve from hotel to hotel, all of which may well be booked on such a night I figured. I told him that sounded just right to me and thanked him, shaking his hand and smiling. He told me there were many bars near there, so I told him I owed him a beer for fixing me with a room, so he agreed with a sly grin, sly enough so it was understood that the beer I was buying was no longer singular. He was quick to mention that he knew a tapas joint near the hotel with cheap beer.

He gave me vague walking directions to the hotel and I wrote them down in my guide book. Two blocks past the gas station, left at the big mosque, hotel Royal you can’t miss it. At the next stop he jumped off, but promised to meet us in front of our hotel one hour after our arrival in Fez so we could ring in the New Year together. On his way out he went over the directions one last time, and then he jumped off the train. From my window I could see him vanish into the crowd on the platform. A few minutes later, Latoya woke up and asked if she had missed anything.

I asked Latoya if she minded sharing a room with two beds in a cheap motel recommended by a complete stranger on a train, which she totally didn’t. Latoya is super laid back and easy going, and I told her the story and she seemed really excited about the whole thing. This was the day after she had spent an entire day in the air and then found herself trapped at the airport for four hours. She had every reason in the world to be completely grumpy and hard to travel with, but she was all grins. I really lucked out getting such a nice and happy person as a travel buddy. I warned her that I snore like a broken truck, which stopped the grin.

We had to ask a few different people where the hotel was, one guy gave us a really long speech in French, with pointing this way, hand indicating right and left turns, details and details which we understood none of but smiled politely. The next guy pointed across the street without looking up from his newspaper. Latoya insisted the second guy was right, I wanted to ask someone else to solve the issue, but Latoya and the second guy were dead on. The hotel Royal is a great spot if you find yourself in Fez, it’s only got hot water in the morning, but is otherwise perfect. Lots of street cafes with cheap chicken and sandwiches around the corner in a long strip fill up about nine, and the guy who runs the place is a big French speaking teddy bear of a man.

Sure enough, an hour later there was Muhammad Iman. We had just grabbed a quick bite to-go and taken it back to our room. We were a-wolfing it down when Muhammad Iman showed up so we invited him up. He said he had a driver waiting so there was no time. We abandoned our diner and hurried downstairs to find ourselves in the back of a black sedan with Middle Eastern violin techno blasting. We traveled at heart stopping warp speed through the narrow winding cobble stone streets past honking cars that seemed like they were standing still. The driver worked for Muhammad Iman’s father, he fancied himself a tour guide and hollered over the music points of scenic interest which were going past in a frenzied blur. There is the Royal Palace, there is the animal hospital, that is a Jewish cemetery and so forth. Another black sedan started tailing us just like in a spy film. The two men in front started hollering in Arabic, Muhammad Iman turned to us and explained now we were getting into another car, this driver had to deliver a cake to his mother. Sure enough, the way back seat had a massive cake big enough for ten people, the driver showed it off with such pride. A very fine cake, Latoya and I agreed, just before being whisked away into the second black sedan, which was also blasting middle eastern violin techno at full blast, and was also driving 20 miles per hour past the point of any reasonable logic. We had no idea where the hell we were going anymore, no guess as to what would happen, and Latoya was still grinning so at least that was still ok.

I started getting the horrors. We were somewhere in Morocco speeding through the night maybe never to be heard from again, did they want our kidneys, or passports, or maybe we would become mules in some international drug ring. Patsies in a political assassination, perhaps. I figured if it was kidnapping all they could expect to get out of me were student loans, so that couldn’t be it. Maybe they were Moroccan serial killers that only struck on New Year’s Eve to teach foreign devils the evils of their annual partying ways. I asked Latoya if she thought things were cool under the boom of the music, she smiled again and gave me a thumbs up. Poor Latoya, I thought, if she had any idea how bad my kidneys and liver must be by now she’d know for sure they’d be after hers first. The driver told us this was his favorite song and turned it up louder and stepped on the gas harder.

Muhammad Iman told us there was a new plan, we would be hanging out at the drivers house to drink beer there. It would be cheaper that way as the beer prices doubled on New Year’s Eve. The more the plan changed the more my alarms started jangling. They took us to a grocery store to the beer area. I had said I owed him a beer, and pretty soon I could see that would be the rub. I owe you a beer in my country means, ‘hey, I will buy you a beer, then you can pay for yourself.’ Apparently in Morocco it means I am buying everything, or this man had me pegged for a sucker. Either way he was right, it was cheaper this way. If that really was the whole scheme, (if there was a scheme at all) it didn’t bother me. Not knowing how many people were planning on showing up, I got enough for a very thirsty army that had just marched through the Sahara.

The driver was named Michel. His father had been the Lebanese Ambassador of Morocco and Michel now lived in Switzerland. We pulled up to a shisha bar, we would smoke first. Michel was regal and politely charming when called for, smiling with a nod to show recognition of happiness of others but didn’t register his own. We sat and watched him puff on his shisha hookah for a while, like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Latoya tried the shisha without using the plastic mouth piece which made her laugh her loud Latoya belly laugh, which got a laugh even out of the very serious and composed Michel. Latoya wanted to take pictures of us, Muhammad Iman posed with her immediately with both arms around her. Michel refused to be photographed, either for reasons of religion or for being a wanted international Bond villain I supposed quietly.

Pretty soon Michel was sick of the scene so the owners of the shisha joint wrapped up the tobacco he was smoking and the hookah too and he was allowed to take it with him. ‘Oh they know me here, it is where I always go whenever I am in Morocco’. Ten minutes later we were at his apartment, a fourth floor walkup. The place was decked out with paintings, rugs, tapestries, fine gold leaf lamps and paintings. He explained that he used to invest in the stock market, but now he invests in art. He travels to Morocco this time every year to get good bargains at an arts and crafts sale in the ancient Medina in the center of Fez. The sale is put on by a co-op of widows who make the art as a means of support. He grabs the stuff up for a song then turns around and makes 7 times what he paid for it in auctions across Europe. He said 10,000 euros profit isn’t uncommon. He has been doing this for six years and now spends most of his life traveling the world collecting and selling art. I didn’t ask what he thought about making this huge profit off the intensive labor of artists who would could only hope to ever get tourist value out of the deal. Being a guest at the guy’s house I listened to him lay it all out while drinking beers, he nursed a gin and tonic, one hand flat under the glass, the other holding the handle.

Michel was a very charming host. I very soon felt awful for having been uneasy or suspicious earlier. Once I made up my mind that men with uzis and ski masks were not going to come bursting on ropes through the sky light I started to relax and have more fun.

Muhammad Iman was also beer slogging, Latoya had more sense and stuck to wine. It turned out that it was just us four, which was fine. We watched different Moroccan ethnic groups performing traditional songs on TV. The groups all wore traditional clothes, which made for an odd juxtaposition with the studio stage which was set up to look like it had been stolen from American Idol. Muhammad Iman told us which tribes and ethnic groups were which and where they lived, and the more beer that went into him the more he sang along. He started giving me riddles, how do you put a camel in a refrigerator in three moves? One, open the door, two push in the camel, three close the door. Latoya got that one. Why are Arabs so good at math? Because eating dates makes you smarter, which I didn’t know. Then there was a guy on the street with a microphone on TV asking questions. The question made the people being interviewed explode with laughter, Muhammad Iman laughed louder. With drunken tears in his eyes he told us the funny, funny question. Here goes: do you celebrate Ramadan and the Festival of Abraham ON THE SAME MONTH? Get it? The joke being that both are different months, so you can’t have them on the same month. Some humor doesn’t translate, Latoya and I smiled anyway. Then he asked why the fish can’t go onto the beach? Because he doesn’t have a bathing suit, I guessed that one. Then he wanted to know what was the only animal not invited to the lions wedding? It was the camel, he is still in the refrigerator.

10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Michel was still telling me about the art collecting racket, and I was asking him lots of questions. He told me I could pay for my entire trip by buying rugs. Muhammad Iman started begging him to take me with him the next morning, Michel looked annoyed. I tried to interject that I was flattered but didn’t really need to go with him. Muhammad Iman begged and wouldn’t relent, when I argued he waved me off, ‘many people from Europe beg him to take them, but he won’t help them. You will not be his competition so it’s ok. Please take them, please take them.’ Finally Michel relented, and before I could stop things it was decided that I would become his apprentice in the art buying business. I said I wouldn’t mind going to watch, but probably wouldn’t buy anything. Michel waved off one hand and told me he’d see that I got a good deal and next time he was in New York I would help him out, take him and his lady out or something. And so we were to be up and ready outside the hotel the next morning at 8 to get the best deals. I tried to explain that I didn’t really want to buy anything but would love to go with him, I don’t know if they heard me. Here it was 2 am, and it looked like an early morning so we got into a taxi. Before going to sleep that night I had a vague notion that I would be expected to pay a ton of money for a carpet the next day. Then I dismissed the idea and was soon snoring like a broken truck with Latoya in the next bed over.

May we all have a wonderful 2013 imchallah (God Willing)

4 Responses to “Tuesday was New Years Eve”

  1. Theresa says:

    So are you going to be come a rich and famous rug dealing in America now?

  2. Robert says:

    Hey Will! I thoroughly enjoyed that post. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  3. Cynthia says:

    Wow, you guys are having an adventure. Me, I arrived in Bristol and was almost immediately accosted by a door resulting in a broken arm and surgery.

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