We hadn’t intended to go to Morocco, we’d actually been aiming for Turkey.
We’d set off from London with month-long Interrail tickets and made a beeline for Venice, arriving a few days later. There was one train a day to Istanbul leaving each evening and it seemed to be an incredibly popular destination. Hundreds of backpackers were holed up at Venice’s main Santa Lucia station.
No reservations were possible for Interrailers, it was simply a matter of waiting for the gates to open and join the throngs of people trying to squeeze on to the train. I’m fairly certain this is out of the question now but back then people were allowed to sleep on the forecourt in front of the station steps. Local business commuters would turn up early each morning and have to pick their way through a sea of snoring, smelly backpackers still snuggled up in their sleeping bags.
We endured three nights like this having failed to get on the train for three days running and eventually decided on a change of plan which would see us heading elsewhere instead and, hopefully, fitting in a shower at some point.
Morocco screamed out at us. Not sure this is still possible either but at this time Morocco was well covered by Interrail, you could pretty much get around the whole country by train at no extra cost. And so we turned on our heels and headed back across Italy en route to zip through France, down into Spain and towards North Africa.
While on that night’s train, a couple of Yugoslavians (as they still were at this point) got on and joined us in our compartment, complete with a large number of bags including black bin liners packed tightly. Nothing much was said until we approached the French border.
‘Please, if police ask about bags, say they are yours.’
‘Er, come again?’
‘Our friends are down the train, we go see them now, police will not suspect problem with two English girls. Please, say bags are yours.’
Within minutes the police were swarming our compartment and our fellow passengers nowhere to be seen.
‘Your bags?’ They asked, pointing to the bin liners.
‘No, absolutely not.’
The bags were ripped open in front of us to reveal reproductions of Old Masters.
The train was delayed for quite some time while being scoured for the fake art dealers, who were eventually discovered hiding in overhead luggage racks. Although we later saw them being led away up the platform, we slept with one eye open in case their ‘friends’ remained somewhere on the train and were out for revenge.
We crossed into Spain the next day with no further incident and headed south, picking up a train down to Algeciras where a boat would take us across to Tangiers in Morocco.
The train was jam packed full of Moroccans going back home for the summer. We got talking to Fayyad, a young student who hadn’t seen his family in the three years he’d been at Grenoble University in France. His mother had called him saying it would be nice if he could come home as his father wasn’t very well.
Fayyad was in good spirits and excited at the prospect of being back with his loved ones in Rabat. With the usual Arab generosity, it wasn’t long before he offered us to come back and stay with his family, assuring us that his three sisters would take good care of us.
When the train pulled in to Rabat station, Fayyad immediately spotted a large number of his family members, there to welcome him home. We insisted that we couldn’t commit to staying with them until he checked with his mother that it would be ok.
The women; mother, sisters, aunties and other random reatives immediately opened their arms to us, making it clear that we would be guests of honour. And so we were bundled into one of the many cars and headed back to their home.
On arriving, the sisters cleared out of their bedroom and gave it over to us. Fayyad was invited to go for a chat with his mother while the remaining women fluttered around us. It was very late and before long we tried to bid them goodnight and asked for directions to the bathroom.
They told us we had to wait as there was something important we should know.
Seemingly the father was not just unwell but, in fact, dead.
He was already dead when they had called Fayyad asking him return, but they couldn’t bring themselves to tell him over the phone. Fayyad was, at that very moment, next door being told the sad news.
But, we were welcome to use the bathroom, it simply meant walking through the room where the father’s body was lying, prepped and ready for burial the following day.
We weren’t invited to the funeral but we were asked to accompany the sisters to the hammam where we could have a deep clean in the steam room.
I’d never been in one before and found it all a bit intimidating. We were the only fair-skinned people in there and so attracted a fair amount of attention which was all the more intimidating. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing and so discreetly observed what everyone else was expertly demonstrating.
We were all buck naked and it was very, VERY hot. I noticed that they would take a bucket and fill it with water and then find a spot to sit in and throw the bucket of water over their heads before having a thorough scrub.
Feeling all eyes on me, I wandered nonchalantly over to the nearest tap and filled a bucket right to the top. Eyes never left me as I then took my place on the stone floor and prepared to douse myself.
My screams could have woken the dead especially, no doubt, the poor dearly departed father whose daughters watched bemused as I went running from the steam room in agony.
The tap I’d used, unlike the one others were using, was for hot water only. Extremely hot water. Given how excruciatingly steamy it was in the room already I hadn’t registered quite how boiling it was and had tipped the entire thing all over my head.
I now felt like I was on fire.
A redhead anyway, I now had a face and body to match. It took five buckets of cold water from the sisters to make me feel vaguely normal again.
It was only right that we took our leave of Fayyad and his grieving family as soon afterwards as possible. They had more than enough to cope with without having to look out for the next time I’d put my foot in it which, let’s face it, was never going to be that far away.
If this is what showering was going to be like in Morocco, give me not washing back in Venice any day.