Morocco: Crossing Borders, Crossing Continents

Usually crossing borders is nothing more than a rubber stamp, but crossing land borders in the 3rd world can sometimes be problematic. Perhaps it’s because many border crossings are in out-of-the-way locations, where petty officials can do what they like far from the gaze of their higher-ups. Or perhaps it’s because border towns are places that thrive on incomplete information, where locals can count on travelers not knowing the local price for a cab or the current exchange rate. Nador, the border town where we would enter Morocco, appeared to be such a place.

On paper, getting from Malaga, Spain to Fez, Morocco in one day isn’t a big deal, but because we weren’t flying and we would make a land border crossing, we were ready for anything. Our plan was to take a ferry across the Mediterranean from Malaga to Melilla, a Spanish protectorate on the Moroccan coast, cross the border at Nador, then connect with the afternoon train to Fez. The ferry from Malaga to Melilla was pleasant with blue skies and dolphins jumping off the bow of our ship. The taxi from the Melilla port to the Moroccan border was a breeze but as we walked towards Moroccan immigration through the no-man’s-land between the two borders, we steeled ourselves. My wife handed over our four passports to the immigration officer as I watched our bags. “Who is this?” the officer asked with a scowl, pointing at my passport. My wife motioned in my direction and I waved to him. He then stared at his computer for awhile. After 20 minutes of questions and suspicious glances, he slammed his rubber stamp down four times and we were done. So much for pesky border bureaucrats.

With what is typically the hardest part now done, things started to fall apart. We jumped into a taxi and headed straight for the train station, where we arrived to find out that the afternoon train to Fez had left 30 minutes earlier. We then went to the bus station but when we arrived we learned that the only bus remaining was later that night; too late to get us to Fez at a reasonable hour. This led to our last resort, a more expensive grandes taxi, the large Mercedes-Benz share-taxis that ply the roads between large Moroccan towns. It was now almost 2:30 pm and it would take five hours to get to Fez. We walked about five blocks, seeing no other foreigners, to a lot full of Mercedes-Benz taxis and began haggling with a taxi driver. After 20 minutes of not getting close to the standard price – a price that we had earlier verified at the bus station – we realized that we were in a local taxi area, not the grandes taxis that make long runs between towns. Apparently, a long run would have been made for us if we’d been dumb enough to pay double the going rate.

The taxi driver pointed to the right location further down the street and saw about 15 taxi drivers sitting around waiting for business. I picked out an older gentleman who spoke Spanish and started our negotiations while the other drivers stood up and eagerly watched. We settled on the price fairly quickly but, when clarifying that he would take no other passengers, he became upset for some reason and gave me a look that said “Hey buddy, do you want a ride or not?” My insistence on clarifying this point led to what looked like an impasse to the other cab drivers, who quickly started importuning me with quotes for a ride to Fez. Two of them grabbed my arm and my Spanish-speaking guy was getting moved to the back of the crowd. Voices were raised, people started pushing to get closer to me and chaos was starting to take over.

There are moments when you can feel a crowd situation starting to get out of control. As long as my Spanish-speaking guy seemed to be in control, the others just watched. The moment it looked like he was losing the catch, the others sensed blood in the water and wanted their turn to reel in the big fish. Sensing that this might be one of those moments, I pointed to my guy and said “Si, vamanos,” grabbed him by the arm and steered him away from the group. We put our bags in the trunk of his taxi, got in the car and waited, glad to be away from the mob. Our Spanish-speaking guy drove us around the corner then got out to make way for another driver that didn’t speak English, Spanish or French. Before we could object to the bait and switch driver, he was gone, mumbling something about a stop at a police checkpoint.

We drove out of Nador with our new driver a little after 3:00 pm and into the North African desert. Nine hours earlier we were in the modern Spanish port town of Malaga and now we were in the desert with no food or water and a driver with whom we could not communicate. We had made no stop at a police checkpoint and it quickly became apparent that our taciturn driver was not in the mood to communicate with us. “Can we stop for some water?” my wife asked him, in three languages. Even when I pantomimed drinking a bottle of water, he just shrugged and drove on. My wife later told me that she wanted to stop for water as much for someone to see us as to slake our thirsts. If we disappeared in the Moroccan desert, at least someone would have seen us.

After an hour we stopped for gas at a dusty adobe shack on the side of the road. While our driver emptied a couple dirty, plastic liter containers of gasoline into his tank, I went inside to buy some water. The proprietor was in cleric garb with a knitted Muslim skull cap. When I asked for water he seemed to be annoyed, but sold us some warm drinking water. Feeling a bit tense, we continued to drive through the desert. The drive was long and after a while our driver warmed up a bit. He accepted a swig of water from my bottle and made another stop for us to buy some snacks. We felt much more comfortable with him and sat back and enjoyed the scenery which became greener and more agricultural as we neared our destination. We arrived in Fez around 8:30 pm and after meeting our apartment manager, we made our way to our accommodations located in the center of the medieval medina.

The last leg of our journey was a surreal 20 minute walk through the Fez medina; a dense, compact walled city overflowing with humanity and mercantile activity. It was a long and eventful day crossing the border into Morocco and getting to Fez. Everything leading up to the rubber stamp at the border went smoothly, it was the aftermath that was touch and go…and interesting.

"Rubber Stamp" is the theme of the latest Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival, hosted by GingerBeirut. The carnival starts on June 21st.

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