Cats, Tagines, and Rabat

This is a “factional” account of my travels in Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. Days have been compressed and people have been merged; all events mentioned did actually take place.

* * *

Ibn-e-Batuta, bagal main joota, pehene toh karta hai churrrr…

That song from Ishqiya about Ibn-e-Batuta’s travelling shoe is playing in my head as I inch forward in the immigration line. Jet-lagged, dishevelled, hungry and yet ecstatic to no longer be standing in the sub-Antarctic hell also known as the Riyadh’s international airport. An impossibly chic trio is in line ahead of me, chattering away in French. I look with awe at the guy’s platinum-blond Mohawk as I try to remember the little of the language I learnt in high school. Names of fruits, colours, days of the week, yes, no, okay, and the numbers one through ten. Not enough to get a conversation going or to eavesdrop on an ongoing conversation.

“Is it your first time in Morocco?” the immigration official asks as he scans my passport.

I answer in the affirmative, trying to re-arrange my facial expression in the best approximation of the photographs on that navy blue booklet and the visa in it. I have frequently been told, by well-wishers and haters alike, that I have the stare of a pisacha. This is the most stressful part of any trip, not the planning, or going without food, or lugging your heavy backpack everywhere, or walking till your feet are ready to abandon you, but the possibility of being turned away before you can even start your adventure. All because you arouse the same feelings as a Darth Vader-Lord Voldemort hybrid. I don’t have the energy to flash a 100-watt smile in order to allay any misgivings the immigration officer might have about me, so I settle for a 70% version of it. Enough to make me seem human, but not too much that it forces my eyes shut and I can no longer see what’s in store for me. He stamps the documents, hands me my passport, and welcomes me into the country with a wink and thumbs-up!

The ONCF train ride from Mohammed V International Airport to Casablanca is comfortable, uneventful and forgettable. I run into an Omani girl as I am disembarking from the train at Casa Port. She starts talking nineteen to the dozen, about her Indian friends back home, all their names, the tasty Indian food, the amazing Bollywood movies and other things my tired mind loses track of. Her group is also going directly to Rabat and I tag along. It’s Friday the thirteenth and this is my first mistake of the day.

In my defense, I did ask an official looking person if the train would stop at Temara before it reached Rabat, and it turns out he was as misinformed as the rest of us. But I did not know this then, and I congratulate myself on not having to wait in the heat for a train to Rabat to come along. It is a double-decker AC train, and my brain and body both are in total agreement that they would like nothing better than to set the heavy backpack down and recline on a seat on the upper deck. There aren’t many empty places but it is remarkably pin-drop silence. I split my time between gazing out of the window, watching the Moroccan countryside go by, and people watching. Across the aisle is a woman in a black abaya, accompanied by two small, colourfully dressed children with book bags, probably returning from school. They get down at the next stop. I catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean through the window on their side and the realisation slowly seeps through me that I did it. After months of thinking about it, planning for it, doubting myself whether I really wanted to do it, I was here. In Morocco. In Africa.

My reverie is broken when the conductor informs me that this train will not be stopping in Temara. I try to not take this as ill omen, a sign that my trip is doomed from the start, as I resignedly buy a ticket to Rabat, and curse my stupidity and my so-called Omani friend. I also shoot a quick message to Amina, my actual friend and host in Temara, informing her that I’m running late. She replies almost immediately, giving me new directions to reach her house from the train station.

My brain shifts to action mode as I figure out to how best to reach Bab El-Had from the Rabat Ville train station. The smartphone is barely alive, operating on dangerously low battery levels, and so I do what people did in the pre-Google Maps era. The first person I ask for directions turns around and asks another person who simply gestures to me to follow him. Despite my wishful thinking, I am not fluent in either Arabic or French and my self-imposed guide understands no English. How do I explain to him that I don’t want him accompanying me all the way to the bus stop, or heaven forbid, Temara?

We walk down the cobblestone path on Mohammed V avenue, past the newly inaugurated Parliament building, or so I’m told. Several Moroccan flags flutter in the wind, green pentagrams on fields of red. The guy is giving me a mini-tour of the place but my rising panic has rendered me temporarily deaf. Somewhere behind the Ministry of Justice building I am able to explain to him that I can manage it alone. I try earnestly not to come across as rude and ungrateful but who knows what my Shakaal expression conveyed to him? I ask security guards, traffic policemen, women exiting a shop for further directions and finally a young woman points me in the direction of the bus stop.

I cross the road and wait for bus no. 8. It is hot and crowded on the street. A man has set up shop on the pavement selling knick-knacks. Another woman approaches me to buy something I cannot identify. The bus arrives and Zineb, the woman from across the street who is now on the same side as me, motions to me to get on board. It’s an articulated run-down bus with broken windows. People are swarming in at both the entry and exit doors. There is no way I am getting in through that crows with a filled-to-capacity rucksack on my back. Zineb doesn’t seem to care and somehow drags me in by the hand. She miraculously also finds us seats. When things settle down slightly, I go to the conductor to buy tickets and promptly lose my seat, if you can call it that, with a gaping hole where the actual seat is supposed to be. In all my travels, I am yet to come across another bus that was run solely on optimism and never-say-die determination.

I hand over a 100 dirham note to the conductor and name my destination. My accent and lack of Arabic speaking skills get in the way. I try again, enunciating as much as I can, and finally fellow passengers are able to translate my Arabic words to him. He then wonders if that is really where I want to go, repeating the name again and again. Once I am able to convince him that it is really my planned destination, by repeating the name again and again with varying intonation, he says something I do not understand. I move on and ask/mime to him for change. Everyone around him tries to explain to me, in Arabic, what he’s saying and I still don’t understand. I go back to Zineb, crestfallen that I have paid 100 dirhams for a ride in this bus which, though a priceless and one-of-a-kind experience, is definitely not worth it. Zineb goes to talk to the conductor and promptly loses her place too, which is an genuine loss since she was sitting on an actual seat. She comes back with my change and after having requested the conductor, and everyone in his vicinity, to ensure that I get off the right destination. Just before she gets off at her own stop, she types out a message in English on her phone, and holds it in front of my face. Beware of pickpockets, it says, in many more words. I wave her goodbye, moved by the generosity and hospitality of this lovely stranger, knowing that I will never see her again and yet cherish this memory for years to come.

Beware of pickpockets. I have never been pick-pocketed or mugged before but today is the day of many firsts. You read about the warnings in travel books and but never does it occur to you that one day you will have your own sob story. Somewhere in the hustle to board the bus, somebody took my wallet. My habit of storing money in various places across my body and luggage ensured that I lost only 119 dirhams but it was still a blow to the ego. The crowd eases and I find a place to sit on the floor of the bus, hugging my luggage in a valiant attempt to not lose more things. An empty soda bottle rolls along the floor and people regularly thump the windows, doors, sides of the bus to signal the driver to stop. Time passes agonising slowly in the heat and a fellow passenger mimes to me that my stop is here. I thank her, disembark and call Amina, fervently hoping that I have finally reached my destination.

* * *

Amina, friend and host extraordinaire, has prepared a veritable feast for me. She sets the table while I shower, the cool water washing away the grime and frustration. We sit down to lunch on couscous with chicken and vegetables, served in a tagine bottom with the finesse of an accomplished chef, accompanied by buttermilk sent to her by her mum in Errachidia. I savour the unfamiliar flavours as Amina fills me in about her life as a Ph.D. student. It’s been three years since we last met, on her solo backpacking trip through north India, but I feel a strong sense of ease and familiarity here in her apartment, as if our conversation never stopped. Fortified by good food and company, I take her up on her offer to tackle the city of Rabat again.

We catch bus no. 8 again to Bab El-Had and this time fortune smiles on me. It’s a regular bus, no broken windows, and hardly occupied so we are able to sit comfortably. I continue to pepper Amina with questions and she tells me all she knows about Berber history and culture. Through the window I spy a Starcups Coffee and wonder what their Caramel Frappuccino tastes like.

In no time at all we alight at Bab El-Had and this time I am actually able to see and admire the magnificent gate for what it is. It marks the entrance to the medina, the old city of Rabat, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once inside the walled city, we are engulfed in the hustle and bustle of everyday Rabatis going about their daily shopping. Women and men in colourful jelabas buying produce, selling babouche, inviting us to try their assortment of halva. Though more crowded than the modern streets of the Rabat outside, it is not as overwhelming as Aminabad under the afternoon sun.

We amble along the narrow lanes, soaking in the smells and sounds. I photograph the elaborate mosaic work on the walls of the shops, the square minarets jutting out above, the unique doors and shutters that Morocco is justifiably famous for. There are cats everywhere, strutting about as if they own the place, perched on top of the glass showcase containing watches, sleeping inside wicker baskets for sale, sunning themselves next to empty glasses of mint tea. Amina knows I am to buy a clay tagine for my dad and she takes me into a shop. I am of no help as she examines, chooses, haggles for and then buys the perfect one. I pack both parts carefully in my bag and we make our way out of the medina.

Our next stop is the Kasbah des Oudaias, destroyed, reconstructed and finally deserted by the Almohads. The best preserved specimen is Bab Oudaia, with its outstanding arches and elaborate carvings. I also spot a pair of old, rusty cannons nearby, flanking another impressive wooden gate. We walk through the blue and white alleys, residential houses and shops standing cheek to cheek with each other. Sari ke fall sa is playing in a shop selling paintings. Prabhudeva would have been proud! Doors of various shapes, sizes and styles, in myriad shades of blue, catch my eye. Amina waits patiently as I photograph each and every one of them. Even if my life amounts to nothing, I can rest assured that I have enough material to publish a coffee-table book on the portes incroyables of Morocco! We pass the lounging cats and make our way to the Plateforme du Sémaphore to take a break from the walking. Amina has packed some khoobz and date sauce from home and we enjoy a quiet snack while gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean. The river Bou Regreg divides the twin cities of Rabat and Salé, and we decide to walk along it to visit the Hassan Tower. Soon we are forced back into the medina by the freeway running alongside the river and we go via a section of the market that is selling second-hand goods, from CDs, radio transistors to gum boots. Le Tour Hassan was intended by the Almohads to be the largest minaret and mosque of the world. Unfortunately the sultan died before it could reach its lofty heights and a subsequent earthquake has left behind a red sandstone minaret, standing alone in a sea of shattered stone columns. The minaret is still a sight to behold with its intricate pattern, modelled on the Giralda in Seville and the Koutoubia in Marrakesh, and one can only wonder about the grand sight it was meant to be.  Adjoining the tower is the mausoleum of Mohammed V, first king of independent Morocco and grandfather to the present king. The entrance to the complex is flanked by two members of the Moroccan Royal Guard in white attire, mounted on white horses. It is difficult to decide who is more immaculately groomed, the guards or the horses? One of the horses is quite jittery and guard takes it out for a short ride, alarming some tourists, before resuming his position by the gate. The mausoleum is a white stone structure with a green tiled roof, an astounding specimen of Alaouite architecture. A guard is stationed at each of the four entrances to the mausoleum, and the one at the front entrance is most photographed, with tourists or Moroccan families but rarely alone. The guard at the left entrance frequently glances in his direction, probably missing the attention his friend is getting. The inside of the mausoleum is a spectacular sight, elaborate carvings and mosaic tile work, a brilliant combination of gold and blue.

On the bus back to Amina’s apartment, the conductor asks me where I’m from. I answer India and he looks uncomprehendingly at me. I try again with Bharat. He still doesn’t understand and I’m truly stumped. I want to say Hindustan but surely that is too obscure for someone who doesn’t know both India and Bharat. Amina comes to my rescue. Recognition dawns across his face when he hears her say the magic words- Shahrukh Khan! Hind, he exclaims, followed by a list of the Bollywood movies he likes. For the remainder of my trip, Hind is how I answer whenever anyone asks me this particular question.

We end the day with a dinner of aloo paranthas and sooji ka halwa. I follow my mum’s instructions to a T but it doesn’t turn out half as good. Amina doesn’t seem to mind, having been deprived of Indian food for too long. We finish with some mint tea prepared by her, with lots and lots of sugar, and I think back on the roller-coaster day I’ve had. It had begun in Riyadh and with several missteps, U-turns and cross-connections along the way, had ended in Rabat. The journey we undertake, like life itself, has the magical quality of sorting itself out just fine in the end. I had always dreamed of coming here, and finally, like Ibn-e-Batuta’s travelling shoe, here I had reached.

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