My first job out of college was as a marketing assistant in the beauty industry. Manual labor is part of the job when you're that low in the totem pole. For me, that meant unpacking endless boxes of product samples and marketing materials--which isn’t too bad when you’re a young beauty junkie because knowing that I got to see all this stuff before everybody else was still exciting then. A few months into the job, by the time my life of freedom was a distant memory, I was unpacking one such box. It was full of cosmetics that weren’t available in the US and had been sent to us for possible inclusion in the duty-free assortment.
Among the perfume bottles and pre-wrapped boxes of miniature lotions – meant for clueless businessmen looking for a last-minute gift for ‘the wife’ -- I found a long thin metal tube. It was just a lipstick (I remembered buying one at El Corte Ingles when I was studying abroad in Granada, Spain), but it brought back memories of dusty alleys and of the sweet taste of mint tea.
I was in Morocco in April of 1997 because it’s what you did when you were an exchange student in Granada. We first made plans for a large group, but when the guys heard that the girls in Ibiza were easy they changed their minds at the last minute. So instead of nine, we were a group of five - all girls.
(Jorge, our student advisor, had begged us not to go. “Five females? In Morocco? Alone? Are you mad?” He was a law student and worried too much.)
We left Algeciras on an rusty ferry boat and crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, the famous rock getting smaller and smaller behind us as we got closer to the African shore. As soon as we docked in Tangiers everything was different --the light red and hazy, everything soaked with the smells of cooking food. It was crowded and people came at us from everywhere. We ignored the many offers for private taxicabs and ducked into the relative calm of the train station, rushing to catch the last train to Marrakech.
I was relieved when the train pulled out of Tangiers. It was dangerous and I was glad to leave. The train was dark and I tried not to think about the condition of our cabin as I forced myself to go to sleep.
It was morning when the train reached the end of the line. My friend Amy and I quickly gathered our things and looked for the rest of the group. It was a madhouse and I wasn't sure how we would find them but we soon heard them.
They didn’t look good.
“What’s the deal with all the sheep? It was like a fucking zoo in there.”
Amy and I were in much better spirits because we had snatched the last two first-class cots on the train. For $12 we got hard benches to sleep on and shared quarters with strangers. At least we had some semblance of privacy. Our cabin mates were already asleep in their bunks when we entered and had left by the time we had woken up the next morning.
The rest of them were stuck in the regular cars and had to do their best to sleep while sitting up. To make things worse, it seemed that every other person on the train was carrying either live sheep or chickens—and they did it like it was the most normal thing in the world. We didn't know it, but everyone was going home for Eid al-Adha and the whole scene was not unlike that at American airports the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, except that here people carried livestock instead of wheeled luggage.
It was still early in Marrakech and after dizzying rides in little private taxicabs we finally got to our hotel, a little hole in the wall called Hotel Ali. It was perfect for us, cheap, clean, and most importantly, it overlooked the Djemaa el Fna square.