by David Crow
The plane glided from the stratosphere toward dawn spreading across Morocco. Layers of violet and indigo sky gradually changed to blazing gold and fiery orange as the first rays spread across the cloud layer hiding Africa’s Atlantic coast. I savor such sublime moments, not only because another adventure is waiting but also because I abhor turbulent flights, and the ending of this one was so smooth that it felt as though we were suspended in space.
The airport was deserted. We strolled down quiet hallways toward a simple customs check, the musty aroma and murmurs of foreign languages mixing with memories and dreams of arrivals at other destinations in the heightened sensory awareness of sleep deprivation. None of the loitering officials seemed very interested in passports, luggage inspections or anything else: another sublime feeling.
We found Hamid standing with a small group of people greeting arrivals, holding a badly scribbled sign with our names on it. I didn’t have expectations of who he would be, but he wasn’t what I was expecting either. He greeted us kindly and escorted us to the street where his car was waiting. Our travels through Morocco were about to commence.
Hamid knew a little about our itinerary and the purpose that had brought us here, although it was quite different than most of the people he escorted as a guide, driver and translator. For us he was invaluable in this foreign land, as we know neither French nor Arabic, and had no desire to drive in a country notorious for accidents and bad roads. We knew what we were looking for, but had only a vague sense of where it might be found.
We had enlisted Hamid to help us search for botanical treasures, to help us find distillers of fine new essential oils, to navigate the narrow twisted lanes of the ancient medinas of Fez and Marrakech, to take us to the villages where roses are cultivated at the edge of the Sahara, into the Atlas mountains to meet the forests of cedar and to the coastal areas where argan trees grow. We had a few contacts, a loose schedule that would take us all over the country over seventeen days, and not much else. I could tell that Hamid was as intrigued by us and our quest as we were about the landscape that now passed by as we made our way toward town.
Hamid was from Fez. Not just from Fez, but born, raised and a lifelong resident. He knew the country well, having been in the hotel and tourism industries his whole life, so I asked if he had a favorite city. “Fez,” he replied.
“What makes Fez special?” I asked.
“It is the most ancient city in Morocco,” he answered, and then told us some of its rich cultural history.
“It must have many secrets,” I mused, which he found amusing.
Casablanca was not Fez. Barely past dawn, its streets were already crippled with traffic and diesel smoke as people made their way to jobs in this economic capital of the country. We had opted to stay here for one day before starting off to see the country, allowing us some time to recover from the flight. Our hotel was one of the better ones, but it still lacked hot water or ability to turn off the icy air conditioning; Sara closed the curtains on the congested thoroughfare below and promptly went to sleep.
I woke from a phone call at three in the afternoon, the front desk informing me that Hamid had returned as planned. We sat in the lobby for a short time, reviewing the destinations in the days ahead.
Instead of going to his hotel to rest as I had assumed he would, he had spent the day driving around Casablanca looking into possible contacts for us to visit. Starting with a few leads that I had found, he had gone to some stores and warehouses in search of distillers and essential oils. All that he had found were some small businesses that sold herbal products. “These kind of people are everywhere,” he said, and there was no need to spend more time in traffic.
I could tell that Hamid was getting interested in our plot, so I gave him some further ideas: organic farms, traditional herbal apothecaries, bee keepers and exotic honeys, traditional wild harvested foods. Yes, he knew of some of these.
“There is a place in Fez that grows its own herbs, like saffron, to make medicines,” he reported.
Our guide departed into the honking mass of smoking vehicles, with a plan to meet at nine the next morning; I went back to bed.