It takes a special kind of idiot to attempt to travel overland to Morocco from the north of England with barely $100 in their pocket.
In the summer of 1995, I was that idiot.
Despite the fact I’d never traveled anywhere alone before and was sporting a haircut that would’ve shamed a household mop, I borrowed a backpack, threw in a random selection of T-shirts, mumbled some vague plans to my parents about going to France and hit the road.
In a last-minute stroke of genius, I also threw in a tent. Yes! I thought. As I travel south through the great European metropolises of Paris, Barcelona and Madrid, not typically known for their abundance of fields, I will save money by camping.
I wasn’t totally unprepared. I had a multi-trip rail ticket that covered most trains in France, Spain and Morocco. I also had a huge Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable that occupied most of the backpack space not containing the tent.
This was, of course, the pre-digital age. There was no widely available internet. No mobile smartphones. So, to record the trip I also packed a cardboard disposable camera. For entertainment, I mistakenly packed a copy of “Moby Dick.”
My mission, for reasons I can no longer recall, was to find a desert. I wasn’t exactly sure where the desert was or how to get there. With characteristic lack of planning, I thought I’d chance it and hopefully have some fun along the way.
I did have fun, but over the course of the next few weeks, I also would be stolen from, beaten up and swindled. Despite this – perhaps partly because of it – I still remember it as one of the best trips of my life. At the end, I was hungry for more and a career of traveling was set in motion.
First stop was Paris. With insufficient money to spend the night and, it transpired, nowhere to pitch my tent, the plan was to explore the city for a day, then get a night train out of there.
It was the first proper day of my foreign adventure and I was excited. In this time before cheap airfares, travel anywhere in Europe was still a dazzlingly exotic prospect. I breathed in the dirty Paris air and savored the moment of being young and alive.
As I entered a Metro station, clutching my paper ticket, a mountainous Frenchman approached me and asked me, in French, for a cigarette. Thrilled that he had mistaken me for a local, I delighted in politely replying: “Pardon m’sieur. Je ne fume pas.”
To my astonishment, his response was to take a step backwards and then, in defiance of his apparent lack of athleticism, execute a near-perfect roundhouse kick that sent me flying across the station. Several commuters tutted disapprovingly as they stepped over me.
I sprang to my feet and, before he could deliver another attack, I burst into tears and ran.
My brittle confidence shattered, I now felt desperately alone. What was I doing? Why was I trying to travel to Morocco? I felt like the dumbest tourist in Europe.
Done with Paris, I headed to the station and boarded a train south.
There’s always pleasure to be taken in crossing Europe by rail. Sometimes the journeys are long and slow. Sometimes the carriages are overcrowded. Sometimes the toilets have witnessed terrible things.
But the stations, trains and tracks which make up the continent’s vast network radiate a timeless sense of adventure. It’s a beguiling world of its own. One populated by guards, stationmasters and rolling stock in which the passengers often seem of little consequence.
As the French landscape slid by, going from hot to hotter, I began to enjoy myself again and drank in the scenery. Anything to avoid reading “Moby Dick.”
In Barcelona, owing to the lack of city center campgrounds, I splashed out on a bunk in a hostel near the Las Ramblas boulevard.
This was three years after Barcelona hosted the summer Olympics, and while the city was picking up as a tourist destination, it was still relatively inexpensive. I spent a few happy days hanging around eating cheap cheese sandwiches, like the sophisticated traveler I was.
Moving on, I planned another money-saving overnight journey to Madrid, but as darkness fell I was turned away by the train guards who told me I couldn’t board without a reservation that I should’ve obtained many hours earlier.
I had nowhere to go and no money for a room. In those dinosaur days of travelers checks, there was no way to cash them in Spain outside of banking hours. I had my ATM card for emergencies, but it only worked in one other country. Naturally, that country was Belgium.
I checked my backpack into left-luggage and headed back to Las Ramblas. Contemplating my options, I was approached by a Spanish man asking directions. It was a classic distraction while someone behind me stole my day pack.
This time I managed not to cry. The biggest loss was the bag itself. I comforted myself by imagining the crestfallen thieves as they regrouped down a side street to argue over its pathetic contents. A cheap pair of sunglasses, some off-brand suntan lotion and a book.
“¡Ay caramba,’Moby Dick’!”
At this point. Plan A was to sneak back into the hostel and find an empty bunk. I tried to breeze past reception but its spry elderly owner chased me up three flights of stairs then marched me back down to be hurled onto the sidewalk.
Plan B involved sleeping out in one of the city’s parks. This was quickly abandoned after it became evident I was getting in the way of a busy hookup scene that was at least 15 years away from being replaced by a more convenient online app.
That left me with Plan C. And so I spent the rest of the night and most of the following day wandering the streets. That evening I returned to the station, reservation in hand, and flopped on the last train out of there.
In Madrid, I vaguely recall exploring around an art museum and eating more cheap cheese sandwiches. Then I was southbound again, this time to Granada, an historic city that’s home to the spectacular Alhambra Palace.
Pen pals to the rescue
It was only as Granada’s station approached in the golden light of early evening that I realized it was the start of the weekend. No banks would be open, and once again I was without cash or anywhere to stay.
What happened next remains to this day one of the most delightful things I’ve ever experienced.
When I told a young Chilean student I’d been chatting to on the train about my predicament, she invited me to stay with the Spanish pen pals she was visiting in Granada.
She’d never even met them before, but when she asked if I could pitch my tent in their garden they instead welcomed me into their apartment and offered me a sofa to sleep on.
Not only that, but for the next three nights, they fed me, bought me beers, acted as my tour guide, tolerated my abysmal attempts to speak Spanish, and refused any attempt to reimburse them when the banks reopened on my final day in the town.
I’m still staggered by the extent of their hospitality. Over the years since, I’ve tried to offer the same to others. Even so, I can’t imagine I’d ever let a 24-year-old version of me into my home. Not with that haircut anyway.
Next stop was Algeciras, a bustling port town filled with Moorish architecture. This is where passenger ferries cross the Strait of Gibraltar to the Moroccan port of Tangier.
Fear began to mount. I’d been ill-prepared for France and Spain, but at least I’d had my gigantic European Rail Timetable to fall back on. On the next part of my journey, even the train schedules would be a mystery.
A whiff of danger
The evening before catching the boat, I met two young women, also from the north of England, who took pity on my pathetic and presumably non-threatening appearance and kindly gave me the spare bed in their hotel room.
This was to become a theme. During the rest of the trip I was befriended by several couples who generously gave me the spare bed in their room. Awkwardly so during one night sharing a tiny room with a pair of vigorously in-love American students.
Tangier was intense. A tenacious carpet seller threatened to plant drugs in my backpack if I didn’t come to his store and followed me for hours until I shook him off in a backstreet cafe.
As darkness fell I paid someone upfront for a room for the night that turned out to be a gloomy dorm furnished only by squalid mattresses. These were all occupied by other hoodwinked backpackers. Down the hall was a shower that none of us dared use.
Morocco was exciting though. It was still some years away from the mass tourism that has helped transform it into a modern destination. Its cities were riddled with dark alleyways. Its marketplaces were alive with haggling. There was a whiff of danger which I realized I liked.
Onward to Rabat and Marrakech. I shared a train compartment with a Dutch couple and Moroccan man who, as he was the first to point out, had a far more impressive mustache than any of us. Out of pity, he offered us cucumbers which we stuffed into our hairless faces.
Nowadays Morocco has fast and efficient intercity trains, but in 1995, they were old, slow and charming – not including the toilets. Stations were filled with a hustle of vendors offering food and mint tea. Between stops, hot air blew through the open windows.
My new Dutch friends took me under their wing in Marrakech and we found a cheap room with a balcony. I was amazed by how fast the clothes that I washed in the sink would dry in the midday heat.
Never mind the intoxicating burlesque of snake charmers, storytellers and street magicians to be witnessed in the city’s sprawling Jemaa el-Fna square. Look at my pants sizzle in the sunshine!
Camping at last
Last stop for me was Mount Toubkal, Morocco’s highest peak. With the Atlas mountains blocking the way to the Sahara, someone had suggested that there might be a view of the desert from somewhere near the top.
I hopped a bus and then a pickup truck full of sheep to a dusty village called Imlil, perched over rocky terraces. I loved this place. The air was cooler. No one seemed to need to haggle over the price of every single piece of fruit. And, best of all, it had a campsite.
Which was when I discovered that the tent I’d hauled across four countries required two poles to hold it upright. And those two poles were, at that very moment, sitting on a shelf 1,700 miles away in my parents’ basement.
I never did see the desert. After a restless night under sagging canvas held up by crooked wooden sticks, I attempted and failed to climb Toubkal in the company of a bemused local youth carrying a wooden radio that was almost the same size as he was.
But it didn’t matter. I’d conquered my own fears – and stupidity – to travel across Europe and Africa’s high Atlas Mountains. Within a few weeks, a newly confident version of me would be studying for the journalism qualifications that would later take me all around the world.
Incidentally, a few months after my trip, I had an it’s-a-small-world encounter with the two English women I’d shared a room with in Algeciras. We were in a pub, so I bought them drinks as a thank you.
“We didn’t think anyone would ever see you again,” one of them told me. “We thought someone in Morocco would kill you.”
Her friend agreed. “With that haircut, they might have been doing you a favor.”