Chapter 40: Morocco And More Bedbugs

The Empress of Africa sailed for Tangier at four in the afternoon. In less than an hour we came within sight of the passenger liners and tankers clustered around the naval dockyards at Gibraltar.

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An hour later we arrived at the wharf in Tangier, where American cars were being unloaded by young men who called ‘Hey, Australia!’ when they saw our packs. Touts pulled at our bags and shouted the name of this or that hotel. Two urchins followed us all the way to the old quarter, hawking American cigarettes wrapped in brown paper.

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Ian bounded up five flights at Pensión Jerez and bargained two rooms down to thirty pesetas. He bounded up again to dump the packs, and then we went out to explore the Arab world which lay on our doorstep. Turbaned men squatted over hookahs in the cafés and flapped along the grimy streets in snowy white djellabas. Blind beggars tapped along the alleys and bearded men flowed along like Biblical figures in robes and sandals. Where were the women? We saw none, apart from one briefly glimpsed as she flitted by with her head down, the child on her back almost concealed under her tent-like clothing. It was hard to believe that the two worlds, Europe and Africa, separated by just two hours, could be so different from one another.

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A different world, but the same torments. Bedevilled by bedbugs, I waited for dawn in a cane chair with my legs pulled up under me. Even the cushion was full of bedbugs. By morning I had a lump on my forehead the size of an egg and my eyelids were so swollen I could barely squint. A woman from the kitchen unlocked the bathroom and I held my head under the cold tap until the water ran out. We walked to the wide white beach. A cold swim out to the pontoon and many dives into the brilliant turquoise sea took my breath away, but not the swelling. We tried to sunbake, but an Arab discouraged us with clicking tongue and shaking head. We stretched out against the wall, discreetly covered, and slept uncomfortably until evening.

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We bought some unidentifiable hunks of flesh from the meat market. We filled our wine bottle with sweet thick wine, which we drank while I cooked a stew on the spirit-stove. The stew was inedible. We fed it to a skinny dog on our way to buy dates and pomegranates from the fruit stalls.

That night the bedbugs made straight for the jugular. I emerged in the morning looking like a fugitive in sunglasses with my scarf pulled up to cover the goitre on my neck. We walked through the smelly fish market and up the hill to the wealth and luxury of the French Quarter. We left our passports with the Spanish Consulate to be stamped with transit visas for Spanish Morocco and asked the way to the British Consulate to make enquiries about working in Tangier. We were dissuaded by a very British gentleman with a clipped accent who stated most emphatically ‘My dear girls, I wouldn’t advise it.’

We returned to the dirty alleys of the town, leaving the hilltop villas of the rich. A barefoot boy followed us all the way to the Sultan’s Palace, pleading to be our guide. A withered old Arab shooed him off like an errant bug and took over, guiding us in and out of many rooms which all looked alike. There were brilliant carpets on the walls, and fretwork chairs on which brides were carried – reluctantly, we imagined – into richly decorated bedrooms. From the roof we looked down upon broken Roman columns and sarcophagi, including an alarming number of infant-sized coffins hollowed out of stone. Our guide warned me not to stand too close to the edge or I would fall into the slaves’ prison, as indeed I could have since there was no railing. He led us across a sunken garden to the summer-house, where brassware and carpets were on sale, and finally upstairs to an ornate room where we were seated on divans and offered tiny cups of Turkish coffee. An Arab squatting cross-legged on the floor emitted weird, tuneless caterwauling as we made an attempt to drink the undrinkable coffee. Coffee-time was pay off time, and our guide’s fee had doubled!

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Outside the palace the little boy was dozing in the shade. He sprang to life with his palm extended, into which Ian put a handful of coins. He followed us back into the town, with little explosions of thanks all the way.

Next morning, after a repetition of bedbugs, we were peevish and bad-tempered. Light-headed from exhaustion, I spilt coffee on the table. When Jane tried to clean it up she upset the spirit-stove. We called Ian to come and put out the fire.

The day’s troubles had only just begun. We asked a policeman for directions to the road to Tetuan. He pointed somewhere above the town. By the time we’d slogged through the markets, we realised he’d sent us the long way around. A station waggon took us to the border, where we filled out customs forms in triplicate, followed by two lots of passport control. Halfway to Tetuan the station waggon broke down. Ian wriggled underneath it to help fix whatever needed fixing, while Jane and I collapsed on our packs. The only passing traffic was a mule-cart, which offered us a lift.

We arrived in Tetuan in the late afternoon and sat on a wall below the purple hills, waiting for the town to come to life. We were joined by a young man who produced a flute from under his robe and began to play a sweet arpeggio as he squatted next to us on the wall.

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The bathroom on the third floor of Pensión Tétouan was locked by the time we returned from the Arab quarter. There was no water from the tap in our room. We brushed our teeth with wine and went to bed. At eleven pesetas it was not only the cheapest accommodation we had ever had  but was strangely bedbug free.

It took until noon the next day to wash dishes under a dribbling tap which threatened at any minute to expire. To speed things up we took it in turns to run up and down two flights to the bathroom to help ourselves to water from the old enamel bath which had been filled during the night. It was obviously the domestic supply for the day, as there was no water from any other source. Soon the bathroom was locked again as well.

The road from Tétouan to Ceuta ran below the mountains. We were bracing ourselves for a long walk when suddenly an American car approached at great speed, stopping just long enough to pick us up and lock our packs in the boot. We thought it was a marvellous piece of luck and settled back to enjoy the scenery.

The road followed the line of the shore into Ceuta, where there were corks bobbing on fishing nets cast far out into the bay. We sped past a detachment of Moroccan soldiers on horseback looking like Hollywood extras lost in the desert. On arrival in Ceuta our driver informed us that his vehicle was a hire-car and put out his hand to be paid. We couldn’t have our packs back until we’d paid for forty kilometres at ten pesetas per kilometre.

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Two Thumbs Out is published in Kindle Format and is available from Amazon.

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