After a few days in Fes, we board a mid-morning train to Marrakesh. The train stations in Morocco are brand-new. Airy and immaculate, they represent a huge investment in infrastructure and modernization.
Our train? Not so new. It looks tired inside and out. A well-dressed gentleman joins our 6-person compartment, and remarks “it’s hot!” As I fiddle with the control for the air conditioning, he dismisses my efforts. In my bad French, I ask if he thinks it is broken. With a shrug, he replies “C’est Maroc” (“It’s Morocco”). This juxtaposition of old and new would be the theme for Marrakesh.
Despite the slightly-too-warm compartment, the train does its job and we are able to relax as the country flies past at close to 90mph. Our route takes us west from Fes toward the coast. At first we see scrub, olive groves, and small farms. Near a river, the landscape is lush. Ten foot tall reeds and stands of cypress provide shade for grazing animals. Rows of olive trees mark a large plantation. We see more than one farmer using a donkey to pull a wooden plow through dark, rocky soil. Elsewhere water is scarce. The rainy season has not started, and the thirsty landscape is a thousand shades of brown and yellow. As we get closer to the coast, small fields give way to larger ones, and the animal power is replaced by tractors. Buildings made of unfinished concrete and brick give way to larger buildings with finished exteriors. The occasional warehouse pops up. We see an ocean of sunlight sparkling off a thousand windshields and hoods at a pristine car factory, as big as any rotting in Detroit.
We had been warned ahead of time that trains in Morocco can suffer long delays. We have food and water with us, and a crew member passes every hour pushing a cart of snacks, sandwiches, and beverages. The train seems to be making good time. I mark our progress on my phone. GPS and phones have forever changed travel.
We pass through Rabat, the coastal city that serves as capital of Morocco. Minarets tower above the skyline; there are few skyscrapers in Rabat. Palm trees line the major streets and the Atlantic glistens off the coast. During a short stop, young businessmen stream onto the train, bound for the financial center of Casablanca further down the coast.
For us, Casablanca is only a short station stop. No gin joints, no rounding up the usual suspects. Casablanca is a large city, and our research suggested it has comparatively little to offer vs our other destinations. We see a just narrow slice of the city through the window. From here the train turns south, toward the interior.
The farms gradually give way to red dirt and scrub. The landscape reminds us of parts of Utah: vast, open, and inhospitable. For much of the journey, remnants of the old rail line snake back and forth across the newer one that carries us. The light grey gravel of the old embankment looks new, an occasional discarded rail the only clue that it is forever out of service. No weeds grow on it, and erosion has not made its mark. Time must move more slowly in the desert.
Approaching Marrakesh, we see more brown fields. What can grow in this landscape? Rows of prickly pear cactus provide one answer. The Atlas Mountains loom in the distance. On the outskirts of town we pass the Moorish faux-castle of Chez Ali, home to a Disney-esque dinner theater. One look and we choose not to go.
Our train pulls into the Marrakesh terminal just as the sun is setting. The platform is landscaped with palm trees and topiary. We are 10 minutes behind schedule – not bad for a 7hr journey. Our driver awaits us at one of the 3 exits of the large, modern station. He is annoyed that our train is so late.
This part of Marrakesh is a cosmopolitan city fully of cars, glitzy clubs, and – ugh – American fast food. Palm trees line the boulevard and the beautiful wrought-iron street lights are starting to glow. A horse-drawn carriage pulls up next to us at a traffic light. The green star of the Moroccan flag hangs from a lamppost at least once every block, lit up for nighttime in neon green. Our driver learns that we speak Spanish. His girlfriend Maria is from Colombia. He calls her and we have a surreal video chat in English with Maria from Colombia.
We leave the main streets and come to the edge of the medina. From here the streets are too narrow for cars. The rest of our journey will be on foot. Our driver stops the car and instructs us to get out. A small group of boys and men approach the car, looking for a handout or a job. An old man approaches with a hand cart. He knows the driver, or the driver knows him. As instructed we load our bags into the cart. Not knowing what to expect, we follow the man and our bags into the ancient maze.