Crossing the Border

The train was crowded, but not, surprisingly, with other Inter-Railers. Every one of the small compartments had been taken over by Moroccan families; plastic carrier bags and cardboard boxes blocked the luggage racks. They had hung their clothes over the doors and windows; we were far too intimidated to enter.

We moved up to the front end of the train and sat in the corridor at the junction between the first carriage and the engine. The train utilised an innovative system of air-conditioning – and certainly didn’t conform to the European standards of safety – for, every door (they all opened inwards) was wide open. We welcomed the cool fresh air.

Two Moroccan guys joined us. They were students at college in France, on their way home to Casablanca. The very name, Casablanca, evoked exotic images of smoky bars and Humphrey Bogart. And these two young men were also exotic, and gorgeous. They introduced themselves as “Yassin and Said” and invited us to play cards on the grimy deck. I was attracted to tall, dark Yassin, and Fiona to Said who looked very cool in his strange baggy white clothes and white crocheted ‘kopiah’ (Muslim cap). We sat up talking and laughing with them all night and they invited us to travel with them to Casablanca and stay with their families. It was only the third day of our trip and things were already becoming very exciting.

The dawn broke to find Yassin and I sitting on the exterior steps of the open door of the train, speeding past bountiful fields of Spanish plum tomatoes and sweet Cantaloupe melons. The crops were almost ready to be harvested and we could smell the fruit on the wind. I forgot about my bank overdraft in rainy old England, I was really travelling, pursuing my passion, and never before had I felt so carefree and happy.

The port of Algerciras was busy and smelly, Fiona and I were tired but elated and our flowing hippy skirts were dirty. Fuelled with the thrill of anticipation, the four of us boarded the ferry to Tangier; most of the passengers were Moroccan apart from ourselves and maybe 50 other young backpackers. During the one-hour ferry ride, Yassin told me more about Casablanca. Porpoises danced alongside the bows of the ship and for the first time I saw the Rock of Gibraltar, my mother’s birthplace. As the town of Tangier loomed closer and closer, the foot passengers got ready to disembark. But ahead of us there seemed to be a problem. None of the other foreigners were being allowed off the boat. Puzzled and anxious we waited in line but we too were given the same story by the immigration officials. We were unwelcome in their country. “We don’t want your type in our country, you’re just hippies, you’re dirty, you’re not going to be bringing any money into Morocco”. Yassin and Said pleaded on our behalf but every time the answer was the same. We knew nothing about the conventions of corruption and didn’t dare contemplate offering a bribe. Fiona and I hastily swapped addresses with the two young men who had become our friends and had promised us so much fun in Casablanca. Holding back the tears we said our goodbyes. Together with all of the other backpackers on the ferry, we were ushered onto the upper deck, prohibited from entering Morocco. We retraced our voyage back to Spain, our dreams of adventure – and maybe love – in the mystical land of medinas, magic carpets, mosques and minarets had been shattered.

A fiery sun was setting over the Straits of Gibraltar, it was a beautiful sight but Fiona and I could barely focus through our tears. Just 20 years old and convinced that I was in love with a boy I had known for less than 20 hours, I was in despair. Many of the other backpackers, who had also been subjected to the same hostile treatment, said that they had lost all enthusiasm for visiting Morocco. Others, however, claimed they knew of another route into the country. Visions of swimming ashore under the cover of darkness, or illegally crossing the border from Algeria, scaling barbed wire fences and dodging armed guards, danced around in my imagination. The plan was considerably less complex…

There is a Spanish town called Ceuta, isolated on the Moroccan coast. Our fellow-backpackers suggested that this might be an easier point for crossing the border. With our hope miraculously restored, we enthusiastically discussed our new plans with the fourteen Austrians and one Italian who were also game to give it a try. Arriving back in Algerciras the Spanish officials were expecting us. This daily charade was part of a game, boosting the takings of the ferry company. We were ushered to the ticket office, where the waiting staff obliged us with tickets to Ceuta in exchange for more of our money. They held up the ferry for us, or so we believed, and once again we were sea-borne, bound for another Moroccan border.

It was quite late when we arrived in Ceuta but once again the police were familiar with the procedure. The Austrians, the Italian, Fiona and I were allowed to spend the night in the police car park. Here, we entertained each other with travel stories, and Fiona became deeply engrossed in conversation with an Austrian boy called Yurgen. The night was balmy and the sky clear with a billion stars. The coarse springy grass adjacent to the car park proved to be a comfortable mattress; I allowed the soft velvet sky to envelope me and I dreamed of Yassin.

The Police woke us up at 6am and told us we had to move on. We all wished each other well and drifted off towards the border in our separate groups. Yurgen was travelling alone and also heading for Casablanca. He asked if he could travel with us, he seemed like a sincere person, and we agreed that we might feel safer in his company. We then breakfasted in a café, and Fiona and I changed into clean clothes, brushed our hair, and tidied ourselves up as best we could in the washroom.

The area around the border crossing was choc-a-bloc with backpackers trying to get into Morocco. Most of them seemed to be getting turned away and my heart sank. We were too inexperienced to know that the totally corrupt border police just wanted money in exchange for stamping our passports. We noticed that all the vehicles were getting across, so Yurgen had a word with one of the drivers waiting in line, a lone German named Klaus in an old white Mercedes. He said we were welcome to a lift; he was also heading for Casablanca and would happily take us all the way there. I couldn’t believe our luck. We hid our rucksacks in the boot of the car, and tried to look cool, rich and self-assured as the immigration officer waved us through. Speeding towards Casablanca, we were confident that we would be with Yassin and Said by the late afternoon. How blissfully ignorant we were of the dangers and the terror, which we were about to encounter along the way.

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