Heading to Oujda: You CAN go home again

2011
05.10

Our journey through Morocco continues, proving that Thomas Wolfe was wrong – you CAN go home again.  We were finally heading to our home of two years – forty years ago!  It’s quite amazing how much it felt like going home. We left Merzouga and passed by another demonstration – the same place as the day before.  My photo is blurry – no apologies: it just didn’t seem wise to stop, get out, and take photographs, so I snapped one as the car went by.

Merzouga demonstration

The road to Guercif

There was much discussion before we left Merzouga; everyone had an opinion which route we should take.  Many suggested the southern route, which I kind of wanted to do, and in retrospect I wish we had.  The problem was where to stop for the night as there were no  hotels in the little towns.  So we settled on the road that went to Guercif, which at least had a hotel. And thus we blithely headed off, not realizing we’d be driving through the Middle Atlas Range!  We went through many of the small towns we passed through on the way down.  In one, we encountered another load of hay that seemed  precariously balanced – but as far as I know, it stayed upright.  I’d always been under the impression that if the base were larger than the top, it would be more stable.

Load of Hay

We always seemed to be passing through a town when kids got out of school for lunch break, and today was no exception.

We hit the mountains.  Oh no, not really.  More mountains?  it was cold and rainy, and this is when we found out the car’s heater did not work.  These mountains weren’t as beautiful as the High Atlas, but I was shivering and freezing so maybe I failed to appreciate the beauty.  I was not interested in getting out to take pictures.

The Middle Atlas Range

When we came down – which took far too long – we found the turnoff to Guercif, thinking we really had it made and we’d get there before dark.  We turned and  said, “Uh oh” because it was a one-lane road.  Seriously, a narrow one-lane road with bumpy rocky shoulders.  But it was a good road, so we took heart.

Good road

This was the only road we encountered like this on the whole trip and we have to assume they’re going to widen it someday because there was plenty of traffic considering.  It was scenic; plus, we drove by more old ruins.

And then things took a turn for the worse.  The good road was a trick and only went a short way.  THIS is the road we traveled on.

Not-so-good road

Did I mention there was quite a bit of traffic? We went through some more security checkpoints on this leg, and finally we saw Guercif.  It was dark, but trusting to luck, we drove down the main street and saw the Hotel Atlas.  I took a photo of a checkpoint – from a distance as you might imagine.  (If you click on a photo, it enlarges on another screen; then arrow back to return to the blog.)

Checkpoint in the distance

The Hotel Atlas was trying very hard but not quite cutting it.  The lobby was smoky.  Bad sign.  The desk clerk was trying to take my payment but didn’t quite know how to work the credit card machine so we decided we’d pay in the morning.  I asked where we should park and he said just right there in front of the hotel and told someone to move his car so we could have the space.  He was very kind and trying very hard to give five-star service. We were taken to our room, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or how to react, really.  Were we in a brothel?  There were little pink and red petals of incense scattered all over the beds and the nightstands and around the bathroom sink.  The effect was rather shocking, really.  There was a red lamp – with a red bulb – and candles all over.  Plus, on a shelf there were four decorative pitchers that looked like upright Aladdin’s lamps in graduated sizes.  It was so overwhelming, I forgot to take a picture. We tried to get comfortable and sleep because the sooner we fell asleep the sooner we’d wake up in the morning and the sooner we’d be out of there.  As I said, they were trying very hard.

To Oujda!

We were finally on our way to Oujda.  As a city it’s isolated, way in the eastern part of the country on the Algerian border, and since there are no tourist attractions, no one really goes there.  When we told Moroccans where we were going, the standard reaction was a blank face, then, “Ah. Oujda.”  I’m not so sure everyone knew where it was.  We did, or we thought we did, but on our way, a message came into my cell phone saying “Welcome to Algeria.”  Had we crossed the border? Were we in Algerian air space?

Welcome to Algeria

The drive was uneventful and when we reached town, we drove down a long boulevard with elegant street lights.  Oujda grew up in the 40 years we were away.

We encountered a large – really large – round point and saw a brand new McDonalds.  We stopped for lunch.   We like to eat at McDonalds in each country we visit to check out the different menu items and the ambiance.  The drive-through is something completely unknown to Oujda.  Looks pretty standard.  For us.

This McDonalds was brand spanking new, very modern, with a picture of Mohammed VI and his young son on the wall.  That’s one thing – pictures of Hassan II were everywhere when we used to live there, and now it’s Mohammed VI.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case in most monarchies – remind people constantly who’s King.

The most fun part of this McDonalds was watching the employees – they were so proud, intent on doing everything right.  It’s not cheap, and going to McDonalds is a step up for most people, so the employees were bright and shiny and smiling.   We ate.  We left.

Again, counting on blind luck we drove to the Hotel Altas Terminus at the train station where we thought we were staying.

We did this all throughout the trip: just set out without preparation, trusting we’d find the way.  Since there aren’t that many roads in the country, it worked.  We reached the Atlas Terminus, which looked fantastic.  It was not our hotel.  We were going to the Atlas Orient so the manager had someone get in the car with us to show us there.  I’d reserved a suite, thinking that at this stage of the trip, we’d be tired and want to relax.  It was nice but not as nice as the Altas Terminus would have been.   We checked in, we unpacked, and we walked straight to 38 bis Hassan L’Oukili – our old house.  It looked exactly the same except the gates were gray when we lived there.

Our house

Let me explain the next picture.

We’re looking back at what looks like three rows of buildings.  Our house is a couple of houses in on the road on the right.  Then there’s a curve, another street, and a multi-story white building that used to be the Hotel Ibis and an epicerie on the ground floor.  When Jennifer was three, we’d send her to the store alone if we needed something.  Some flour, maybe.  It was completely safe.  No cars to speak of back then. The store proprietor knew Jenny and where we lived.  And Jenny conducted the transaction in either French or Arabic.

While we’re looking at this corner, I must tell you one more thing.  I’m taking the photograph just outside of the train station, so you can see how close it is to our house.  One day Jennifer, being quite independent, packed a little purse, put a knit cap on her head and told us she was going to take the train somewhere.  That’s fine, we said.  Have a good time.

Jenny going to the train station

How cute, we thought.  Actually, it was cute, but when she was halfway down the block we realized she indeed was going to the train station for real, so we zipped after her.

Oujda may have grown but the core of the city was the same.  It felt like home.  How could that be? You live somewhere two years, forty years ago, and it feels just like home?  I think the Peace Corps is like that.  The experience is so intense that everything is etched into your mind.

We wanted to find Café Colombo where we had café au lait many mornings a week.  We remembered it as being extraordinarily good.   We somehow blindly got to Ave. Mohammed V and walked right to Café Colombo which was still in business, and where, indeed, the café au lait and pain au chocolat were just as good as we had remembered.

It’s nice to have the old memories validated.  Another thing that hadn’t changed was that I was the only woman sitting outside at the café.  I didn’t feel self-conscious forty years ago and I didn’t now.

The pictures.  We had the old pictures.  We showed them to everyone – the waiter, the person sitting next to us, the security guard.  “See?  That is us, forty years ago.  We lived here for two years.”  We showed them pictures of Jennifer and Karen in Morocco and then Jennifer and Karen today.

Picture of friend Safia holding Karen, and Mme. Krim with Jenny

We showed pictures of Jennifer and Karen’s husbands and kids and tied it all together.  And to be fair, we showed them photos of Kim and her family also, although she wasn’t born until after Morocco.  People looked closely at them all.

Now the office.  Where was Mark’s old office?  I actually remembered how to get there better than he did!  We found Place Mohammed V, then the Palais de Justice and the post office, and then where the French Marche used to be.  Sadly, it was no longer the open-air fruit and vegetable market surrounded by charcuteries and epiceries and boulangeries.

Old French Market - the square filled with trees

And we walked to the office.  How did I know?  When we lived there I shopped mostly at the French Marche because it was a lot closer to our house than the souks in the medina.  We used baskets – now they are using plastic bags – which is not a change for the better – and I could get three days worth of food in the baskets and still be able to carry them.  Jennifer and I would walk to Mark’s office, which was right near the market, and leave the heaviest baskets for him to carry home.

Mark's office now

But you know what?  I have no recollection whatsoever of going inside the office.  I must have sent Jennifer in to find Mark while I stood on the sidewalk with the groceries instead of leaving Jen on the sidewalk.  It must have been too difficult to carry them up the stairs. Or did I go in? I think I would remember that.  Today, I would just text! But we had no phones and cell phones weren’t even an idea yet.  To call Mark, I would have had to go to the post office.   At any rate, we had a photo of the office and I said this has to be it, here.  But no, Mark said.  Yet after walking around a while, locating the mosque it was close to (and let’s face it, it’s not too hard to find a mosque) we ended up back in the same place.

Mark's office 40 years ago

And indeed, it was his office but an additional floor had been added to the building and the front had been changed..  Now, it is an attorney’s office.   Of course, since we were standing around looking at pictures and buildings, it attracted interest.  We fell into a conversation with a French man and a Moroccan and explained the whole thing, bringing out the photos.  The French guy said he moved to Oujda 50 years ago and he was a tennis coach.  Later on, as this information had been ruminating, I realized that we had actually met that guy and had dinner with him and some other people!

That concluded a very satisfying day.  Tomorrow we were going to tackle the medina and looking for our old friends, the Krims.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Heading to Oujda: You CAN go home again”

  1. nasr says:

    Nice story about Oujda !!!!!

Your Reply