The Beatnik Path
Portugal and Morocco
I lay on my back in the Casablanca train station, palms down on the damp concrete. The sky was clear, full of stars, and the moon hung low like a late addition to a child’s painting. My eyes watered as the sleeper train from Marrakech spat slowly into gear, and pressed on to Tangiers without me.
Midnight ran thick and fever ripped through my body. Cigarette ash fell on my suitcase, and liquid French dribbled down my chin; “Excusez-moi, monsieur…Excusez-moi…”
I felt myself lift into the cool, night air. A policeman joked in Arabic about a guy who thought he could fly, then slammed the ambulance doors hard against my feet. Blue light warmed my toes. It was the third week of Ramadan.
I came to Morocco on a whim that took three months to fester. During that time I rented a room in a small house in the north of Portugal. The landlord was a thin-faced, solemn man called Albino. He had a fat clown’s moustache and restored furniture in a cramped basement studio beneath our kitchen house.
My housemate was a young girl called Isabelle. Each morning she dusted graves at the nearby Se Cathedral, the 1,000 centre of ‘Portuguese Rome’. In the evening she would stand by our kitchen stove, stewing thin strips of meat in a thick, bloody sauce. The day I left she rolled her sad eyes in my direction and stirred the calderada. Strains of fado crept up from the street below like a gentle cry to faded love. Six centuries had passed since Portugal ruled the world, and still people longed for her return. For three months she’d kept me company, but tonight I longed to leave her.
I stepped on the pavement around dinnertime, the streets all empty and Baroque. I passed through the Arco de Porta and formally entered the gates of Braga. In Portugal’s third largest city, locals joked about priests and pedophiles. That evening, one filled the streets and the other filled the newspapers stands. I stopped at a cafe opposite the Fonte do Pelicano and took a seat by the window. I ordered a short black coffee and a large bottle of Super Bock from a waitress in a velvet skirt. A handful of locals were fixated by the television – Braga United trailed European champions Oporto by two goals to nil, and the small crowd seemed oddly pleased by the inevitability of the result. The smell of bacalhau bit at my nostrils, so I ordered a half-bottle of green wine and waited.
I fell on the Lisboa Express around midnight, all whimsical and drunk. I pressed my cheek to the window and closed my eyes. Morocco seemed further away than the turrets and tiles that dotted the countryside would suggest, so I rode the second whim harder than the first and by midnight on the third day was riding high on the tip of Africa.
I passed through customs and caught a grande taxi heading south. I stopped in a cafe in Tetouan where a man placed a chocolate block-sized slab of hashish in my lap and asked for five hundred euros. He looked edgy from abstinence – said he slept on the streets and had killed his best friend. I told him to break off a piece for a hundred, but he just pulled a knife and cut one worth two.
For the next fortnight I sat in the Kif mountains, reading short stories by expatriate, Paul Bowles, and watching the sky change colour. I took a slow train to Fes to watch the sky turn black, and in the darkness left for Marrakech. There, I wandered the blood-red medina alone, drinking orange juice and eating egg sandwiches. I staggered through the Square of the Dead, dodging snakes and storytellers. My heart was racing as I made it back to my hotel. Sweating heavy on my bed, I stared at the fan and chattered in circles. I sang nursery rhymes in French and made wet farting noises in my sleep. One night a herb trader from Rabat passed through my room. He offered opium tea to ease my stomach. I drank a cup in his company and a jug on my own, then woke up, three days later, in a hospital in Casablanca.
I made it back to Portugal with my whim between my legs. I’d lost ten kilograms and my lust for life. Isabelle greeted me in the doorway with blood dripping down her chin. She offered me a bowl of calderada, but I was still too sick to eat. She asked if I enjoyed the trip, but I said it was still too early to tell. She seemed disappointed as she pointed to the sky. “It was not beautiful?”
I followed her bony finger and shook my head. It was too dark to know what she was talking about. Her voice tailed away like sunset. The cathedral bells chimed and I ran for the train.