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The Caves of Hercules


Courtesy Moroccan Tourist BoardHis name was John.

 

He was a burnt out case. He knew he needed to stop thinking, shake off the ordinary, to wander aimless and carefree in an exotic landscape far from home in thought and temperament. Although home was once Birmingham, England, he now resided in Majorca, Spain. He’d made it big on the continent, big in the scheme of things. He was a disc jockey-style club announcer for the partying, discoing late night tourist set; spinning tunes, interviewing musicians and partying with the latest bands. He worked nights, at breakneck speed, never stopping seven days a week from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. And that’s how he got to be a burnt out case.

§

Copyright Victoria BrooksHe’d chosen the Kingdom of Morocco as the place to recoup. Sleeping through the entire first day of his adventure he awoke at 8 p.m. His room was silken darkness, like the Strait of Gibraltar that lay still below his window, as smooth and mysterious as Tangier. His bed felt deliciously strange. For some leisurely minutes he lay unmoving and deep in thought in Tangier’s historic El Minzah Hotel. Rousing himself, he dressed to attend the evening’s spectacle, a belly dancing show.

He sat alone in a red leather booth near the stage. John looked older than his age, mid-thirties; although his blonde, short spiked hair was all the rage, and he was in good shape. His lethargy receded with the rhythmic clinking of the gold-painted coins that jumped and swayed hypnotically on the veiled dancer’s sensually circling hips. In the background a flute played high, then low, as if following the conducting spire of the dancer's arms. A drum, goatskin stretched taut over its wooden cavity, beat its own tap-dance to the soft pad of her bare feet as she swayed, shook and shuddered. In John's mind, the dancer's suggestive, come-hither movements represented everything he now desired: to travel far in spirit from his own reality, to lose himself, toCopyright Victoria Brooks become for a time an invisible spectator. He wanted to be a voyeur, a sponge that did nothing but soak up experiences through the visions played out on the stage of Morocco. He was not ashamed or frightened of these feelings. In fact he celebrated them, as he knew instinctively the change would heal, cure his myopic outlook on life, release him from his terrible lethargy and diffuse the dynamite that was exploding his soul.

§

Edgy and louche, the Port de Tangier was a magnet. For two days he lost himself and his troubles in the zigzag of streets that go on forever, and go nowhere. Soon a familiar figure to the touts and salesmen, they tired of his aloof silence and left him to himself. He was free to wander aimlessly through the souks, stopping to admire the gold-tooled leathers soft as butter, and treasure chests fashioned from sunset-hued amber and camel-bone pale as the sand on Tangier’s dirty beach. He wondered about the women, their faces hidden by silk l’atam or face veil; and pondered the unrevealed secrets hidingCopyright Victoria Brooks behind Tangier’s keyhole doors. He was impressed by the stoically persistent endurance of the shopkeepers who seemed to sell very little of their wares.

It was high noon when he climbed the angular, worn stairs that tumble through a vacant lot framed with yellow wildflowers off the Rue de Pasteur.

Copyright Victoria BrooksHe brushed by a small child intent on spinning a top; past a woman, looking like a black shadow in her all-encompassing black haik; and a water seller who in the Moroccan tradition wore a vivid wide-brimmed hat decorated with tin beads and a necklace of brass cups that jangled as he moved. Beyond the open stairs, the Atlantic and the Port de Tangier winked like pale blue eyes behind clear glasses.

Soon, he was forced indoors by the heat of the North African sun and into the relative cool of a restaurant rife with the pungent scent of fish and herbs rising from a charcoal brazier. He stood on the threshold of the Restaurant Populaire.

Copyright Victoria BrooksThe tiny restaurant thronged with Moroccan businessmen in European suits. Only the proprietor wore the typical djellabah, a long cotton mustard-colored caftan, simply cut but enlivened by a deep hood finished with a tassel of black skein. John ate the well-prepared and extraordinarily tasty Moroccan fare with relish. Le Seveur, the eccentric Moroccan proprietor hovered over him, and after he was satisfied his guest was satiated from the main courses, he thrust his swarthy hands deep into his pocket and brought out walnuts. Without a word, with no ado, Le Seveur’s square fingers popped the nuts directly into his guest’s mouth. The two were strangers, but there had been no conversation, no time for John to refuse.

 

"My gift to you," said the proprietor, smacking his own lips as if it were he who had eaten the walnuts. "They are delicious these walnuts. They were picked in the nearby Rif Mountains by the hands of my daughter. They have magical powers. They will give you the strength and the will of Hercules himself, who created the Strait of Gibraltar by pushing aside the mountains to form the Pillars of Hercules, Gibraltar and Ceuta. After completing his monumental labors, Hercules rested in the limestone caves that bear his name. They are here, very near to Tangier."

"No charge for the walnuts," he added with a gnomic smile

§

Copyright Victoria BrooksThe two-lane highway was pitted and potholed. Wild dogs and sheep were sprinkled through the desert scrub. Diesel from fast passing trucks sullied the pure air. The long narrow road snaked and jostled through flat land littered with rocks. A lone shepherd, a ragged towel wound round his head, sat patiently in the desert under an empty sky. Sometimes John saw camels tethered near nomad tents or standing still as if in a photograph. It was the kind of country he remembered from one of the Bible stories of his childhood, Moses and the burning bush.

Copyright Victoria BrooksAnd then he was into the Mid-Atlas and the clouds traced their shadows on the road. He passed through mountain tunnels, chiseled by hand and shaped like the secretive doors in Morocco’s medieval cities; past yellow plaster houses clinging to the mountain; and cliff dwellings gouged from mountain stone. Sun-tanned youths lost in too large hand-me-down suit jackets waved as he sped by. Then he surrendered to an oasis of shade: royal palms like proud nomad beauties, and white apple blossom trees with a fragrance sweeter than any French perfume.

He was hot, thirsty and tired but renewed. John no longer felt like a burnt out case. In the curve of the road ahead he saw a water seller, his clothes and hat red as blood, the spectacle enlivened by rainbows of light ricocheting off his dented metal cups. John pulled to a stop and drank deep from the water seller’s proffered cup. When he raised his eyes heCopyright Victoria Brooks noticed a sign: "Grottoes of Hercules."

John felt the cool of the stone underneath his feet. He stood still and long in Morocco’s merciless sun, made sweet by the Atlantic breeze. It was high tide. He could hear the sea splashing and slapping as it entered the famous limestone grottoes below. The effervescent sound reminded him of the rhythms of his favorite dance tunes: hip-hop, reggae, ska, disco -- music that set feet moving and hands clapping around the world. It was the same music that he played for legions of holiday-makers who came to him to forget their own realities. And then he knew he was ready to go home.

§

VISITING MOROCCO: Royal Air Maroc is the magic carpet to Morocco and flies from North America and major cities across the globe. There is a stop in Casablanca, Royal Air Maroc’s hub. For information telephone 1 800 344-6726 or the New York office on (212) 974-3850. In Canada telephone (514) 285-1937. Website: http://www.royalairmaroc.com

By Sea: There are ferry routes (passenger and vehicle) from Spain and France. From Algeciras it is 2 hours 30 minutes by car ferry to Tangier or to the Spanish duty-free territory of Ceuta (1 ½ hrs.). From Sète, southern France to Tangier, the crossing takes 36 hours. There is also a ferry from Almeria (6 ½ hrs.) and Malaga (7 hrs.) to the Spanish duty-free port Melilla. Buy tickets from travel agencies in Tangier or from the company offices at the ferry terminal (unreliable on weekends) and hydrofoil dock (closed weekends). Avoid the ferries in July and August when they are packed with migrant workers. Your passport must be stamped before disembarkation. Longer routes usually warrant reservations. Call the local tourist board for schedules and contact numbers.

Valid passport required.

Where to Stay in Tangier: El Minzah. Famous Moorish-style 142-room, 17-suite hotel built in 1930 with excellent location in the medina. A suite will reward you with a fabulous view over Tangier and across the Strait of Gibraltar. The swimming pool, gardens, workout room and spa are a welcome haven from the hustle of Tangier.

Expensive (five-star)

85, Rue de la Liberté, Tanger, Maroc
Tel: (212-9) 93 58 85
Fax: (212-9) 93 45 46

On a driving trip: There are inexpensive French pensions at intervals throughout Morocco’s fantastic desert and mountains. Contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office at 212-557-2520 for an accommodation list and other relevant information. You should also invest in a guidebook.

Copyright Victoria BrooksThe tiny restaurant thronged with Moroccan businessmen in European suits. Only the proprietor wore the typical djellabah, a long cotton mustard-colored caftan, simply cut but enlivened by a deep hood finished with a tassel of black skein. John ate the well-prepared and extraordinarily tasty Moroccan fare with relish. Le Seveur, the eccentric Moroccan proprietor hovered over him, and after he was satisfied his guest was satiated from the main courses, he thrust his swarthy hands deep into his pocket and brought out walnuts. Without a word, with no ado, Le Seveur’s square fingers popped the nuts directly into his guest’s mouth. The two were strangers, but there had been no conversation, no time for John to refuse.

"My gift to you," said the proprietor, smacking his own lips as if it were he who had eaten the walnuts. "They are delicious these walnuts. They were picked in the nearby Rif Mountains by the hands of my daughter. They have magical powers. They will give you the strength and the will of Hercules himself, who created the Strait of Gibraltar by pushing aside the mountains to form the Pillars of Hercules, Gibraltar and Ceuta. After completing his monumental labors, Hercules rested in the limestone caves that bear his name. They are here, very near to Tangier."

"No charge for the walnuts," he added with a gnomic smile

§

Copyright Victoria BrooksThe two-lane highway was pitted and potholed. Wild dogs and sheep were sprinkled through the desert scrub. Diesel from fast passing trucks sullied the pure air. The long narrow road snaked and jostled through flat land littered with rocks. A lone shepherd, a ragged towel wound round his head, sat patiently in the desert under an empty sky. Sometimes John saw camels tethered near nomad tents or standing still as if in a photograph. It was the kind of country he remembered from one of the Bible stories of his childhood, Moses and the burning bush.

Copyright Victoria BrooksAnd then he was into the Mid-Atlas and the clouds traced their shadows on the road. He passed through mountain tunnels, chiseled by hand and shaped like the secretive doors in Morocco’s medieval cities; past yellow plaster houses clinging to the mountain; and cliff dwellings gouged from mountain stone. Sun-tanned youths lost in too large hand-me-down suit jackets waved as he sped by. Then he surrendered to an oasis of shade: royal palms like proud nomad beauties, and white apple blossom trees with a fragrance sweeter than any French perfume.

He was hot, thirsty and tired but renewed. John no longer felt like a burnt out case. In the curve of the road ahead he saw a water seller, his clothes and hat red as blood, the spectacle enlivened by rainbows of light ricocheting off his dented metal cups. John pulled to a stop and drank deep from the water seller’s proffered cup. When he raised his eyes heCopyright Victoria Brooks noticed a sign: "Grottoes of Hercules."

John felt the cool of the stone underneath his feet. He stood still and long in Morocco’s merciless sun, made sweet by the Atlantic breeze. It was high tide. He could hear the sea splashing and slapping as it entered the famous limestone grottoes below. The effervescent sound reminded him of the rhythms of his favorite dance tunes: hip-hop, reggae, ska, disco -- music that set feet moving and hands clapping around the world. It was the same music that he played for legions of holiday-makers who came to him to forget their own realities. And then he knew he was ready to go home.

§

VISITING MOROCCO: Royal Air Maroc is the magic carpet to Morocco and flies from North America and major cities across the globe. There is a stop in Casablanca, Royal Air Maroc’s hub. For information telephone 1 800 344-6726 or the New York office on (212) 974-3850. In Canada telephone (514) 285-1937. Website: http://www.royalairmaroc.com

By Sea: There are ferry routes (passenger and vehicle) from Spain and France. From Algeciras it is 2 hours 30 minutes by car ferry to Tangier or to the Spanish duty-free territory of Ceuta (1 ½ hrs.). From Sète, southern France to Tangier, the crossing takes 36 hours. There is also a ferry from Almeria (6 ½ hrs.) and Malaga (7 hrs.) to the Spanish duty-free port Melilla. Buy tickets from travel agencies in Tangier or from the company offices at the ferry terminal (unreliable on weekends) and hydrofoil dock (closed weekends). Avoid the ferries in July and August when they are packed with migrant workers. Your passport must be stamped before disembarkation. Longer routes usually warrant reservations. Call the local tourist board for schedules and contact numbers.

Valid passport required.

Where to Stay in Tangier: El Minzah. Famous Moorish-style 142-room, 17-suite hotel built in 1930 with excellent location in the medina. A suite will reward you with a fabulous view over Tangier and across the Strait of Gibraltar. The swimming pool, gardens, workout room and spa are a welcome haven from the hustle of Tangier.

Expensive (five-star)

85, Rue de la Liberté, Tanger, Maroc
Tel: (212-9) 93 58 85
Fax: (212-9) 93 45 46

On a driving trip: There are inexpensive French pensions at intervals throughout Morocco’s fantastic desert and mountains. Contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office at 212-557-2520 for an accommodation list and other relevant information. You should also invest in a guidebook.