Travel tales from hell: Disease, machetes and the lessons we learn

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.


To truly travel, one must truly suffer.

It’s a backpacker’s creed, one I’ve preached throughout an international travel career spanning 41 years and 100 countries. Break out of your comfort zone like it’s a prison cell. Stroll through new, unfamiliar worlds that make you wake up wondering, “What could possibly happen today?”

When you see the crowd walk one way, walk the other. Enter bars where no one else has your skin color. Go white-water rafting past crocodiles. Eat an insect. Take chances and go through Door No. 2.

Then lose your earphones and take in the sounds of your new surroundings. The arguments of Cairo cab drivers. The music in the streets of Havana. The eerie growls from a pre-dawn jungle in Belize.

Playing it safe is for vacationers, people going on holiday. I knew a woman in Colorado who every year went to the same all-inclusive Mexican resort. She only left the compound on her last day to shop. I don’t think she ever met a Mexican.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.


I once asked a travel writer — writers who travel in packs with other writers taken by the hand by tour guides — to give me her worst travel experience. She said one time her flight out of Nairobi was cancelled and she had to spend the night in the city alone.

Come on!

Travel without surprises is like a margarita without tequila. It’s refreshing but there’s no kick. Take a chance. Make an effort. Sometimes Door No. 2 opens up a whole different world.

A deserted, exotic beach in Sri Lanka. A fantastic home-cooked meal in a rural home in Yugoslavia. Watching the sun rise above Africa from the top of Kilimanjaro.

Keep in mind traveling off the beaten path is much easier for a guy. The New York Times recently ran a story chronicling some horrid attacks women have suffered traveling alone. These women travelers suffered too much.

Men don’t get sexually attacked. Hookers do take no for an answer. Then again, men still can suffer. While I’ve experienced all the above, I’ve also walked through the new doors and fallen face first in a pile of Third World trouble. Odds are if you spend enough time off the beaten path you will lose your way.

In cooking class in India.

In cooking class in India.


In other words, I’ve suffered.

Yet, I’ve also learned. I’ve also laughed. It becomes part of the fabric that is travel abroad. It puts your own life in perspective. It helps you handle mundane problems such as the flu and a flat tire. No date on Friday night? Who cares?

I have talked to groups about travel and I always ask, by a raise of hands, how many have had bad experiences on the road, or, as I call them, travel tales from hell? Then I ask what are the travel stories they most often discuss around the dinner table or bar? It’s the time they got shaken down by cops in Indonesia or spent the night in a brothel in Malaysia or thought you got kidnapped in Iron Curtain Hungary. That has all happened to me, too. Yet I rarely tell those stories.

I have better ones.

With spring here and travel season approaching, this is a good time to share three favorite travel stories from hell. Try not to read while eating. Parts are disgusting. Parts are funny. All are enlightening — I hope.

Trekking in Borneo.

Trekking in Borneo.


Just keep in mind that suffering on the road isn’t usually tragedy. As I so often heard from coaches in my sportswriting days, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To travel is to suffer.

This is how I suffered (Unfortunately, there is no photographic evidence. Read on and you’ll see why.):

Typhoid in Thailand. There’s a saying among old Asian hands that if you travel long enough in Asia, you will get sick. It just depends on what disgusting disease you get and for how long. I met a guy whose girlfriend picked up, at the same time, hepatitis and ringworm. Lovely.

In 1978-79, during a year-long solo trip around the world, I spent four months backpacking through Southeast and East Asia. After a freelance writing assignment in Bangkok, I spent the beer money trekking in Northern Thailand. I was hiking through thick jungle among the Lahu and Lisu hill tribes north of Chiang Rai, heading toward the Golden Triangle, back then the world’s leading source for heroin.

One night, I woke up with nausea, a blistering temperature, a serious migraine and the worst thirst of my life. I would’ve given five years off my life for an ice-cold 7-Up. But I was about a two day’s hike from the nearest road and figured this was just my time. I didn’t know until later what I had contracted.

Are you familiar with typhoid? It is a disease of the digestive tract. It’s when all your bodily functions simultaneously say, “FUCK IT!” and quit working. Soon vomiting attacks and diarrhea joined my own personal torture chamber.

I spent two days walking back to civilization, accompanied by a local guide who didn’t have a clue what I had or what to do. I could keep nothing down, not even water, particularly boiled, purified water that had the same temperature as some of the more cooler Jacuzzis. The air temperature was in the 80s with humidity more appropriate for African violets than human life.

When we finally reached a village, I sat down at an outdoor table. I was so weak my head crashed atop my folded arms. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours for fear of food coming back up again. I had vomited so much my stomach muscles hurt. I was spitting up bile.

I ordered a bowl of soup. I took three sips and the slow groan familiar to Third World travelers began growing in my stomach. The little cafe had one outhouse. I stumbled in and it was nearly pitch black. The lone light was the searing sun piercing through holes in the bamboo.

Then came the double whammy: vomiting and diarrhea at the same time. I was a human volcano. Oddly, I started feeling pain in my feet. Now what? I looked down and would’ve screamed if I had the energy.

Slightly illuminated by the fractured sunlight, rats had crawled out of the hole in the floor and were biting my feet.

Dizzy, weak and disgusted to the point of vomiting more than I already was, I managed to open the door and escape back to my table. A young girl of about 12 or 13 walked in with a mop. I tried to warn her but was too weak to even raise my hand. A few seconds later, she flew out of the outhouse screaming.

A horror film director couldn’t get this scene past any studio in the world.

I eventually took a bus to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s major city, and the clinic pumped me full of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics. No help. I spent New Year’s Eve 1978 throwing up my guts in my guesthouse’s outhouse.

I finally reached Bangkok. Keep in mind the late ‘70s was pre-AIDS and the sex industry left over from the Vietnam War was still alive and very well. Every guy (except me) had sex; every guy got VD. Bangkok, particularly around the backpackers’ neighborhood of Lumphini, had a VD clinic on practically every corner.

I walked into one hoping to get a cure for a disease that’s a lot less fun to catch. I looked like I’d spent a week on a slave ship. My skin had an orange tint, my long hair was everywhere, my eyes were bloodshot, my tongue was swollen. I stumbled into the office and slumped onto a plastic chair.

A Swede waiting to get checked looked at me and said, “My God! Who were you with?”

The doctor diagnosed it as typhoid. He told me that the innoculations I got in Athens earlier that month doesn’t prevent you from getting typhoid. They merely keep you alive.

His dose of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics kicked in the next day. But the end of the ordeal, I had lost 20 pounds in eight days and stood 6-foot-3 and 138 pounds.

Postscript: When I returned to the States and settled into my first job, I got a checkup at my local clinic in suburban Seattle. The doctor said typhoid may build up my immunity system. She was right. In 40 years, I never missed a day of work due to illness.

Machete in Morocco. The Third World has great shopping. However, bargaining is often the rule and you’d better know how to do it. At 22, I didn’t. I learned in a hurry.Thankfully, I was able to bargain again.

I was in Fez, Morocco, home to North Africa’s biggest medina, a marketplace filled choc-a-bloc with everything from fragrant spice stalls to smoky cafes to carpet dealers of various repute. Back then it was a dark and mysterious place, lit mostly by candles, making night shopping like lurking through a haunted house. I’d heard stories of tourists wandering in and never coming out.

It’s a labyrinth covering 540 acres. No accurate map existed. I spent one day taking continuous right-hand turns as I explored only the outside rim. Wanting to delve deeper, I reluctantly hired one of the plethora of men offering guide services.

What I didn’t know is these guides guide you to their merchant friends. Whatever you buy, your guide gets a cut. It wasn’t long before “Abdul” led me into a copper shop. The place was beautiful, filled with plates of every size hanging from the walls. Abdul told me the merchant’s father designed part of the door on the king’s palace.

Now what in the hell would I do with a copper plate? I was backpacking. Where would I put it? Slip it in my shorts? The merchant showed me a gorgeous, shiny, highly embroidered plate about two feet in diameter. It was obviously out of my price range and he confirmed it.

It was the equivalent of about $40. That was more than four days budget for me. I didn’t even want it free. So I decided to insult him.

Five dollars.

I quickly learned you can’t insult a Moroccan merchant while bargaining. He scoffed, shook his head and told me to make a serious offer. I didn’t. He said $30. To make a long story short, in five minutes he had dropped his price to $10. I said sorry and started walking out.

“OK! OK!” he said as he began wrapping the plate in newspaper. “Five dollars!”

Then I made a mistake that nearly cost me my life — or at least a limb. I turned to face him. I told him I still didn’t want it.

Then he felt insulted.

He went behind a curtain and pulled out a knife the size of a Louisville Slugger. He began screaming in Arabic. I screamed in a language I didn’t know I knew and ran out, my guide in chase and so was the merchant’s right foot which barely missed me. He had the good sense to use a shoe as a weapon instead of a machete that could puncture the Goodyear Blimp.

I told the guide, “Why did you take me in there? I told you I didn’t want a copper plate!”

He said, “Sir, he could’ve killed you and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.”

Lesson learned: If you shop in the Third World, you’d better want it before you price it.

Wharf rats in Indonesia. Speaking of rats …

… no, they are not omnipresent in the Third World. They’re omnipresent everywhere. New York. Las Vegas. Rome. You just don’t always see them. And some places they grow bigger than others.

Take any waterside village with lots of garbage and you’ll see rats the size of dachshunds. Which brings us to Tentena, Indonesia.

Tentena is on the island of Sulawesi, the dragon-shaped island just east of Borneo. Sulawesi is an exotic, beautiful island with gorgeous beaches, terrific scuba diving, fantastic food and interesting culture.

Tentena was none of these things.

In 1995 I spent five weeks traveling the island and after about seven hours in a bush taxi through the Sulawesi interior found myself in Tentena. Tentena had no refrigeration, no cold water, no beer and sits on the edge of Lake Poso.

Dead tired, I checked into a budget hotel and after a simple dinner went to bed on a hot night. I left the window open to get a breeze off the lake. Closing my eyes, I heard a thump from inside the room. It sounded like a fallen atlas. I turned on the head lamp. Sitting on the floor wasn’t an atlas.

It was a rat, a giant wharf rat, almost two feet long without the tail. It raced across the room and through a hole in the opposite wall. My threshold for Third World squalor is pretty high. Give me a door lock, clean sheets and a shower and I’m pretty happy. I once stayed in a hotel in rural Egypt where the shower drained doubled as the toilet.

But I draw the line with rats that must drop weight to go three rounds with my cat.

I went to the manager, who spoke no English, and pantomimed my problem. I used a “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!” sound to mimic the noise rats make and bared my teeth.

“AH!” he said, “TIKUS!” I then added the word for “rat” to my growing Indonesian vocabulary. He indicated he’d find something to get rid of it. He didn’t respond when I asked if he had an Uzi.

I went for a short walk and returned to the manager who put me up in another room. Too tired to ask if he nuked the rodent, I went to sleep — with the window closed and my eyes open. Suddenly, like the ominous music of a Grade B horror film, I heard the noise again.

“TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!”

Oh, my God. It’s back!

Then I heard, “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE! TSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEE!”

There’s more than one! There’s more than two! I can’t count them! I can’t see them! Then it dawned on me.

They’re mating. Rats wildly copulating behind my walls! Well, I thought, at least they’re occupied.

I rolled over and after what must’ve been a mass orgasm of the rodent orgy — one sexual fantasy I somehow missed growing up — the room grew quiet. I could not sleep, especially after I glanced at the window. Behind the frayed curtain was a long shadow that wasn’t there before. It looked as long as the rat’s tail but much thicker.

I precariously approached the window. I suddenly related to the guy in the movies who opens the door at the frat retreat before the disfigured psycho disembowels him with a power tool. I turned back the curtain and hanging down was some kind of insect, about a foot long, brown and red with thousands of little feet.

It raised its bulbous head at me. I didn’t need a translator or an entomologist to tell me what I thought it was about to say.

“GET OUT!”

This was “Terminator” Indonesia. I didn’t get out. I had nowhere to go. I eventually went to sleep and the next day at the bus stop, I met an Aussie who was sleeping in a nearby room at my hotel. He said he heard through the walls me say three things that perfectly captured Third World travel.

“GET THAT RAT OUTTAHERE!”

“OH, MY GOD! THEY’RE FUCKING!”

“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!

Thursday I leave for my birthday in Beirut. In May I spend three weeks in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etceterastan).

Bring it on.

New Year’s Eve in Morocco: A call to prayer for all mankind as Islam beckons

Once Morocco's capital, Fez has long settled into being its cultural and religious capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Once Morocco’s capital, Fez has long settled into being its cultural and religious capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci


FEZ, Morocco — Marina has a good sense of adventure but it has limits, like a girl losing her nerve at certain roller coasters. At least, I thought it did. That ended over the summer when she made a surprise suggestion for our now annual New Year’s Eve getaway.

Morocco.

I was startled. I said, “I thought you were afraid to travel to Islamic countries.”

“No,” she said. “I was afraid to travel to Islamic countries with an American.”

Fair point.

Fez's medina is the largest in the world and home to 155,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez’s medina is the largest in the world and home to 155,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I come from a country where hating and distrusting Muslims has become part of many Americans’ DNA. That’s thanks to a president who doesn’t ban guns but does ban six Muslim countries. That DNA isn’t in me. I’ve traveled all through Islam and have met some of the most wonderful people in my life. I went to Tunisia a year after 9-11 and had half a dozen Tunisians offer their condolences.

I thought this angle would make a good travel piece: American travels to North Africa and shows America the peaceful people of Morocco. COME STROLL THROUGH A MEDINA! LEARN SOME ARABIC! BUY A CARPET!

Then I researched.

Turns out, according to The Guardian, 1,600 Moroccans went to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. About half were killed. Most of the others returned to Morocco once ISIS’ footprint began shrinking. Moroccans have been linked to terrorist attacks in London, Paris, Barcelona and Brussels. Abdelhak El Khayam, head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (Morocco’s FBI), claims his organization has broken up 167 terrorist cells since 2002. They’ve arrested 2,720 suspected terrorists and foiled 276 terrorist plots.

What kind of fireworks is Morocco planning for us anyway?

A body oil salesman in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A body oil salesman in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As it turns out, this is the lasting impression I had from five days in Morocco: I had just purchased a Christmas gift (not belated but for 2018) from a man in a long gray, hooded djellaba and was walking out of the medina, one of Morocco’s famed labyrinthian marketplaces. A man yelled at me, “MEESTER! MEESTER!” Tired of merchants trying to sell me everything from carpets to hookahs, I kept walking. He followed me. “MEESTER! MEESTER! PLEASE!” I ignored him.

I finally exited the medina and felt him grab my arm. I turned around, angry. The merchant in the gray djellaba was with him. The man who followed me said, “Sir! You paid this man 70 euros (about $85) instead of 70 dirhams (about $8). He wants to give you your money back.”

Feeling lower than Morocco’s lowest beggar, I apologized in three languages and instead of giving him 70 dirhams, I gave him 100. It should’ve been more.

Moroccan bread is fantastic and dirt cheap. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Moroccan bread is fantastic and dirt cheap. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Making it more remarkable is 15.5 percent of Moroccans live on $3 a day, according to the World Bank. In November, 15 people died in a stampede during a food distribution in Marrakech. Unemployment is over 10 percent and the country spent billions during the Arab Spring to calm protests over the current state.

Morocco isn’t on Donald Trump’s banned list but every American should experience what I did before judging an entire religion. It’s why I come to Islamic countries. It’s why we came to Morocco.

We picked Fez, not only because it’s a direct 2 ½-hour Air Arabia flight from Rome but it has the world’s largest medina. No place on earth is there a larger car-free zone than Fez’s 540-acre medina where 155,000 people live in a maze of twisty, narrow alleys that seemingly never lead to an exit.

I’d been to Fez before. Morocco was my first third world country when I backpacked around the world for a year in 1978-79. Back then, Fez’s medina was a dark, dusty, scary cauldron of aggressive touts, beggars and thieves. Locals told me don’t go in without a guide. I did but only took right-hand turns along the surrounding wall. I returned taking left-hand turns.

A renovation in the '90s cleaned up the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A renovation in the ’90s cleaned up the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci


A renovation in the 1990s transformed the medina. Today the dust is gone and the stone pavement seems too clean to be real. It’s well lit with many wide-ranging restaurants and while the signage still makes it a confusing maze, I had no trepidation descending into its bowles without leaving a trail of rice to find my way back.

The medina is not antiseptic. It still makes you feel as if you’re in a chapter of “Arabian Nights.” We passed old men in older djellabas hunched over wobbly canes. We sampled dates and olives and almond griouats, the sugary, too-sweet-to-be-true almond treats from huge baskets sitting in front of tiny shops. Five times a day we heard the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, scratching through a loudspeaker. I had the same feeling I had nearly 40 years earlier.

Fez is as different as any place in the world. It crushes your sense of normalcy, like a splash of ice water on a winter day. You can’t sleep in Fez. Your eyes are always open.

The medina still has the little fresh orange juice stands where small boys squeeze you a delicious glass for 30 dirhams (1 euro). The carpet shops remain a center for some of the best products of the Arab world but nothing for a budget traveler. The bargaining merchants today are only a little annoying. In other words, they follow you screaming rapidly reducing prices for only 100 meters and no longer to your hotel.

A Moroccan stands in Bou Inania Madrasa, one of the top schools of the Koran in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Fez is a special place to Moroccans. The name comes from the Arabic word fa’s, meaning “pickaxe.” Legend has it that Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty which ruled Morocco from 788-974, used a pickax to create lines of the city when he founded Fez in the 9th century. It replaced Marrakech as the capital and remained until 1912 when the French invaded. General Hubert Lyautey, showing French snobbery isn’t a recent phenomenon, didn’t like Fez’s anti-French stance and moved the capital to Rabat.

Today, Fez remains Morocco’s spiritual and intellectual capital and home to the world’s oldest university, Al-Karaouine, founded in 859. Unesco made Fez’s medina a heritage site in 1981, meaning its foundation must be preserved.

Marina and I traveled with Paola and Saverio, a couple who live down the street from me. Neither speaks English, let alone French or Arabic. I brushed up on enough of my old Arabic to at least earn big smiles from locals if not big bargains.

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate), one of the 14 gates to the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate), one of the 14 gates to the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We checked into the Zalagh Parc Palace, a five-star hotel with a pool that meandered around the hotel like an oasis. It was as cold as the Baltic in daily temperatures that dropped from the 60s to the 40s. A sexy bar and brilliant breakfast buffet made up for an indifferent staff, sketchy Internet and long, dark hallways that moved Marina to tell me, “This reminds me of that movie about the hotel in Colorado.”

So every time I walked to our room at the end of the hall I saw the two little twin girls from “The Shining” staring at me. Thanks.

We started our trip with a walking tour of the medina. Walking tours in strange cities can be screamingly frustrating even with GPS and Lonely Planet. In Fez’s medina, it’s like you’re a rat in a lab maze with no cheese to lure you around the right corners. I told myself to revel in the mindless meandering. That’s good because we were lost in 10 minutes.

Marina and I at Bou Inaina Madrasa.

Marina and I at Bou Inania Madrasa.


We did find our way to Bou Inania Madrasa, built from 1350-57 and one of Morocco’s top schools for the Koran. We walked inside a large square lined with beautiful hand-carved walls. I walked by a small side room where a young man in a green skull cap knealed, facing east, muttering a prayer in Arabic.

Fez is a deeply religious city of 1 million people. While covering their heads isn’t required as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, many Moroccan women choose to do so. Some even wear the full burqa by choice. I arrived bound to respect Fez’s customs favoring modesty. I temporary lost my mind when I leaned over and kissed Marina, wearing comfortable shoes and red cords.

Then I heard a male voice. Oh, no! I’ve been kiss caught.

“NO PROBLEM!” yelled a young man loud enough to ring down the street. “GOOD! KEEP KISSING! IT’S GOOD TO SEE A MAN KISS HIS WIFE!” He came over and shook my hand. Maybe he was jealous. Then again, maybe he was just friendly. In other words, maybe he was just an average Moroccan.

The camel burger is better than it sounds.

The camel burger is better than it sounds.


Parts of the medina are a bit of a tourist trap. I saw very few Americans but many French who can communicate with the bilingual population. I veered us to one of the medina’s biggest drawing cards. The Cafe Clock has been around only 11 years but it has evolved into a must on the Fez to-do list. Located down two narrow alleys past walls of brilliant artwork, Cafe Clock is a five-story restaurant with a narrow staircase leading to a rooftop view of the medina. The bottom floor where we found a table had a very French feel with a skylight illuminating us all.

I ignored the total lack of Moroccan customers and ordered the signature dish: the camel burger. I’ve eaten strange animals before: zebra and hartebeest in Kenya, rat and dog in China, yak in Nepal. But this camel burger beats them all. It had little fat and was a little sweet, like the buffalo I often ate in Colorado. It’s made even better sandwiched between two pieces of fresh, homemade bread found all over the medina. And yes, the waiter assured me, Moroccans do eat camel.

Dates in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Dates in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals shop in the medina, too. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals shop in the medina, too. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Walk through the medina for just 10 minutes and even non shoppers get itchy wallets. I’m one of the few men who likes to shop. Thus, to me, Fez’s medina is like a meth lab to a junkie. I Christmas shop all year round. I buy something in every country I’m in. By the time the third week of December rolls around, people are frantically power shopping while I’m standing on my terrace drinking a glass of Montepulciano and listening to Bing Crosby Christmas carols.

In Fez, I got a third of my family Christmas shopping done 51 weeks ahead of time. I could’ve done more but I doubt pointy Ali Baba shoes go over well in Eugene, Oregon. The medina’s sidewalks are lined with everything to decorate your home, from your living room to your bathroom to your closet. Hard scents of musk and lavender. Body oils made from olive trees all over northern Morocco. Oil paintings of everything from Berber nomads to veiled women. Ceramic shops filled with multi-colored dining and tea sets. Long-elegant kaftans in every color of the rainbow. Leather coats and belts and bags. Elaborately decorated jewelry boxes big enough to store a family fortune.

Embroideries are big in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Embroideries are big in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The smells of leather and musk and olive oil and fresh bread fill the air and make me want to shop, eat and bathe all at the same time.

Shopping in Fez, however, requires skill. Price tags are merely for decoration. Bargaining isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. I’m a very good bargainer. It comes from my past as a budget backpacker where I counted every penny. Every lower price meant another night on the road. I was ruthless.

I still am.

One rule in Fez: You can not insult a Moroccan with your price. It’s impossible. The more they feint pain, the more they cry, the more they respect you. I always offer a quarter of the price tag. In the ‘70s, they said, “That’s a donkey price.” Last weekend when I bargained for a painting, the young merchant said, “That’s a Berber price,” proof of the discrimination this minority suffers in this part of Morocco.

Fez at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The rules are simple. Find something you like and pretend you don’t. Offer a price one quarter of what’s listed and wait for the merchant’s theatrics to meld into a counter offer. Stick to your guns. Wait for him to lower. He’ll be down to half price in no time. Go up a bit to show respect. If he doesn’t match it, walk out. He’ll chase you down with your price and pretend he didn’t really make 80 percent on the deal.

Marina didn’t have a clue. She’d jump up and down, gasp and pull something off a shelf and ask the merchant, “How much?”

“MARINA!” I’d gasp as the merchant’s smile grew into a smirk.

She learned the rules and Paola and Saverio were old pros. I left with a ceramic bowl for my parmesan, a belt and an orange painting of two camels in front of a yellow sunset. The others came away with oils, tile house numbers, bags, coasters. No problem if your luggage doesn’t have room.

Just a buy another bag in the medina.

Paola, me, Zakaria and Saverio in Sefrou. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Paola, me, Zakaria and Saverio in Sefrou. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But what makes Morocco special are the people. In 1978 I met numerous Moroccans who studied abroad and returned home with college degrees to help their country. On New Year’s Eve day we took a road trip to Sefrou. It’s a city of 80,000 people 20 miles south of Fez. It’s known for its historical Jewish population and annual cherry festival, not to mention terrific views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance.

Sefrou’s medina is Fez light. It’s for locals only, where you can feed your family but not buy it Christmas presents. We wandered the alleys as the only Westerners and emerged hungry, having no tips on where to eat. A man selling scarves off a wooden table in the street pointed us up the road where we found a hole in the wall that won’t make any guidebooks.

It was Morocco out of central casting. An old man worked a grill behind a musky window showing diced rows of chicken, lamb and beef. The smells of grilled meats waifed through onto the broken sidewalk. Smoke filled the inside of the open-air restaurant, reminding me more of a boxing gym in Vegas than a dining spot on vacation. A woman in the back ladled huge pots of rice and soup filled with chunky vegetables and beans.

We took four plastic chairs and the food kept coming. Lamb kabobs. Beans. Soups. Rice. All were washed down with sweet mint tea. Soon a man with a prescribed limp, short, grayish hair and missing most of his upper front teeth came to our table. Usually the rule on the road is if a local approaches you, he wants something. If you want to meet locals, you approach them.

Fez's Jewish Quarter, the Mellah, was once home to 250,000 Jews. Now there are only 70-80. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez’s Jewish Quarter, the Mellah, was once home to 250,000 Jews. Now there are only 70-80. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Zakaria Naccri was different. He spoke very good English after only three years of university many years ago. He said his father fought with the French against the Nazis in Southern Italy at the end of World War II and in Indochina in 1954. He’s still alive, an old man with diabetes at home in Sefrou.

Naccri, 52, spoke whimsically of French occupation. He contracted polio at age 2 before the French eradicated it from the country. When a flash flood nearly buried Sefrou in 1950, the French dug the river deeper and built a bridge. The town had 25 hotels. Today there are only four.

“Jewish. French. Berbers. Arabs,” Naccri said. “There was tolerance. The French bought the Berbers land and animals. When the French left, it all went back to the Arabs.

“I like Jewish. French. Arabs. Berbers. I like all people.”

“So you’re not Donald Trump?” I asked.

“Ha! NOOOOOO!”

He led us back to the taxi stand, along the way pointing out a 99-year-old man still working, selling wicker brooms and looking surprisingly healthy. We had some of the best tea of our lives in a sprawling cafe where men watched a Moroccan league soccer game and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” played on a loudspeaker.

When we parted, we collected about $5 worth of dirhams, promising we’d look him up if we ever returned. This time I meant it.

One reason we chose Morocco for New Year’s Eve is Marina and I don’t like New Year’s Eve. We wanted to avoid Rome on the one night of the year Romans get drunk. They have this nearly Pavlovian response to rare hammerings by throwing empty beer bottles. In Fez, few places sell alcohol. Drunks would be non-existent.

While Moroccans don’t drink much, they have learned the fine Western art of price gouging. Most of the restaurants I called from Rome had fixed prices of 75-80 euros a person. I was tempted to tell them I thought anal sex was a sin in Islam but I merely hung up. I had some restaurant recommendations in the medina but Marina wanted nothing to do with the medina at night. I tried to reassure her.

“The medina is safe,” I said, acting like an American. “There aren’t any guns.”

She steadfastly refused. So I went to the front desk to get my confirmation.

“The medina is safe at night, isn’t it?” I asked.

“No,” the desk clerk said quickly.

“Huh? Why? What happens?”

“Everything. Don’t go after 6 p.m.”

The Palais Faraj hotel, home to L'Amandier restaurant, was one of the many that price gouged on  New Year's Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Palais Faraj hotel, home to L’Amandier restaurant, was one of the many that price gouged on New Year’s Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We called around town and found one restaurant with its normal menu. Zagora is in Fez’s new town, just west of the medina and where you find supermarkets and retail stores. We passed crude, neon-lit nightclubs with pulsating music already at 9 p.m. Zagora was set back from the street and lit up in red neon. I felt like I was entering a brothel. I might still have. It was empty. Not another table was occupied — on New Year’s Eve.

We tentatively took our seats and my fears faded when I saw the menu. Ever play the parlor game: What meal do you order the night before you’re executed? Mine was on the menu.

Pastilla.

It’s a dish made of chicken, egg, cinnamon and almond surrounded by filo dough and covered in powdered sugar. I fell in love with it in Moroccan restaurants in the U.S. but in Morocco it’s usually reserved for special feasts. Zagora had it and it was as good as I’ve ever had. We ate in front of bored waiters and a concerned owner who no doubt wonders if price gouging is the way to attract Western travelers on New Year’s Eve.

The Berber band on New Year's Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Berber band on New Year’s Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We repaired back to the safe sanctity of the hotel bar where a group of 10 Berbers in green djellabas played scratchy music that made me want to take a souvenir dagger and dig out my eardrums. I heard this music once before and it’s tolerable in a Tunisian desert — off in the distance. In a hotel bar right out of “Casablanca,” we had to take refuge in a ballroom with dance music.

Still, every American should visit one Muslim country. If they had, we never would’ve invaded Iraq. Think about it. No ISIS. No Donald Trump. No fear. A new year dawns. Too bad more Americans aren’t chased down by Moroccan shop keepers.