In 1889, Pierre Loti traveled by caravan from tangier to Fez. The trip took 12 days. In 1972, I took a fast intercity bus along the same route and arrived in just a few hours.
But the bus out of Fez the next morning was a different matter: It carried villagers to destinations all along a winding route north into the Rif Mountains. Among the passengers were several live chickens that rode in the luggage rack.
Unlike the French writer, I wasn’t part of a diplomatic mission. I was going to teach school in a town called Taounate. And in the course of the next two years I took that bus back to Fez many times.
Loti, of course, saw no place for "trains, nor cars, nor roads" In Morocco. But the Frenchman, who found so mach beauty in "old" Morocco, would still have recognized much that was familiar had he returned almost 85 years after his visit to the country that he portrayed in Au Marco.
He’d have determined again, as I did, that it was most comfortable to stroll incognito, in Moroccan grab. He’d have danced deftly out of the way of the donkeys that still pass with heavy loads through the winding streets of old Fez. And he’d have discovered a few houses where, behind old wooden doors, fountains gushed water in tiled courtyards, and where tea was served with aplomb on a bed of mint leaves and sugar.
He’d have found craftsmen still hard at work: cobblers turning out heelless yellow slippers; metalworkers hammering designs into huge copper trays; saddlemakers, gunsmiths, woodcarvers.
He’d still have watched the shoppers bargaining for goods all around him, and the children playing, and the men getting ready to pray in the mosques.
He’d have heard and seen the storks in springtime, clack-clack-clacking their beaks as they perched on the minarets.
He’d have ridden a donkey to reach certain far-off villages, where he’d still have found farmers working small fields with their animals. There he’d have feasted on skewers of grilled meat, thick wheels of bread, olives and fresh figs. He’d have slept on a low couch stuffed with wool from the suq, or marketplace, and been covered with a blanket woven by hand on a loom in the house just down the hill.
He’d have awakened to the crowing of a rooster and been amazed, still, at the peace of the place around him.
I know what Loti meant when he wrote that he wished Morocco would never change. I felt that way, too, when I took the bus from Taounate for the last time, in 1974.
I’ve been back to Morocco several times since, though never again traveled by bus. Many things have changed. There is a new generation of students in the little school where I taught. But still, much remains the same.