I'm stuck in the town of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains of Morocco, at a little guest house called Hotel Ouzazart, run by a man the local snack bar owner calls Monsieur Ali. It's not that Ali won't let me leave. More that I don't particularly want to.
In Chefchaouen, I feel the pull, for the first time since getting sucked into inland Bali many months ago, of staying in one place. Is it the town's atmosphere? The canted streets of its walled medina running down the hillside, the buildings' trademark blue-washed walls and overhead trellises reminiscent of a Greek island? Maybe, but it might also be Ali's hotel: the cleanliness of an Austrian village (a rarity in these parts), a little tiled courtyard that screams Moroccan style (albeit in miniature), and sheets so clean you want to bury your nose into them - a sybaritic indulgence for the weary at $7 (Dh26) a night.
I could settle here for a few weeks or longer, catching up on my reading and writing. I picture long, lazy mornings sipping mint tea on the rooftop, watching the laundry dry, feasting on olives from the local market. But somewhere in the back of my mind I recall telling somebody I'd be exploring Africa. Dang.
Bureaucracy calls. I should pass through Rabat, the capital, to secure a visa for Mauritania, the next country on my itinerary not counting the disputed Western Sahara, which Morocco treats as its own. Whether Mauritanian visas are given at the border seems to depend on the mood of the immigration officer on duty that day, and as it's a two-day trip back to Rabat for those turned away, I figure it's safer to arrange one ahead of time.
The route south from Morocco into Mauritania is becoming well-worn for overland travellers who don't mind a bit of Saharan grit in their tea. The road to the border was paved recently and, despite a clash between Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front last week, there has been no serious fighting in Western Sahara since 1991, and one no longer has to dodge land mines to reach West Africa from here. But it may be some time before I find another place like Ali's.
I overnight in Meknes, the smallest of Morocco's four former imperial capitals, checking into the least skanky of the old city's flophouses. It's a dreary place after the clarity of the Rif Mountains, and I can't squeeze any magic out of the Meknes medina.
I'm reading Edith Wharton's In Morocco, wherein the dowdy American novelist visits Morocco when it first opens up to Western visitors, just after the First World War. Wharton gives a captivating account of a visit to the town of Moulay Idriss, where the sultan of the same name is entombed in the hills outside Meknes.
Wharton describes the streets of Moulay Idriss running red with blood, for she happens to arrive during the feast day of the Hamadchas, a sect of devotees who ritually hack themselves open to mark the death of their patron saint, Hamadch. Yet she also describes a town "as white as if its arcaded square had been scooped out of a big cream cheese".
Bloody religious displays are banned in today's Morocco, but I could use another day in the mountains, so I grab a grand taxi, a shared Mercedes, and head to Moulay Idriss. The latest Lonely Planet describes a "picturesque whitewashed town" sitting aside "two green hills in a cradle of mountains", perhaps another Chefchaouen minus the blue paint.
I'm amazed when I arrive - not at the beauty, but that a guidebook can use similar words to describe such different towns.
Moulay Idriss, I'm sorry to say, is a hideously ugly place. Its colour is the lifeless shade of perpetually unfinished construction: bare cinder blocks, exposed mortar and piles of dirt and unmixed concrete amid donkey dung. I hike through the town, curling down the hillside in behind the shrine of the tomb of Moulay Idriss, closed to non-Muslims, coming to a garbage-strewn stream running between the two hills.
A group of boys approaches. One seems to be peddling a handful of unremarkable stones and tries to place one in my hand. Do Moroccans buy these as tokens of a holy place? Perplexed, I turn him down. Another boy shows me a plastic bottle, cut in half, in which he has a dead crab. Yes, I tell him, that seems to be a dead crab you've got there.
I may not witness trance-induced self-mutilation, but the place is surreal nonetheless - and not in an appealing way. Missing Ali's place and Chefchaouen, I hardly have to motivate myself to move on to Rabat.