In Ouarzazate, I stayed at a dark hotel called Hotel Amlal. And though on most days I’d leave early and come back late, I’d see the same man in a djellaba sitting in a recliner while staring at a wall and smoking a cigarette. We’d exchange pleasantries; I’d say, “salam alaykum,” and he’d say, “alaykum salam,” but I don’t think he ever actually looked at me.
I was happy that Ouarzazate had some amenities I needed, namely a laundry service and a place to get on the internet. Though when I dropped off my dirty clothes I felt bad for the people doing the cleaning. It had been ten days since my stuff was washed and bundled together it exuded a smell that reminded me of bad guacamole. I diligently counted the total number of items before handing them over. I didn’t have the luxury to lose a sock, and God forbid I part with one of my two pairs of underwear.
I didn’t need to go online, but I wanted to. This was the first big trip I’d taken since the iPhone came out and I seemed to be the only adult in Morocco without one. When I traveled to SE Asia and Mongolia in the early 2000s, internet cafés were everywhere and usually filled with chatty backpackers sipping espressos. Seems those days are long gone—now they occupy punky teenagers hanging out and playing computer games. Most Moroccan establishments dropped the word “café” from their signs and simply wrote “Wifi” (which was pronounced, “wifey”). They typically were tucked in back alleys or catacombed in windowless rooms in the heart of some ratty apartment complex.
Establishing a connection was a challenge. If it happened, it took forever. And because the keyboards were all in Arabic, my hunting and pecking hearkened back to playing The Oregon Trail in my dad’s den in the early 80s. I remember when he brought home our first Apple IIe and we all just stared at the system, afraid to do anything with it. That’s sort of how I felt in Ouarzazate. I couldn’t believe this giant calculator was somehow connected to the United States. A week offline and I was already stoked to have dial-up.
On my first visit to Ouarzazate’s wifi shop, I think I surprised the guy running the empty place. He jumped up and rubbed his eyes, barely acknowledging me, then he dragged his feet across the concrete floor, booted up a system, and took my two dirham for the first hour. While waiting I tried to strike up a conversation but he wasn’t having it. He returned to his desk and put his head down. A couple kids came in and took the station next to me, resuming some shooting game. I gave them a smile but they turned away, ignoring me.
The computer finally stopped cranking and settled on the desktop page. I clicked the Google Chrome icon and waited. A good minute passed, then another, and another, and just when I thought I’d give up on it all, a page opened with screen shots of the computer’s most visited sites. And before I could make out their grainy strangeness, pop-ups started flashing in rapid succession, bursting skin and body positions in a confusing montage, a pornographic assault. In less than a second I was flooded and my brain sought a foothold:
Wait, what? What are they…? Holy shit. This isn’t good. Why is this on my screen? Isn’t this illegal? How do I…? Where’s the red “x” button? Oh shit, it’s not a Mac. On the left, click the left! Again. Again! Did anyone see? The boys? Oh shit, they saw. It wasn’t me. I swear. Oh damn. Who does this? In a public place? In an internet café? Goddamn. Keep clicking, keep closing. This computer’s fucked. Big time virus. Did anyone see? Will the guy think I did it? Did he do it? Oh God. They’re going to think I’m a pervert. This place is creeps me out. Shouldn’t those kids be home? How do I clear the history?
And all this during my nanosecond freak out. And though I was embarrassed, I was already online and figured I should just do what I came here to do. So I sent off a few emails letting folks know I was alive—substituting symbols for the letters A, W, M and L, of course, because I couldn’t find them on the foreign keyboard. My email looked like a ransom note.
The kids remained mesmerized by their screen while I logged out and shut down. As I walked out of the place the man didn’t even lift his head. I retraced my steps down the dim hallway to the street and promptly returned to my hotel. I wanted to take a shower, but I settled for a good hand-washing before hitting an actual café for a cup of mint tea.