I leave Marrakesh a day early because I am tired of the shops with no marked prices, taxis with no meters, and men who lead you to a faraway shop with genuine Moroccan leather and then as you are walking out with an ottoman that is plastic and about five times the price in the souks, demanding a tip.

At the very start of the seven-hour train ride to Fez, the toilet in first class is backed up, and there is no paper, running water or soap.

It is just me and a Moroccan lady in the six-seat first-class compartment. She is just divorced after 29 years of marriage and exultant about finally being free to travel. In the imperial city of Rabat, a Saudi Arabian tells me about his hopes for the new young king.

In Meknes, another imperial city, things get strange.

A compact man with a briefcase appears in the compartment doorway.

“Where you from? Where going?”

His name is Mohammed and he works for the government tourist office. “Don’t trust nobody. Never know what people have in his mind. Is my country — I know.”

“First I pry [pray]” he says. He finishes chanting, rises, then dials his cell phone and launches into what sounds like furious arguing. He tells me that, in 20 minutes, a guide and underling, Hamza, will be holding up a sign with my name on it in the Fez train station. “He honest man,” he says. And tonight, “You come my house for dinner. My wife cook for you.”

Hamza tells me the hostel in the walled medina where I have a reservation is dangerous and dirty and takes me to a high-rise hotel in the new city, bargaining my room (clean, and with wi-fi) down to 650 dirham (the equivalent of about $65).

When I get to the medina, I am glad I have a guide. There are 3,000 streets, most dead ends, and 500 neighborhoods, each with a hammam (bath house), mosque, bakery, fountain, and school. The narrow, winding, dusty passageways dating to the ninth century are filled with oranges, fig necklaces, and dates of a dozen brown hues; Easter egg-pastel bars of nougat with almonds and twisted fried and honeyed dough with sesame seeds; carpets of mint for tea and orange blossoms and rose petals for home-diffusing.

“Watch out, please,” Hamza calls to me as donkeys laden with blue canisters of fuel and scooters plod and buzz by.

When he was growing up here most women wore a veil. Now, just a head scarf, but in traditional neighborhoods like the medina women can not go into the cafes (they socialize on the steps of the pubic square), and in traditional families, women work outside of the home only as cooks.

Hamza leads me straight into a tiny kitchen and a girl in head scarf dips a spoon into bent metal pots of astonishingly tasty meatballs, lamb and beef tagine, bringing our choice to the table with a dozen clay tureens of beans, lentils, carrots, spinach, plus a lettuce and rice salad drizzled with mayonnaise. For two people, $10.

We leave the medina for a suburb, where Mohammed is waiting for me on a street corner. “Men in North Africa can’t be trusted,” a well-travelled friend emailed me that morning. Mohammed told me the same thing himself.

The front door of his apartment building locks behind us. Up each flight he is telling me how happy his wife is that I am coming, while up each flight I think, “What if there is no wife?”

But on the fourth floor, there she is, in head scarf and gown, arms reached out to kiss me once on each cheek, and then again on the first. “Aalan bik [Welcome]!” she says.

And I say, to myself: “Alhamdullilah [thanks to God]!”

Fatima and I are the same age. She speaks not a word of English. For years she was the personal, live-in chef for the Moroccan royal family, working on a stove as big as her kitchen.

We sit down on a lime-green velvet sofa to lemon chicken tagine and French fries, fresh fruit, and a platter of cookies and pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice even though they can have neither, both being diabetic (as are one-ninth of their countrymen). “You lucky!” Mohammed says. “On the 31st we get pay from government. Tonight you have everything!”

In my hotel room, the room service waiter tells me it’s 85 dirham, cash, for coffee. Later I find out the price is 20 dirham, and it should have been charged to the room.







Tonight, Fatima is teaching me how to make couscous. We start straightaway when I get to their house at 5:30, and it is not ready to eat until 10 p.m.

“Most women, even in Morocco, not do it proper way,” says Mohammed. Fatima steams it three times, in-between patiently moistening and sifting the grains. Meanwhile, lamb, dried chickpeas and onions with ground ginger, saffron and pepper simmer in one airtight metal pot; a myriad of market vegetables, in two others.

With Mohammed excusing himself each time the call to prayer sounds from the green minaret visible from their balcony (he prays at the mosque five times a day, starting at 3:40 a.m.), Fatima runs videos of family weddings on the overhead TV.

A bejeweled 18-year-old girl displays her hennaed hands while older ladies laugh and dance together, the men having gone home after the wedding feast. The bride’s kohl-rimmed eyes are sad behind her smile, and when the husband makes his appearance, much older and sullen, I can see why.

Over dessert, Mohammed translates that Fatima wants to find me a Moroccan husband I can bring home to America. I burst out laughing. She is dead serious. I don’t want to let her down, so give her the green light.

When I wake up in my hotel room, it hits me that a fundamentalist husband is the absolute last thing I need. All day, touring the Swiss-like, mid-Atlas mountains with Hamza, I mull over how to break this to them.

At lunch in the cherry capital of the country, for $5 a person, our outdoor cafe table is covered with roast chicken, hot sauce, French fries, a bubbling potato, pepper and lamb tagine, simmered beans, and a dozen metal brochettes of tiny meatballs, chicken, and beef intermixed with fat. Hamza feeds the leftovers to the stray cats.

In a clearing in a cedar forest, monkeys scamper amidst horses decked out in technicolor Berber garb. As I fumble with my phone to photograph a baby monkey peering

at me with huge eyes from his mother’s belly, a large

monkey appears out of nowhere and grabs my entire bag of bananas.

As soon as I walk into Mohammed and Fatima’s house I say, “I don’t want to marry!” Mohammed bursts out laughing. “She tell me that to find man for you who is not married and the age you want will be very hard.” And anyway, “Be free! Is better!”

Fatima lends me a robe and slippers and ties a head scarf on me for the short walk to the hammam, where she bathes twice a week.

How is the neighborhood hammam different from the one in my fancy Marrakesh hotel? Tile on the floor and walls instead of rose marble; vats and scoops of plastic, not copper; $3.50 instead of $50, and about two and a half hours versus 45 minutes.

In the locker room I disbelievingly follow the cue of Fatima, a woman heretofore covered from head to toe and shoulder to fingertip, until she and I are naked but for panties. In the steam room, amidst a dozen other Muslim women lolling around naked as comfortably as if they were dressed, Fatima lathers, then rakes, my hair.

A hammam worker in underwear pats her upper thigh for my head to rest on, and first on this side then the other, scours my skin with a loufa, devoting an impossibly long time to each body part, intermittently sprinkling on Moroccan gel soap and hot water. I am covered with what looks like dried rosemary but is actually dried skin and I would cry out “Go easier!” if I knew how to say it in Arabic. She follows up with a painful massage.

Just when every inch of me is rubbed raw and scoured clean, she repeats the entire cleansing process, including shampoo. Fatima and I each have continually replenished vats of very hot water in front of us, and scooping this over my head and splashing it on my skin after the scrubbing and lathering could be the best sensation of my life.

A final home-cooked dinner of lamb, almond and prune tagine glistening with sesame seeds. Then, Fatima decks me out in the Big Bird–yellow silk robe, head scarf, brooch and rhinestone-encrusted belt she wears in the wedding videos, and we take photos, then exchange phone numbers. Mohammed says in the fall the three of us will travel together to the Sahara, to ride camels and sleep in tents. “Anytime you feeling sad in United States, come to Morocco because now you have home here. You are family, and a thousand welcomes.”

The next morning, I am just settling into my seat on the train to Casablanca, when I hear “HEL-lo,” look up, and it is Mohammed, accompanying me on the first leg of the trip to tell me to keep an eye on my bags and my iPhone, and that if any man tries to talk to me (“why he follow you? Not love!”) dismiss him with the Arabic word “Laa.”

Outside the window pass satellite dishes and drying carpets on rooftops; cacti, palm and olive trees and household trash; scarlet poppies and snow-white storks; many, many sheep and, herding them, men in long black gowns with peaked hoods and women cocooned in vivid cloth, while next to me on the train two young Moroccan girls are in tight jeans, tapping on cell phones.

When I said goodbye to Hamza, he handed me a necklace he bought for me at the monkey forest.

When we first met, he told me the bronze cut-out lamp that I bought in Marrakesh was probably made in China and painted metal, and the argan oil I bought there, probably mixed with industrial oil that could cause my hair to fall out; that Fez was the only city in which to get handicrafts, and the only places to shop there were the government cooperatives.

In each of these cooperatives that he took me to, one person was on display plying the particular craft, all profits went to war widows, and the only customers were American tourists. There were no price stickers, and the prices quoted by the sales people Hamza handed me off to were shockingly high even for America.

Home in Camden now, thinking about Mohammed’s remarkable hospitality and surrounded by overpriced Moroccan(?) carpets and lamps bought with the guide Mohammed attached me to, I think: Maybe this is what he meant when he told me that Morocco is a land of contrasts.