In Moroccan whiskey - part 1 Ryan's bus had taken off with his luggage. He had no wallet, no money, no passport and no friends. Part 2 of Ryan's Moroccan adventure sees Ryan get himself deeper and deeper into trouble...
The inside of the truck stop was full of locals, all eyes glued on a single 40" plasma at the front of the room. It wasn't your regular news channel. Saddam Hussein was on the tele and the subtitles told me he wasn't too happy with the Americans. So I walk in, and every single patron in the place, spun around like I was the gringo in a bad spaghetti western saloon.
'American?' asks someone amongst the crowd.
This in fact gave me some comfort. With 9-11 and subsequent invasion of the Middle East fresh in everyone’s minds, all trip I had gotten used to this question, and was confident in my response 'Australian!'. I intentionally said it louder than needed so there is no confusion. The usual 5 second uncomfortable silence begins as they look at one another and search themselves for an opinion. 'AUSTRALIAN!! Kangaroo, kangaroo!!' it seemed like the whole place erupted at the same time with welcoming smiles and back slapping. I check the TV in my periphery every now and again, hoping Saddam doesn't give my game away - Australia of course being close allies to the US.
One of my new 'friends' seemed to speak English. '...do you know if there are there any taxi drivers here, or truck drivers en route to Chefchaouen, that might be able to give me a ride?' I ask 'my friend'. His accent was part Arabic, part French, 'I would not recommend a truck for you, but Mohammed has a taxi.' He points to an overweight gentleman in the corner of the room, playing on the single, beaten up pool table. 'He is an excellent player, and I doubt he will take you there for free - do you understand?' I nodded. The guy holding the table was good... Very good. He lived for this... Every challenger here was just a sucker handing over their hard earned Dirham’s. He introduced himself with a smug grin. Full of confidence, counting the spoils of his last win. I challenged him to a game. 'How much to take me to Chefchaouen tonight?' I ask Mohammed. 'Oh no sir, it is not possible tonight, I am off duty and already had too many Moroccan Whiskeys!' he replied with a chuckle.
The hustle. Moroccan 'whiskey' is simply sugary mint tea. Drinking alcohol was quite rare in public.
'How much?' I ask disbelievingly. He glances up at me as he racks the pool balls. '60 Dirhams.' he says cheekily. This was overpriced, and we both knew it. I could get all the way from Tangier to Chefchaouen with about 40 Dirhams, and this place was already about half way. He knew I was desperate. I agree with some hesitation, after all, it was double the cash I held, so I was betting with money I didn't have. Who knows what would happen to me if I lose and can’t come up with the funds.
The bet was on, and we suddenly had a bigger audience than Saddam. Excited and hostile cries came from the crowd. Even without any knowledge of Arabic, I sensed I was the away team at a home game. I think if I could have understood the language, the threats and insults would have made me more nervous.
If you play pool long enough, you can just about know instantly if your opponent is worth his or her salt. Their stance, the bridge, where they hold the cue, and how smooth their stroke is. Now I’m no expert, but I know Mohammed addressed the white ball with a traditional snooker stance. He knew what he was doing. From this brief observation, along with his reputation, I knew immediately that Mohammed was a better player than I. What choice did I have? In my mind, I was literally playing for my life. I was alone in a remote trucker stop in Morocco, with a bunch of guys that disliked Americans, but apparently tolerated Australians - for now. Mohammed broke the balls without asking me. It was his table after all, so I didn't sweat it. He ended up clearing the table without giving me a shot. I wasn't too worried; I expected to lose the first game given the terrible state of the table and cloth. Mohammed knew these like the back of his hand. I picked up on where the table was uneven and how all of the scratches and divots in the table affected the roll of the balls.
I played a safe second game, using the poor roll of the table and divots to my advantage, and managed to claw back a close win against Mohammed. It was 1-1. This last game was to seal my fate. My conscious wrestled with my guilt of not being up front with Mohammed in the first place, knowing I didn’t have the money to pay if I lost. The situation was out of control. Half the audience were betting on the game amongst themselves, so I had more people to potentially be angry with me. Flashes of panic crossed my mind. Who would know if I disappeared forever here? I saw a vision of my mother crying over an empty casket back in Sydney. I did my best to block these out of my mind and concentrate on the game. Even if I won, what guarantees do I have of a safe passage to Chefchaouen?
It was Mohammed’s break again, and it was good. It was seemingly another easy clearance for him; he knew it, as did the vocal audience, who had already assumed the outcome of the game. Mohammed took his time potting the balls, which gave an opportunity for small talk. His English was excellent, and he seemed to take a genuine interest in my strange predicament as I explained it to him, of course leaving out a few financial details.
4 ball...1 ball... And finally the 8 ball. I had no chance at the table, and my heart sank realising I’d lost. The crowd roared with both hostility and appreciation, and I think my ears picked up on a single word from Saddam’s sermon - Australia…
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