Most places I've been can pass for most anyplace else from 12,000 feet, but not this one. As the Air Maroc 737 swings around on final approach and Aeroport Mohammed V looms in my window, one thing is increasingly clear: We're nowhere near Kansas anymore, Toto. This chunk of North Africa looks more like Tuscany than the Sahara Desert. No rolling dunes down there, just olive trees and mud-brick villages surrounded by a patchwork of bright-green fields.
Welcome to Casablanca: largest city in the Kingdom of Morocco. Touching down on the tarmac, I'm officially 5980 miles from the palatial Motorcyclist offices and light-years beyond my personal comfort zone. Then again, real adventures should carry a whiff of menace. And besides, how bad can it be? One more 40-minute hop in an Air Maroc 767 and I'm hanging out with BMW Motorrad President Hendrik von Kuenheim and a few pleasantly deranged Germans and Canadians, gearing up for a little gratuitous bashing around the Moroccan hinterlands on an assortment of GS twins. What could possibly go wrong?
By nightfall I'm on the ground in Marrakech-with both my bags, thank you very much-heading through Sunday-night traffic. Imagine an open-air mental hospital during spring break and you're pretty much there. A moped packing a family of three strafes some oblivious septuagenarian on an ancient Raleigh three-speed, who is maybe 3 millimeters shy of trading paint with a baby-poop-yellow Peugeot 206 taxicab. Similar scenarios play continuously in this little rivulet of humanity all the way to our hotel without a single collision. Motorists and pedestrians are imperious, impervious, oblivious and betting heavily on divine intervention.
Spending a day on foot to shake off the potent combination of jet lag and culture shock turns out to be educational as well. Traffic jam? Locals sidestep oncoming mopeds and donkey carts on the sidewalk as casually as other oncoming pedestrians. After the obligatory haggle with a cab driver-nobody pays retail around here-the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech's old city slots in somewhere between a supersized town square and an intergalactic flea market stuck on fast-forward. Watch an apoplectic 4-year-old have his picture taken with a spitting cobra over here, buy some orange juice over there, or wonder how many dirham that guy working the Barbary Ape makes on a good Saturday. After dark, entertainers give way to a tent-city of food stalls. Take a pass on the goat heads, but don't miss the bull stew. Just don't go too far into the maze of covered shops on the square's margins without some electronic global positioning assistance or a finely tuned sense of direction. There are legions of smiling 12-year-olds willing to lead you back out, but not for free. Carry change.
It's hard to say exactly what's going on here, but this isn't exactly my first rodeo and the trouble lights on my internal console are beginning to come on. You may not be on an ordinary press junket if ... BMW North America's press guy cancels at the last minute. Your driver gets lost on the way to dinner, and then drops you off a half-mile from Dar Zellij Restaurant Gastromique Marocain because his cab is wider than the streets. You meet the relentlessly cheery Dr. Axel Thiäner, BMW's resident trauma surgeon for our four-day expedition. Most press junkets don't travel with an ER doc in the chase truck, cheery or otherwise, along with more assorted medical paraphernalia than an entire Moroccan hospital. Consider it one of the many benefits of going on vacation with a captain of global industry. We're not in El Segundo anymore, Toto. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.