I Got a Mystery Rash in Morocco
“Heat rash – it’s definitely heat rash.”
“I’ve never seen heat rash this extreme… maybe it’s an allergic reaction?”
“Fucking hell Tass, stop scratching!”
After a couple of weeks in Spain, I thought I’d acclimatise to Morocco instantly, but boy oh boy, was I wrong. Stepping off the ferry in Tangier, I realised not only was I not used to the heat – I was ignorant as all hell. Unfortunately, half an hour of Googling does not make you an expert on a country and its environment. I was in for a major culture shock.
As I dragged my bag down the port under the gaze of the stray dogs perched atop the shipping containers, my friend Miranda stopped me. She was holding one hand over her mouth, eyes wide, and pointing to the water. I looked and saw a group of Moroccan children at the shore trying to climb aboard a boat as a guard hit them across their faces with a hard rope. They repeatedly fell back in the water, and it was clear they were desperate and in pain.
“Fuck,” we whispered in unison as we were ushered away with aggressive sounding French words. Not even five minutes in North Africa and I already was feeling for the children.
A week down the track, sweat oozed from every pore of my body. It was coming from places I didn’t even know could sweat. I was dripping like I had just stepped out the shower, except I wasn’t clean at all – I smelled like the donkey muzzled with a milk-carton that was dragged past me by an old man dressed in rags.
Sticky strands of hair fell out of my pathetic braid and stuck to the back of my neck, much like how my maxi skirt stuck to my sodden legs. I reached for my hair and felt an uneven patch of skin. As I moved my hand over it to clarify that I had another mosquito bite to add to the collection, irritation set in.
The itching got worse once I started scratching, but I felt relief at the same time. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I needed to scratch. My neck became so prickly I didn’t know whether the dripping feeling was my sweat or blood I’d drawn with my chipped fingernails.
A day later, my entire neck was red raw and leaking with an oozy transparent liquid of unknown origins. The fact one of the girls I was travelling with was a nurse and didn’t know what it was either just added to my already crippling worry. My skin was so raised I could hardly turn my head. It stung and burned with excruciating pain, and the neverending shower of sweat from my body didn’t help in the slightest.
Later that night, I sat in my hotel room under the flow of the rattling aircon and flicked slowly through my phone in an attempt to self-diagnose my illness. I did my best to achieve a balance between comfort and trying to not let my cortisone-creamed skin stick to anything, and dwelled on the fact my friends were out exploring whereas I was fast transitioning into an alien.
Suddenly, the door to my room swung open and what looked like a pile of sweat and dirt (but must have been Miranda) walked in and threw clothes and a hat at me.
“We’re going into the Medina (market) to find you a pharmacy,” the pile exclaimed and sat on my bed, waiting for me to awkwardly pull a shirt over my swollen body.
As an Australian, to me the word “market” used to conjure images of organic vegetables, homemade jam and cute crafts. But the Medina Market was a whole new ball game, and I tried to avoid ever having to go into the maze of mud, abused animals and chicken crap.
“Miss, you need a husband?” came a cry three times while we wove through bodies cramped on the narrow path and dodged the constant landmines of poo that blended with the dirt. Cats jumped from building to building, some falling short and landing on the ground to never rise again. I walked past a rotten cardboard box filled with three kittens, not even a week old. Blood and fleas coated their patchy, crusted fur, and their bones were visible through their scabbed skin. I blinked back tears and swallowed the lump in my throat as my hands crept to my neck in sympathy.
Miranda slapped my hands away, and I whimpered in agony.
“For fuck’s sake,” I groaned, as a group of people stopped in their tracks in front of me. I looked up and saw a donkey’s weak legs buckle under the enormous load strapped to its back as it wailed for mercy. A line of scars and dried blood marked where a whip had gashed a permanent line along its protruding rib cage.
The frustration of not even being able to turn my neck to look away combined with the realisation that pain and mistreatment was the norm here brought me to tears. But before I could step forward and release my pent-up anger, Miranda gripped my sticky arm and dragged me back through the Medina to our hotel.
“This is ridiculous,” she puffed, as beads of sweat rolled over her mouth. “I can’t find anything to help you here, unless there’s a special kind of animal shit you can smear over you like lotion.”
The rest of my time in Morocco was a blur of aching skin, getting slapped for scratching and FaceTime calls to my mum crying because nothing was going right. Waiting out the mystery rash was one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had while travelling. But putting up with such immense pain and discomfort in a country where such feelings are part of everyday life really opened up my ignorant eyes. It could have been worse – much worse, but having grown up in Australia, I completely took my right to comfort and access to treatment for granted.
Not being prepared can definitely lead to the best memories while you’re travelling, but sometimes, it can lead to your worst. I know for a fact I will never forget my mystery rash in Morocco.
Cover by Anna Kay