Yesterday’s wake-up call proved to be the training ground for today’s 5:15 a.m. call. Why so early? We were going to Morocco today!
With our morning routine now down pat, we were standing in the cold and dark at 6:20 a.m…….waiting for the bus that would take us to the ferry that would take us to Morocco.
The bus arrived late…..dropping off two women…..one in a wheelchair. We waited patiently while our tour guide hurriedly spoke to the women, “sorry…..hundreds of stairs…….taxi back to your hotel.”
We boarded the bus and started off. Pablo, our tour guide, introduced himself as we stopped along the way to pick up more day-trippers. With each stop, we became later and later…..inching closer and closer to the ferry’s departure of 9:00 a.m……in Tarifa…..still over an hour away. Fighting past slow moving commute traffic, we arrived at the ferry with only minutes to spare. Pablo hustled us through passport control and onto the ferry.
Already queasy from two hours on a swaying bus, the 45 minute ferry ride in the gently rolling sea was 44 minutes longer than I would have liked. I couldn’t wait to get off the boat when we docked.
Our first impression of Tangier wasn’t favorable…..we were expecting exotic and got dowdy. As with many cities, the areas near ports and trains aren’t the best, so we just shrugged and moved on. Our group of 38 boarded a bus where Pablo introduced us to our Moroccan guide, Hassan, a local history professor. As we drove through the nearly deserted city streets, Hassan explained that it would be quiet today….it was the day after the holiday of Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), when Muslims slaughter a sheep and offer it’s meat to charity as a reminder of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son to God.
From the city streets, we veered into an upscale area…..past the complex that was owned by Malcolm Forbes’ (and the site of many of his jet-set parties). Across the street was a beautiful white building in a park-like setting…..surrounded by armed guards in sentry boxes. Hassan proudly told us that this was to be Tangier’s new convention center…..but made no mention of the guards…..or their semi-automatic rifles.
We exited the bus for a short walk through a residential area to a necropolis dating back to the 4th century BC…..passing by a small station wagaon with a lamb’s carcass in the rear. Hassan wasn’t kidding about how they celebrate Eid al-Adha.
Back on the bus, we headed to the medina….the old walled city and home of the Kasbah, the fortified area within the medina. We walked in through the Bab Kasba (Gate of the Fortress). The Kasbah didn’t feel exotic….it felt seedy. We were besieged by aggressive street vendors selling jewelry, purses, copper bracelets, wooden camels and all manner of Moroccan souvenirs. They wouldn’t take “no” for an answer…..walking next to us, brandishing their goods, badgering us for a sale…..they could give lessons to used car salesmen.
As we walked through the Kasbah’s maze of narrow alleys, Hassan pointed out the exterior of the homes….all very modest, he said, because it wasn’t wise to exhibit one’s wealth….and the labyrinthine layout of the town served to make conquest difficult (and escape easy…..for those who knew the way).
We descended steep cobblestone steps into the heart of the medina as Hassan explained his attire…..a traditional Moroccan djellaba, which offers protection from sun and sand. As if on cue, a striking young woman wearing an elegant lime-green satin djellaba with intricate gold embroidery came down the steps of an intersecting lane….carefully manuvering the treacherous steps on wobbly high heels.
Save for the street vendors and an occasional sheep part, we were alone in the medina. Hassan apologetically explained that the medina was very quiet because of the holiday. Without the flurried commotion of the marketplace around us, the medina was devoid of charm…..and it’s dirt, decay and debris were accentuated.
We were led to a restaurant that obviously catered to tour groups, but our Moroccan lunch (soup, beef kabob, chicken with couscous and baklava…..with musical accompaniment) was good and, hopefully, microbe-free. Just to be on the safe side, we ordered a little prophylactic medication…..a bottle of white wine.
After lunch, we were herded to a multi-story mecca of merchandise….up to the third floor where we were regaled with information on hand-loomed carpets (magic included at no extra charge). These salesmen were persistent, but not quite as high-pressure as their street counterparts…..only a few carpets were sold.
Our next shopping stop was an herbal pharmacy…..we sat in rapt attention as a “pharmacist” described his wares to us. Spices were sent around to smell and creams were sent around to try…..then the pharmacist wrapped eucalyptus seed in tissue and went around the room sticking it up nostril after nostril with the exhortation to “breathe deep” to clear the sinuses and stop snoring…..I just hope it kills nose cooties. We were promised the rose cream would make us look ten years younger….so (at three for the price of two), Kris and I bought three jars each…..hopeful it’ll take 30 years off.
After fending off the street vendors (our favorite was the very honest one selling “fake Rolexes”), we boarded the bus for a drive through Tangier’s posh English and American neighborhood on our way to the Cave of Hercules on the Barbary coast….stopping for the requisite camel ride (I opted for just a picture).
The cave (with a mouth that looks surprisingly like the African continent) is supposedly where Hercules rested after finishing his twelve labors. It’s spacious interior is part natural and part man-made…..it’s rutted walls were mined for stones to use for grinding grain and olives.
Our tour was over…..it was time to return to the ferry. I had mixed feelings about the day. I had expected Tangier to be lively, colorful and exotic…..but found it crass and touristy. Would it have been different if I had come on a different day? Or if I had taken a private tour? I may never find out.
When I meet fellow Americans traveling abroad here in North Africa, I ask them, “What did you expect to find here?” Almost without exception, regardless of the way they express it, the answer reduced to its simplest terms is: a sense of mystery.” ~ Paul Bowles