So... I have wanted to visit Morocco my entire life. When I spent my travel savings on building the studio instead of going to Morocco for my fiftieth birthday, the kids made a faux Morocco out of the studio for me, dragging out the futon and plying it with colorful blankets and candles and incense. Thus, it has been a bit frustrating this past week when one person after another has warned me not to go to Tangier, especially alone. "People will follow you and steal from you. Hold your passport and money really closely. They will call out at you nonstop and pick at you and follow you and not leave you alone. It's a really dangerous seaport. You know how seaports are. Well, it is one of the worst. And especially for a woman traveling alone."
I was told, too, that I could easily explore the medina and in fact, the entire city in a day.
I had learned to take other travelers' observations lightly. For every person who detests a city, there is another who loves it. What people look for also differs. So many travelers read guidebooks and visit top tourist sites, rather than experiencing the feel of a place. Someone told me I could "easily do Florence" in a day and a half. To me, that is a ridiculous notion.
Still, I looked at the map more closely. The medina was small. And I did want more time in Fes, which is much larger, but was committed to a plane reservation on the other end of my visit. So I canceled my second night and decided to take the early train the following day. I took an earlier ferry ride from Tarifa so I could have a good long day in Tangier. And it was a wonderful day!
It started out the same way every bloody search for a hostel has. And from comparing notes with other travelers, that's just the way it is. The directions seldom make sense. People along the way always point you in the wrong direction. The streets never have the same name as on the maps, if the streets are marked at all. The map apps are also deceptive, some of them evidently having been created by evil-doers, so don't even download them. I got off the ferry and per the written directions I would see the Hotel Continental immediately in front of me, with steps going under the road from the ferry port parking lot leading right up to it. No hotel. Nor was there any evidence of a set of subterranean stairs.
Still, determined to look like I knew where I was going to the pawing taxi drivers and other scoundrels hanging around, I set off. Well, no Hotel Continental anywhere in sight and the broad busy road in front of me was not meant for pedestrians.
Thankfully, a lot of locals speak French, which I had a fighting chance of understanding as I know absolutely no Arabic or how to even write out a basic question. So at least they didn't shrug, but genuinely told me something in French, which, unfortunately did not pan out in actual practice.
When I finally spied the Hotel Continental, which was quite obvious after I learned that the structure sitting high on the hill was a hotel. It was, however, not clear how to reach it. The lot below it, barricaded from street, did not appear to be on the same property, but was instead perhaps a municipal lot or a lot for a nearby local business. That was my impression before I realized how irrelevant my preconceptions were to the chaos which is Tangier. Anything could be anything and it could be shared with something else.
The directions said to go out of the parking lot and make a right. Well, you couldn't tell which way was out of the parking lot if that was their parking lot. So I trudged up the closest hot alley with my backpack weighing on my bruised back and despite my resolve not to look like I didn't know where I was going, I asked people along the way if they recognized any of the street names which I could not even pronounce accurately. Everyone tried to be helpful, though I couldn't understand any of them and had no idea if they understood me.
There was a constant din of catcalling as I was warned there would be. It started at the port and did not stop, but I had my yellow mirror sunglasses some guy on the street of a Spanish city sold me - not really my style, but he was cool so I thought I would go with it, and I was actually relieved to be behind them today. Gave me kind of a drug dealer look.
It's kind of difficult to describe the ambience. It's so nonspecific. The pleas: "Madame! Señora! Hello! Hola!" come from doorways, shops, alleyways, stairwells, rooftops. There were kids picking at me, motioning that they wanted money and thin, dark, shifty men leaning in too close to my face. Still, I was determined to hold on and find the hostel. I was not certain how dense the maze of alleys is (there are 9,000 in Fes) but if I could learn the medina in a day, it couldn't be that hopeless.
So, as unfamiliar as everything looked to me each time I passed it - the medina has rows and rows of small stores with carpets and leather bags and souvenir trinkets and shoes and carpets and leather bags and souvenir trinkets and shoes and carpets and souvenir trinkets and it was apparent to the guys tending the stalls and their cousins just generally hanging around, that I was looping around, lost.
Each time I heard someone coming up too close behind me, I would stop and let him pass. And I just said No to the ones who leaped in front of me, offering to be my guide. Nevertheless, despite my discouragement, one was able to attach himself to me. He spoke English and as much as I didn't want to say where I was going, I really needed help. He took me to my hostel, offering to give me some hash along the way, which I politely declined, and made sure he could not slip it into my hand or on to my person, which he seemed pretty intent upon doing, so this in itself was a pretty full-time project. A Moroccan jail term was not on my itinerary.
I told him I had no money. I truly didn't as I figured guarding my passport and credit cards would be quite enough to do until I could lighten my load, and so I had not withdrawn any dirhams. I thanked him and sent both him and the young boys away who wanted money and went in to drop off my knapsack. It was too early to check in.
The hostel was really cool and had a nice rooftop terrace, so I hung out for a while and got my bearings from the receptionist who gave me a map and some tips on dealing with the people who follow you. She also arranged for a taxi to get me to the airport early in the morning and assure me that I could rely on its timely arrival. You can't drive through the medina, but the driver would come to the door and direct me to where he had parked.
When I re-emerged from the hostel an hour later, there he was, the same guy, hanging around the doorway. I told him that I really wanted to travel alone, but as I was telling him one of his cousins joined us. I told them both that I really wanted to explore alone, so the first guy dropped off and the second guy, Jamal, remained with me. Jamal is in town to visit his parents for the holiday of Ramaden, which is coming up. He lives in Barcelona and it happens that not only do his parents live here, but his extended family, nomads from the desert in the south of Morocco, have set up a rug-selling shop. It actually took me a while to figure this out, first because there seems to be a pretty tight network of passing tourists off from one "brother" or "cousin" to another and secondly, this network is all about someone getting business, whether it is getting the tourist to buy a rug or eat at a restaurant or take a taxi or hire a guide. I actually was under the impression that it was a tea shop, but he was simply inviting me to have tea with them, which I would learn is so traditional that by the end of any given day in a Moroccan medina, your blood is ninety percent mint tea with loads of sugar.
When he offered to take me to a good restaurant and I told him that I was not hungry and really just wanted to explore, he actually took me back through the maze to show me where his family's shop was so I could go back later and have tea. He pointed to a set of stairs to a terrace and suggested that I come back there and and sit when I got hungry and he would find me and show me where to eat. He told me one more time how to find my hostel and took me to the terrace to get my bearings in the city from that vantage point. I thanked him and went off.
The market in the medina and the surrounding streets were only mildly terrifying. Walking up the street, I shared the sidewalk with metal smiths, their welding torches splaying flames and then I inhaled the toxic fumes from painting metal grill work along the sidewalk. The fumes hung in the hot thick air. Then I walked past men sawing apart goats. All of this activity was taking place across the street from an untended cemetery where people sat on decayed tombstones in the rectangular shape of coffins eating lunch and texting. It was all just plain creepy. And the begging and calling out was ceaseless. In the parks and plazas, the metal of many of the bench seats and backs had been stolen, so there were just skeleton benches. There were few waste receptacles and though there seemed to be public service workers here and there picking up trash, the town was pretty littered. Everything was poor and shabby. Even the main playground was depressing.
The people sitting on the edges of the tombstones of this cemetery did not look like they would appreciate me snapping their photos.
I passed most of the afternoon in the two main squares, just sitting on walls, watching. I did buy some cherries, dates and olives at the market. The meat section sold parts of animals I have never seen and the fish section, with its slippery floor, was one of the scariest I have seen yet with quite a selection of fish eyeballs looking at you. I hadn't fully recovered from feeling seasick on the ferry, and the strong smell did not help.
At one point, a hefty woman wearing a jalaba and hijab sat down next to me. After awhile, I offered her some cherries, which she declined. A little while later, a friend of hers wearing a garish scarf joined us (you start to notice the fashion of jalabas and hijabs after a while), squeezing between the two of us even though there was plenty of room on the other side of her friend. She proceeded to try to get money from me, pointing to Allah and rubbing a coin in my face. I laughed and told her that she should give me money, as should Allah. Or course she only spoke Arabic, but she understood and actually laughed heartily. By the time they got up to go, there was an understanding that we were all in this together and she wished me "adios", adding "mañana."
I blew them kisses.
I really didn't want to go back into the medina and be followed around again. As far as I could determine though, there was only one way to get to the hostel. So off I went and my expectations were realized. I had barely rounded the corner near the terrace stairs when Jamal emerged from nowhere and asked, "Where have you been so long?"
Even though I really wanted to go back to the hostel and go to the bathroom, maybe shower off some of the grit and get off my hot feet and still sore toe, I just gave up. "Fine," I said. "I'll come for tea."
It turned out to be a very cool scene. I had a traditional Moroccan meal with five Arabic men sitting on hassocks in the back room of a rug shop, followed by tea of course. Everyone was related and part of a nomadic tribe from the southern morocco desert which makes the rugs and were in town just before Ramaden to sell them. The group is called Nomads for Human Development and their basic precepts are to preserve the Berber culture, live sustainably, and ensure fair trade. I gave them my dates and olives.