What I Learned about Myself Spending 5 Hours in Morocco

(note, I first published this on my personal blog, over here, in which I am writing about my life in Spain, and all the whimsical things I’m into. History is only one of the many things about which I am passionate, and I don’t want to clog up this blog with stories of my weight loss, but when appropriate, I will repost things here. Yes, I do have way too many blogs. I’m working on it. I promise.)

Because of residency reasons, we had to leave Europe last Thursday, and come back in with new passport stamps.

Yes, that is a sentence I never fully comprehended before the first time I lived abroad in 2000. Being an expat is a state in which everything seems fleeting and temporary, roots are impossible to put down (and that’s how it’s meant to be in this stage of life), and one becomes obsessed with passport stamps, immigration rules, and the type of visa all of your other expat friends are on. You meet a fellow American and the first thing out of your mouth is, “what kind of visa are you here on?”

And so, for immigration reasons which are too long and dull to post here (I’ll do another one strictly on our Spanish visa process sometime) on Thursday morning we found ourselves on the ferry from Tarifa, crossing the Mediterranean on the way to Africa.

I’ve never been to an Arab country before, but I had already put Morocco in the box of, “oh, it’s probably like Mexico, only with women who are in veils.”  We do that, don’t we? Put things we don’t know about into boxes that are familiar, to try to understand them before really experiencing them.

I had read about street vendors pushing their wares on you, children begging, pickpockets and petty crime, and I thought, yeah, pretty much sounds like Ensenada. I can handle it. No biggie.

Let me tell you this. If you’ve never been to an Arab country … There is no box. The “sort of like Mexico” box does not exist. Morocco is it’s own kind of box. And damn, it is a different kind of box than I’ve ever experienced before.

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Getting ready to get on the ferry. Me with my scarf, just in case I get asked to cover my head or something.

The ferry runs from Tarifa direct to Tangier. It takes about an hour to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, and it costs about $50 per person. They conveniently place passport control on the boat, so while you’re floating along enjoying your overpriced beverage, you’re meant to go get stamped. Then in Morocco, you just get off. Pretty convenient, that. I can only imagine how much more pleasant LAX would be if they did passport control on planes.

There weren’t that many people on the ferry over. Oh, and this is a huge ferry. One that can take busses on it. Big. I had imagined it somehow crammed with indigent refugees or something. But it was mostly Western tourists, or women in veils, perhaps going to visit family, or coming back from a trip abroad. Either way, it was totally chill.

Then you get off the boat.

Any sense of chill has been left in the Mediterranean. This is, without a doubt, the least chill place I have ever seen in my entire life.

The first view is of dozens of cabs, a mosque that is being built, and the “tour guides.” I put that in quotes because they are really just people standing out there telling you that you need to hire them in order to properly see the city, for anywhere from between 15 to 20 euros. We kept saying no, we were going to do it on our own. No, they all said, you need a guide. You absolutely need a guide. You can’t do it without a guide.

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First view getting off the boat

We successfully managed to say no to 2 of these persistent people. But then a third just kept following us. We tried ignoring him. He just followed after us like a puppy. You need to go this way if you’re going to go into the Medina, he said. We’re not listening to you, we said. We’re going to do it on our own, we said. Another man passed by, and said, oh, you’re in great hands with Abdul. We’re not in his hands, we said. The second man reached up to touch Hannah, who was being carried by her papa. Hands off my kid, I said. I have three kids of my own, he said, it’s ok, she’s a fellow sister under Allah. That’s great that you have 3 kids, I said, but I don’t know you, this Abdul fellow keeps following us, this city has way too many honking cars, there’s a call to prayer going on at the mosque, and, oh yeah, there are literally no women on this entire street. None. Nada.

Tangier Travel Tip Number One: Get one of the guides. If you’re western, and you don’t know what you’re doing, you will be a target for people. More on this later. But you’re much better off just biting the bullet, and accepting the help from someone who knows their way around. Just be careful and pick someone nice and friendly, who’s not going to entice you to do illegal stuff. A friend of mine almost wound up in jail thanks to a tip from the guides.

Our new friend/tour guide Abdul tells us if we want to see the Medina we have to go up this hill, and we decide that it looks the way it did on the map, and so up we go. Along the way we pass a money exchange place. Abdul tells us that everyone will take euros and we don’t need to worry about it. We are studiously ignoring him now, and so we go in to change money. On the way in, he tells us he’ll wait for us. “You know we’re not going to pay you any money, don’t you?” I said. “That’s fine, it’s just my job to make sure you have a great time.”

Humph.

We are guided by this fellow, unwillingly but not, like, forcefully or anything, down the main street, and, lucky for us, he keeps telling us, it’s market day. The day all the Berber women come down from the mountains to sell their produce. We admire their vegetables. Market Day, he keeps telling us. Every Thursday. You are so lucky to have come on Market Day. The Mountain Women, you see. Market Day.

Abdul. I get it. Market Day.

We dutifully enjoyed Market Day, and then totally threw a wrench into his plans for us when we insisted on stopping in a park for Hannah to play. No, we need to see the main square of the Medina he says. We can play there. Nope, this is our day, and we are playing here. Aqui.

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Underwear. Check. Bras. Check. Qtips. Check. Purple Wizard. Check.

It was thanks to his little fit that he threw, when, I might add, we hadn’t even told him he was our guide, that I realized that he must be operating on some kind of commission basis with places, and he has a set tour in place, with everyone knowing what times the boats arrive. We were screwing around with whatever place it was that was expecting us.

Finally, at a plaza outside the Medina, with Hannah happily playing in a pathetic looking patch of grass, I turned to him. “Well,” I said. “You seem to be our new friend. So what’s your deal, Abdul? Is this like a job for you? Do you have kids? Who are you? Are you from Tangier?”

He smiled and told me about his kids and his life in Tangier, and how much he loves how international it is there. I asked him if giving tours is his job, and he just smiled and said he loved it. “Well, you’re very persistent,” I said. “Thank you!” he smiled back at me.

From then on, Abdul and I were buddies.

One thing I should explain more of is my comment that there weren’t any women. No, but seriously, on the main road outside the port, I literally saw 0 women. And I was looking. I even asked hubby, in exasperation. Do you see any women in this picture, I asked him? No, he didn’t. But they were probably all kept inside.

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Guavas and electronics in one handy location.

Talk about a bizarre experience. To suddenly land on this planet where there are no other of your gender. I felt so anxious and alone. I wanted so much to see another woman, to have her reassure me that this was an okay place, and to have that connection with someone in the middle of all the cabs and mosque prayer-calling, and Abdul-following that was going on.

There were more women on the side streets leading to the Medina (the old medieval part of the town). They were at the market, buying things, selling their produce. But they were all covered up, and they didn’t look at me. I tried smiling at them. They either scowled at me, or looked away.

We finally start to head into the Medina, the narrow little streets closing in on us. It was still insanely busy, but it was as if it was a weird theatrical trick: all the activity, cars, busses, motorcycles, scooters, market stalls, stores, people walking, all of it from the other wide street was simply squished together onto this narrow teeny tiny street where you couldn’t even really see the sky, and things just went on as normal, like no one had noticed that they were being squished.

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Right after taking this, a car damn near ran me over. Seriously. A car.

The busy streets of the Medina were full of shops selling Spices:

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And shoes:

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And figs:

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Abdul took us to this huge department store. Three floors. First floor, rugs. Second floor, wood carving types of things. Third floor, leather goods. They were very angry that I didn’t want to buy a bag. I wasn’t here to buy bags. I was here to walk through narrow streets. Because we didn’t buy anything, we were told to stop taking pictures.

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Hannah was hungry then, so we again disrupted Abdul’s plans for us to see the Kasbah first, and we went to eat. It’s Ramadan, so I was a little worried that I was going to offend someone by eating, but there were street vendors selling hot freshly made bread, which I bought, so delicious, and Abdul assured us that it would be okay to eat. Restaurants were open for westerners, he told us. So we went to this joint where there were four other western families. There was no menu. They just brought you whatever food was made that day, and charged you 15 euros a piece for it.

We got 3 courses. Bread, soup, and olives to start. Followed by this thing that had a crust like an egg roll with cinnamon and sugar on top, loaded with lentils, perhaps meat, I’m not sure, and some other interesting things.

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Whatever it was, it was delicious.

After that, we got our main course of chicken, vegetables, and cous cous.

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All told, it was a pretty delicious dinner, but here’s my Tangier Travel Tip Number 2: If you have any kind of a sensitive stomach, be super careful. I spent 7 hours in the ER 2 days later getting fluids because I was vomiting every 15 minutes. I don’t know if it was just a bad day at the restaurant, if it was a bug, or what, but the next time I go to Tangier I’m sticking to bread and bottled water, and I’m going to be hella careful about anything I eat.

After the dinner, during which time Abdul sat outside and waited for us (he saw me get up to go to the bathroom, and, just like a puppy, he came in to tell me which way to go to find it), we were off again to a series of sites/places where we could spend money. There was the “pharmacy” where a “pharmacist” (a man in a dirty white coat) talked about natural Moroccan remedies like argan oil and then encouraged you to buy them at ridiculously high prices. We saw a loom where the man was so super friendly, yes, you can take pictures even if you don’t buy. But then when we didn’t want to buy, he got pissy with us. We help their economy, he told us. Abdul led us away, and promised he wouldn’t take us to any other places where we could spend money.

We walked up to the Kasbah, and enjoyed the view of the harbor. Actually, it really wasn’t that nice of a view if I’m being honest. It’s a port town, and it looked like a port. Ensenada. But the gate back down to the Medina was cool – Bab Haha. Funny name.

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We spent some more time wandering around through the tiny streets. We saw a building half underground with a huge communal stone oven where people take their dough to be baked. We saw another scarf place where hubby bought me a lovely scarf souvenir.

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Then back to the port where Abdul left us. As he was leaving us, this other young guy comes up to us, in an empty parking lot across the main highway from the port, and tells us that we need to give Abdul 20 euros. No, we literally don’t have 20 euros, thanks to the fact that he took us to so many places where we could spend money we didn’t want to spend, we explain. We have 13 euros. That’s literally all we have left on our persons. This is where it gets weird. The guy, who we’ve never seen before, tells us he knows we have at least 5 euros more because of the change we got buying the scarf.

What the fuck? How did he know we bought a scarf?

This is my next Tangier Travel Tip: If you are western, and if you are clueless, you are definitely being watched. This had come up on some of the threads I’d read online, on TripAdvisor and others, where people talked about how they had refused a guide, and then for the rest of their stay people kept coming up to them telling them weird things like how they knew what boat they had come in on, and where they had eaten lunch. Just assume that you’re going to be watched during your stay, and people are going to keep track of the shops you went to, and how much you spent there.

Of course, this may not apply so much during busier times, but there were literally only like 5 western families that we kept bumping into in the Medina. It’s not hard to keep tabs on us all.

One note on the people, though. Everyone loved my little blond haired daughter, and everywhere we went men held out their hands to her, and asked her her name. She always replied very politely, and she was filled with the curiosity and generous nature that children have. She had no misgivings about the fact that the men were Arab, or looked different than her, or sounded different, or anything. They were just people. They smiled, she smiled back.

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On the way back to the boat we saw the most disturbing thing we’d seen all day. Young boys trying to literally jump underneath moving busses that were headed into the ferry port.

I don’t know whether they thought they were going to somehow be able to get to Spanish waters while doing this in plain view of the policemen, or what the plan was going to be, but they kept trying, time after time after time. One bus driver was literally pulling the kids out from under his bus. They had jumped under the freaking bus while it was moving.

For. Fuck’s. Sake.

The policemen just blew their whistles, and took out their machine guns. We hurried back along the sidewalk to the maze of craziness that was the port, and then eventually back to the peace and quiet that is Spain.

Here’s what I learned from my 5 hours in Tangier:

  • I like to be around other people of my own gender. Call me crazy, but not seeing any women fucked with my head.
  • I like to live in a culture where I can easily tell someone I don’t want whatever widget it is that they’re trying to sell me.
  • People are people are people are people are people. Despite the weird confirmation that I was being watched the entire time, I still think the people of Tangier are among the loveliest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. I suppose they have to be, living, as they do, in a tourist spot. But they are amazing, and I can’t wait to go back and spend more time there. Only eating bread and bottled water while I’m at it.
  • I have more natural prejudices than I care to admit. I am not going to say that I felt completely comfortable hearing the calls to prayer coming from the mosques. What, I wondered, is different about that than church bells at home? It’s foreign to me, and therefore, scary. It also sounds like things you hear on the news. And therefore, scary. I want to spend more time in Morocco, and places like that, just to learn how to get past some of those natural impulse prejudices.
  • With that said, as a feminist, I really am going to make a judgment on women having to be covered up. Western women get catcalls like crazy all the time from men if they’re in shorts. It was a cooler day so I wore jeans and a long top, and no one bothered me. But I can see where a girl would be the recipient of calls – one girl on our boat was walking around in short shorts and a tank top. These men never see skin. Never. Of course they’re going to make harassing calls at you. But with that said, here’s why I have a problem with telling women they have to be covered up out of some kind of twisted sign of “respect.” The women need to be protected from the men, right? The men are the ones who can’t control themselves, right? All around, this sounds to me like a personal issue on the part of the men with their ability to control their urges, and I don’t see why I should have to not be able to feel the sun on my skin to protect myself from someone’s out of control testosterone.

I’ll tell you what. I was never so happy to get back to Spain in my life. Skin. McDonald’s. Women. Bring it on, western world. I want to go back and spend  more time in Morocco, but I want to be able to leave when I’m done.