When I look back at the colourful two and half weeks spent in Morocco, it’s my time in the formerly lawless city of Tangier which jabbed me back into travel writing form. It welcomed me with a heightened attack of the senses and a rally car ride of emotions. In short, it’s everything I wanted when I settled on this country as my destination.
Located on the North Western tip of Africa and a short ferry ride to Spain, Tangier’s modern history is unlike anything else in Morocco. To say it’s a former hippy town is a little too PG. A result of neglect by past Kings, Tangier was once the wild west. An international zone for criminals, gypsies, hustlers, hookers, drugs and artists. Curious?
I arrived in two hours from Casablanca on a sunlit Monday morning via Africa’s first bullet train network. A scenic taxi ride took me pass the panoramic Mediterranean where I could see Spain, Gibraltar, children riding horses, seniors reflecting and a very modern looking marina.
Yep, things are changing in Tangier. The final stop was to my accommodation, riad Dar Jameel within the ancient medina (Old City). The past townhouse turned hotel is a detailed wonderland filled with geometric Islamic mosaic on every floor. After checking-in and breaking through my tiled hypnosis, I enthusiastically placed a skip in my step to begin exploring.
An old city was new to me. It was a labyrinth, something else. I began appreciating everything my research had prepared me for. The bustle, strong smells of spice and speedy traffic were over stimulating. The warm hand on heart hospitality, truly touching. I hoovered my first taste of slow cooked lamb tagine and washed it down with a sugary mint tea at the wonderful Rif Kebdani. This was textbook Morocco. My confidence now sky-high, I began talking to strangers as I love to do. It was an enjoyable struggle getting by on facial expressions and hand movements, as my English combined with ultra-minimal Arabic/French took miscommunication to wonderful new levels.
The adventure kept coming on strong as the day progressed, that’s when I started to notice the contrast in town. I was offered so much hash and even saw clouds of it escape the entrance of authentic tea houses, like a north-westerly was blowing inside. Hustlers or ‘unofficial tour guides’ would offer to chaperone me towards tourist attractions for a cost. Some I was happy to pay, others not so much…. To which I would then get asked if I was from Israel. Yikes.
Tangier’s seedy past was rising to greet me.
Business then picked up. I got lost….and I mean well lost. Now, reading the guidebooks and travel blogs pre-trip, getting lost in a medina was made to sound like a charming experience. At the time, I can’t say it was. Overwhelmed with confusion, I would try to make it better yet made it ten times worse with every wrong turn. Google maps could not save me in the heady maze and each little street offered identical souks, poverty, donkeys and hassle as I tried to get a grip. It also made me involuntarily compete in the Moroccan Frogger games so I was not run down by a Peugeot. Memorable times.
Just when I needed some relief, a beacon, I stumbled across one camouflaged as a French inspired patisserie. It was a sweet smorgasbord filled with all kinds of treats. I loaded up on coconut cookies, chocolate donuts and watched the shop keeper gracefully place them into a white box wrapped in red ribbon. The peace was short lived.
As soon as the change was visible in my hands, a tall, dirty old beggar dressed in black runs into the store like a ninja and gets in my face. ‘You give me money you give me money’, was what I could make out of my new challenge’s mouth as he towered over me. Remaining calm, I politely responded with ‘No, thank you’ in Arabic (La, shukran). It didn’t work. We played the same tune, this time both more stern and impatient. When I thought I had the last word I turned my back. Big mistake. The beggar slapped me right in the sweet spot of the right tricep, the sound bouncing off the bakery walls. Shocked and unsure of my next move, I turned and gave him daggers (Aussie for death stare). Noticing my facial change, he defensively takes a step back and begins to uncontrollably hiss at me like a part man, part snake and part cat. This was new. Finally, the shop keeper takes some action and runs the beggar out of the store and down the street, leaving me floating in unchartered waters. The onlookers and patrons apologised profusely, saddened by what I had experienced.
Their hands were on their hearts again, I really love that about Morocco.
Not long had passed when I was approached by an African Spanish man (Abdul) that couldn't speak English….but could write it. Here we go. It must have been quite a sight, the two of us playing charades on the streets of the medina and communicating via written form on a bakery box. This man however, was as sweet as the goods inside of what he was drawing on. He wanted to take me back to the riad and when he learnt I was from Australia, proceeded to draw a very accurate depiction of a Tasmanian Tiger! Unreal. We kept on strolling with no hassle and no request for money. This was in total contrast to my earlier encounter. When we reached the riad he kindly gave me a departing hug and wandered off pass the high walls of the Old City.
Those sweets were well-deserved. I savoured them on the hotel rooftop watching the sunset on the Mediterranean and listened to the sea splash onto Tangier. It was such a wild day. An early glimpse at the diverse and intense experiences I would have on a trip so far from home.
Just how I like them.