Málaga to Tangier; An adventurer at last; The Dark Continent is anything but; Lowering the tone of a grand hotel; Tagine with prunes; Tangerine pickpockets have no technique

Today  marked the beginning of the Moroccan segment of our trip. We’d invited Emilie to join us - she desperately wanted to go to Morocco, but all reports indicated that women have a very rough time in the country when travelling alone, and so she had all but abandoned the idea until meeting us. Now, I’m a long way from Conan the Barbarian, but I fancy myself a decent protector - I’m a fairly savvy traveller and I look mean enough and carry myself such that I seldom have trouble. This seemed to be good enough for Milie, in any case, and so we met in the morning at the bus station.

The first leg of the journey was a long and twisting bus trip to the town of Tarifa. Outside the town the hills are blanketed with wind turbines, and their intricate kinetic sculptures spun us quickly on our way. Tarifa is a sun-bleached and breezy little town where there are more windsurfing schools than there are permanent residents. We were there for the fast Tangier ferry, though, and so after a brief stop for groceries we walked to the port. We had a picnic lunch by the docks, and watched a thousand catfish crowding in the shadows under each small fishing boat.

The Tarifa-Tangier ferry is a high-speed catamaran vessel which - irony of ironies - originally ran the Rochester-Toronto route as the Spirit of Ontario, and suffered the same ignominious fate as every other Lake Ontario ferry when its owner company folded last year. It’s supposed to be capable of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier in 35 minutes, but our trip took easily double that, since Moroccan passport control is accomplished on the boat itself, and the boat doesn’t dock until everyone has been through passport control, which consists of two guys with notebook computers and visa stamps. The ferry pulled away from Spain and raised a giant white wake, and as the spray hit my face I felt for the first time that I deserved the epithet of Gentleman Adventurer, escorting two lovely and dangerous ladies into the perils of the Dark Continent.

What an undeserved epithet that is! The north coast of Africa positively glows with light. The air itself has absorbed the blinding luminance and radiates it back in an incandescence that bleaches the colour from everything it touches, and fills your skull with luminous white until there’s no room for thought.

From everything we’d heard about Tangier, we’d been expecting to be swarmed by scarily aggressive hustlers as soon as we stepped off the boat. Tangier is legendary for its predators, in fact. Maybe it was the time of day, or maybe we just didn’t look like we had enough money to bother with, but only half a dozen stirred themselves to approach us. We’d already worked out between ourselves that we only spoke Icelandic, a language we reckoned Tangerines unlikely to speak, but it turned out to be unnecessary - they all took a shrug and subsequent disregard as a no. The majority were only taxi drivers anyway - although taxi drivers certainly count among the predators in Tangier (about which, more later).

Leaving the port, we walked down Rue Mohammed VI, past the industrial area and into the more touristy area with the beach on one side of the road and the other side lined with hotels. Multicoloured flags flapped in a strong wind, and the beach was full with men in swimsuits and fully-clothed women. We’d decided to book a hotel for a few reasons: First, there were three of us to split the cost now, and as long as the management didn’t care that we were sneaking a third person into a double, the price was the same as a hostel; Second, we really didn’t fancy the idea of tramping around a strange and reputedly dangerous city in the heat with our heavy packs, looking for a vacancy (and what if there wasn’t one?); and third, well, we were a bit sick of hostels, to tell the truth. We had, unfortunately, no idea where our hotel was - only a street name, which I finally located on the map. I decided to leave the girls on a bench with the packs and go to find and check into the hotel, so that they didn’t have to suffer in the heat. I had serious qualms about the decision - everyone told us that Moroccan men are extremely unpleasant and sexually aggressive to non-Muslim women travellers (and Milie was showing a bit too much cleavage to pass unnoticed, I thought) but given that the alternative was dragging them around hither and yon in the heat with the packs and killing them with sunstroke, I thought it was the lesser of two evils, and so off I went into the heart of Tangier.

Tangier in the daytime is simply a hot, crowded city. There are a lot of small restaurants and a lot of tea shops and ice cream shops, and a lot of traffic. There are no traffic signals or lines painted on the road for either cars or pedestrians, but somehow, it all works. The pedestrians avoid the cars, but the cars somehow weave in and among the people without much fuss. I did see one accident between a car and a van, but - the car driver’s fury notwithstanding - neither vehicle seemed damaged at all. Divested of my huge pack, I attracted very little attention even with purple hair - Tangier has seen it all, I think. It took ages and a certain amount of backtracking, but I did manage to find the hotel, a beautiful, classic place with marble floors, an amazing swimming pool, and old world service for the grand sum of 550 Moroccan dirhams per night - about CAD$75, much less than I routinely pay at home for a run-down motel chain room.

Returning to the girls, I found that leaving them hadn’t been as much of a mistake as I’d feared. They’d been swarmed, but by women and children, who’d kept the men at bay. Apparently there was some sort of discussion of marrying Sheryl off to a teenage boy, and some issues about cookies, or bracelets, or both, but it seemed to have all worked out okay. We loaded up and began the long hot slog to the hotel. There were no issues on the way except for Milie having trouble with an ATM and a young kid trying to sell me roses for the girls and refusing to take no for an answer. When we arrived at the hotel, we flopped, turned on the air conditioning (a rarity for us, but we weren’t used to the heat yet) and each took our turn in the shower.

Dusk was falling by the time we were ready and inclined to go out again, and we were very hungry. We decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant dinner (not realizing that this would set the pattern for our entire Moroccan stay) and went into the first place we found that served traditional Moroccan food. I ordered a dish called tagine, which is a thin stew or thick soup with various ingredients - quite good. Mine came with lamb and prunes, a combination which sounds odd but tastes wonderful. Sheryl had couscous with chicken and Milie some sort of flat sugary pancake thing which didn’t quite work for any of us. We were all stuffed, and dinner for the three of us came to something like CAD$15.

I got to practice my terrible French and the waiter couldn’t understand me. This was the case in Morocco for a few days, until I realized that my accent in French is strongly Quebecois and nasal, and Moroccan French is very flat and gutteral - once I flattened my voice and softened the singsong, communication became much easier.

After dinner we went for a walk, and we got to see the other side of Tangier - the face the city turns to the world after dark. It’s a much uglier face than its daytime face. I’m not a stranger to dangerous parts of cities, but the air of menace that closed in whenever we stepped off the main tourist streets brought me up short. I’m not sure how much of it the girls felt - Milie didn’t notice it, I think, and Sheryl felt it a bit after I’d called her attention to it - but for me it was heavily present. Predatory and angry eyes were on us constantly and ugly-sounding comments in Arabic came occasionally from groups of flat-faced men. The combination of Muslim anger toward non-Muslim and the natural predation on tourists made a potent combination heavy with danger, and I stepped very carefully indeed.

As is my usual habit, I kept my eye open for pickpockets, which, in Tangier, proved to be no challenge at all. They’re quite amazingly brazen and have no technique. Not for them the subtle two-finger dip, the brush and misdirection, or even the ‘accidental’ bump. No, in Tangier they simply reach for your bag or pocket, hardly caring if you notice or not. I caught the first one following too close behind Sheryl, pretending to reach down and tie his shoe, and reaching for her satchel. I raised an eyebrow at him and he just shrugged. I wasn’t really concerned about theft - long familiarity with the trade means that I’m as pickpocket-proof as realistically possible, and Sheryl had nothing of value in her bag. In fact, in the pocket the thief had been reaching for there were nothing but sanitary napkins, and the thought of an outraged Tangerine pickpocket with a handful of pantyliners amused us greatly, and so we began a game of tease-the-pickpocket which lasted until we got bored of counting them and chased some cats instead. Moroccan cats are much friendlier than Spanish cats, I must say. There was one little kitten who clung halfway up my shirt and yowled until I pulled him off.

It had been a long day, though, and we were tired, so even the cats couldn’t keep me out very late. We returned to the hotel around midnight, and fell on our faces.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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