After 2 weeks in Morocco, I am certain that I will return. I was blown away by the fast paced old-world medina atmosphere, the hospitality of the people, the silent beauty and serenity of the Sahara, the laid back atmosphere of the beach/fishing communities--the entire country is a feast for the senses.
There were highs and lows along the way. We were ripped off, hustled, yelled at and even stung(more on this later). But even after all that, I left Morocco with a certain sadness, I knew that I had only scratched the surface of an amazingly complex society. I had only just begun to understand, to connect, to immerse myself in a world so unlike my own.
The following is the story of our first day in Morocco.
Tanger: The Rough Start, Lessons Learned
We began in Tanger after taking a ferry from Tarifa, Spain. I was expecting a crowd of taxi drivers and hustlers to be waiting for us as soon as we stepped off the boat (like in Cambodia or Vietnam), but there wasn't a crowd really--they were smarter than that. After we exited, they began approaching us one at a time.
Now, in SE Asia, it is fairly easy to fend off tuk-tuk drivers, tailors and other vendors by simply responding with some english they don't understand. I was used to this. I liked this. It was even fun. But these taxi drivers and hotel promoters were of a slightly different caliber. They often responded with better english and more sincerity than most of my graduating class. They were professionals.
Upon exiting the ferry, we had a destination (Socco Chico), but no idea how to get there. We knew only that, eventually, we would need to get in one of the little light blue "Petite Taxis" and hope they were straight with us. After being approached for the 5th time for a ride, we finally agreed to a 5 euro ride to our destination. First rip-off.
2 minutes later we arrive in "Socco Chico" a small square in the heart of the Tanger medina. The ride should have cost 5Dh( around .50 Euro). We learned our first lesson.
After exiting the taxi, we were in need of a place to stay. We barely had time to pick up our bags before we were approached again by another man who offered to take us to a good, cheap hotel only a few steps away. We figured the hotel was paying him a commission so we followed him.
The Hotel Olid: a barely clean, barely standing building with patchwork vinyl flooring held in place with nails and staples is one of many cheap hotels in the area and the place our lovely friend Hassan took us.
At first glance, it seemed nice enough. There was a decent amount of natural light in the rooms and everything seemed neat and clean. The price was around what I had expected to pay (10 euro/night per person), so we agreed to stay there. We learned later from a few other people that we talked to that we should have been paying 2/3 of the price we were quoted, if not half. Second rip-off.
We put our bags down in the room and went downstairs. Hassan was waiting.
He asked us what we were looking to do. We told him we were hungry and wanted to get some bread to eat. He said that he would show us to a local bakery and, on the way, give us a little tour around the medina. Warning flags began to wave.
Coming to Morocco. I had read a lot about what to expect. I read again and again about the kindness and the hospitality of the people. Was Hassan merely trying to be friendly and hospitable?
I had also read about people who try to appoint themselves as tour-guides for any travelers they might find. Was Hassan trying to be our tour-guide?
I immediately explained to him that we didn't need a tour guide, that we would like to explore on our own. Julie reinforced this, telling him that we did not have any money to pay him and that we didn't want him to waste his time if that was what he was looking for. He assured us that he didn't want any money, only to welcome us to Morocco. We bought it and followed him into the maze of streets that was the medina of Tanger.
After we were thoroughly lost, Hassan came to a stop at a shop entrance.
"There is a great view of the entire city on this rooftop! The owner will take you up there while I wait for you here." Hassan pointed to a small, round man who was eagerly waving for us to follow him. We did.
After seeing many rugs and no view, we got up and left; much to the displeasure of the rug salesman. Julie let Hassan have it when we got outside. She said what needed to be said, that we didn't appreciate him taking us there and that we wanted to go back, but remained friendly. I wish I knew how to do that. Hassan yelled something in Arabic at the shop owner and we continued on to the bakery. We got some amazing fresh bread and headed back to the hotel.
When we made it back to the hotel, Hassan turned to us and said with a smile "so, now you give me a little something. 20 euro, 10 each, that is good, thank you, thank you." We stared at him in amazement. I was fairly certain, as was Julie, that we had made it clear to him that we had no money for him and yet here he was, asking for 20 euros. We told him no, we weren't paying him anything, that we were sorry if we wasted his time but we could not afford a guide. He looked shocked. We all stared at each other with confused, bothered looks on our faces.
A grim reality occurred to me in this moment. He knew the owner of the hotel, he knew we were staying there and we had already paid for 2 nights in advance. If we didn't pay him, if we pissed him off, what did that mean for our safety? For the safety of our things? I realized that we really didn't have a choice in the matter, we had to give him something or risk our security. I ended up paying him 7 euros. Third rip-off. Second lesson learned.
We climbed the stairs to the roof of the hotel, advertised as the hotel "terrace," and began to eat our bread. We felt defeated. The bread did little to raise our spirits, its soft warmth serving only to comfort us after 2 hours of being taken advantage of.
We resolved then and there to never let it happen again. To absorb the blows dealt and move on from them, stronger and smarter. We finished our bread and went out into the city with a revised state of mind.
Over the next day and night in Tanger, we met loads of friendly, interesting people. Michael Tomlinson, a photographer from England living/working in Tanger, showed us around to some of his hangouts. Mohamed, a waiter/host at a local cafe, welcomed us every night with mint tea, conversation and a huge smile. After that first day, everything changed. We met the right people and went to the right places, our journey was back on track.
After Tanger, it was off to Fes. Our original host had backed out so we had to scramble to arrange for another place to stay. I came across Hassan Bouaouina's profile on couchsurfing.com and arranged to spend a few nights with him and his family in Bhalil, a small village about 30 minutes from Fes. It seemed like a great opportunity for us to experience some real Moroccan hospitality and get a taste for the way a Moroccan family lives.
More on Hassan and Bhalil to come...
Time for some photos! (some photowill work shortly)
There were some good shots from Madrid that I never had a chance to edit, until now. So here those are:
MADRID : where wild birds land on your finger
And, by city, links to photos from Morocco:
FES : tanneries and farmacies, 900 streets of medina bliss
BHALIL : cave houses, colors, scenery, nice old ladies
RISSANI/MERZOUGA : the desert, rugs, kittens, the desert, sand, dunes, the desert, you get the idea
MARRAKECH : a crossroads of morocco, the square, the kasbah, culture, sights and smells
ESSAOUIRA : kick back, beach, fishing, sunsets
many MANY more to come, keep checking flickr for updates!
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