Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Aventures en Afrique

Salaam aleykum. Alors, aujourd'hui, j'ai parlé mes troisième et quatrième langues de cette voyage. Français et un petit peu d'arabique.

Pourquoi? Because we went to Morocco, yo. Where the official languages are Arabic and French.

After arriving in Tarifa, J went in to enquire about day trips to Tangier, and we got hooked up just in time for the 11:00 am sailing on the fast ferry, as well as a full-day tour once across the Strait. Several Cruzcampo beers later, we were aboard FRS' Thundercat I, a catamaran that'd get us to Morocco in 35 minutes.

Only, thanks to all sorts of delays, it took us 3 hours. We arrived and were herded into our tour group, only to be berated by our tour guide for being late, and for not having our tickets stamped properly. I guess 90% of us on the tour were too excited to be going to Morocco and had our passports stamped instead of our ferry tickets. Oh well! I just made this trip for the stamp, anyway. Because I'm a passport stamp whore. Ok, that and we thought it'd be cool as hell to say we've been to Morocco.

Tangier isn't anything at all like I imagined. Sure, there were actual people wearing actual fez hats and actual zaytunas - the traditonal brown Moroccan cloak that looks like something a druid would wear. Or perhaps a Jawa. But no, it doesn't look like Tatooine, and there isn't even much by way of sandstone walls or round-topped minarets. If anything, it has a French or Spanish colonial look.

Our bus made its way to the Medina (the old city), and we were guided through a main street, with merchants hawking every sort of locally available vegetable and fruit. Walked into the Restaurant Hammadi, we were treated to plush seating, four live musicians, and a delicious lunch consisting of bread, soup, beef kabobs, couscous with chicken, a honey-laced dessert and mint tea. J and I opted to try the local brew, "33," which was disappointingly lacking in character. Elena, on the other hand, went for the local version of orange Fanta, which disappointedly tasted like the US version - bright orange and sickly sweet. It was an otherwise fine meal, and we had a good laugh at the expense of the vegetarians. Especially since they were served "vegetable" couscous, with the veggies obviously stewed along with the chicken like everyone else's.

We were then walked through the Souk (marketplace), being hounded by poor touts selling all kinds of useless, touristy junk. "No!" was the word of the day. Crappy little ceramic and goatskin drum? No! Wooden camels? No! Cheap metal bracelets? No! Crappy fezzes? No! Colorful leather wallets? NO! NO! NO! Luckily, our guide did his best to keep these guys off us, at one point calling the cops over to keep us (somewhat) harassment free.

This, of course, is because he wants us to save our money to spend at his friends' overpriced carpet cooperative. You know, the type of place that doesn't want Moroccan Dirhams but gladly accepts dollars and euros. Admittedly, the carpets were fine, and if you could drive a bargain, you could walk out with a decent deal. But the high pressure sales tactics were a bit off the wall. In fact, if anything, Mohammed - the man giving the presentation on carpets - was a bit scary. He'd yell, and sternly tell us of the quality of his artisans' carpets. He'd yell and expound and stress what a value he was selling us, only cracking a smile or telling a joke occasionally. Between him and the guide, it seems to me like Moroccans have this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde switch, where they can flip-flop between charming, affable fellow and crazy gangsta mothafucka in nanoseconds.

One American sucker in our group bought a carpet. Admittedly, they're very nice, but he was stuck lugging this gigantic parcel the rest of the day, which occupied his hands and prevented him from shooing off the touts. Who, by the way, started hounding us again as soon as we left the carpet shop. Elena was approach at least three times by the same guy trying to sell a shitty little drum, each time with the starting price of 20 euro, and each time lowering it to 99 cents. Each time, the answer was NO!

We were then led to a spice and herbal shop, where Ali, the modern Moroccan version of a medicine show salesman put on a highly entertaining presentation about various spices and herbal remedies. He, too, suffered from Mr. Hyde disease, interrupting the show every few minutes to furiously cuss out his brother in Arabic. Very entertaining.

Unlike the carpet gig, however, the prices were more than reasonable, so I wound up with a haul of good stuff. I bought saffron, "the king of spices" at 12 euro for 6 grams - an amazing deal if you're familiar with saffron at all. I also bought several packages of Nigella. Not only because of its anti-sinus and anti-snoring properties, but because I so lust for cooking host Nigella Lawson that I had to buy her namesake herb. Silly, I know, but now I can say I sleep with Nigella every night. I topped my shopping bag off with several bars of musk, just to see if the anti-mosquito effect really works. If not, it's only 2 euro down the drain. Deal!

Sadly, I didn't realize until well after we'd left the place that I only got 8 euro in change instead of 26. I thought the rolls of coins the cashier gave me were worth 10 each, but instead were worth 1. Oh well... I was in fucking MOROCCO!

On our way out, we were once again mobbed by the same group of touts. Elena was once again harassed a few times by the same idiot trying to sell the same shitty drum. Either he's the most persistent junk merchant on earth, or he has the memory of a goldfish. Trying to deflect the attention, when another high-pressure fez sales associate turned up, she said, "Hey J! Didn't you want a fez?"

The guy ran after J and started trying to push his cheap wares on him. Starting price: 10 euro. J wouldn't have it. He lowered his price to 3 euro. Secretly, I longed for a cheesy-ass fez, so I interjected. "How 'bout the same price for two?" The guy's eyes lit up and he gladly accepted a handful of shrapnel for a couple of shitty souvenir hats. Immediately, another guy selling fezzes jumped into the fray, insisting that he'd talked to me first. I waved him off. "Whatever, man. Yallah!" My super-limited Arabic actually came into good use. As soon as I uttered a bit of his mother tongue, the guy backed off.

Don't fuck with a polyglot.

I looked down at my new fez and realized that it's a faux Louis Vuitton. I shit you not.

We finished our walk through the Medina and hopped on the bus again. Looking at the clock, it was getting late, and we knew we were coming close to our ferry's departure time from the port. But our guide had more friends to feed, so we got a tour of the outskirts of town and ended up on the top of a hill where several men were waiting with camels for us to ride. All at the discount price of... one euro! Nope, no sarcasm here. One euro to get on the back of a cool-ass camel and take it running around a small dirt area is totally worth it. Never mind that I stepped in all sorts of camel dung, and caught a huge whiff of camel fart when my ride decided it needed to expell some gas. Ewwwww. But all was forgiven. My camel was so cute, I could hold no ill will against her.

Back on the bus, we looked at the clock and thought, "Oh shit!" It was about 30 minutes to sailing time, and we still had to go to the immigration officers to get our exit stamps sorted. We took comfort in the fact that everything runs late on Moroccan Standard Time, so we'd probably make it, no problem.

Wrong. We missed our ferry's gangway by about 30 seconds, and had to wait around for the next one. Which, of course, took nearly forever to get going, but overall it wasn't as long as the first crossing. In fact, it was pretty damn quick once it had embarked, and we had no problems getting back into Spain.

Driving in Spain is dreamy as it is. Roundabouts instead of cloverleafs, people who know the rules of passing on the left, people who don't block your way when you're going well over the speed limit - If only I could bring the country's road sensibility back to the States. What made the drive home even better was our first foray onto the Autopista Peaje - the network of toll roads that criss-cross spain. Wide, well-lit lanes, super-long tunnels that bore through the mountains, and seemingly no Guardia Civil to stop you from shattering the 120 km/h (75 mph) speed limit - all at a super-low toll. Our 120 km or so run on the AP took less than 45 minutes, which is pretty impressive, even for the middle of the night.

Overall thoughts on Tangier? Everyone says that Tangier isn't worthwhile, because it's like the Tijuana of Morocco. A port (not unlike border) town, with a culturally watered down mish-mash of people and too many beggars and touts. Personally, I thought it was fantastic. Yes, the lack of stereotypical imagery was a letdown. If anything, much of Tangier is vibrant and modern and not unlike any other European city, with cafes, young well-to-do people walking about on mobile phones, and fancy cars and suburban tract houses. Also, there wasn't an impressive amount of Arab architecture to check out on this tour. In fact, the city's old mosque seemed pretty rinky dink to me, and I thought I'd at least see some more intricate Moorish architecture. Oh well, there's always the Alhambra in Granada for that! Finally, I think J triggered the best analogy when he first mentioned that the zaytunas were similar to Jawa cloaks: steely, persistent, and annoying little bastards trying to sell you junk that probably isn't theirs to begin with. Mind you, I'm not generalizing all Moroccans in any way. Just the annoying little bastards hounding you on the street every chance they could. Even then, they're probably making a more honest living than myself or anyone else reading this. Otherwise, between my interactions with various merchants, folks at the restaurant, and our guide, the place has a surprisingly warm and friendly vibe, and I woul dlove to come back and explore both Tangier and Morocco further.

Before going on this trip, I considered the daytrip to Tangier and had read all the nightmares and horror stories from others who'd done it. These people are wussies. Yes, there are annoyances. Yes, it can seem awfully third world at times. And yes, these tour operators are in the business of making euros. But it's all worthwhile. Put your preconceived notions aside and go for the ride. It may not be everything you expect, but it certainly isn't everything you fear, either.


  1. Aaahhh, I'm so freaking jealous. You have exactly the right attitude to head to India though, maybe you should think about that next. :) It sounds more than a little similar. Did I mention I'm jealous? Or that I'm totally and completely JEALOUS?!?! :P

  2. cool now you can exchange your goofy red profile hat for a fez...should have donned it for you camel ride photo. nice entry.

  3. Salaam aleykym Omid!
    Very interesting blog with great pictures.
    I have been to Morocco and I really liked this amazing and exotic country. Most of all I liked Tangiers. With its souks, traditional Moroccan cuisine and loads of sights to see, its the perfect destination for your Moroccan holiday. I know that many people buy in Tangiers property, because it is very popular to tourists and Moroccan holiday makers and it has beautiful beaches to entertain them.
    Also I liked tour to the Sahara desert, it was really amazing trip.