Less than savvy: Tangiers, Morocco

I try not to be the stereotypical stupid tourist when I travel. Before I go somewhere, I look into guidebooks, consult friends, websites – you name it. I do all of this so that when I arrive in a foreign land I don’t look completely ignorant. I do it so when I visit somewhere different, I don’t make rookie mistakes. I do it so when I’m immersed in another culture, I don’t act like a dumbass. But, sometimes, despite my best efforts, I do anyways…

It was evening in Tarifa, Spain. My friend Justin (pictured above) and I were relaxing on the 3rd-story rooftop of our hostel. Gazing south, we watched large freighters pass through the 8-mile gap between two landmasses. We were sitting on the southern tip of Europe. Beyond the ships and low clouds to the south were the mountains of Africa, rising abruptly from the Strait of Gibraltar. As the sun set on the Atlantic, the distant lights of Morocco flickered to life. Tomorrow we were crossing that narrow strait and heading towards those lights. Tomorrow we were going to Africa.

Looking back, I saw details of the Spanish coast disappear behind a white wake and sea spray. The ferry was fast; in thirty minutes our boat was docking in the blue-watered Moroccan port of Tangiers, a place often cited as ‘difficult’ to visit. There, the competition to get tourist dollars is particularly fierce. Every guidebook warns visitors extensively of faux guides and swindler’s tricks. They also say to always pretend you know where you’re going, even when you don’t, lest you get taken advantage of.

The Old Quarter from above

On shore, we did our best to feign confidence and follow directions to our hostel. Yet, our best led us into a maze of crowded narrow corridors, with no end in sight. So when two men appeared and offered their assistance, we promptly disregarded all previous advice. “The Dar Jameel, we’ll show you. Follow us.” Justin and I looked at each other, shrugged and followed the men. To their credit, they led us right to our hostel, the Dar Jameel – a peaceful refuge from the crowded streets. After unloading our belongings we found the two men were still outside, waiting for us. They introduced themselves as Achmed and Achmed and offered to show us around the city.  Again, we agreed. Guidebooks, as it turns out, really aren’t much help if you ignore them.

Following our new ‘guides,’ we headed towards the old Casbah. We passed carts overflowing with flatbread, hoards of curious children and vendors selling an array of fragrant fruits and vegetables, half of which resembled props from Star Wars. We were in a sea of people shouting Arabic and moving about as if standing still was frowned upon.  Tangiers was exotic, exciting, and well past overwhelming.

A less hectic corner of the Medina

Shortly thereafter, the Achmeds led us into a shop filled with a multitude of rugs draped over tables, hung on walls, and rolled into any available space. The storeowner appeared from the shadows, greeted us like old friends, brought us sweet mint tea and began a well-orchestrated sales pitch. First, he cloaked Justin and me in silk sheets so that we’d resemble Bedouin people… or so I guessed. “Now you look like Jesus in the desert,” the large Arab man proclaimed with a smile. Although I was satisfied with my resemblance to Christ, I was still leery. Maybe it was because the man bore an uncanny resemblance to Stromboli, the Disney villain who deceived, caged, and, presumably, had his way with Pinocchio. Or maybe it was because, ultimately, I knew he was after our money. Either way, I was uneasy of such kindness.

The salesman laid out many Berber carpets before us. Indeed, they were all stunning. Yet, I had no intention of buying one. This didn’t bode well with Stromboli. “My friend, tell me which one you like, and I will help you,” he would say. “They are very nice, I just have nowhere to put one,” I’d say back. “Just let me help you,” he would insist.  When he realized I wasn’t swaying in my position, he became angry. “Do you not like these carpets?” He barked. “No I just, ugh…” As I trailed off, my eyes began to wander around the shop. We were a couple of stories up inside a narrow building with very few windows. There was only one downstairs exit and the rooftop walls were embedded with shards of broken glass. We were trapped inside a carpet shop with an angry Disney villain.

Stromboli then turned to Justin, who had expressed interest in a small rug. After a long, heated negotiation, they arrived at a reasonable price. But, wishing not to spend money, Justin had left his credit card in our room. “No problem my friend, Achmed will take you back to get it,” the salesman said. So Justin headed back to our hostel with one of our guides, leaving me alone with 1000 carpets and a puppet rapist.

Becoming separated from your travel companion on your first day in Morocco was not suggested in our research. And, I may be wrong, but I don’t believe being alone in a dimly lit shop with a large, erratic stranger was either. But, there I was, twiddling my thumbs and hoping for Justin’s return. Twenty minutes passed and still no sign of him. I grew nervous. Stromboli sat at a large desk at one end of the room, staring forward with a stern expression. “What a dumb idea this was,” I thought. I had no real clue where I was in the city, nightfall was approaching and the only person I knew on the continent had run off with a guy named Achmed. Then, just as I contemplated heading to the roof with the most magical-looking carpet and taking my chances, Justin returned with his credit card. Immediately, the smile returned to Stromboli’s face. I’m thankful Justin bought the carpet. I guess he thought it was better to leave the shop with one rolled up in hand than rolled up in one.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the streets with the Achmeds in a state of combined awe and suspicion. In the early evening, they took us back to our hostel. Our guides then invited us to go to their place for dinner. They both seemed like nice guys, and they were probably on the level, but we had taken enough risks for one day. We thanked them, gave them each a generous tip and said goodbye.

That night we sat on the roof of the Dar Jameel, which had a near panoramic view of the city, and smoked hookah. At first, the many mistakes of the day occupied my mind. It was unnerving to think of what could have happened. But as we continued smoking hookah, the sun inched towards the sea and a breeze blew in from the mountains. Now, to the north, the lights of Spain appeared. They were as distant and strange as the lights of Africa had been the night before. As I marveled at the difference a thirty-minute boat ride can make, my thoughts finally settled. Then, only one occurrence kept drifting back to my mind…

After leaving Stromboli’s, we stopped to rest near an old church when one guide walked up with a smile and pointed towards the cemetery. There we saw two tortoises doing it in the slow, strained way only large-shelled reptiles can. We, too, smiled and laughed. Justin and I were sitting in a church garden, with two Muslim men named Achmed, in North Africa, watching tortoises plow in the shade of a tombstone. While it stands as one of the oddest moments I’ve ever witnessed, there was something innately comforting and familiar about the situation: no matter where you are, what culture you’re from, and how many stupid things you’ve done in a day, animals having sex is always funny.

Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing

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