Tangier is sometimes spelled Tanger.
It seemed like it was straight out of the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know the scene where he is confronted by a huge black-robed sword wielder in the market, and he casually pulls out his gun and shoots him? I’ve always enjoyed watching that part from the comfort of my armchair, but I never thought I would someday be in the midst of a place where that scene could have been filmed. Never, that is, until we arrived in Tangier, Morocco, Africa.
The map of Europe and Asia that I bought to track our travels tells us a lot of information. It has the names of the countries and major cities in the native language of that country. It includes the flags, the square kilometers, the population, and the European Union entry date for each country. What it doesn’t tell you is what these countries are really like. Tangier—so close at only 56.87 kilometers (35.33 miles) from Great Britain’s overseas territory, Gibraltar, and yet so far.
Having toured a good bit of France, Rome, Athens, and Madrid, we usually do our before-travel homework to feel comfortable navigating the mass transportation systems, to learn a bit of the local language, and to find interesting sites to explore off the beaten path, so we can respect and enjoy the customs of the countries. But even after having read a few guide books and some Internet information about Tangier, we’re not sure we could have really prepared for this place, which was unlike any other we have ever been.
Day 1: An easyJet flight brought Steve, our daughter, and me from Madrid to Tangier in a little over an hour and a half. The Ibn Battouta Airport was clean, bright, and fairly deserted when we arrived. Outside, palm trees waved in the breeze and ancient beige Mercedes taxis were lined up at the curb. A sign inside the airport listed the taxi fares—100 dirhams (Moroccan currency (MAD) 1 dirham = about $0.124usd)—as the amount that could be charged from the airport to the city, a little over a half hour away. That was reassuring. We usually take set-priced metros and trams, not cabs, when we travel, and because a cab was the only way into town, we had wondered if we would fall victim to one of those overpriced wild cab rides that we had heard fellow travelers complain about in other cities. Just to be sure, I asked the driver the price before he even touched our bags, and he confirmed the 100-dirham price. We piled in the cab and started the adventure.
The ride into the center of the city took us past an amazing number of apartment buildings in all stages of construction, or deconstruction, and many roadside stands offering produce. There seemed to be a desperate need for highway cleanup and some kind of attempt at landscaping. Our silent taxi driver brought us to our hotel and deposited us on the busy street. We walked into a hotel lobby that could be the twin of the one in the film Casablanca. After filling out a check-in card and handing over our passports for registration purposes, the “bellboy” grabbed my bag and led us to the ancient elevator. We dutifully followed him and squeezed into the elevator car. On the 4th floor, he opened our door with what I presume was the only key attached to an ancient metal fob inscribed with the hotel name and the room number. “You must leave the key at the desk when you go out,” he instructed.
We still had plenty of daylight, so we stowed our bags and headed down to the beach. The wind was kicking up, but the sun was warm and the sky a beautiful blue. We walked along watching young men playing rugby-type games, headscarved girls giggling with each other, and two men galloping on the beach with their horses. The water was the richest blue I have ever seen.
Day 2: Every travel book I had read recommended getting a tour guide in Tangier. We had never engaged one in any of our previous travels, but something about this repeated mantra gave us pause, and we thought that it might be a prudent idea. So we journeyed down to the harbor where we had heard the guides congregated and met the ferries that came from Gibraltar or Tarifa to offer their services. We were about to get some dirhams from the ATM when Abdul, who reminded me of a slick used-car salesman, approached us. He offered his services to show us around Tangier and would provide a driver to boot. The price seemed around what we had heard guides charged, so we agreed.
We got in one of the ubiquitous beige taxis with the driver named Mustafa at the wheel and Abdul in the front passenger seat. Soon we were in the thick of the traffic with people walking randomly into the road to cross the street, cars merging from right and left, and a noticeable absence of traffic lights. It was a free-for-all traffic pattern. Our thought: Not having to drive in Tangier—priceless. As we rode along, Abdul gave us a history lesson of Morocco and skillfully avoided my questions about his thoughts on the king and the politics of the region. He directed Mustafa to stop at the usual tourist sites for photo ops, and he let us get out of the car and take some pictures and then return to the relative safety of the taxi—although working seat belts are optional equipment.
Soon we started climbing into the outskirts of town where the palaces are. Abdul pointed out this or that sultan’s digs that greatly contrasted with the hovels that we saw on the drive from the airport. Shortly, we approached an area where we saw some large brownish animals chewing their cuds. They were dromedary camels, and they were cute as could be. Abdul asked if we would like to take a spin on the camels. We managed to mount them, to hold on as they got up off their knees, and to take a turn around the “camel-lot.” Steve’s dromedary had an 8-month-old baby, Fatima, who took a real shine to him, and I think she was trying to kiss him. Or maybe eat his shirt. One of the camel handlers placed his too-small red fez on Steve for the pictures and then tried to sell it to him at a “good price.”
The tour continued back into town, and Abdul and we separated from Mustafa and the taxi. Venturing through the Old Town market called the Medina and the Petit Socco (Little Square) can only really be done on foot because of the narrow, winding lanes that snake through the 600-year-old area. Without a guide we would have been irretrievably lost or worse—no GPS will get you out of here. It seemed like a world where time has been suspended. We passed by a bakery where people drop off their dough to be baked in the communal oven. I snapped a photo, and then saw Abdul throw some coins at the man seated in front of the open oven in payment for the picture. Peeking in other doorways, we saw other handcrafters practicing the traditions that have not changed over the centuries.
I had read about some of the less-than-ethical tactics of tour guides, so I was keeping my eyes open for any signs of such with Abdul. He wasn’t exactly dishonest, but we soon realized that our tour was being orchestrated to be potentially financially advantageous for him. Tour guides can get a 20% kickback on items tourists buy. He took us to an “authentic Moroccan” restaurant that gave us the scant tourist lunch menu, and then he brought us to other shops where we knew he would receive a commission for any of our purchases. In one carpet shop, we were escorted into a showroom and served mint tea while carpets were unrolled before us. Jewelry and silver shops followed, even though we had told him we weren’t interested in shopping. He tried in vain to entice us but to no avail, and I thought I detected some exasperation surfacing through his jokes.
Our tour spanned about five hours, and then he and we were ready to call it quits; we were ready for a little respite from the traffic and merchants of Tangier and, by this time, Abdul needed another smoke. We separated, and we found a quiet restaurant across from the hotel and ducked in for a tagine—a savory stew dish traditionally cooked in a clay pot over coals.
Day 3: Having survived Day 2 of Tangier, we were emboldened to do a solo day without the security of a guide. Our target was the American Legation Museum, a building in the heart of Tangier that was given to America by the Sultan of Morocco back in 1821 and is owned by the United States. But, said target was eluding us, it seemed. We were armed with a guidebook and the map we had gotten at the tourist information building, but we found that street name signs were woefully lacking. We concluded that the economy there is such that street signs (and traffic lights) would be an expensive luxury and not nearly as much daily fun. Now, when three obviously non–Moroccan-looking people are standing on a corner with a tourist map, people notice. And it’s not always those who want to selflessly come to the aid of strangers, although one woman did mercifully help us at one corner. Later, as we were heading in what we thought was the right direction, a 20-something “guide” zeroed in on us like a mosquito at a nudist camp, saying, “I speak good English. I am student. I know all Tangier. I show you everywhere.” “No, thanks. Non, merci. Lah, shokran,” we repeated and repeated and repeated. No matter how we phrased it, his monologue continued. He followed us down the street, crossing when we did as we tried to lose him, still giving his spiel for a solid kilometer. Finally, we stopped again to consult the map and tried to think. It was then that Steve and I yelled at him in unison, “GO AWAY!” He pretended to be offended, muttering something in his Arabic dialect, and thankfully, headed back the way we had come. I stuffed the guidebook in my bag to hide it, and we tried to appear confident as if we knew where we were going. Where was Abdul now when we needed him?
Venturing back into the labyrinth of the Petit Socco, we searched for the American Legation Museum once more. Climbing the steps from Rue de Portugal, we were again accosted by another man, who looked to be in his mid-40s. “I’m not guide. I just help you. Welcome to my country.” He latched on and started following us. We tried to lose him, but, as before, he wasn’t taking no for an answer. As he persisted, our patience waned. The final straw was when he looked at our daughter, Beth, and offered us 200 camels for her. We didn’t have a clue as to the going rate for a 25-year-old unmarried woman, but we thought that might have been a little low given the amount we’ve invested in her over the years. Steve countered with a bid of 300 camels and one Moroccan carpet. At that point, we invoked our loud American voices again, directing him to depart, and he told us he didn’t have to go away—it was his country. I guess his original welcome to us had been withdrawn.
Finally, with a knock at the door, the American Legation Museum (ALM) welcomed us in. As the ALM guide closed the door behind us, we soaked in the peace of the museum. It was a refuge in the middle of this intense place. We wandered around, taking in some of the fine art and the Moroccan architectural elements that are so well preserved there. My favorite piece was the humorous 1839 letter from Thomas Cole, American consul in Tangier to the U.S. State Department, explaining his efforts to unsuccessfully refuse two lions from the Sultan of Morocco to the American people. He finally had to give over a room of the consulate to the lions. I wonder how that ended up.
All the evasive actions that we were required to take to make our way in Tangier left us hungry after the museum. I had read that La Maison Communautaire des Femmes, a not-for-profit women’s community center that provides career training for women, also served lunch. Again, we felt we were on a scavenger hunt searching for its location, but we finally found it after hopping into one of the little blue petit-taxis that are everywhere, and it was well worth the quest. We left the hustle of the street for this oasis within a courtyard. The meal was a simple but well-prepared three-course Moroccan dish at an economical 60 dirhams ($7.50), which supports the work of the community center. We hated to leave the calm, clean, and sunny spot, but after lunch, we made our exit by the slipper merchants where Beth found her long sought-after Moroccan Jasmine-like (think Disney’s Aladdin) bejeweled slippers.
Walking along the Avenue Mohammed V on the way back to our hotel, a young man sidled up to Steve and thrust his open palm in front of Steve hoping for a “donation.” Steve tried to ignore him because he seemed drunk/drugged and was insistent, even trying to open the side zipper pocket of Steve’s jacket. When Steve batted his hand away, I realized what was happening and strongly told him to go away. “Go! Run!” I said, waving my arms in a frenzied windmill-like fashion that resembled a chicken in a state of apoplexy. (My husband has always relied on my brawn, if not my loud mouth, for protection. This incident has prompted Steve to start referring to me as Mo-Rocco.) The guy took me literally and started to run down the street. From across the road, we saw a small man in a white baseball jacket run across and grab him. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, uniformed policemen joined him and started “handling” him, leading him away somewhere. We were surprised at the quick response of Tangier P.D. Later, I learned that there are special police in place that work to protect tourists from unsavory characters. We hoped that they had taken him to a nice place to sober up.
After that, for our last night in Tangier, we decided to stick close to home and headed for the hotel restaurant for the best meal of our stay. We had a flight back to Madrid the next day, and we would soon be separated once again. We were traveling back to Grenoble, and Beth was going to Ireland, staying in Dublin for a couple of days to visit friends, then on to Barcelona, and finally back to Madrid before returning once again to America.
The exotic city of Tangier is one we will not soon forget. It’s not surprising that it has been the filming location of some of Steve’s favorite movies, including Inception and The Bourne Ultimatum. Yes, these are movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where we would have felt right at home!