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I hopped off the ferry from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco and was overwhelmed by dueling accents of French and Arabic from a swarm of young boys vying to carry my suitcase. The high humidity of the July afternoon made my blouse cling like a wet T-shirt.
The boys eyed the luggage of my husband and daughter. One spindly teen sporting a black polo shirt, shorts and a green bead bracelet offered to “guide” us, so he could practice his English.
But a friend had warned us not to hire anyone approaching us on the street. Many, she said, will charge for unwanted services. But this go-getter was not easily discouraged. Though I turned him down twice, it wasn’t until I ignored him that he finally moved on.
Our Guardian Angel Appears
A tall, 50ish man dressed in a flowing beige robe or thobe, waved to us from the other side of the street. He must be our hired guide, I thought, as we were the only party of three who appeared disoriented and in need of a ride.
This guardian angel seemed to sense my distress, as I shooed away another slick-moving teen from my suitcase. He crossed the street with long strides, grabbed two of our bags, and barked something in Arabic to the boys, who scattered.
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“Dorothy?” he asked before he slid our luggage into his van and welcomed us to Morocco with a warm wink. He said he was known as Abdul. I smiled and thanked him for sending the young hustlers on their way.
“Not what you were expecting, as you stepped off the ferry,” he said with a soft Arabic accent, nodding at Christie and Dan. “If I lead you through the non-touristy spots of Tangier, you won’t be bothered again, Insha’Allah, God willing. But at the Medina, within the old walled city, the shopkeepers might follow you around.”
There was something reassuring in the way Abdul carried himself, like a protective older brother, that put me at ease in this bohemian port city.
Dressing for Ramadan
He said we were visiting during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, as he observed our 24-year-old daughter’s short shorts and tank top. “Best to cover yourself from the shoulders to your knees,” he advised, “to respect the religious rituals of Ramadan.” Christie looked down at her feet and apologized. Oh, why didn’t I insist she wear something less revealing before we ferried to Tangier?
“We’re sorry, Abdul,” I said. “We’re guests in a Muslim country and would never want to offend anyone.”
Abdul bowed his head, his right hand welcoming us to take a seat in his van. I felt safe under Abdul’s guidance, cocooned with Dan and Christie behind tinted glass and I was drawn to the unfamiliar all around us: pulsating drumbeats in the distance; the mysterious and vibrant spirit felt outside the Medina as we drove by; and the haze of smoke on patios where men exclusively gathered to puff on cigarettes and sip Coca-Cola.
I longed to be off my guard and to move freely through the streets without being targeted as a tourist. But I sensed my Western clothing, honey-brown hair and blue eyes would give me away.
Historic El Minzah Hotel
Minutes later, Abdul dropped us off at El Minzah Hotel. Built in the 1930s, the hotel’s iron-studded wooden doors, horseshoe arches, and colorful tilework reflected the style of Moorish architecture and emanated an eerie, otherworldly presence.
From 1924 – 1956, Tangier was jointly governed by nine European countries. This International Zone became a magnet for expatriate artists, writers, political refugees and unsavory characters who hoped to lose themselves where the cost of living was low, life was enjoyed at one’s own pace and access to opium and hashish was readily available.
Literary legends like Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles and Ian Fleming had written some of their best work at El Minzah in the 1950s and 60s. Glimpsing their photos as I climbed the stairs to our room, I wished for their creativity and ideas to seep into me through osmosis.
A perfume of dried rosebuds and orange blossoms enveloped me as I entered our room and walked to the terrace. Above a large courtyard, I could hear dogs barking, birds squawking, motorcycle engines revving, babies crying and men shouting in aggressive tones.
My senses came alive with this random surge of energy. The silver-blue water in the distance obscured the neglect of dilapidated buildings in the foreground, where a rooftop clothesline waved skimpy intimate apparel in the breeze beside red and white checked head scarves, black and white striped robes and a forest green cape.
A haunting chant echoed across the city at sunset. I felt privileged to experience the Muslim call to prayer high above the glittery skyline and Bay of Tangier. Recited in Arabic, the language of the Quran, its mournful tone felt soul-stirring. After two to three minutes, the chant faded under a veil of darkness.
Navigating the Medina Maze
El Minzah Hotel stood in the heart of Tangier, midway between the port and the Medina, the old Arab quarter. We’d arranged with Abdul to escort us the next day through the endless maze of streets and alleyways of the Medina, as well as the Kasbah and The Grand Mosque if we had time. Not that I minded going around in circles and getting lost. That was part of the fun.
I was pulled in all directions at the souk or market, keeping one hand on my purse, while Abdul steered Christie, Dan and me through a dense arena of outdoor theatre. Snake charmers to my right. Henna tattoo artists to my left. Leashed monkeys in the middle doing flips.
I’d been advised to avoid eye contact with these merchants, so they wouldn’t drape a snake around my neck for a paid picture. Soon I spotted a long-legged young man in ripped jeans creep up beside me to plop a red-collared monkey on my shoulders. I spun around him with a fancy dance move and ran in the opposite direction.
How quickly I blended into the thick crowd despite my light hair and backpack bouncing over my shoulder. Ripples of people spread across the souk, spiraling into waves that dragged me along and swallowed up my identity. I was lost in a sea of humanity without a passport and worried my escape route would elude Dan, Christie and Abdul. But minutes later, I spotted them trailing close behind.
“Bonjour, madame,” called a vendor in a loud tenor voice, waving a rainbow of leather slippers my way. “Bon prix, pour vous!” he said hoping, perhaps, I was French and promising a discount if I purchased his wares.
Tasty Temptations Everywhere
Driven by hunger pangs, I snubbed the slipper salesman and drew close to food stalls of fresh goat cheese wrapped in palm leaves, kebabs of grilled lamb with cumin and pita-wrapped prawns with pomegranates. Abdul and Christie soon sidled up to the stall where Dan treated us to prawns bursting with saffron and smoked paprika in every bite.
More savory concoctions tempted me around the corner. But I broke free from my food trance when a spice seller let out a mournful cry and reached out his hand to pull me into his store. I was startled, but also curious to see what tactics he’d use next.
I strolled down the middle aisle, passing huge bags of spices aromatically spaced and the vendor on my heels ready to pounce if I indicated a preference. Again, his woeful wail. Perhaps a way to lure me in, and to drive his sale. I pointed to the turmeric, paid for a small pouch, and slipped out the door.
Back in the main marketplace, I found Dan, Christie and Abdul lingering at the food stalls. Abdul suggested a camel ride before ferrying back to Spain.
“We’re all in,” I heard myself say.
A Desert Camel Ride
Abdul drove to an expanse of desert about 20 miles away with a herd of ragtag camels waiting for us. I immediately noticed their earthy, barnyard odor; a funky, musty smell that stayed with me. Our three camels were in kneeling position ready to mount.
Dan and Christie eased into their respective saddles with no visible signs of apprehension to be eight feet off the ground. I swung my left leg over the camel’s hump. He stood up with his hind legs first and lurched forward. I instinctively raised my right arm, as I’d practiced in Texas years ago when riding an electric bull.
My camel bared his teeth with a snarl when he turned around and observed me on his back. In case he bucked, I braced myself for a fall into the hot, gritty sand. But when I relaxed the last few minutes of the ride, my experience felt more like an offbeat adventure.
This serendipitous camel ride had hurled me into the unknown and out of my comfort zone. It was a freedom I hadn’t felt in a while. I craved another experience out of the ordinary, close to the edge — and the crazier the better before heading back to Spain.
The Art of Haggling
Haggling, I’d read, is a signature skill of Moroccans. Why not match wits with a master to sharpen my own performance? Years ago, I’d bargained down a merchant in India for two handcrafted wall hangings. I could try again here and come home with a lovely Berber carpet.
I asked Abdul to stop at a rug market before seeing us off at the ferry terminal. He agreed with a nod. Dan, Christie and I strolled into the display room, while Abdul sat cross-legged on the sidelines. We were soon greeted with cups of piping-hot mint tea.
Two middle-aged men with muscular builds unrolled eight rugs of various sizes for our perusal. A deep red one with geometric patterns of navy, grey blue and teal won me over, but I kept a poker face. Dan thought we were being pulled in too soon, weakening our haggling strength. He exited the showroom. I checked my watch and said we had more stops along the way.
Though we showed no clear preferences for color, pattern or size, our choices within minutes were pared down to three. The seller wrote an acceptable price for each on a pad of paper. I divided his price in half and offered him two-thirds of it with a smile. He balked, as he wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
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“The women who weaved this carpet for five months and carried it over the Atlas Mountains on camels cannot live on the money you offer,” he said. This was a story reserved for tourists, friends had warned us in advance. In fact, camels haven’t been used for that type of transportation in 30 years…though I recognized that funky scent.
“With all due respect, the rug still smells of camels…unless that’s meant as an extra souvenir from the sale,” I said with a laugh.
The salesman looked amused as if I’d called his bluff. When his eyes gazed up at the ceiling, I thought his asking price would fall. He grabbed the pad and cut his price by 50%. This price seemed more reasonable, as the playing field leveled. I lowered my offer slightly, one foot out the door if my price was rejected. The merchant threw up his hands in bewilderment but, after a long pause, he reconsidered.
“Yes, of course,” he said, as he offered a firm handshake emphasizing a commitment to our agreed price. Considering the lilt in his voice, I sensed he was happy with our transaction – maybe a little too happy! But I learned that everything is negotiable, and a smile and a sense of humor help.
Dan thought I had overpaid for the rug, but so what if I had? The beauty of the handwoven rug brought me joy, and it would remind me over the years of our adventures in Morocco. I loved the rug and might haggle for another one on a return visit, “Insha’Allah.”
If You Go
Cape Spartel – marks the northwestern tip of Africa where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Take in stunning views above the Strait of Gibraltar. Don’t miss the nearby Hercules Cave and the Spartel Lighthouse.
The Medina of Tangier – a labyrinth of alleyways and narrow streets (both commercial and residential) contained within the walls of a 15th-century Portuguese fortress. Inhale whiffs of saffron, ginger, and cinnamon while exploring a marketplace of flowers, silks, handmade pottery and rugs. https://www.tosomeplacenew.com/things-to-do-in-tangier-morocco/
Author’s Bio: Dorothy Maillet is a writer and adventurer from Irvington, NY. Her travels have taken her across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. She has been a freelance feature writer for Gannett Newspapers, and her stories have appeared in the anthology, A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel, Pembrokeshire Life (Wales), BootsnAll Travel, Westchester Life, and Go World Travel Magazine.