I’ve been to four continents now. I can swagger around and say, “Yup, I’ve been to Africa.” It’s true, I really have. But we did it the entry-level way. We didn’t have to apply for visas, we didn’t have to get any extra vaccinations, we didn’t have to learn any new languages, and we didn’t go anywhere unescorted. We were able to get our feet wet with virtually no risk. We simply signed up for a cultural day trip and the tour company took care of all the complicated parts. It was enough for us to understand that committing to extended travel in North Africa on our own would be a more serious undertaking. The wing-it method had the paradoxical effect of motivating me to do much more advance prep.
We woke up early and checked out of the Algeciras Marriott. That hotel was an insane bargain. As far as we could tell, we might well have been the only guests! We took a cab to the Port to meet the shuttle that would take us to the ferry that would carry us over the 88 miles of sea to Morocco. It was rainy and still dark.
There was an important errand we needed to fit in between the arrival of the shuttle bus and the departure of the ferry. We had inquired about a place where we could lock up our massive backpacks for the day, and the only enterprise that would do it was a travel agency about a quarter mile up the road from the ferry terminal. It was a very brisk walk uphill, and a faster jog back. We barely made it. We were herded into line and given identifying stickers, much as I would do if I were supervising a kindergarten field trip.
The ferry was a fascinating experience on its own. Even the icon on the women’s restroom was dressed modestly. There were plenty of women in Western dress, and I didn’t get any funny looks, but I definitely looked foreign in this context. Especially considering that I had to get out my sewing kit and try to stitch down the strap on our little day pack before it ripped loose.
One of the many things travel will do is to teach you the precise meaning of the phrase You Get What You Pay For. We’re turning into gear snobs.
We disembarked and walked down the gangplank, on high alert that we were about to set foot on a new continent for the first time. “Ready? One, two, three:” and we both jumped down together, then jumped up and did a double high-five, to the amusement of a German man in our group.
Our guide appeared and we did a double take. Is it just me, or does he look oddly familiar?
He asked us each to say what language we spoke. We were Spanish, English, and German. He then ran the tour in each language, one after the other, telling the same mother-in-law jokes for each group. It was funny to hear each group laughing at the appropriate spot. Perhaps that’s the only type of humor that translates into every culture? It was a very rainy day, but our cheerfully chattering guide kept us smiling as he laughed at his own jokes. It turned out that he spoke NINE languages.
The van took us past the palaces (rather: compounds) of various kings and princes from across North Africa and the Middle East. Clearly these were places of great wealth, but you’d never know it from outside. Each of them was less architecturally distinctive than the last, really just concrete blocks less Brutalist than Costco-esque. All we could do was to imagine how many lush carpets and chandeliers might be inside.
Part of the tour included areas of Tangier that had been settled by various colonizing nations. There were mosques, churches, and synagogues. We passed a café that had a mixed-gender section and a men-only section across the street. We saw veiled women on the backs of mopeds. Our guide told us that a veil on a woman did not necessarily indicate religion; many women wore them out of convenience, to keep their hair from blowing around.
Can I say this? I’m a little envious and fascinated by the hijab. My hair has been the great annoyance of my life. I could easily see myself wearing a head scarf of some kind, complete with a bodycon dress just to confuse people. Strange how a piece of fabric can be so saturated with cultural resonance, perhaps more so than a national flag, such as that of, I dunno, let’s say: Fiji.
We stopped at a lighthouse that marked the division between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. There was a camel opportunity. You could go up and take your picture with the camels, touch them if you dared, and pay a tip to ride one down the parking lot and back. The one on the right seemed receptive to light stroking; she lifted her chin and closed her eyes. The one on the left jerked his head away and vocalized his dissent. I’ll do an impression for you if you ask nicely.
There was a pretty cool cave that was supposedly where Hercules rested after he completed his labors. The interior had been visibly carved out by human hands. People had been coming here to cut their millstones for who knows how many centuries. You could see these biscuit-shaped gouges of consistent size up the walls and ceiling. How big was the cave when they started? Was it even a cave, or did we turn it into one?
We passed a beach with a large mixed group of adults in street clothes, playing soccer in the sand. It looked like maybe a family party, with some older aunties joining in.
We had spent most of the tour sitting in the van, which was great because it rained pretty hard all morning. The medina was our chance to get out and really walk around. What a maze. Most of the spaces between buildings were so narrow that you could stretch out your arms and touch both sides. There were signs, but we couldn’t read them; English is not an official language in Morocco, so if you can’t read Arabic or French, good luck. Almost everything for sale was food, mostly fresh produce. Someone was selling baggies of cooked chickpeas. Tangier would be an extremely inexpensive place to pick up groceries, even in this tourist-inflected area.
The tour included lunch. When we came in, we were greeted by a live band, and by that I mean that the musicians said hello to each of us while they played. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I had brought snacks. The menu is really only for drinks; everyone gets served the same courses. First there was a fragrant soup that clearly had egg in it. Then, for the first time since 1994, I had a plate of meat plopped in front of me. I blinked at it in the same way I would if someone had presented me with a bowling ball. Huh? Me? My husband has enjoyed some large lunches on this trip, most particularly when we take trains. “Have some more bread,” offered the kindly Brits at our table.
Then something funny happened. Funny from my perspective, anyway, because I am usually guest non grata at home. The waiter leaned over me and said in concern, “You did not eat!” “Vegetarian,” my husband said, and the waiter hurried off. He brought me a double helping of the next dish, couscous with stewed vegetables. I was touched. It really seemed that he cared and wanted me to have a good meal.
We finished with the famous Moroccan mint tea, which is even better than its reputation, and there was baklava for those who partook.
After lunch, we were set loose in the souk. Part of the experience is that various merchants rush the group, doing their best to sell trinkets and leather goods. I bought a hamsa charm, and the same vendor kept following us around trying to sell us more iterations of the same one. Anyone who works in sales or marketing would probably get a kick out of this place. You haven’t seen motivation until you’ve seen someone trying to take advantage of a 20-minute window of opportunity to make some deals. My husband took me into a jewelry shop, partly to escape the barrage for a while, and helped me pick out a pair of earrings. These were the only souvenirs we bought. It’s a question of backpack space, and it’s also a question of space in our house. We’re probably the worst-case scenario tourists for this reason; if we can’t eat it, we’re probably not buying it. Earrings are portable. The significance of this particular pair will be made clear [FORESHADOWING] in tomorrow’s post.
I had a moment, a personal moment with a Moroccan man. He bumped into me and our eyes met. “Sorry,” he said. I had no idea whether he was Berber, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, or “other.” I could hear that he was not a native English speaker, that’s all. He could do what I couldn’t, which was to apologize that we had jostled each other. In that brief exchange, I felt an electric connection. I felt it. I felt that when our eyes met, he made the effort to communicate, not just a routine politeness formula, but genuine concern. Spaniards are exceptionally nice people, but my impression of Moroccans goes just that little bit further. Their hearts are open in a way that is rare in my part of the world.
We all got back on the van and went back to the ferry terminal. Success. We had gone to Morocco, we had learned a couple of words of Arabic, we had seen some sights and eaten some food, and we hadn’t even gotten deported. We helped a tiny granny lady lift a suitcase as big as she was onto the conveyor belt at security, which was hilarious because it was unattended by personnel.
Note: the guidebook claimed that everyone who goes to Morocco has to… putting this delicately… adjust… in a GI kind of way. We had no such problems. Just saying. But I accidentally drank tap water in Cancun and I was fine then, too. Robust gut flora FTW.
We got back to Tarifa, double checked the time on the shuttle, and ran up the hill to get our packs. I had my first and only success at making a Spaniard laugh. As we tried to get our burgeoning bags out the door, I said, “Elefantes,” and the clerk tittered.
We ran back down the hill, this time with our packs on. Also a moment of FORESHADOWING. We made the shuttle. What were we going to do tonight? We had no firm plans, though we figured we could check in at the Marriott again and eat at the same falafel place. As we looked at the bus schedule, we suddenly realized that we might be able to make it to La Línea that night! Nah. Could we? We could! We caught a cab at the Port and got to the bus station just in time. UNBELIEVABLE LUCK. The wing-it method had given us a scoop of serendipity.
La Línea had us in the place of uncertainty again. We leaned against a fence, trying to get wi-fi and figure out where we could eat. This was when I found out we had used all the data on our passport, and I couldn’t reload for some reason (debit card expiration, as I learned two weeks later). We needed stove fuel (thanks, Madrid train station) and we needed to figure out how to get to the camping. I was spacy from my light lunch and starting to bonk. The ten minutes after we left the bus station were ten very aggravating minutes. Then it turned out that we were mere yards from a fantastic Chinese restaurant that had vegan food! I ate an appetizer, two entrees, a bowl of rice, and lychees. We caught a cab to the camping, the famous Rock of Gibraltar visible to our right. It was the nicest camping we’d ever seen, immaculate and orderly in every way. We pitched camp and watched the sun set over the Mediterranean, taking the opportunity to dip our hands in and taste the salty sea.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.