Tangier was quite the experience. I could make this blog update either factual, or tell it like a story — I think I’ll do both. Let’s begin the adventure with saying that the trip was a bittersweet one…
The reason we went to Tangier in the first place was once again based off of cheap flights from Ryan Air. Our flight was on Thursday, March 22nd and returned Saturday, March 24th (a little bit unorthodox for our weekend trips). Long story short, we spent another night in our beloved Terminal 1 in Madrid Barajas Airport, because our flight Thursday morning was at 6am. We ran into our friend from our program at the airport which made the night a little more pleasant. After exchanging money at the airport (1:8 Moroccan Durham/U.S. Dollar) we were bound for Africa on our lengthy one hour flight. If you’re unfamiliar with the geographical location of Tangier it’s located on the Northern coast of Morocco, and along the Strait of Gibraltar. It was funny because on a clear day you could see across the Strait and view Spain (home).
The Tangier airport was very small — it only had 3 gates in total. As we were walking off the plane onto the tarmac, Ali spotted a dog running across the runway (it was if we were in a movie). So here we are, tip of Africa, and our first experience is a dog running around the airport…luckily security was more legit than that upon arriving at customs. Unlucky for us, small airport meant small staff, and small staff meant extremely long lines for customs…
The only way to get around Tangier — besides walking — is to take a taxi. There are two different types of taxis in Morocco, a petit taxi (for within the town — metered taxis) and there are grand taxis (for travel between towns — negotiated/bartered price). So after finding a terrible map in a brochure in the airport, we caught a taxi to get to our hotel. Luckily, we had an awesome driver named Mustafo who spoke no English, and very broken Spanish, but loved telling us about his hometown of Tangier.
The airport was about 20km away from our hotel which was located along the beach line of the harbor of Tangier. Along the way, Mustafo pointed out the slums of the town (similar to Brazilian favelas), but also the upscale hotels, skyscrapers, and parks — or the future of Tangier, or so it seemed. Within 10 years the city will look completely different, there was construction absolutely everywhere which was an excellent sign. They are currently working on a huge marina for their harbor that I imagine will mirror cities like Miami, or San Diego.
We stayed in a nice, but outdated hotel because hostels are hard to come by in Tangier. We had a view of the beach, Mediterranean Sea, and of Spain from our patio window! And to top it all off, we even had a TV! Overall, it was a good value.
That first morning we walked extremely far along the beach boardwalk towards the Medina (old medieval area of Tangier). Along the boardwalk there were many discos, clubs, and bars. In fact, probably the only bars in Tangier for the most part, because of Muslim countries and Shariah Law which prohibits the consumption of alcohol for Muslims. This day it was beautiful outside! Kids were biking, playing in the parks, many people were out and about, and we even saw camels on the beach!
We arrived to the Medina and had an amazing lunch (see later) at a local, family-owned restaurant. We then walked through the little and gigantic markets of the Grand and Petit Succo (Bazaars). Thursday was the largest market day of the week, so all the town was out shopping and bartering. However, the tiny, medieval streets were extremely complicated and frustrating to navigate. One moment you’re in a crowded plaza, and just like Aladdin, the next moment you’re in someone’s doorway. Walking around you were inebriated by tons of new smells, sights, colors languages, signs, and everything else. I loved this cultural sensory overload. However, that’s when the horror struck — the billion hagglers in the town trying to sell you everything and their Mom. The hagglers will beg you to come in their shops, or try haggle you in to tours, and they will even ask you to give them money if you ask for directions, it was quite overwhelming. It gets worse when the hagglers know English, Spanish, French, and Arabic so they seem to be quite the threat when they’re chasing you 5 blocks up the street!
We quickly became tired of the hagglers and sat down at some benches in a plaza outside the Grand Succo to find some safe haven. It worked for awhile, until we met Rashid. Rashid “claimed/was” a painter from Tangiers. He knew up to 8 languages, and had traveled the world immensely. You could say he’s one of the world’s most interesting men. Rashid approached us not like the other hagglers, he simply was an older gentleman who wanted to chat, or so we thought. We had our guards up for the first 20 minutes of the conversation, but we quickly befriended the guy and he invited us to join him in the French district, across the street from the French consulate, for some Moroccan green mint tea at the famous Cafe de Paris in Tangier. The place is known for its art and music culture and has been the set for movies such as the Bourne Ultimatum. We sat out on the patio watching the Tangier streets and enjoying the green tea with orange blossoms — I’m not a huge fan of tea, but this was great! After conversing with Rashid for about another 45 minutes, he had seemed to tell us everything about Tangier and Morocco from its history to its sites, and from its multi-cultural background to its cuisine. He said he would hail a cab for Ali and I and join us for an afternoon at one of Tangiers famous sites, the Caves of Hercules. At this point, he was our only better-known acquaintance in the country so we figured sure, what the heck.
After another crazy taxi ride out to the coast we arrived at our destination. The Caves of Hercules are a naturally formed cavern that is near where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. The folklore of the caverns say that Hercules came here to rest on his 7th day of fighting and carved the caves — sound a bit like Paul Bunyan if you ask me. It was beautiful to see, but the most fascinating part for me was the fishing village that it was in. There were little restaurants built into the cliffs, with patios on naturally formed rock plateaus overlooking the sea. Tons of local fisherman catching the days fresh catch in crystal clear waters, and a tiny market where sweets and produce were sold.
As we were returning from the Caves of Hercules, Ali and I had started to realize that he was a swindler and was giving us a tour of Tangier. For one, he had paid for everything by this point, although we had offered to pay many times; two, he knew everyone in this fishing village and walked around introducing us to everyone, but they seemed almost too welcoming after he would mutter something in Arabic; and three, Tangier is known for swindlers as tour guides…but somehow Rashid was different. We never felt out of place; he would talk about his “family” and we had been enjoying ourselves, but we knew something was up.
As we arrived back into the heart of Tangier, Rashid took us along the ramparts of the Kasbah and through part of the Grand Succo. It was an interesting walk, because he would tell us important details of certain buildings. We even stopped inside the coffee shop where Keith Richards frequented when the British invasion invaded Morocco. He took us to a traditional spice shop that was owned by his friend…by this point we knew for sure we were on a tour. However, the spice shop was something I wanted to experience. Upon entering, you are hit with hundreds of different aromas from the various spices ranging from saffron and cinnamon, to tea leave oils and paprika — and everything in between. The shop owner gave us a presentation and I felt guilty so I purchased a few spices for less than 3 Euros that were meant for seasoning grilled meats. The problem was though that they looked like drugs, because they were in zip lock bags without any labels. Needless to say I ended up leaving those in Morocco because I didn’t want the hassle of explaining it in the Tangier, or any U.S. airport.
To finish the day, Rashid took us to a traditional Muslim tea den that was on a second story of a building in the Grand Succo. It was impressive to see the tile artwork in the room and we drank our tea in a mixture of emotions since he was going to expect a payout for all that he had done for the day. When the time came, Ali and I played it cool and talked around him. We ended up paying him only around 15 Euros each in the local currency for everything for the day (which was more expensive for him). He wasn’t too happy about this, but he realized that we had caught on to his scheme earlier. In the end we had a good day, but felt betrayed because he was a genuine guy, but tried to get our money. It was a mixture of emotions. The rest of the night we hung out in the hotel, because we always made a point to be in around dark.
The next day Ali and I didn’t want to deal with hagglers or swindlers so we tried to go to another area of the city. We caught a petit taxi, but the driver didn’t understand English or Spanish too well so he ended up dropping us off at the Spanish embassy. Luckily, it wasn’t too far of a walk to the city center. On our walk into town, we came across the largest mosque in Tangier. It was impressive! While we were passing the mosque it was time for prayer for Muslims and the building was emitting the sound of the call to prayer — this would happen a few times a day. The call to prayer is a man cantering Muslim hymns from the Quran through a microphone or by himself, and it’s to call all of the fellow Muslims to pray. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life because it was so different from what I have experienced before.
Upon reaching the city center, we saw St. Andrew’s Church, an English church (only church I saw) from when England had their share in Moroccan colonial soil. After the church, Ali and I walked back up to the Kasbah palace to go inside. Here is where the kings of certain dynasties ruled during the 7th-15th centuries — before the colonial powers arrived. The palace had been turned into a weak excuse of a museum; however, the building itself was impressive, and traditional to Moroccan architecture.
After the museum, Ali and I walked towards the beach, but got lost in the old, winding streets of old Tangier. Here we passed many hagglers, children who threw rocks at us, and even a pack of teenagers demanding money — we became very uncomfortable quickly. We eventually made it back to the harbor and the beach and were sick of the hagglers, we walked into the first bar we saw and hid out there for awhile. After that we decided to head back to the hotel for dinner and call it another early night since our flight was the next morning.
Mustafo picked us up again, and we had a great, yet broken, conversation in Spanish during a scenic drive to the airport. We drove by where he lived, the new soccer stadium that he is so proud of, and the new neighborhoods of Tangier — it was a nice way to end the trip. He gave us his phone number for whenever we would be back in Tangier.
Once we got to the airport, the journey didn’t end there. We met a gentleman while filling out customs forms who noticed we were American. He informed us that he is an oral surgeon down in Fes, Morocco. He had studied in Boston for many years and his English was excellent. We talked the whole time before and after the flight. He was an intelligent man that loved his family. We talked about the U.S. (which he loves), U.S. - Muslim relations, world politics, education, and more. It was a great way to spend a lot of time in the airport. And after a short trip back to Madrid, we exchanged email addresses and we knew that we always had a friend in Fes if we return someday.
To summarize the food in one paragraph would be hard. I absolutely loved Moroccan cuisine. It has significant amounts of spice and everything tasted great, although I rarely knew what I was eating. Some traditional Moroccan foods that I had were Tajine (a stew that’s cooked in a traditional clay pot with your choice of meat, then add a variety of vegetables, spices, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh cut French fries — yes, French fries because every culture seems to be obsessed with them), Hairia (a tomato based soup with traces of beef, vegetables, garbanzo beans, chick peas and more), and a few almond pastries. In addition to the famous green tea, I also had some excellent hand cut sandwiches that had God-knows-what in it and I found all of it amazing. The food in Tangier was easily my favorite part of the trip.
Coming full circle Tangier was somewhat of a bittersweet trip. I would recommend people to avoid Tangier and go somewhere like Fes, Casablanca, or Marrakesh because that’s where traditional Morocco can be found. Although we had our difficulties during the trip, I would not trade the experience for anything. The culture was something so new to me, that I will never forget it. And for any of those worrying out there if Americans are safe in Northern African countries, they are.