Adventures in Tangiers

  We used our villa in Spain as a base so we could travel throughout Europe. We were fortunate to have the time to visit numerous cities in the Iberian Peninsula and within Europe. One summer, we decided to go to Portugal and take a day trip to Tangiers along the way.

Our car was packed and we proceeded to Algeciras, stopping at a pretty hacienda for the night. It was surrounded by beautiful hydrangea bushes and our room was comfortable and cozy. We tried to locate the inn on a subsequent trip to Algeciras, but too many years had passed and perhaps, it no longer existed.

The following morning, we took the ferry from Algeciras to Tangiers. My husband had advised me to dress modestly, so I wore jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt. We were going to a Muslim country. Try not to attract any more attention to ourselves than necessary was the motto! Our fair skin, my blond hair and my husband’s blue eyes were a dead give away! We were definitely tourists and fair game! We had traveled extensively, but nothing prepared us for the ferry trip to Tangiers. I faced the boat trip with my usual trepidation, but my pre boarding jitters were put to rest when we met a couple, the same age as us from St.Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. We spent the entire trip together in awe of the scenarios unfolding around us, sharing travel stories and the time seemed to pass quickly.

In a line that moved very slowly onto the ramp of the ferry, there was considerable pushing and shoving by fellow passengers who assumed that pushing your way forward would definitely get the ferry moving more quickly! I was taking a lot of elbow jabs in my back and ribs from women dressed in black wielding steamer trunks or pushing baby carriages! Once or twice an accident, but this was constant, so I started elbowing back, much to the amazement of my husband! We eventually got on to the ferry, but our tickets were steerage so we were confined to the upper deck of the ferry in the blistering July heat. There was little room to manoeuvre because the ladies with the steamer trunks and baby carriages had spread out their blankets across the deck and began to unpack their lunches. Fortunately, the Med was very calm that day and other than observing the occasional orange or banana peels, sandwiches and bottles tossed off the ferry, our sail was without incident.

As we disembarked, the ferry operators had a plan as to how they wanted the passengers to leave the boat, but that was ignored and chaos reigned with pushing and shoving once again. By now, I knew what to expect and I had my elbows in prime position, ready to go! The lines at immigration were long. I felt uncomfortable in my clothing and could only imagine how hot the women wearing heavy, black burkas must have felt. Finally, it was our turn and once our passports were stamped, we were let loose in Tangiers.

As we walked along the waterfront, we faced a deluge of licensed tour guides, all struggling university students and not one under 35! We tried to ignore them as they asked what language we spoke in every language possible. I have never seen a group of men with such an affinity for languages. We were spoken to in English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Russian and Chinese. As we trudged along, it was obvious that our cabal of tour guides was not going to disperse. I felt like the Pied Piper! We must have had at least fifteen men following us, pushing and shoving each other out of the way, arguing who had first dibs on us! We remained pretty quiet, with the hope that they would finally lose interest. Eventually, we spotted the five star Hotel Europe and ducked inside for cover and lunch. We learned the guides were not permitted inside the hotel. We had won the first battle. We enjoyed a two hour lunch and decided that we would finally be able to see the sites on our own. Right! My husband wanted to leave the hotel by the rear entrance, but there was a jewellery store in the front and I wanted to buy a charm for my bracelet. We went into the shop and as luck would have it, there were no charms! We proceeded out the front door of the shop to be greeted by two of the original members that had followed us in. They were on us in no time and began fighting over which one had spotted us first. They certainly were persistent!

There was no escape and certainly there would be no peace until we selected one.. Quickly the other guide left, (There had to be some ethical code of honour among the guides!) and we began negotiations with Abdul, who was a poor university student struggling to make money to pay for his tuition! For 5 dirhams, he would safely guide us through the Kasbah to his uncle’s shop where we would find the best deals on the finest leather goods.

Off we went, following Abdul through a rabbit warren of narrow intersecting alleyways. My husband was trying to commit our route to memory with various landmarks so we could get ourselves out of the Kasbah. Trying to keep up with Abdul, who was charging ahead at breakneck speed, was no easy task. As we made our way through the stalls with vegetables and fruits, copper jugs, carpets, handbags, luggage and carpets, I saw my husband was becoming extremely agitated. Being somewhat of a cynic, he was certain once we were totally lost, Abdul would demand a king’s ransom to lead us out of the Kasbah and back to the ferry.

When we finally reached the shop, we were greeted by Abdul’s uncle, a charming elderly gentleman. The shop was filled from the floor to the ceiling with everything we had seen passing through the Kasbah stalls except on a much larger scale. He immediately sat us down and we were offered mint tea which we enjoyed while Abdul brought out a bevy of goods for us to inspect. These two had it down to a science! Exquisite carpets were laid out before us and I would have loved to have bought a couple but I explained to our host that we had to fly back to Canada and there was no way we would be able to fit the carpets into our luggage. Once he heard we were from Canada, he began asking me if I liked pop. It took a few minutes to realize he was referring to the Pope who happened to be visiting Canada at the time. We had a pleasant discussion about the Pope and his impression of the Pope was very favourable. This was is during a time when as far as we were concerned, terrorism didn’t exist. The carpets were quickly removed and Abdul brought out beautiful leather luggage and handbags. They were as soft as silk and my interest had definitely been piqued.

Immediately, the small talk stopped and negotiations began in earnest! Up until this point, most of the conversation had been directed at me but when business commenced, all the attention was focused on my husband. The haggling began. He didn’t have a clue as to prices, so kept looking at me as I told him to go lower. After fifteen or twenty minutes of haggling, we reached a price and were set. By now, it was getting late and we had to return to our ferry and clear immigration. We wished Abdul well in his studies and he wanted something to remember us by. All we had was a ballpoint pen which we gave him as a parting gift.

We made our way back to the dock without the help of Abdul and encountered a line that was ridiculously long and moving slower than a snail’s pace. I wondered if we would get on to the ferry in time or would we have to spend the night at the Hotel Europe where we had eaten lunch. I remained in line and my husband went to see if there was any way that we would be able to get processed any sooner. I had our passports and after what seemed like an eternity, he returned to pretty much the same spot in the line where he had left me and said, “I found a guy who will help us bypass the line. He wants our passports.” My reply was, “Are you nuts? We can’t just give our passports to some stranger!”

About ten minutes later, a young man appeared from out of nowhere and asked if we were going to Spain. We nodded that we were and he grabbed the passports which were now in my husband’s hand and made a beeline across the terminal with us in hot pursuit! I was definitely freaking out because we had no idea who this person was and he had our passports! We were in a foreign country and someone had just grabbed our passports. He finally stopped at the immigration table. The officer was on a break, hence the long line up. We have discovered over years of travel that a Canadian Passport carries a lot of distinction and respect. Immediately, our passports were stamped and we were escorted past immigration, past customs, down the dock, past the ferry ticket taker and into the clean air conditioned first class lounge. The young man turned to us and held out his hand saying, ”Thirteen dirhams, please.” This amounted to approximately $10.00 Canadian which was $5.00 less than our steerage tickets on the way over. When I looked out the window, I saw the young man doling out the money we had just given him to four other men. Our money was being split five ways! Our return trip was considerably more comfortable and we were able to relax in the air conditioned lounge. When the ferry docked in Spain, I looked at my husband and said, ”I’ve never been so happy to be in Spain as I am right now.”

Our drive back to the hacienda where we were staying was unbelievably hot. Cars in Spain didn’t have air conditioning in those days. When we arrived at our room, I said “What’s that smell?” It was definitely us! We stripped off our clothes and sealed them in a laundry bag which would remain that way until we could get back to our villa. Our showers felt wonderful and after all the grit had been washed away, we poured ourselves a glass of wine. We felt human once again and proceeded to dinner. The topic of discussion was our next trip to Morocco…..destinations Casablanca and Marrakesh!

Unfortunately, we didn’t travel to these cities the following year and as the political climate kept changing in the Middle East, we never would. Our time there was brief, but we took home memories that I can write about today.

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