Trying in Tangier
We basically crash landed in Morocco. Traveling from Granada to Tarifa, Spain to catch the ferry we made a miscalculation in timing and arrived only 15 minutes before the ferry was meant to depart. There was no parking available at the dock and we had to rush around the downtown area trying to locate long term parking for our car for the week we would be in Tangier. We found a place and left the car without being sure that it would still be there when we returned to Spain.
Then came the running.
If there’s one thing I don’t recommend, it’s running down cobblestone streets in leather slip on shoes with a 30lb pack on. We were sweaty and tired, but we made it to the boat on time.
The ferry between Tarifa and Tangier is a high speed boat, so we felt every wave. While you’re on board, you’re required to go through Moroccan customs. Immediately upon getting on, most people line up to have their passports stamped and their documents reviewed. The process was easy and painless, but a little girl threw up into a trash can in front of me in line, so I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable.
After speaking to other travelers who’d been to Morocco, we were expecting to be harangued quite a bit during our time. Still, it’s hard to prepare for having your personal space and time invaded as pervasively as ours was while we were there. It began as soon as we stepped off the ferry in Tangier. Our hotel was a few miles from the port and we stood in the parking lot to collect ourselves and make our plan. A man walked up to us speaking Spanish and English and recommending himself as a tour guide. Kody said “No, thank you” many times, but the onslaught continued. I told him in French that we weren’t interested (French is one of the national languages of Morocco), which only inspired him to continue in that language instead. We had been intending on taking a cab, but decided to just get moving and put some space between us and our would-be tour guide.
Once we passed through the gates of the port, we were approached by another man who wanted to take us to a nice hotel. I told him in French that we already had a hotel and he started yelling at me, “Don’t speak French! Don’t speak French! There are no nice people anymore!” There was nothing for us to do but to keep walking. We decided to just make the 45 minute walk to our hotel… in the heat… with our packs on.
We walked near the beach where a couple of men approached us and tried to sell hashish to Kody. Most of this was simply annoying. We were trying to get our bearings and were bombarded by men trying to lead us somewhere or sell us drugs. The only frightening moment was when one man was walking towards us, passed, and then came running up to us from behind. I had the thought that there was no way I’d be able to outrun someone with my bag on and that made me feel pretty vulnerable for the rest of the walk.
Arriving to our hotel was a relief from the heat and the haranguing. It’s amazing to me that everyone in Tangier seems to speak at least three languages – Arabic, French and Spanish – and most of them also speak some English. It made the area feel like a melting pot of cultures.
We were truly exhausted from our travel day, so we picked up some snacks from a nearby grocery store and stayed in for the rest of the day.
(Don’t worry – he’s not naked in *this* photo.)
When we were planning our week in Morocco, one thing we weren’t aware of was the timing of Ramadan. It wasn’t possible for us to rearrange that part of our trip, so we stuck with it. During Ramadan, most of the shops open later in the day and almost all the restaurants are closed. A lot of them use the time to complete renovations and the like since they will be closed anyway. There also aren’t as many people out on the streets during the day and, in Morocco, even if you’re not observing the religious holiday, they forbid eating and drinking in public. Kody and I wanted to be as respectful of the Moroccan people as we could, so we didn’t eat on the streets and we dressed modestly. We tried to find things to do, but it was a little difficult with the adjusted operating times.
We mostly used our time in Tangier to recuperate from a few busy weeks in Spain and to get ready for the next part of our trip.
For our first venture out, we walked to the American Legation museum. Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as independent of British rule and the legation ran his office in the building which now houses the museum. (A legation is a diplomatic position one step down from an ambassador.) This building was America’s first foreign property and remains the only American national landmark outside of the country. The building and grounds are maintained solely by the United States, just like any other national landmark. It was interesting to be on a bit of American soil overseas and reminded us both of living on military bases.
The museum was pretty small, but we took our time walking through and enjoying the small garden. While we relaxed there, a call to pray played over a loudspeaker in a nearby tower.
Luckily, we found a traditional Moroccan restaurant that was open for regular hours (likely to satisfy tourists like us). We ordered bread with lots of dips and pickled peas and, of course, mint tea. At the table next to us were three military spouses visiting Morocco from Germany and we chatted with them for a little bit. We were joined by a few little kitty friends as well.
From the top of the Salon Bleu, you can see across the Strait of Gibraltar all the way to Spain.
The walk to the restaurant led us through Tangier’s medina, the oldest part of the city. The medina is full of swollen shops, tight alleyways, uneven staircases, buildings filling all the available space, and, the best part, cats. There were so many cats in Tangier! These were rough-and-tumble street cats, no sissy house cats. Kody was so worried I was going to touch all of them or try to smuggle them back into Spain with us, but I didn’t. Did I feed some of them? Yes. Did I touch one or two? Maybe. Did anybody die of rabies? Not that I know of.
Vacation Kody loves some things that At Home Kody doesn’t seem to care either way about. Anyone who’s ever been on a trip with us knows that Vacation Kody loves watching television. Especially a good Naked and Afraid marathon. Vacation Kody also loves saying things like “We will take one of each appetizer,” which is maybe the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard him say. Something I’ve learned on this trip is that Vacation Kody loves breakfast buffets. I mean, he really loves them. Lucky for me and VK, our hotel had a nice breakfast buffet with local north African specialities like Egyptian beans and European favorites like croissants. We took a zero day for the rest of the day and the next morning helped ourselves to the buffet, some overdue laundry washing, and WiFi.
We did leave the hotel to eat at McDonald’s (Don’t judge us! Nothing else was open!) and we saw this cat that maybe lives there.
On our second full day in Morocco, Kody and I got a little adventurous and thought we would travel out of the city and see some of the country. In all honesty, Tangier might not have been the greatest Moroccan city to choose for our trip, but it was the only one we could get to easily from Spain (without flying) and in a short timeframe. The city itself seems quite rundown and the architecture isn’t creative or interesting to look at. It’s a port city, which means that a lot of it has an industrial feel, and the markets and medina are smaller and less boisterous and colorful than in larger cities like Marrakech and Rabat. There aren’t very many cultural sights or attractions in the city, so we were already running out of things to do. We’d heard about Chefchaouen before arriving and decided to take a bus there, even though it was 6 hours roundtrip through the countryside.
We nervously navigated the bus station, got our tickets, and stood at what we hoped was our bus to the Blue City. Kody, being the friendly Oklahoman that he is, struck up a conversation with another American couple who seemed to be waiting for the same bus as us. Fritz and Anya Beaumont were in Morocco on a long weekend trip from where they were teaching English in Spain. After chatting with them briefly, we boarded the bus and were separated by assigned seating.
The bus ride was really lovely. We didn’t know how hilly and diverse the Moroccan landscape was since we had been secluded in the concrete world of Tangier. There were farms and turquoise lakes all along the twisting, winding route we took to Chefchaouen. It was really breathtaking and it made us feel glad we had left the city.
Three hours later, we got off the bus in Chefchaouen and were ready to explore the Blue City. You might have seen it on Instagram as it recently gained a lot of fame there for its blue walls and colorful local personalities. A friend of ours told us that before the Instagram fame, “the walls were still blue but the weed was better.” So, you know, there’s that. It’s a well-known secret that this region of Morocco cultivates and exports marijuana.
We reunited with our new friends, Fritz and Anya, and spent the day together wandering through the city snapping photos and getting to know each other. Our first priority was to find a restroom. We passed through a market that opened onto a square where we found toilets. And by “toilets,” I mean, holes in the ground. I shoved down my Western expectations and gave it a shot. It was… not enjoyable and made even worse by the fact that when I walked out, some random man came up to me demanding payment for my use of “his” toilets. I don’t know much, but I damn sure knew that man didn’t own those toilets. I politely ignored him while we made our plans for the day.
According to Wikipedia, no one knows exactly why the townspeople of Chefchaouen started painting their homes and businesses different shades of the same ethereal blue. Some say it’s because mosquitos don’t like the color blue and so it keeps them away. More poetical people surmise that it’s because blue symbolizes the sky and Heaven and serves as a reminder to live a righteous life. Maybe they just did it because it’s so beautiful.
There is one spot in Chefchaouen that is especially famous – a wide staircase in an alley all painted blue with colorful pots and flowers hanging on the walls. There was actually a queue to take a photo there. We waited patiently for our turn and, even though it felt goofy because we had to pose while strangers looked on, we got some great photos together thanks to our friends. They have their own travel page and take loads of amazing photos around the world. You can follow them on Instagram (@vagabeaumonts) or check out their website (www.vagabeaumonts.com).
My favorite part about the Blue City was how much every other color seemed to stand out against the spacey blue. Oranges, violets, and reds seemed riotous against it.
We strolled through another market in search of lunch and were rewarded with a nice view of the city from overhead. The conversation was great and we were happy to have made some new friends. Fritz and Anya were taking a later bus back to Tangier than we were, but we made plans to spend time together there the next day. Kody and I napped most of the way back and awoke abruptly when our bus stopped outside of the city instead of downtown and we had to take a cab the rest of the way.
The next day, Fritz and Anya met us for lunch at the Salon Bleu. We will never know if we loved this place so much because it was truly amazing or because it was the only place that was open during Ramadan. We walked to a lookout area after lunch to see the Strait.
On their way to meeting us, the Beaumonts had walked through a large food market that we hadn’t been able to find before. They led us there and we were almost immediately overwhelmed by noise and odor. The cramped market smelled strongly of raw meat and it made sense because it was everywhere. Chicken carcasses hanging from hooks, raw beef displayed on counters, not to mention piles of sheep heads. We made our way quickly and deftly through to the open air on the other side.
Kody and I were pretty worn out afterwards so we said goodbye to our friends and promised to visit them in their adopted hometown in Spain in a few days’ time. It was absolutely delightful to have spent time with Fritz and Anya wandering around Chefchaouen and Tangier. Such a gift to meet like-minded people out in the big, wide world and get to share some of our adventures with them. They were both so kind and open.
The next day was our last full day in Morocco and we had learned our lesson – leaving Tangier was the key to making the most of our time there. Kody made friends with one of the waitresses at the breakfast buffet and she suggested that we visit the Cave of Hercules, which, according to legend, is where the demigod Hercules slept before he attempted his Twelve Labors.
We took a cab out to the cave and had to fight with the driver to get him to leave us there. He kept insisting that he would wait a little while for us to see it and then drive us back to Tangier. We suspected this to be more of the haranguing we had been experiencing (which, even though I’ve stopped mentioning each instance in this post, was still happening constantly as we walked through the city). Finally, he left and we were free to take our time and see the cave.
The main attraction of the cave (outside of the lore) is that the mouth which opens into the ocean is shaped like the continent of Africa. Souvenir hawkers and “professional” photographers aside, the inside of the cave was cool and calm, a peaceful respite from the heat and noise of the day.
The way back to Tangier was along the coast and once we saw how deserted the beach was, we knew we wanted to walk the whole way. The beach sand was warm and the water was crisp. It was a truly perfect day to be walking there.
The walk turned into a bit of a photo shoot for us, to be honest, because it was so beautiful and we were having so much fun. On the way, we passed camels, fishermen who had clambered up onto rocks in the sea, and the geographic point where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet.
Everything was pretty great… until it wasn’t. After a couple of hours walking, we realized we were a lot farther from Tangier city than we had imagined. And for some reason, the rest of the way seemed to be all uphill. We were up on large hill with absolutely no shade from the scorching sun and we (stupidly) hadn’t brought very much water with us. We were hot, sweaty, thirsty, and maybe just a little bit lost.
All of a sudden, a black sedan whipped in front of us and pulled to the side of the road. The driver called Kody over and I hung back a little bit, not sure what to make of it. He offered us a ride into town and, after making absolutely sure he didn’t expect money from us, Kody accepted. Normally, we would never do this and, yes, it does sound a bit like the beginning of a murder story, but there was no way we were going to be able to finish the walk without any water or guidance.
Our savior was a young Spanish man who insisted we call him Medi Morocco. We couldn’t really communicate because his two languages were Spanish and Arabic and ours were French and English, but we found common ground in American rap music because he kept asking us to pick songs to play on Spotify. I sort of kept quiet in the backseat and let Kody talk to Medi.
Although it was really nice of him to give us a ride, Medi was the most terrifying driver I’ve ever seen. I mean, absolutely racing down roads and hitting turns hard would be scary enough, but Medi took it to a whole new level. At one point in the ride, traffic was back up at a stoplight and instead of waiting, Medi drove high speed into the oncoming traffic lane, dodged cars and inserted himself at the front of the line. Kody and I looked at each other and knew we needed to get out of the car as soon as possible. Medi asked for one of our phone numbers and I just said I didn’t have my phone on me and left it to poor Kody. Medi dropped us off downtown, hugged us, invited us to stay at his house next time we were in Tangier, and went off on his merry way. We were completely speechless and pumped on the type of adrenaline that people in high speed chases must experience. (Medi tried to call Kody every day for about three weeks after this, but we never answered.)
We ended our last day in Tangier with a meal at our favorite place.
All in all, we’ve decided that Morocco deserves another chance but that we wouldn’t go back to Tangier. Going there was a fun excursion from our regularly scheduled European program, but it really required more planning than we were able to give it.