21 October 2010


A long time ago, in May, when I made plans for this trip, I was intrigued by the possibility of us going to Morocco for the day. I heard this was something you can do and looking at the map, it seems like it's close enough. Yoko and I had both always wanted to go to Africa, even if it was only sticking our metaphorical toe in. Unfortunately, the ferry tickets I'd seen from Màlaga to Morocco were expensive, especially if you included getting to the ferry, getting around wherever we arrived--and it was going to be only 4 hours for a whole day of travelling. So I gave up the idea and thought, well, when we get to Torremolinos, we can see what's available there.

As you might guess, a lot of people have the same idea and everywhere there are signs for trips to Tanger for under (where the hell is the euro sign on this keyboard) 59. So I enquired early on Monday morning at one establishment and when the woman assured me that we would be picked up at the hotel and it would take under two hours, I thought, yes, exactly, perfect. And we booked it. €173. (The html code for € is &euro, I just learned.)

We woke up on Tuesday morning at the crack of dawn and ate the early breakfast we ordered, and though I still wasn't feeling 100%, it was better than the day before. At 7:15, the bus rolled up and a very energetic, multi-lingual woman helped us on and we had a quiet trip in the dark for the first thirty minutes or so, slowly stopping to pick people up and watching the sun come up over the sea. Well, 30 minutes stretched into an hour and an hour stretched into an hour and half of us driving on the coast. We were also only stopping to pick people up, not use the restroom, and an emergency was growing with the wife. Luckily, it wasn't Naomi because she would have not been able to make it, but when we asked about using the toilet, the otherwise perfect tour guide became sort of like a nazi: Why do you need to stop? We're late! 'Yes,' I said, 'I realise this, but we've been on the bus for almost three hours now: that's a long time.' A stop was negotiated, the 'next' stop or so I thought. When we stopped again, Yoko left the bus and ran into an office building, but it became pretty clear that this was not what was supposed to happen, and the rest of the passengers, many of whom were also suffering, tried to get up, but were told to sit down. Anyway, Yoko was back straightaway, and then the bus stopped at a petrol station within five minutes, when about half of the bus got up to pee, despite the begging of the tour guide that only those who 'really needed it' should go. How do you measure 'really needing to go to the bathroom' on a gradable scale in which a bus of international tourists would have any idea what the threshold of leaving the bus should or shouldn't be?

With all that nastiness behind us, we came up past Gibraltar which I was pretty happy to see and then to Tarifa, where we would take the ferry across. I saw that the cost of the ferry for an adult was €36 return and was growing more curious: we had travelled by bus for three and half hours. We were getting the ticket and when we arrived in Tanger, we were going to take a bus around the city with a guide, have a walking tour, and lunch, all-inclusive. But anyway, we took the ferry across, which was only 35 minutes, and soon we were on the bus driving through Tanger.
I haven't said this yet, but it's obvious: yes, taking a bus trip to Morocco is against every DIY, indie bone in my body. I'm sorry. I confess it. But hear me out: We couldn't have gone with the kids in another situation. Far too volatile in some senses. Although I would have happily gone alone just the four of us, I would have spent the whole time worrying about getting back on the boat.

Okay, that said, the tour guide (a new one now, on the Moroccan side) was telling us about how wonderful Morocco was: a whole speech about who though they were Islamic and religious, they were peaceful freedom-loving people. And women can wear whatever they please now. Very free.
Anyway, as we took the winding road up the hills, I was realising that Tanger was quite big actually and quite condensed, built on very steep hills coming up off of the port. We arrive, inexplicably, at a dirt lay-by at the side of the road where we were met by an army of men selling trinkets and men selling camel rides. Naomi was scared of the camels and Mei too, but Yoko and Mei rode around once and within five minutes, we were back on the bus.

The next stop was the top of the walking tour and they told us repeatedly not to leave anything on the bus. When we got off the bus, there were about three more guides, helping people to go the right way and unfolding our stroller. Oh no, I thought, this is not the place to have a stroller... but as this was a guided tour with (I have yet to mention) an army of people over 60 (there were some Spanish kids in their preteens, but they were by far the youngest next to Naomi and Mei), the path was very, very well chosen. We made our way through a small neighborhood, with the guides carefully watching to make sure that no one wandered off.

We had lunch at a restaurant where another tour group was eating: beer, cous-cous and chicken with a simple soup, and some great honey biscuits and tea at the end. All very nice, and up off the street, so it felt a bit like floating above everything. There was live music which Mei really got into and quickly became very popular among the rest of the restaurant goers.
Next we were taken to the 'market' and this was the point that I realised why this trip was only €63 a person. The cultural talk we were getting about traditional rug-making in Morocco was a very thinly-veiled sales pitch to buy the rugs and as we shopped in the 'market', things were about three times more expensive than the prices being shouted at us as we walked briskly through the streets earlier. And although you could bargain (the leather bag I looked at just briefly went from €180 to €50 based, from what I could tell, on my lack of interest ), things didn't come down that much.
The next stop was a traditional pharmacy with another sales pitch by a very energetic young man, whose jokes I laughed at loudly. Again, all over-priced. When we left, however, we were in the heart of a series of very winding, very narrow streets lined with stores, and as we made a couple of turns, I thought that if it would be very, very easy to get lost, and you could very, very quickly get into a lot of trouble, if you went the wrong way. The guides did a very good job of keeping the metaphorical lid on everything, but there was clearly a lid.

We were hustled away, back onto the boat around 5 and as I went to the bathroom, I walked past a group of men praying, next to a slot machine with a picture of a bikini'd woman (breasts tucked in, thankfully). This is very disparate, I thought: can these two things really do business together? Costa del Sol on one side, burning with debauchery, gluttony, and capitalism. On the other, the free, moderate Muslim women wear the hijab and seem to be outnumbered on the street 30 to 1 by men. Of course, the question is yes. Yes, they can. They are. And, for what it's worth, I would much, much prefer to go back to Tanger or Marrakarech than Torremolinos. One is understandable in a moment, the other has miles and miles of narrow, dark, fascinating places without steak and chips. Perhaps in my next life.