0090 My tumultuous romance with Tanger (Morocco 001—revisit)
Tangier Travel Blog› entry 3 of 35 › view all entries
Remembering my first Trip to Tanger
As I see the African continent get closer and closer, memories start flooding back fast and furious. Memories that go all the way back to April of 1996 when I went to Morocco for the very first time. That was a monumentous moment in my life.
See, I grew up in an environment without a lot of knowledge of what was going on in the outside world. During my childhood I’d had dreams of someday going out and travelling the world, but for some reason I never really bothered to do any real research to see how that could actually be accomplished. So, though I’m embarrassed to admit it now, I didn’t know that it was even possible to visit countries like Morocco as a tourist! In the circles where I grew up, the common belief was that people in those parts of the world are not at all friendly to foreigners.
Then in 1996, an opportunity came up for me and a couple of other students to come for a 7 month trip to Morocco and Spain… a trip that would change my life and view of the world forever.
Once I started learning about Morocco, and how easy it was to go there, how friendly people are and that I might even be able to work there teaching English, I got totally obsessed with this new idea. In 3 months I tried to learn French and Moroccan Arabic in preparation, and started fantasizing about this new life that I was going to live.
And then, finally the day arrived, me and 3 other students headed got on the ferry to Tanger. Now it was for real. I was going to go see if Morocco was as fantastic and adventuresome as this image I had created in my mind.
We landed at the port of Tanger and, having been warned about the dishonest cab drivers, I convinced the others that we should drag our luggage all the way to the bus station on foot. And so we hiked past a row of old Mercedes taxis, on past the old fishing harbour with its rickety but colourful boats, out the gate, where policeman just waved us on through, and into Morocco.
Just a few steps a way was the bus station, where we bought our tickets and just sat there for a couple of hours until it was time to go. People sounded aggressive and there were quite a few shifty looking fellows around—and quite frankly, we were all pretty new at this whole concept of going on an adventure in another country, especially one where none of us spoke the language. Finally we got on the bus and were on our way to Agadir, where we would be staying with a family.
So it was not a very eventful first couple of hours in Africa. But just being getting there and realizing that I could go to a country where I didn’t know the language or the culture, and figure my way around was a life changing moment for me.
Other visits to Tanger
Later visits to Tanger were a bit more eventful. In 97, when I was still "green" even though I’d been in Morocco for a year—I remember getting off the train in Tanger and trying to explore the old city in the early hours of the morning when there weren't a lot of people around. A shifty looking fellow started following me insisting on being my "guide". I insisted that I didn't need a guide, thank you very much. Once he had me cornered at the edge of a cliff he acted like he had a knife in his pocket and demanded money...
After quickly thinking over my options I decided to try to outfox him--I calmly told him that on second thought, I WOULD like for him to be my guide and would "pay" him as soon as he showed me the way to get out of the medina.
Since then I've always felt a bit nervous about Tanger, and a lot of appreciation for Moroccan policemen.
Back to the Present
So here I am, headed back across the Straits of Gibralter, wondering what kind of welcome Tanger will give me this time. I’m determined not to let any previous experiences in this city taint my experience. Today I’m a New Man living a New Life of Adventure… all these memories are just that—memories. Now I’m on a completely different sort of journey and my experience will most likely be completely different.
And this time it is absolutely love at first sight. And it truly feels like “first sight” because I am seeing this country through different eyes.
And what do I see? Well, first of all, delicious, cheap food, something I haven’t enjoyed since Malaysia. And here, since I’m already familiar with what’s go I know immediately where to go. First it’s a a rotisserie chicken sandwich at the plaza right in front of the port. Then, after dropping off my bag somewhere, I head up a side street up the steep hill heading to the old medina, and grab a glass of homemade “raib” or yoghurt along with a “panache” mixed fruit juice and a pastry… then I continue on up the steep, crowded street that seems so much less threatening than last time and explore the market… then continue on up to a beautiful fountain plaza right at the gates of the old city.
Here, I refuse to wait a moment longer. Soaked in the color the excitement, the feeling of having walked into a world where the modern blends so smoothly with a thousand years of tradition, I have to pull out my guitar and play some music before I burst.
And so I do. I pull out my guitar… but before I can even strum my first chord, a respectable young fellow comes to me and asks me to join him and his friends at the café across the street. Of course… after all, that’s one of the main purposes of my music—to connect with people… and quite frankly, I haven’t done a whole lot of connecting with people over these last couple of months, strumming around Pennsylvania…
It’s great to see their reaction—unlike the jaded coffeehouse crowd, hearing a guy play his own original songs is a special experience for them, and they’re soaking it all in. Then they tell me of their stories. --one had gone to study management in St. Petersburg, Russia and is currently unemployed, the other had worked in Spain a couple of years and is now trying to make it in his home country... the third had lived in France illegally for a while and now is in process of marrying a girl from Chile and moving over there...
I tell you, after 4 months of being in the US and hearing nothing but people drone on about who’s gonna win the Superbowl, it’s an amazing feeling to be with people who have real dreams and ambitions—and are doing crazy things to reach those dreams! Here, if you want something, you really have to struggle, you have to face devastating disappointments, and have to keep trying even when the odds are against you. Back in the USA, people have it so easy that, well, for the most part, people don’t really have dreams and ambitions any more—except that their lives be slightly more comfortable than they already are. But here people are reaching for something… and that’s what life really should be about.
A guy in dark glasses at the next table gives me a smile and a nod as I finish my song and then walks off. My new friend tell me that he’s a secret police officer who came to see what was going on. Now I’m really flattered—even the secret police like my songs!
Afterwards, we wander a bit through the town together, along the modern main shopping drag right on the ridge overlooking the sea far below. Delicious snack shops of every sort tempt me on every side. Finally, we part ways—but make arrangements to meet again later on.
I continue on down the hill, feeling really happy about this cool encounter I just had. Now I fearlessly explore the old city, through its steep winding alleys, up stairways, through tunnels, past ancient jewelry shops… Then I hike up to the highest point, where there’s a castle with quiet whitewashed alleys inside and a lookout point where you can see the see far below, and Spain on the other side. Then you can follow an alley that goes between houses that seem to be just clinging to the side of the sheer cliff. I suddenly realize that this is the exact spot where the guy tried to mug me! Now that memory just makes me chuckle.
It seems that I’m able to appreciate the architectural and cultural richness of Tanger so much more than my first visits here back in the 90s. Back then I was more concerned about myself my own safety, that I couldn’t really open my eyes to see the beauty around me. The Tanger medina is like four medinas in one--the Arab, Rif, Spanish and French influenced areas all blended together to create a truly unique city. It’s got a cramped feel, but with plenty of open spaces in it too, where you can step out and get some air if it starts feeling claustrophobic.
And then… just like that I meet another group of young fellows—one of them is a guitarist, and they ask me to play a couple of songs… and one of them plays a couple of songs, starting a little impromptu jam session, right there on a bench on the boulevard!
Flashes of memories of why I fell in love with Morocco the first time back in 1996 are coming back. If you want to meet people and start a meaningful conversation within seconds—then Morocco is the place to go. Even if you’re shy or lazy, it doesn’t matter because people will come to you. Of course, on the flip side a lot of questionable characters will approach you as well, but it seems I’m better skilled by now in differentiating between people who just want to be friendly and people who have less than pure motives.
Birth of the Every Town in Morocco Project
As I continue on exploring the city alone, I ponder on what this all means for my Project of playing music in towns in different countries. It seems that Morocco has got to be one of the best countries for this kind of project… so maybe I can figure out a way to spend some extended time here. Maybe I can travel and play music all over this country, meeting people, exchanging ideas and experiences… learning and just soaking in the magic of this place.
Maybe I can travel around until I’ve played music in every single sizeable town in the entire country.
Why not? In this New Life, anything is possible.
That night my new friends invite me over for tea. So we go to the room of one of the fellows, deep in the old medina. His room is part of a house unlike any I’d ever seen before with rooms and crawl spaces in the oddest location. To get to his room, we had to crawl up through an angles hole that goes through the wall then straight up into what feels like a secret chamber or something. There we played music and told of our dreams and life experiences late into the night.
And then, the accompany me back to my hotel room, and my first day of this new adventure in Morocco comes to an end.
Postnote: unfortunately my pictures of this visit were lost. The pictures shown here are from later visits, including the one on my way back to Spain 2 weeks later.