Friday 21st May, Tangiers, Morocco.

As I started writing this, I was interrupted by a tennis ball hurtling through the window of my first floor hotel room. Can you imagine how startled I was as I was struck in the chest by the small, but unexpected missile. It seems the young Moroccan girl enjoyed our little game of catch yesterday, and is back with a vengeance. As fast as I would toss the dirty old tennis ball out the window, it would lob almost magically back in. After a number of times, and having to crawl under my bed to retrieve it, I decided that I might as well take my place at the window sill and join in the game, figuring that she would soon tire of the repetitive nature of our sport, and leave. Of course, I’d forgotten that kids never tire of a game, especially if you want them to, and after half an hour of catch and throw, laughing as we almost hit passersby with the ball, I had to excuse myself and get back to my writing.

After three days in Morocco, I’ve concluded that Moroccans are an incredibly friendly bunch. Of course you’ll say that I say the same about every country I visit, and that’s because I do believe that human beings, by their very nature, are extremely friendly. Those very few who are not, are an aberration rather than the norm. Since I’ve been here, I’ve found shopkeepers and passersby to be warm and polite. Yes, they do try to get you into their shop, that’s their livelihood. But when I would thank them very much and shake their hand, and leave without making a purchase, they would wish me good travels. This morning when a guy in the market enthusiastically beckoned me into his little soup stall, I told him I was looking for somewhere to get a nice omelette. He sighed and pointed me in the direction of his competitor, across the market centre. “But if you want soup or kebabs another time, don’t forget me” he called out smiling. They’re certainly far less overbearing that I remember the merchants in other African countries I’ve visited.

Unfortunately I never made it to the omelette stall, rather I was distracted by a ‘faux guide’ who insisted that I follow him to a good restaurant, and the only way I could lose the guy was to walk off in the opposite direction, away from the Medina, and into the Ville Nouvelle- the new town- which was where I was heading eventually anyway, to the internet café. These guides are an almost ever present hassle, and I’m slowly figuring a way to get rid of them quickly, just as they’re carefully perfecting the art of attaching themselves to you. They typically speak at least four or five languages to some extent, and they know enough about your home country to ‘break the ice’. “Ah, Australia. Mel Gibson. Sydney. Crocodile Dundee. Kangaroos.”

As I said, the Lonely Planet book warns of these touts and ‘faux guides’, but says you should consider them more of a nuisance than a threat to your safety. My new friend Ahmed says that the stories of Tangiers being a dangerous city are just political propaganda, generated in an attempt to encourage the tourist dollars towards the south of the country, where the revenue is more urgently needed. I told Ahmed about the old man who when I told him to stop following me, said he’d kill me. Ahmed tutt tutted disapprovingly. “He’s stupid.” he said. “He wouldn’t hurt you, it’s all talk. And if anyone heard him say that, he’d be locked up in jail for at least a couple of days, just for saying it. We have special police who only look out for the tourists. That’s all they do is make sure the tourists are okay.” Those tourist police are having a pretty easy time of it at the moment then, because I’ve barely seen another western tourist since I’ve been here. A couple of tour groups, and a pair of hardcore long distance cyclists. Other than that, a lot of the ‘tourists’ here are from West Africa- Nigeria, Senegal, Mali- and are here in Morocco to try to sneak into Spain. That’s what I’ve been told anyway, and it doesn’t take long to see that the locals don’t appreciate these southerners.

The internet café I go to is great. It’s only a short walk into the Ville Nouvelle, and I can plug in there with my own laptop, the hourly charge a very reasonable eight dirham. That’s about 50p, or one US dollar. In London, I once paid £3.75 for one hour on the internet. While on the subject of money, here’s a few examples of costs here in Morocco:

Hotel room (very, very basic. shared cold shower in the hall, warm if Allah is smiling on you)- 50 dirham
Basic but filling meal in a restaurant (last night I had four small kebabs, with rice and chips, accompanied by a selection of olives, sauces, and a hefty chunk of baguette)- 30 dirham
Coffee/ tea/ mint tea (my favourite!)- 5 or 6 dirham
Strawberries- six dirham a kilogram
Olives of different varieties- 10 to 20 dirham a kilogram
Here’s a rough exchange rate, as best I understand it:

Euro = 11 dirham
$US = 10 dirham
$AUS = 7 dirham
£UK = 17 dirham

I’m still trying to get my head around the conversion. If I convert prices to Pounds Sterling, they seem unbelievably cheap, but I guess I should really be converting to Australian Dollars, since every purchase I make here goes onto my credit card as dollars.

Finding my way back to Smaid’s restaurant last night wasn’t easy, but the reception I received made it worthwhile. Smaid shook me by the hand and welcomed me like a long lost brother. When I clumsily bumped the table and knocked the water bottle into my saucer of salsa, Smaid humbly apologized for the inadequate sturdiness of the table, and hurriedly cleaned up my mess. The night before, when I stopped in at his restaurant for a cup of coffee, I overheard a conversation between Smaid and one of his chefs. They were talking about the countries that end in ‘stan’- Pakistan, Tajikistan etc. Smaid said there were five such ‘stans’ but his chef didn’t believe there were that many. Several times, Smaid had attempted to reel off the different names, but continued to get himself bamboozled. Last night I took my small world map to show him. Smaid was delighted, and had me write down the names of all the ‘stans’ almost wetting himself with glee when he saw there were actually seven, not five. Later I saw him showing the piece of paper to the chef, laughing and pointing energetically to each one as he read it out loud. Tipping is not expected here, which is a refreshing change from North America, and even England where more and more you’re being made to feel obliged to tip.

Other than that one restaurant meal, I’ve been buying produce from the markets, and making healthy, tasty meals at home. For my first lunch, I put together a nutritious meal of flatbread, olives, and cheese, with a chocolate croissant, and a bottle of water- which the shopkeeper had thoughtfully refilled with tap water- for I think fourteen dirham. Which reminds me, I must brush up on my French- particularly the counting- lest I gain a reputation as ‘the yellow haired tourist who pays forty dirham for a fourteen dirham bill’. My last session on the internet was also fourteen dirham, and I contested the charge vigorously, convinced that he was trying to charge me forty dirham. So far, besides that small confusion, I’ve managed to get along just fine with English , and the smattering of French that I learnt at high almost school twenty years ago. Hee hee, doesn’t that make me sound old?

Here in Tangiers, it seems that Spanish might be almost as widely spoken as French, if not even moreso. In the south, it will be all French. Either way, my command of those languages will allow me to order a beer, ask how much something costs, which way the train station is, and where is the toilet. That’s about the limit of my linguistic skills, so it should be fun!

. .

I was hoping to shop even more frugally the next day by scouring the huge semi covered produce market down the hill, but my groaning stomach got the better of me, and I ended up with a lot more stuff than I needed for one meal. Two large flatbreads- which by the way, I’m really starting to enjoy- a sweet crumpet looking bread, half a kilo of strawberries, four small avocados, and a generous serving of mouth watering marinated olives. That little lot came to 18 dirham, and then I blew another 10 dirham on a one litre mango smoothie in a carton. I just couldn’t resist. And I suspect I’m still being charged too much for stuff. Perhaps they can tell I’m not a local!

I’ve paid for another night here at Pension Victoria, not that I’m particularly impressed with the place, but the location is good, and I’m relishing the opportunity to not have to move on. Having a keen interest in furniture design myself, I’d love to meet whoever designed the old bed that I sleep on. It’s not only too short- and I’m not a real tall guy- but it is designed with a curved base, so that even though the mattress is hard and lumpy, it still manages to sag in the middle. The street outside my little window is a cacophony of noise until the early hours of the morning, and then not long after the hubbub dies down, the four-thirty call to prayer booms out from the nearby mosque, a stirring sound indeed in the early morning darkness. Actually, I like the call to prayer. It reminds me in my half sleep that I am somewhere exotic. After that it is relatively peaceful until about 9:00 a.m. Normally, I’d be up and at ‘em by seven o’clock, but since the nights are so noisy, I’ve been just lying there, appreciating the peacefulness until nine, when the internet café opens.

I’ve made strides of progress as far as editing my book, and in my ‘breaks’ have been having some interesting conversations with Ahmed, who can always be found outside the same local Salon de The, just sitting there watching the world pass by. For some reason, I just assumed that Morocco being such a poor country, Ahmed wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel much abroad, but as I told him about the book I’m writing, it turns out that he in fact lived in the United States for ten years and is a holder of a Green Card. His American wife and two children still live in New York City, but he came back to Morocco ‘for a while’. His wife and kids come to visit him from time to time, he said, and he has been back to the US for visits as well. He and I swapped stories about different places around America, in a way that I never expected to be able to converse with a local Moroccan sitting outside a café in the dusty street. He’s lived in New York, Idaho and Alabama. He says he had a good time in New York, but loves the deep south more than anywhere.

Yesterday morning, in an attempt to sidestep Ahmed and his good intentioned plans to show me his favourite bookshop, and the very interesting old church next to it, I ventured up the narrow lane that runs behind my pension. After a few sharp turns to the left and a couple to the right, I was completely and utterly disoriented, in a ridiculous labrynth of tiny pedestrian alleys. No sign of life anywhere, except for the prevailing smell of urine here and there, and pieces of cloth, cardboard or old clothes stretched out on the concrete in such a way, that you could tell it had been someone’s bed the night before. I was beginning to feel a little uneasy- if it had been nighttime, I would have been downright terrified. Then as suddenly as the maze of lanes had swallowed me up, it spat me out into the sunshine of the Petit Socco, almost at the feet of a smiling Ahmed.

. . .

Ahmed helped me complete a challenge, not that it was a very difficult one. He had a friend of his photograph the two of us enjoying a mint tea and a coffee outside Cafe Central. Since the photo was worth ten bucks on my challenge Steve page, it was the least I could do to pick up the tab for Ahmed’s coffee.

You might not notice, but I've had some hair restoration treatment here in Tangiers. Natural looking, eh?

Ahmed and me, enjoying a warm beverage outside Café Central. Hair restoration treatment is quite inexpensive here in Morocco!

While we were sitting there, a group of ‘day trippers’ passed by the café. About twenty of them in all, huddled close together in a group, following their tour leader. They come down from Spain in the morning, and return in the evening, according to Ahmed and his friends. One of his friends laughed and said to me in broken English, “I don’t know why. Why they want to be like sheep”. He put his fingers to his forehead, imitating sheep’s horns, and we all laughed heartily, much to the disgust of the passing tour group who knew they were the subject of our laughter.

I’m off to Asilah tomorrow, an hours bus ride to the south (15 dirhams bus fare, in case you’re interested) on the Atlantic coast. If it’s as pleasant there as the guide book- and Ahmed- says, I’ll probably stay in Asilah for a few days. There is an internet café in Asilah, but remember that unless I am able to use my own laptop to log on, any updates will have to be posted on my backup journal temporarily.

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