As we readied ourselves to set foot on yet another continent, our senses sharpened. Up the ramp from the ferry and a few more steps and… “As Salam alaykom!” greeted the voice of the very official looking man at the top of the stair. “Welcome to Morocco. My name is Mohamed and I’m here to help you enter the country.” Cheryl spied the name tag on the lanyard around his neck. His crisp white shirt and red tie beneath the ¾ length woolen overcoat gave him an air of legitimacy that I never thought to question until the next day. He waved briskly to the uniformed guard and muttered some guttural Arabian sounding instruction as we seemed to bypass the gate. “Do you have a room? I can point you in the correct direction,” he said in a helpful voice. Cheryl dug the address out of her bag to share it with him as we had no map, GPS, or knowledge of the area. His phone interrupted the exchange. He held up his finger and moved a few steps away.
Quickly concluding his business, the phone beeped and slipped back in his pocket. “Now let me see,” he said as he glanced at Cheryl’s address. “Ohh, that’s in a bad part of town…” he stated with knitted brow as he glanced up from the paper to Cheryl’s wide eyes. “How much you pay?,” he asked. “32 euro,” Cheryl replied. “Mmmmmm,” he pondered. “I know a place in the new part of town for 20 or 25 euros. Nice, clean, safe. You see the poor people are in the old part, the medina. The better people are in the new part. They won’t bother you.” He looked up at the skyline and sliced it into thirds with the edge of his hand. “There’s the poor, the middle class, and a the wealthy. Here, I better walk you up so they leave you alone. You know I could spend the day with you and show you around, have a nice lunch and you’d get to know your way around. I’d only charge 10 euros apiece.” Well there it was. We finally got to the hook. “You know we don’t usually do that. We kinda like to find our own way,” I awkwardly interjected. Just then, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a cab barrelling towards us with lights on and horn honking. The driver’s head popped into sight and he called out in words I could not understand as he slid to a stop. Once he knew we spoke English he said. “I will take you where you want to go for one euro.” Our man Mohamed stepped up and with hands flailing and in quick, curt Arabic reprimanded the driver for interfering with his customers. The exchange was one of disgust as they fired back and forth. The driver relented, ducked back into his cab and sped away in a swirl of dust as the Sahara winds had recently deposited a cache of debris on northern Africa leaving the landscape shrouded in diffused sunlight.
As we crossed the highway with Mohamed, he pointed out how the government was renovating Tangier in preparation for the tourism that is projected to come. A new mosque and casino were under construction close to our port of entry. Wow, welcome to the 21st century. Construction materials lay in staging areas as equipment of all makes and models whizzed by us. We could see those long crane arms moving atop tall buildings in the the distance and the city was abuzz. Creation of new land via backfill was underway to create a new commercial fish processing area in the harbor. “This way,” said Mohamed as we walked up some stairs to enter under an ancient
Moorish archway that resembled the ace of spades. “Welcome to the Medina!” I swear I heard a giant gong sound as Mohamed’s fully extended arm slowly swung across the entrance, palm up to reveal totally different sights, sounds and smells from which we had just left behind. Shades of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!” “Oops! watch, watch” Mohamed moved us back against the wall as a donkey passed with a loaded wooden rack on it’s back stuffed with vegetables, bottles of juice and small propane tanks. A man with 5 necklaces strung between his fingers made his pitch very quickly. “Behold, pure silver, I sell you all five for 10 euros, OK OK 6 euros.” Mohamed shooshed him away and continued to move us, his quarry, up through the medina in search of our room. The dark, dank cavernous hallways stretched on and on. Men dressed in robes and turbans passed by us on their daily chores. The majority of this trek was covered overhead by living quarters which are always in demand for the poor. “Right here is where Matt Damon jumped out of the window in The Bourne Ultimatum” he said, nonchalantly pointing to a second floor window as we continued past. I saw that movie and wanted to stop and gawk for a bit but no way. We kept moving up, up past the never ending stoops. Some white washed some not. Flower pots overflowing with geraniums and orange bougainvillea hung from walls and sat on steps and entry ways of the many homes butted tight up against each other thru the narrow winding corridors.
Every now and then daylight would show itself as we hurried on, then back to the dungeonesque maze . An occasional tiny store or tienda with veggies, candy and pan (bread) would appear. Woman shelling beans and ever organizing crated stacks of produce would look up and pitch their goods as we passed. Shops specializing in Berber rugs, leather, bajas, Moroccan robes or jalabas hung from the Actually we were both OK with it since we’d just had a hard couple of days of wrestling with a three hour drive on unfamiliar Spanish roads, finding a room in Tarifa, the ferry, and now hacking our way to this room. The extra seven euros over budget that we surrendered for the room, well we just let it go. But we don’t usually. We’ve been house sitting for six months with intermittent income. Of course we knew this going in and were fine with it. We’re travel adventurers, for pete’s sake. It’s what we do, but after several months you worry from time to time. It’s inevitable. After all, April 15th is just around the corner and that cursed tax bill will once again raise it’s ugly head.
With completed paperwork and passports back in hand, Cheryl excused herself with “I gotta get this pack off my back. I’ll be right back.” I joined her and we disappeared up the stairs with our new room key. After offing our gear, I peeked down the steps and saw our guide had moved to the sofa. I leaned in toward Cheryl and whispered “So whadaya think? Should we blow this guy off or cough up the 10 euros?” Earlier, Mohamed had offered the tour at half price, but with an associate instead of himself. “I don’t think there’s a chance in hell I could find this place again if we walked around,” she whispered.I agreed. So we each dug out a 5 and headed back downstairs. “I think we’ll sign on and take that tour,” I said to Mohamed. He smiled and brought a new face into the picture. “This is my friend Hassan. He is a good man and he will take you around the medina and show you points of interest and where to get a typical Moroccan lunch.”
We took that tour and my previous suspicions of being taken advantage of were laid to rest. Of course Mohamed had no official position as I was lead to believe. But we truly needed some guidance as newcomers to this exotic land known as Morocco and I salute the ingenuity of this self-anointed aid and his underlings.
If you want to follow us on Hassan’s tour come back and find “Medina Cantina”!