The trouble with Tangiers …

Given that Tangiers is just across the strait, taking a guided tour seemed like a reasonable way to be introduced to it. But from the minute we met the Spanish agent in the departure terminal things went steadily downhill. Passports were whisked away (I always get uncomfortable when I can’t see mine), green and yellow forms were thrust into our hands accompanied by a torrent of instructions (in Spanish) as to what to do with them (the forms were in Spanish and French), stickers were slapped on us for the guide on the other side to identify us, tour receipts were issued (for payment of the guide), and we had to go through that door…

The fast ferry ride across was fine.

We were jumped by guides at the terminal in Tangiers, none of whom were with our tour company. Our guide, Abdullah, clothed in a long brown robe,  was nonchalantly waiting outside the terminal area. He didn’t look particularly official…later realised he was not an accredited guide because they are allowed into the terminal area to meet clients. He was supposed to be fluent in English…he spoke some, but preferred french, spanish or arabic.

Into mini bus, quick drive through the diplomatic end of town where government officials’ and various Middle Eastern princes’ summer holiday palaces (high walls, bored guards and no-one home) were pointed out. As in Spain, gum trees are everywhere. No commentary about Tangiers. Abdullah mostly chatted to the driver.

The coastline is quite rugged and picturesque, with grey sandy beaches in between the headlands. Came to one section of road by the beach where a dozen or more camels were sitting around. Did we want a camel ride? Not included in the tour fee. No gracias. The Cave of Hercules, into which the sea surges, slurps and sighs, would be quite a lovely grotto except for the fact that it has been extensively carved out to accommodate vendors of tourist stuff.

Back to the old town town which, at a distance, looks pixellated: lots of little squares of white, cream and yellow, with some grey and orange highlights. Off the bus and follow Abdullah. The contrast of the old town with the top end of town is pronounced. Narrow winding streets, into some of which the sun can’t shine; small groups of young men dressed in rapper clothing, sitting around smoking and eating sunflower seeds; rickety hand carts; comparatively few women. Goods laid out on the dusty road, the vendors reclining on cushions or perched on chairs from the 50s. People in your face, offering packets of cigarettes or bottles of water.

A traditional style lunch was part of the deal, and we were led upstairs to a room covered in tiny mosaic tiles from floor to ceiling. IMG_0149_2It was an absolute riot of colour and pattern, together with gold braided cushions on the banquette and traditional patterned carpets.  Tired shutters opened out onto a narrow balcony and the noisy street below. The packet of ‘Wet Ones’ was very handy to clean the cutlery and crockery. The food wasn’t worthy of mention.

Next activity: the Kasbah. Alleyways branch in every direction, but Abdullah was more interested in catching up with friends rather than offering commentary. Areas of the Kasbah are dedicated to various trades, so you travel through alleyways of tiny shops all selling the same thing. A bread maker squatted in a cave-like space not high enough to stand in, cooking flat bread over an open fire. Cooked bread placed on old timber shelving to cool. His eyes glittered in the glow of the fire, his face and body gaunt. Further along a haunted-looking man picked up discarded cigarette butts, sucking a few draws out of each one, whilst looking for another to light from the glowing end of the one he was finishing off.  Around the corner an herbology – filled with jars of lotions and potions and oils and powders and herbs. The scent of the place heady. Further on, a carpet vendor, happy to ship anywhere in the world. Next, a bicycle wheel spinning, twisting three cord twine to make fringing. Leather stores selling copies of European labelled handbags. And then Abdullah is saying ‘I’ll be back in an hour’ and he disappears.

Did you know it is possible to make a glass of impossibly sweet mint tea last an hour an a half? And still have half a glass left? Spent the time watching the passing parade of people. Yes, he was late (possibility of a tip had well and truly evaporated by this time). He whisked us back to the terminal, leaving us with a three hour wait for the ferry. Spent the time watching young men try to illegally board boats to get to Spain.

The return trip began after sunset, and soon after a storm wind warning was issued. Sea-sickness bags were distributed in anticipation of the effect of rough seas on a boatload of travellers. The ferry corkscrewed in the strong winds and heavy seas, making it a tough ride. The absence of a visible horizon meant it was totally up to you as to whether you could keep everything down…a challenge when people around you are tossing up in spectacular fashion. It was a relief to disembark.

The day was a disappointment, and served as a reminder to avoid guided tours.