Tuesday, November 25, 2014

McCarthy's Casbah - Part IV

Well.. I would like the record to show here that I admit that I have never been so wrong about anything in my entire adult life as I was about Tangier. On the bus from the ferry port, I first noticed that my expectations were a bit off. I had envisioned Morocco to be a dry empty desert with cities thrown in at random intervals. What I saw here, on my 40 minute bus trip to the city, was completely different.  The country side consisted mainly of small villages, made up of relatively modern houses, that were dotted on the sides of medium height hills. The roads were lined with low shrubs while the hills themselves were mostly overgrown with blue and purple-ish plants and flowers. People were tending to plants in their gardens. It didn’t look like a desert at all. It was more a sort of Scotland-in-the-sun than the hot, arid Sahara environment that I had in mind.


                                                      No desert here           

I got off the bus at Tangier’s central bus station and within 3 seconds had a grubby looking Moroccan man walking alongside me and asking me questions. Where was I going? Where was I from? Did I want to see his cousin’s shop? What hotel was I staying in? Would I like to buy a rug? Or hash?
I told him I wasn’t interested and expected him to leave.
He didn’t.
After informing him in increasingly stern tones that I knew perfectly well where I was going, he just seemed to relish in the fact that he was being a good guide. ‘My friend has taxi, he’ll bring you to hotel! Where is your hotel? My friend take you there!’ He just wouldn’t give up. I told him again and again that I didn’t need his services but he stuck to me like velcro. The problem was, I had no idea where I was going, but I couldn’t stop to consult my guidebook either as that would give away that I had no idea where I was going, which confirmed that I needed him as a guide. After a couple of minutes, we approached what was the Moroccan equivalent of a taxi rank, so I figured that this would be the end of his pursuit. As luck would have it, he tripped over a loose pavement tile and fell flat on his face. Excellent, I thought; good riddance. I hopped in a taxi and told the driver to go to the Continental Hotel. Just as he was about to drive off, the back door of the taxi swung open and my self-appointed guide jumped in the back seat. ‘Where are we going my friend?’ he said, meanwhile nursing a bleeding elbow- the result of his fall.
Great. Now I was in a city where I knew nothing, in a small car with 2 man I couldn’t understand, one of them probably pissed off at me for trying to ditch him when he fell and hurt himself. ‘The Medina is not far!’ my guide called out and pointed ahead over my shoulder. I would imagine the taxi driver had this knowledge himself, but it didn’t seem to disturb him. This probably happens all the time.
The Medina was, in fact, not far so I got out of my taxi 5 minutes later. The Continental was not, as I had expected, a tall modern American hotel but a large, sagging heap of sandstone along the cliffs. It was grand and majestic in its own way, but not at all as I had expected. It looked more like they had added to the original building as needed over the decades and created an extension to an extension to an extension. The car park was a half paved plot of sand, about 8 yards wide and 20 yards long. A hand full of dirty cars were parked at irregular angles while children played inbetween them. Okay, I had found the car park as instructed, but the rest of the directions were now useless. The only way out of the car park was into the medina, where the whole concept of left, right and crossing the street went out the window straight away. I had another good look at my map to make sure I didn’t get lost but couldn’t even be sure which direction was supposed to be right, as there were 3 alleyways, all going more or less to the right. I took a few tentative steps into the labyrinth and looked at my map again, not sure what to do next. I decided to have a look at the whole scene again from the car park and turned around to start again. To my surprise, I couldn’t find the car park anymore.
3 steps, 5 seconds, and I was lost. Even for my standards this was below par.

I turned around again and decided to press forward on my own but it again looked different from what had been there before. This was getting ridiculous.
“You are going to Melting Pot hostel?” a voice sounded from around a corner. I looked to see who was there and found that it was my friend from the bus station again. This guy was starting to spook me. I gave in to his offer of guiding me to my hostel and prepared to get fleeced when I got there. He took me on a fast paced walk around part of the medina, turning left here, right there and seemingly back from where we had come earlier, though it may have been a short cut. After some 3 minutes, true to his word,  he did deliver me at the front door of the hostel I was staying in, albeit with a bit of a detour, I was sure.
Now came the awkward part; he was going to ask for money. I gave him all the change I had gotten on the bus, about 3 Euros in Moroccan money. Not a bad deal for a homeless pauper with nothing better to do. He wouldn’t have it. “Denny! You insult me!” he exclaimed raising his hands in the air in disbelief. (when he had asked my name, I got the great idea to give him a fake name. It would have been a great idea if I had actually given him a fake name and not one that is almost identical to my real name)
“Coins? NO!” he continued. “I have 3 children, they are hungry! Please!”

I told him that was all the Moroccan money I had, but he simply wouldn’t take it. What was more annoying, he was blocking the door to the hostel. I looked in my wallet and saw I had only 20 euro notes and told him that no matter what, I was not going to give him 20 euro for 5 minutes work. He then told me that I could change in a shop somewhere else in the Medina so I could pay him, but I told him I would not go on a walkaround with him again because I was tired and hot and wanted to sit down. He dragged me around the corner to a small shop where he told the owner to give me change for 20 euro, but ofcourse he only had 100 Dirham notes, of which he gave me 2. This was in fact a good exchange rate, so I was not ripped off on this. Ofcourse, now only having 100 Dirham notes, my guide expected to give him one which was a ridiculous reward but I was just happy to have reached my hostel and wanted him to go away. I handed him a note and made for the hostel door. He then told me to hurry up so he could show me the rest of the city.
Was this guy kidding? Did he really think I was going to give him even more money for doing nothing? I told him I he was wasting his time, as I was going to take a long cold shower and then sit in the sun on the roof, so he would lose money-making opportunities just standing around here. This seemed to make him realise that  I was serious so he stood on a corner, while I made for the door.
Due to all this messing around, I just wanted to get checked in and have a cold beer. What I failed to see when I entered the hostel, is that the cast iron door was only 5’6” high, while I am 5’8”, so I crashed my head into the upper part of the door frame with a loud bang.
With a pulsing head and silver dots dancing in front of my eyes, I entered the hostel.
Tangier was not scoring a lot of points so far.



                                         I show you city, M'kay?

This improved instantly when I was inside the hostel. The building, though the outside had the same worn out, dusty appearance of the others around it, was unbelievably beautiful on the inside. The floors and ceilings were laid in with genuine mosaic tiles, all windows had colorful stained glass designs and the reception desk was situated in an atrium that went all the way to a large skylight in the roof. I presented myself at reception and was welcomed by one of the cheeriest girls I have ever met. Her name was Maria and she made a living running the hostel. She ran through a short list of points of attention and then took me on a tour of the building. My room was on the first floor and, like the other rooms, looked amazing. The door was shaped like those onion top mosque minarets and the walls were painted in pastel colors. Arab art was on the walls and the light came from a dimmed lamp on the distant ceiling, giving the whole room a rather Moorish feeling. The tour continued to the kitchen on the second floor, which also had original tiling and Moroccan furniture to offset the large fridge and 21st century kitchen appliances, and ended at the rooftop bar which itself had 2 levels and, to my joy, a large fridge full of ice cold beer. It was definitely the most beautiful hostel I had ever stayed in. This was more like it!



                                      Awesome hostel

I sat down in the shade with Maria and ordered a beer. It was a brand called Flag, which I had never heard of, but it tasted superb in the Moroccan heat. Maria told me that she had a Moroccan father and a Basque mother. She had spent most of her life at various locations in Spain, but her family had decided to move to Morocco a couple of years ago and she had gone with them. When I asked her what felt more like home, she fell quiet for the first time since I had entered the building. She looked at a point in the middle distance and said that she really didn’t know. It must be difficult to decide on something like this. Hell, after 8 years, even I have difficulty deciding where to call home, Ireland or Holland, and I don’t even have a blood connection to Ireland. Maria went back to the business of running the hostel, after she gave me another cold beer, and I sat down in the sunshine on the roof. The medina looked much more peaceful from up here.
It really is the strangest place. The buildings are so close together that even at this modest elevation (I was only 3 floors up, really) it was nearly impossible to see the streets below. Balconies are often nearly touching across the streets and since most of them are full of laundry, plants or other assorted debris,  it becomes impossible to see down from here. If you don’t believe me, set Google Maps to satellite view and zoom in on the Tangier medina. You won’t see a thing.
The only thing that was visible was the small square in front of the hostel where my guide was still hanging around, in the idle hope of giving me another tour of the place. I had to smile at his belief that he could out-wait me and a Large Fridge full of Cold Beer. Challenge Accepted, motherfucker! Half an hour later, he was gone.

What also stood out from up on the roof, was that most of the other buildings, some almost within touching distance, were unfinished. Most roofs had piles of unused bricks, bags of cement and other building materials strewn across them, while walls, doorways and floors were left unfinished. You can ofcourse ask yourself why they would build a place this way, with all the houses built so close that it is nearly impossible to navigate. The reason for this is just that- to MAKE it impossible to navigate. In the old days, the medina was the most important part of the city, indeed WAS the city. The idea of building it like this comes from the frequent attacks by pirates or other merauders who, upon entering the city, found themselves suddenly lost in a maze of narrow alleyways and corners that were impossible to look beyond, giving the locals a considerable advantage when it came to outsmarting the intruders, mostly by killing them from unexpected angles.  I finished my beer and considered having another one. I also considered that I wanted to see something of the city today and decided that if I had another beer on the roof here, that would be the first of many so I went downstairs and went to the reception desk to discuss what I wanted to see. I explained Maria that I had had some problems finding the hostel, and pulled out my guide book map. She looked at me with a smile that said ‘Aah, you silly western boy and your map’ before explaining to me that it was nearly impossible to draw an accurate map of the place.

                                 This is as close as you'll get

She picked up a map from her desk and explained that she had drawn it herself but, even after years of walking around the place on a daily basis, she still wasn’t quite sure of the exact lay out of the place. She drew the way to the exit of the medina, which was really just 2 straight lines, so that shouldn’t prove too difficult.  I thanked Maria for the instructions and walked out the door, confident that I would now breeze through the streets and be outside in no time. Let’s see who’s the smartest now, Medina!

After about 12 seconds, I had to concede that the score was now Medina 2 - Lennard 0.
I had followed the route on the map, but after taking 1 (one) turn, I again had completely lost any sense of where I was. This was becoming embarrassing.
At this rate, I would not see anything of the city and spend my days here walking the street in front of my hostel. I went back to the front door of the hostel and tried again but it was no use, I just couldn’t walk in the right direction in this place. It was as if I was sober but my sense of direction was drunk. I headed back inside and walked to the reception desk.  Maria started to apologise for not giving clear instructions but I clarified that the problem did not lay in the quality of her instructions but in my understanding of ancient Arab cities. She then understood that I would probably never get it unless she showed me herself so she offered to walk me to the exit of the medina and back. I happily took this offer, and 3 minutes later I was standing on the Petit Soco, next to the gate to the rest of the city. I had taken notes of where to go left, right or straight ahead so, now armed with an idiot proof 12 step programme, I felt like I could do it on my own.
No, you’re wrong- it actually worked. I walked back to the hostel on my own, and then back to Petit Soco without any problems. As Pete McCarthy correctly noticed in his book, the Petit Soco, or small square, does not really stand out as a square because it is so small. It is only when you walk past it a couple of times that you realise that none of the other places could possibly qualify as a square, so the one you just passed must be it. There are a couple of cafés, peanut vendors and about a dozen shops selling everything from rugs, tea sets and other Moroccan staples to sunglasses and replica football jerseys. Obviously, most of the Big Brand stuff is fake, but it does add a lot of color to the scene. I crossed the square and, as a white European, immediately attracted the attention of every vendor who was open for business and awake. I was offered leather jackets, Rolex watches, carpets and about 20 cups of tea. As I don’t drink tea, and can’t be bothered with wearing a watch, I politely declined all the offers, but did consider buying a football jersey. Unfortunately, all the jerseys were for big European teams like Barcelona, Liverpool and AC Milan, and no jerseys of local teams were available.  I emerged from the Medina into the Grand Soco, or Big Square, and found myself back in a world I recognized. It was still very different from what you know from European cities, but at least this part had the structure you expect. That, and the possibility to look more than 5 yards ahead.

My first impression of the city proper was that, by the look of it, the population of Tangier must be around 10 million and all of them were out in the city centre today. Half of them were walking around while the other half were trying to sell them stuff. Apart from all the shops, cafés and restaurants, half the pavement was covered with blankets and card tables from which people were selling anything and everything you could imagine. At the centre of the square (which really was round) was a big open space with benches. People were sitting on them and the open space was, again, taken up by vendors selling mirrors, carpets, bags and too much other stuff to list here. What occurred to me next, was that conventional traffic rules were non-existent in Tangier. In the whole city, I can’t remember seeing a single traffic light. Crossing the road basically meant waking onto the road and hoping that you didn’t get hit by a car, or one of the hundreds of blue taxis.  I couldn’t even tell you what side of the road they drive on here because the cars just jumped into any available space, regardless of driving direction, all the while honking their horns because that will make other people go out of the way. I had read that Tangier had major issues with poverty and I could see that clearly here. What little space was left between the restaurant tables and the vendors, was mostly taken up by beggars and homeless people who were all keen to attract attention from either the well off populace or, as I found now, rich westerners on vacation. I could seriously have spent the rest of my days walking around Tangier in the company of a guide if I had taken even 10% of them up on their offer.  Everybody wanted to show me to the cinema (which was 40 yards away and towering over the square) the nice shops (the street next to the cinema) or the kasbah (further out but still visible from where I was. What none of them could tell me, though, was where to find a liquor store. 
Going to a muslim country, I did ofcourse understand that booze wouldn’t be as abundant as in, say, Dublin or Glasgow or Munich. I did not expect the situation to be this dire though. I walked around, looking for likely places but every time I came by a promising shop, it turned out to only sell soft drinks, vegetables and other items that didn’t feature on my shopping list. After about half an hour of drawing blanks, I changed my strategy. Rather than walking around and hoping to get lucky, I decided to ask people in shops. I first started out in locally owned businesses but soon found that nobody there spoke English or French, so I moved on to places that sold clothes from international brands or fancy looking beauty products in the assumption that they would speak English or French. This approach worked better in that I now came across people who understood what I was looking for, but still didn’t yield much result on the front of acquiring alcohol. By now, I was also starting to get hungry, and the sun was starting to go down, so I decided to get a bite to eat, hopefully locate a liquor store and then make my way back to the hostel. Despite my recently acquired medina-navigating skills, I still did not want to wander around it at night so time was a bit of a factor. I entered a kebab shop and ordered. The guy behind the counter was clearly hoping to practice his English, so I had a chat with him while I waited for my food and when my food was ready, I asked the big question: Do you know a liquor store nearby?
He looked uncertain at first, but when I made the international sign for drinking by tilting my head back and bringing my hand to my mouth, he understood and pointed to a side street.

                                        This sign always works

The instructions involved another side street on the side street, but at least I was on track now. I followed the instructions and ended up in a street with some more kebab shops, a hair salon and a travel agency. No liquor store though, apparently. I looked around  but simply could not see any shop that looked like one. I walked up and down the street again and was about to give up, when an unmarked door in a premises with blacked out windows opened up. A man carrying a black plastic bag walked out and just before the door closed, I noticed a Budweiser logo inside.
That must be it then.
I walked in, and found myself in a tiny room about the size of a pantry. The floor space was mostly taken up by  2 large fridges of the type you find in eateries where you can help yourself to soft drinks. Inbetween an improvised wooden counter and 3 shelves with bottles of gin and whisky sat a man with a grave expression on his face. He looked as if he felt somehow duped by the circumstances that had put him behind the counter of a shop that didn’t do anything illegal per sé, but didn’t quite sit well with his conscience either. I emptied a shelf of one of his fridges onto the counter and he proceeded to pack all the cans carefully. He individually packed each can in a sheet of newspaper, then rolled the cans in black plastic bags, 2 to each bag, and then put all the small black bags in a bigger black plastic bag. I felt as if I was preparing for a big heroin smuggling run. Though it was strange and unnatural having to hide alcohol from view, I didn’t care much. I had a big bag full of cold beer and a large kebab, so I was set for the night.
As the sun was now sinking towards the horizon, I headed back to the hostel and again found it without getting lost in the Medina. I managed to pick up some freshly roasted cashew nuts for a late night snack and even made a friend.
Across from the entrance to the Continental car park was a tea shop, which had a couple of benches outside. A group of men resided there more or less permananently and one of them was called Moses. Moses ‘worked’ as the car park attendant for the Continental but, as very little was happening in the car park, he spent most of his time hanging around the tea shop too. He started a conversation with me in a cockney accent that you could have mistaken for the real thing. He told me that he was the only one of the group who had a job and therefore did not need to act as a guide or get commission from shop owners for bringing in tourists. After about half a minute he decided that I was from Ireland even though, really, I’m not, but I was happy enough with this characterisation. He really was a nice guy and never bothered me other than trying to strike up a conversation. I returned to the Melting Pot, stuck my food and booze in the fridge and headed up to the roof. A dozen others were there, nationalities distributed across the regular hostel crowd composition of Australians, North Americans and Western Europeans.  Some of them had plans to go out, some of them were tired and most of them were new to Morocco and, like me, opted to take it easy in the hostel.  Maria joined us after she had checked in her last guests and everyone had a great time. Most people had, unlike me, availed of the dozens of hash offers on the streets of the medina so the air was thick with smoke and conversation. I didn’t have drugs. I had cold beer. I was happy.

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