Friday, December 19, 2014

McCarthy's Casbah - Part V

As the night wore on, a big hooka pipe emerged and someone proceeded to set up the pipe for a smoking session.
It took forever to properly prepare it. The bowl was packed in tin foil, which was then pierced in many places with a cocktail stick.  The smoking materials were carefully unwrapped and likewise pierced with mathematic precision. The mouth piece was taken apart and a slightly different one assembled. Disposable plastic covers for the mouth piece were then handed out and finally smoking could commence.
All this hassle surprised me. In my drugtaking days, you simply stuffed the bowl full of weed, held a lighter to it and that was pretty much all there was to it. This was a lot of work to get stoned.

Having grown up in a country where using drugs is nothing special, it is always fun to see people from other countries enjoy smoking stuff they can’t legally get at home, especially when you decline to join. An English girl looked at me aghast and said she thought it was ‘so strong’ of me not to smoke with them. I had to explain them that it’s not strength or determination. I just don’t do it anymore and because I grew up doing it all the time, I feel in no way left out or as if I’m missing something when others do it and I decline. I have beer, you see.

The conversation followed along the lines of all long inebriated hostel conversations- people tell where they’re from, where  they’ve been and where they are going next. 2 Australian girls had been on the road for about 2 years and had, perhaps surprisingly, spent half of that in England. A Swiss guy who had just joined us was trying to travel around Morocco but when he had attempted to leave Tangier the day before, the taxi he and his mate were travelling in had crashed into a phone pole, leaving the driver in hospital, his mate needing medical treatment and him, miraculously, unharmed apart from a bit of a sore back. When the police came to look at the wreckage, they took them back to the station to sign off some form and had offered them to stay for dinner. Taken aback
somewhat by the strange invitation to join in a buffet at an African police station, they had accepted and were treated to, as he said it, a meal that could have fed a small army. Bowls of salad and cous cous were set out, together with baskets of fruit, platters of chicken and rice and bowls of yoghurt. The biggest surprise though, came when dinner was over and one of the officers of the law proffered a lump of hash the size of a baseball, which he had confiscated from a tourist and now put up for general use. Sensing a trap, our Swiss friend had kindly denied the opportunity to smoke it but when the cop rolled up a joint himself, he eventually gave in and got stoned with the police. What a strange and fascinating city this was.

While smoking drugs with law enforcement officers in an African country might score high on the ‘what the fuck’ scale, the best story of the night came from an American guy who had just joined us after a day of sight seeing. He appeared to recognize me somehow, even though I had no recollection of seeing him before. After a couple of minutes, we managed to piece together that he was the guy who had occupied the top bunk in the Gibraltar hostel , and in the process had nearly crashed it.
He had quit his job as a banker (always a good idea) and had been travelling through Europe for the past 2 months, taking in 20 countries before he crossed the Gibraltar Strait into Morocco. Things had mostly been going according to plan on his trip, until he reached the shadier parts of Eastern Europe. While travelling through Moldova, the poorest country on the continent, he had decided to take a detour through Transdnistria. Transdnistria is a self-declared independent republic in the North East of Moldova. They declared independence around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, even though the rest of Moldova wouldn’t have it. The Republic of Transdnistria didn’t care and introduced a constitution, passports, currency and, as breakaway states tend to do, built an army. They set up border control posts, created a flag and commissioned a national anthem. They are, effectively, their own country.
The only problem is that nobody recognizes them. Not  a single UN member could be bothered to accept them as a country, not even countries that like breakaway states, like Azerbaijan, or the ones that want to be friends with everybody, like Palau. Transdnistria stands at the bottom of the pile when it comes to recognition with 0 countries accepting their existence, leaving them even below The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which used to occupy this spot with 1 recognizing country (yes, that is Turkey).

So you can imagine that they are a bit testy when it comes to foreigners, which is why embassies and consulates generally advise against going there.  Our friend, however, had thrown caution to the wind and decided to go anyway because, really, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, what could, and evidently did, go wrong is that corrupt officials in breakaway rebel states tend to take the law into their own hands, which is something that makes Westerners (and especially Americans) vulnerable to the concept of ‘Bribes’.   He was stopped by a police vehicle for allegedly breaking some traffic regulation and ordered to pay a fine of a whopping 1000 American Dollars. He was escorted to the nearest ATM but refused to hand over money so was taken to  a local police station, effectively held hostage, until he paid. He managed to convince them that he would not pay as he did not have sufficient funds and if they held him much longer, he would be late in returning his rental car, and the car rental company would send the Moldovan police after him as they were aware of where he had gone. The threat of Moldovan law enforcement encroaching on their precariously defended territory seemed to do the trick and he was let go after paying a smaller fine which just happened to be the exact equivalent of the amount of money he had in his wallet.
My stories of getting drunk in the Bronx seemed very tame all of a sudden.

As the night wore on I got hungry, so I popped my kebab in the oven, which caused a flurry of kitchen activity among the others who were also hungry, most likely from all the smoking they had done. This sudden influx of the munchies resulted in a table full of food, in which everybody was invited to share. That’s the upside of hanging out with stoners.
I helped myself to a plate of cous cous and salad on the side of my kebab and both were excellent. During dinner, the nightly wail of the mosques started. It suddenly occurred to us that there were quite a lot of mosques and several of them were really close. I tried to make out where the nearest one was, but because it had gotten dark quite suddenly, I couldn’t be sure.
I sure was happy that I wasn’t roaming the medina in this darkness.
The wailing gave the whole scene a very exotic feel. Here we were, people from all corners of the world (literally- if we counted Maria to represent Africa, we had people from 5 different continents around the table, only Asia was missing)  sharing our experiences of travelling around the world. For 2 days, we were friends because we were staying in the same hostel and, like most people you meet this way, we would probably never see each other again. Still, the atmosphere was great and everybody seemed quite content with their temporary friends. This is one of the reasons why hostels are a million times better than regular hotels.  I went to bed a happy man.

I woke the next morning after one of the best nights of sleep I’ve ever had in a hostel. The bed was comfortable, the room quiet and dark and I was generally in a relaxed frame of mind, possibly because I had spent the last couple of hours before bed inhaling purple smoke.
Today, I was going to chase Pete McCarthy’s trails so I wanted to get going early. I had a casbah to visit!
I walked to the breakfast room and found that a very lavish breakfast had been laid out for us. It consisted of different kinds of flatbread, jams and spreads and was accompanied, like everything else in this part of the world, by several pots of tea.

After a long breakfast session and a hot shower, I made my way outside. Despite the early time of day (it was only about 10.30), the medina was bustling with activity. Shopkeepers were out setting up their wares, while mobile food vendors took up positions on street corners. The first throngs of tourists were already making their way through the streets, while suppliers drove small karts through streets that were only slightly wider than their vehicles. I managed to make my way through the medina without attracting too much attention, except ofcourse for Mozes, who greeted me with a well meant “Hey what’s up, Paddy!” and then I was on Petit Soco again. This is where Pete McCarthy was supposed to meet the McCarthy brothers from Belfast, as they were staying in a pension on the Rue de Poste.
I had asked Maria where it was and she had pointed it out on my map. It was a side street of Petit Soco, so I couldn’t go wrong. And ofcourse, like Pete McCarthy, I couldn’t find it. I walked around the small square and checked all the side streets but it simply wasn’t there. I have since developed a theory that the Tangier hotel industry uses this street as a running joke to fool gullible tourists who try to find their way around. Come to think of it, when I asked Maria about it, she supressed a smile on her face. I bet she is calling some other hotelier right now, as we speak.

“Yeah, Mustafa? Yeah it’s Maria here from the Melting Pot. I just had another guy from Ireland looking for the Rue de Postes!
No seriously.
I don’t know, he’s probably trying to find it now, haha.”

Not having found the Rue de Postes, I made my way to Grand Soco, where the market had already started again. I would have estimated that the population of Tangier is in the millions. It was so busy everywhere, it was unreal. 
Vendors were already loudly praising their goods everywhere and people were out in force.  I observed the spectacle for a while and it confirmed what I had noticed the day before. Though half the people on the street where selling stuff, nobody was buying. One guy was selling fake brand sporting bags (Nike, Adidas etc.) for next to nothing. He had a couple of models on display in the middle of Grand Soco and every minute or so someone would walk up to him and enquire about one of the bags. He would then proceed to show them all the features, like that the zipper actually worked, and look at the prospective customer hopefully. The customer would then look the bag over, turn it inside out, or perform some other durability test and then point out some minor discoloration or a stitch that wasn’t 100% straight, put the bag down and wiggle his index finger at the salesman while making a face that resembled a man who has just realised his mouth is full of lemon juice. It went like this for all items on display throughout the square. A customer would have a look at a belt or pair of sunglasses or whatever, finger the item for a while and then put it back before walking away. How this economy works is beyond me, but I did not witness a single sale until I got to a food market later in the day.

I walked past the city’s main cinema and had a look at the programme. Ofcourse, I didn’t understand a thing of it because I don’t read Arab, but it was fun to look at it and wonder what the hell those posters could be saying. Though it was the grandest cinema in town, it looked as if no maintenance had been done in a good long while. Come to think of it.. the entire city looked like it could do with a lick of paint. It is a well known fact that port cities tend to be a bit rough around the edges, which becomes clear if you compare places like Liverpool or Hamburg to more fashionable places like London or Berlin, but Tangier took it a bit further. The whole city looked as if the maintenance department had taken the afternoon off a couple of years ago and had never come back. Nearly every building had paint peeling off the walls, window sills hanging at precarious angles and gates held together with duct tape. It was, in short, a bit of a mess, to be honest.
After walking around for a while (and still not spotting any additional liquor stores) I decided to go for lunch. Most places had special offers for 2 or 3 course lunches but I am not a big eater, especially when it’s very warm. In the end, I settled on a place called CafĂ© Europe. It looked like I had imagined a Moroccan restaurant would look like, so this qualified as pretty much the first thing I was right about here in Morocco. I was guided to a table by a friendly waiter who then proceeded to set the tv for me. Thanks to the global reach of Sky Sports these days, I could now sit down here for lunch in Africa and still not miss the very important League 2 match between Portsmouth and Burton Albion. I ordered a beef tajine and an orange juice, which presented me with the unprecedented situation of having lunch while on holiday without a beer. The waiter brought a basket of bread and, some time later, my tajine. The tajine was great. The meat was juicy and spicy without being overly so. I used the bread to mop up the food and the sauce and it tasted wonderful. The orange juice was easily the best I ever drank without the addition of vodka and, about an hour later, I walked out the door very satisfied and only about 4 euros lighter.

Burton Albion won 2-0, by the way.

Back on Grand Soco, the open air market was still in process. I walked across it and made my way in the direction of the casbah. I had developed a way to avoid guides by doing 2 things: I only took out my map inside shops. This way you don’t stand out as a dumb Westerner who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Another thing I had resorted to was something I had read in the McCarthy book. The McCarthy brothers from Belfast had found that, though most guides were reasonably well taught in English and French, it spooked them  when they were addressed in Irish and they would back off and leave them alone. As I don’t speak Irish, I tried it with Dutch and it worked quite well. I had figured it might backfire due to the large number of Moroccans that live or have relatives in Holland, but it worked a charm. When addressed in Dutch, most guides looked uncertain and when I kept on rattling in that arcane language they did not speak, they soon gave up.
The casbah was at the far end of the medina, but rather than trying to make my way through the medina, which would almost certainly result in me getting hopelessly lost, I decided to walk around the outside of the medina and approach from the back entrance. I made my way there by way of a food market. It again seemed that everyone was selling but no one was buying.

What also stood out, was that most stalls were selling only one product. While I am aware that most market salesmen are specialised in one product group (cheese, poultry, cakes etc) most of these people were selling one very specific thing. One guy was sitting by the side of the road with crates full of pommegranates. He had hundreds of them. He sold nothing else, just this one type of pommegranate. Another man, who had a more permanent stall, had filled it with thousands of eggs. Again, every now and then someone would walk up, gaze at the eggs as if judging cakes for a baking competition and then walk off again. It must be very frustrating being a market salesman in these parts. 
I was now on the street that led to the casbah, but noticed to my alarm that what the map hadn’t shown was that it was a very steep street. It was much steeper than the hill in Gibraltar so I took my time walking up. I walked past the lawyer’s office in front of which Pete McCarthy had been fleeced by one of his guides and was actually surprised that I found such a minute detail from the book. The reason I found it, is that it is close to the casbah entrance which was were I ended up now, bathing in sweat. This was it, the reason I had come to Tangier. When I walked in to the casbah, I was approached by a man who was carrying a large glass of orange juice and seemed to have time on his hand. The first thing he said was that he was not a guide. I believed him: he looked like he had recently showered and his clothes were too clean to be scampering as a guide. I took a couple of pictures and went inside.
It was basically more of the same I had seen in the rest of the medina, with the exception that it all looked a bit better maintained.
There were  a couple of cool buildings, with the same type of mosaic tiles worked into the design as I had seen in the hostel. Apart from that, it was more craft shops and narrow alleyways. After a while, I’d seen enough. It was just more of the same, and besides that, there was another important thing on the agenda today:
it was the Sunday of the All Ireland Hurling final.

You may point and laugh at me for being in a place as exotic as this, and then spend my time watching a match that is taking place 50 yards from my front door(literally, I live right next to the stadium where the final takes place) but as a sports enthousiast in Ireland, the All Ireland Hurling final is something you simply don’t miss. I walked back down the steep street outside the casbah entrance, which was much more enjoyable than the way up, and made my way through the markets again. The poverty was really astonishing here. There were so many people begging here that it really struck me now how good we have it in the rich West.  I’m used to urban beggars and assorted homeless people asking for money for a cup of tea (=cider) a sandwich(cider) or the bus  home (cider) but it was different here than in London or Dublin. In Europe, those people are nearly always under or around 30 years old. Here, a lot of beggars were of advanced age.
All of a sudden, I noticed many men older than my father, who is pushing 70 himself, sitting on the street holding up their hands and begging (literally begging) for small change. This shocked me. In Europe, the homeless people who don’t die young of addiction or complications related to living on the street are generally taken care of by charities who make sure they are placed in homes or shelters at some point to ensure they have some sort of dignified old age. Obviously, no such system was in place here, judging from all the folk of retirement age who were still out on the street to  scrape a very meagre living together. It was really unsettling.

[Author’s Note: While I thought the poverty was at times shocking in Tangier, I got a cold shower when, a couple of weeks later, back in Dublin, I spoke to someone in a pub who had travelled through Morocco earlier in the summer. He had travelled to the South of the country and informed me that the Northern part was ‘quite civilised’ in comparison to the South where people were REALLY poor.
I don’t want to go to the South.]

I made my way back to my favorite liquor store (the only liquor store) to supplement my beer stash for the night. The same man was behind the counter when I walked in and the look in his eyes when he saw me betrayed great surprise on his part as to how I could possibly have depleted my stock so quickly. He didn’t ask questions though. Money is still money, even if it is made through the sale of morally questionable substances.

With a new black plastic bag, I made my way to a take away restaurant I had walked by earlier. It was really hot in the city and I was sweating like a pig. I ordered a couple of sandwiches with assorted fillings and, while I was waiting, was drawn to a fridge full of soft drinks. One bottle filled with an orange liquid stood out as particularly refreshing so I told the guy at the counter I would have one of those as well. I had big hit and it tasted like heaven. I drank the entire bottle in one long gulp and felt refreshed like never before. This stuff was good. I resisted the temptation to have another one because my food was ready. Now armed with a bag of beer and a bag of food, I made my way back to the medina, adequately  supplied for the rest of the day. After  a short stop to say hi to Moses who, surprisingly, didn’t have an awful lot to do, I was back at the hostel well in time for the final. This conveniently gave me enough time to take a shower. Even though, in heat like this, it only gives relief for the duration of the shower, a splash of cold water on your head goes a long way.

I made my way to the roof and found no one there. While this was not great for conversation, it did mean that the bar laptop was not used as a jukebox which left it free for me to watch the hurling. I checked the time and found that I still had time to sit in the sun for a bit before the game began.
After some 20 minutes of reading in the sun, and really enjoying a cold beer, I switched on the website I wanted to watch the match on. When it sprang to life after a moment of hesitation, I saw 2 players in a heated debate and the referee trying to break them up. What the hell was this? Around this time, I expected to see the President shaking hands with the players, or perhaps hear the national anthem, but a look at the game clock revealed that we were already in the 20th minute of the game.
This sucked. How the hell did this happen? Who changed the starting time? More importantly, who was winning? I won’t bore you with further details of the match because most of you probably have no idea what hurling is, but it was an excellent game and, like the previous 2 years, ended in a draw. Replay in 3 weeks.

I made my way back up to the roof, where I found 2 German girls who looked a bit jetlagged. One was staring at a spot on the wall and the other kept dozing off. When I managed to establish a conversation with the one that wasn’t constantly falling asleep, I found why they were a bit off: they had hitchhiked (yes, hitchhiked) from Trier in Germany to Algeciras in the space of two and a half days. I have since looked it up and by road that is a distance of around 2300 kilometers. It would be quite an achievement to make this trip in 2 days if you had your own car, but hitchhiking all the way to Algeciras in that time span was a near miracle. She did confess that they had gotten quite lucky in Belgium. After they were dropped off by someone who had driven them there from Trier, they were quickly picked up by someone who had to be in Valencia or thereabouts, which meant that they were nearly there,  in the grand scheme of things. Still, they had hardly slept in in the past 60 hours so they could really do with a bit of sleep. After half an hour, they both gave up trying to keep their eyes open and went to their room.  I read for a while, enjoying the sun while it was going down over the mediterranean and dozed off myself only to be startled back to full consciousness when I heard people talking in the bar. I went down to see who was there and found an American guy and a Scot from Aberdeen.  The American was travelling around Europe and surroundings without any bigger plan, but the Scot told us he was trying to live off the grid for a while. He had no registered address back in Scotland, a bank account in Belgium and had no e-mail, Facebook or other web-related accounts that would allow anybody to trace his moves. He carried the most basic of mobile phones, pre-paid and unregistered ofcourse, and was now travelling through Africa. I could see why he would come to a place like Tangier. It is an easy place to slip off the radar. When someone tells you a story like this, you assume that he is either on the run from the law or just really wants to get away from it all. He was friendly and funny so I assume he was doing the latter because he didn’t look like a criminal. He was explaining to the American how you could easily get small quantities of hash across borders. The idea was simple enough: get a small ball of hash, dip it in olive oil and the roll it in shrink foil that has also been treated with olive oil. You then close off the package and swallow it. Nobody would notice it, you couldn’t OD off it as you might when swallowing balloons of cocaine, and when you get to your next destination, you’ll have a nice smoke waiting for you. I just don’t get this sort of thing. Why would you go through all this trouble of preparing, packaging and swallowing, just to get a quantity of hash that will get you stoned for about 10 minutes? Not to mention, to get your minute kick, you will have to dig it out of your own shit first.
Judging from his enthousiastic explanation of the process, he himself was quite happy with it. The American seemed unconvinced.  Our Scottish friend had enough stories to keep us entertained for a while and also told a tale of when he was somewhere else in Africa and, for some reason, decided to bury his backpack somewhere in a forest because he had to take a 10 mile walk into a city to arrange something at a consulate and didn’t want to carry the heavy bag around. To no surprise of any of us, when he got back 2 days later, his bag had been dug up and all his possessions had disappeared. As the night wore on, people joined and left again and just when our Scotsman went out for a bite to eat, the guys I had been hanging out with the night before returned from a day at the beach. One English guy was quite unnerved from walking through the medina at night. He said he was happy that they were in a group and that one of them was a guy from Chile who worked in the hostel and knew his way around. He said it was near pitch black dark in there and the only light came from the occasional candle in a house, or the light in a workshop. At one point he had not even noticed someone who was within arm’s reach. I could see what he meant. In some of the narrower alleys it was dark even during the day. It was now dark outside so it must have been like walking through a mine at this time of night.  With our group re-united, we talked  away the hours and after I finished my final can of Flag beer I called it a night. I donated my guide book on Morocco to the German girls, who had just risen again, and went to bed. I had to get up early in the morning. I had a ferry back to Europe to catch.

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