Road Trip, Part II: Crossing the Mediterranean

We are enjoying Fall Break at our school, a much-needed hiatus from a very busy first few months. Before we scoot to Marrakech for a couple days later this week, it also provides a much-needed opportunity to share the long-overdue Part II of our “Road Trip” post from our excursion to Spain last month. So, without further ado…

Recapping Part I, we took advantage of the Eid celebration to head north from Casablanca and save vegetarian Charlotte from having to endure the bleating of sheep echoing across the land and the streets literally running with blood in what we dubbed the “Silence of the Lambs” holiday. After five hours heading northeast along the main drag highway that runs parallel to the Atlantic Coast, we reached the northwest coastal city of Tangier as our first stop on the way to Tarifa, Spain.

Driving into Tangier made both of us think it looked like a Moroccan San Francisco, with houses covering the hillsides and a much more appealing artsy atmosphere than Casablanca’s less-attractive commercial thrust. We found our hotel, the beautiful El Minzah, to be an easy trek into the city, just two blocks from an entrance into the old medina and with a lovely view of the port a few blocks further below at the base of a hill. The El Minzah featured ornate Moroccan décor, a grand open-air courtyard in the center of the building, a big tiled fountain on our floor upon exiting the elevator as we headed to our room, and a grand view of the medina and the port outside our big windows that opened to the fresh Mediterranean air and sounds of the city. As we settled in and Brian looked out over the medina and the port, he noticed that on the patio of the room below ours there was also more view than desired of an older gentleman who, in the process of changing from swim trunks to patio attire, had halted the process halfway through and walked 15 feet out to the edge of his room’s patio to stand stark naked next to his clothed wife and admire the late-afternoon city view.

After a long day driving, we opted to save the medina for the next day and headed down to dinner around 8pm. In Morocco, this meant of course that we were the first people in the restaurant that evening. As such, we had great attention from the staff, and enjoyed traditional Moroccan dishes and fresh Moroccan bread. We also received the full entertainment package of live Moroccan music, belly dancers, a fire dancer who spun a platter or flaming bowls on top of his head while he danced around, and a grandfatherly waiter adorned in baggy sirwal pants and a fez who lavished attention on us, especially to tease the vegetarian girls with us in his cigarette-raspy voice that the food he was bringing them had meat in it. After dinner, we headed back upstairs to crash for the night, but not before another look out our windows over the night scene (and without our neighbor below adding his own moon to it).

We started the next morning with breakfast downstairs in the French restaurant, next to our Moroccan dinner restaurant, and found our same waiter there to tease the girls again about having fish for breakfast. They had Nutella crepes made to order at a crepe station, while Audrey and I partook of the amazing France-meets-Spain-meets-Morocco complementary buffet with breads, cheeses, pastries, fruits, eggs, and indescribably good bacon-wrapped apricots…Bacon?…BACON! Our first pork in two months!!! Presumably there is a steady stream of Europeans crossing over from Spain to Tangier for a taste of Morocco that also want a taste of pork while in this Muslim country. Our breakfast climaxed with our waiter-friend serving famous Moroccan mint tea, which to be served properly requires pouring from a kettle held a foot or two above the table into a tiny glass without spilling a drop.

After breakfast, with several hours before we were to catch a ferry to Spain, we walked down to the medina to explore the mix of shops and homes inside the old walls. Tangier traces its history back to 5th Century BC colonists from Carthage. Through the millennia, it has also been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Berbers, Muslims, Portuguese, Muslims, English, Muslims, and Spanish, as well as gaining international status in 1923 from European colonial powers, prior to the independence of Morocco in 1956. The walls of the old city go back many hundreds of years, with a maze of streets – some barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side – so twisted and turning that you really need a ball of string or trail of breadcrumbs to find your way out.

We headed in together, going in an entrance through the wall that wound us around past the American Legation building. Morocco is America’s oldest ally in the world, with the Sultan recognizing the brand new United States of America shortly after its Declaration of Independence in 1776, followed by the 1786 Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship. In 1821, Sultan Moulay Souliman gave the American Legation building to the U.S. as the first American public property outside the U.S., and it served as the American embassy in Morocco until independence in 1956 moved the capital (and thus the U.S. Embassy) to Rabat.

Moving deeper into the medina past rows and rows of houses decorated with flowers and colorful adornments lining the narrow streets, we eventually turned onto the main street filled with shops of all kinds, restaurants, hotels, an old Franciscan monastery, a Catholic Church, a mosque, a madrasah, lots of people, and cats running wild everywhere (a common thing in Morocco). Heading into one artisan shop filled with mirrors, pounded metal crafts, wood crafts, ceramic and earthenware, furniture, and more, the shopkeepers quickly took to us to see what wares would interest us. Learning that we had moved recently to Casablanca, they made clear that they could ship anything to us in Casablanca from there. Then they invited us upstairs to their large rug room warehouse of Berber and Persian rugs draped on walls and stuffed as rolled bundles into stacks. We had been in the market for a runner in the entrance hall of our apartment, and before we knew it we heard the snap of rugs being flung out and unrolled around us.

We will post sometime about Berber rugs. For now, suffice it to say we found a beautiful one that fit perfectly in our hallway, and the bargaining began. In a male-dominated culture where we have witnessed vendors expecting women to pay more for things than men pay, we have had to work out a system for bargaining over prices. The system works this way: Audrey decides she wants something and lets Brian know subtly whether she wants it or she WANTS it. After looking at a few more things, Brian asks the vendor skeptically his asking price for the thing she wants. The vendor gives a price – “For you, a really good price!” – and Brian says it is much too expensive. They go back and forth – “My friend, really this is a very good price,” followed by Brian saying, “But I am not a tourist…I live here and know people who can get this for me for less” – and often at some point they reach an impasse where Brian thanks him while starting to walk away. Meanwhile, Audrey is absolutely dying inside because she REALLY WANTS the thing, but stays out of the negotiation because her participation would interrupt the haggling dance between Brian and the vendor. She has seen it enough times that she knows to be patient and, more often than not, it works out in the end. Eventually the vendor either yields to a mid-range price or lets Brian walk away to buy the same thing from another vendor at a better price. Usually the vendor agrees to a price about half of what he originally asked, and Audrey gets to show great appreciation to the vendor for selling her the beautiful thing as Brian remains hard-nosed while paying. Once the transaction finishes, suddenly everyone becomes best friends, with promises of great prices in the future and promises of sending more customers to shop there. This is how we procured our first Berber rug, and how we made friends in the Tangier medina.

After our rug purchase, Audrey needed to leave for a luxurious appointment at the hammam (Turkish baths) at El Minzah, so Brian walked her out of the medina maze to ensure she would not get lost while the girls went with one of our new shopkeeper friends to find a Meditel phone store where they could add time to the phone of Charlotte’s friend. When Brian returned ten minutes later he found Moroccan hospitality in full swing. The girls had charged the phone, and were back inside the shop sitting at a table that had appeared suddenly, waiting for the shopkeepers to bring them mint tea. The shopkeepers quickly brought another chair for Brian, and three tall steaming glasses of tea with fresh mint stuffed inside arrived soon after. While Brian and the girls drank their tea, one of the shopkeepers told about his family and showed pictures of his daughter’s wedding. He gave Brian the names and contact information of all the shopkeepers in the store to put into his phone, so that he could let them know when he next would come to Tangier and could visit (and shop again).

After many rounds of “thank you” and promises to return, Brian and the girls headed out to explore the rest of the medina. In no time, they had picked up a self-appointed guide who seemed not to hear the repeated statements that they were not interested in buying anything, just in looking around. He kept steering them to the shops where he undoubtedly would get kickbacks for anything purchased by tourists he brought to the shops. Yet, Brian was willing to trade the time to see some shops for the man’s navigation and safe passage through the labyrinthine streets of the medina and back to the main street. After thanking him and giving him 10 Dirham (about $1) for his guide service, they headed out a different gate in the medina wall and headed back toward El Minzah to meet Audrey in her post-hammam scrubbing state. Before leaving the medina, though, a man in his twenties called out to Brian, “Mister, how many camels?” – meaning “How many camels do you want me trade with you for your girls?” Brian’s only answer to that is, “You do not have enough camels.”

So Brian and the girls made it back to El Minzah, found Audrey in her deliriously happy state of being “cleaner than you ever imagine,” and everyone packed up to drive down to the ferry terminal. At the front desk we checked out and exchanged Moroccan Dirham (MAD) for Euros (€), hopped in the car, drove to the ferry terminal, parked the car for three days, bought tickets, boarded the ferry, and headed for Spain. Thirty-five minutes after leaving Tangier and crossing calm Mediterranean waters, we arrived in Tarifa. To the great satisfaction of everyone, Brian no longer had cause to burst into spontaneous episodes of singing Three Dog Night’s hit “Never Been to Spain.”

Having left our car in Tangier, and with Charlotte having walked all around Tangier’s medina with a cast shoe and cast from her calf to her toes, we looked for a taxi to take us and our bags to our hotel. Climbing into a cab, we told the driver our destination. He sad he could not take us because there was a 6€ minimum and the hotel was much too close for us not to walk. We insisted, because we did not want our daughter to have to walk too far with her cast. So he drove us out of the ferry terminal lot and across the street, then pulled over and pointed to the entrance of our hotel. We laughed and gave him 6€ as we climbed out of the most expensive short taxi ride ever. Through our two days in Tarifa we would learn just how silly we must have seemed, because everyone getting off the ferry as foot traffic just walks to their hotels and hostels anywhere in town, rolling their suitcases behind them. Like trickles of water combining into streams into creeks into rivers, we would see isolated people rolling bags over old city cobblestones and on modern concrete sidewalks as they fed into a line marching toward the ferries that left hourly each day.

Tarifa got its name after the 710 AD attack by Berber commander Tarif ibn Malik, and was under Islamic control until its Iberian liberation on 21 September 1292 by Sancho IV of Castile, an event commemorated on the Puerta de Jerez, the last remaining grand gate of the old city walls. Our hotel was literally a quaint hole IN the wall – with the front door leading outside the wall, and the back door leading inside the wall to the old city. After we dropped our things in our rooms, the girls headed out along the outside periphery of the wall looking for pizza while we went inside to explore the narrow streets of the old city.

Tarifa is a fairly small town that has become a haven for Northern Europeans (especially Germans) seeking a Mediterranean escape, and for kite surfers from around the world wanting to catch the strong winds whipping through the Straight of Gibraltar. Inside the walls there are restaurants, shops, hostels, and homes in rows of buildings that date back centuries. An anchor of the town architecturally and culturally is the Iglesia de San Mateo, the Church of St. Matthew, built in the early 16th Century on the remains of an old mosque from the Moorish period. Outside the walls there are lots more restaurants, touristy shops, hotels and hostels, stately neighborhoods, modern beach house developments, and many “outdoors” shops with a wind and kite-surfing inclination.

We told the girls we would meet up later, but discovered that the school phones we brought with us did not work in Spain. So while Audrey held an outdoor table at a place where we shared a bottle of wine, Brian shot back three blocks to the hotel to pick up the girls and bring them inside the walls. We all reunited just in time to discover we had come to Tarifa during a festival celebrating Santa Maria, and the townspeople were lining the streets from the Iglesia de San Mateo along a winding route through town in anticipation of a fiesta parade. The parade featured men on horseback, women marching with banners and sashes and magnificent up-do hairstyles covered by veils, traveling platforms with life size religious icon statues carried by teams of men hidden behind curtains wrapped underneath the platforms, and bands behind each statue playing somber music as the statues made their way through the old city streets. As if the iconography and other displays we saw around town were not enough evidence, the parade left no doubt that we were now in Catholic Spain, not Muslim Morocco.

The next day, the girls again explored on their own. Meanwhile, we enjoyed ham and cheese crepes (yes, more PORK!) before searching for a farmacia where we could fill prescriptions for drugs not available in Morocco. Walking about a mile up Tarifa’s main road, we found one that would fill the scrip meds we needed without our providing actual prescriptions. (It is a different world of medications here.) All they needed was time until the morning to fill our order, since we wanted six-month supplies. Brian told them that would work, as long as we could get them in time to catch our ferry back to Morocco.

Walking back toward our hotel, we sat outside at a tapas restaurant to lunch on a variety of grilled pork tapas. (Yes, pork again…Seems like a theme developing here.) The vegetarian girls found us and hung out long enough to be disinterested by our pork. The rest of the day was more walking and resting before heading out again for dinner. This time, no pork. Instead, Audrey has her first paella. Since nobody serves paella for one, and Brian is allergic to shellfish, we actually ordered two two-person paellas – one seafood, one chicken – and did a remarkable job of eating most of both. Audrey now understands why good paella is such a treat, and fears that having had her first paella on Spain’s Andalusian Coast will ruin all future paellas for her. She is probably right about that.

The next morning, we walked back “upstream” – against the flow of ferry-bound people rolling their luggage along – to the farmacia for our six-month supply of meds. But when we tried to pay for them with a credit card, the transaction would not go through on either of the cards we brought. Finally, we asked where we could find an ATM to get cash, walked half a mile to find it, and pulled out cash with no problem. Then it dawned on Brian why the cards had not worked in the farmacia. Returning to pay for the meds in Euros, the pharmacist laughed when he said, “Mi banco piensa lo es un mal persona comprando los drogas con mi tarjeta.”

Two days in Spain passed so quickly, and before we knew it we had enjoyed a final lunch – Italian food in Spain – and joined the flow of ferry-bound pedestrians with our bags and a box of leftover pizza topped with excellent Spanish ham. The luggage, including the Spanish ham pizza box, were scanned and we boarded the ferry. On the 35-minute ride back, it started to rain. By the time we docked in Tangier and the ferry’s door opened, we faced a heavy downpour that soaked us as we walked 50 yards to Customs.

When we got there, we discovered we had made a rookie mistake: we were supposed to get our passports stamped on board the ferry before docking, and they would not let us leave without Brian – carrying his bags and his now-very-wet pizza box – taking all the passports back to the ferry to get stamps while the others stood in the rain at the Customs checkpoint. This proved a long and frustrating fix to the rookie mistake, because the Passport Control officer on board had left his station and no one was interested in helping locate him. Indeed, one ferry employee who spoke English felt the need to berate Brian for being so stupid not to get the passports stamped before docking. After 10 minutes of being dressed down for utter stupidity and over half an hour with Audrey and the girls waiting wetly outside for Brian, the Passport Control officer magically reappeared and stamped the passports. Heading back on shore to Customs and the waiting soaked party, with the coveted pizza box disintegrating in Brian’s hand, Charlotte’s friend captured what we all felt when she said, “I can drink from my body!” But we were back in Morocco, and we had a safe, uneventful, if moist, drive back to Casablanca.

On the plus side of the storm, the rain washed away the rivers of sheep blood in the streets before we returned home, so we did not experience the full aftereffect of Eid firsthand. That said, in the end, our noble efforts did not actually spare Charlotte from witnessing the sheep slaughter. While we were in Tarifa, she watched countless gruesome sheep assassinations as many of her Moroccan friends sent videos of their family celebrations to her in Spain – not to tease the vegetarian, but to share culturally a big event in their lives with their new expat American friend. For a number of the boys in her grade, this biggest holiday of the year was a right of passage where for the first time they had the honor of sacrificing their families’ sheep. Some of the first-time slaughterers had more challenge than they expected, with the sheep putting up fights and trying to get away as they sprayed blood on the white clothes of the boys. Recognizing their good intent, Charlotte handled it with cultural appreciation (and a little self-contained personal horror)…and THAT is one of the things we hoped she would get from this experience living abroad. To have it come so soon after our arrival is pretty spectacular.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

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