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Bobbi, Dusty, Glenn, and Vance in Morocco and Spain

June-July 2000


Bobbi and Dusty and Glenn and I had decided that the best way for us to reach Spain, where I was going for a conference, would be to get to Meknes in the morning and catch the 2:45 train from there to Tangier (Tanga in Arabic). We wanted to reach Meknes in the morning because we wanted to visit a few of the monuments we had missed our previous trip due to late arrival. So we got Pete to come around at ten the next morning and drop us by the taxi stand, where we got a grand taxi to Abdul Khader station in Meknes. This is the station closest to the old city, but it was a small station, not the main one, and didn't have left baggage facilities. But a word with the staff there and we arranged to leave our bags under lock and key with the toilet attendant who charged us 5 dirhams for the service, plus a dirham each to use the bathroom, and a few dirhams baksheesh when we returned later to retrieve the bags. But he was a reliable person, obviously a longtime fixture at that station, trying to make an honest living, so we didn't mind paying him off.

There were a few grand taxis hanging about the station and we engaged one to take us on a tour of the monuments we wanted to see. The first of these were the underground granaries (Heri es-Souari) built in the time of Moulay Ismail. The grannaries indeed turned out to be impressive. They were huge vaulted structures beautiful not only in their massive symmetry but because they were constructed with so much attention to ventilation to prevent spontaneous construction of the grain. We enjoyed our quick walk through the place, though we had turned down the opportunity for explication and, as the official guide had predicted, would see much that we couldn't understand. We were in a bit of a rush to visit as much as we could before the things that tourists came to see closed up for the greater part of the day that tourists on the move would be likely to want to see them.

Next stop was the tomb of Moulay Ismail, whch we were admitted to without entry fee, though there was an attendant there who encouraged donations (whether for him personally or for upkeep of the tomb, not clear). He knew how to dispense information in such a way that it was understood that more would be forthcoming on payment. He pointed out some of the obvious features of the fine workmanship in carved cedar, just enough to elicit payment. When I did leave a few dirhams in his box at the door, he deigned to dispense with a few other tidbits, such as to point out the sun dial on the courtyard wall.

Finally we got the driver to take us to a last place we wanted to visit, a reception hall known as Koubbat as'Sufara, which, as the LP guide said, would hardly be worth a visit except for the underground granary on the premises. The funny thing about this place is that the driver didn't know where it was and he drove all the way down to the Bab el-Mansour to ask directions. He ended up returning to the gate just outside the tomb of Moulay Ismail, and there, right across the street, was the place we wanted to visit. We had been there a few days before and hadn't even noticed the vent shafts from the granary poking up in what appeared to be a vacant lot. But underground was another granary, a bit gloomier than the other we had seen, and wetter, and darker in places, but impressive nonetheless. I'm not sure what the appeal of such places is. It was once believed that Moulay Ismail kept Christian sailors here as slave labor for his construction projects after they had been captured by corsairs out of Sale. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe relates at the start of his narative that his adventure had started when captured by pirates out of Sale, but it turns out that the use of the granary as a prison might have been, like Defoe's tale, apocrophal.

The driver returned us to the station at around one and we still had a couple of hours before our train left, so we got a pair of petits taxis to take us back up to the Bab Mansour and we went for a wander in the souk. We found the attractive piles of different colored olives, all painstakingly stacked, that had impressed the writer of the LP guide, though the writer didn't warn us about steering clear of the butchery stalls nearby. We found a restaurant that served products of this souk more palatably dressed and we sat down to a cheap meal of tajine and kabobs. It was pleasant at the restaurant, sitting outdoors in the fine weather, watching the action in the square, sipping mint tea and coca colas.

Soon it was time to be on our way. We grabbed another pair of taxis to return to the small Abdul Khader Station and collected our bags from the toilet attendant. Everyone, the ticket taker, the toilet attendant, was careful to point out to us that the train we wanted was the second one coming, and it would be moving to our left. We got the right one and had an uneventful ride up to Tangier.

There seems to me a move afoot to close down main stations in city centers. This was the case with Barcelona, where I had once arrived at the foot of Ramblas street (but no more; now you have to continue to the center by Metro), and it was the case with Tangier, where the trains terminated one stop short of the main station downtown. As we got off the train, we were met by a man who said he was a taxi driver and tried to take our bags. He tried to lead us out the door, so we held up to let him go ahead, but of course he waited for us. As we passed out of the station, he kept gesturing toward his car as if we'd hired him, so we strode up to another driver standing by his taxi and agreed to his price to take us into the city center. We left the other driver shaking his head over how we could have eluded his pressure come-on.

There was a little confusion because the hotel we wanted, which we had booked by phone from a kiosk in Meknes, was called the Continental, and the driver thought we wanted to go to the Intercontinental. However, he knew the Continental too and drove us up the corniche and past the port. The Continental had been recommended by both Pete and the LP Guide, both of whom said it was a hotel with fading charm. We needn't have booked, there was hardly anyone staying in the rooms all overlooking the harbor and the terraces of the hotel itself. More correctly, the rooms overlooked the hundreds of trucks lined up to transport cargo to and from the port. It was more an industrial scene than a picture post card one, but the hotel was obviously well situated for us to make our move to Spain on the morrow on the ferries which departed at the end of the jetty just below our window.

We didn't rest long in our hotel but went out for an evening wander in the souk. The Tangier souk was extensive and interesting. But it had its unsavory aspects. The taxi had dropped us short of the hotel since the car couldn't negotiate the narrow alleys, and as we were getting out a man had come up wanting to conduct us to the hotel. We had but to refuse his services, but being singled out all the time was getting tedious at that point in our trip to Morocco. Right outside our hotel there was a coffee shop frequented by locals. As we were leaving the hotel they called to us to come have coffee. As we had made it only 5 steps outside the hotel grounds, we weren't ready for coffee just then, and they seemed to take our refusal to sit with them as an affront. Plus it meant that as we were hastening on, they would have to come to the point quickly, and not the preferred way, after small talk over coffee. So we were going into the souk, perhaps we could use their services. No thank you, we said. They lived there, they knew the medina, .. "We can help you," they shouted after us as we hurried off. We knew what they meant. We'd had it with people wanting to be our guides.

The narrow streets were crowded with evening shoppers, so we took a sidewalk table in the center of it all, on a square full of double-parked cars called the Petit Socco. Among the many cheap pensions there was the Fuentes, which was according to the LP Guide, supposed to be a brothel. The waiter in black and white poured our mint tea with a special flourish, arm raised overhead while the stream was directed into our classes at belt level. But the frenetic nature of the square was not conducive to relaxation, so we went for a walk in the alleys. People mostly left us alone, but now and then we'd be latched onto by someone wanting to take us to the kasbah, the old town up the hill. These people used the usual technique of dominating our conversation, preventing us from talking to each other, and basically taking a hand in every decision we might make, whether it was to turn left or right, or find some place to eat. One fellow in particular we just couldn't shake. As usual I would only talk to him in Arabic while he became increasingly abusive with me in English the more he felt our resistance to his control over our movements. Unable to shake him through abrupt changes in direction (ok, you go that way, we'll go here) we finally retreated into a textile shop. The shopkeeper realized we weren't customers and took a detached view of our conversation. The wannabe guide was at that point acting as if my refusal to accept him into our family circle was directed against Arabs in general. "We aren't animals," he was saying in English. "Well, we aren't animals either," I replied in Arabic that I think firmly got the point across, because when we bolted the shop moments later, the abashed guide made no attempt to follow.

We wandered in streets packed with people milling around hundreds of impromptu fruit, vegetable, and homestuffs stalls, and now and then we'd turn up an alley and wander trying to keep our bearings. At some point we arrived back at the Petit Socco, quite by surprise. At least then we knew where we were. But the crowds and in particular the hassles from the occasional leech on tourists made us want to escape the old part of town. So we left the walls and walked down by the harbor where it seemed we could find something to eat at one of the many restaurants along the corniche. We walked for quite a ways, enjoying the fresh air, until the hotels seemed to be further apart, at which point we turned around and went back to a restaurant we'd seen on a terrace and with a menu varied enough that all of us could eat there. The night air was almost chilly as we had dinner with a view of the traffic on the corniche, the ocean too dark to see.

Next morning we had breakfast on the terrace of our own hotel and eventually shouldered our packs and walked out to the port. We had been warned about incredible hassles with trying to get tickets on the ferries, with touts who would try to grab your passport and want backsheesh to give it back, with people trying to get you to go with them by creating false sense of urgency, as had the cab driver at the station the day before. It would all be in the character of the place, so we were steeled for it as we made for the port.

There was one Moroccan at the gate to the port who tried to sell us ferry tickets, but other than that the experience was totally opposite to our expectations. Expecting to be mobbed at an moment, we walked into the port without even seeing a sign telling us we were heading the right way. It just seemed the right way to go, so we walked some distance until around a bend we saw the ships, still some distance away. We covered that distance expecting any minute to be set upon but came instead to a set of offices where it wasn't even obvious which one to go to to get a ticket. By that point we were joking, "now where are the guides when you need them?"

Well, why bore the reader with more details? The main aggravation was that although there are sailings throughout the day, it turns out that to get a boat, you have to arrive an hour before departure. Therefore, although a boat was sitting in harbor ready to leave, we had arrived 55 minutes before its departure and couldn't board it, but would have to await the next one two hours later. This seems to be for no reason other than the border police stop processing passports an hour before each ship sails. Thus we were forced to cool our heels in a cafe before we could get on a ship.

The next aggravation is that this ship that sails back and forth between Spain and Morocco would accept almost any currency for beer and food except Moroccan dirhams. It makes sense that passengers boarding in Tangier might want to spend their remaining coins on beverages, but Moroccan coins are not accepted. There was a money changer on board giving very fair rates for dirhams to pesetas and I changed my coins with him, but he was only there for the first 15 minutes of the voyage. Then he closed his kiosk and never returned, leaving some passengers hapless. Also, whereas one has the urge to get rid of dirhams on such a trip, once one has converted these into pesetas the urge to splurge is gone, since now you're into the economy of the next country, and you might as well hang on to your pesetas.

The crossing was very comfortable. The boat had tables in a variety of deck locations and it wasn't crowded. Eventually, the rock of Gibraltar came into view, and we pulled into the docks at Algiceras, in Spain.

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