Well here i am, sitting in my window seat, on a vueling aeroplane, looking out at a bunch of vueling airliner windows who are doing the exact same thing. My first time Africa bound. I’ve been to the US, Europe and Oceania. Into the gateway city of Tangier. What was I to expect? Shwarma? Kebabs? Hashish? Tagines? A blurry world of not knowing what to expect bounced around in my mind. Let’s see, what do I know of Morocco…
I first heard of Morocco after seeing it in an atlas at 8 years old. I was drawing a treasure map of some faraway invented land, as you do being an imaginative 8 year old. On this crude map I drew up, I named a town on it Morocco, and was shocked to find it was a real country on the northern tip of Africa. The gateway to Europe. What mysteries would I find there? It seemed such a faraway, long lost place at the time, but 20 years later, I was finding the world was a much smaller place then I thought, countries that appeared so far away in an atlas were but a few hours flight away. The world is both so small but still large enough to not have enough time to go everywhere.
Watching Barcelona fan out behind me as the aircraft swung a deep left turn, I recalled all the great memories I had been lucky enough to be a part of. My catalan famiglia had been nothing but warm, happy and had shown me that the sun never sets in catalunya. Again, another step on the way to proving that people from around the world can unite and create some really special moments. Catalan, spanish, french, Irish, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Fins, Moroccans and English. This brought me to getting even more excited for Tangier and beyond. I had a russian wanting me to tour with them in southern morocco, locals inviting me to their homes in every moroccan city and French travellers wanting to drive me down the west coast of a country I hadn’t even landed in yet. Jesus, the land of adventure without even being there yet.
Initial shock value and being way out of a comfort zone was definetly strange and a little intimidating, but that’s why I travel. Getting out of the comfort zone. I felt well out of place. I can scrape by miserably in Spanish, can’t speak Arabic and almost zero french, luckily enough the tangerines know more English then I know Spanish, so as always, multilingual conversations are born. Starting in Arabic, going to Spanish or Italian, changing again to English and then ending in French for example. It’s an amusing way to get by, usually you both end up laughing it out once you manage to get your message across. I remember trying to describe what toothpaste was to a Dutch man in a small shop inside the tangier medina. It was like playing charades with languages and arm movements, I don’t think I’ve blatantly just opened my mouth and airbrushed my teeth in front of anyone until now. First time for everything right?
On the subject of first time I was robbed by two blokes in Tangier on my first night. There wasn’t alot I could do, I had two options floating in my head. The first was get into a street fight in a foreign country, which I wouldn’t have minded all so much if I wasn’t carrying a valuables like a passport, camera and electronics on me. Also in foreign territory, I didn’t know the lay of the land. Chances may have been they had more friends around the corner if I decided to kick up a stink. The second option was to give them what I had, and escape to fight another day. After trying to bargain with them, they brazenly cut me off and closed in from both sides pushing me into a corner, one suspicious hand in their jacket pocket. In the mysteriously empty, shadowy alleyway they took my wallet and out came 100 euros. It was that or risk losing all my gear which was worth much more, not to mention all the memories I had in my pack. Not the best welcome I’ve had in a foreign country, but hey, you win some and you lose some. I’ll live to fight another day.
2 days later I was slowly starting to adjust to the Moroccan way of life… or tangerine life in the medina anyway. I was able to get lost in Portuguese alleys in Porto and still find myself, but I was able to immerse myself into the lively alleys of the Tangier Medina and stay lost. The smell of baking bread lingered out the colourful warped doorways feeding my hairy nostrils, while I fended off shopkeepers wanting to sell me carpets, robes and mint tea as calls of ‘Ali Baba’ and ‘bueno barba’ chased after me through the twisty streets. Wizened old gentlemen laid out 20 or 30 types of carpets to show me, everything ranging from berber to tangerine, handwoven masterpieces. Man they really love carpets here. Walk into a shop and it’s an everchanging work of art. The other big deal for shopkeepers here is gelabas (a long traditional gown), and they’ll chase you through streets telling you all about their amazing gelabas, the range of colours, for winter or summer… you get the drift.
Sipping mint tea and smoking golden hash is a way of life here in Tangier medina. Slight discretion is used, but you’ll spot pipes and joints being passed around a group or smoked solo amongst tall glasses of sugary sweet mint tea. Walk through any twisting medina street and you’ll have young boys to middle aged men whispering ‘hashish khoya?’ or ‘best hash here for you brother’, pushing you to buy their soft golden hash. The relentless offers of hash can get quite annoying if you don’t harbour a little patience and a sense of humour. It seems every guy pushing hash here has the best farm in Chefchaouen (hash capital of Morocco) or is related to the owner of the best hash farm… even the tour guides and waiters that fail on winning your favour try to push hashish onto you, so it’s not difficult to get a hold of. I had a lot of fun with the pushers here, they’ll try their absolute hardest to win you over with soft words, so in return I would try my hardest to confuse them with different languages, act dumb and wave hello and shake hands. It was well worth the bewildered looks.
I met with my friend Achraf, a Tangier local, we headed out to Al Hafa to sip on some mint tea, eat bissara (fava bean soup, finished with olive oil) and sip mint tea. Over a beef tagine we kicked back and looked across the strait of gibraltar to the edge of the Spanish mainland. There’s much of the Spanish occupation left behind in Tangier, as soon as you exit the medina you see the Spanish leftovers slung about, in well weathered yellows, reds and blues, full of well worn character. We finished off with a wander off to the city cliffs where the old romantic tombs were, which seems a regular local spot to chill out and tap on a drum. Tangier is a crazy mash up of Spain meets north Africa and I was getting itchy feet to explore more of this colourful, crazy, carpet loving country.
So into Asilah it was with the moroccan lion Sara. Asilah reminded of pictures I’ve seen on the Internet of the Greek Islands. Calming blue paint screened over aged, whitewashed facades inside the old city. You recieve a postcard moment at every corner, which is well due to the fact it’s still winter here so the hordes of selfie stick slingers haven’t destroyed the serenity of the area. Throughout Asilah more colours expose the colourful moroccan attitude, soft reds, pinks, yellows and greens play out in the streets Sara and I get lost in. Bright murals are spread out across Asilah in random areas inside the old walls. Taking a quick right turn on the edge of the old city walls, we were exposed to a beautiful view of Morocco’s west coast. Waves were lapping at the golden sandy beaches, while the heavy grey clouds blackly discussed whether the city needed a wash or not.
Stopping off to get some Msimn (a moroccan type of bread, popular for breakfast) with some Amlou (almond spread, Greater then peanut butter, and yes there is such a thing), Sara and I wandered back down the main ‘strip’ if you will, full of the usual Moroccan enthusiasm to visitors, to grace ourselves with another glass of mint tea while watching the clouds batter each other into a thick grey mess. Lounging back in contentment in great company, full of sweet mint tea and M’sim’n, I was a fat old man sitting in his rocking chair, watching the world go by as if I had already lived a life worth living.
I have never been to a country where people can be so friendly and hospitable, almost overbearingly so – it’s an honour to be treated so well by my new Moroccan friends Sara and Achraf. They barely knew me from a dirty old bar of soap, but welcomed me warmly and got me up to speed on the Moroccan way in no time. Actually, they were the first two people in Morocco that didn’t mention anything about my hairy rug of a face – an admirable trait considering it left everyone else mesmerised! I was already on the move to meet up with a few more friends to the south in Rabat and beyond, and I felt a little sad leaving my new friends behind… I wanted to take them with me! I can’t be more thankful to meet such generous and welcoming people, but little did I know that this was the beginning of a wonderful journey.
Four and a half hours after leaving Asilah for Rabat, I met up with Oksana (the russian Babushka) and hopped on a train to Sale to stay with Samira, my moroccan Mama. Following through on the actions from my friends in the north, we were greeted warmly and shared an vegetable dish with bread and olives from Sam’s mothers farm, moroccan style. In short, you plonk a big plate of food in the middle and use bread as your utensils. Eating with my hands? How could life get any better! Tucking in we made short work of the delicious peppers, olives and potatoes while sharing our stories around the small table. Samira was a fountain of information, showering us with her insights of Moroccan culture, religion and lifestyle. Staying with a local really helped me to understand more about a country I had no clue about.
The following afternoon took the three of us to the Rabat coast, along the hilly clifftops on the Atlantic to watch nature treat a stormy drama to our eyes. Waves relentlessly crashed over rocks that speared out agaisnt them, while the sky pitched a battle of its own on the horizon. Dark foreboding clouds interfered with the bright blue sky as the sun battled to shine on through the darkness. Shafts of light found their way through the increasingly black clouds, while the blue was slowly being whittled away leaving the sun to fight it’s own battle. Catching the horizon at such a dramatic moment was beautiful, almost as beautiful as the wave that crashed over the top of me as I shot the scenic view. Much wetter, we made our way to the Rabat medina before heading back to Sam’s comfortable abode and a potato and chicken tagine.
Sunshine was abundant the next day, so after a healthy breakfast of cake, olives and eggs, the Medina beckoned and off we went in our tightly packed grand taxi (7 seater mercedes benz, in western countries legal seating is 5 seats). Starting our journey in the Kasbah, we strolled through the andalusian gardens, filled with stray cats soaking up the sun, and old ladies sitting on the steps having a chat about the mornings comings and goings. Up the stairs we stepped, and before us little Greece flirted with our eyes – the typical blue and bright white, as in Asilah, had reappeared again. Brilliant white in the sunlight, the kasbah gave off a mysterious, nostalgic vibe. The differences between any of the old buildings here? The doors. Every door is different, shaped different, coloured different, engraved different. Some had intricately tiled portals as entry to the small buildings. The exit of the last tiny street of the kasbah opened up to great ocean views of the Rabat coast and the small beaches below us.
Leather slippers hung in pairs off stall tarpaulins, olives were stacked neatly in oversized circular towers and shopkeepers everywhere greeted us in french and arabic, encouraging us to enter their tiny shops. ‘La shukran’ I replied to many a shopkeeper, occasionally throwing in a ‘Salaam’ or ‘B’slaama’ as we wound our way through the crowds of people buying hammam soaps or fresh fruit. Lunch was imminent, well, when isn’t food at the forefront of my mind? So being the curious bloke I am, I went straight for the cow’s head and chicken livers (donated by the Babushka) and happily chowed it all down. The beef melted in my mouth, a little salty and a little fatty, perfect together with the round fresh bread from the bakery outside. A few plates and 30 Dirham later (3 euro), I left looking like a bearded, heavily pregnant woman.
Last visit of the day was onto the Hassan Mosque, the Mausolèe Muhammed Van. The tower unfortunately, was wrapped in scaffold for restoration so all you could see was the green netting of the scaffold. However the old columns stood loud and proud, a perfect playground for hide and seek to be had around the old white stone columns. The mosque itself was surrounded by guards, to whom you cannot speak to, although they seemed jovial enough amongst themselves. The inside of the mosque is relatively decadent, with underground levels running out through doors to where the naked eye could not follow. Most impressive was the inscribed carvings on the ceiling and walls – most reminiscent of the palaces in the Alhambra, Granada.
Entering Rabat solo would have bred a different experience to the one I had with Samira. I was leaving too soon for my liking, but I was leaving a richer man. Samira had taught me so much, not just by what she said, but how she had acted and I felt Sam had gifted us a fraction of her colourful flame. I understood a little more about the way of life, the food and the older and younger moroccan generations. Nothing was too much, Sam just kept giving and giving, just like my northern friends had and the colours of Morocco were shining bright. Oh and the food. We can’t forget about the food. Never forget about the food!
A 7 hour overnight coach ride from Rabat to Essaouira isn’t the most fun experience in the world. I could definetly pass on doing it again. Walking up through Essaouira’s medina at 4am, Sana and I found our hostel without too much trouble and after waking the sleeping desk staff, got our room and crashed out like a pair of old seals. Nothing like a breakfast at the top of an old riad with views over the old city to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Sipping on my mint tea I gazed over the rooftops dwarfed by the mosque towers sounding out the call to prayer. It’s quite a relaxing way to wake up in the morning, and the sound of the prayers singing through the city over the day never gets old. I smile big inside myself everytime I hear it. Legs crossed on a comfortable, blanket covered seat, sun shining on my face, wearing shorts for the first time this trip. Summer was on it’s way.
Essaouira’s medina and souk has been the easiest to navigate thus far – it does help that it’s small, and on the water, so getting through it and not getting lost is relatively easy. There is definitely a more relaxed surf vibe here, there’s even a few rasta’s walking about amidst the handcraft shops and colourful paintings set up on the street. As with other medinas that I have wandered through, the shopkeepers have unique ways of attempting to rope you in to a sale. They have many funny one liners to draw you in and make you laugh, so it’s alot of fun for me, chatting to all the shopkeepers and politely but firmly turning down the incessant offers of further inspection of their goods. They are a good spirited lot to have a laugh with, I’ve never used ‘Tomorrow Inshallah’ so much in a day.
Heading out of the medina, Sana and I reached the old fort and fishing port – alive with fisherman calling out and selling the days catch, with beautiful, rustic blue boats bobbing up and down at their backs. Soft waves lapped at the edges of the dock, fishing nets were strewn about in odd piles and weathered ropes hung low on the boat moorings. Sea salted clothes of the local fisherman were hung off makeshift washing lines on the rear decks of the bobbing fishing boats, flapping gently in the cool breeze. Seagulls circled the old fort across the water, some just floating in on the breeze to land amid loud squawking neighbours. The taste of salt was on my lips and the sweet soft sound of the ocean was music to my ears. I returned to our hostel and sat around a huge table with a group of travellers for a glorious dinner with a few new faces – Adele in her crazy, technicolour overalls and Doc Martins (more on our adventures in a later post) and Stef and Fränzy out of Bavaria.
My hosts Soufiane and Abdel couldn’t have been more helpful during the stay in Agadir, picking us up from the bus station and immediatly showing us the main sights around Agadir, as well showing us the southern version of harira – moroccan soup, which is highly variable depending on where in morocco you are. Sweet dates accompany the steaming harira, as well as the ramadan sweet, which was followed by a fat slice of turkey pie. Abdel showed us around the general Agadir area and the touristic quarter, which funnily enough, is the cleanest part of the city. We also made a visit up the hill where the old kasbah is located, which offers great views of the Agadir coastline and port districts. Every night Soufiane and Abdel always made sure I was well fed and happy, curious about all my adventures on the road since I left home.