Daisy and I have spent time in South America, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We love traveling, so we seized the opportunity to visit Morocco, North Africa when we saw the chance while on a 5-week vacation involving a 13 night transatlantic cruise and a 7-night Mediterranean cruise.
The plan involved leaving our heavy suitcases at our hotel in Malaga, Spain, and venturing to Ronda, Spain and Tangiers, each for three days. Traveling light, with only backpacks, we thought would be a treat. We were right.
Morocco is not a large country by African standards – but it is has more square miles than the major European countries like France, Germany, Italy or Spain. There are about 32 million people there. The mild climate is influenced by the high Atlas mountains and the long Atlantic and Mediterranean coast lines. Folks speak Arabic and Berber. French and English are widely understood in the cities. The currency is the dirham – about 8 dirham to the dollar. Humans have lived in this area for 200,000 years and recorded history goes back thousands of years before America was discovered.
Monday, May 7th, we walked to the train station from the Hotel Gecko in Cortes de la Frontera in Spain. We took the train to Algeciras, a taxi to Tarifa and the fast ferry across the Straights of Gibraltar. The weather for the time we stayed in Morocco was perfect. We were glad to have light jackets in the evenings and when the wind was up.
Off the ferry, we had to make our way through a gang of nicely dressed men offering guide services. They were all official, government licensed, and hotel approved. Their persistence was not rewarded. The cab fare to the downtown Hotel Rembrandt was a sliding figure but we settled on 25 dirham, about $3.00, with a stop at a currency exchange to convert euros to dirham.
The hotel reception, dining and room were all very good. We strolled Avenue Mohammad V before dinner, found an internet café to check our mail, then ate in the hotel restaurant. We felt very comfortable on the crowded city streets. The main streets had lots of outdoor cafés serving the local teas and pastries.
Morocan cuisine is delicious; slightly different from any other food we’ve tried and very much to our liking. We arranged an area tour with the hotel desk, as recommended by our guide books for the next afternoon. Well rested we set out for a walk after breakfast the next morning. Somehow we fell in step next to Rashid who introduced himself as our cook at the hotel restaurant. Daisy complemented him on the wonderful flavors he achieved and he modestly admitted that it was the special spices he used.
It just happened that Rashid was on his way to buy spices in the medina and he offered to guide us to his spice provider. He was a slender, simply dressed man with a nice smile and we accepted his offer. A few blocks off the main street we found ourselves tagging along behind Rashid, who was a better walker than ourselves. Once in the maze of narrow twisting streets we were engulfed by the powerful aromas drifting from the spice stalls. Shopkeepers stood outside their stores and tried entice us inside to haggle you over their products, always good naturedly, although sometimes very persistently! We stuck with Rashid and, after a meandering trek, we got to the spice shop where we meet Wadi the spice man.
Wadi was dressed like a pharmacist. He seated us in front of a little table and cordially began a demonstration which included not only spices but a large variety of health powders he called Moroccan Viagra and cures for migraines, etc.
With some difficulty we resisted buying everything he showed us and took only 6 packets spices which, he assured us, would be good for at least two years. Final tally 429 dirhams – about $54.00.
Rashid kindly took us on a little tour of the medina showing us the oldest house in the city and the old castle. He told us he would take us to a place that offered the best view in the city. When we got there his friend Omar, a nicely dressed gentleman, took us to the roof. There were about 5 flights of stairs with rooms full of carpets along the way.
Wow. What a view. On the way back downstairs he said sit a minute so his mother could make us some tea. Moroccan hospitality could not be refused so we sat and after a few minutes a younger man brought us three delicious glasses of sweet mint tea. His mom was a really good cook.
Meanwhile Omar began showing us some of his carpets. They were individual works of art made in rural villages. No two were alike. “Say Omar,” I said, “These are beautiful but how much are they?”
That question seemed to hurt his feelings a little. He explained that we must concentrate on how beautiful these little rugs were.
Finally, after a little prodding he admitted that some the rugs he was showing is could be had for only 5,000 or so dirhams. Arithmetic told me that this was over $600.00. I began to think that we’d have to leave Omar soon. But I gotta tell you that the rugs were nice. But how in hell could we get them back to the U.S.?
Soon the bargaining began in earnest and, to every ones amazement we settled on a price of 1,000 dirhams for a very small rug and a tablecloth. $125.00. He wrapped the items very tightly in paper so we could squeeze then into our backpacks. He took mastercard!
On the way back to the hotel Rashid complimented us by saying that, “Omar said you bargain like Moroccans.” He only had one more stop to make at a friend’s leather shop but we were shopped out and didn’t buy anything. We didn’t get any more tea either.
Later we took a driving tour of the area including the Caves of Hercules and the Cap Spartel Lighthouse. All very satisfying. After a rest at the hotel we had a nice dinner at a local restaurant and a late night stroll on Avenue Mohammed V.
Our last day in Tangier was a low key stroll around town. Although we had stopped ourselves to sit at a sidewalk café, Daisy noticed that although there were hundreds of male customers, no women sat at these sidewalk tables. Later we would be told that women were more welcome in side street cafés.
We enjoyed the urban bustle, beautiful exotic people and customs and even the hard sell.