On To Tangier

We left Rabat early in the morning, heading north for Tangier.

Youssef told us a little more about his country during the drive. He indicated that 75% of the population was Berber. They are the original nomads of North Africa. Other groups that reside in the country include Arabs, Moors, Jews, Christians, etc.. The country is a constitutional monarchy, with the king sharing power with an elected body. The current king is Muhammed VI. He is considered young and forward-looking. Morocco has been ruled by kings of the Alawite dynasty since the 1600s. They claim descent from the prophet Mohammad. The country used to be a protectorate of France and Spain. They got their independence in 1956. They are still undoing the damage that the French did. (That sounds like a very familiar story!) They do not have a good relationship with neighbor Algeria. There is disagreement over the ownership of the land now to the south, called the Western Sahara. They are a modern Islamic Nation. They have partnerships with the US and Israel. (The reasons became clearer with the passage of time.)

General observation – many people in Morocco tend to wear their traditional clothes. Also, women do not, in general, cover their faces. Many have scarves over their head.

Our route took us close to the sea coast and the Atlantic Ocean for a good part of the drive. We were on a toll road.

We passed through a park with forests of cork oak and eucalyptus trees. The harvested cork oak tree has a very distinctive look because of the way cork is harvested.

Agriculture is the major occupation in this part of the country. It contributes significantly to the economy, and so does tourism. Morocco mostly has small farms.Our surroundings were surprisingly green. There are lots of donkeys, horses,sheep and cows
– and an occasional camel.The camels would dominate the scene more as we headed towards the east of the country.

More recently new crops have been introduced to the country, including banana and avocado. They also produce honey. 50% of the avocado is apparently exported to Israel. In order to ensure good and healthy growth, the banana trees are grown in an enclosed environment, but they seem to break out of their enclosures as they grow taller. We saw many banana tree enclosures along the way.

We arrived at Tangier in time for lunch. I was surprised by the design of the apartment buildings being built on the outskirts of the city,and by the line of modern car dealerships and other stores along the road. It felt very different from Rabat. This seemed to be a modern city strongly influenced by the west.

Tangier is considered one of the big cities of Morocco. Due to its northern location, it used to be a gateway from Europe to Africa. It used to be an international city for some time, governed jointly by several countries – including USA, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden. There were different sections of the city that were administered separately and differently (including regulations and enforcement), and the architecture in each section reflected the architectural choices of people from the administrating authority.

Tangier is a famous city of international allure and intrigue, and notoriety – known as a center for spying, smuggling, etc.., during times past. It used to be, and still is, a favorite of celebrities, movie stars, artists, writers, etc.. Real estate is expensive. There are palaces built for kings – seemingly mostly from the Middle East.

We met up with our local guide just before we broke off for lunch on our own. Lunch was in a restaurant with an open terrace overlooking the bay.

After lunch, we went on the bus to Perdicaris Park, on the west side of the city. As we drove up the hills, you could get an expansive view of the sprawling city below us. (I was not able to get any good pictures.) Our local guide kept talking about the expensive real estate we were passing, and the owners of these properties. I really did not care.

Once at the park entrance, we were taken along the edge of the park to a spot where you are supposed to be able to see across the Gibraltar Strait to Spain. Unfortunately, it was a hazy day. Our guide continued with a story-telling session about the Perdicaris Affair. The house that we could see on the hill was a part of this story.The house was called the Place of Nightingales. It has now been renamed Chateau Perdicaris.

We would have loved to have had some time to actually explore the park, but that was apparently not part of the plan. The park did seem to be a very popular place for locals to visit.

We continued our drive further west, crossing some hills, and eventually caught sight of the Atlantic Ocean as we started descending towards the coast.We were in an area called Cape Spartel. Our first stop was at the Cape Spartel Lighthouse at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It was amazing observing Youssef, our driver, navigate the bus through the twists and turns of the narrow automobile-lined streets, to the more open space of the parking lot for the lighthouse.

Our local guide gave us a little history of the lighthouse. You can read the very interesting original agreement between all the countries involved in the creation of this lighthouse here. The Sultan of Morocco built this lighthouse for the benefit of humanity – for use by the seafaring nations of that time – those from Europe, and also the United States. Morocco itself had little to gain.

Our local guide told us that we could actually see the difference between the waters of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean here. The Atlantic was supposed to be rougher, in general. I could not make out the difference. I did notice a tanker in the distance, through the haze. It seemed to be heading eastward, towards the Mediterranean sea.

It was during this stop that I noticed a somewhat distressing tendency of folks in our group to not pay attention to the tour guide and to get distracted by a bunch of other stuff going on around us while the person was speaking. This behavior was somewhat disrespectful for one thing. Also, it did not make sense that folks had come all this way, to another country, without the curiosity and interest to learn new things. Anyway…

It was in this general area that somebody on the bus turned on their mobile phone to receive a text message from their US network carrier, Verizon Wireless. “Welcome to Spain”, it said! We were close enough to the European continent to receive cellular phone signals from Spain!

We drove down the hill on which the lighthouse was located to a road that went past the beaches on the Atlantic Coast.There were people hanging out on the beaches. We were headed further south to the Caves of Hercules for a visit.

(If the good reader has not already realized this, now may be a good time to inform you of something that may be obvious to some – that many of my pictures from this trip have been taken under non-ideal conditions, from a moving bus, with internal reflections from the bus impacting the overall picture. That may be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view. In any case, what the camera captured happens to be the reality of the moment!)

I have to admit that I lost interest in the Caves of Hercules when I heard that the cave was partially man-made. I did not care for the mythological background either. It sounded like a tourist trap. In any case I went in along with the crowd. It seemed to be a very popular place among the locals.This was the end of the tours for the day. We started our drive back to the town of Tangier. After once again crossing the hills of Cape Spartel, we took a different route into town during the latter part of the drive into town. We ended up on a waterfront along the Mediterranean sea. There was a beautiful esplanade beside us. We drove past two ports – one for fishing boats and the other for leisure. (We would get a more expansive view of this area the next day.) The locals were out taking walks and having fun. I was thinking that this would be a nice place for us to walk during our spare time.

We were dropped off at the hotel that we were going to stay at. It happened to be close to the waterfront – a convenient location from which to start explorations of the city on foot. The hotel was a high end American brand. Our expectations were a little high.We were a little disappointed, especially by the view from our room. And then there were little things about the place that were not completely up to par.

We decided to do a little exploring in the evening. We went to a shopping mall close by, including a small food market and a food court. Neither seemed to be very inviting at first glance. We decided to walk along the water front to look for a place to eat. We had seen a few restaurants as the bus was making its way to the hotel.

It was in fact not easy to pick a restaurant, the problem being that we could not understand the French menus, and that we also lacked the communications skills to figure out if there was some food we would like to try.

As we wandered around looking for a restaurant to eat at, we were greeted as Indians on the street. Folks seemed to react in what seemed to be a very friendlier than usual manner. The thought occurred to me that we should use this to our advantage during the trip! We were greeted with a “Namaste” on a couple of occasions while in Tangier.

We eventually landed up at a restaurant that had the word “grill” as part of its name. It looked like a place for people who might be seeking a quick bite – with a Moroccan restaurant chain vibe. The food items seemed familiar, and there were English translations on the menu. We went in to find two other people from our tour group seated there. They themselves had just arrived. We had talked to them for the first time that evening when we arrived at the hotel. They were from Walla Walla, WA! I had heard of Walla Walla before, and had no trouble remembering the name – just because of the way it had sounded! It was a complete coincidence running into the folks from Walla Walla once again at the restaurant. It was time to make new friends from Walla Walla!

Based on my experiences of that day, I got a feeling that Tangier was probably not the best place to learn about the Moroccan culture – even though the city is amazing in its own way. It was so full of life. It was very much alive. I was to find out that I was wrong in this initial judgement. We had a more relevant experience about Moroccan life the next day. Also, as I learnt during the rest of the trip, different parts of Morocco are so different from each other.

Breakfast at the Hilton the next morning was on the 15th floor. The breakfast area, and the breakfast itself, was where the hotel started to redeem itself, and regain a little bit of its lost reputation. While enjoying breakfast, we had a wonderful view over the strait – where a ferry from Spain happened to just be coming in.

After breakfast, we wandered over to another open space on the 15th floor, facing the other direction, to get a view of the railway station.There was an Al-Boraq train on the move just outside the station.These “TGV Morocco” trains, built by the french company Alstom, started running between Casablanca and Tangier in 2018. They can run at up to 200 miles/hr in certain sections, and they have apparently halved the travel time between the two cities. They are the fastest trains in Africa today. Our road route into Tangier had paralleled the path of this train in certain sections. There was a moment during that drive when my attention was drawn to something flashing by the windows on the other side of the bus. It was the train, and it was gone in an instant!

Our program for the morning was a walking tour of the Casbah and the Medina in Tangier. This was more like what I was hoping to experience! We would get an exposure to history and life in Tangier.

We walked to the Casbah from where our bus had dropped us off.

There was a banyan tree near the entrance of the Casbah. I had to laugh to myself since it looked puny and pitiful by Indian standards.We walked through the alleyways of the Casbah where people still live and buildings are also used for commercial and other purposes.

The Hand of Fatima knocker that you see on one of the doors in the pictures above is there for good luck. It is is quite common in Moroccan homes.

We were able to go to the rampart of the fort to look at the harbor and the bay.

We then made our way through the alleyways of the Medina.

We were regularly accosted by street vendors selling their wares. We had been warned by our tour manager to not buy things from these vendors. He will be taking us to places that they recommend to buy some Moroccan keepsakes. The vendors are quite aggressive, but not to the point that you feel threatened. They have a very friendly demeanor, but it is difficult to get them to give up. I noticed that we were accompanied by a plainclothes policeman who did his best to not be obvious to the tour group. A group of 41 somewhat naive Americans make a good target!

We stopped at the American Legation Museum.
This building was the first American public property abroad, and is the only U.S. National Historic Landmark located in a foreign country. Morocco was the first country to recognize US independence from Great Britain (in 1821), and this building served as a diplomatic outpost after that for 140 years. Morocco’s relationship with the US runs deep.

Lunch was with the rest of the tour group at a restaurant in a location that, we were told, used to be a safe house in the past. The restaurant was located along the seaside wall of the Casbah. We had tajines for lunch. Tajines are uniquely North African, and they are used for slow cooking. We had tajines on many other occasions during the trip.

We enjoyed sitting in the terrace area overlooking the harbor – and making some new friends, this time from Missouri. We had good food and company for lunch.

We were taken by bus back to the hotel.The rest of the day was free time for us. I fell asleep at the hotel, knocked out from all the walking.

We went for a walk along the beach in the evening as the sun was setting.What a marvelous atmosphere! People were everywhere – kids, adults, couples, both young and old, young boys and girls on bikes and scooters whizzing around on the promenade. I especially loved seeing the young girls on their scooters. It spoke to the equitable nature of their society.

The promenade was nicely lit up.

The Moroccan women in Tangier are quite fashionable in their own way in the way they dress. Women also wear makeup and seem to feel free to present themselves as they wish. Even though a majority of them dress somewhat conservatively, many covering their heads, there were a few who were not shy about going out of their way to get themselves noticed. But, for the most part, even the stylish folks dressed more demurely than what you would see in a big city in the US on a summer day. Subtlety works better than an in-your-face approach most of the time.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge our adventures crossing the streets on foot in this and the other big cities where we happened to take walks. We typically had to cross wide boulevards, if possible at crosswalks – sometimes without the benefit of lights to stop traffic at the crosswalk. Automobiles approach people crossing the road at high speeds and only stop at the very last moment. But they do stop! When in doubt about crossing the street, it is wise to follow the locals. And do not hesitate!

One other thing, that I hesitate slightly to bring up, is the sight of indigent people on the street in some places. We came across a lady with a baby in her lap sitting on the sidewalk the two evenings we were there. She might have been trying to sell small packets of tissues. There were also other people at some locations on the street between our hotel and the beach. And there were the random ladies, not many, who might approach you with their hand out. In this matter, Morocco seems to have the same problems that many countries have, including the United States.

We are heading for Fes tomorrow morning with an intermediate stop in Chefchaouen. We had to get some food today for our lunch tomorrow. There were slim pickings at the food market in the mall, but I noticed that many in our tour group were also in the store the same time that we were looking for food. We improvised.

On our way out of the mall, we ran into a lady who was wandering around near the entrance trying to get people to try out a perfume from a certain company. Soon after we said no, she stopped “selling”, and started talking about herself. She was Filipino. She was by herself in Morocco, having left her home to find a job and make a living. She had kids she had left behind. She had trained as a nurse, but she had ended up in this job because of stuff that had happened since she left her country. She was hoping to get a better job and improve her life eventually in Miami. Things seemed to be difficult for her – her life story felt a little sad, but she had a cheerful and optimistic demeanor nonetheless. It was an amazing and unique encounter. In the end, she asked us to pray for her.

I was having a problem that last night in Tangier finding a place to get dinner, especially since I was on my own in this endeavor. We were both adjusting to the change in the diet since we left home. We were typically eating much more than usual for breakfast and lunch. Dinner could feel forced, and I was the only one interested that night. I ended up up having a Big Mac for dinner at the tail end of our walk – at the “McDo” near our hotel.It has been many years since I indulged in a Big Mac. I had squashed the craving for this burger for many, many, years!

Still Dreaming Of Morocco

We are back home from our trip to Morocco, but I am not fully here yet mentally. I dreamed of Morocco last night. But I also know that the feelings and memories will fade away quickly. I need to make my statement promptly before that happens. There are things worth remembering. We have experienced so much, and learnt so much about this amazing country and its people. I should be thankful, and grateful, and should also be spreading the word and the feeling – if possible!

I can still hear the voices of my fellow-travelers – 41 of us in all. I can still hear Youssef, our tour manager, as he tries to get our attention – to get us organized for the next move or for the next day, or as he tries to explain something to us, or as he gives us more background information about his country. Daily early morning breakfasts, many before sunrise – fresh omelettes, fruits, pastries, and juices – the chocolate croissants to die for, the orange juice with pulp in it – as we greet our fellow travelers as they sleepily join us in the dining area. We make sure to put our bags outside our room if we are moving to a new town that day. And then we are on the road once again, all counted and accounted for by our always smiling and efficient helper, Rashid – to see new places, to learn new things, to meet new people – the wonderful people of Morocco. Rashid gives each of us a bottle of water as we get going. Our driver, the other Youssef, gets us from point A to point B, with intermediate stops along the way, quietly and safely every day. He negotiates the tough spots smoothly. He does not do anything rash. He is patient. The big motor coach cannot be easy to manage.

We covered the entire nation of Morocco during our 15 days of wandering, starting off in the capital city of Rabat. We then visited the northern city of Tangier, the gateway to Africa from Europe. After that we headed into the Rif mountains, heading southeast to Chefchouen, the Blue City. Two nights were spent in the old religious center of Fes. We then crossed the Middle Atlas Mountains and the High Atlas Mountains – through mountain passes and over the high plains – to the get to Erfoud and the Sahara desert. Then it was onward and westward to the UNESCO Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou; then over the High Atlas mountains to the madhouse that is Marrakech. Finally, we crossed over the High Atlas mountains once again, to head to the beach and resort towns of Agadir and Essaouira, before completing the trip in Casablanca. The above list does not even begin to touch upon the various other places that we passed through and even visited along the way. We were rocking the casbahs and the medinas of the towns we visited!

I am not sure yet how to tell the entire story. Perhaps it will emerge in non-linear fashion. And I did take notes this time, perhaps for the first time on a trip like this.

But I do also feel that I need to try to provide a highlight reel of pictures before I start to tell the story, even though it is bound to be incomplete. The most complete set of pictures will be posted in a Pbase album, and some of these pictures will be used in further blogs that I will create to break down the trip and provide more information.

The pictures will be further identified in their contexts in future blogs.