Travelling to Tangier
As I left Madrid I made a promise to myself to one day return in a healthy state and discover the city more. During my brief time there while feeling fit I didn’t even get to eat tapas. The only dishes I had were the tartar from hell and plain rice – and I’m only slightly exaggerating.
At the airport I spotted the waiting area for my gate from a distance due to the amount of head scarfs on waiting passengers. Already at this point I knew I was going somewhere quite different from Madrid, even if it only took about an hour to fly there.
After double checking that it was indeed the correct gate, I sat down and started hydrating myself with a bottle of water I had pulled in a vending machine close by, excited to start the next chapter in my travels.
My Arrival as the Barista
As the plane lowered in height and broke through the clouds, out came the sun and a view of a clear blue sky over the Tangier harbor. When the plane landed a queue quickly started forming. It took me a second to figure out why people were gathering around small bar tables to grab pieces of paper.
This was due to the arrival document we all needed to fill out to get through the passport control. On the paper I amongst other things had to fill in my profession. Technically I’m actually unemployed at the moment, or a self-employed non-payed blogger – or a barista on leave from the coffee shop in Copenhagen were I usually work. I choose to opt for the barista profession, as it sounded more like a real job than blogger.
At the passport control I came up to, there were sat two guards; one in a cheap looking suit and one in uniform. The uniformed one checked my passport. He asked me what a barista was. ‘I make coffee’, I explained with a smile. ‘Ah’, he smirked, ‘I would like to taste your coffee’, he added, looking oddly at me and then at his partner beside him, who seemed to stifle a giggle.
I didn’t think much of it and automatically answered, ‘Sure. Its good coffee!’, and smiled as I took back my passport. Both their facial expressions looked frozen for a second, locked in a grimace of simultaneous chock and amusement, as I just left them with no further delay.
An Angry Teen & the Thin Tall Man
Once on the other side of the baggage carousels I spotted a large Money Exchange consisting of several little glass fronts with personnel standing readily behind them. Just to ask about their exchange rate, I went forward.
The window I came up to had a young woman behind it. Her hair was dyed blonde but had dark roots. She was maybe around 19 years old, wore braces and had severe acne.
As I try to ask about their prices, she just answers by demanding my passport. ‘Why not, I guess that’s the procedure,’ I think as I hand it to her. Then she begins telling me about some deal where, in her opinion, I get the best price if I withdraw at least 4000 Moroccan dirhams – otherwise it would be more expensive.
‘But what exactly are your prices here?’ I ask her and frown slightly in concentration. She seems suddenly a bit scared and looks at me with wider eyes. Then she looks back over her shoulder and only now I notice a thin tall man in the back, standing still as a mouse dressed in a relatively expensive looking black suit.
He just nods at her. She turns back to me and asks me how much money I want to exchange. I tell her I don’t want to exchange any money. I’m asking about information on getting some local currency via my credit card. ‘Okay!’ she exclaims as if everything makes sense now. ‘I need your passport and credit card’, she goes on in a tone of voice that sounds extremely rehearsed.
I point at my passport inside her glass cabinet. ‘Oh, sorry’, she mumbles and asks for just my credit card. In hindsight I don’t know why I actually give it to her. I guess I then still believed she could give me some answers. ‘How many euros would you like to exchange?’, she then enquires. I look back puzzled.
‘I don’t want to exchange any currency – and as you can see on my passport I’m Danish’, I say after a moments pause. ‘You don’t have euros there?’ She looks rather surprised and again she turns to the tall thin guy behind her. He walks one step closer but still just nods at her. She turns to me with more urgency and exactly like before she begins talking about how I need to exchange several thousand of dirhams before it makes economic sense to me.
‘But what are your exchange rates then?’ I ask again, possibly frowning even more than before in an attempt to concentrate better. She now seems to have totally lost all patience with me and begins to roll her eyes; the same way a teenager that’s annoyed in an American youth movie does.
Violently she grabs a calculator and starts showing me numbers that make no sense, since she gives them no context; staring blankly at me while she just holds the calculator near the glass.
I look up the normal global exchange rate between Moroccan dirhams and Danish kroner online and begin to show it to her. Once again asking for her rate, now compared to the information on Google. This really makes her eyes roll. Later she adds loud sighing in the mix.
In the end I just ask for my passport and credit card back.
She acts as if she doesn’t understand. I have to ask three times. Finally she lets out the loudest sigh so far, looks back over her shoulder were the thin man nods the same way as all the previous times, and I get my things back.
Although I had a clear feeling that they were just trying to hustle money from me, I still have no idea exactly what she wanted and why, nor what the numbers she showed me meant. It was all very confusing.
As I get out of arrivals I quickly find a cash machine and withdraw some Moroccan dirhams. There. Done. No angry teen with braces rolling her eyes at me while spurting nonsense.
Then I do a quick stop at the toilet and wrap a scarf around my head. I read in a few blogs with tips for females travelling alone in Morocco, that this should help to minimize advances from salespeople and men in general.
To Be or Not To Be – a Taxi
As I went out of the airport and tried to find a taxi, I came to a long row of cars. First there was a row of white vans, but they were busy. After them to the right came a row of crème colored ones, but they were also busy.
All the drivers kept pointing me on down the line until I ended up at a grey Mercedes. It was parked there all alone and didn’t really look like a taxi. Yet the taxi driver in the crème colored car just before kept pointing me that way, so I went with it.
Luckily the driver of the grey car spoke French. As do I by the way, due to my Swiss heritage on my father’s side – all my family on that side still lives in the French speaking part of Switzerland today.
I explained to the taxi driver that I had a friend waiting for me, a local – this was in fact the younger of two brothers running the hostel I was to stay at, who had been kind enough to give me instructions on how to take a taxi from the airport. He had explained that the local price was 100 dirhams, roughly 10 euros, for the half hour drive into town.
The taxi driver said it was 150. The helpful brother from my hostel had told me not to argue the price and not to pay in advance, so I just told him my friend said it was a 100. Then I repeated that he was waiting for me at the destination, and if the driver wanted to, then upon arrival he could discuss it with my friend. ‘Okay’, he said, and off we went.
On the way it struck me how all other taxis on the roads were crème colored, white or a shade of turquoise. This worried me more and more, while I small talked in French with the driver and kept explaining about my friend. Talking about how I was writing my friend this and that all the time.
For a brief moment I thought to myself, ‘Oh God, I hope this is not a kidnap thing like in the movie Taken’.
With that uncomfortable thought growing stronger in my head, I kept in touch with the guy from my hostel. He asked for the taxi’s number and the time of our arrival. I asked the taxi driver. He looked at me with this empty look in his eyes but I saw the wheels turning behind his gaze. After a few seconds he starts to fumble around in the car.
It was clear as daylight that he had no taxi number. In the end he somehow finds a pen and writes on his hand ‘291’. I played along and explained how I was writing the number to my friend straight away: ‘2….9…….1! Voila!’, I exclaimed. The now obviously fake taxi driver asks me if my friend was a really local, like, from Tangier. I confirmed that. There was a silence.
In retrospect I really think this whole context with me writing with my local ‘friend’ on WhatsApp, while chatting with the fake taxi driver, really saved me from who knows what dirty scams that driver had in mind!
Once we arrived at the Place of the 9th of April, where the brother from the hostel was waiting for me, I jump out and explain that I’ll signal my friend. In advance I had written my description to him: I was wearing a blue colorful head scarf and a long beige coat. My kind helper spots me fast and comes running.
All my suspicions were confirmed after they start arguing. First they had a loud discussion in Arabic. Then I was told to pay just the 100 dirhams and off the fake driver went with a mad throw of the arm towards us.
On the way up to the hostel reception my helper explained to me that I should never take such cars. That was a ‘thief’ he said, ‘out to trick people and make money’.
‘Lesson learned – welcome to Tangier Cille!’ I thought to myself.
A New Roof With a View
The impressions that hit me straightaway, as I walked around near The Place of the 9th of April close to my hostel, were just how busy it seemed everywhere.
There was a constant buzz of activity from people, cars, cats and lots and lots of souvenir- and curiosity shops scattered around all the narrow as well as wide streets. This was true in the narrowest parts of the old Medina near the harbor as well as in the broader roads outside of there.
Earlier, after checking in at my hostel, I was shown a roof terrace. It had a marvelous view of the Medina overlooking all the rooftops and the sea.
Walking With R
One of the most striking things to me, walking around the small streets, was the forcefulness with which the shop- and restaurant owners acted towards tourists, including me, in order to sell stuff. Also quite a few of the local males, in my experience primarily the younger men, were extremely persistent in yelling and/or following me. Possibly this was, from their perspective, ‘flirting’.
The yelling and stalking tendencies became most clear to me the first afternoon, as I went out for dinner and a walk with my roommate at the hostel. She was a young woman from New Zealand called R. Her hair was out as we headed out the front door of the hostel. R had strong healthy looking shoulder-long brown locks and everywhere all the time, from the moment we closed the door behind us, people where after us.
Later on, as we sat at a street restaurant in front of the Place of the 9th of April, the two servers there had to literally physically push away homeless people that were gravitating towards us.
This brings me to another key first impression – the poverty level. There is a lot more homeless people than I’ve ever seen in Europe here in Tangier. Also the homeless generally look miserable, dirty and often handicapped to a whole other extend than what I’ve seen before.
In all the first day was honestly overwhelming.
The Two Boys
Particularly one situation really moved me and images from it keeps reappearing to me. It even appeared in my dreams that first night.
The brown haired R and I were walking towards the before mentioned street restaurant. On the way there we pass a fancy looking juice shop, one of which there are many in Tangier. Suddenly two boys come running out of the shop. They are roughly around the same age, 11 I would say.
I hadn’t noticed at first, but now I see that one of the boys have picked up a plastic stool and is violently threatening the other boy. Next I notice that the boy being threatened is completely filthy and wearing some once red, now almost black and brown tattered gym clothes, and is barefoot.
The boy with the stool, on the other hand, is wearing a crisp freshly ironed long white shirt with sleeves, a white box shaped hat and around his left hand is entangled a string with facetted jade pearls – I believe it’s for praying and called a tasbih.
Next the boy in white is even more eagerly threatening the homeless boy by help of the plastic stool. The homeless boy just backs away from the advances and is about to leave, but before he does, he turns around with a broad smile, blows a kiss and winks at the rich looking kid; who in turn does not respond well. He literally tosses the stool towards the dirty boy and jumps at the poor kid with what I can only describe as hatred.
By now a rich looking man also in white has come out of the juice shop and is trying to calm down the kid in white, whom I assume is his son. In the end the man has to pull the rich kid away from the other boy who stumbles and then runs off.
The scene probably only lasted maximum five minutes, but its seared in my memory, clear as crystal. The fight between the boys made it so evident, from my very first hours in Tangier, how much poverty people suffer under if they are unlucky enough to find themselves poor; and how differently wealth is distributed within the society than in Denmark.
A sort of related realization also struck me in a different way in Madrid, during the treatment I received at the private hospital. Since almost all hospitals in Denmark are free, the idea of a hospital coldly refusing a sick person comes across as strangely inhumane and rather unethical to me.
The situation with the two boys of the same age fighting really highlighted to me, just how incredibly fortunate I am to have grown up in the wealthfare state of Denmark.
To be correct, it was more a situation of one boy fighting another boy; mainly the rich one fighting the poor one, for reasons unknown. Probably because the poor kid was not welcome in the fancy juice shop, possibly harassing paying customers with his dirtiness or begging for money.
Alone in Tangier
On the second day I ventured out unaccompanied for the first time.
After the experiences from the day before, I was quite nervous to get too much unwanted attention on the streets.
Luckily, I soon found out when walking by myself, the scarf worked wonders. I was only spotted as a tourist and actually yelled at a handful of times; compared to all the time when I had walked with R the day before.
Although I’m still doing the challenge to travel only with my red backpack that is already full to the brim, I decided to permit myself to buy a few things. The reason I saw fit to allow this, is since K is visiting next week and he promised to bring a practically empty bag, so he can bring things back to Denmark for me.
Like in Madrid I only allowed myself to buy practical items.
For example, unless I wanted to have to depend on always wearing my long coat to have my arms covered, I then needed a long sleeved shirt of a kind. I also needed some slippers for the hostel’s cold tilled floors.
I asked the helpful brother from the hostel, the one who also saved me from the fake taxi, for the price for a shirt and for slippers, since I had trouble finding out what things were supposed to cost in dirhams and I was afraid of getting hustled. Once again he was extremely helpful.
The shirt I found by myself in a big shop a bit outside of town down towards the beach. I walked in there since the owner was relatively calm. Also she was female which I found relaxing and she spoke beautifully French, better than me.
This way I could calmly shop around and ask her about her things. I bought a long bright turquoise blue dress-suit with long sleeves and a hood, as well as a short sleeveless traditional shirt in a wonderful color combination of petroleum green and bright primal yellow.
Regarding the slippers the younger brother was even so kind as to come with me to the shop and made sure I paid a fair price. He also made sure the leather slippers had a plastic sole, so they, he explained, ‘lasted more than three days’.
This way, with his help, I had my Tangier items covered.
The Guy Who Lived in Denmark
Later that day when I arrived back at the hostel after some lunch, I started chatting to another guest on the way up the stairs. It turned out that he, although he was originally from Irak, had actually lived the past 18 years in Denmark’s second biggest city: Århus.
What a small world we live in, I thought to myself.
He still lived in Denmark, but he was in Morocco since his fiance lived in a small village close to Tangier, and he was just passing through. We ended up having a walk around the more modern urban part of Tangier, closer to their central train station. He helped me get a Moroccan sim card for my phone, so I now have internet without it costing an insane amount of money.
In Århus he worked with polishing cars. He showed me a video of how thorough he was. Indeed he really was methodical, going back and forth, up and down over the same area more times than I could manage to count then and there. Polishing one used car to make it really shine, he said, took at least four hours.
On our walk back to the hostel, we crossed the Place of 9th of April that I now felt I knew very well.
There in the middle of the place’s central roundabout, near the dried out fountain, walked a homeless guy in an once crème colored coat.
He was regularly holding a white plastic bag to his mouth. ‘Do you see what he is doing?’, the guy who lived in Denmark asked me. I answered that I saw him breathing through a plastic bag. ‘Yes, he is sniffing petrol gasses’.
This was news to me.
‘That can’t be good for his brain’, I mumbled. The guy from Århus just shook his head beside me, confirming this. Again the poverty became clear to me. Thinking back to earlier that morning, I remembered I had seen the same homeless guy running around tapping taxis, dancing from one to the other frantically, while he was yelling something in Arabic.
Naturally I didn’t understand a word of what he was on about, but I saw some locals standing together in groups observing his dancing, pointing his way and laughing out loud. I guess he was yelling something comical at the taxis while tapping them.
Maybe the petrol gasses had made him delusional, and he thought they were giants, just as Don Quixote thought the windmills were.
It was with much more confidence that I once again ventured out alone the following day. This day it was raining, heavily and consistently. I ran across the Place 9th of April and took shelter in the café of the Film Institute of Tangier – Cinema Rif.
I had already heard about this cinema beforehand. As mentioned in my last post, I love movies a great deal. I don’t regret all my years studying them. While the rain fell steadily I spend hours in the cinema’s café drawing and painting, mainly after a photo I took with the view from the opposite side of the Place 9th of April, overlooking the roundabout and also looking towards the Cinema Rif. Since it was raining I decided today was a good day to watch movies too.
The Ticket Salesman
In French I later go ask to buy a ticket to the next screening, that I should be just in time for, only to find out I’ve had the time wrong all along – the time zone is as in Spain and Denmark, and not an hour behind, such as my phone for some reason tells me it should be. This is very confusing to me. I have to ask several times and get the explanation both in French and English before I actually get it.
After the worst of the confusion has passed, the ticket salesman, a guy around my age wearing a red knitted hat, tells me there’s an old French movie playing in an hour. ‘That sounds perfect!’, I exclaim maybe a little too eagerly, relieved by the prospect of seeing a movie relatively soon – and even more so to finally get out of the carousel like conversation about time zones.
I take money out of my wallet to buy a ticket. As he is getting the ticket ready, he looks casually at my scarf, ‘May I ask, do you always wear a scarf?’. ‘No. But I like to while I’m here’, I say while I fish out coins.
He suddenly sounds tenser, ‘You know you really don’t have too? That’s cultural appropriation’. I freeze. It was certainly never my intention to do anything of the sort. In my experience people often use the term ’cultural appropriation’ as a way of calling someone a ‘maybe-well-meaning-but-rather-ignorant-and-implicit-racist-of-sorts’, or something to that account.
Honestly the scarf is mainly practical. I had already at this point sensed a significant difference in how much more peace it granted me as I walked around alone. I explained this to him, and he instantly seemed a bit less apprehensive. I sensed he understood the truth in this.
‘They bother you less with the scarf right?’, he said in French, giving me a sideways glance while handing me my ticket. I grab the ticket after which there is a brief awkward silence. I nod. He nods. After one more slightly less awkward silence, I tell him I’ll buy a mint tea while I wait for the movie. He nods, I nod.
The Pencil & the Blanket
As I sit with my tea, I feel my thoughts spinning circles around the term ‘cultural appropriation’; considering how I never meant to offend anybody. How the fact he seemed offended somehow offended me, which in turn makes me the silly one maybe. I grab my journal and start writing out my thoughts and feelings as I have the copping mechanism to do in such states of mind.
Unfortunately my pin for my mechanical pencil runs out and the new ones I put in, that I bought for one euro in a Chinese stuff shop in Madrid because they were green, keep breaking. After writing just half a page I’ve broken five pins already. I’m finding it hard to contain my irritation. I’m on edge. I might have muffled a swear word or two under my breath.
After the seventh broken pin the ticket salesman comes by my table with an actual regular working pencil. He hands it to me slowly, cautiously. In retrospect I guess I might have seemed scary, as I without hesitation grab the pencil, very fast, but at the same time verbally very thankfully.
With a wave of his hand he signals that it’s no problem at all, and then goes on to explain that for the cinema later, he will tell me when it starts and also give me a blanket since its cold in there. I thank him again, while already immersed in writing the ending of my sentence; that I had literally been trying to write down with several breaking pins during the last five minutes.
As I start the next sentence, I feel another state of calm in my writing. The pencil and the promise of the blanket appear to me as a sort of apology and peace offering. I relax. I guess I didn’t hurt his cultural feelings or what not that much after all. It’s at least clear he doesn’t recent me.
The movie turned out to be a very old one I remember from film history classes; a story about some kids at a boarding school making a revolution against the bad teachers. I can’t remember the name of the movie tough. Still I liked it. It was funny.
I was the only one watching the film and the room was indeed cold, so I was thankful for the blanket.
As I come out and want to hand the ticket salesman his pencil and blanket back, he asks if I would like to watch another movie. ‘There’s a very interesting new Egyptian movie in an hour’, he explains. He would like to see it too. ‘Sure!’ I say and add, ‘I can almost always watch a movie in a cinema!’
He asks my name and introduces himself as F. ‘Nice to meet you F’, I say and shake his hand energetically, excited to watch a new Egyptian movie next, and tell him my name. He repeats it, smiling.
Then I think for a moment, of just how kind he is now, and I’m fast to make some casual conversation about how next week my boyfriend is coming to Tangier, which is great so then I’ll be sure to bring him here, to this great cinema, then he can meet him too.
To be clear, I just wanted to make sure he didn’t expect anything in case he was flirting. It’s hard for me and has always been pretty hard for me to notice when people are flirting with me, and when they are just being kind. F doesn’t seem perturbed at all about the conversation about my boyfriend. He just talked on unaffected and kept smiling.
The Egyptian movie turned out to be great.
Yomeddine, was the movie’s title, and it was about a leper called B. B is no longer contaminated or contagious and lives in a sort of institution for lepers, working with sorting trash. He seems very kind and well liked. His best friend is a little black boy everybody calls Obama, who gets bullied at the local orphanage.
When B’s wife dies he decides to go out on a quest to find his family and namely his father who had promised him as a kid to come get him when he was cured, but never came. By way of sneaking himself onto B’s wagon Obama joins the quest, and they meet many hardships on their adventure.
It was a beautiful movie – and refreshing to see a whole film where the main character is actually truly handicapped and, honestly, dreadfully ugly. In just about every single shot of the movie B’s disfigured face and body is in the frame.
I watched the whole movie with F, although he left from time to time, maybe to work on something in the ticket office.
After the movie we had a nice talk. We talked about my art and some friend of his’ art. I showed him my works on Instagram and he complimented them greatly. F. had a master’s degree in French translation; he also spoke brilliantly French, much better than me. He didn’t use the French much, he explained, right now he just worked at the cinema.
We discussed religion, life and of cause movies and I made sure to sneak in a few details about my boyfriend K into the conversation, as to once again safeguard myself from possible misunderstandings, in case I missed some of that obvious flirting that I’m often blind to.
In the end it was late in the evening and I explained I had to Skype with my boyfriend soon, but that I would surely come back to the cinema and we would therefore surely meet again, and in this way we said so long and I felt I had, at least begun to, make a local friend in Tangier.
Epilog: To Stay or To Go
To sum up, although overwhelmed at first, I’m little by little getting to know Tangier better. I’m finding places I like, that I enjoy coming back to and drawing and writing at; and I’m feeling more safe and confident in the streets with each passing day.
The poverty is of course still as evident and it’s just as heartbreaking for me to witness. There is a change inside me regarding my feeling of being stunned by it, though. Maybe this change is connected to or amplified by the Egyptian movie, but in any case I’m no longer a certain kind of ‘scared’ by the difference in inequality and severe poverty in the same way as before.
I’m not frightened in a weird sort of panicked shocked way when watching and being approached by poor unfortunate people. Just as before I feel the compassion with them and see that they are humans like me, but I see it together with the chock, and not ‘after the chock’, so to speak. I apologize if this is hard to follow; I find it even quite difficult to explain to myself.
The homeless crowds in Tangier are very unfortunate humans, and I realize now more consciously that they are not really someone to be scared of, the way I was before – although I’m still learning how to keep my guard up against hustlers. Again, I would like to clarify I find these thoughts hard to explain in a clear way, but this change, however it is best described, has helped make me much more calm walking around the streets alone.
I like Tangier. I like staying and getting to know it; to spend hours drawing someplace like Cinema Rif; to have time to watch two movies in one day. But it seems to puzzle the roommates I’ve had. I’ve had new ones every night, and they all say, that everybody says, that you only stay in Tangier one night – and then you move on. Then you go to the blue city of Chefchaouen or to Fès or to Casablanca – somewhere else. But I stay, and they stay puzzled.
I enjoy going back to the same places again and again; getting familiar with them, seeing the small differences like the new people drinking different sorts of teas or coffees in the same seats as I saw others in at other times; the different people crossing the same place, sitting on the same benches. And to talk to the people I keep meeting – and maybe getting to know them better like I did F at the cinema.
Of cause about two weeks is quite a long time, and that’s the amount of time I will have been here in Tangier after the coming next week with K. It may be a long time, but I’m glad I decided to stay. I’m glad I get to get to know some places in more depth by myself, and I’m looking forward to share those places as well as new ones with K when he comes.
By the way, I’ve realized that writing these posts take a lot of thought and time for me, if I want to do it the way I want it, so now I’ve decided I will post one post a week going forward! Food poisoning or no food poisoning.
So from now on, dear readers, you can expect news from me once a week!
Until next week then, and by then K will have joined me – so long!