A Tumultuous Time in Tangier – Part I

tangier-street

This is part one of a three-part narrative on my trip to Tangier Morocco. Click here to read part two of the story. 

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time.

After all, there are 218 different countries and countless cities and towns on this crowded rock we call earth. And after 27 years of roaming this planet, I finally found a place that I genuinely dislike. 

Sorry Tangier. I wanted to like you, I really did. But regretfully, I doubt I’ll be coming back.

After spending about a month backpacking in Spain, the prospect of a short detour to Morocco had me brewing with excitement. A trip across the Strait of Gibraltar meant so many firsts for me. 

It would be my first time stepping foot on the continent of Africa and my first time visiting a predominantly Muslim Country. The food, the language and the culture were all quite exotic and unfamiliar to me, and I was thrilled at the chance to experience those things first hand. 

But unfortunately, my Spanish hiatus got off to a rocky start before I even left mainland Europe. Rough waters and poor weather delayed my ferry departure from Tarifa, Spain for over three hours. The bum luck was an omen for things to come. 

adios-spain
Adios Spain.

I was one of the first passengers to board the FRS ferry and immediately headed to the immigration desk to get my visa stamp. But when I approached the rather rude attendant at the desk, he quickly shooed me away. I was handed my immigration forms, but the ferry supplied no pens or any other writing utensils. I was relegated to head to the back of the massive line where I pleaded with other shipmates for a spare “boligrafo.” 

I wanted to head to the deck and enjoy the crisp Mediterranean breeze. Instead, I stood in a massive immigration line for over an hour – and 30 minutes more after we had already arrived at the port of Tangier. 

Missing an opportunity for great photos was a minor annoyance, but it was nothing compared to the firestorm that was about to hit me.

As soon as I stepped off the boat, I was enveloped in a web of schemes and deception. 

morocco-flag
Welcome to Morocco.

Land ho!

Upon exiting the port, a man rushed up to me claiming to work for the national tourism department. He implored me to come with him and he’d help me find my hostel. I was obviously skeptical of his motives, but like many southern gentlemen, I can sometimes become a slave to my politeness. A firmly delivered “fuck off” should have been my response. Instead, I let him follow me all the way out of the port – to an area where taxis awaited prospective passengers. 

I remembered reading another blogger’s post on Tangier that suggested to take a particular color of taxi. Sadly I couldn’t remember the color. As a dumb American, I hopped in the first yellow cab I saw. Yellow is the universal color for official taxis, right?

Wrong. Green was the answer I was looking for. Green. The green “petit taxis” are the most trustworthy and legitimate cab service in Tangier (although drivers will always try to squeeze a few more bucks out of a tourist).

Regardless, I hopped in a yellow unmarked cab and paid for it. I asked the driver to take me to the Bayt Alice hostel. His response? 

“No. You don’t want to go there.”

“I don’t?”

“No it very dangerous. American girl was robbed at knife point last week?”

“Um okay…”

The driver said he’d take me to a much nicer hostel. A place outside the medina, which is not a very safe place – or so he claimed. He also gave me all kinds of dire warnings. He said not to take photos as journalists are arrested by the government. He warned me to cover my tattoos, claiming I could be targeted because conservative muslims would find them offensive. 

In hindsight, I realized this guy was full of crap. The medina is no more dangerous than the rest of the city, and people aren’t instantly jailed for taking photos. Also, Tangier and most of Morocco is a very moderate country in terms of the muslim world. The residents of Tangier live in a tourist port and an international city. You are unlikely to get any flack for tattoos or piercings. For that matter, female travelers need not worry about covering their hair, shoulders, etc.

The driver continued describing his city as Mordor on steroids until we pulled up to a hostel – not the one I had already booked, mind you. He led me inside the lobby, all the while talking up the place like it was the Ritz Carlton. I’ve never been inside a Ritz Carlton, but I’m pretty sure you don’t shit directly into a hole in the ground. 

Much more disconcerting than the shoddy rooms and facilities was the fact the “Hostel Amsterdam” seemed to be abandoned. There wasn’t a single other backpacker in site. This place had Homicide Inn written all over it so I told my driver, “no thanks.”

At that point, I asked the driver to take me to my original destination – where he SHOULD have taken me in the first place. “Of course,” the friendly man said with a callous smile, but I’ll need payment for the ride here. Twenty euro should cover it.”

Wonderful.

At that point I knew I’d been had. I was in no position to protest his price. I’m in a conservative country. I don’t speak Arabic or French.

I begrudgingly handed the hustler a blue bill and promptly fucked off.

Tangier-medina
The narrow streets of Tangier’s medina.

Bad to worse

Fortunately for me, I didn’t waltz into Morocco completely unprepared. I downloaded an offline map with GPS capabilities before leaving Spain so I could at least have some bearing on my locale. I opened up the map and let out a sigh of relief when I realized I was only about two kilometers away from Bayt Alice, the hostel in which I’d booked a room. 

I wandered out of downtown Tangier into the winding labyrinth of the medina. (Medinas are typically walled sections of a North African town or city with narrow streets that are free from car traffic. Usually, they are highly populated urban centers jam packed with merchants, restaurants and general foot traffic.) I read in a guide book that the winding streets of medinas were often used to confuse or slow down invading armies. Even Napoleon would need a Garmin to take Tangier. 

Paranoia and fatigue set in as I struggled through the maze. I was carrying my full pack and lugging my DSLR around my neck. I might as well have been wearing a sign around my neck that read “free mugging.” My untrusting eyes darted from face to face as I crept through back alleys and eventually to a less populated area of the medina. My phone’s GPS proved practically useless as the streets were apparently too narrow and claustrophobic for Apple to get a proper read on my location. I looked lost. I was lost.

medina-street-2
“I think I’ve already passed this blue wall once…”

Suddenly, I was approached by two children, skipping merrily hand in-hand.

“Bayt Alice?” One of the little girls asked?

I nodded. 

The girl raised her tiny hand and gestured for me to follow.

Oh no…I’ve seen this movie before. I think it was called the Shining. 

On the other hand, by the way the girls reacted, it seemed like helpless looking white people carrying giant bags were something they were used to seeing on a regular basis. So I followed the girls through the pale blue corridors for a couple of minutes before stopping in front of a huge wooden door.

“Bayt Alice!” they exclaimed in unison. 

My heroes.

Of course, public servitude isn’t free you know. They each held out their little hands where I placed a couple coins and said thank you as they skipped away.

Finally, I’d arrived. Or so I thought.

I buzzed the doorbell.

No answer. 

Perhaps the front desk is busy? I waited a few minutes and pressed it again. 

Nothing.

A few nervous beads of sweat dripped from the tip of my nose as I lifted my arm to knock firmly and loudly on the door. 

Did it get hotter out here or am I having a mental breakdown on the inside?

A few more minutes passed before I was resigned to take a seat on the concrete steps outside the door. It wasn’t long before a stranger approached me. 

“Hey buddy,” he said. “Are you trying to stay (in Bayt Alice)? You don’t want to stay here. The owner went crazy man.”

Uhhh, excuse me?

“Buddy. I am telling you, you don’t want to stay here. I used to work for that lady. She’s crazy..”

Needless to say, I couldn’t take his word for it. After the previous events of the day, I wasn’t quite in the mood to be trusting strangers. So I stayed put.

A solemn statue.

A sitting duck. 

My phone’s battery charge had just dipped below 15 percent, but my anxiety level was well above 80 percent. I banged frantically on the door in desperation. Then suddenly, I heard a loud clank. The locking mechanism began to turn, and the great door creaked open. Beyond the doorway stood a small, elderly woman covered from head to toe in Islamic garb. 

“Hi, I booked a room here,” I said with uncertainty in my voice.

The short woman stared at me blankly – stupefied, as if she’d just gazed into the eye of the time vortex. 

It was no use. She didn’t speak a word of English. I tried to communicate with her a few more times before a tall African man approached us. 

He asked me if I was trying to get a room in the hostel. After I replied, he turned to the woman and exchanged a few brief words with her in Arabic. As he turned back towards me to mediate, words were unnecessary. The look on his face was enough for me to know that I wasn’t about to receive good news. 

“Sorry my man. You can’t stay here. The French lady who owns the place went crazy yesterday. She kicked all the backpackers out in the middle of the night and tried to kill herself.”

You don’t say!

I would learn later that the owner of Bayt Alice did in fact, “go crazy” and kick out all of the backpackers in the middle of the night. I met one of those backpackers – an American girl from New York. Apparently, the owner was off her medication and needed to be talked down from the terrace of her building just hours before I arrived. I still wonder how she expected a fall from 20-some odd feet to kill her.

It seems the other guy I spoke with wasn’t actually trying to pull a fast one on me! Regardless, at that point, I didn’t care what was true and what wasn’t. It was clear I wouldn’t be spending the night at Bayt Alice. I threw my pack and camera back over my shoulder and headed back into the heart of the medina.

The view from the terrace of Al-Andalusi Hostel.
The view from the terrace of Al-Andalusi Hostel.

Al-Savior

I walked briskly back to the central area, all the while tuning out the overly zealous vendors waving pairs of counterfeit Ray-Bans and unlicensed FIFA merch in my face. The first time I strolled through the medina, my thoughts were scattershot. The crowds, the colors, the sights, the smells – all of it spelled sensory overload.

Now, my focus was singular.

Find somewhere to sleep.

Adrenaline was pumping through my system as the evening sun dwindled. I hurried through the narrow streets looking for any sign of a halfway decent hostel or hotel. For a moment, I considered heading back to Hostel Amsterdam. A very brief moment.

I remembered scrolling through multiple listings on HostelWorld.com and I knew there were a few potential places to stay within the medina. One such place I recalled was named Al-Andalusi.

I pulled out my phone and desperately searched for it on the map. And when I saw the hostel was less than a 10 min walk from where I was standing, I set course.

But the way things were going, I knew it wouldn’t be that easy.

I had walked in the direction of Al-Andalusi for about a minute before my phone’s screen went black. I knew the general direction in which I needed to go, but the winding streets of the medina were built to confuse.

After wandering (not) aimlessly for about 15 minutes I came across a group of millennials sitting around, smoking cigarettes in the middle of the street.

This might be it!

They immediately noticed my eyes scanning for a sign above each door I passed.

“You looking for the hostel,” one of the guys asked as he took a drag on his hand-rolled cigarette.

He pointed to a large door on the right, up just a few stair steps from where the group sat. Above the large blue door read in black letters, Al-Andalusi.

When I walked in, I headed to the front desk prepared to beg for a bed – or a floor for that matter. I quickly explained my situation to the concierge and told him about what happened at Bayt Alice. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard this story. He explained to me that all the normal rooms were fully booked, but offered me a bed on the terrace.

I took it.

Al-Andalusi was absolutely one of the bright spots of my stay in Tangier. The hostel is owned and operated by two young entrepreneurs, one from Morocco and the other from Spain. The entire staff was extremely hospitable and worked hard to ensure their guests comfort.

My room on the terrace was not insulated from Tangier’s boiling heat or its 24/7 noise pollution. But I was extremely grateful for a bed and a roof over my head.

Was my tumultuous time in Tangier finished? Or was it just getting started?

A little of column A, little of column B.

To be continued …


Also published on Medium.

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