My first encounter with Morocco
Warming up to Morocco
For almost a year my partner had been going on and on at me about wanting to visit an Islamic country- the idea of it filled me with fear. Not because of myself, but because of him. You see in my minds perception of him he was very naive to the implications of our sexuality in countries ruled by Islamic law. The brutalities people suffered for being who they were, the shame people felt about themselves and the inabilities to ever truly feel like they could be the real versions of themselves without fear or judgement. And with my partner (although he would dispute this) being quite the ‘loud and proud’ kind of gay guy, the idea of being there with him absolutely terrified me because I wasn’t sure I could trust him to put his feelings in a bag and just enjoy a foreign country as friends. I didn’t feel like I would feel safe there with him unless it was just a platonic trip. My mind had created a narrative of worst case scenarios from stories i’d read and heard.
Flights to Morocco
Last year we decided to go on holiday with some of my family to Alicante, Spain and whilst we were there we noticed how insanely cheap flights were to Tangier, Morocco. We had quite a bit of time free after the family gathering in Alicante- so after much discussion, and putting my mind at ease about how we would act whilst there; we decided to book our 10 euro flights from Seville to Tangier and make a pit stop for a few nights in Valencia on the way. This was a whole different experience altogether.
Words cannot explain how nervous I was boarding that plane to Morocco. It was my first time leaving Europe and I really didn’t know what to expect, my mind was going crazy with all of these preconceptions I had summoned up in my overactive mind. I panicked about the lack of preparation and how we were going to get from the airport to our hotel after reading about having to navigate your way to some petrol station to get a bus or barter a taxi driver (I’d read a lot of articles about them being rather good at ripping off naive westerners). Luckily I had managed to prearrange a ‘tour guide’ via Couchsurfing. Who at the time I genuinely believed was just a friendly member of the sharing Couchsurfing community wanting to help us get to our hostel- which in some ways he was. But he was also the first lesson we had in ‘How to survive Morocco’. I still talk to him occasionally today, we offered each other lessons in how to exchange with each others cultures more effectively. Needless to say, I think both sides took this constructively.
Tangier International Airport
After clearing airport security and getting my first ever stamp on my passport (I cannot express how happy this made me), We walked out into the Arrivals lounge to find what appeared to be a 14 year old boy holding a sign with our names on it (Appearances can be deceiving- he was 18). This was to be our Couchsurfing tour guide for the following day!
Because we couldn’t pre-buy Moroccan Dirham our first task was to find an ATM so we could use our Transferwise Borderless Account cards for the first time (best currency holding account EVER!). The machines were pretty slow at operating , i’m not kidding you- must of been stood there 5 minutes waiting for the cash to pop out. But eventually it arrived and we were heading outside with our tour guide to meet his friend who happened to be a taxi driver. We were expecting to just be taken straight to the hostel, but they certainly had other plans. We must of arrived at around 5 pm their time, and by 10 pm we had been given a tour of some of the most famous sites to see in Tangier.
It was like having our own personal chauffeur and a tour guide without putting in any level of effort or pre-planning other then communicating a message or two with him on Couchsurfing about our ETA. Luckily we did get to briefly go to our hostel and drop our things off before the adventures began, we stopped of at The Melting Pot Hostel to drop of our things. Little did we know we would fall in love with this hostel like no hostel we’d ever known before in the coming days. We checked in as 2 best friends visiting the country for the first time, we were put in a 6 bed dorm on the ground floor and given maps and advice about where to see and what to do whilst in Tangier. Although most of this advice was achieved in the first night with our Couchsurfing acquaintance.
We visited all over the city and its surroundings that night. From Hercules Cave, to the point where the Atlantic ocean meets the Mediterranean sea- up to the ‘Cap Spartel’ to watch the sunset over the meeting point. Around the Medina of Tangier (which we would spend many more days exploring), Place Du Grand (The city Square) surrounded by palm trees and thriving cafes, shops and markers. There’s so much to see and do in this city with it’s rich and interesting history where multiple civilisations have clashed together and coexisted for centuries.
I remember walking through the souka and seeing these guys that we’d bumped into at the tourist attraction overlooking the grand mosque and them joking with me at how disgraceful it was for them to lock the gates whilst I was visiting. “This is just disgraceful” he shouted to me with a cheeky smile. And we all had a laugh and went our separate ways until we bumped into them again walking around the city and they were so overjoyed that I remembered them and said hello. This really left an impression on me about how tainted western society seems nowadays, everyone glued to screens. Nobody says hello anymore, it’s almost weird to strike up a conversation with a stranger now unless its done via a smartphone or desktop screen.
The Caves were certainly an experience from jumping monkeys, to squawking parrots, to berben drum players and ancient statues. You could tell that this was a lifeblood to many in the local community, somewhere people were passionate about and that helped support the local tourism economy. You would see local families taking their children out for the day, and tourists from all over the world interacting with the locals asking questions and learning about their surroundings.
I also had a monkey sat on my shoulder/head which was certainly an experience, kinda scary too- Those things have sharp claws and get rather protective of their bananas. Although I really enjoyed the experience, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the wild animals that had been leashed to earn money for the local tourism industry. I get that the monkeys are more then likely helping feed many families- but it’s still sad that they’re not out in their natural habitats living freely and being cheeky.
At the end of the cave visit, as you look out to sea with the sun glimmering on the rock formation, all of a sudden you notice the silhouette of the continent of Africa and it is truly a spectacular sight to behold. A reminder that the world is full of natural beauty, and our misconceptions with giving that title to all things artificial are really brought to the surface in moments like that. There is truly beauty everywhere if we just go out and look for it.
On our travels around the city we drove up a road that I can only compare to a blend of Sunset Boulevard and Buckingham Palace, except this road at every stop had a drive leading to yet another palace, this stretched up a hill for what felt like driving through a medium sized town. I was told that it was like a wealth ladder, the further you climbed, the more rich and powerful the residents became – of course the final palace belonged to the King of Morocco. But there were palaces for many other world leaders there, most notably a member of the Royal family from Saudi Arabia from what I could recall.
This road really drilled home the contrasting lives of the Tangier citizens for me. This was a road pumping with wealth, well taken care of by gardeners and landscape artists; with guards standing at each entrance keeping the premises secure. But at the bottom of the hill in the other direction there is complete poverty, people fighting to get what remains of a public education system, struggling to find jobs and feed their families and unsure how they will receive certain healthcare treatments should something go wrong. This country was a total two tiered society on so many levels, everybody else seemed to take priority over the ordinary Moroccan man. It made me so angry! The injustice of the inequalities people have to live through every day to day was and is infuriating.
Shopping in Tangier
Shopping in Tangier is like climbing a mountain covered in grease – the sights are beautiful but my word it is difficult, a true art form and so challenging if you are used to Western conveniences. You can’t just walk into a shop, read a label, pay the tender and receive change – no, that would be far too easy. Instead you have to barter for each and every item you would like to purchase, using wits, psychology, a strong poker face and a great technique if you don’t want to be ripped off at every opportunity.
Cost of living and shopping in Morocco is incredibly cheap, everywhere takes cash and very rarely accepts a card, so always keep a stash of Dirham at your disposal, preferably smaller notes – market holders are renowned for not carrying change, whether this is intentional so they can round up the prices I am not sure but make sure you can pay closest to the exact price as you can.
The souks (market places) really are wonderful places, everywhere you look there are handcrafted souvenirs, carpets and clothing of such beautiful colours thread to highest standards, the fragrance of all the spices and herbs you could imagine wafting through the air and fresh vegetables stands all over. It’s an intoxicating environment that excites every sense and warms the soul seeing the communal atmosphere. And when you manage to master your haggling skills it’s truly rewarding walking away with what you set your hopes on without emptying your wallet.
During the days I spent in Tangier I met so many people that changed the way I see the world forever, they left an imprint on me that really opened my eyes to the inequalities and lack of opportunities people face just because they were born on a certain piece of land on this planet. How can a persons life be so heavily defined by the luck of where they happened to be born or which family they happened to be born within?
We live in a world of distractions, a world where we’re so busily distracted by our own lives, our own education and our own injustices that we fail to notice or care enough about the lives everyone else. We become numb to the news, the devastation being caused to normal working citizens every single day; in a variety of different circumstances by corrupt governments and corporations and their self serving history that we forgot the main thing history taught us- you have to have passion and bravery to fight for the world that you envision to become a reality.
When did humanity become so self serving and weak? Where did our passion go? Is being politically correct your governments best weapon of control against you? Who are we, and where is our final destination?
Morocco will open your eyes to so many things about yourself and the world around you- you just have to be brave and let it.
Where to eat in Tangier
Moroccan food is super cheap and so tasty, but like everything else, it’s good to make sure you do some research. The are many restaurant designed to cater to Westerners, they have menus that resemble your home country’s food. They lack any authenticity, flavour or excitement and this comes at a steeper price, trust me, you’d never catch a local eating there. It’s best to eat at places that are busy, not only does that mean that their food is being turned over quickly, as food safety is at a different level to what you are probably accustomed to. But it also means that it is popular, and if you see a line of Moroccans it’s more than likely going to be cheap and tasty.
Their most famous dish is Tajine, a kind of stew that is baked in a clay pot to ensure juicy and tender meat with the spices unlocked for a mouth watering and hearty dish. It can come in many different flavours and combinations. My personal favourite was melt in the mouth beef, lightly spiced, with eggs and sweetened with juicy prunes. Often served with bread instead of cutlery so get your hands dirty and eat like a local.
Most of their dishes are heavily spiced, contrary to popular belief it is rarely hot, in fact I made our Moroccan friends sweat when I cooked my version of Shakshuka. But where they lack the heat, they make up for with sweet, dried fruits often compliment many of their dishes but they go crazy for sugar! Morocco is famous worldwide for it’s sticky dates and Tangier in particular for the sweet juicy Tangerines, hence the name. If you have the delight of trying any of the wonderful teas on offer, I’d advise asking for only a little sugar and even that is usually our recommended daily allowance. But never ask for no sugar, it often ruins the balance of the drink and without it, their teas are incredibly bitter and will dry your mouth out like the Sahara.
Internet in Tangier
If you want to be able to document your travels on Social media and communicate with people back home via Whatsapp, Messenger or whatever your chosen platform is whilst you’re exploring. Then you want to buy a moroccan sim card. There’s loads around, and you can buy super cheap credit packages. I bought mine at a bus stop and chose Orange because it was the easiest and best package to set up that i came across. The bundles can be a little confusing because you have to set them up yourself. Just ask the person your purchasing off if they can do this for you, it’ll probably save you a lot of time. The language of the phone operator is French or Arabic- so if you’re fluent in either of these you can just do it yourself.
How to get around Tangier
Getting around in Tangier can be as easy or difficult as you like, the Medinas can be confusing at best, you barely stand a chance of using google maps in the windy narrow streets and forget looking online for bus schedules.
There are a few ways to go about it, if you have the money, a tour guide can be a great way to get around but do make sure they are reputable and that you have negotiated prices in advance, don’t pick up a stranger on the street who ‘offers to help you’, they often slap you with a hefty bill afterwards and can be quite intimidating.
My favourite way was on foot, as long as you have no set itinerary, it doesn’t matter if you get a little lost and discover parts of the city you wouldn’t have found on the map. If approached by somebody offering to help, confidently decline their offer and insist you know where you are going and don’t need their help. There are a lot of ‘friendly locals’ who will offer to take you somewhere and then ask you for 50 dirham on arrival. You don’t need help, you can do this shit.
Taxis are super cheap if your feet start to ache from navigating the maze of the city or you just need to get somewhere a little further away. I recommend selecting your preferred taxi and like with everything else, haggle that price before you even open the door. You can get very far, even between cities by taxi without breaking the bank, but only if you get that price to a comfortable level before getting in.
Grand taxis are famous, it’s often how the locals get around. They are essentially large taxis with a ‘rideshare’, anybody can hop in at any time and it splits the cost down for anybody in it. This is the most authentic and cost effective way of getting about, but don’t expect comfort or even leg room, they keep filling up like a clown car. It is possible to purchase all of the seats in one and pre-arrange a price with the driver. This is usually pretty cheap too, especially if your sharing the ride with a travel buddy or two.
Buses or Coaches are very regular and affordable but usually reserved for long journeys like heading out an hour or so to another city, make sure you get your ticket at the station first and ride the correct bus. Don’t skimp out on these, some of the cheaper companies have quite unsafe buses, sometimes without doors so street merchants hop on and off. Also they can add extra baggage charges when you are already on the bus, regardless of whether you actually use the storage or keep it on your lap.
Trains are a great way of crossing the country, they offer overnight trains where you can book a bed in advance, opting in for first class wont break the bank and it will certainly be worth the extra few Dirham. Once again, booking online can prove difficult and confusing so it’s always best to head to the station and purchase your tickets there.
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