It Seems Like a Thousand Years Ago

07MAY09 – Within sight of Spain. Had a cup of hot black at the rail this morning, impatient for the sun, anxious to get off the boat for a few days. Nothing else to say at the moment. Words fail me at the worst of times.

Later, wandering around town. Hissing palm trees and strange plants line winding roads. Memories flood back, feels like I’m watching the vacation films of a stranger. Duck into a movie theater. Just before the previews roll, the audience clambers to their feet and the national anthem comes booming through the speakers, accompanied by a slide show of imagery. Fields of bright flowers, jets taking off, eagles in flight, pretty picnics, fluttering flags, smoldering Towers. When it’s over, we take our seats. No one speaks, the movie begins.

08MAY09 – I’m tagging along with a group who’ve opted to rent hotel rooms in Cadiz. A hot shower and a firm bed never sounded so good. Getting here was an adventure: we were looking for the ferry to take us across the harbor, meanwhile there’s a huge local party called a ‘ferria’. (Public service message: putting an ‘a’ on the end of an Anglo word does not immediately render it Espanola.) My hand/boat/seagull pantomime gestures did nothing to aid our cause, but we figured it out. Half walked, half ran to the rail station and caught the last train to Cadiz. I had a few drinks and collapsed clean on the comforters with my notebook. Wrote in my journal, fell asleep.

09MAY09 – Continental breakfast in the café, used my mostly forgotten Spanish to order a double strong coffee, a banana milkshake and a kiwi (devoured whole, not bothering to peel). Listening to the Scorpions “Still Loving You,” while chewing concentrated caffeine. It’s goddamn delicious. My mood is decidedly optimistic.

10MAY09 – Now on the high-speed ferry to Tangier. We’d planned to catch a pre-dawn bus, turns out said bus didn’t run on Sundays. If you’re wondering, a one-way cab ride to Tarif will cost you €123.00. The road was lined with cattle and crumbling buildings, sprawling pastures, miles of scrub land, giant pointy windmills and enormous black bull silhouettes which glared down over the valley. Middle Eastern males appear to have a thing for Cosby sweaters. A man in the smoking lounge looks just like Borat. I’m tempted to take his picture, but he’s situated in just a way as to make it impossible. Besides, what would I do with the picture?

Off the ferry in Africa. Everything is hot, loud, dirty, confusing and colorful. We’re met at the terminal by an elderly Frenchman in a heavy woolen suit with a three-day beard. His plastic ID certifies him as a tour guide, and for a nominal fee he’ll show us the best parts of the city, and insure that we have a good time. “Is good, much to see. We see many beautiful things, I take you to good restaurant.” Sold.

He herds us into a tiny cab and we climb the narrow winding streets toward our hotel in the Kasbah, the oldest part of the city. My jaw is practically in my lap; I’m taking a cab ride through the cradle of civilization. Ethnic music and strange smells flood in through the car windows at every stop. The range of color and textures visible is overwhelming.

There is no such thing as organization on these streets, and madness is the only rule; walk in the streets, play in the streets, eat in the streets, drive against the traffic flow, and remember – always come within an inch of every available surface with your side mirrors, and don’t even consider your brakes. Do it now!

Dar Sultan is hidden in an anonymous alleyway near the highest part of the old city behind a heavy black door decorated by a large brass knocker in the shape of the Hand of Fatima. The lobby is full of plants, baskets of fruit, candles, tiny statues and flowers. Everything is indescribably perfect, placed just so and I know immediately that I’ll never be able to make anyone understand what I’m seeing. Just thirty-five minutes south of modern and efficient Spain, and yet I feel as though we’ve traveled back in time.

Our rooms are not yet ready, so we’re offered refreshments. Hot water is poured from a steaming brass kettle covered in delicate carvings, and we sip fragrant tea called Moroccan Whiskey from tiny red glasses and sample a plate of colorful sweets. The room and its contents are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I’m awed. The room is decorated in stars, each point representing one of the five points of Islam: Shahadah, to affirm that there is only one God, Allah, and that Muhammad was his messenger. Salat, to pray five times a day. Zakah, to give alms to the poor. Sawm, to fast during the month of Ramadan, and Hajj, to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca least once in a lifetime, unless prevented by ill health or poverty.

Everywhere we go, there is something incredible to behold. I follow our guide’s example and give generously to the poor; tarnished copper colored coins tumble into outstretched and sometimes deformed hands. “Salaam Alakim,” I mumble, feeling overwhelmed. Around every corner, someone has something for sale and apparently the entire city is seeing the same cruel dentist. Teenaged salesmen mumble with bloodshot eyes, offering jeweled daggers, packs of gum, silver bracelets, colorful necklaces, television remotes and leather wallets on spindly arms. They won’t take no for an answer, but it’s the only answer I know. I have a limited budget of what I can spend and carry. (Later, I learn to say la shu-krah – ‘no thank you’.)

Our guide shoos them away, shaking his head and wagging a disproving finger at us. “Is no good,” he says. “Garbage. Come, I show you better.” The beggars shout and plead after us, but only a few go so far as to call us names, or mumble something about ‘your kind’. My liberal white guilt is kicking into overdrive…

He lead us to a local pharmacy where a baby-faced man in a cotton candy beard, gold spectacles and brown leather sandals gives us a rushed rundown of the various herbs and potions available for sale; pick-me-ups, inhalers, digestive aids, boner aids, hair gels, spices, fragrant creams, and dozens of small vials full of incredible things designed to be sniffed, tasted, spread on the skin and otherwise enjoyed. My travel companions were rather squeamish on this point, and they gave me strange looks as I held out my hands and presented my tongue for each and every item as appropriate. I was eager to try them all. How often does one receive such an opportunity?

At the end of night, I review my notes over a glass of red wine on the rooftop, shaking my head at the result. None of my words do justice to what I saw today. My mind is scattered like rocks flung across a pond. A rooster crows in the distance, and laundry dries like colorful tears shed from a thousand haunted windows which encircle me on all sides. I’m being serenaded by feral cats, and I can’t throw a rock without striking cobalt blue tiles, crumbling brick, bubbling fountains, fresh flowers, wrought iron, colorful mosaics, and dazzling parapets. Even the filth is somehow attractive. Earlier in the afternoon, we saw camels on the beach, and I watched an old man charm a cobra. A snake was placed around my neck, a photograph taken.

An hour later, as we sat beneath swaying palm trees sipping over-priced beer, our accents were overheard by a man named Mouhissine Chane, a native of Morocco who lives abroad for ten months of the year, but comes home to Tangier each summer. At first, I was leery of his generosity. It’s typical for someone here to approach you, offering to take you on a tour or provide some service with the unspoken understanding that you’ll cross his palm with a few coins in return.

This was not the case with Chane. He told us he’d met many people who’d had a rotten time in Tangier because they didn’t speak the language, or didn’t know where to go. He was determined to show us a good time. He introduced us to his three beautiful sisters, his brother, and even offered to take us to his home to feed us. Sadly, his mother was ill, which I suppose is a good thing. After all, how exactly does one repay that kind of generosity?

He took us to the best place in the city for breakfast, showed us the best places to shop, and taught me simple phrases in Arabic, which is as complicated to speak as it is to understand. His sisters sang like angels, and when we parted ways that night I expressed my thanks and kissed each of them on both cheeks, as is the custom.

The next morning, we enjoyed a sultan’s breakfast on the roof. I didn’t know half of what I was eating but I tried it all. Crepes, omelets, different juices, thick black coffee, three different kinds of bread, fruit, jams, honey, and goat cheese. (One minor disappointment – I chomped into a piece of fruit that looked like the cherub-cheeked love child of a cherry tomato and a Georgia peach, but tasted like it’d been hate fucked in the mouth by a rancid chili pepper. That one didn’t go over so well.)

I packed my bag and took a few pictures – one of our group had brought along his skateboard. I clicked away while he performed plants, skids and jumps in the ancient streets. It was fun to watch the different reactions of the people. Old men with missing teeth and red fez hats clapped and laughed, complimenting him on his skill as he landed each trick. Five minutes earlier, they’d have claimed to speak no English. Laughter is a great ambassador.

Caught the fast ferry back to Tarif, and the long bus to Rota. Next stop, Monaco…

TWM

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