Okay, listen, those were different times, so don’t go all judgmental on me. Just stick around till you’ve heard the whole story, then decide.
My grad school buddy Mike and I were completing the standard rite of passage for any self-respecting American college student abroad: hitchhiking across Europe between semesters at a German university. Generalissimo Franco’s Spain had rather tough rules when it came to hitching a ride—usually involving some down time spent in a less than inviting jail environment—so we opted for train and bus travel to make our way down from France to the Strait of Gibraltar. There we caught a ferry to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast bordering Morocco.
The white-washed buildings and beautiful bay were a charming sight as we docked in the early evening light. As always, Mike and I spoke German with each other, and a young journalist for Stern magazine approached us in the ferry terminal, drawn by hearing his native tongue. He was researching an article on drug trafficking in Morocco, and volunteered to help find us a room for the night with a local family.
First, the room. We were led through the winding streets to a private home and graciously offered accommodation—plus the bonus of use of a shared family toothbrush—all for the equivalent of one dollar per person. The room was certainly adequate, but we declined the second offer, since we did carry our personal toothbrushes. Then our German friend took us to a bar where the tapas were delicious and cheap, the red wine good and cheap. We ate our fill at the bar till buried to the ankles in little paper trays and mustard-splotched napkins.
The next morning, bright and early under an azure sky, the journalist’s buddy Mustafa was generous enough to open up his leather shop for me to purchase a camel skin footstool with an interesting geometric pattern in red and brown. Yes, no worry, I’ll ship it to your home in the States. (It arrived a year later, apparently having been shipped by camel.) But I digress…there’s still the matter of getting stoned…so on to Tangier.
We boarded a bus for a journey of a couple of hours, interrupted every half hour or so by a roadblock in the desert, where armed soldiers climbed aboard and checked everyone’s backpack or baggage for illicit hashish. And then, at every intervening bus stop, hash sellers would enter the bus to ply their wares, shoving misshapen brown lumps in our faces. Not knowing hashish by sight, it could just as well have been camel dung. We declined, of course.
Today’s guidebooks say that Tangier is a wholesome travel destination, similar to other cities in Western Europe and perfectly safe for travelers. But in 1970 things were still a bit rough around the edges.
Upon arrival we were immediately accosted by seven or eight lively street boys, anxious to volunteer their services as guides to the city. Now, as any self-respecting, on-the-go student traveler knows, your budget is always tight and you don’t need a tour guide to explore a new town. In fact, it is an affront to your freedom and spirit of adventure. So we repeatedly denied the youngsters the requested dirham or two. They finally stopped their entreaties, accepted that these stingy Americans were immune to their fervent pitch and outstretched hands, but they followed us happily, pushing and jostling each other as we made our way into the heart of the old city.
Our first stop was an inexpensive hotel on the edge of the ancient market center known as the Medina, a twisting warren of streets and alleyways, shops and stalls, all navigable only on foot or perhaps with a donkey, with the occasional street wide enough to be serviced by a traditional vehicle. We checked into our hotel—again one dollar a night and recommended by our German journalist. Remember, these were the days when Europe on Five Dollars a Day really covered one day’s food and lodging, not just un espresso doppio on the Via Veneto.
The second-floor room was surprisingly clean and spacious, with high ceiling, twin beds, and an open window with oriental arch, wrought-iron railing, and a splendid view over the Medina rooftops.
I must admit that the toilet room down the hall left a bit to be desired, since the pit-in-the-floor toilet—you know, the traditional kind, where you place your feet on the porcelain foot stands and squat over the hole in the bottom and hope for good aim—wasn’t up to flushing, so guests were amassing vast quantities of used toilet paper in one corner of the tiny room. And no, the miniscule window didn’t want to open. But again, I digress…
We were a bit concerned about where to safely stash my camera. We didn’t want to be mistaken for tourists when we ventured out into the Medina, and somehow thought that, minus the cameras and backpacks, our American dress and looks would make us blend right in with the local crowd. After much deliberation and discussion with Mike, I finally decided to stash my Pentax under the mattress and take my chances. Imagine my relief to hear from the front desk manager as I exited the hotel: “Enjoy yourselves, and oh, by the way, don’t give any thought to your camera…it’ll be perfectly safe where you hid it.”
Now we were ready to experience the old market. No sooner had we hit the stones outside then we found ourselves accosted by our friendly street urchins, anxious as ever to help us navigate the labyrinth of streets and shops. And once more we declined, and they followed us anew, their spirits unaffected by our tightfistedness.
At every bend and turn we were greeted warmly by shopkeepers who invited us in to check out the rugs, the brass pots and urns, the woolen blankets, the spices, the open-air bakeries and so much more, truly an exotic mélange of sights and smells. We finally succumbed to the invitation of a friendly shopkeeper to enter his place of business. He went from item to item, politely extolling its virtues and inviting me to make an offer, and I did express interest in a woolen blanket.
Now, you must understand, I didn’t know the protocol, wasn’t aware that once you start a negotiation you damned well better buy something, anything. So minutes later we were shoved forcefully out the door into the outstretched hands of our loyal street companions. (I might mention that an hour or so later, as we anxiously made our way back to our hotel room, that same shopkeeper invited us to come right in again, his arms spread open in welcome and a friendly smile on his face, a warm greeting on his lips.)
Back to the story, because you’ve been very patient:
Mike and I reached a small square surrounded on all sides by tea shops, where men sat at small tables and drank the local peppermint tea. We decided we needed a break and our order was brought to the table with about an inch of sugar at the bottom of each glass. As I savored the hot brew I happened to glance at the preparer working diligently behind the counter, an old man with rotted stumps for teeth.
Now for those of you who want to try this at home, here’s the recipe: For each glass of tea, place a handful of peppermint leaves in your mouth and masticate very thoroughly, spit the blend into a glass, add several heaping servings of sugar, then top off with boiling water. Serve piping hot to your guests.
Thoroughly refreshed, we moved ever deeper into the souk, until alas we finally got ourselves irretrievably lost.
Now comes the interesting part. Our street companions, ever alert to our situation, began to shout out loudly to the surrounding shopkeepers. We couldn’t understand the words, of course, but it became apparent that they were no longer pleased with us, since fearsome scowls darkened the faces of the merchants, furious shouting ensued from all sides, and boys and men began to gather stones from the pavement and project them in our direction, the initial arrivals pelting our feet but the secondary ones obviously destined for higher targets.
Standing back to back, Mike and I hastily concluded that we probably could afford a few coins for our faithful companions. Once our spare change passed into their hands, our dire circumstances also changed. Stones fell to the feet of the formerly aggrieved, and the adorable children guided the two ragged Americans back out of the maze to their hotel.
Now once you’ve been stoned in the Medina, you’re ready for some relaxation and a treat, and throughout our walking adventure we had admired colorful posters of a night club advertising music, food, and a belly dancer, whose attractive pose suggested that this might indeed be the best Tangier had to offer. So we waited until dark—perhaps cowering in our room, who’s to say?—then asked the desk clerk to call a taxi. Walking the casbah had lost some of its allure.
All we had to do was point the taxi driver to one of the posters and we were on our way, albeit slowly, since foot traffic made progress difficult. Soon we pulled in front of a high-walled palace, every bit as impressive as suggested by the poster, and our driver sprang out to run to the door and press a button on the wall. On cue, the orchestra upstairs began to play delightful Moroccan tunes, the maître’d came down to greet us, and we were led upstairs to a beautiful open space to be seated on rugs before a low table in the center of the room. There before us on a low dais was the four-man orchestra, as well as a chubby boy playing percussion.
We appeared to be early for dining, as no other guests were on hand, but service was impeccable and the prix fixe meal began to arrive on ornately-worked platters. I remember very little about the actual food—although what stands out clearly still is a platter of couscous from which numerous sheep eyes stared dolefully as I tried to pick around them.
About here in the story comes the thick red wine, most likely extended with ox blood, we learned later, and it was a heady drink indeed. Working to forget our misadventure in the souk, we reached the bottom of the bottle, and decided that—early diners or not—we were overdue the spectacle of the beautiful belly dancer pictured on the ubiquitous poster.
Mike signaled our waiter and requested that the dancing begin. Imagine our surprise when the man apologized profusely—“Ah, we’re so sorry, the girl is ill tonight”—and then sought to appease with an enthusiastic flourish of an extended arm: “But the boy…he dances!”
Now, let’s be clear, I appreciate cultural diversity, freedom of artistic expression, pretty much anything travel throws my way. But that night, all we wanted to experience was the voluptuous dancer of the poster to distract from having been stoned in the Medina.
And yet, we cringed and said nothing. For we feared that the eleven-year-old, now in full belly-dance regalia (yes, even bra and tiny cymbals) was undoubtedly the host’s son, and any protest might introduce us to one of those curved daggers we’d admired in the shops. So there he was, baby fat rolling and trembling before our very eyes, the room awash in music. And yes, to be fair to all concerned, he was talented and knew his moves. Unfortunately, as the only guests, we alone were the object of attention.
We ordered a second bottle of ox-blood adulterated wine and averted our eyes as much as politeness would allow.
I don’t remember much of the walk back to our room—men in Moroccan dress eyeing our progress, my feeling constantly for my wallet, nausea, that sort of thing—but I do recall vividly the speed at which the room spun every time I lay back in the bed, and believing I would fall right through the mattress…and my camera… still “hidden” beneath it.
I paid the bill the next morning through the dense fog of a headache, and we found our way back to the bus station under a glaring North African sun. And as we prepared to board, who should appear to wave us on our way? None other than our street urchin guides, waiting to welcome the next hapless American students, arriving to savor the delights of the Medina.
End of story.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon
You are a very brave person even if it is following your love for travel. I personnaly never dared to risk the unknown of strange places but I don’t thing it is entirely out of fear. Having read your story I wish I had been more of a risk taker.
Great story! You should write travel books as well as historical novels!
This was fantastic!!!!
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