The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter
A gusty wind and scattered rainstorms accompanied us along the Portuguese coast as we headed east to Spain. The wind followed us as we turned south towards the tip of Spain and Tarifa, a port city dating back to the 8th century, just 14 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco. The wind kicked up whitecaps in the sea promising a rough crossing and, when we checked with the ferry company, FRS, we found that all ferry passages had been cancelled for that Sunday and the following day, when we had planned to travel, looked doubtful as well. A little disappointed (but we’d seen enough news stories of sinking ferries to be anything but grateful to a company who valued safety) we made our way to our hotel. The Hotel Convento Tarifa was a converted convent with simple but comfortably furnished rooms and friendly staff who assured us that, if the ferry cancelled its scheduled trips for the next day, we’d have a place to stay for another night.
The next morning dawned bright with a blue sky and a cold wind that seemed just a bit diminished. After checking with the ferry company we learned that, while all the morning passages had been canceled, the ferry might resume its service with the first crossing scheduled for 13:00. We hustled down to the station, bought our tickets, (one of us) downed meclizine to stave off sea-sickness and boarded. We were ON OUR WAY TO MOROCCO.
A little background for those readers who like their complicated history in an easy-to-swallow, capsulized form. We could start with archeological excavations showing the presence of hominids at least 400,000 years ago or move quickly on to recorded history with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Berbers occupying the territory between the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE followed by the Romans annexing it for a few centuries. The Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines all had a piece of the action from 430 to 700 CE that ended when the Muslims conquered the region and the Berbers, though converted, took to the mountains. The Muslim conquest brought the religion of Islam to the region as well as the advanced Arab civilization and over the succeeding centuries Morocco was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil with various dynasties squabbling, rising and falling while the Ottoman, Spanish and especially the French crouched like vultures waiting to swoop in and get a share of Morocco’s vast mineral resources as well as its strategic location for themselves. In 1912 Morocco’s instability resulted in its becoming a protectorate of France with Spain horning in to claim its own zone of influence as both countries vied to exploit Morocco’s natural wealth. Finally, in 1956, after years of nationalistic movements, Morocco gained its independence from both France and Spain. Today, Morocco maintains strong ties to the west, enjoying free trade agreements with both the US and the European Union.
We reached Tangier, Morocco, in about an hour-and-a-half, the ride not particularly smooth but neither of us turned green or lost our breakfast. Earlier we had decided to heed conventional wisdom and leave Tangier to the day trippers and when we disembarked from the ferry at the tail end of the crowd we found that just a few taxis remained. Although we had planned to take the train for the five-hour trip to Fès (also known as Fez) it didn’t leave for another two hours and we made a quick change of plans. We talked to one of the drivers who spoke a little English and lots of Spanish (our common language), conferred briefly and decided to hire a taxi for the drive after agreeing upon a price. Our driver, who introduced himself as Younes, was full of smiles as he loaded our bags into the van and set off.
And very quickly we learned how driving is done in Morocco. We edged our way into a roundabout of five lanes in which the cars all seemed to be pointing diagonally into each other’s paths jockeying for an in to the next lane rather than staying in what would appear to be their own lanes. Horns honked, cars edged in and out flirting with disaster, miraculously avoiding each other and then we were free and onto the next driving lane and roundabout. After a lot of quick gasps, clutching the door handle and hitting the imaginary brake pedal, Tangier was behind us and we were in the countryside with Younes demonstrating the next feat in his repertoire of Moroccan driving. Once again the lanes seemed to be a mere suggestion of where the driver should be. Younes straddled the center line of the road and only ceded way to the approaching driver at the last moment. He ruthlessly tailgated the cars in front of us and seized his advantage when a break appeared in the traffic, smashing his foot down on the gas pedal and careening around the car. Just in the nick of time he’d move to the right to let an approaching car pass us. And it wasn’t hard to see when he felt someone had violated the traffic rules either as he would twist his wrist and flick his fingers in a gesture of scorn and his lips would curl down in disdain. All this while he talked to himself and occasionally addressed a remark to us. And smiled.
We were trapped. Fortunately for us, we’d had some training as passengers on Guatemalan chicken buses and Nicaraguan roads where the rules were nothing like what we’d learned in Driver’s Ed so we tried to relax, listened to the Moroccan music Younes had thoughtfully provided and gazed out our windows at the passing countryside. Younes kept up his conversation with himself in the driver’s seat, occasionally laughing and nodding his head. It felt surreal… The countryside was patchworked fields in brown and green, flocks of sheep scattered about with shepherds close by. Small 3-wheeled trucks loaded with as many as eight people passed, which Younes jokingly call “Pakistani taxis.” On the edge of the road were burros and mules hitched to small carts led by men in robes with pointed hoods (djellabas) pulled up against the cold wind.
We drove through small towns with shops along the roadside selling souvenirs and pottery and outdoor cafes filled with men only, sitting at tables watching the cars go by, drinking from small cups and talking. The signs appeared in Arabic with an occasional translation in our own Latin alphabet for us to guess at the pronunciation. Flat land and hills passed by, shockingly littered for as far as we could see with trash and plastic debris. Off to the south-west the Atlas Mountains emerged in the distant background.
We stopped at a large restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for a late lunch about mid-way through the ride. A butcher brandishing sharp knives hacked at legs of lamb and fed the meat through a grinder. Walking into the restaurant we were surprised. The many tables were set with white linen and because it was late in the afternoon our group was the only one on our side of the restaurant. Younes urged us to order the sweet tea with mint and excused himself for prayers. A trip to the bathroom was our first encounter with a squat toilet but the sink was equipped with running water and soap. We picked a ground lamb dish which came with Moroccan flatbread and a colorful salad served family style and enjoyed our first delicious Moroccan meal with Younes as our guest.
Back in the van the afternoon faded into evening and still the ride went on mile after mile, darkness draped around us, a few stars peeking through clouds. We’d forgotten how dark it could be in the country with no lights along the road to mark our way. The van’s headlights pierced the night, the Moroccan music played in the background and Younes continued his self-talk.
And finally, we were in Fès winding our way through roads with street lights and shops, cafes open for business and people walking along the streets. Periodically, Younes would take advantage of the stalled traffic, roll down his window and shout at the adjacent taxi driver for directions to our destination; more-or-less the Moroccan taxi drivers’ GPS. At last, he stopped at a lane that led to our riad (a traditional house with a central garden and fountain) and indicated that cars were not allowed in this portion of the Medina (the original historical Arab city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and that we needed to walk from there. A group of young men argued over who would help us with our luggage, small carry-ons with wheels that we could have pulled ourselves, and we found ourselves paying for a service we hadn’t requested, caught up in a kind of hijack as they led us down the dimly lit, narrow lane, into the medina, showing us the way to Ryad Ayla.
Next post: Fès, Morocco
By Anita and Richard