Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Oued Eddahab Day celebrates the day when Morocco got back that province, in Western Sahara, in 1979. For the holiday, I joined what seems to be most of Morocco and traveled. On Friday afternoon, I was catching up with Rose via IM and I talked her into joining me – in retrospect I have mixed feelings about this, because she wasn’t feeling well (and only got worse) and she spent money she didn’t have (and then got her purse stolen the next week), but at the time I was very glad she came with me and I had a great time with her.

Tangier is relatively close and easy to get to – grand taxi to Meknes and then the train; the trains don’t run all that often so we couldn’t get an early start, but we still got there mid-afternoon and had plenty of day. Stepping out of the sauna-like train, seeing the ocean and feeling the cool breeze, seeing modern high-rises, we felt instantly that we liked Tangier. It was hard to get a petit taxi though – as I was scanning the streets looking for one, I spied McDonald’s. I’m not proud of it (especially after starting to read “Fast Food Nation” the following weekend), but I was hungry, and I have to say that the McNuggets, fries and especially the caramel sundae hit the spot. We then walked to the beach – I always like to feel the water – and walked along it for a while in our search for a petit taxi into town.

I had wanted to stay in one of the little hotels where Paul Bowles and other literary figures stayed; now I know that advance reservations are essential in August. We did find a place, in the Ville Nouvelle; now I also know that hotel prices are high in August. After the hot train ride (and walking with our bags) my next step was to jump in the shower – with all my clothes on. We then walked around the Ville Nouvelle a bit, ending up at a Spanish restaurant, where I think I finally satisfied my desire for paella. I enjoy the northern formerly-Spanish part of Morocco – maybe because I get to practice my Spanish, but maybe the people seem more relaxed and happy than in the formerly-French parts. And then…we went back to the room and played piffle. There really isn’t a lot to do in Morocco at night, even in the tourist destinations. No cultural events, nothing to see. Moroccans stay at home, have late dinners, and watch television. I think that’s it for nightlife. And then we had one of the worst nights’ sleep I’ve had since I’ve been here (or ever) – only to be surpassed the next night – when car horns honked on our street all night long. August is the month of weddings, weddings happen late at night, and I guess in Tangier it is tradition to cruise up and down the main streets honking horns in celebration, but oh.

I think that I used to think of it as Tangiers, but all of my books call it Tangier. I’ve also seen it spelled Tanger, which I think is the French spelling. A location of strategic interest, right across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain, it was attacked or occupied by Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Visigoths, Arabs, Berbers, Portugal, Spain, and England, finally becoming an “international zone” in the early 20th century and remaining so until independence in 1956. It was a haven for artists and writers, probably the most notable of whom are Henri Matisse and Paul Bowles (I still have not read any of his writings but feel I must before I leave) along with many Beat writers.

Sunday was our day to really explore. We walked along the Ville Nouvelle’s Boulevard Pasteur, stopping at the Idler’s Terrace for a view of Spain, and then idled at the El Minzah hotel, once a haven for spies and now one for celebrities, just in case friends or family want to stay there sometime. Lovely courtyard for breakfast, inviting-looking pool, spa. We then went on to the Church of St. Andrew, built to serve British expats. A traditional church with pews and hassocks, it also has an Islamic arch and the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, and it has an interesting cemetery. And then we passed the souk where the Riffian ladies sell their vegetables twice a week. We were chastised for taking pictures, but not before we got some good ones. The Grand Socco (Spanish for Big Souk) is a plaza with a fountain and a nice open space outside the medina.

We liked the medina – the usual twisty, turny streets, but the main one wasn’t so narrow; the shops were inviting and the shopkeepers mostly not too aggressive. At the Petit Socco we saw a sign for iced coffee and decided to have an early lunch. Iced coffee in plastic cups with plastic dome lids! A Morocco first! We talked to the owner for a while and then Rose noticed Rachel, one of our stagemates, walking towards us. She was on vacation and was waiting for her brother, due in on the ferry from Spain that evening, so she spent the rest of the day with us. We went to the Kasbah (where we got to the museum just as it closed – next time?), the old neighborhood at the high point of the city. Past Barbara Hutton’s old house; we didn’t get to Malcolm Forbes’s old house but we did get to the Café Hafa, an institution, serving mint tea since 1921 and frequented by all of the artists and writers and the Beatles and Rolling Stones. None of us could muster up the enthusiasm for mint tea, but we stayed quite a while, enjoying the view of the Strait and of Spain, only 12 miles (or 17, depending on the guidebook – hmm, could it be that one says miles and one km? Of course I can’t find that now) away. Rachel then went off to meet her brother and Rose and I went to the Galerie Delacroix, which had a contemporary art exhibit, the Café de Paris, a literary favorite, and then to Casa Pepe, a food store with things that can’t always be found elsewhere, and then had pizza and made it an early night. We had gone to the Librarie des Colonnes, a bookstore with English-language books and another favorite of the literary crowd, but never found it open. One cool thing we learned is that people from Tangier are called Tangerines! That's how the fruit got its name as well.

The next day, we met Rachel and her brother and went to the American Legation, the only National Monument not on U.S. soil. It was given to the U.S. in 1821, and contains art, rugs, old maps, old posters, photographs, and two tableaux of Malcolm Forbes’s toy soldiers. We had tried to go on Sunday and stayed later than we otherwise would have on Monday morning just to see it, and were glad we did. We left some things on the table – most notably Cap Spartel, the very northwest corner of Africa, and the Grottoes of Hercules, but then it was time to go to our next destination, Asilah. Once again it was a challenge to find a petit taxi (maybe it was just high season? If not, it’s a Tangier “con”), but we found one, and then our grand taxi took us along the coast to this artists’ colony. We arrived and immediately liked the feel of it – it’s much closer than Sidi Ifni, so maybe Asilah is the place for a little coastal relaxation/magic.

Asilah has an art exhibition every August and we headed there first. It’s nice to see art, and the Hassan II exhibition space was impressive. The artists who exhibit (and others as well) paint murals on the town’s whitewashed walls, which is a nice touch. We walked around the medina looking at them and at the doors and the shops, feeling the vibe. In a nice synergy, the artist whose work was in the gallery in Tangier had done one of the murals – we recognized his style! My camera battery ran out of charge, so a return is mandated. How could I have let that happen? My phone ran out of charge too. The Portuguese ramparts of the city make for some dramatic views of the ocean. One jetty (inaccessible) is where the pasha used to make people jump to their death on the rocks. The other one I called the Mallory Square of Asilah – every night, crowds gather to watch the sun set. We joined them, and then found a restaurant in the main square, where we had a suspect fish dinner. Rose had more of it than I did, already had been run down, and was not doing well. Two health volunteers from the south were visiting the area; Jong had given them our number. We met up with them, and they very gentlemanly walked us back to our hotel.

The next morning, Rose was still not well, and just wanted to sleep, so I met up with the health volunteers, Aaron and Mic. Aaron was the person who introduced Piffle to Jong, and he happened to have some cards with him, so we played half a hand while they waited for their breakfast. Jong had shown me pictures of his house – he had painted the Peace Corps logo and the Red Sox logo on his outside wall. How could I not like him? Mic was nice too – I haven’t met that many people in the health sector so it is interesting hearing about their work. We sat at an outdoor café for a while and then went to the town beach to dip our feet in the water. Then they gentlemanly agreed to walk us to the train station and carry Rose’s things (and mine as well – I wasn’t sick; they were just nice!). The walk to the train took us along the main beach and was a nice farewell walk. But the 11:43 train was full! In the back of my mind I had thought that since it was busy season we might want to get out tickets in advance, but I thought we might want more flexibility to take a bus or grand taxi, so I didn’t do it. Now I know! Unfortunately, train was the best option, and there weren’t other trains. We could have bought tickets for the 2:45 to Rabat, but then we’d have been in Rabat. We took a petit taxi to the bus station – all buses sold out until late in the day – and then took a taxi back to the train station. Rose was sick. I stared at the train schedule, hoping a brilliant idea would materialize. We then sat on the floor and had a snack, preparing for a long day. The 11:43 arrived, people got on it, and then it sat in the station for a while. We sat there. It sat there. Finally, I said, “let’s just get on the train.” Rose said, “you want to?” And I said, “yes, - they’ll either sell us a ticket or kick us off, but maybe they won’t get to us until we’re almost home.” In Meknes and Marrakesh, they don’t let you on the platform without your showing them that you have a ticket. In Asilah, that control wasn’t there. So we got on the train. A brilliant idea! We didn’t have seats; a nice young man noticed that Rose didn’t feel well and gave her his seat, and eventually someone who was tired of sitting gave me one too. And the conductors sold us tickets with no questions asked. We made it home later than planned but before dark (I even had time for Marjane in Meknes). So, not the perfect end to a great weekend, but not a disaster, just another Morocco travel experience, and in fact it was a great weekend! It was tough to choose just one picture (maybe I will go back through all my entries and add more pictures) but this is the Grand Socco with the entrance to the medina – I think it captures the sunny feel of Tangier.

There’s also a religious holiday on the fifteenth of this lunar month (which means I don’t know exactly when it is, but I’m told I haven’t missed it yet). The month before Ramadan is called Sh3ban and the holiday is Sh3bana. From my language book: According to legend, this is the day that Allah “registers all the actions of mankind which they are to perform during the year and all the children of men who are to be born and die in the year.” Traditionally, barren women gather in homes in the neighborhood and cook a couscous meal with special spices; they hope that this will help them to give birth in during the upcoming year. Youssef said that there’s a spring here in Azrou where barren women go and leave liver and chicken because they think that will help them as well. I would like to go, just to see this (not for myself – pregnancy in the Peace Corps gets you medically separated), but without a Moroccan to go with (I’m not sure I know any barren women) I think this is something I won’t get a chance to do.

That's right about Tangerines - the ones that come from East to West. The exact same fruit that comes from the other direction (West to East) is called a Mandarin.

Or so I've been told.
I always wondered about that! Thanks! Speaking of fruit, I hear pomegranates are on the way and I am eagerly awaiting them! Then clementines will follow!
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