Entry #004: Saturday, April 13, 2012 (Tetouan, Morocco)

So, I had a bit of a hiccup in programming, and it's been an interesting couple days as a result.

Shortly after my last blog post, I was contacting my Couchsurfing host in Martil, Morocco (it's a beach town), and jut confirming our meet-up. My host then wrote back to me saying that he wasn't going to be in town until the 14th. In fact, he had told me about this earlier, but I misunderstood. Add to that the fact that it was because his father was sick, and I couldn't be angry. I could, however, be a bit concerned.

And I was. I'm a meticulous planner, and I like things going according to plan. But that's not going to happen all the time, so I have to swing with the punches. Paco offered to let me stay at his place another night, but I didn't want to be a burden (and I would have been, as his son was visiting that night, and it was his father's birthday). So, instead I did a last-ditch hostel and hotel search in Tetouan, the city I was supposed to meet my next host in. I was lucky enough to find a hotel for $20 a night. I may have been able to shop around more in person, but like I said, I like to feel some semblance of control.

So, the next day, Paco drove me to the port, we said our goodbyes, and I hopped on a ferry heading to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city nestled in one corner of Morocco. The ferry was a huge, lamentably utilitarian vessel. I was hoping for something smaller than would be jumping off waves, but that would probably cost more than the 12 Euros I paid.

When we finally stopped and everyone waited to disembark, I kept my eyes and ears open. I saw one couple, pale skin, with backpacks. My eyes lit up, and I walked a little closer to them, trying to hear them talk. They were somewhat mumbling, but I could hear the word just, so I decided to make my move. "I like your backpack." The boy turns to me. "Oh, cheers!" Classic London accent; I hit the jackpot.

As it turns out, Oscar and Ellie (those're their names) had hitchhiked all the way down from the University of York (the old one) and were planning on continuing through to Marrakesh for their two-week break, complete with sleeping bags to sleep on rooftops with. Hitchhiking. That takes some guts, guts I don't think I've developed yet.

I expediently turned their pair into a trio, and we navigated to Spanish/Moroccan border. Or rather, the 100-meter no-man's-land betwixt the two borders. The high number of olive-drab guards and ravaged earth (due to some pipe construction) gave the impression we were storming Kosovo rather than entering a vacation. After some befuddlement with our passports, we got through and found the nearby taxi yard. We had been instructed by a passerby to split a taxi six-ways so that we only payed 20 dirham apiece (that's, maybe, $2.35). Keep in mind, these are not vans. So, there are two people in the passenger seat, and four in the backseat (and one of them was a quite-heavyset woman). It was a cramped 45-minute drive, but a beautiful one.

When we arrived in Tetouan, I parted ways with Oscar and Ellie (they were heading on a bus), and found my way to my hotel. Which, to be honest, I only found because it was about 100 meters away from where we were dropped off. Had it been anywhere else, I would have been hopelessly lost. If there are any street signs in this city, I have yet to see them. And with most signs being in Arabic (with the occasional French), having someone say, "Turn right at the Al Hassan General Store" would so me no good. I decided that until I got my bearings, I would stay on the street my hotel was on.

So, with the exception of a quick jaunt to a cafe for a late lunch (where I got a Toast au Fromage and some snickers for my inability to understand anything), I stayed in my hotel room for the rest of the day. This was originally something I promised I'd never do, but it's amazing how quickly you can abandon old notions when you have no idea what's going on. My hotel actually had surprisingly good Wi-Fi when I arrived, so I made the most of it. I watched both episodes of the new season of Game of Thrones, and downloaded some offline language packs for Google Translate, which I never knew about but is completely awesome and would have saved me a ton of effort had I known last week. Between those two elements, I think I used up maybe 4GB of high-speed Wi-Fi, which may have been all available, because since then it's been pretty janky and slow.

I also did something clever. Well, I thought it was clever. I used Google Maps, Print Screen, and Photoshop to create a large, detailed map of the city to keep on my phone.

I found out today that it's rare for hotels to have in-room bathrooms, so I can appreciate even more the fact that mine had hot (well, warm) water, even if it's only for a couple hours a day. It pretty messy, though, considering that there was nothing separating the shower from the rest of the bathroom. In any case, after soaking up the errant water and reading, I went to bed.

I was pretty hungry the next morning. I didn't mention it, but I literally only ate three things yesterday: two apples and the aforementioned toast. But that wasn't the issue - water was. I only drank about 3/4 of liter all day, and I could tell I was dehydrated. Having gotten heat stroke in Mozambique a decade ago, this was something I wanted to avoid. Oh, how tempting that tap water seemed! But I know better, so I suffered through the night until my complimentary breakfast. It was surprisingly good. A number of baked goods, an egg (protein!), orange juice, and some olives. But the water is what made it all worthwhile. Having been rejuvenated  I decided to walk around the city.

And that's when things got interesting.

I wanted to start my day by visiting the main city cemetery (for those who don't know, I have a fascination with cemeteries). So, I walk up and up and up the street, my homespun map working admirably. I take a couple pictures of some feral cats until I realize they're everywhere and my SD card is only 32GB. But then I stopped to buy a bottle of water, and my mannerisms must have made it clear that I was a foreigner (or maybe my poor language skills or the fact that I'm white). One of the customers there asked me if I spoke English and was American, and asked where I was going. I said the cemetery. He said he'd show me. I said no, I knew the way, but he insisted it was fine, and took me along.

Stay tuned for today's lessons.

He started taking me through the medina (kind of like a bazaar), pointing things out to me while his literally-autistic child kept patting me on the butt. I kept on asking questions like "What is your job?", trying to make sure he was not going to ask me to pay him. We passed by a small, gated opening with some planters inside. No bigger than my hotel room.

"This is the Muslim cemetery."
"I...don't think it is."
"And this, this is a Berber house. Very historic."

Dammit, Andrew! I think to myself. You've fallen right into a tourist trap! You have to think of a way out of this. He introduced me to the curator of the house. Who showed me around, took me to the roof to take pictures (admittedly, this was actually quite nice, as the city has amazing mountains to both the north and south), and was explaining the history to me. All the while, I was debating the best way to get out of here having spent the least amount of money.

Then we get to the rug room. A second man serves some mint tea while the curator goes on about "Berber hospitality". They then start showing the rugs and blankets and tablecloths. All sizes (huge to baby) and designs and colors. I need to make a move.

"I have no money."
"Don't worry about it, friend. Your face is better than money." (He was referring to word of mouth, not my actual face.) He then keeps going until there are about two dozen garments on the floor. Some legitimately nice. He then tells me we'll go through and I will say my interest, Naghham ("yes") or Laa ("No"). It is at this point I make a serious tactical error. While I say "Laa, laa, laa, laa" to most everything, one one of the pieces (a brilliant indigo "cactus silk" rug/tablecloth), I say "Maybe", because my plan is to seem like a bad customer.

After I dismiss the rest of the carpets, he tells me some story. "Usually, this 1000 dirhams. But today, for you, 750!" Now, I had read up on haggling, and the general tip is to go down half. I had already given the "poor student" story, so I kept with it. "I literally only have 250 dirhams." One-third the price. That should offend him. He gives a slightly incredulous look, I apologize, and make myself ready to give him 10 dirhams for the tea. He then says "500 dirhams!" I say "No." He then says, "Well, then, what's your maximum price." I was getting over confident in my plan. "I told you already, 250."

"It's a deal."

Goddammit!! I thought, This couldn't have backfired more. And I couldn't back out of it at this point, because that's when the merchants get angry (which you don't want when you're alone in a room with two). I had already told them I had no money on me. This was a lie, of course, but in order to keep on with it, his assistant and I had to walk all the way back to my hotel (a 20-minute walk) so that I could go into my room, drop the rug down, reach into my pocket, and give him more than half the cash I had remaining. He thanks me and walks out.

I gather my composure and walk out myself. At least I didn't have pay that old man and his kid for bringing me there. "Hello, friend!" I turn. There's the old man and his kid. AAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!!! Long story short, he begs me for money, because they're both poor and the kid is autistic. I give him 20 dirham, saying that's all I have to give, but he says they will starve, and also he say the other 20 dirham in my pocket. After some back and forth, I give him the other 20 just to make him go away.

So, here are the lessons I learned from this experience:
  1. Telling people you don't need a guide is not enough. You have to tell them you don't want a guide. (I later told a would-be guide I'd rather walk alone, and he left.)
  2. Don't fold your bills over each other. Make sure you can take one out without revealing another. If possible, put bills in different pockets. Convince people who literally have barely anything on you.
  3. "I don't have money to pay" is not an escape. "I am poor" is not an escape. The only escape I can see is "I don't want souvenirs." You can't out-clever them, so just flat out admit you have no desire.
  4. Know the name of a second hotel. If anyone asks, you're staying there. That way, they can't follow you if you don't want them to.
In the end, it was not the worst possible learning experience, because from what I've read, people have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on carpets, whereas I ended up paying about $35.

After that...unpleasantness, I walked back up to the Muslim cemetery (the real one), and strolled through for about an hour. It was huge, and for the most part, poorly organized. If you didn't know where someone was,  your odds of finding them were slim (unless you didn't know Arabic, in which case they were nil). The graves were tightly packed went every which way, and were covered in thistle. I took a number of pictures (being quite reserved in my movements, as I didn't know if I'd offend anybody), and appreciated the amazing view the cemetery had. I then heard bleating. As I continued, I saw sheep and goats all throughout the cemetery, eating the weeds (apparently, there's some unwritten agreement between the cemetery and the local shepherds). They were adorable! I even tried some of my own bleating (I've been told it's pretty good) and got a couple responses. D'awww!!!!

After  walking through the new part of the cemetery (where there are actually caretakers and organized rows), I came by the local grand mosque, which was playing the 12:30 call-to-prayer. I then decided to walk through the medina (on my own terms). Along the way, a couple guys came up to me, trying to direct me places, but I told them I didn't want tour guides. Then, one guy, about my age and sharply dressed, asked if I had seen the tannery. Again, I told him I didn't want a tour guide.

"Oh, no, I don't want your money." And I believed him. And that's how I met Mustafa. We walked, we talked, I still told him I was super poor (just to be safe), and ask where I can get some dates, because I'm I can't be in a country like Morocco without getting some dates. He brings me to a friend's stall, where I get a quarter-kilo of the local dates for 10 dirham (which, as someone who used to buy a lot of dates, I was thrilled to pay). Mustafa then takes me to his favorite local cafe, where we get some more mint tea (absolutely delicious tea), and he offers to pay it without a second thought (it's only 5 dirham a glass, anyway). We sit outside the king's vacation palace, talking for a good three hours. We talk about news, local prices for things (which is very useful to me), his time spent in England, language, history, geography, and some topics that combine all three (like the origins of state and country names).

Once we finish our tea and conversation, I decide to go back to the hotel to nap before dinner. Mustafa shakes my hand, wishes me well, and sees me off with a simple "cheers". That was it. If the carpet seller had lowered my expectations of people in a single interaction, Mustafa raised them just as quickly. He spent time talking with me for the sheer pleasure of it. Wanting nothing in return. It was the perfect travel friendship: ephemeral, but genuine.

So yeah, interesting day. I now have a rug I have no room for. All I'll be keeping of it is a loose strand I cut off to remind myself to be vigilant and remember my lessons. The rest I am going to have to ship home; hopefully I will be able to do that when I meet with my new host. It'll probably just be shipped to my family. That said, it is a nice piece you could use as a rug, a tablecloth, or a rough-and-tumble blanket. So, no fooling, let me know if you'd like it. I sure won't be using it for a while.

1 comment:

  1. $35 sunk into a tourist trap is actually pretty good. Good info too if I ever get the urge to travel in North Africa.

    Interesting about your exchange though. Here, the norm is to be polite albeit deceptive (I.e. 'white lies', etc.). There it's more blunt honesty. Guess I can't say one is better than the other.

    All and all, glad to see things are still going well. Safe travels!


    P.S. Good tip about the map too. Necessity is the mother of invention.