Friday, 11 September 2009
After a month of work in Puglia, Italy where Salva is from, we were faced with what has become an annual challenge; getting ourselves and our car home to the centre of Spain with minimal cost and effort.
Last year we simply drove. For those of you who don't have a map of Europe in your heads or at the ready, that meant driving the entire length of Italy, across the bottom of France, down to Barcelona, and across to Valladolid. It was nice, but not nice enough to make us want to do it again. So we thought about a different route to take this year.
The other way is via Africa. We spent a few weeks dreaming about how awesome it would be to drive south to Sicily, take a boat to Tunisia, and drive through Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and get another boat to Spain. How awesome. Unfortunately, the border between Algeria and Morocco has remained closed since the civil war in Algeria, and the Algeria/Spain boats are expensive, so that idea was abandoned.
So we went back the way we came. By boat from Italy to Spain, (via Sardinia). The most direct route. We then drove across the bottom of Spain to Algeceiras, and got a ferry from there to Tanger in Morocco.
I wish I'd been able to blog about this trip as I went, it just would have been so much better. I would have remembered the stories as they happened. It seems like too much to write about here in one post, but I'll try anyway, because Mum has asked for a written reflection to read before our next phone call, and because I thought it might be a good way to wake up this sleeping blog.
We arrived into the port at Tanger. The boat was supposed to take 2 and a half hours but ended up taking more than 5. It was around 3 in the morning before we were on land and dealing with visas and customs. The car was immediately identified as Italian, and we were surrounded by people as we filled out the forms; Greeting us in Italian, singing the virtues of the country and its population, (including the "beautiful beaches" of Venice, which left us a little confused and a lot amused) and asking for money in exchange for the valuable help we were getting with filling out the customs forms. (This last point is a very trying aspect of travel in Morocco, and a theme which I'll expand on later.)
We hadn't been home to empty the car, so it was full of our stuff. Musical instruments, computers, art supplies, books, clothes, a bed, and a bread-maker (gift from Salva's Mum). We started the trip feeling a little bit uneasy about leaving the car, especially since it can be easily opened with a pair of pliers (that's how we open it) and that is probably why we didn't stay at Tanger, which has a bit of a seedy side to it, we had a bread-maker to think about.
We drove across to Tetouan, and noticed, as we did, that all the lights in all the country houses were on, at 4 in the morning. This seemed strange but we were too tired to go into it.
We arrived at Tetouan and found a room, in a house turned hostel-inn kind of place, where some ladies let us in, gave us the key, and remained awake. Still thought nothing of it. This was a great way to arrive because we hadn't seen the place in the day time before we woke up. So it was special. We got dressed and walked outside, took about 5 steps and were confronted by a teenage boy, who greeted us in Spanish, then French, then Italian, and then English, and proceeded to chat away in a mixture of the 4. We chatted a while and tried to shake him, as it was a pre-coffee encounter and the way I feel about them is the way most people feel about being seen in their pyjamas.
The next person who wanted to be our "guide" immediately lost favour with Salva, after making a comment about the fasting of the muslim month of Ramadan, and how it probably wouldn't do him any harm. We laughed at his joke and then realised what he'd said, and that we, two food-lovers, had come to Morrocco in one of it's hottest months during Ramadan, when Muslim people engage in strict fasting during daylight hours, and the restaurants and market stalls subsequently close.
It was disappointing, but it had it's upsides. Our very first night we were invited to dinner at somebody's home. The breakfast (as in the fast-breaker) at sundown is considered very important (I'd consider it important too if I hadn't eaten all day...) and the already hospitable Moroccans are even more likely to invite you to a meal during this time. Actually you just have to be standing next to someone when the call is heard from the Mosque, and he or she will probably invite you to have some Ramadan soup.
This was a nice experience. We sat with the wife of the family and the kids (6 and 9) kept looking at us and going into hysterics.
We moved on from Tetouan to Chefchouan, which was different in that it obviously had a more established history of tourism. We were warned that it was a kind of hippy place, but we took the risk and went there anyway. It was so so beautiful, and we were thankful in a way that there were other foreigners, because it meant there were a few restaurants open and we were able to eat something.
Via a tiny fishing village so asleep i didn't even remember it's name, we went to Al Hoceima. On the way we stopped to make ourselves a coffee and a boy of about 10 years came over to chat to us. He was delightful, and probably the person that taught us most about what the country is like. He spoke quite fluent French and told us that next year he would begin studying English. He asked about the other countries we had travelled to and wanted to talk about other Islamic countries he had seen on Al Jezeera. He was impressed that we had seen Dubai and thought it must be one of the most beautiful places in the world, because of it's big hotels. He explained that he isn't expected to fast during Ramadan because he's just a kid, but is beginning to try this year, every other day. As we left he picked up his soccer ball and ran off with his brother who was patiently waiting nearby.
photo by Salva
At Al Hoceima we had an experience trying to find somewhere to sleep. We had already noticed that Moroccans are everywhere. I mean, that would be expected in Morocco, but they really are EVERYWHERE. You can be in the middle of no-where, in Morocco, and someone will be sitting on a rock, or in a tree. (Take above 10 year-old story).
In the first room we looked at, for example, when we were shown the toilet, someone was crouched on the floor in there, cooking fish on a tiny camping stove. It was a bit weird, and we decided against the hotel.
The next hotel was obviously run by prostitutes and helped me understand why we use the word brothel to describe untidy places.
The third seemed to be run by an 8 year old and was also far from satisfactory. So we gave up and slept by the beach in the back of the van.
Al Hoceima was also the place where Salva bought a traditional Moroccan robe, if his intention was to blend in with the crowd, he must have been happy with himself because he looks exactly like a Moroccan man. We had a conversation with the man who sold it to us. He was one of the few people we met that didn't speak French, so we had the conversation in Arabic. That is, he spoke in Arabic and Salva furrowed his brow. At the end of the discussion, they exchanged phone numbers. I can't wait for him to call.
We went from there to Fes, and spent the next three days just trying to find the main Mosque, and getting a bit frustrated with the sellers and the "guides" who are drawn to foreign faces like flies to honey. Here was where we began to get irritated with the tourism-related problems of travelling this country. Salva had to have one of those moments men sometimes have (where they stand really tall, and speak to each other really closely pointing fingers at chest level) with a parking inspector who was obviously and unashamedly trying to rip us off... the poor guy was just the straw that broke the camel's back.
We moved on to Meknes, where we spent the day trying to find the historical centre, and admiring the artisans. Once we found the main square Salva was happy to find some musicians busking there. We watched them play the crowd and marvelled at how different the ritual of performance was. The buskers wouldn't play until their hat was full, they were paid first, and then they would perform, they did this before each song. They were obviously telling jokes and being funny, but no-one was laughing, no-one applauded, or danced, or moved in anyway. They just listened.
Oh, and there were about 100 people just listening and I was the only woman there.
We started to head home after this, heading north from Meknes to Tanger. We stopped somewhere (don't know where) on the way to sleep and wash. The room was good value, and like most of the cheap ones, had a seperate shower with a gas hot-water system that needed to be turned on with every use. We told the young guy running the place that we needed the hot water, and he yelled out for someone to go and see to it. When we went into the shower room, (literally a room with a flurescent light and an ancient shower head coming from the ceiling, the window was open and we could see a man lighting the hot water system. We laughed at this, and he laughed with us as he lit it. Then we closed the window, the glass panes of which had been painted over, but were peeling, leaving gaps.
Oh well, we thought, he would have gone by now, and we needed the shower, and neither of us are very prudish about nudity. So we showered, and went back to our room.
We closed the window shutters of the room which backed onto the same courtyard as the bathroom, and noticed that it was missing a piece, like a chunk out of it. So I stuffed my towel into it, and we undressed and went to bed. As we lay there then, about five minutes later we heard the towel dislodge (itself?) I went over and stuffed it back in. Then, another five minutes later, heard Salva shush me, leap out of the bed, throw open the shutters and ask the same shower man what the f%@k he was doing...
We asked for a room on the other side of the building. We slept there and went back to Tanger to take the ferry back to Spain (not because of creepy shower-man, it was just time to go home...)
HIGHLIGHT OF TRIP:
Learning to use our new camera is definately one. I've never owned an SLR and I can't remember using one, actually, apart from my polaroid. Ours is a Nikon D80 and it's so great. It was really interesting observing each other with the new toy in such a new, colourful environment. We must have developed our own styles because our photos are very different.
OVERALL REFLECTION OF TRIP:
I've since commented that I feel that travel to Morocco could easily become irresponsible, especially for people who are more financially stable than us. The place is not cheap, well, it is, but not that cheap. I'm not complaining that we spent too much money there, it's just a reflection.
For example, we spent, on average, 15 euros for a double room, per night. That's not much for us, but consider that that is 150 dirham, which is alot of money in Morocco, and that 15 Euros could also get you a simple double room in Portugal. It seemed that the price of everything was invented on the spot, and to sound just a bit cheaper than Europe. E.g How much is the Parking? -20 Dirham. The guy expected us to do the maths, and say, "Well that's only 2 Euros I guess", give him the money and be on our way.
That's what we were tempted to do, and probably what most people do, but I think it's irresponsibile. The place is still impoverished and the only people going ahead are hoteliers, restaurant and shop owners, apart from the fact that it's irritating that people want to rip you off, and to have to argue about money, which is ugly, accepting these prices must be damaging for their economy and the reason that hotels with a hole in the ground for a toilet came to cost 150 dirham a night. Tourism isn't enough, I guess is what I'm saying. It just brings fast, big money into the place that is generally used to mask all the problems.
Just a reflection to consider if anyone who is planning a trip to Morocco happens to be reading.
Otherwise, I loved it. Now I'm home relaxing and cleaning my house, starting a series of paintings based on the city walls I saw there. That's it.