Monday, 16 September 2013

The medina: Where you can't use a map to save your life

Many people will tell you that a map is a traveler's best friend, and it usually is.  Except if you're in the medina.  Here, maps mean NOTHING. 

Here we were, our first time in Africa.  How exciting!  We had taken the boat from Spain to Tangiers, Morocco, across the Gibraltar Straight.  There weren't many other travelers on the boat.  It was mainly just business men and ship crew, which meant that procedure wasn't very clear to us non-Arabic speaking folks.  We were lucky enough to have a someone approach us to let us know that our passports needed to be stamped at a desk on the boat before we arrived in Tangier.  Thank goodness for that guy, or we would've been in quite the pickle in about 20 minutes.  It was a nice smooth ride and a welcomed change from buses and planes as we got to sit out on deck and enjoy the fresh air.  

The port used to be closer to the city, but now in order to get to Tangier you have to take a shuttle bus that drops you off just outside the medina, the old part of the city.  My sense of direction and ability to follow a map accurately has always been a point of pride with me.  I get it from my dad.  It's almost as if he has built in GPS.  It's actually kind of incredible.  In any case, I was confident that we would be able to A) find a hostel and B) orient ourselves without much trouble.  Before we got off the bus, we encountered someone who spoke French who could help us and she pointed us in the right direction.  So with we strapped our packs on and off we were with these helpful directions and a map in hand.  No problem, right?  WRONG

I don't think I've ever been more flustered in my life.  We started up a set of stairs which then split in two directions.  The lady on the bus had said to go up the stairs, but hadn't mentioned anything about which way to go at the fork.  Hmmm... tough call.  We chose the wrong one as we were intimidated by all the men glaring and talking at us from the stairs that veered right.   We had just arrived and hadn't yet developed the tough skin we needed to be able to deal with that bombardment of attention.  So, to the left we went.  And that led us to a long road up a hill, wearing our packs in 30 degree weather and no shade.  We were hot, sweaty and lost.  

We finally made it to the top of the hill which opened into a main square.  We felt as though we had just found an Oasis in the middle of the desert.  Albeit, crowded, loud and dirty, but at least now there should be hostel options right?  Well, kinda.  The first hostel we found was scary.  Like, culture shock overload. There was no way we could stay there, so we headed back out into the blistering hot sun.  We walked down a main street and have every shopkeeper, restaurant owner, or guy who knew a guy who could help us talk AT us the whole time we were walking.    So now we are feeling hot, lost and bullied.  But somehow we managed to find a place to stay.  It wasn't the Ritz, but it would do for the night.  

We calmed ourselves down over a tagine and then decided that we were ready to go out and explore Tangier; the place where ex-pats, artists and musicians had flocked to and romanticized in the 60's.  I think we were half hoping to encounter Keith Richards on our journey.  We wanted to just walk around on our own, but 1) we couldn't really figure out where we were going and 2) we were not left alone at all, ever.  There was always someone trying to show us something, sell us something, or take us somewhere.  We abandoned our original plan of going this one on our own and enlisted the help of a guide.  Seriously, it was worth it just to get everyone else off our backs.  Well, that and now we knew what we were looking at when we were looking at it. 

The medinas are made up of narrow stones streets lined with really narrow houses, most of them poorly maintained and there are no signs.  Without a proper guide you probably wouldn't be able to find the house of Truman Capote or Paul Bowles let alone even take note of it, as it would look like just another door in a stone wall.  In fact, even when you know whose house it is, it still just looks like one of many doors in a stone wall.  

We ended our tour at the legendary Cafe Haffa, overlooking the Gibraltar Straight with Spain in the horizon.  It had only been a day and already Spain felt worlds away.  We unwound with a hot cup of mint tea, finally able to get lost in time.  This was the Tangier of the 60's we had been searching for.  Drinking mint tea and puffing on kif as we chatted with the locals about their lives and their aspirations.  Then as the sun began to set, and a call to prayer could be heard, we knew it was time to get back to the hostel.  We hopped into our pre-arranged cab and were taken back to where we had started without getting lost.  By the end of our day in Tangier we found ourselves to be tougher and wiser women, ready to explore what Morocco had to offer, with or without a map.