Saturday, January 14, 2012

a bevy of interesting observations (not necessarily my own)


An unexpectedly bright and sunny sky, as seen from the roof top of Dar 23 in the medina of Tanger.



We look out at the Strait of Gibraltar. The seemingly endless hazy mist over these waters is less pronounced. Spain is quite visible from where we stand.
Ed shakes his head in wonderment: in one place there are parts of a pig in every store, then you cross a thin strip of water and now there’s no pig anywhere. Amazing.


After a pleasant breakfast of yogurt, flatbreads and fried pancakes, Ed and I take a walk through Tanger. Peter suggests stopping off at the Phoenician tombs – nearly three thousand years old (Tanger was probably discovered by the Phoenicians) – easily discernable on a cliffside overlooking the ocean.
You wont miss them. They’re carved into the stone, probably filled with rain water or garbage or both.

(Around the noon hour)

Our walk starts just before the big Friday call to prayer. Initially, the shops are open, the city noises blending with the noise of the taxi engines and motorscooters. Streets are crowded, benches are occupied, the men are at their cafés.

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But at twelve, the men turn to the mosques. Or most men. On the cliffs, we find a few who, like us, come to gaze out at the sea (and unlike me, have no fear of being near cliff edges).




As we continue to walk away from the medina and city center, the coastal streets become quieter. Some of the side streets have driveways leading to moderately prosperous homes. We come across a man washing a car.
Ed mumbles: he’s sporting a gun in a holster. I respond -- a guard maybe? We move on, out of the range of fire.

Eventually the road dead-ends. We give a glance to the cliffs before us and turn back, away from the coast, toward the complicated set of streets, boulevards and alleyways of Tanger.

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We’re by a large cemetery and the road leads right to one of the side entrances. We hesitate about going in. There are a number of people there today, some praying, some merely tidying the tomb site – putting in branches of myrtle and other greenery.
I say to Ed – let’s pass through it. I wont take photos.
You better not!
He is so emphatic that I’m surprised. Ed’s usually my biggest nudger to take risks with photos. Not here, not now.
I offer this -- it’s interesting – in the west, taking respectful photos of old tombstones is quite common.
We have no idea what the customs are here, Ed responds, but it’s not as if I need the reminder. And I have yet to see a single Tanger resident with a camera, a phone camera or any other recording device.

(After the noon hour)

At 12:30, school’s out. (For the afternoon? For the day? Is there a weekend?)


I have before me a parade of children and mothers and grandmothers. In Tanger (unlike in, say, Marrakech), all women over a certain age (what age?) are in long robes and veils. Men’s attire, on the other hand varies, though there, too, long robes are more common than not.


The children sometimes shout Hola and bonjour at us. Every once in a while one will ask for a Euro. We look like we're more likely to have Euros than the Moroccan Dirham.


As we navigate the streets, passing small clusters of men or groups of kids, it seems clear that in Tanger, we can expect to be stared at. If I see a group of people on a park bench at some distance in Europe, I can easily take a photo. They’ll be so engrossed in conversation that they wont even notice. But here, we are noticed, even from afar. There is friendly vibe to the stares, or at least a non threatening vibe to them, but they are unabashed and constant.

As Ed takes my hand I say – I wonder if it is common for men to touch women in public. Last night, in the restaurant, at the end of dinner, a couple – maybe Moroccan, maybe not, engaged in an obvious make-out session, right there, by the table. It’s as if they were flaunting a certain openness of feeling. But it was the exception.

We continue to meander, now through a mostly shuttered and less vibrant medina.

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And then we take a pause at Dar 23.

(Late afternoon)

The chant can be heard again, signifying the end of prayer. It’s still light outside and I have a small errand to run.

It takes a strong man (and a stronger woman) to resist shopping in Morocco. (The typical temptations would include slippers – every man and most women wear these at some point, out on the street, inside a home, no matter – they’re the standard. And for foreign visitors, carpets, typically made by the Berber people in the Atlas Mountains fill the stores. My sights are for something much much smaller, but I like to admire these colorful handmade crafts anyway.)



Ed is a man who can resist any shopping anywhere. I can too these days, especially when I travel with him. It creates a sense of well being to move freely and lightly with half empty backpacks, especially when you use trains and buses and prefer hiking great distances to taking cabs.

But (and there is a but), it’s my little girl’s birthday the day after we get back to the Midwest and I know she would like some small gift from Morocco. She is the one who dragged me here in the first place a few years ago and her memories of that trip are as good as are mine.

So I ask Ed if he’s up for a shopper’s stroll through the medina. I know what I want. It’s a question of finding a good version of it and getting a good bargain. (The small item shall remain nameless as she reads Ocean and it would be inopportune to mention it here now, before her birthday.)

Ed agrees to go along. We enter one store. No, won't do. Another – wow, this is a big store, with a maze of rooms and an upstairs and then another upstairs. A handful of men work here. They’re not busy. They’re drinking mint tea by the doorway. There are no tourists now, no shoppers at all. I get too much attention, even as I want just the smallest of items.

Ed waits on a stool as I go inside. Immediately, I like the vibe of the place. Ed tells me that a good shopkeeper will have worked out splendidly every detail of pleasing the customer. Well, this shopkeeper knows his stuff. His praise for my French, my taste, my height weight and color of hair (I exaggerate here) is fluent and believable. And he leads me away from the small item that I could fit in a change purse to something slightly bigger. I protest, he’s understanding, working around the problem that I don’t want anything that wont glide into the side pocket of my backpack.

In the end, he wins. And, because he’s good at his job, he makes me feel great for going along.

I tell Ed – they don’t have any business, no tourists at all, no one is buying, so I got a real bargain.
Yes, I’m sure. He used all the right words.
But it’s true! I don’t quite have that amount (I only carry a few Euros with me, which work here if you want to be stupid and overpay for everything), but he’s willing to escort us to an ATM machine.
Ed’s laugh could be heard throughout the medina. I bet he is!

At the ATM, I encounter a guy who sells Moroccan sweets.


He gives me a sample, I like it and ask for a small packet to take home (I have come a long way with street food; there would have been a time when I would have refused to eat anything from someone who uses the same hand to cut his sweets as he does to handle money. Ed tells me that transmitting disease through money is far less common than through poor sanitation and I choose to believe him on that one).

But the entire one minute episode – there at the ATM, with the shop worker looking on (I have just bargained down ferociously something at his store and then spent effortlessly and frivolously a handful of coins on candy), the candy seller handing over the packet of sweets, and with the memory of the store owner, telling me to please give a small tip to the worker – maybe the equivalent of a couple of dollars, so that he could buy ice cream for his kids -- leaves me with the gloom that always comes when I ‘do business’ with someone who is much much poorer than I am.

Of course, the truth is that I wouldn’t have made the purchase at the asking price. Not because I couldn’t have, but because I wouldn’t choose to spend money in this way. (We’re talking very small dollars here). For a person who works at a Tanger shop, it’s a different sort of equation. The shopkeeper tells me – we need to pay our workers. We have too much stock and not enough cash. Offer us any price—chances are we’ll take it.

That’s a terrible bargaining position to be in. But that is the reality in Tanger.

We walk through the medina one last time without purpose, without destination. There was supposed to be a midday meal in there somewhere, but neither Ed nor I are hungry for it. He’s pensive and so am I. We retreat to Dar 23 and lose ourselves in our computers for a good period of time.

(Late evening)

We eat dinner at Agadir. A small place about a fifteen minute walk up and out of the medina. We had asked Peter for a very informal, low key place and he sends us here. A few tables, loosely scattered. Some oil cloth on top, a string of balloons, a very crookedly hung insignificant painting of a camel-riding Arab.

The way we are sitting, we can look straight into the kitchen. Not the stove and oven – the exciting part, but the chopping table and the kitchen sink. A cat comes in and waits. The cook, who is also the waiter and pretty much everything else, must like the cat because neither minds the other’s presence.

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We order a zesty Moroccan salad to start with and our cook, waiter, restauranteur goes to the kitchen to chop veggies for it. None of this take-out-a-plate-with-a ready-salad-from-the-fridge stuff. The restaurant also serves Moroccan wine and I order a half bottle of rosé. Delicious.

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Now comes the main course. It’s a perfect chicken tagine. All the good flavors of prunes, almonds, dried fruits and spices.

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The whole dinner tab for us, wine included, hovers at around $20.

I have absolutely no complaints.

We walk back just as the last vendors are packing up. Tanger at night is a place of shadows. Lights are dim, long robes hide details, colors are lost, movement is hushed, hurried.

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The medina is almost shut up for the night. We wont ever quite see it in its robust form. Tomorrow, immediately after breakfast, we’ll be taking the ferry back to Spain.