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Tangier and Asilah: No Guides Necessary…

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December 31, 2009

Hola a Todos,

After Chicago friend Margaret and I left San Sebastian on December 30, having spent 2 days there with Javier, we set our sights on spending December 31 until January 3 in Tangier, Morocco. Don’t ask me why.

However, we were going to spend one night back in Madrid, and as I was approaching the condo, I realized that maybe my ex-roommate hadn’t yet left for her vacation, as I knew that the airlines had changed her return trip from Argentina, so her flight to Argentina would be after Margaret and I arrived back in Madrid from this trip to San Sebastian. Translation: She’s still at the condo. Life is not perfect, we all realize by now.

So Margaret and I went to a nearby bar and enjoyed a few glasses of Crianza and a big, delicious salad. We returned, and I slept out in the living room on the couch, while Margaret slept in my bedroom. My Spanish roommate had been very frugal about turning on the heat since electricity is so expensive in Spain, so our place was cold most of the time during the winter. And this particular night was very cold, but Oliver the dog, with whom, frankly, I had never slept, jumped on the couch near my stomach and sank into the back of the couch, a pairing which was, I admit, kind of cozy, although he sometimes smells to high heaven. Ugly as sin — even his owner, my ex-roommate’s EX-roommate, says he’s an ugly “creatura” — Oliver is a sweet baby, and I truly love him, though I think his main interest in me revolved around any food I was about to eat or eating — and our taking long walks near the Royal Palace. Since he loved me and my now ex-roommate (the Spanish girl), he obviously wasn’t very discriminating. Had he snubbed her, I would’ve given him much more credit.

The next morning, I woke up early, knowing Margaret and I had to leave by about 9:30 for Barajas Airport. Unsure as to whether my suitcase might be a smidge big for EasyJet, I packed only my backpack, adding sandwiches I had made that morning, oranges, and bottles of water. Margaret packed her small suitcase, which I had hoped would meet EasyJet’s measurement requirements — and did.

At that point, December 31, I still didn’t have my Spanish ID permanent resident card, which meant that if I ever wanted to use a credit card to purchase anything in Spain, I had to carry my passport. So I went out to find a copy machine to copy the important papers to take on my trip, as my work visa had expired in the beginning of December and I wasn’t going to get my permanent resident card until January 18. I didn’t want to wind up stuck in Morocco, all because I had forgotten to copy a few papers that proved my legal status in Spain.

Once Margaret and I arrived at the airport, we went to the checkout counter to get our tickets and ensure that our baggage met EasyJet’s requirements. I asked the reservationist, “Do you speak English?”

He responded, “Of course I speak English. Don’t I look like I speak English?” He wasn’t Spanish, and he wasn’t being funny: he was being snotty.

I responded, “How would I know?” It’s not as if all Spanish speakers have dark hair and all foreigners don’t. He continued his snotty behavior, but I ignored it. He informed us we could take 100 ml of anything liquid, and Margaret had several bottles of all kinds of stuff, which added up to more than all of that, so we were trying to figure out the math, but then decided to forget about it. This was Spain: it wasn’t as if anybody was going to do anything about it, and, in fact, when Margaret passed through Security, nothing happened.

We sat near the gate, awaiting our flight, which ended up departing about 1/2 hour late. We boarded the plane, equipped with all of our EasyJet jokes:

  • If you get sick: QueasyJet
  • If the windows are open: BreezyJet
  • If the flight attendants are lower than low: SleazyJet
  • If the passengers are playing board games: ParcheesiJet
  • If the plane leaves late: Not-so-EasyJet
  • If you’re George Jefferson or have asthma: WheezyJet

And the list went on, with me giggling every time, making desperate attempts to invent more names.

Margaret sat next to the window and I sat in the middle, which I admit I don’t like because I like easy access to the restroom but I’m not big either on being bumped by the flight attendants, who should know better, or the other passengers. The [I soon enough discovered] Moroccan woman in our little row’s aisle seat looked anxious. I was, of course, trying to figure out if she was stuckup or unhappy. Burdening myself with her problem, I was creating all kinds of scenarios for her little life.

I soon found my answer: As we started experiencing turbulence, Ms. Morocco was gripping her armrests and trying to breathe deeply. I asked her if everything was okay, and she said all she wanted was to get off the plane, asking me why the pilot didn’t return to Madrid, because by this time we were hovering for about 20 minutes over the Mediterranean Sea, waiting to land. I have to admit that the hovering situation was a bit disconcerting, even though Margaret and I were telling her flying was the safest form of travel. She asked Margaret, “Are you scared?”

Margaret responded, “No.”

Ms. Morocco said, “I will never fly again. Never!” while holding my arm. She even got up to talk to the flight attendant, who told her to return to her seat.

I couldn’t help wondering, “What if I die like this, right in the middle of the Mediterranean? What if I die? Here I am comforting some Moroccan female stranger in my last seconds of my life…” Like her, I wanted to return to Madrid and forget altogether about visiting Tangier.

Margaret and I spent about 20 minutes encouraging Ms. Morocco, who breathed a big sigh of relief when the plane finally landed safely — and then everybody clapped for the pilot. When we stood up and edged our way into the aisle, I was behind Ms. Morocco, who was now thanking Margaret for her help. She didn’t say a thing to me — and I thought I had been pretty supportive of her flight plight.

Margaret and I walked into the small airport and decided to take a taxi to our hotel. On the plane, I had calculated that 70 dirhams equalled $1. Throw the euro in, and you’ve got a physics equation. Actually, I like math, so I was enjoying the conversion part, but not the constantly holding onto my purse and figuring out if someone was trying to pull the sheep wool over our eyes or the Moroccan rug out from under us. The cab ride was something like 700 dirhams, or about $10, and after Margaret and I got into the cab, I started wondering if this, indeed, was a legitimate cab or just some guy who had come to the airport to pick up foreign women, never to be heard from again. But Margaret wasn’t as nervous about this. I am all for adventure, but with men in foreign countries, I’m not a big risk-taker, especially in foreign countries I know absolutely nothing about, except I dated a Moroccan guy once while I lived in Texas, and he was one of the most handsome men I have ever seen, which was little help to me now.

Fortunately, Margaret and I arrived safely to the hotel, no catastrophes along the way. We checked in and went up the elevator to our room, which was adequate but nothing special. However, our window gave us a nice view of the Mediterranean Sea. I rested my feet for a while and made a great attempt at reading, but trying to flip the bedside table lamp switch involved a lot of finesse: you had to balance the switch in the middle, not let it go to off or on. As I was able to position the switch almost immediately, I was pretty satisfied with my motor skills, until later when I couldn’t easily do it. I played with it for so long, I soon forgot why I had wanted to turn it on.

Margaret and I showered then decided to go to our hotel bar on the ground floor. Even though I live in Spain and nothing has been as convenient as it would have been had I stayed in Chicago, I’m a woman who now likes convenience. Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s because I have done so many things that have not been convenient, like living in Japan for three years and trying to figure out the language and well, everything — or living in Texas, which was, for me, almost like living in a foreign country for nine years — that I appreciate when everything is easy.

For example, I liked that my hotel bar in Morocco was in the same building; I like that my grocery store in Chicago is only 2 blocks away; I love going to the huge gym inside my condo building so I don’t have to walk outside in winter to get to it. (However, since I got laid off, I cancelled the gym membership fees, an even more convenient situation, as now I don’t have to go at all: I can just sit on the couch and criticize Suzanne Somers’ incorrect use of the English language as she talks with Larry King about the latest book she has written.

Oftentimes, I don’t want too many people in the mix: I want to do something that doesn’t involve going to a huge event and bringing all kinds of stuff, getting on the train, and coordinating with everybody in Chicago about where to meet, all to enjoy some music in a venue where everybody is talking: I’d much rather watch the event on TV. The same can be said of my Shaki Shakira. I went to see her at the United Center with my friend Giulia, and Shakira started at 9:30 instead of 8:00, so we were waiting and waiting, and she didn’t sound good because in the U.C., well at least for this concert, all the sounds mix together so that the concert was like one big sound. I’m glad I saw her, and even though she’s one of my favorites, I have no desire to go again: I’ll just stay home and watch her DVD.

Okay, so like the rest of the universe, I’m not all one way: I make things very complicated when, for example, my birthday comes around and I bake about 3 cakes and 5 kinds of cookies from scratch, as well as various other dishes, clean like mad, and run around for items to decorate my place that no one in their right minds, except me, notices. But I’m learning how to make things a little simpler…sometimes.

At the hotel bar, Margaret and I enjoyed music videos on the TV at the top center of the bar wall. Only a few men were seated at this very small bar. I had even brought a scarf along to put over my head, just in case of…well, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was supposed to wear it, but it was kind of like my legal-status papers: I had it just in case. The bartenders were very nice to us and treated us respectfully, and even though we were women, we didn’t cause too much of a disturbance to the men-filled place.

After the relaxing time at the bar, watching music videos, especially Diana Krall — I hardly ever watch TV in Spain and, of course, love music, so this was a treat — we went out for an inexpensive dinner at a nearby restaurant called The Comedia, which the rude front-desk hotel guy had recommended. (That night was New Year’s Eve, and the meal deal at our hotel restaurant was fixed and expensive.)

Our waiter at The Comedia was very nice and smiled at us incessantly. And I love to laugh and found his incessant smiling very amusing, which, of course, egged him on to smile at us even more. We were served at least 2 cups of couscous and chicken tanjine, which was very good. Our happy waiter started talking to us in a mix of Spanish and English and then asked us where we were staying. “Oh boy,” I thought to myself, disgusted. We just said a nearby hotel, and then he pointed to Margaret, to me, and to himself and to the distance, as in “Let’s all get together and go back to your hotel room.” I said, “No, we just want the check.” Everything had been going so well, except for the near plane crash, the questionable cab ride, the barely tolerable hotel room, and the now-icky waiter.

Margaret and I were the only women in this restaurant, save a few men and perhaps a foreign couple who had ventured in later. We decided to play it safe and return to our hotel bar and have a drink there. We were tired from our big day, so we went to bed. As Morocco is one hour behind Spain, we had an extra hour, but I didn’t care if I rang in the New Year or not.

The next morning, we showered and ate breakfast at the hotel restaurant: prunes, a couple of types of bread, cereal, mandarins, coffee, and yogurt. Okay, but not great — but we had a nice view of the Mediterranean Sea.

After breakfast, Margaret and I decided we would venture into town, guide-less and equipped with an illegible hotel map, neither of which would serve us well. I was trying to imagine us two women in the middle of a guy-filled Tangier street, holding a map up to our faces, looking at it perplexed, then desperately looking around to see if where we were on the map was even close to the city of Tangier! So I asked for some basic directions from the now-nice hotel receptionist, a different guy. Some Moroccans not only spoke Arabic and French but also some English and Spanish, but the hard part was when you did speak either of the latter two languages to them, it was hard to understand their pronunciation in either, so it was a partial linguistic nightmare/comedy.

Basically, I understood that we were supposed to walk to the French Embassy, turn right, keep going into town, run into the old market, and then happen upon the new market. We dressed modestly (covered up) and walked toward the market. It seemed as if we were about the only women on the street.

As Margaret and I approached the market, some guy came up to us and kept pestering us to show us around. “Please leave us alone,” I said.

“I’m not a guide, Madam. I’m just trying to help you. I don’t want money, Madam.” I adamantly said that we wanted to be left alone, but he kept following us. We ducked into stores, went this way and that, and he managed to show up at the next winding street corner, popping out of nowhere. I was getting so angry, I wanted to scream, and then another guy was doing the same thing. “I’m not a guide, Madam” both of them kept saying. “I don’t want money.” But of course, they were trying to take us somewhere and would probably be paid off by the place where we showed up. I started to hate both guys, as they wouldn’t let up, and the streets were winding this way and that and we were confused about how to get out of there. We were alone in this annoying city: it was only Margaret and me, our illegible map, and the two or three men who were bothering us. It was becoming very clear that we should have gotten a guide from the hotel, but I have never been pestered so much in a foreign country.

Margaret and I finally returned to the main street, having been exposed to all kinds of animals, people, spices, dirty goods, small and dirty shops, and everything else imaginable. We had clearly been on the wrong side of town and don’t think we ever saw the “new” market, or if we saw it, we didn’t know it. I was glad to have found a nice shop with really good cafe con leche (au lait), so we relaxed there for a while, away from all of the so-called guides ready to pounce on us. I was trying to calm down from being followed: I even hate being followed around by salespeople in, for example, The Gap or The Limited who exclaim, “That would look really cute on!” This vacation was stressing me out.

We went out again, heading toward The Casbah. I didn’t have any idea what the song from the 1980s “Rock the Casbah” meant, as it was a song I hadn’t given much thought, but we had to see The Casbah anyway. We walked uphill on the main street, where we were two of only a handful of women, some foreign, some Muslim, and ventured into shops to look around and to lose any of our “guides,” but doing even that had its price, as the store owner would inevitably follow us around, urging us to buy something, which made me want to exit the shop even sooner. Listen up, all salespeople in The Gap, The Limited, or stores near The Casbah: Leave us shoppers alone, and we’ll want to buy something from you; badger us, and we’ll be out of there faster than I can ask, “Why am I in Tangier?”

Margaret and I finally reached The Casbah and were then accosted in a plaza by a group of boys, one in particular who kept hounding us about taking us to the nearby museum. “I’m from here. I’ve lived here my whole life. I know where everything is,” he said, but I kept telling him that we didn’t want or need his help. This comment had absolutely no visible effect on him. Undeterred, he continued to follow and pester us. I was going to need an institution’s help by the time I was done with this outing.

“We don’t need you,” I responded.

His response was the same: “No problem. No problem. Don’t worry. Be happy.” This 1988 Bobby McFerrin song reference sounded ridiculous to me, especially in a foreign country — but mostly because I was now worried and unhappy — and angry.

I think I’m quite a nice, usually diplomatic, delightful, generous person most of the time, but I have no patience for people who pester me, and although I am very nice to salespeople, waiters, you name it, I’m not terribly nice when they start hounding me about things or want to sit with me while I’m eating, as was my experience with a waiter at Bennigan’s in Chicago. He was one of those overly friendly waiters who wants you to call him by his first name if you ever need anything: “Hey, Casey, can you bring me a fork over here? How ’bout some mustard, Casey? Thanks a lot, man!” No, that’s not me.

One of my good friends always talks to the waiters or waitresses when we go out for a drink or dinner: she chats with them all in good fun, and they always like her a lot, but I’m there to talk to the people I’m with, not chat with the waiters, although I chat with them a little bit, sometimes. My take on it is that I hardly get an opportunity to see my own friends, so why should I spend the little time we have together talking with other people? However, once again, I’m very nice and respectful to them because you can bet I don’t want them spitting into my food, plus I know they have a hard job.

Anyway, I was growing more annoyed with this little scene. I don’t like to have chummy conversations with everybody in the world, including everybody who lives in Morocco or Chicago.

At some point, Margaret and I had some peace on this overly stressful vacation, and then another guy (perhaps one of the first men; they were all starting to look alike) found us. By this time, I was ready to explode, and I did: “Shit!”

“You don’t call my country shit!” was his enraged response. You can bet I had definitely pushed the wrong button and didn’t know what kind of trouble I had gotten us into. On the other hand, who was he to involve himself in our vacation when I had made it clear, several times, that he had never been invited?

I said, “I didn’t say that about you! I said it because I’m tired of you following us!” We quarreled a little more, and then Margaret and I just walked away. Here he had been, continuing to intrude on our time together, an unwelcome stranger who kept badgering us, and he wanted me to be happy about it, when I had made it very clear, several times, that we wanted him to leave. No means no, not yes.

I was trying to calm down, exasperated with our morning in Tangier, but I still took many pictures, and then we happened upon a Moroccan guy and his American girlfriend, both in their mid-20s. The girl, who happened to be in the same program as I in Spain, wasn’t particularly nice, but her boyfriend was, plus he spoke English really well, and they helped us walk back to our hotel.

The boyfriend related he had lived in a few different countries because his father had been a diplomat. He said he felt like a stranger in his native country, his parents having decided to settle in Tangier. He kept telling us that the people we were complaining about wouldn’t do anything to us and that we were safe, but he’s a guy and generally doesn’t have to worry about these things the way we women do. At any rate, I was glad we were in their presence, and told them I didn’t want to interfere in any way in their “romantic” time together, and they said they couldn’t even really easily hold hands in public, so their response was, basically, “What romantic time?” Once we were near our destination, we thanked them, and decided to eat lunch at a restaurant close to our hotel, a good place for people-watching.

That night, we went out to a wonderful restaurant and had a delicious meal, returned and went to the hotel bar, where we felt safe, and talked with a slick Moroccan man who spoke English pretty well. He was educated and seemingly had a very good job working for a cell phone company, which required that he travel. He started to tell us about how he had cheated on his wife with certain woman but that he really respected his wife “a lot…a lot!” Yeah, I bet. No one else could speak English as well, which is why we talked to him, plus he was interesting and we learned more about the culture, but ick. We said our good-byes to him and then just went to bed.

The next day, we went to Asilah, a small town located about an hour away. The hotel found us a taxi driver who would also be our guide in Asilah, or at least that was the plan. The ride was about 45 minutes with not much of a view along the way. Our driver was nice and respectful, and he wasn’t trying to get anything out of us, except our money, and the round-trip cost us the equivalent of $50. Once we arrived in Asilah, a city which the few people we had met in Tangier had raved about, I thought, “Well, everybody has a different idea of what’s pretty, I guess,” but it was certainly better than Tangier.

After we ate lunch, which again involved at least 2 cups of couscous apiece, our driver was waiting and introduced us to our tour guide around Asilah. We flat-out told him that we didn’t want to pay any more and that we had thought he was going to be our guide in Asilah. I suppose he had planned to give our tour guide part of the money he made from us because he assured us that the guide wasn’t asking for money.

The guide, a reed-thin, weathered fisherman, spoke English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Of course, we spoke English with him. I was interested in checking out the buildings and the shops, stopping every now and then to look at the items. I love doing this, and even if it’s a cheesy shop, I still like to look: I don’t want to miss anything. I was somewhat comforted that this particular guide seemed trustworthy and kind and wasn’t badgering us about anything.

I had been casually looking for a rug, so he took us to a big rug shop, and the owner spoke English fairly well and kept throwing down rugs for me to look at. It’s hard for me to shop with anybody looking “over my shoulder,” in this case the owner, so although I indicated that I liked a particular rug, I told him I wanted to come back. The rug itself was actually quite reasonably priced — I am a very cheap shopper (it’s the teacher salary in me; the advertising salary occasionally balances this) most of the time and wasn’t about to carry anything big or expensive back to Madrid or Chicago.

Well, as you can imagine, they wouldn’t let up. I told them I didn’t have any cash with me, which was the truth, and that I had to go to an ATM to get some cash, which I had planned to do. So, in all their brilliance, they sent a boy and the guide with me to ensure that I indeed knew where to get the money and that I indeed would get the money. As I recall, I was to give the boy the money — he had a brown paper bag for it — and return to the shop for the rug. The boy and the guide waited for me while I retrieved my money from the cash machine. Yes, it was all very strange. I was growing tireder of everybody by the second. I did like the rug and didn’t want to barter anymore with the guy. Where were The Gap girls when I needed them? It would have been a greater pleasure to have dealt with them instead.

I returned to the shop, the owner waiting for me, and bought the rug, the little boy standing there with the money in the bag. Okay, it’s done, and everybody is happy. We walked away from the place, and the shopowner called me back. I returned, and he gave me a blue-stone necklace, which I happily took because it was pretty, but it ended up scratching my neck and I can’t wear it. I realized he was pretending to throw in something to sweeten the deal, but I knew that the necklace wasn’t anything fabulous: it was just to make me think he was a great guy.

The next day, Margaret and I had a wonderful dinner at a highly recommended Italian restaurant several blocks from our hotel. Then we returned, and I found a CD shop where I could buy the Moroccan CDs the cheating husband had recommended. (The music turned out to be lousy, so I gave it away.)

Each day, we had breakfast at our hotel, and this was our last breakfast, for which I thanked Allah, and we left for the airport. This time, when we returned to Madrid, my roommate would not be there — she would be in Argentina — for which I thanked Allah once again.

Thanks be to someone I’m in San Sebastian now, enjoying life with Javier, ready to return to my country in about 6 weeks. San Sebastian is a breathtaking city, and we’re enjoying beautiful, sunny days with temperatures in the 70s and low 80s. I had a great appreciation for living in the U.S. before, and not to sound smug, but I feel very lucky I was born and grew up there. It’s the best place for me. And, of course, Barack Mo-ROCCs.

Love,

Your International Girl in Spain
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