From the beginning of my travel planning for Spain, some wise part of me decided to do just a quick reconnaissance of Morocco. I knew that I’d regret not taking the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and at least checking Morocco out. So I booked small hotels (renovated old houses in medinas) in Tangier and Fes, with a round-trip by train between Tangier and Fes, and a day trip by bus to the “Blue Village” Chefchaoen. I stayed in renovated large houses in the medinas of both Tangier and Fes.
Travel can be still be rewarding even when it’s not being enjoyable. I can’t say that I enjoyed Morocco: I found it very stressful; in fact I just realized that my lack of appetite while I was there was probably due to being stressed out by the whole place. One problem was that while the medinas are what I came to see, they are very difficult for visitors to navigate. Tourists constantly get lost. Boys and men constantly and aggressively interrogate any tourist that pauses and looks around for a moment, or wanders into a square where there’s nothing for tourists: “What do you want?” “Where do you want to go?” “Do you need something?” These guys are hoping you will give them a tip for guiding you someplace, but they often come across as aggressive and rude, or even hostile. I often couldn’t stop myself from answering a bit rudely or telling them they needed to work on their English. And then those interactions would fester in me for a couple of hours. Another annoyance was that (male) waiters and guides tended to touch me too much, as if they had retained the colonial “courtesies” of “guiding” Western women by the arm or shoulder. I’m pretty sure they don’t try to physically steer non-related Moroccan women around the same way.
The notorious touts I found to be less obnoxious; in fact I had a long conversation with one of the shopkeepers after he had walked me through his store and I didn’t buy anything. The mobile trinket sellers seem to target groups and didn’t bother me. (One afternoon I came back to the front door of my hotel in Tangier and found a cluster of seven or eight of them waiting outside the shop across the path, while a huge group of day trippers off the ferry was being shown the wares inside. But these guys just ignored me.)
As for the women, most of the women in the medina wear hijabs (shoulder-length covering for the hair and ears) and loose clothing. In my mind, I came to associate this head covering as projecting humility and subservience, perhaps because in the West hairstyles and headgear for either sex often signal various types of confidence, pride, arrogance or even affluence by making the head appear larger. At any rate, Morocco reinforced for me Western cliches about Muslim culture. In the traditional medina, Homes are focused towards the interior and have few external windows. Women stay at home except when they’re shopping or taking the kids on a family outing to the beach (or the mall, if they’re rich.) Men are the ones you see on the streets except when the women are shopping for food. The only people hanging out in cafes drinking tea and coffee are men. I did see two hijab-clad women enjoying some coffee at an outdoor cafe, but all the other times it was tourists and Moroccan men. (This is all based on my observations of street life in the medina: I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of Moroccan women who go to jobs in offices, schools, hospitals, factories etc.) At a riad I stayed at, the women seemed to be expected to work ceaselessly all day while an additional staff person could have made their jobs a little less hectic. The owner’s mother has put the riad on the worldwide tourist map with her cooking, but I wonder if she ever gets a day off.
At any rate, in Morocco I ended up feeling kind of like Paul Theroux, who’s noted for his curmudgeonly travel writing. I’m left exploring the question of how travel is still valuable when it is uncomfortable. To what extent might I, personally, pursue more challenging travel? Right now in my burnt-out state, my plans for India or other poor countries (Cuba?) are trending in the direction of expensive guided tours.
After a comfortable night at the Tangier Hilton, which was so American it even had washcloths, getting off the ferry at the Spanish beach town of Tarifa was like opening the windows on a bright morning after a long night! The first thing I did was find my way to Cafe Azul for a brunch of an omelet, toast and smoothie served by a friendly female waiter, then headed to the bus station for the short trip to Cadiz.