(part 1 of 4)
March 28: Plasencia – Algeciras – Tánger Med – Tétouan – Chefchaouen (not quite) – (and back to) Tétouan
After cramming our backpacks and a big plastic crate containing several vacuum sealed packs of jamón, lomo, salchichón, paté, cheese, Cola Cao (for breakfast), a bottle of whiskey (not for breakfast), four bottles of wine and a case of beer into the back of Toño’s car (this is all par for the course when traveling with Spaniards) there was almost enough space left for the five of us.
Three hours after leaving Plasencia we stopped for a quick piss on the outskirts of Sevilla among the smokestacks and abandoned warehouses. As we pulled back onto the highway, Mar, who had drawn the short straw and got the hump in the middle of the back seat, said, “Toño, what’s that flashing light on the dashboard?”
“That’s the ´check the battery´ light.”
“Don’t worry, it does that sometimes.”
Then I spotted the odometer. “440,000 kilometers?”
“¡Sí, señor! ”
I felt my stomach go a little sour. Another two hours of listening to Lágrimas Negras by Bebo Valdés and Diego el Cigala (the only cd Toño had in his car) and we were in the seedy port town of Algeciras – the birthplace of Paco de Lucía (at least it’s got that going for it…) – buying tickets for the 3pm ferry to Tánger Med.
We queued up the car and made sandwiches. Most of the vehicles waiting for the ferry were large vans, none of which looked at all roadworthy, with so much stuff piled sky high and haphazardly strapped on top that they looked like they’d tip over at the slightest curve or bend in the road. It was unusually hot this early in the year and the only shade available came from a street lamp near a car with the windows smashed out in the middle of the parking lot. The five of us stood in a line, single file, like psych ward patients out on a day pass, in that thin shaft of street lamp shade and ate our sandwiches.
A Moroccan woman was going from car to car making sure everybody had the proper paperwork and Customs forms. A Spanish gypsy showed up and started doing the same. Neither one of them was wearing any sort of official uniform, and neither one of them looked like they were gainfully employed in any way, shape or form. They started bickering at each other over whose territory the ferry parking lot was. I got the feeling these two go at it every day of the week. The Gypsy yelled, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?!” And she screamed, “¡Maricón!” (“Fag!”) at him several times. So lunch was… interesting, to say the least.
On the ferry an elderly Moroccan man in a djellaba was in the men’s room shaving with cold water and no shaving cream. There was no stopper so he had plugged the sink with a wad of toilet paper. As we were looking for Passport Control which everybody had to pass through before debarkation – they announced this over the loudspeaker at least 300 times during the hour and a half journey – I spotted a bunch of shoes and slippers lined up in one of the hallways. What’s this all about? And then I spotted the door marked “مسجد / Mosquée / Mesquita” and that’s when I realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
At Customs in Tánger Med, Toño told us to write on our paperwork that we were spending the entire week in Assilah.
“Assilah is very touristy. It won’t raise any eyebrows. Chefchauoen, on the other hand, is where everybody goes to buy kif.”
We were, of course, heading straight to Chefchauoen as soon as we got through Customs and got our hands on some dirhams. We had nothing to hide, although Toño warned us that a Customs agent in a bad mood could easily confiscate the alcohol we had in the car despite the fact that it’s perfectly legal to bring a few bottles of booze into the country. Nonetheless, the drug sniffing German shepherds had me feeling a bit uneasy.
This was my first trip to Morocco and it must have been written all over my face – that look of What the feck is going on?! smeared across my stupid tourist gob 24 hours a day. As for my fellow travelers: Lola and her cousin Mar had both been to Morocco once before. Rosa and myself were complete newbies to the absolute chaos – and pure magic – that were to unfold before our very eyes over the next 8 days. And Toño… Toño has been coming to Morocco every year since 1994. An old pro. So the rest of us basically sat back and allowed him to plan the trip.
About a month before hitting the road the five of us met at Toño and Mar’s apartment to discuss the details. Toño spread his tattered Morocco road map – the one he bought for his 1994 trip – across the kitchen table and showed us some possible routes. He started throwing around strange words – medina, riad, tout, hammam, tajine – and I nodded attentively, acting like I knew what he was on about. Then I went home and looked all that stuff up online.
The ladies had one thing and one thing only on their minds: accommodation with toilets. Toño had them a bit worried with his many tales of criss-crossing Morocco in a beat up old caravan with a bunch of guys, stopping in small villages at sundown and asking if there was a place to sleep nearby. Several times they ended up being invited to eat and sleep in the home of one of the locals. The following morning when they attempted to offer money to their hosts it was usually refused outright.
“But were there toilets in these places?”
“90% of the time… no.”
The girls didn’t like the sound of that one bit so it was decided we would book places in advance, if only to avoid wasting a good chunk of every day searching for, and then agreeing on, a hotel. It was also decided that, since we only had 8 days, we would stick to the north of the country so as not to spend the entire trip stuck in the car.
We got through Customs without a hitch and drove across a parking lot to a cluster of small, ugly, cement buildings. Outside each building was a currency chart showing the latest exchange rates. Lola and I went with Toño to watch him in action.
He walked over to a window and asked the guy inside, “Is that the best you can offer? 10.45 dirhams on the euro? Your friend over here offered me 10.65.”
The guy looked unimpressed.
“Amigo, we’re going to change a lot of euros.”
“Adios.” As Toño started walking away the guy tapped on the glass and held up a sheet of paper with some numbers scribbled on it.
“That’s more like it.”
A woman walked up behind us. “¿Españoles?” She wanted to know what rate we were being offered.
“I got a slightly better offer over there.” She pointed across the parking lot to a sketchy guy looking around nervously. “But something tells me he’s not on the level.”
We got a massive wad of silly looking Monopoly money, split it up five ways and sped off toward Chefchaouen. Every roundabout had a police checkpoint where they were either checking tags and papers or pulling people over for speeding. They had these huge, antiquated radar guns which looked very comical, like props out of an old, low budget science fiction movie. As soon as we were close enough that our Spanish license plate was visible the police would take a step back and wave us right through. No questions asked.
“It’s kind of an unwritten law here,” Toño informed us. “Don’t bother the tourists. We need their money.”
After a handful of roundabouts on our way out of the port we reached a stretch of open road and were finally on our way. And that’s when my nerves started to go to pot. We were flying down a two-lane highway and every now and then a group of people on foot would just… cross the damn road. What the hell are these people doing?! No guard rails. No fences. There were shepherds dressed in medieval garb chatting on cell phones as their sheep, goats and cows grazed in the ditch dangerously close to the traffic whizzing by. (Not-So-Fun Fact: Roughly 4,000 people die every year in traffic-related accidents in Morocco – a country of 33 million people.)
Ancient taxis absolutely jam-packed with people spewing thick clouds of black exhaust… Live chickens tied to the roofs of cars… Not in cages, mind you… just tied with a string and being pummelled by the wind… Motorcycles towing carts containing women and children and their sheep… Girls in colorful dresses and insanely decorated straw hats selling strange things on the side of the road…
“Is she selling yucca?”
“I want one of those hats.”
“I think that’s palm heart.”
“Careful. Careful! Watch that cow!”
And everybody who saw the “E” for España on our license plate gave us a warm smile and waved like they knew us.
The road from Tánger Med to Tétouan was a piece of cake, but then we got up into the hills and the road became significantly narrower and the drivers significantly more suicidal. Cars were passing lorries on blind curves and I was nearly curled up in the fetal position sucking my thumb in the passenger seat. Then, much to everybody’s dismay, Toño got into the swing of things and pulled off a couple of Dean Moriarty-esque moves behind the wheel that I’m still having nightmares about.
Then things got really interesting. About fifteen minutes outside of Tétouan there was a broken down bus (or so we thought) right in the middle of the road, parked perpendicularly across both lanes of traffic. People were filing off the bus and milling around in the middle of the road. Traffic was starting to back up and there was some yelling in Arabic between drivers and the people getting off the bus. After about ten minutes of confusion and people leaning on their horns, the bus pulled off the road and into the ditch. What the hell was that all about? Well, at least we’re on our way again.
We slowly made our way farther up into the hills another fifteen minutes. The road was getting worse and worse and we were completely surrounded by all the impatient drivers that had been held up by the bus incident. Then all was chaos. Our side of the road came to a dead halt. A taxi driver in front of us decided to try his luck tearing up the opposing lane to see how far he could get. Toño followed suit. We managed to pass a dozen or so cars and as I looked out the passenger side window I saw that they were all empty. That’s odd. Then we met traffic coming in the opposite direction. Toño managed to squeeze back into our lane between two cars. The taxi driver wasn’t so lucky. He was stuck blocking the opposing lane of traffic and there were more cars coming up behind him. There was nowhere to go. Absolute gridlock. After a few minutes of pointless horn blowing, people turned off their cars, got out and started talking to each other. The sun had gone down at this point and we could see blue flashing police lights off in the distance, way up in the valley.
Toño asked the guy in the car behind us if he had any idea what was going on. In a mix of French and Spanish he asked us where we were going.
“Chefchaouen? I don’t think you’re going to make it tonight. Protesters have closed down the road.”
“What are they protesting?”
“They are local marijuana growers.” But what we couldn’t figure out due to the language barrier was whether they were marijuana growers protesting for the right to grow legally, or if they were marijuana growers protesting a government plan to completely legalize growing since this would bring down the already low prices of their crops.
An hour passed. We made sandwiches and started to ponder the very real possibility that our first night in Morocco might be spent sleeping in the car. So much for hotels with toilets… We tried to eat discreetly because it’s apparently bad manners in Morocco to eat in front of people without offering them some. Unfortunately, all we had to offer was pork, pork, and more pork. Even the bag of potato chips we had in the car, brought with us from Spain, was jamón flavored. You can see how that might pose a bit of a problem.
Eventually a police officer appeared on foot. He was yelling in Arabic and waving his arms over his head.
“¿Qué está pasando?”
He responded with something that sounded like, “Rue termine.” Road closed. End of explanation. Then he continued down the road and began the process of getting all those cars turned around and heading back towards Tétouan. Nearly another hour passed before we were able to turn our car around. Toño had made a few other friends at this point. One of them told us of another road to Chefchaouen, but it was a long haul through the mountains and condition-wise it was even worse than the one we were currently on.
“What’s the hurry? Tonight you stay in Tétouan. Tomorrow – Chefchaouen. Tranquilo, amigo. ¡La prisa mata!”
And there it was, the phrase we would hear over and over again during our trip. La prisa mata. Speed kills. Slow down. Relax. Don’t worry. What’s the rush?
On the way back to Tétouan we pulled out the guide book and started looking for hotels on the outskirts of the city so we wouldn’t have to deal with getting lost in the maze-like medina in the middle of the night. Then the traffic slowed and came to a dead halt. Everything descended into chaos again. That bus from earlier was still in the ditch up ahead and the road was full of people. It slowly dawned on us that all the people that had gotten off the bus earlier were protesters and now they had blocked off the road here, too. Another 45 minutes of gridlock, people getting out of their cars, losing their minds, trying to convince the protesters to let them through…
The lone police officer, wisely, stayed out of the way and remained completely useless throughout the entire incident. Eventually a sort of unspoken agreement was reached where the protesters would occasionally step aside and let a car or two slip through the lines. When we finally got up to the trenches, so to speak, where the bus was parked in the ditch, the protesters noticed our Spanish license plate. We were given a wide birth and allowed to pass through without any pounding on the hood of the car or shouting into our windows.
We found a cheap hotel, dropped our bags and went out in search of food. Literally five seconds after leaving the hotel we were greeted, in perfect Spanish, by the first of many touts that we would encounter on our trip.
“Hello my friends! How are you enjoying Morocco? Are you looking for somewhere to eat? I know a very good restaurant in the medina. It is difficult to find, but I can take you there.”
We politely declined his services. Then he added, “It is one of the few places in Tétouan that has a license to serve alcohol.”
Along the way he pointed out a few buildings that would have been of interest to us if we hadn’t been so exhausted and in need of a cold beer. We got to the restaurant and wanted to give the guy a tip for being so helpful, but we hadn’t yet broken any of the large bills we exchanged that afternoon. Toño was explaining this to the guy when he was cut short.
“Don’t worry. That is not necessary. But please allow me to enter the restaurant with you so the owner can see that I brought him five customers.” Everybody’s hustling.
I had my first chicken tajine – a savory stew which is slow-cooked in an earthenware pot. It was lovely. The pot (which is called a tajine) is designed to trap condensation inside the cone-shaped lid and return it to the bottom. It’s a method of cooking traditionally used in areas where water is scarce. Tajines contain lots of spices (typically ginger, saffron, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric) as well as nuts and dried fruits. I also had my first (and only) bottle of Moroccan Spéciale Flag beer which was pretty awful.
The following morning Lola connected to the hotel’s WiFi during breakfast. She received an automated message by email stating that our reservation for 2 nights in Chefchaouen had been cancelled since we hadn’t shown up last night. We are one step closer to Toño’s dream holiday of driving around the countryside aimlessly and stopping in the middle of nowhere after dark to ask a random stranger if we can crash on his floor.
to be continued…