It was always going to end this way, missing my bus, being befriended by Muhammed Couscous and spending the night in the one city everyone who has ever said anything at all about Morocco has said: ‘land in Tangiers and get out of the city as quickly as you can’.
The young Australian woman I met last night in the hostel in Algericas, in Spain, had just returned from three weeks alone in Morocco; she said it was good advice. And when, curiously, I asked her if she’d spent a night in Tangiers she said no, she too had taken ‘everyone’s’ advice.
I was up before dawn, scampering through Algericas’s dark and empty streets to the ferry terminal in time for the 8am ferry. Dawn comes late in Spain, which is just as well, considering half the country doesn’t have its dinner till midnight.
‘Why so early?’ the man behind the desk at the hostel asked. I didn’t want to tell him ‘because I want to catch the noon bus to Chefchaouen, so I don’t have to spend the night in Tangiers’.
On the ferry, I felt myself settle with imaginings of the warm wind of Arabia; Aladdin’s lamp; magic carpets; and, best of all, a willingness to be brave. I felt easy about being in Morocco. At peace.
The ferry docked an hour south of the city and I waited, waited, waited for the bus to the main terminal, which pulled in with two hours to spare. And so begins my Morocco journey, at the bus station in Tangiers, amidst the pushing sway of a city on the move in a filthy terminal.
I found the bus line. I pushed into the queue. A man spoke to me. I ignored him. I have, after all, had my feminine too-politeness fired in the kilns of the streets of Istanbul – I have learned to be at peace with the crippling sense of rudeness that rises when a woman ignores a pleasant stranger, who in reality wants only her money. Or to sell her for 10,000 camels.
The man persisted. I was captured by his good English. He guessed I was heading for Chefchaouen. He barged up the queue to get my ticket before I realised I had not changed my money. He walked me across the road to the money changer and declined his rates on my behalf.
He walked me across a bigger, noisier road to an ATM, where I withdrew a random number of dirhams. He walked me back to the bus station – only to find there were no tickets left.
Uh-oh. That was the last bus for the day. I turned to the man and without mincing words suggested 1. I buy a ticket for tomorrow and 2. he might find me somewhere to stay. He jumped into a taxi – damn! I jumped after him – fortunately it was hideously cheap. I told him the hotel had to be walking distance from the station. And here I am at the pretty Hotel Hollanda, atop a rise with an ocean breeze in a city that looks like someone dropped a million million pieces of paper from the air, covering rolling hills like paper mache.
Muhammed Couscous – I didn’t make that up, although I suspect he did (der) – walked me through the backstreets of Tangier. I am not so naive to believe he was not looking for money. I slugged it out with him then and there on the dirty footpath. He wanted 400 dirhams for two hours. I said no, I would offer 200. The last words the young Australian woman said to me were ‘you will be ripped off’; she was reminding me to be matter of fact about it.
Muhammed eventually split the difference – 300 dirhams. About $35 to my calculating ignorance, which is more than the basic wage in Australia for those same two hours.
With the negotiations came a new attitude and a sulky man. I didn’t mind, really. He had won anyway; I was happy to pay him his inflated price because he really did save me in the bus station; and in reality, he was just another man who didn’t get his own way and I am a woman pitiless to this of all plights.
And even though, to me, I didn’t feel particularly connected to Muhammed as we wandered along through the medina, not a single man so much as more than glanced my way as I walked in his wake.
I was mesmerised by the old old streets of a town whose years probably number thousands. We roamed through small alleys and twists and turns, past the fruit and vegetables and herbs and fish straight from the river and chooks chopped to pieces right there in the sawdust, the budgies and puppies and a cage of white kittens – although heaven only knows why anyone would buy a kitten in a city whose streets are littered with them.
I would have liked to take photographs, the Berber women in their fluffy roped Mexican hats, old men in robes and beautiful head dresses, but I did not want to cast myself the outsider, recruiting them as performers in their own organic lives.
Muhammed gave up trying to sell me the wares of his comrades, finally convinced that I wasn’t going to buy anything, not anything, not ever, not at all.
And now here I am. At home on my $25 rosy bed with the breeze blowing in from the ocean, the muezzin calling midday prayers over the city, a bus ticket to Chefchaouen in my pocket, a sweet cheese pastry in my belly, water in my camelskin (that’s a joke), bananas on my bedside table.
Thank you, Muhamed Couscous.