Before I crossed the Straight of Gibraltar destined for Morocco, I woke up in Algeciras for the second time. I stayed an extra night because I had been anxious to visit the North African country. I could not put it off any longer though, I would have to go to Tangier by ferry.
There was no rush to check out so I slept a little. After rising around 10am, I climbed to the terrace to soak in the sun. I made some coffee and called a friend on Skype. He messaged me a couple days earlier to tell me he was engaged. We scheduled a call for two days later, and it was 6am his time (12pm mine) by the time I finally called him.
Then I went down to the port at 13:00. The boat did not leave until 16:00 and the bus to the ferry was scheduled for 15:00. With two hours to kill I got a hamburger at the cafeteria and listened to a book on audio while I waited outside for the bus.
The ride was beautiful. Rolling Spanish hills on the right side and on the left side was the Straight of Gibraltar glistening beautifully in the sunlight. My nerves took a back seat while I enjoyed the view.
The bus arrived in Tarifa and we filed through a minor security checkpoint on our way to the ferry. In front of me there were three older women and a boy about my age.
"Where are you guys from?" I ask.
The boy talks to me in broken English and I learn they are from Ukraine, but I lose them after security.
Inside the boat chairs and tables line the windows and decks, and it feels like a mini cruise. Beautiful. I take a seat for a bit and before long my Ukrainian friend finds me and sits across from me. We chat as best as we can. He does not know exact plans for hist group because he travels with his mother and her friends. He knows they will rent a car in Tangier and go south east to a city called Chefchaouen.
At the end of the ferry he takes my contact info and says he will email me. He is nice.
Now it is Morocco. I am pretty nervous but I will be confident. I hand my passport over to the police desk in the ferry, he stamps it, and I walk downstairs. I follow one of the cars off the boat and as I'm walking a man calls for my attention and let's me know that the walkway is over here. I go up stairs to the bridge that leads into the building. A man checks my passport on the bridge. As I'm walking inside the building, a woman approaches me and tells me to follow her. I feel like I'm being called out to by so many different people. Someone gets my attention every corner I turn. I pass through a very minor security, and right there at the door is a smiling and persistent man, "come here." He starts asking me questions and I walk beside him.
"Are you the last person on the boat? Are you staying at the hostel? Which one?"
He tells me he is with the ferry company and that he will help me find my way to the street. He asks me how I will get to the hostel.
"I will walk" I tell him. I have a map, and I don't want to take any taxis or anything that might open me up to being taken advantage of.
"That's no problem, but it is very confusing to get to the hostel. The roads are very confusing. I will call Mohamed. He is with the hostel and will take you."
I'm skeptical, and think maybe he is trying to get me to pay him for something. So I stress the point. "No I will walk. I have a map."
But he is on the phone. He says "yes I will just show you the way out and then you can walk from there." We walk down the parking lot and he asks me a few questions. Where I'm from, how long am I staying, etc. Then he points straight ahead, and tells me to walk straight, then take a left to go towards the hostel. Maybe he is just being friendly, a courtesy of the shipping company.
As we shake hands he tells me to look for Mohamed. "He is with the hostel and will find you. He wears a black NY cap on his head." Then he wishes me good luck. The sun is hot and the air is dry, a huge contrast to the wet, cold, cloudy days I've been accustomed to in Europe.
As I begin walking I notice how nervous I am. I am projecting confidence, but as I make my way through the port gate, and on to the street, it is clear to me I'm a world away from home. There is a mosque on the corner and as I cross the street I find myself walking behind two patrolling soldiers carrying rifles. I look up at the mountain to my right, saturated with one-story homes and buildings, and consider that it probably will be very difficult to find my hostel in there.
What is the source of my anxiety? Images that have populated news channels since 2010 start to fill my head. The Arab uprisings, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, recent terrorist attacks. In my mind I see images of bombings, and men firing rifles into the air while singing death to America. Intellectually it may not be justified, but there's no denying the fact that there are certain things that have been associated in the media with violence and danger whether we agree with it or not, and what is perpetuated in the media works its way into the minds of the inexperienced and naive. Uncertainty and isolation has a way of bringing irrational fears to the surface, and blowing them out of proportion. In this world, I am decidedly inexperienced and naive.
As these fears are being processed, a man approaches me and I recognize him by his black cap as Mohamed. He is smiling and shakes my hand. I feel relieved that someone is here to guide me, and that he is from the hostel. As we walk he takes me into the labyrinth of buildings and the winding cobblestone walkways that connect them, and we navigate the roads that from here on won't be wider than two people abreast.
He asks me questions and is friendly. Where am I from, what part of America, how long will I stay, etc. I know I stick out like a sore thumb walking through these streets. Children are playing, and local men and woman huddle and converse around every corner. Men on converted bicycles push carts down the streets occasionally and pedestrians part to let them through. Sometimes I have to step over running water as it flows down the street.
Mohamed tells me that after I get settled in the hostel he will take me on a tour of the city. He is so friendly and insistent about it. I don't have to think about it long; I only feel comfortable walking these foreign corridors because he is with me, and I don't feel confident to navigate these twisting streets alone so I consent. We arrive at a corner and he points down the walkway to a sign.
"There is the hostel. Meet me here in 15 minutes and we will tour the city."
Okay. He stays where he is as I walk to the door. As I am pressing the button for the reception I become suspicious. If he is with the hostel, why did he not come with me to the door? Why not let me in? The door unlocks and I step through the door.
The entrance hall is totally different from what I experienced outside. The place is beautiful. Mediterranean decor is everywhere. Rugs hang on the wall and cover the floor, and couches, pillows, and chairs are in every corner. Lamps, paintings, and exotic pots line the walls. A woman calls to me and I takes me a minute to realize it's coming from above. I look up and find her head peeking over a small balcony two stories up. Each floor has a square balcony in the center, and the open space extends upwards through the entire building, capped by a skylight. She tells me to come up to the second floor (third floor the way we count them).
A fashionable French woman, she leads me to sit at a table as she opens a large ledger. She writes my name and we discuss the reservation. Then I do the smartest thing I could have possibly done. I ask her a question.
"A man outside brought me here. He said he was with the hostel. Do you know him?"
"Mohamed. He said he would give me a tour of the city."
"I think I know this man. He might give you a tour but not for free."
Interesting. "Okay. How much do I pay him?"
She suggests an acceptable price to pay him, depending on the length of time he spends with me. I press her on more details, and after she has shown me to my room, she says she will talk to him for me.
She opens the door to look outside but does not see him. But I saw him disappear around the corner when she stepped out, so I walk over and motion him over.
He approaches her sheepishly and they talk in Arabic. She asks him a question and speaks sternly. Finally she turns to me and says "it will be four hours, and 10 euros." He is smiling but I see disappointment in his eyes. It's not a bad price either way, and I nod. A four hour tour of the city? That sounds great. I have time to kill and I don't want to walk out alone and get lost.
We walk down a few corridors, past market stands and vendors. He briefly shows me the American embassy turned museum. Every now and then his phone rings. The conversation never lasts more than 20 seconds.
He takes me briefly to a cemetery in a courtyard outside the main shop corridors.
"Look. This cemetery is German. You can see the inscription on the tombstone." That's interesting. Then it's to the shops.
"My uncle has a shop close by. He's had it many years, and everything is handmade. We will stop by and drink some mint tea."
That sounds nice, I think. I haven't learned that much on the tour yet but I will enjoy sitting down with two locals for tea.
On the way to the shop we pass a child playing in the street. As we walk passed him I feel something hit me in the back of the shoulder, and as it tumbles forward in front of me I watch as the tiny shoe hits the ground. Mohamed turns around and chastises the boy briefly. He gives me a weak smile and says "some people don't like tourists, don't worry about it."
As we approach the store Mohamed tells me his Uncle's name is Sahir, and when we arrive at the door he is waiting for us. The bottom floor is spacious, and everywhere the walls and cabinets are lined with leather bags, jackets, wooden sculptures, furniture, silver, and jewelry. I follow as Mohamed and his uncle lead me up the stairs. Sahir is explaining to me how everything is handmade, and as we reach the next floor we enter an enormous showroom overflowing with rugs. They invite me to sit along the wall, anywhere I like, "make it your home." An assistant brings out a table with an ash tray and Mohamed asks me what I would like to smoke. I tell him nothing and he goes downstairs. At this point, I still assume that we are gathering up here to socialize and drink tea.
The assistant enters the room with a rolled up rug in his arms and unrolls it on the floor. Sahir begins to tell me about the material and the design and that's when I understand. Another rug comes out, and another. Maybe seven or eight total. I sit there and listen as Sahir explains all about the different materials. How it takes one woman one year to construct a rug; all hand made.
"If you buy we smile, if you don't buy no problem, we are still smiling."
I say "let me take a picture. I can send it to my sister and see if she likes it."
"Maybe it's better for it to be a surprise. We can ship it FedEx no problem."
Anyway, after a bit of back and forth I tell him I am not interested, or that I am not ready to make a decision to buy a $650 rug at this time.
We go downstairs, and he instructs me to browse the shop. At this point a waiter comes through the door carrying a glass of mint tea on a tray. Only one. He hands it to me and I take it. Mohamed is nowhere to be found.
As I sip the tea - it's great - I think to myself "of course. Four hours is a long time for a tour, and he must have an arrangement with his uncle to bring tourists to the shop. If one of them actually buys a rug he will get a kickback." In my head I still assume this is a normal tour. I won't blame the guy for having a special arrangement with his uncle. But let's get back to the tour.
I have more to learn though.
Since Mohamed is still nowhere to be found I browse the shop. Sahir comes up to me.
"I have to ask you. Are you going to buy a rug?"
I look at him and say "no, I'm not."
He's not smiling.
I ask him if he has any bracelets. We negotiate and I purchase one. I know the price is too high, but I justify it as a means to leave the shop, and the tea was delicious anyway. Like magic Mohamed appears and I tell him "let's continue the tour."
Outside, I try keeping up with his quick pace. He is on the phone again. He tells me that he will show me traditional Moroccan spices. I follow him into another shop, and inside I am greeted by a tall man in a Nike hoodie. Both he and Mohamed instruct me to take a seat. "Make it your home."
I finally understand.
I consider how obvious this situation is, and how inexperienced I must be not to have seen it coming. A young American new to the confusing city is the perfect target for a persuasive salesman to show around the city. He's built relationships with shop owners all over the city, and he's going to take me to as many as he can.
I consider how brilliantly I was led through this process, beginning with the man at the ferry. When I stepped through security at the port he was waiting for me, and with one question he created uncertainty and positioned himself as the answer.
"Did they give you the yellow document? You will need it for the police if you want to leave Morocco."
I didn't have one, and the doubt on my face gave me away.
I remember the questions they asked me. Before I even got out of the port gates half the vendors in Tangier knew that Mohamed would be bringing an American by, what state I was from (so they could build rapport), how long I was staying in Tangier, etc. Every vendor Mohamed took me to asked the same questions. "Where are you from?" "How long are you in Tangier for?" I knew they knew the answer before I told them.
As all of this becomes clear to me, and as I finally understand the nature of the tour, my anxiety disappears. It was the uncertainty of it all, the suspicion I felt but couldn't identify, that made gave me apprehension. But now that I understand I become confident. I slap Mohamed on the back as I say "so how many uncles do you have in this town?"
Mohamed takes me to a few more vendors, each time disappearing while the owners show me their wares, and each time the visits become shorter. I learn to ask the salesman his name, shake his hand, and politely tell him I appreciate everything he was showing me but that I wasn't buying. Then I walk out and tell Mohamed to continue the tour.
I wanted to go back to the hostel but I was afraid I wouldn't find it without Mohamed. It was dark, and I appreciated being accompanied by a local, regardless of his intent. I told him I was hungry. I would get a cheap sandwich or kebab and tell him to bring me back.
But I had one more lesson to learn.
Mohamed tells me he will bring me to a good local restaurant, and as we step through the entry and up the stairs, I kick myself for not properly explaining what I wanted. A cheap sandwich. But now I find myself in a beautifully decorated and completely empty dining room. I turn to Mohamed and ask "where is the menu? Is there a menu for this place?"
"Yes there is a menu."
The owner comes up behind us and tells me "sit wherever you like. Make it your home."
I sit at a round table set for eight people. They both disappear and I am alone. A waiter comes up the stairs with food and places bread, spices, olives, and eggplant on the table. Next course is a bowl of soup, followed by pastry, and finally couscous, tea, and baklava.
Mohamed does not eat with me, but he does join me for a few minutes every now and then. I ask him how much they are going to charge me. I can live with he price he comes up with, and I eat. After the meal I tell Mohamed to take me back to the hostel. He agrees, and as I am paying the bill the man from the port walks in and asks me how I am enjoying my night.
"Maybe you want to go to the cafe and smoke some hash? You can get high before you fly."
I laugh. It's the same phrase that Mohamed used earlier in the tour when he suggested we go smoke later. If you think I'm getting high with you guys you've been smoking a little too much yourselves.
Back at the hostel I give Mohamed what we agreed on.
"If you want to give a little extra..."
I ignore that, and tell him thank you. He asks if I will call him in the morning so that he can show me the way to the train station. I ask him to write his number down and then I say goodnight. I know I'll never see him again, and I'm grateful to be back home.
As I relax on a couch inside, I consider how much I learned. If I'm honest, I'm grateful for the naivety that caused the experience.
I know that in a way I was taken advantage of. I was pressured into paying for a tour that I didn't ask for, that wasn't really a tour in the first place. I overpaid for bracelets I would never end up wearing, and I was led into a restaurant where I would be served before I had a chance to confirm the price or see a menu. It would be easy to form a negative opinion of the experience, and of the people I interacted with, but this would be wrong.
People hate the idea of being taken advantage of, but the objective truth is that I got a private tour of business in the city, I saw firsthand the inner-workings of a lean, well-oiled selling machine, I consumed delicious tea and food, and I learned about local customs and wares. All this for a price that by American standards is negligible, but for local Moroccans is meaningful. Not only did the small money I spent purchase the commodities, it also bought me invaluable lessons in negotiation, foresight, prudence, and confidence. When you consider all that was exchanged in the transaction, it's clear I came out way ahead on the deal.
I think back to the child who threw the shoe at me, and how I didn't even look at him. I brushed it off like a fly, only glancing behind me out of curiosity. The child was so young to have anger and hatred for someone he does not know. His anger can only have come from the adults around him, and the way they talk about and perceive different types of foreigners. If the ordinary citizens feel negatively towards westerners, they hide it behind smiles and clever attempts to make money, but a child that young has not yet learned how to control and mask his emotions. But what I think about most of all is my response. The child lashed out at me in expression of his anger, and I ignored him. Nothing has more power to provoke resentment and hatred than contempt. I'm sure that at the time I felt I was being tough. Walking upright and confident, I was determined not to let anything phase me. I was going to walk these streets like I owned them, and once I became aware of the game Mohamed was playing I was going to negotiate strong and avoid being taken advantage of. I had a need to act this way to mask the insecurity I felt, but it was not true courage. True courage would have been to stop walking as soon as I felt the shoe hit my back. To turn around, ignore instead the suggestion of my guide to keep walking, ignore the looks I would get, ignore the self-conscious fear, and walk to the child. True courage would have been to kneel before the boy and put my hand on his shoulder, and hand him his shoe. To look him in the eye. To acknowledge him and his anger. To try and understand it. To smile. Whether he would have ran away, lashed out, or spit at me, at least he would have been seen.
Posted on Medium