Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tangier Without Pictures

I still owe a post about Seville. I’m writing now from another continent—Africa, where I’ve never been before. Maybe I’ll make this a photo-free installment. I’m supposed to be using my words, anyhow… which have been failing me lately. My incompetence in Italian, Sardinian, Spanish, French, and Arabic is rubbing off on my English. Besides, I’m trying not to be vulgar, and I still have not figured out the etiquette around picture-taking. Any time I think I might catch an unwilling subject in a photo, or any time I feel like my iPhone might attract undue attention, or really any time at all, it seems, I hesitate.

The first thing I didn’t take a picture of was the stairs leading from the waterfront to the Hotel Continental, where I am staying. If you look up Hotel Continental, you’ll see photographs of these stairs (looking a lot better than they do in person), accompanied by the words “faded” and “grandeur,” and probably some mention of Paul Bowles. The hotel and its steep staircase were about the first things I saw when I got off the ferry from Tarifa. As soon as I crossed the road, I was greeted by a spurious hotel employee offering to carry my suitcase up the steps—which did indeed look daunting. 

A word about my suitcase. I’m usually a light packer thanks to early training from my father, who traveled for months every summer with as much stuff as would fit in the average person’s carry-on luggage three times over. This time, though, Luc talked me into going big, and loaned me one of his rolling suitcases—an awkward, extra-wide job he bought a few years ago when he needed something he could pack a suit in. I have grown to despise this suitcase, which, even half empty, weighs 20 kilos according to Ryan Air. I’ve thought about telling Luc it fell apart so I can toss it over the seawall. I’ve considered destroying it myself so I don’t have to lie. Never mind, though—I’ve done most of the moving around I’m going to do at this point. 

Anyhow, I didn’t want to lug it up the stairs, but neither did I want to engage the assistance of the man trying to wrestle it away from me. After a polite tussle, and a perfunctory display of wounded feelings on his part, I started up a steep road leading the long way around to the top of the steps. Three boys intercepted me and offered their services. “La, shukran,” I said, No, thank you.” “Oui, si, yes!” the lead boy said, pushing on my suitcase as I dragged it behind me over the paving stones. “La,” I said. “La, la, la--no, no, no,” they laughed, running back down the hill.

Something else I didn’t take a picture of: three boys—the same ones?—playing soccer hours later in the floodlights illuminating the hotel terrace from the rubble-strewn lot below.

I didn’t take pictures of the hotel, because… I guess because it looks exactly like I expected. A wide terrace overlooking the harbor, an old fashioned front desk with a stoop-shouldered concierge in a short-sleeved shirt. A rows of keys—actual keys—and wooden cubbyholes. A warren of interior courtyards and ornately tiled little salons (always empty) with keyhole entryways and low, cushioned benches, Moroccan kitch on the walls, hanging filigreed brass lanterns. There are pictures of it all over the internet; you don't need mine.

I took a shower, having sweated through my “modest dress” on the short walk from the ferry, and went out looking for food. The main entrance of the hotel opens onto Rue Dar Baroud, a little street inside the Medina, which leads to the Grand Mosque and, in turn, opens onto Rue de la Marine and the Petit Socco—a café-lined crossroads where, they say, William Burroughs picked up rough trade in the good old, louche old days. Those days are no more, as any guidebook will tell you, but they died an honorable death. The Medina didn’t get painted over and cleaned up. It’s no longer a playground for kif-smoking chicken hawk gringos, but it’s still an ecstatically seedy place. 

Oh, the things I didn’t take photos of in the Medina. Food cooking on charcoal burners. Stalls selling every kind of cornball Moroccan swag. Stalls selling universal cornball swag—the same stuff you can buy in the 9th St. Market in South Philly, but in greater profusion and variety—socks, plastic jewelry, vinyl shopping bags that say See the World and Florida and London and Hannah Montana. Also, wagons piled with root vegetables, building materials, animal parts—some attached to motorized tricycles, others being pushed—squeezing past Berbers in hooded robes, and tourists being harassed by wide-collared hucksters, and beggars ostentatiously displaying their disfigurements, and darting children, and underfoot everywhere, scraggly, tame, somehow African-looking cats with long necks and wide haunches. The smells come in waves: one minute the richest, brownest coffee aroma; the next minute, sepsis; then some unidentifiable spice; then a waft of mineral-heavy grout from a cave-like tile shop; then sepsis again. In the tunnels linking the Medina to the Grand Socco to the east, and all around the outside wall, are more stalls selling fruits and vegetables, olives, piles of spices, and vats of something that looks like axel grease. 

I wanted to stop and gawk at everything, but I was overcome by bashfulness. Instead I strode purposefully and tried to look blase. I turned a corner, then another, and I was lost. The little map I got at the hotel was worse than useless: it attracted conversation for which I was completely unprepared. People stopped to help me in four different languages. Incompetence in Arabic seemed, somehow, the most excusable, so I kept saying the few words I learned on the ferry ride. Eyem, la, shukran, ismahlee. Finally, I gave up and showed my map to a fruit vendor, pointing out where I wanted to go—a restaurant recommended by the concierge. The vendor directed me uphill. I wanted to buy some of his gorgeous peaches and pears, but I was tongue-tied. “Shukran,” I said. “M’sa l’kheer.” Good evening. I was lost again immediately. I saw a gate and walked through it. Back outside the Medina, I consulted my map surreptitiously and was again offered help. “American Legation,” I blurted, thinking only of orienting myself. “It’s up this way—I can show you. Very important museum.” “No, no, thank you, shukran, I can find my way.”

On the Rue du Portugal, I saw a line of grand taxis. Crazily, this brought on more anxiety. So many of the places I’ve thought of going are reachable only by grand taxi: the Casa Barata flea market, the Caves of Hercules, the village of Chefchouan with its famous blue-walled Medina. I have a weird, irrational aversion of taxis. Even in New York I avoid them.

On the wall outside the American Legation I saw a triptych of stylized stencils—a horse, a tractor, and a water pipe or beaker—with Arabic writing under them. (The tractor also had a French inscription: “authenticité et modernité.”)  I knew what they were! The symbols stood for political parties. Luc brought back some election flyers from Tangier a few years ago with the same stylized pictures on them. The street, I realized, was empty—the first empty street I’d seen since arriving—but I didn’t take a picture. 

I ended up eating a pastilla for dinner— a savory pastry made with filo dough, chickpeas, and, according to my surreptitiously consulted guidebook, pigeon meat, garnished with cinnamon and powdered sugar. It was delicious, but I can’t eat like that every night. Another confession: I’ve become really weird about food. It’s not that I haven’t eaten well everywhere I’ve been—pasta with fresh anchovies in Naples, and warm sfogliatelle, and I had some incredible potato and cheese filled dumplings in Nuoro. In Seville there was all kinds of tapas, and I got a weird egg and chicken dish served on a bed of French fries in a cast iron skillet and slathered in tomato tarpenade. Here in Morocco there’s a vast selection of street food, and seafood and tagines and I don't know what-all yet. But I have to admit that I’ve been happiest when I’ve had access to a fridge and a grocery store and some produce, eating small, regular snacks and making my weird little salads and fruit-and-yogurt cups. It’s cheapness, partly, but it’s also the easiest remedy for the traveler’s reliance on starchy food. The free breakfasts they give you at youth hostels and hotels are killers: croissants and coffee, with maybe some fruit juice.

Jesus, how did I become such a neurotic? Not enough travel in the last few decades, I think. 

I had a little bit of a meltdown last night. Went to bed too early and stayed up too late, feeling utterly defeated by loneliness and anxiety and petty discomforts. This morning I felt better, though. I had a starchy breakfast on the terrace overlooking the sea and headed to Nouvelle Ville—downtown Tangier—in search of a good map. Couldn’t find one, but I’ll try again tomorrow when the tourist bookstore on Avenue Pasteur is open. 

I did find a store with piles of discount clothing, though, and went in looking for a long-sleeved T-shirt. Most of the “modest” clothes I brought are too heavy—I didn’t expect it to be so hot in mid-October.  It’s hard to know how to play it. Among Moroccan women, I’ve seen bare heads, burqas, young women in black hijabs and tight white pants, and one old woman in an ankle-length abaya and a pink floppy Minnie Pearl hat with a ludicrous fringe. Maybe I’m overdoing it with the modesty anyhow. I’ve seen a lot of European women walking around the Medina in sleeveless shirts and shorts. But they also seem to be getting more unwanted attention than I am.

I had a nice time rooting through the piles in the discount store, feeling normal for a change, but the only long sleeved T-shirts I found had Dolce & Gabanna logos all over them. I walked up Avenue Pasteur at a window-shopping pace and got pulled into a boutique. The proprietor offered me a few things. This one is too see-through, I showed him, smiling apologetically. That one is too low-cut. Smiling back, he tried to kiss me on the mouth. “La, la, la,” and I was back on the street feeling as discouraged as ever.

I walked back toward the Medina, gazing wistfully at the cafés. I wanted so badly to sit and regroup, watch the crowds for a while. The Café de Paris looked especially tempting with its row of tables bending around a perfectly situated corner, but every one of them had a single man sitting at it, facing the street. There were no women at any of the cafés I passed. Did it matter? Probably not. I’m sure I could have sat down and been served, even if I got a few looks. But the desire to follow the rules, blend in, avoid offense has become slightly paralyzing, and that damn guidebook is no help. Their advice is to cover up and wear sunglasses to avoid eye contact.  I'm told that men hold sway in the cafes and streets, but I shouldn't feel bad, because women rule the roost in the houses, as I will discover when I am invited home by one of my new Moroccan friends. But how am I supposed to make friends without making eye contact?  

I decided to look for Café Halfa, another famous spot from Tangier’s bohemian past. Whatever else it might be, it was in my guidebook and therefore already contaminated by female tourists—perhaps even solitary female tourists. I walked past the Medina, up Rue de la Kasbah. The crowds thinned. The café is in Marshan, which my book says is an upscale neighborhood. There were some walled villas and schools with lush, overgrown gardens visible through the gates, but it didn't look all that fancy. Plenty of small corner shops. I didn’t take a picture of a yellow awning with an outline of an old fashioned sewing machine under a semicircle of blue Arabic script. There was the Italian consulate, and that looked like the sport stadium ahead, but where was my street? I took out my map, and of course a helpful stranger materialized. “Didn’t we meet?” he asked in English. I bristled: a favorite line of touts and hustlers, according to my guidebook. “You wanted to know where the American Legation was,” he added. I looked up. Yes, it was him. The same man. I might as well get used to feeling stupid. There’s apparently no avoiding it. I am so out of my depth.

1 comment:

  1. fascinating, heartwrenching, and somehow with the photos not taken being described, they are vivid in my mind. I see the stairs, the boys and the luggage, the yellow awning with the sewing machine.... this is like the anti-travel blog, and as such, is so touching, so familiar feelings normally kicked under the rugs become the subject here. really, really loving this.