The Long Road to Africa

I woke up Friday morning with a bang. Literally. A thunderstorm had rolled into Seville and the crash of thunder at 7am shook the hostel walls, waking everyone up. Rain was bucketing down and the wind pushed the window shutters wide open. After a late night chatting with new friends in the common room the night before, it took all my strength to drag my butt out of bed to close the window. Turns out rain had been pouring into the room for some time, and completely soaked all our bags that were lying under the window sill. Yup, it was going to be a long day.
I opted for paying the extra 4€ to take a taxi to the bus station, instead of fighting public transportation in the storm. I prayed there were still seats open on the bus to Algeciras. The online sites for bus bookings in Spain for some reason don’t accept Canadian credit cards. Which means all my onwards bus trips have involved crossing my fingers for free space. So far I’ve been fairly lucky, and only had to wait 4 hours for one bus onward to Granada. Luckily again, there was still space on this one too!
It was a treacherous 3 and a half hours drive South in the middle of the storm. Fork lightning crashed down a couple hundred meters from the bus, people were screaming from the thunder bangs, and I was fairly certain I was going to see a wind turbine explode as we drove through a field full of giant metal windmills in an electrical storm.
All I could think was, “there’s no way the ferries will be running to Morocco today. Not in this storm”. Then surprisingly enough, just north of the coastline, we popped out into the sunshine again!
The coast was gorgeous! It was surreal to be able to look across the straight of Gibraltar to see the coast of Africa on the other side.
I had decided to cross the straight from Algeciras to Tangier. Not only did my hostel recommend it, but my guidebook had said it was both the cheapest and most popular route across the straight… Not exactly so.
Had I read the fine print, there’s no way I would have gone the route I did. Sure it was cheap. That’s the only thing this route had going for it. 20€ and I could safely cross to Africa… But not exactly Tangier.
When our bus to Algeciras made a pitstop in Tarifa, and 90% of the bus got off, I should have known. The ferry from Tarifa, although 15€ more expensive, takes 35 minutes, and takes you to the edge of the Tangier Medina. Algeciras, which is a further 30 minutes on the bus from Tarifa, has a ferry that takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, and it takes you to Tangier-Med, which is a port in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes from Tangier city. By the time I had realized this, it was too late. Looks like this journey just got significantly longer…
I managed to dodge the Algeciras touts that told me, not only did they not sell tickets at the port, but the ferry would cost 40€ and leave at 4:00 pm. My instincts told me he was crazy, and when I arrived at the port I was pleased to learn it would be 20€ and was leaving right away!
Well it was scheduled to leave right away. Our 2:00 ferry didn’t actually leave port until 3:15, but at least I was onboard. And the views of the coastline and the town of Gibraltar were enough to keep me occupied.
The route definitely wasn’t popular either. The ferry was large enough to hold hundreds upon hundreds of people… There were 6 of us that walked on the ferry. A few more drove cars on, but the ship was pretty much empty.
We arrived after nearly 2 hours into the deserted Tangier-med port. I was completely without a plan as we landed on the coast of North Africa. Originally, I wanted to head straight to Chefchauoen, but the hostel was fully booked and the last bus left at 12:30 in the afternoon. I had no money, no place to stay, no idea where to go. And yet I had the most amazing first impression of Morocco…
A local man informed us that exchange rates were much better in Tangier, and that we would only be ripped off getting money from Tangier-med. Since I and another couple I met on the ferry only had euros on us, the man paid for us all to take the 45 minute bus to Tangier. He refused to accept any money, and when we arrived, he pointed us in the right direction to a proper bank.
My card wouldn’t work at the atm, and since Friday is a holy day, the bank was closed. Luckily the couple from the UK switched me $20 worth of cash before we went our separate ways.
With $20 in my pocket and no plans, I almost felt a little anxious about what to do before the sun set. But I saw an Internet cafe across the street and looked up a hostel in the area I could book. The man that ran the VERY local Internet cafe was amazingly sweet. Arabic keyboards are more than just a little confusing, and yet he patiently walked me through how to make symbols like “@” or “.” as I needed them. When I was leaving he asked me “Your first time in Morocco?”
“Yes,” I replied
“Okay, let me tell you something…” He started. I thought he was going to warn me of the dangers, or tell me not to travel alone in the Medinas. Instead he said “you know Argan?”
I thought for a second…
“The oil?”
“Yes!” He said with a smile, “make sure you buy some before you leave Morocco. Put it in your hair and it will make it beautiful! It is the best for all the ladies in Morocco!”
I laughed and promised that I would. He then told me to make sure I didn’t pay more than 10 dirham to get to the medina where my hostel was and sent me on my way.
I was so thankful for a kind face after the unease of not knowing where I was. People in Europe were constantly asking me if I was nervous about travelling Morocco on my own as a woman. I wasn’t really, until everyone kept suggesting I should be. So far, everything seemed fine!
I paid only 10 dirham to get to the center of the medina, where many travellers were charged up to 100 dirham to go the same distance.
When I arrived at the medina I tried to translate the directions to the hostel. Medinas are confusing at best. Tiny side streets, very few signs, a chaos of people and vendors and animals all around. Some men encouraging people to eat at their restaurant gladly helped point me in the right direction, but even then I was all turned around.
Exhausted from the day and totally lost, I sat down in a park to take another look at the directions. As I sat down on the edge of a wall, three little girls that were playing nearby came and sat down near me. They whispered to each other and giggled, then inched their bums closer to me. Before I knew it they were practically sitting on my lap.
“Bonjour!” Said one little girl. They were about five or six years old, one of them younger than the other two.
“Oh, bonjour!” I said back.
They laughed, then broke into fluent French, talking rapidly at me.
I stared blankly.
“Espanol?” They asked me.
“Si, hablo Espanol” I said back.
More excited giggling from their side. As they asked me what my name was.
We did the intros, and chatted for a few minutes. Two of them were sisters and the other one their neighborhood friend. They said they wanted to talk to me because I was “muy guapa”. I laughed and thanked them. After we had run out of things I could talk about in basic Spanish I thought I might as well ask them if they had heard of the street Battouta.
At the sound of the word their eyes went wide.
“Battouta!!!! Battouta!!” They looked at each other and screamed in giddy excitement. I told them I needed to go to Al Andalusi hostel.
More screams.
They were pointing all over, jumping up and down. From what I understood in their excited shouting was that they lived nearby. They ran off to their mother, who was on the phone nearby and pointed wildly. Their mother smiled and waved them off. They ran back to me, grabbed my arm and dragged me off the wall yelling “Battouta! Battouta!”
Two of them held my hand and dragged me through the medina corridors. They paused to talk to their friends, and was slightly distracted by a vendor selling chocolate, but within a few minutes, down a side street I never would have found on my own, they pointed at a door that read. “Al Andalusi Hostal”. I had made it! I couldn’t believe they’d found it for me. I offered them a couple dirhams and said “go buy yourself a chocolate bar on me! You three are my first friends in Morocco and I want to thank you for helping me.” They smiled but refused the money. So I left them to finally check in to my hostel, finishing a long, 12 hour journey from Seville.
The hostel was beautiful, right in the middle of the medina with beautiful rooftop views of the city and the Straight of Gibraltar. The staff at the hostel were wonderful, and were so happy to hear about the little girls helping me. Thomas, one of the guys that ran the place, said he would buy them something special one day soon from me, since he saw them almost every morning in the street.
I quickly met some fellow Travellers from Australia and we all went out for a delicious meatball Tagine dinner and some mint tea. I was in heaven!
I could not have asked for a more pleasant welcome to a country. I have a feeling it’s going to be a wonderful couple weeks here…