Things didn’t look quite right as we pulled up to a glitzy waterfront hotel, which was a far cry from the small riad in the center of the Tangier Medina I had actually booked.
“Your hotel,” my burly taxi cab driver stated as he flung open the driver’s side door.
I had been in Tangier for all of an hour, but even I could tell that this wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Unfortunately I don’t speak Arabic or French, two of the most widely used languages in Morocco, so the best I could do was point to the small map and phone number on my printed confirmation form.
Luckily this clicked with the driver, who got back into the car, dialed the phone number, and, after a quick conversation, looked at me through the rearview mirror.
“5 minutes away.”
During the short reroute, I briefly reflected on what exactly was bringing me to Morocco – a cheap flight and a hazy understanding of what exactly I’d find. Not quite what I’d call compelling reasoning, but it left plenty of room for a good surprise or two!
Of course, I was hoping that the wheel of surprise would spin in a positive direction, but so far things weren’t appearing to go that way.
The taxi eventually came to a stop in the middle of a big crowd of people all shuffling in and out of narrow passageways between buildings.
“This is the Medina. The old town. You must walk from here.”
It now at least seemed like I was pointed in the right direction, but I hadn’t quite anticipated just how confusing the Tangier Medina would actually be.
Essentially one large labyrinth of walkways that spiderweb throughout towering interconnected buildings, this area had my head spinning. Signs are plastered along the entrance, but trying to decipher exactly where they are pointing, let alone actually finding your specific riad, seemed just about impossible.
It also didn’t help that, as soon as I stepped out of the taxi and grabbed my backpack, I was hit with a stream of seemingly friendly locals.
“I will help you with your bag!”
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you staying? I will show you the way!”
I had luckily read about these guys beforehand and knew that each offer would end with a request for money, so I didn’t bite.
As soon as it was clear that I wasn’t interested, the warm greetings all quickly devolved into arguments about why I wound’t just pay them a few dirhams anyway. Definitely uncomfortable, but eventually each gave up and scurried away.
With that settled, I began to concentrate on finding exactly where I was going. Google maps wasn’t getting much of a GPS signal, so I was left with just wandering around the general area, hoping I would find some indication of where to go. Luckily it didn’t take me too long before I found a long dim alleyway with a sign pointing towards Dar Rif – my home for the next few days.
Because it had taken so long to fly out here, after checking in, I immediately took a shower and then passed out.
By the time I awoke the next morning, I was itching to get out and explore more of the Tangier Medina. Fortunately, like most riads throughout Morocco, Dar Rif includes a hearty breakfast of fresh items from the nearby markets.
All of this was served on their open rooftop, which allowed me to get my bearings as I looked out towards the strip of beach surrounding the Bay of Tangier.
Observing the city from this angle, it almost felt like I was nestled into some beach town along the Central or South American coast. Definitely not what I was expecting when I initially conjured up images of Morocco.
Stuffed from breakfast, I was now ready to get lost within the walls of the Tangier Medina.
Dar Rif is located in one of the quieter areas of the old city, which thankfully allowed me to slowly warm-up to my surroundings. The narrow weathered walkways and sharp corners remained calm, with the occasional local squeezing by.
As I made my way through, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to the strikingly similar walkways in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood.
Soon these walkways widened out into steeper staircases. Small local shops began sprouting up and more locals made their way to and from parts unknown.
After climbing through a few roundabout dead ends, I had just about had my fill of steps and instead began to make my way downhill.
I now found myself entering the much busier shopping district of Tangier Medina, where merchants had absolutely packed their items into the narrow walkway space.
Just as before, new “friends” began popping up to offer their assistance.
“Where are you going my friend?”
“Let me show you to the best couscous in Tangier!”
“Do you want some hash?”
At times it felt relentless – like I couldn’t go 5 feet without some other offer. The worst was when I had an older man follow me around for 15 whole minutes, continually offering to show me around. Undeterred by my sharp lack of interest, this guy eventually just resorted to yelling about how cheap I was and that he had 5 young children at home that are all starving.
Awesome. Definitely not the kind of attention I was looking for.
Leading my still raving companion into the crowded streets of a nearby outdoor market, I was eventually able to lose him.
Making my way through the market, it’s hard not to be amazed at the variety of fresh colorful fruits and vegetables for sale. Again, not something I pictured for Morocco – a country that borders the Sahara desert.
In addition to produce, fresh breads and ceramic containers of still bubbling tajine (a Moroccan stew) can be found throughout.
There’s even a long cool tunnel right off of the main market where recently butchered meats and mounds of assorted ripe olives are offered.
With a small bag of snacks in tow, I exited back onto the street. That beach I had seen from the rooftop earlier looked mighty enticing, so I began to search for an exit from the maze-like Tangier Medina.
After a few confusing turns that had me completely lost, I finally made the realization that all I needed to do was locate the old town’s outer wall and follow that until I found an opening to the outside.
Sure enough, after a bit of additional wandering, I was able to get to an exit, complete with a canon from the late 1800’s guarding the old fortress’ perimeter.
As I made my way closer to the beach, the first thing that struck me was how surprisingly empty it was. No swimmers. No picnickers. Not even a few out of place tourists that could care less about the local sensibilities.
The only exceptions were the occasional fully clothed local and…
… BEACH CAMELS!
A small group of these guys were sitting around in the sand, so I just looked on, stunned. Bizarrely, this sight, more than anything else I had encountered in Morocco thus far, is what really trigged a full on culture shock moment. It was definitely not like anything I’d seen along the California beaches I’d grown up around…
I didn’t have long to sit and enjoy the experience though. The owner of the camels had seen me snapping a few pictures and was quickly approaching, making it clear that I needed to pay up if I wanted any more photos. That wasn’t going to happen, so I continued on, passing restaurants and clubs that suggested a more lively scene that unfolds once the sun goes down.
A Miami Beach Restaurant on the shores of Morocco? Didn’t see that one coming…
And really, not seeing these experiences coming pretty much sums up my time exploring the Tangier Medina, and Morocco in general.
I had arrived uncertain of the adventure I was in for, but what I’ve found so far is often colorful, often uncomfortable, but always unexpected. I’ve still got a long way to go, but so far so good.