Life

Burgess in Tangier: Fresh Prey

Right off the boat, the Canadian meets some helpful locals.

By Steve Burgess 9 Jun 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Disembarking from the ferry in Tangier, I search for the way out. A man strides across the gravel lot toward me. He introduces himself as Mohammed, employed by the company to protect unwary passengers from unscrupulous guides and touts. He looks to be perhaps 60 or 65, with close-cropped hair and sporadic teeth that nonetheless provide a benign smile. Mohammed speaks French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, English, and German, and is happy to demonstrate.

My new friend explains that I will need Moroccan money from the bank machine in order to get a taxi and a train ticket. On the way to the ATM my suitcase rolls into a yellow pool of piss—baptism for a new continent.

“Big taxi, small taxi, all same price,” Mohammed says repeatedly, for reasons I don’t quite grasp. A small blue taxi is circling us, the driver signaling to me. Mohammed steers me safely away to a spacious Mercedes. Only later do I notice there is no meter.

“We will go to the train station and get your ticket,” Mohammed announces. “Then to get something to eat and back to the train. You prefer coffee? Very well, coffee and a bite to eat.”

We breeze through a security checkpoint. “My face is my passport,” he says over the front seat. “They all know Mohammed.”

He shows me pictures of his three children—a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps. Even a newbie like me has begun to realize that Mohammed is investing more time than might reasonably be expected by an ordinary ticket-carrying stiff. I will endeavour to be fair to his children when the time comes.

Kid me not

At the train station, we meet two English passengers I recognize from the boat. They are trying to buy a train ticket but they have no Moroccan cash—they must take a taxi back to the dock and the ATM. Clearly I have been lucky to find the helpful Mohammed. I relax a little.

We are off to old town Tangier to visit Mohammed’s choice of restaurant—I find myself hoping that a commission from the grateful proprietors will be his primary reward. The restaurant is lovely, the meal excellent, the price about 125 dirhams including coffee—roughly 18 bucks Canadian. For all I know that’s Moroccan highway robbery, but so far so good. Mohammed helpfully suggests that I pocket the leftover bread for the train. Should I tip the waiter, I ask? Mohammed nods, then stands beside me as we examine my pocket change—a few Euro coins mixed with Moroccan dirhams. Mohammed selects a few dirhams and we depart.

Back to the train station now, and the moment of truth. How much is the fare, I ask? “200 dirhams,” the driver says. Well—he did wait during the meal. But the five-hour train trip to Fes cost only 95 dirhams, so this seems mighty steep.

I have decided to be gracious and offer Mohammed 100 dirhams for his trouble. He looks grave and shakes his head. “More,” he demands. “I have invested my time. 200 dirhams more. My children…”

All right, it’s too late to argue. 300 damn dirhams it is. Thanks for protecting me from guides and touts, old pal.

One more thing, he asks: “A two-euro coin. A souvenir for my children.”

It seems an odd request, especially since he told me I would need Moroccan money here. What the hell, I happen to have exactly one two-euro coin. I hand it over. Only later do I recall the moment in the restaurant where Mohammed helped me pore over my pocket change. Vini, vidi, vici—it must be tattooed somewhere on his multi-lingual body.

A porter runs out and grabs my bag. I grab it back and head for the station door. When I stop to ask directions to my platform he snags the bag again and races ahead to my train car, where he lifts the bag onto the rack and firmly demands 100 dirhams. I am defeated. I hand it over. Approximately one hour in Morocco and I’m down about a hundred bucks. The phrase “fresh off the boat” has new meaning for me.

Then again, the government of Vietnam demanded that I buy an entry visa for 100 dollars. What has just occurred to me must be, in effect, the Moroccan entry visa. Roughly the same price, and I must admit it was a lot more fun.

Friend or schmo?

In my train car a Moroccan businessman and an Australian tourist hear my tale with sympathy. “It gives Morocco a bad name,” Hamid, a customs broker, tells me. He winces as I tell the story, a little embarrassed for me. “He said he worked for the ferry company? No, no. This man was a guide who takes advantage of newcomers. And the taxi fare should have been 10, 20 dirham at most.”

We pass shepherds and sheep and dirt-street, donkey-cart towns with crumbling walls, most sporting a single, green-neon crescent moon that marks the location of the pharmacy. The setting sun throws a shadow on the train corridor wall—the sharp profile of a man in the next compartment holding forth to an unseen companion, index finger wagging in front of his face as though he were conducting an orchestra.

As we pass a Shell station I see two men in a donkey cart trotting up to the pumps. The train is gone before I can see what happens next. Along the way we have been joined by another Moroccan named Abdul. “You must understand that there are bad people and good people everywhere,” Abdul says with a smile.

“This can happen anywhere,” insists Hamid, the other man. “Not just Morocco.”

A small cockroach startles the Australian tourist. “These can be found everywhere,” says Hamid. “Not just in Morocco.”

The Australian has no accommodation set up, and Abdul recommends a place. “Good and cheap—they are friends of mine,” he says.

Abdul asks where I’m staying and I show him the address of my riad, a type of B&B/boutique hotel created through the conversion of stately old Moroccan homes. Pulling out a cell phone, he offers to phone ahead for me and let them I’m on the way—it is late, after all. The phone conversation appears to get a little animated and Adbul looks annoyed. “They think I am a guide, trying to trick you,’ he says. “Here, tell them I am not a guide.”

I take the phone from him but it goes dead as I begin to speak.

Bagged

At the station, Abdul helps me find a taxi, explains the location to the driver, and bids me a hearty adieu. “Tell them I was just helping out,” he calls.

Abdul’s phone call was fortuitous—it turns out the riad was not sure I was coming and had not confirmed my reservation. Sitting in the dark, lush courtyard of Riad Norma drinking cold, sparkling water, I pass along Abdul’s protestations of innocence. Abdelkhadr, the riad manager, listens skeptically. “Did he have any baggage with him?” Abdelkhadr asks.

None that I saw. “Many guides and touts ride these trains back and forth, looking for traveling tourists. That is why he did not want you to talk to me on the phone. Did he suggest a hotel to you?”

Not to me, but…

“Well, OK. You are here now,” Abdelkhadr says. “If you are going into the medina tomorrow, let us arrange a guide for you. Otherwise you may have difficulty getting a fair price.”

But the next day, I set off alone.

Steve Burgess is filing the occasional dispatch from his solo travels in Spain and Morocco.

His previous postcards from this trip:

Burgess in Rolling Purgatory

Granada, End of the Hippie Trail

Tapas? Tricked Ya!

Burgess Skips Town Again  [Tyee]

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