Recap Forty-Two Days In: Tangier
We arrived at the port in Tangier and headed straight to the Airbnb we had planned to rent for our stay there. Our first order of business was getting a local sim card for phone access, given that Morocco is one of the few countries NOT covered by T-Mobile’s international roaming agreement (nor Google Fi’s). Our first night was a doozy and we discovered two things: we had arrived during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and nearly all of the amenities in the apartment we rented simply didn’t work. The oven and microwave were literally placed into oven- and microwave-sized holes and were neither fastened nor plugged in.
The single biggest benefit of renting an apartment rather than staying in a traditional hotel is being able to cook for ourselves; with that off the table, we canceled the remainder of our stay there (earning nearly a full refund) and instead headed to a local hotel in a more active part of town.
Our new digs were much nicer, and we finally had the chance to acclimate to Tangier a bit. There were a few things making this substantially harder than any of our prior destinations:
- Style and culture: Charley and I have both visited majority-Muslim countries before. We’ve been to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates. We also lived in New York City for almost six years. One thing we learned is this: if you’re not interested in what a street vendor is selling (or what the person’s restaurant is offering), you just ignore all of the “hello sir!” that you hear. After a couple days of doing this in Tangier, we realized we had been going about it all wrong. Maybe it was just our impression, but people seemed a lot more friendly when we started responding with a cheerful, “Hello! No thanks!” or “Good afternoon! Maybe next time!” In fact, of all the places I’ve visited with a lot of street vendors, I might say that Tangier had the vendors who were the most pleasant and easygoing about taking no for an answer.
- Speaking of which, the language barrier in Tangier was really interesting. When it comes to travel, you’re actually pretty lucky if you learned English as your first language or speak it fluently. Centuries of global dominance by the British Empire and now economic dominance by the United States mean that anyone in the hospitality industry anywhere in the world will know at least a few basic English phrases and be able to help you with things like check-in, check-out, and calling a taxi. More people will understand English in places like Malaysia and Thailand than you would think. That being said, Morocco was really interesting because of the sheer VARIETY of languages that people spoke. Everyone spoke Arabic as a first language, and formal education in Morocco now teaches French as a second language, but we found as many people speaking Spanish or English as French. A LOT of the time, the easiest way to start a conversation is by saying, “Français? Español? English?” and just making do with the response. (This would have been more helpful if we knew any French.) Without wanting or trying to, when I started mixing my languages and said, “Uh… half kilo… cerise?” to a vendor, he responded with “Fifteen dirhams… quinze” and handed me a pound of cherries. My cherries were delicious, and I ate them in our hotel room in about twenty minutes.
- Speaking of eating, perhaps the strangest experience was finding ourselves in a Muslim country during Ramadan. Many of our readers may already know this, but to review for those who don’t: the month of Ramadan is the Muslim holy month. Among many customs during Ramadan, the most important and famous is that Muslims are expected to fast (i.e., abstain from all food and drink) until sundown. I’ve personally known this for a while, but somehow didn’t realize that abstaining from beverages included not drinking any water! Many of the days we were there were over eighty degrees, and most local residents don’t have air conditioning!
Until being in Morocco during Ramadan, I hadn’t realized that during Ramadan, most residents of Muslim countries just invert their schedules. There were certainly some people in the markets at 9AM, but as many people as possible do their best to sleep until sometime in the afternoon. After the sun goes down around 8PM, everyone breaks fast at home and then heads out as if their days are just beginning. We walked by some cafes and restaurants at 11PM or later, and the crowd sitting around inside were watching soccer and having tea and snacks like it was nothing. That means that most businesses, too, just stay closed for the morning, do a little bit of business in the afternoon as people prepare for breaking the fast, and then reopen for a night of business as if it were the middle of the day. When we would go to bed at midnight or 1AM, there would be children playing in the street as if it were the middle of the afternoon. This gave us a really false sense of Tangier the first couple days we were there. With all of the locally-owned business shuttered and no one on the street, and very few restaurants and cafes open (all of which had only foreigners inside), it felt like we were in a destitute country where locals can’t even afford to go to a cafe. We were completely wrong.
We didn’t enjoy our first few days in Tangier. Between a shoddy apartment rental, the emotional toll of the Orlando massacre, and the strangeness of being in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it took us some time to really shake the feeling that we were out of place. After we did, we certainly enjoyed our last couple days there, and took a guided day tour to the city of Chefchaouen, which you can find online if you just search for the “blue city.” It was incredible; our guide spoke four languages (Moroccan Arabic, French, Spanish, and English); and he went out of his way to mention a few times that the city has some Jewish residents too, and everyone gets along great.
Also: we bought rugs!