We’re up at dawn the next morning, can’t wait to start exploring.
We drive up the steep mountain behind Tangier med. Everything is in technicolour, there is dazzling sunshine and the air is incredible. I have this sense of re-orientation: usually, going South means going towards the sea, but now there is a huge landmass lying South of us and the sea is north. As we come across the first hilltop that offers a vista towards the South, we get a physical sense of this – there are hills after hills, receding from a luscious green to a light blue in the distance. And to think that this is only the beginning of Morocco which is only the beginning of Africa. I get my first sense of something ancient, archaic, something very different to the feeling in Europe.
We see a man in a tuk-tuk stopping by the side of a road and taking a few plastic bottles up to a water fountain. We stop to ask if it is drinking water? Yes, this is good water! So we too stop and go to fill a bottle, but the water is so murky that I wouldn’t even want to use it for washing up, let alone for drinking.
I don’t like being in a country without speaking the language, so in the last three months I’ve been studying Arabic. It may not be very useful since the Moroccan dialect, Darija, significantly differs from the modern standard Arabic that I learnt, but it’s not just about learning a language, it’s also about getting an insight into the culture via the language. I always find that the grammar and the tone of a language tells you a lot about its people.
Back to the man on the hill by the water fountain: he actually spoke Dutch to us! Quite a few of the languages Frank and I can speak between us come in handy here in Morocco: Above all French, but in the northern region also a lot of Spanish. Some people speak German or Dutch from having spent some years working in those countries and among the younger generation we find English speakers.
The Moroccans love it when we try to speak Arabic to them, and after two weeks in the country it actually starts to happen that the few sentences we manage to cobble together unleash a flood of words on their part. We seem to have reached the stage where we give the impression of understanding
I love Arabic, and Frank and I fall in love with Morocco on our first day.
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Very excitedly, we drive to the port in Algeciras. Many people’s blog posts speak of the confusing nature of boarding the boat, as well as disembarking and entering the country. However, we find it all pretty straight forward. The port of Algeciras is very big, but the nice ticket vendor at Carlos’s shop had given us photos of what we need to find and strict instructions not to show the ticket to anyone else, so we studiously ignore the group of official looking people in high-viz jackets near the entrance of the port, who try to wave us aside, and drive directly to the check-in. We are expertly navigated into the belly of the boat, tucked in between huge lorries.
I recommend taking this trip one day, especially if you like going on ferries (Ines!)! The Spanish coast looks exciting from the sea – the impressive rock of Gibraltar right in front of you and mountains in the background. At the same time, you clearly see the Moroccan coast with even higher mountains. It seems so close! The straights of Gibraltar are of course also the entrance to the Mediterranean, so there is a huge amount of traffic on the water, large freight ships everywhere, but also smaller vessels and even yachts and little fishing boats. We counted near on 40 vessels out on the sea as we left the harbour
Someone had advised us to stay overnight in Tangier Med harbour instead of driving off into the dark on your first day in Morocco. This was good advice, especially as it made us quite relaxed about getting through customs, which is a bit of a bureaucratic faff as they need to (temporarily) import every single vehicle! The officials walk off with your papers and passports and you are asked to just wait by your vehicle. Some people plainly don’t just wait but follow the officials around. We tried that too but were sharply put in our place. At some point everything stops and it is food time for the authorities. After half and hour, business resumes. I think all in all, we wait maybe 90 minutes, but we are not lacking entertainment. Someone is led off in handcuffs, looking extremely worried, and further away someone is reassembling his car, after customs have searched the contents. This is a puzzle of heroic dimensions. By the time he is finished, the car is ram-packed and a tarp is spanning a rooftop bulge about the same height as the car itself. Another customs officer comes round to us, asking to search our vehicle, but he only pokes his head in, asks us if we carry any guns and admires our wood burner, never having seen anything like it in a camper-van.
Eventually, we have our passports and papers returned and are set free with many friendly smiles, best wishes and our first ‘Welcome to Morocco’.
We go to buy car insurance at one of the booths. The guy is trying to convince us that he is giving us a good deal on our Pounds Sterling, but we know better and postpone the insurance until we have exchanged money at the bank booth. Back to the insurance man, he still gives us a friendly smile, not a hint of feeling like he’s been found out trying to cheat us, and I find myself surprisingly calm and forgiving with him too, more like it’s a game we all play and this time round we’re the winners. He gives us the insurance papers (god knows what they are really worth beyond satisfying the legal requirements) and gives us another ‘Welcome to Morocco’.
As we travel through Morocco, even hundreds of kilometres away from the port, we keep hearing this phrase and every time it feels genuine, from the heart. It may be a passing stranger who catches our eyes from across the road – a friendly smile, a wave and a ‘Welcome to Morocco’ is sure to follow. This is surprising and very heartwarming! In contrast, I think of the Moroccans who arrive in Europe, people like Yusuf who we met the day before. How often, if ever, will he get this reception? And if it is a cultural gesture, how much will he miss it every time it is not extended? What have we lost in our busy, modernised, developed world, and what can we learn from others?
We settle in for the night, just outside the bank and the insurance office. A chilly wind blows, so we light a fire. Within minutes, we have a knock on the door. It’s the guy from the bank. Your van is smoking, are you ok? Is everything alright? We show him the oven and he laughs: your house is warmer than mine!
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