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Trip to Tangier

by Oonah V. Joslin

It is still dark. The coach is a quiet, early morning place, full of yawning seats and bleary eyes, chill draughts and hydraulic sighs. In Benalmedina, we stop outside a hotel complex, bathed in blue floodlighting to enhance the cool depths of the pool, Seventh Heaven. It is too early for strangers. I shut my eyes again and feel the two passengers who embark, take up the seats behind. The coach snorts, grunts and turns.

“Ee, I can barely keep my eyes open!”

“Aye, ‘tis a bit early like.”

“Were Florrie still in t’ pit when you came out?”

“Oh aye, snorin’ ‘er ‘ead off she were!”

“Mind I don’t blame ‘em, d’you? Not really much of a trip for t’ girls, I don’t suppose. I mean there’ll not be any like, big shops an’ that. It’s more of a man’s world over there, what I gather. I said to Maive when I were booking, ‘’ti’n’t much of a place for a woman like, not unless she’s t’ type doesn’t mind being kept in her place’!”

The dull voice mingles with the flat drone of the engine. I am thinking that not all women’s worlds revolve around the doors of the supermarket and the department store. Maive, might have liked the choice. I have no preconceptions of Tangier beyond the vague and exotic. I close my eyes and dredge up what I know of Morocco, from cobalt blue to shish kebabs and the Kasbah, and I don’t even know what a Kasbah is.

When I open my eyes again, a confusion of images assaults me. It is still dark. Cars seem to pass on a carriageway, to my right, as if I am back in England. They ghost off into nowhere and are replaced by the sudden approach of a cutting, which rushes towards me at frightening pace. Embedded within it are will-o’-the-wisp images of lights, appearing and disappearing randomly, as if I am cutting through a parallel universe. It is difficult to grasp what is real. I try to determine whether the buildings I see are substantial or reflections in the glass, but for a few moments I have no referents, outside of my semi-dream. I am in the world of Dali and Picasso; in the landscape of the mind.

The coach snores on. Our guide remains silent. Most of my fellow passengers are quietly preparing for the day ahead by relaxing, but the voice behind is mumbling on. Not with us on the coach, he is occupying another time frame, back in the eighties, when a woman got out of her place and ‘wrecked t’ Union’.

I become aware of my husband snorting and whiffling beside me. I let him sleep. The noise is not intrusive. A signpost announces Marbella and I see apparitions of well-heeled suburbs pass in the dark window, as in a dream. Antonio Banderas might be asleep in his house, The Seagulls, down by the sea — but he wouldn’t be snoring, of course! Dreams never snore. But then, neither do dreams grow up in a town or walk normal streets. This world is not my proper sphere. It is full of unexpected wonders where dreams emerge into the waking light of day. As we drift through Andalusia, the sun rises flamenco style, orange, pink and red; overdressed for the morning.

Our tour guide taps on the microphone as if gently knocking at our collective bedroom door. He has crow’s feet where the tiredness ought to be. His voice is lispy and pleasantly accented.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good morning and welcome aboard Travel Beyond’s excursion to Tangier. I am Carlos and I will be with you all day so you can approach me for all your needs.”

We will be making a stop shortly and he explains that our driver has been on the job for two ‘hors’ already and therefore needs a rest. We chuckle.

The voices behind are discussing anthropological issues, “...reminds me of somebody. I can’t quite place who.”

“I were thinking Taff — t’ Welsh bloke that used to be a copper.”

“Strange in’t ‘t how some Welsh folk look continental-like as if they’re Italian or Spanish.”

“Who were it used to call ‘em Italians in t’ rain?”

“Mind, ‘aving said that I saw a waiter yesterday in Torrey, was t’ spit of Paddy, blue eyes an’ all. Paddy, the one wi’ t’ Springer Spaniels; used to breed! Short little chap.”

“Right, here we are then, we’re pulling over. What’s Spanish for tea wi’ milk, no sugar?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t worry, they all speak English. I hope they’ve got toast or summit a bit breakfasty like.”

They are first off the coach and first in the queue for refreshments. I can see nothing ‘breakfasty’ at all and choose Danish, gorgeously sticky and decadent. My two Yorkshire men are easy to spot. They are wearing matching, bright orange sweat shirts embroidered with the sports logo of a golf club; B.G.C. Seated at a table far down the room, I can still hear them.

“T’ tea in’t up to much.”

“No well y’ can’t always get a decent brew when you’re away, all t’ water’s different, desalinated an’ that; not like at ‘ome! Makes t’ tea taste funny like.”

“That’s exactly what I was sayin’ to Florrie. She would’ve come, but I said to her, ‘You’ll not get a decent brew mind, all day,’ and I think that was what decided her in t’ end. That and t’ religious thing.”

I go to browse around the souvenirs and post cards and a sneak a look at our traveling companions whom I have not been able to see properly until now; a middle aged couple from Canada, a slim American on his own, a plump English woman with an even plumper grandchild who is munching her way through the most enormous bag of crisps I’d ever seen.

By the door, a Scotsman in a Celtic shirt and his chain-smoking wife are arguing. A few quiet couples like us, in their fifties or sixties, occupy the tables by the window and one of the hotel tour guides and her boyfriend have come along for the experience. They seem out of place.

The coach has a different atmosphere when we re-alight. It has shaken off sleep. Bags, magazines and sweets are being opened. There is an air of anticipation. We are going to Tangier. Carlos tells us we will pass the port of Gibraltar on our way to the smaller ferry port of Tarifa. The road is high above the Strait and on a fine day you can see the Rock down to the left, and the most northwestern tip of Africa just twenty-three miles off the top of this mountain. A soft blanket of morning mist obscures our view.

We descend into Tarifa with its heavy battlements. Red castellated walls tell of bloody Moorish struggles and whitewashed houses link present to past. The small passenger ferry waits in the fishing port. Having filled in the appropriate forms for a group visitor’s visa, we have nothing to do but follow. Carlos is looking after us. He assures us that this is the safest trip.

It is Andalusia Day, a holiday, and at the port of Tarifa, Spain hemorrhages into Africa, via the passenger ferry. The ferry is unusually full and the little café cannot cope with the influx of tourists. At ten in the morning they are out of food. The wind on deck is bracing but the sea is calmer than on a similar trip between Stranraer and Larne. Soon after leaving Spain, we can see Africa. I realise stupidly that I’d had no idea they were so close.

At customs, Carlos sees to everything. He has a little flag which he holds aloft so that we can easily follow him. Another coach is waiting and our local tour guide, Rashad. Rashad is middle aged and has pale, fragrant, olive skin and green eyes. He looks every inch the Western diplomat in his shimmering, light grey, silk and wool mix jacket, black trousers and soft leather shoes. His neatly styled hair is gunpowder grey. His immaculate nails are clean and buffed. The smallest half moon of a beard clings to his lower lip, almost a shadow. I think it would look silly on any other man but Rashad has presence and bearing. Everything about him looks square, solid and trustworthy. When he speaks his deep baritone carries an exotic mixture of cultures from all over the Mediterranean, overlaid with American. Carlos tells us to follow him. I think I would follow him to the ends of the earth.

The sun-swept streets of Tangier roll under the wheels as Rashad’s voice bathes us in its history and culture. He is informative, precise and easily understood and everything he says tells us that he loves his country. Women, bright in jalabas, trousered and scarfed, skirted and made-up, young and old, flirt with freedom. Men in traditional Berber dress, in western dress, in work clothes, take the caresses of the sun for granted.

The elegant wide avenues and gardens of the Quartier Français, its street signs in Arabic and French, shine in the August sun of late February. The dappled shade of furry mimosa trees, creamy almond blossom and gaudy clematis clings to the pavements and walls and shrinks away from the shimmering heat.

Rashad advises us not to buy from the street merchants. He explains that, ‘Laa’ means no and that, ‘Naam’ means yes, so it is unwise to say, ‘No’, because it sounds too much like, ‘Yes’. High up on the mount of Tangier, camels and traders descend like a flock of magpies on our tourist gold.

Laa, laa. Laa, laa,” I say with difficulty, making my head shake, to the unfamiliar syllables.

The red walls of the Kasbah lure me. The open courtyards of the fortress diminish me. I am not charmed by the camels or the snakes because Rashad tells us these people carry no insurance and I trust Rashad. His name means, ‘good sense.’

The thick walls of Medina engulf me in terracotta, cobalt blue and yellow ochre. In the narrowest of narrow streets, in 1429 minus 500 years or more, people with swarthy, creased faces live and laugh and suffer and die. Some stand and beckon you to enter their dark, open fronted, Roman-style shops. Piles of human rags sit and beg between the doorways. A young man blind in one diseased, white eye, tries to sell souvenirs on a corner.

Salaam alaikum, I say guiltily, passing him by, following the flag.

My husband offers him charity and he refuses it.

Deep in the shadows are sacks brim-full with bay leaves, camomile, oregano, fenugreek, chillies and things beyond my culinary ken. I imagine nests of rats and mice living in those same sacks. Each street is a multi-coloured palate of powders. A mingling of scents, pleasant and otherwise, assaults the senses.

Litters of kittens hunt the dropped fish or scrap of offal we kick out of the way, as we snake through, turning this way and that down ancient city streets that are no more than alleyways. My mind reels at scents, sounds and sights, curiously familiar yet disturbingly strange. Circular loaves of bread hang on strings. Brains lie on slabs. Intestines slither on trays. Fish with spikes stare out at me from their icy bed.

There is a dizzying sense of bustle in the enclosed streets. I feel like a pinball in a tourist machine. The traders, who are persistent enough in their solicitude, would not be so easily cast aside, were it not that our guide is known and respected amongst them. He is variously greeted in Arabic or French, with a bow, a nod, a handshake.

From the depths of darkened doorways emerge gurgling sounds, like giants drinking milkshakes through dried snake skins. Tobacco smoke hangs, pungent in the draperies. In the capillary streets that comprise the ancient city of Medina, it is easy to imagine that if you entered the wrong doorway, you might never emerge again and no trace would ever be found. Even in this caterpillar of people, I feel alone. A frisson of fear grips my imagination. I am a child again;

brains on slab,
intestines in tray,
and white bones in the desert
not far away.

But the doorways I enter have been carefully chosen. I scuttle along close beside Rashad and chat to him in French. I cover my loud strawberry blond hair with my scarf, just to keep the sun off. Strangely the traders begin to keep their distance from me. I am in the shadow of respectability. I am being well looked after. This is the safest trip.

Upstairs in the carpet shop, a kaleidoscope of hand made, Berber carpets, any one of which can fly, flashes before me, each one brighter than the last, so that, emerging into the street below, it seems the sun has dimmed. No other airline has such livery.

We are led into the doorway of a herbalist’s shop and up stairs rickety enough to induce a sprain. The herbs, roses and musk of the healing potions, balms and infusions, are supposed to cure everything from impotence to insomnia but you must be careful which to choose. Couples exchange naughty glances. What if she cures her insomnia on just the night that...

The young salesman is direct in his approach. “Does anyone suffer from impotence?” he asks and for some strange reason not a single hand is raised.

We draw a veil over our needs and buy face cream. I think of the blind boy. I think of twenty-first century medicine and the herbalist’s shop a few minutes away, but centuries behind. A couple of men sidle slyly up to the sales desk.

In The Harissa Restaurant, Moroccan music blends subtly into the sights and smells, so that couscous for me will always sound blue. We are rushed through the meal, as through the streets; a pity, for the food is excellent. The wine tastes comfortingly French and goes straight to my head. I feel benevolent and relaxed and I love these people and this country and its varied culture and its espousal of Western...

Oh please, God, no! Don’t let them become like us!

But they want to have what we have. They want a better life! They deserve a better life.

I thought they said this was a safe trip. How can there be a safe trip if you carry your heart as well as your passport? How can there be a safe trip, when the guide is a god and the boy is blind and darkness fills the brightest street? Tangier is a drug. There is no safe trip.

Out in the modern city the streets are wide again and shops are just shops. For a minute or two, only a minute or two, I am on my own. Immediately, I am surrounded by little boys being big men, offering assistance to Madame for a small gratuity.

“You mees tour bus Madame. We show you. You come now.”

“Lâche-moi. J’ai encore du temps. J’attends mon mari. Il est là-haut. Voilà. Il arrive!” and so they turn their attention to him for their chivalry. He hands out euros. He has no small change left and he is suddenly Papa Noël, beard and all.

Rashad stands by the door of the coach to bid us farewell. Some give him a tip. He helps me down the step and bows slightly. ”Au revoir, Madame.”

I am tongue-tied.

The Strait of Gibraltar now glistens in the western sun. On the other side our driver awaits. Behind us, the conversation sparks up with the engine and I begin to wonder whether those two have ever left the coach.

“Have you got your passport, an’ that?”

“I’ll just double check. Aye, there ‘t is.”

“Any road, we got Florrie an’ Maive some of that face cream so that’ll please them. ‘ave you got your mobile?”

“Aye but t’ battery’s a bit low. Which reminds me, an’ I’m glad you mentioned that, because our car’s due its MOT shortly and I’ll ‘ave to see about a battery just as soon as I can after I get back, and I promised Dave to look at his exhaust.”

Gibraltar sparkles with importance, beneath us, in the evening sun, a hard, white diamond on a blue cushion, facing off Africa. The voices fade and I drift in and out of danger and in and out of love. I have lost my heart too many times in a single day to ever find it again. I bring my passport home.

Copyright © 2007 by Oonah V Joslin

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