Welcome to Africa
First impressions can set the tone for many things- a person, a restaurant, a job, and most definitely a trip to a new country. The majority of my traveling experiences have been positive, but occasionally someone likes to throw a wrench in the mix- ya know, just to keep things interesting. Maybe this will help my fellow travelers in a set-your-expectations-accordingly kind of way, or maybe it's nothing more than a tale of African adventures gone slightly awry. Either way, I feel like telling a story.
Morocco has been a bucket list country of mine for a long time. The images from fellow travelers and magazines proved it to be nothing short of a photographer’s dream. With thoughts of camels, deserts, fortressed towns, mosaic tiles, spices, and colorful fabrics dancing in my head, I boarded a ferry from Algeciras, Spain, headed for the port of Tangier Med, Morocco.
What ensued wasn’t exactly what I expected.
Having spent the day in Gibraltar with friends, we misjudged our schedule and ended up making it to the ferry station just minutes before the scheduled departure time. Our boat was leaving from a huge port of cargo ships- the last thing I expected to see when imagining a ferry ride over to Morocco. We’d booked our tickets in advance for 20 euros on aferry.co.uk, and even still our mad dash through the station ended up being totally in vain. The boat left almost an hour later than it was supposed to. The 2-hour ride was smooth, and when we arrived at the port, it was nearing 10:00 PM local time. Morocco is one hour behind Spain, and you arrive only an hour after you departed. I do enjoy a bit of time travel.
So all was going relatively well. We grabbed our bags, got in the queue to get off the boat, and pulled our passports out for the immigration officer, sternly stationed at his podium.
“Where is your stamp?”
We flipped through the pages and showed him the only stamp we had- the departure stamp from Algeciras.
He shook his head, and pointed to the boat. “ Stamp on boat.”
Completely baffled, we turned around and climbed back from whence we came. The crew was less than happy, and explained that we should have had our passports stamped by the resident police officer, prior to departing.
Well that would have been nice to know.
Morocco, it turns out, is a rarity in that they don’t have a proper immigration station on the ground. Considering the boat was hardly full and we stuck out like sore thumbs, I’d have thought that maybe, just maybe, the police officer, who apparently was sitting in the corner of the main compartment, would have said something to us about these stamps.
So we sat on the boat and waited for an hour, because aforementioned police officer was long gone and wasn’t scheduled to return until the boat took off again, back to Algeciras. Luckily we were in the company of two Frenchman and therefore weren't the only two people that had completely missed the memo.
At last, we received our stamps. When we got off the boat, we stood in a nearly empty parking lot and waited for a bus that would take us to the main ferry station. Eventually that arrived and we were the only passengers; the last remaining stragglers from our ferry. The next task was to find a taxi and get 45 minutes south to our hotel in Tetouan without getting severely overcharged. We had no local currency and at this point it was going on 11:00 PM. If we had arrived before 8 PM, our ride would have cost us about 200 dirhams, or 20 euros. Instead, it cost us 400.
After a ride through dark mountains and poorly lit roads, we made it to our destination. The driver stopped at an ATM, and luckily my Thai debit card worked despite the lack of travel notice for Morocco. Suppose this should be slightly concerning, but in any event...he drove us as far as he could outside of the medina, which is essentially a maze of narrow walking paths from which few foreigners ever emerge without getting horribly lost. We sat in the back of the cab, awaiting further instruction, when a figure started walking towards the car. A few things come to mind when describing this person-
- A gnome
- A member of the KKK
- A Star Wars Ewok
He was wearing a hooded dress, which I’d soon discover is typical Morrocan garb, and with a big toothy smile, he bent next to my window and waved. Having not the slightest clue who this person was, I quickly averted my eyes and looked at Matt, appalled.
Turned out he was the owner of the hotel, and had come to show us the way. Oops.
“Welcome to Africa!” he beamed, and led us through dark and narrow streets to the hote, appropriately called Hotel Africa. When we entered, a group of travelers from France and Spain sat around a table, smoking and drinking tea. Even though we were exhausted, we obliged our host and sat for our welcome beverage. He put two small glasses in front of us, and lifted his teakettle high into the air. The stream splashed perfectly into the cups, without a single spill. I couldn’t help but laugh at the scenario. He was quite the talented man, with a pipe the length of my arm and his warm, pointy hooded robe.
The room was comfortable enough (because I'm traveling on a budget, comfortable now equates to having a decent bed and an electrical outlet) but the top was open air and every sound throughout the hotel could be heard. Our bathroom didn’t have running water, either, because come to find out, in Tetouan it’s only turned on from about midday until some point in the evening. Absolutely wrecked from the day's adventure, we went straight to bed.
The next day, we woke up around 9 and headed downstairs for breakfast. Sporting his wonderful outfit, our host served us some more tea in his fanciful fashion, as well as some samosas and little cheese and bread sandwiches. We planned to walk around town for an hour or so before catching a bus to Chefchaouen, one of our most anticipated stops on the trip. There was a man hanging around the hotel who told us he worked there, and he essentially latched on to us like a leech and turned into a very unwelcome tour guide. To be fair, we’d have gotten very lost without him, but he rushed us through the streets and right into a trap- a shop selling various handicrafts, soaps, and Moroccan argan oil. This was the exact situation we were trying to avoid. We didn’t even have time to take photos, and before we could blink we’d been lured into his buddy’s place. So I guess we learned our lesson early on. We insisted that we needed to leave, and he walked us back to the hotel, where he asked for his tip. Well, this turned into a bit of a scuffle between him and Matt. We didn’t want a tour guide, we didn’t see anything notable, and he took us straight into a shop. In short, a few pleasantries were exchanged concerning fucking mothers (the guide's words, not Matt's) and off we went to find a taxi to the bus station.
Except we couldn’t get a bus. Not for another two hours. If you want to check out the bus timetables, which were surprisngly on schedule, I recommend using CTM. The site's default language is French- change it to English in the top right hand corner. We did learn that showing up and expecting to get on a bus with the timeslot you want isn't always possible, so if you MUST make a certain bus, go to the station and get the tickets in advance. Having learned this the hard way, we spent our 2 hours hanging out with stray cats (they run amuck in Morocco) and avoiding the vendors who, by the way, will absolutely approach you if you’re a sitting duck. Keep it moving when possible. When the bus did arrive, it was jam packed with people. Matt was forced to tip the guys for loading his own luggage onto the bus, and we were very confused. Having taken several bus rides since, it's become clear that some stations will charge you per bag, which you usually pay in advance when buying a ticket. In this instance, I think they were trying to collect that fee at the time of boarding instead. Best to keep some change on hand for situations like these! Once on the bus, the only two seats next to each other were in the last row. This made for a very bumpy yet scenic two-hour ride.
We arrived in Chefchaouen right before sunset, and were astounded by its beauty. This was where things finally started to turn around, and everything I’d imagined but thought was lost became a reality. But, more on this beautiful city very soon.
If you’re traveling from Algeciras to Tangier Med-
*book tickets online first (aferry.co.uk was the cheapest option we found)
*try to arrive earlier rather than later when taxi prices are cheaper, and if not, stay one night in Tangier Med
*don’t get off the boat without a stamped passport
*avoid Tetouan and go straight to Chefchaouen or another destination
*keep change on hand and be wary of just about everyone
*don't let any negative experiences get you down- Morocco is STUNNING!
Has anyone had similar (or maybe totally different!) first impressions of Morocco? I'd love to hear them! Comment below.