sketchy hamams and life lessons in Tangiers, Morocco

the rain had refused to stop falling.  there was no escaping, and it had become maddening.  i made a snap decision and checked out of my hostel, determined to escape the confinement of the indoors by finding another city further north that might have escaped the weathery onslaught.  as i was checking out, a dutch couple i’d not yet met who had been staying in the hostel was also leaving.  i overheard that they were traveling to tangiers, which was where i had been eventually planning on going to.  i knew there were no buses running that day due to the storms, but i knew there would be a taxi driver crazy enough to drive me the 2 hours to the northern coast.  i politely asked them if they wanted to share a taxi and we trudged out into the rain together.

i had expected to be able to get a couple taxi drivers to enter into a bidding war for who would take our business, especially on a slow day in heavy rain, so i was shocked when the opposite actually happened.  the first driver we talked to set the price rather high, and then all the other drivers in the area stuck to the price that they had heard set.  it took us 20 minutes to find anyone who would come down from the price even a little, and when we did it wasn’t much.  but we paid the fare and took off into the storm.

on the ride i got to know thomas and jolande.  they were a couple from the netherlands and actually hadn’t been together very long, so i was surprised that they were traveling together.  i’m not sure why, because when i thought about it, traveling with someone is one of the best ways to get to know the “real” version of them, so why not do it early on in the relationship?  jolande was a small business owner who would travel to exotic countries like morocco and purchase fancy antiques and rugs and the like and then ship them back to her shop in the netherlands where she could sell the items at a premium.  i could tell she was a very shrewd negotiator and knew what she was doing when it came to her business.  she also had a pure heart that shined through when she talked about ideas passionately, and a sweet, caring way about her.  thomas was a musician, and a funny one at that.  he reminded me a lot of jeff goldblum in jurassic park.  he wore thick-rimmed glasses and had a hip style about him and a clever sense of humor.  they both liked to smile and laugh a lot, and they were both really tall, as the dutch often are.  i guessed that they were both around 40 years of age, but they were both young souls, wild and free, and i got along with them quite well. we talked about music and literature and travel, and found that we had a lot of mutual interests and tastes. i took a moment to thank the stars that they were cool, because a 2.5 hour ride in flooding rainstorms in the north of morocco with an awkward cab driver who spent most of the drive shouting into a tiny cellphone with boring or annoying side conversation would have been almost unbearable.

we arrived at the medina of tangiers and parted ways, agreeing to meet up later that night.  almost immediately the touts and vendors were upon me, trying to get me to follow them to a hostel, or buy hash, or eat at their restaurant, or a dozen other propositions.  i didn’t even have the patience anymore, i was tired of negotiating, tired of saying no, i just wanted some quiet.  i put my headphones in and turned on my ipod while i searched for my little hostel located down a dark back alley.

that night i met up with thomas and jolande and we left the old medina in search of an old bar that was famous for being jack kerouac’s favorite watering hole, called the tanger inn.  we knew very little about it other than the fact that it was best known during 50s, 60s, and 70s as central hub for nightlife of the beatnik travelers and iconic authors like allen ginsburg, william s. burroughs, and of course, jack kerouac.  i was reading kerouac’s “on the road” at the time, so i was particularly enthusiastic about retracing some of the man’s paces in a time when i was in the middle of my own wandering journey.

we passed through the old gate of the city and out into the famous square of the grand socco. wandering a few more blocks off the beaten path, we eventually found the tanger inn, but were dismayed to learn it was not open yet.  after a few minutes of waiting around outside trying to figure out what to do, a man came outside for a smoke and invited us in early.

the place hadn’t looked like much from the outside, with a no windows and a white-washed wall and “the tanger inn” painted crudely in black, with little to no lighting to make it visible in the black of night.  but the inside was a different story.  clean wooden floors with a sharp, albeit limited, looking bar, and framed classic photographs of iconic artists throughout history who had been known to frequent the tanger inn all came together to create a modern yet retro look to the place.  i loved it.  it was the coolest watering hole i had been to in all of morocco.  we sat and drank beers at the bar, chatting with the staff for about 20 minutes when the place started filling up with people.  the music piped in and suddenly we were in the middle of a lively scene.  it was only a matter of time before thomas and i were drunkenly singing songs we’d made up on the spot, something to the tune of “when you’re in tangiers, you’re gonna drink beers…”  and other genius lyrical stylings worthy of consideration by the academy.

the next morning i awoke with a fairly aggressive hangover.  i decided to go on the roof for some fresh air, and lo’ and behold, there was the ginger chimney himself, mattijs, with a few of the other younger travelers from chefchaouen.  they were all up on the rooftop terrace, enjoying a little hash in a rare moment of sunshine.  they offered to share and i politely declined, having never really been a huge fan of the stuff.  i had hoped to get some breakfast but i was too late.  before i could get too disappointed, however, a couple of friendly frenchmen offered me some mint tea.  i gratefully accepted, hoping that it could cure my hangover woes.  they had purchased a bushel of tea leaves in the streets from a vendor and now had more than they knew what to do with, so they were offering tea to anyone they encountered, which i found humorous.  and once again, despite the french’s reputation abroad, i found myself really enjoying the company of french travelers.

orfeo was perhaps an inch or two shorter than me, and wore a fanny pack that wasn’t really a fanny pack, but it was still a fanny pack, even if slightly more stylish than what you might see on the embarrassing dad down the block in your neighborhood.  he also had a well groomed mustache which i couldn’t help but note was almost a caricature of what most americans probably imagine all frenchmen have, but he wore it perfectly.  orfeo had previously been a bicycle courier in paris and actually had a bit of an international reputation not only as a courier, but also as a cyclist.  he was now taking a break and was beginning to cycle around the world.  he had cycled all the way from paris to tangiers, and was preparing to ride down into the desert, with plans later to adventure over to the americas.  that explained the fannypack.

lawrence on the other hand, was actually canadian, not french, though he spoke both english and french fluently.  he was a little taller with longer black hair that he covered up with a beanie, and untrimmed facial scruff that came off as more stylish when compared to my own unkempt headsweater of a beard.  lawrence wore cutoff jean shorts (or “jorts” as the kids call ‘em) and had a playful, mischievous sense of humor.  we all got along thick as thieves and after awhile, we left to go explore the city of tangiers.

tangiers was a very different city compared to all the other ancient mosaics of morocco that i had experienced.  it had a decidedly unkempt european feel to it.  it reminded me a little of tijuana, mexico after you’ve been living in california all your life;  a place you could drive a couple hours south to and enjoy a little anonymity and vice.  the people were different.  they seemed a little more tolerant and accepting of european liberalism as opposed to some of the more arabic traditionalism in most of the south of morocco that i’d seen, but they were still inherently moroccan.  tangiers seemed to be at the end of an identity reclamation, after decades of having to repeatedly adapt to each new changing political and cultural climate that came its way.  morocco’s history is complex, especially during the last 100 years, and no place is more at the forefront of all that than tangiers.  having been under portuguese rule, also french, and was even an international zone at one point, it is already complex enough without even taking into account the cultural intersection of arabic/islamic beliefs and western world leanings.  all this historical context manifested itself in odd ways on the streets.  it seemed that typical western vices like nightlife, alcohol, etc. were just constant, present temptation to muslims, but due to the need for tourism and tourism dollars, they were necessary tolerations that existed in the same streets.  european travelers were much more frequent and visible here in tangiers,

after an hour of wandering the narrow streets, lawrence and orfeo led me into a nondescript donut shop where they inexplicably knew the man behind the counter.  we entered and suddenly the proprietor abandoned his work, ran and got his wife and daughter and another employee of his and they all came out and began smiling and excitedly speaking in french with orfeo and lawrence, none of which i understood.  the daughter started grabbing different donuts and pressing them into our hands.  at first i tried to resist, not wanting to eat something so fattening and not really wanting to pay for it, but when i realized it was a gift and it would be rude not to accept, i thought “ahh, to hell with it” and i started stuffing my face with delicious sugary delights.  we were escorted upstairs to a low-hanging ceiling where we all had to stoop low to fit, and yussuf, the owner of the business, began showing me the donut making process.  there were big vats of dough and buckets of flour and sugar.  it was hot inside the room, with little ventilation and yussuf spoke broken english whenever he was addressing me, and french when he addressed anyone else.  i understood what was going on about 20% of the time.

we said goodbye to yussuf and his team, and orfeo and lawrence filled me in on everything that had happened.  the day before, they had wandered into the same donut shop and made friends with yussuf.  after hanging out for a bit, yussuf had invited them behind the counter and taught them how to make donuts.  yussuf had then broken out a bottle of wine and they’d all gotten drunk together, resulting in a dough-fight, where they’d all begun throwing handfuls of squishy dough at each other and making a complete mess.  after that, yussuf had then taken them out to an exclusive nightclub, the type of place you couldn’t get in unless you knew somebody or were somebody, and they’d been treated like kings all night long.  lawrence had made it pretty clear that this yussuf character had most likely had a career as something other than a baker in a previous life, something likely nefarious and possibly not “on the level,” judging by the way he had confidently walked into the place and the way people had responded to him with profound respect.  one that was likely not expectant of the neighborhood baker.  they then informed me that we would be meeting up with yussuf again that night for dinner.  fascinating, i thought.  this should be interesting.

a few hours later we were back at the doughnut shop with swimming shorts on.  our plan was that we wanted to see if yussuf would be willing to take us to an authentic hamam, or moroccan bath house.  i had wanted to go to one, but hadn’t had the opportunity yet, and none of us was interested in going to one of the touristy ones recommended by the hostels that any of us had stayed at in morocco.  we had a local contact who could show us the real deal, so we wanted to see if we could take advantage.  we arrived at the shop and asked yussuf if he could help, and at first he didn’t like the idea.  he said he didn’t like hamams and he changed the subject, giving us a bag of donuts each and then ushering us out of the shop and crowding us into a taxi with his daughter and wife.  we rode far enough across town that i was completely lost, and into an area that was completely devoid of any tourism.  this was the real tangiers.

we arrived at yussuf’s building and walked up to the 3rd floor and entered his home.  it was a traditional home, and he informed us that he had lived in it as a child, but his father had sold it when he had grown.  he had recently acquired enough money to purchase the house back, and he had moved his family back in.  as he recounted the story, his wife brought out soup for us.  it was delicious, and i tried to show my gratitude without words, as she spoke little english.  once again i was the odd man out, as orfeo had to translate much of what was going on for me throughout the night.

after much convincing, we finally persuaded yussuf to take us to the hamam.  he was a funny man, easily excitable by just about anything, and he spoke with a fiery passion that bordered on unstable.  there were many times when the conversation would start down a path, and it was only an amount of time before yussuf was yelling loudly in a mix of french, arabic, and occasionally english, and i couldn’t always distinguish if he was angry or happy.  his voice had worn through within the first hour of us reuniting, and his gravelly rasp carried through to each crescendoed emotional outburst.  i studied him as he spoke.  he was tall and very thin, he had very short hair and sunken eyes that seemed to bulge a little when he would get really excited, and a vein would pop out of his wrinkled forehead, as though it were trying to escape the hypertension he likely dealt with.  his hands were extremely animated and he smoked cigarettes in public and and hash in private, if not just for the sensations that such vices provided, but also simply because it provided something for his hands to do while his mind ran its frenetic pace.  he was fun to be around, but he also made me a little nervous.  i could see what lawrence had been suggesting.  this man had seen some rough days in a previous life, as a baker’s life is never so complicated as this man’s disposition might suggest.  when yussuf talked about the past, he was never specific, but he would always hint to how he had changed his life when he had rededicated himself to allah, and gotten married and settled down.  this man was an enigma, and he made me uneasy, but i could still see that he had a good heart, and he was genuinely delighted that he had three friends from all over the world who wanted nothing from him other than to talk with him and enjoy his company.

we arrived at the hamam, after walking down some dark streets, we arrived at a dimly lit door and entered into an old locker room.  we gave our things to the attendant, an old man who looked as though he was blind, judging by the visible cataracts he suffered from, and entered into a dingy room with floor to wall tiling and little to no change in decoration or design from wall to wall.  the further into the room we walked, the warmer it got, and we were led into a 2nd and then 3rd room, where 4 other men were lying on the ground, steam hanging low in the air.  in the back of the room was a man with a half dozen buckets and a big spigot that piping hot water was gushing out of, into the buckets.  periodically he would empty a bucket onto the tiles and the water would go rushing out to meet the men who were lying on the floor, and more steam would rise into the air, creating a muggy steam room atmosphere in the room.  we took our place in the corner of the room and yussuf filled up some buckets for us.  yussuf conversed briefly with the man by the spigot, the steam master, and then looked at us and said “who’s first?”  i shrugged, “i’ll go first.”

moments later yussuf had left and i was lying on my stomach on the hot tiled floor with a sweaty moroccan man on top of me, scrubbing me viciously with a loofah and giving zero mercy.  it was one of the most painful experiences of my life.  periodically he would pause from removing layers of my skin to turn me into a human pretzel, stretching me in ways i didn’t know were possible.  at one point i tried to tap out and cry mercy, but i was so out of breath i couldn’t say anything.  i finally managed a painful grunt, and the other men in the room, orfeo and lawrence included, laughed.  when i turned over on my back, the man continued scrubbing, and he took a second to show me all the dead skin he had removed from my back.  i was appalled, first at how much there was and then second because of how it had felt, and i knew he was going to try for the same amount of removal on my front, and i quite liked having my skin on my body.  isn’t it there to protect me?  why would i want to remove it?  before i could finish pondering, he was back at it, and my face was back to contorting and twisting in some worthless effort to dull the pain or tolerate it.

when i finished, the man dumped an entire bucket of hot water on me.  ordinarily it may have been too hot for me to endure, but i was exhausted and in so much pain all around my body that i couldn’t protest, and it actually ended up being the best feeling thing i felt all night.  i limped over to the corner and collapsed on the ground as orfeo and lawrence humorously tried to defer to the other to go next, only delaying the inevitable.

about 10 minutes later i realized that i had passed out for a few minutes, partially out of pain relief, but also because i realized i was dehydrated, and i hadn’t brought any water with me.  anytime i tried to stand up, i became light headed and dizzy.  not good.  yussuf came back and began trying to convince us to go out to drink alcohol with him, but there was no way i was going to be able to do that.  i felt sick, tired, and wasn’t entirely sure how i was even going to get back to my hostel, and i had a plane to catch the next day.  when orfeo and lawrence didn’t protest much to my protests, i realized that perhaps they weren’t wanting to go out drinking either, so i bumped up my acting a little and started pretending to be more sick than i was.  yussuf started to get angry, and as we left the hamam, he tried even harder to convince us to come out with him, but it was all in vain.  we were all on the same page, going out and getting drunk was not high on anyone else’s priority list tonight.  yussuf was upset, and he stopped us in the street to bargain with us.  he wanted us to give him some money so he could go out drinking by himself, as he was expecting us to go out and pay for his drinks after the hamam (orfeo and lawrence had paid for him the night before).  none of us were very excited about the proposition, but we each gave him some money because we knew it was the quickest way to everyone getting what they wanted.  we made it back to yussuf’s apartment where we said goodbye to his family and then set out onto the darkened streets of outer tangiers to find a taxi.

i woke up the next morning exhausted.  i was just about done with my moroccan adventuring.  i was tired.  tired of always looking conspicuous. tired of always being a target for someone to potentially take advantage or make money from.  tired of mistrusting everyone around me and having to be so cautious all the time.  i was tired of being sold to at every turn, tired of everything being a transaction.  i was ready to leave.  16 days in morocco had been an amazing, eye opening experience.  it had partially changed how i would approach the rest of the world from now on, and it had proven to me, finally, for once in my life, that i truly could drop into a country that i knew nothing about, and i could subsist and survive all on my own.  i was extremely grateful and proud of these experiences, but on the other hand, i was ready to be another face in the crowd again.  to blend in and not be noticed.  i wanted to be anonymous again.  i wanted to go somewhere and just not talk to anyone.

i decided to leave the hostel before sunrise, hoping i could walk the streets of tangiers alone and unbothered.  i had scouted out a small platform along the northeast side of the city on top of the wall that seemed like it would be a great place to watch the sunrise.  i checked out of the hostel and went straight there.  as i walked, i marveled at how peaceful the usually bursting-with-life-streets were.  there were no shouting touts or vendors, no kids running around for me to dodge, no people trying to push items or food into my hands, no one trying to convince me to follow them down an alleyway toward god-knows-what.  just quiet, empty streets.  i found my place along the wall and walked up the half dozen steps onto the platform.  a seagull saw me, squawked, and flew away, angry that i had spoiled his sunrise.  sorry, seagull, you can have this perch tomorrow.  today this peace and quiet is mine.

i looked out across the mediterranean and saw spain.  the clouds had finally broken a little, revealing a clear sea and a calm, cool breeze blowing across the strait.  sunrays began to poke out above the spanish hillside and spill out onto morocco and then onto the water and…

“hello my friend!  beautiful yes?  yes morocco is very beautiful!  you just arrive?  i find you place to stay!  come with me, yes. i know good place, nice place…”   4 minutes.  that is about as much peace and quiet a white traveler can have in tangiers during the sunrise.  i turned to the man politely and begged him “i’m sorry, i’m actually leaving.  i’m sorry, i don’t want to buy anything, please, i just want to watch the sunrise…”  the man adjusted his sales approach, ignoring my request for privacy, instead beginning to offer to lead me to a restaurant for breakfast.  a second man appeared and joined in.  i thanked them both and declined, less patient this time.  they continued.  finally, i lost my ty temper.

“look you guys, i’m not following you and i’m not buying anything.  i’m sorry.  i just want to watch the sunrise in peace.”  i said sternly.  i immediately knew i had made a mistake.

“you no talk bad!  you no talk bad!” the first man began insulting me in arabic and yelling at me, while the 2nd man couldn’t really figure out what to do.  i didn’t know what to do either.  i’d lost my cool, something that hadn’t happened to me the entire trip.

i was mad at myself, because i knew how to handle the situation differently, and i had let that tout ruin my morning, and the beautiful moment i was having with the sunrise.  but i was also mad because i didn’t really understand why i was the bad guy in this scenario.  i wanted one simple thing: to be left alone.  i think it was something i had wanted all along when i was in morocco, but had never really been able to find it.  and i wasn’t really aware of it until just then.  but the medina of tangiers was not the place to go if you wanted isolation, and i knew better.  i left the two angry touts and exited the medina, still angry that my sunrise had been stolen from me.

i hailed a cab and began negotiating for a fare to the airport.  seeing i was clearly a tourist, the cab driver opened negotiations way too high, a laughable price.  already short of temper, i countered with a price way too low.  this seemed to amuse the cabbie, and he laughed, then set the price even higher.  this angered me even more, but i tried not to let it show.  i addressed the cab driver directly, telling him i knew how much it cost to get to the airport and his price was unfair.  i told him i did not want to negotiate today, and asked him to just give me a fair price and i would pay it.  he thought for a second, shrugged and set the price.  it was still too much, but i was tired of negotiating and i accepted.  on the way there the cabbie tried to make small talk, but i wasn’t interested.  i had taken it personally that he had tried to rip me off and i didn’t want to be friendly with him.

i got to the airport about 3 hours early for my flight, but i didn’t mind.  after the previous night and morning’s events, the airport seemed like an international refuge for me.  i hate airports, but no one was selling me anything here and i could sit in a corner by myself, unbothered.  i reflected on the morning.  i had not handled things well, and i had let my impatience get the best of me.  it was perhaps the first time on the entire trip that i had let my anger take control of me like that (something that actually happened semi-frequently in my previous life as a sales manager).  i didn’t know if i should be sad that my true colors had finally shown themselves, or happy that it had taken this long (2+ months).  i decided probably a mix of both, and accepted fault for my own discontempt.  i also acknowledged that i needed a break, and that my exit couldn’t have been more perfectly timed, as sometimes these emotional outbursts are necessary to help realize what your body and mind are telling you about yourself.  if i had left even one day earlier, i wouldn’t have had this stressful morning.  and if i hadn’t had the stressful morning, i wouldn’t have taken the time to reflect.  if i hadnt reflected, i wouldn’t have learned more about myself, and what i had learned about myself is that i had just taken on a country and culture that was polar opposite to what i thought “normal” in america, and i had truly experienced the full spectrum of emotions with it.  from pure joy all the way to complete frustration, this whole experience had left an impact on me, and though i didn’t know it right then, i knew it had helped instill a confidence in me that i could have learned no where else.

i said goodbye to morocco and boarded a plane bound for the south of france.  i was headed to nice.


this week’s audio odyssey comes from a band called “we are the city.”  based out of canada, the song “friends hurt” features subtle synth beats and short punch keyboard and guitar riffs, followed by huge anthemic walls of synth for the crescendo.  the lyrics deliver a short punchy message and everything pulls together for a great pop song that sounds a little different from what you’re used to.  the music video is fun too.  enjoy…

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