Strait to Tangier
by Livy Tinsley
(unedited, 1631 words)
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind,
Had to get away to see what I could find.
Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led.
– from “Marrakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills and Nash
Someone burst into song and soon most every one of them joined in, excepting for the two “goddesses.” It was lovely and I wished I knew the words but enjoyed the entertainment and their energy just the same. I was reading and trying to learn the song at the same time. Something about a shepherd boy and the girl he loved. Funny mix reading “Tourists in Paris” by Marguerite Duras and hearing this song of pastoral romance on a train in Spain.
By the time we reached the station in Bobadilla the boys were firing questions at me from every direction. Inquisitive Spanish. And as we walked into the Spring night they invited me for a beer and since my next train to Algeciras wasn’t leaving until early morning I had time to kill. Their enthusiasm picked me up and into a bar that should have been a couch or a bed instead, and sleep. But to them I was the great journalist from America. We walked several blocks through empty, desolate streets and streets like grand boulevards, some not unlike the third world streets I would soon see in Morocco. A town of contradictions, old butting up against new, haycart people next to slickers with neckties.
They decided against a bar and instead sat at the end of a three-way corner at the edge of town and two went for beers. The town ends there but for them its where most of the talk starts. They wanted to know what was new on American radio and how were the girls, why was I going to Morocco and where else had I been. One long-haired kid asked if he might find love in America and said he had no time for Spanish women. We stood on the corner and drank from big quart bottles and inhaled the cool black night, Bobadilla, non-descript town more like the American Midwest, nothing of great note here but the conversation was charming, staggering along with both sides butchering the others language.
It was getting late. I was hungry and they gave me what was left of their lunches from the train. They told me it was nice to meet me and I told them the same. None of us offered addresses and I thought this was very honest. Train station, Algeciras, Strait of Gibraltar, Mediterranean, Morocco, Tangier. I dozed and half dreamt of Tijuana and taxidermied donkeys.
I tried to sleep on my last train to the bottom of Spain but an expectant energy was coursing through me. It’d been a while since New York and the hippy chick in the subway who spoke of Marrakesh and visions of snake charmers, orange groves and medicine men. “Truly different,” she said, “Totally.” I just wanted to “totally” touch the “dark continent.”
The port station was empty and still had the morning chill. Cold, linoleum-tile chill and plastic seats. Stains above the seats from heads of hair that leaned against them and weren’t clean. Walls unpainted for years and the greasy heads of travelers. I went downstairs to the toilet and there an American girl shared her story of a drunken night with three Frenchmen. A hippy girl and everyone’s girlfriend. Stayed in some cheap hotel a few blocks away. One of the frogs sprung for the room but none slept. Her eyes were strung with something but she was smiling and happy, or maybe she was strung and happy because of what was making her eyes look black and glassy. She needed coffee and said that was all she needed. She followed me back up and the fog was burning away with the morning. We exchanged books from our mobile libraries. Both had too many books and wished the other would take some more but ended up even-ing it out through the exchange. She was headed north for Madrid. More parties in the endless party of my generation with nothing on their minds but parties. What started out as a decade of hope with dreams of freedom, and occasional recreation on hallucinogenics and alcohol, had become an endless party with no meaning. The war was over and the meaning of a whole generation had gone with it. When a spring is sprung and loses the object that kept it tense and gave it its edge, its just sprung.
The ferry was like the bottom of a stove. The broiler pan in the bottom, hot, stuffy, smelled like dead grease that smells like nothing like food but just refried grease. The sea was like brush-stroked copper. Homer’s “winedark sea” with Tangier in the distance.
On the dock at Tangier I was immediately mobbed by several robed men wishing to be my escort. I refused and they warned me of phony guides that would be waiting by the shore. They flashed cards that were meant to validate them as real but I would come to find that half the population carried these cards and were “guides” at one time or another. The moment I stepped onto the street a “student guide” confronted me with a story about struggling through school. I cordially declined and then had to end up ditching him half an hour later. At one point I ran from him and found a policeman who held him until I was a couple of blocks away. The policeman then let him go and he tried to catch me but I lost him the medina where I came face to face with Bahram. He seemed different and spoke like a priest, slow and consoling. I asked him how much and he said he wouldn’t take money but wanted only to “show me his city” and in return he would ask only that I spend five minutes in his uncle’s shop. “What sort of shop is it,” I asked.
“Beautiful things there,” he said, carpets, bags, jewelry. Nice I thought I would want a souvenir. He helped me stash my things in a “safe room.” with lockers and luggage everywhere. The proprietor, who was old when Bogart was here, mumbled “twenty-five” cents and then seemed to doze off.
In the Casbah, Bahram led me to fresh strawberries and oranges and began to tell me about the nomadic Bedouin people. I found their story charming and thought of how like a nomad I had become. Bahram went away to pray to Mecca.
Tangier is not now the same Tangier I’d come across in Kerouac. It’d become commodified, self-conscious. It knew what it needed to do make money from those who came. It no longer functioned as its own entity where a traveler might just sit and observe the rhythm of life. Someone told them the secret of its romance and each point of interest had been considered and now properly marketed. I could see around me other Europeans being led by other guides and it suddenly felt artificial, like the markets existed for tourists alone and that the locals probably go elsewhere. [insert Orwell?*] There were women selling blankets; the biggest, reddest strawberries I’d ever seen, heaven-sent vessels of redness, which Bahram washed for me in the fountain, vegetables fresh from the ground, and a peanut brittle-like bread dipped in honey that made my mouth gush with its sweetness.
There was henna, thyme and saffron and it smelled nice. The streets were cobblestoned and quite beautiful and the buildings surrounding the open market had wonderful intricate spires and sloping rooftops. But it was a museum and I was being led by a docent who’d said the things he said so many times the passion was gone if, in fact, there was ever any passion in it, a museum, Disney probably has something like this in Florida.
When I’d had enough strawberries I told Bahram I would no longer need his services.
“If you would just then follow me to my uncle’s store.”
The store was like Lawrence of Arabia’s wetdream, carpets of every color, handcrafted jewelry with every shade and variety of stone. I was particularly drawn to a piece that looked more Egyptian than anything else, and like an eye. And as my eye fell on it, Bahram’s uncle’s eye saw me see it and rushed to me for a quick sale.
“How much,” I asked.
“Do you want to know in dirham or dollars?”
“I only have dollars.” thinking this is something he says for the tourists.
“Yes, but some like to speak in dirham.”
Disney I thought. And seeing my eyes roll he said, “Three hundred dollars.”
“Too much,” I replied.
Bahram brought me some “green tea” with a cube of sugar.
“Two hundred seventy-five.”
“You don’t understand, I’m a tourist on a shoestring.”
“Two hundred fifty,” he said, getting upset.
“D’you have anything for about twenty.” I asked.
I sipped the tea and thought how exquisite the taste was. Something stirred in me, “do you drink this all the time?” I asked. I should bring some home.
“Nothing for twenty dollars and yes we drink it regularly.” Bahram replied impatiently and waved to another man across the room.
The door was closed and the windows shuttered.
“Are you closing up shop?”
“For just a few minutes. Now pick something out or… well… pick something out,” he said in my face, breathing his foul breath right at my nose.
I saw a bag with an interesting print.
“How much is that?”
“That is one hundred dollars.”
“But in Spain they’re like…”
“One hundred dollars sweet girl.”
I paid him, they opened the door, and Bahram threw me a box of tea as they all burst into laughter.
* In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings. It takes in the dried up soil, the prickly pear, the palm tree and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less interesting to look at.
It is only because of this that the starved countries of Asia and Africa are accepted as tourist reports. No one would think of running cheap trips to the Distressed Areas. But where the human beings have brown skins their poverty is simply not noticed. What does Morocco mean to a Frenchman? An orange grove or a job in Government service. Or to an Englishman? Camels, castles, palm trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays, and bandits. One could probably live there for years without noticing that for nine-tenths of the people the reality of life is an endless, back-breaking struggle to wring a little food out of an eroded soil.
– from Marrakesh by George Orwell