Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.
We drove at high speed from Germany to Spain via autobahns, autoroutes and autopistas. At Algeciras, we boarded a car ferry for Morocco aware that we were about to experience a non-western culture. What would the people be like? As we floated nine miles across the Mediterranean Sea past the Rock of Gibraltar, we encountered our first Moroccan man and he was friendly. We struck up a conversation and he advised us to stay a bit south of the city of Tangier at an Atlantic coastal village called Asilah. He assured us it was very nice. We thought it was an interesting suggestion but reserved judgment.
When the ferry bumped its way into the dock at Tangier, a crowd of people overwhelmed us as we drove ashore. Screaming touts were gesturing for our attention— all male with no women or children in sight. We, including our two young teens in the back seat, stared in wary fascination as my husband inched the car slowly forward. The words were mostly Arabic and bits of French and the signs were for hotels, restaurants, shops, taxis and more. In their clamorous way, they were simply trying to help visitors find tourist destinations. But how could we possibly make sense of all of the choices amidst such chaos? Remembering the pleasant description of Asilah from the man on the ferry, we made an on-the-spot decision to head to that village for the night.
We drove into Tangier center, asked for directions to Asilah and headed south. In less than an hour, we arrived at a quiet walled village at ocean’s edge. Its whitewashed buildings gleamed spotless under the glare of the sun. The ferry passenger’s suggestion seemed to be a good one. We found a nice hotel near a wide sandy beach and the kids were happy because it had a swimming pool—so much for no western amenities!
In the morning, we walked through a gate into Asilah’s medina (old town). It was quiet and the pace seemed unhurried. The buildings in the narrow alleys were filled with beautifully carved arched doorways painted mostly in blue or green.
While we were wandering, we met a friendly young guy named Mohammed. He didn’t speak much English but he was enthusiastic about his hometown and offered to show us around. We expected him to state a price for the service but when we asked, he said he wanted no money. He was personable and the kids liked him so we took him up on his offer.
His informal “tour” was quite interesting. At one point, he took us to the sea wall and showed us waves splashing over large rocks painted with white circles on them - watery graves of dead locals. One of the most surprising stops was at his own home where he introduced us to his mother. Far from objecting to a visit from foreign strangers, she invited the four of us into her main room. We sat on a built-in couch covered with colorful cushions and she offered us tea. It was a lovely gesture and a nice respite from the heat of the African sun.
Before we parted from Mohammed, he did recommend a shop in the medina. He may have gotten a kickback from our purchases but we were interested in shopping. And hey, the kid had to make a living. We exchanged contact information and said goodbye to him.
In the shop, we were served mint tea and had some interesting conversation as we browsed the selection of carpets. We actually found two carpets and some leather poufs. When I expressed interest in a djellabah, the shopkeeper brought out some samples. I thought a pale blue cotton one would be a great summer nightgown. The merchant acted shocked and insisted it was not for a young woman. He suggested a black lace negligee and looked to my husband for agreement. My husband said it was up to me. I told him that I like lace but this one was not my style and definitely not comfortable for summer temps. We bought the blue cotton, much to the disapproval of the merchant. It wasn’t a price thing but more of a cultural expectation that I should put pleasing my husband before comfort.
We ended up staying several days in Asilah and one day took a drive to a Sunday market in the countryside. Arriving there, we realized that we were the only ones with four wheels. Others came by camel, horse, donkey or on foot. The merchants were welcoming however and we soon found ourselves drinking more mint tea in a tent that protected us from the dust and the market hustle and bustle. A young guy wearing jeans and a sweater poured our drinks from a silver teapot into small glasses. He made it a pleasant ceremony and we had an enjoyable respite from shopping. Afterwards, we browsed the market offerings—everything from birdcages to live animals. The only one of us who seemed uncomfortable was our teenage son. He was wearing Jams (Hawaiian-style board shorts) and they drew a lot of interest from the locals making him very self-conscious. Like most teens, he just wanted to blend in.
On the drive back to Tangier, we picked up two hitchhikers, French gendarmes. They were friendly and with our rudimentary French skills and bits of Italian, German and English, we learned that they were assigned to Morocco to check on drug traffic. The kids were impressed with their uniforms and we enjoyed their language assistance when we stopped to buy a piece of roadside pottery.
Our time in Morocco was a mix of old and new, familiar and exotic—like our last few days near Tangier: the beach had modern amenities but it did offer camel rides! As we had learned elsewhere, cultural barriers can be crossed with earnest attempts at human interaction.