5.45am. At the end of our holiday to Seville and Cadiz, Queen of Quilts and I decide to pop across to Africa for the day. I think it was my idea, in fact – I was trying to be a bit adventurous as I’d never strayed outside safe old western Europe or America.
We get a coach from Cadiz to Tarifa at the extreme southwest point of Spain. Quilts nods while I drowsily take in the sights emerging in the light, including an amazing landscape of wind turbines.
8am. Arrive at Tarifa. Several other passengers get off here but for some reason we decide not to follow them but strike out on our own. I mean, how hard can it be to spot Africa? The whole bloody continent is only 20 miles away, after all.
9am. No sign of Africa. Currently looking for it on a half-built housing estate. Well anyway, we’ve had a nice bracing walk along the seafront.
9.01am. I threaten Quilts that I might have to speak some Spanish. I’ve been learning the language for 13 years, it’s time to chance my arm with: “Where are the boats to Africa?”
9.02am. “Donde estan los barcos a Africa?” My victim is the only person we have passed on the estate: a camp-looking man with YMCA biker tash and a dog. He must understand because he does a lot of mime and soon we’re passing through Tarifa town. It’s half olde Spanish town, half The Lanes in Brighton with its swanky shops (mainly for surfers). The result is pretty although the place is apparently party central for the chilled crowd in high season. Wouldn’t want to stay here – my party days are over, and Quilts’ have been since a bad experience driving the Richard Clayderman tour bus in ‘79.
That thing above the hatchbacks is Africa.
We buy our tickets, €45 each. The Tangier trip has begun!
11am. The crossing is only going to be 35 minutes but it’s not as simple as it’s made out in The Bourne Supremacy, in which Matt Damon casually takes in the views up top as opposed to queuing to get his passport stamped by a depressed Moroccan policeman like the rest of us.
11.30am. Africa looms closer. Feel a bit nervous. We don’t know what currency the Tangerines (?) use, what language they speak or what the hell we’re going to do when we get there. The only thing I know is that Paul Bowles was mad about the place, as was William Burroughs, who based The Naked Lunch’s Interzone on it. But that doesn’t exactly get us anywhere. This Tangier trip suddenly feels a bit foolish, even more so when we step off the boat and are assailed from all sides by vendors, guides, beggars and a shedload of general chancers.
All the other daytrippers hook up with their guides and I suddenly wish we’d thought of that. I want to shout: “Enjoy your McVisit, you SELLOUTS!” but decide to keep a low profile. Blindly, Quilts and I make our way through the large, grotty port. Oh my God, we’ve got five hours of this?
We take our pick from a row of grotty portable cabins and go in to exchange some euros into dirhams. God knows how ripped off we’ve been but that’s the “joy” of places like this – you have no way of knowing and no way of doing anything about it even if you did. We hit upon the idea of “heading for the town centre”, like you would if travelling to Bath for the day. But as we stare up at the imposing panorama of whitewashed houses and walls above us, we realise we don’t know if there is a “centre” and how we’d find it if there was. Hmmm, maybe we should have hired one of those guides back at the port.
Still, we know best, especially when it comes to organising a Tangier trip, and we set off down a snarling dual carriageway in the heat. We’re bound to hit something before long. Algeria, perhaps. We ignore an old chap in a baseball cap who starts to offer his services and press on. Tum-ti-tum-ti-tum, what an adventure, eh! (got to keep the spirits up). Lah-di-da-di-VROOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. Hmmm, not a great road to be walking along.
Noon. We stop and consider the daunting prospect of entering the walled-in medina (old town). At that moment the old bloke begins walking back to us. This time I almost hug him but for bartering purposes I act aloof, ie like we are walking down this motorway out of choice and will only hire someone who can offer us something much better.
His name is Ali and he unfolds some kind of documentation with an ancient date stamp from several decades back. He wants to chaperone us all day but we agree to take him on for a couple of hours for a total of €20. Done. He then takes us to… his car. We’re going to get into a stranger’s car in Morocco, when none of our friends and family even know we’re in Africa? Warily, we start to get in… but Ali laughs. No, don’t do that, he says, I just want to get my map.
He leads us across the road and through a deserted car park. We’re just about to enter the labyrinth of alleyways when a group of half a dozen or so youths who had been sitting on a rail stand up and start to fall in with us. We’ve walked into the trap! Of course, how could we have been so stupid -- Fagin leads the gullible tourists to the boys and the boys do the dirty work! And then Fagin will vanish into the shadows, perhaps turning to savour the look of betrayal in our eyes...
But, unexpectedly, it is the boys who vanish. They simply disperse. Phew. Now we can enjoy the tour. Can't we?
You could use the phrase “faded grandeur” many times in a write-up on Tangier if you weren’t careful, so let’s just use it for this former haunt of luminaries such as Churchill, Degas and Kerouac, who later found fame as Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Ali says that next we’re going to visit the rug shop of someone he knows. Hmmm. Okay, Ali, our master protector, lead the way. Soon we’re inside some gigantic premises with some truly impressive handiwork.
When Quilts expresses interest in buying a rug I know we might as well just hand them our credit cards. In the end she settles for a plate and I try to be a man and barter. Quilts won’t give me a simple answer on a ballpark figure for how much one might cost at home and… well, I can’t possibly say how much it cost but I did see them shut up for the day as we left.
What next? On to see someone I know, says Ali. Quelle frickin’ surprise…
“There aren’t going to be any more of these stops, are there, Ali?” I ask.
“No, no, last one,” he promises.
We enter a herbalist’s and he proceeds to give us a lengthy demonstration of herbs and their applications; the latter I can only describe as “everyday household goods” such as hand cream and shampoo. This Tangier trip has turned into a showcase of home-grown crafts and industry.
The stop here does feature the most memorable bit of the day, however, when our man – who has some terrible sniffles – wraps some smelling salts inside a large bit of cloth, takes a massive belt of it up both nostrils and thrusts it first at me and then at Quilts to do the same. Nice.
I kind of feel a bit sorry for him but any inclination to buy something is tempered by the fact he does nothing to engage with us, just rattles off his script in a monotone. We leave with the cheapest options of some green tea and tea tree oil.
1pm. By now we’re beginning to feel a bit shattered – it’s not just the early start and the distance we’ve travelled, it’s the relentless attention from people looking to rip us off, and the fact we have no idea where we are or even of how big the city is. It’s only because we’re with Ali that we’re being left alone. God knows what will happen when his two hours are up…
We ask if we can have some lunch, because we’re starving. Ali leads us – of course – to one of his little stops, and we find ourselves in a restaurant packed with other saps like us. I pay Ali his lucre and before he goes I ask if I can take his picture; I’m going to squeeze as much value from him as I can for that ****ing plate. Here he is, the old rascal.
There are some musicians playing and hey! you can come and pose with us (get your wallets open, suckers).
I knew I was going to end up paying through the nose for a bit of music so when it was my turn for a request I got the bastards to play Wagner's Ring Cycle.
2pm. We leave the restaurant and are unsure what to do; everywhere we go we’re going to be sitting ducks. After all, there are only so many conversations you can have like this:
BOY: Very good restaurant – you come!
ME: Yes, I’ve just eaten there.
BOY: Very excellent restaurant, you come please!
ME: Yes, I’ve just eaten there.
BOY: Good food, you eat, you follow! Here, here!
ME: YES, I KNOW, I’VE JUST EATEN THERE!
4pm. We slope off for a mint tea in a café, where we sit on the street and watch the world go by and take comfort in the fact that there are some people making Tangier trips (mainly large Americans) who are even less streetwise than us.
We board and have a fantastic Heineken but the boat doesn’t leave. An hour and a quarter later it still hasn’t. No announcements though. Who cares? We’re safe here, we’re being left alone and we have beer. And neither of us caught a cold off the herbalist, so really it could have been much worse…