Tangerian dreams. No, this is not about the German electronic band Tangerine Dreams. This is about Tanger, Morocco.
The Moroccan French spelling is Tanger, but it is also often spelled Tangier or Tangiers. For many people Tanger is the gateway to north Africa.
An entire continent lies beyond the ancient streets. But within those old, worn alleys and boulevards you enter a powerful swirling mixture of exotic smells (from street vendor stalls and other less welcome aromas), the intriguing sounds of Arabic music, donkey carts, motorcycle pedicabs, and strong unease from real and imagined dangers. Unease that is constantly reinforced by hustlers and aggressive “guides for hire” lining the streets.
Tanger is a gritty industrial port. It is a place where the rule is ‘do what you can get away with’. It is a transit point and meeting place of cultures. It has long been the main entry for travelers from Spain. Travelers from Europe face an intense change in culture when they get off the ferry from Algeciras, Spain.
The new ferry terminal in Tanger is far to the east of the city. After a long bus ride you are dumped out in a square directly in front of the old ferry terminal. The bus is immediately surrounded by street entrepreneurs. The luggage bays are opened and it seems to take forever to get out of the bus to fight your way through the crowd to protect your luggage, which you hope is still under the bus. This is not xenophobia or paranoia. I had to physically take my luggage away from people. You have to make it clear that you do not need help getting your luggage and that you don’t need help finding a better/cheaper hotel. It is best to know where your hotel is and to head there with dispatch.
One very persistent hustler wouldn’t take “No, merci” for an answer. I tried to walk away only to be confronted by a colleague of his who reassured me, “He is just trying to help you. He works for the tourist office. Where are you from?” Of course they offered no identification.
Somehow I was not reassured by one street hustler vouching for another one. And that was the first of many times that I heard that phrase, “where are you from?” It was a device to start conversations and to begin the hustle, tailored to your country.
The reason I tell this story about Tanger is that most of the rest of my time in Morocco was interesting and memorable in very positive ways. Tanger is not the place to form an opinion about Morocco or north Africa. Tanger is a place where opportunity is made by aggression.
I later hired guides through hotels and travel services as I traveled south. I learned a great deal and met many kind and generous people walking through Fes and tiny villages in the High Atlas Mountains.
Tanger is still a place that stirs the imagination when you think about it from afar. It is a place of international intrigue and fable. It is easy to dream about what it is like and be entirely wrong.
During recent years it appears that construction and redevelopment have improved some parts of Tanger. If you walk from the port to the train station, you walk down a broad modern boulevard along the shore. Restaurants line the beach and new buildings are on the other side of the street. The train station is a sparkling new efficient building. But you also see half-completed or half-demolished buildings which are signs of the building boom hitting economic recession.
The hotels in the port area are mostly old and run-down. The walk up the hill from the port is like walking a gauntlet. The rough cobblestones make it hard to wind your way through the hustlers lining the street on both sides. I was not surprised to find my “Tourist Office” helper halfway up the hill leaning against a wall with friends. He took the opportunity to taunt me again.
With old hotel windows open wide for ventilation the view over the port is striking. But the smells and noises are strong reminders of where you are.
This photograph was taken out the hotel window. The newer buildings along the shore show the recent revitalization. But this view does not convey the pressures of walking the streets. I only felt less secure later when I was photographing on the streets of Casablanca at night. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea anyway.
I am probably not being fair to Tanger basing my opinion on a very brief visit. But my favorite part of Tanger was the train station and the excitement of leaving for Fes. Fes and the High Atlas Mountains were tremendous experiences and I was happy to leave Tanger behind.
When I dream of Tanger now I have vivid memories to base it on. To me it is a place to get on the train. But then again, maybe Tangerians wouldn’t dream of living in my town either!