So, this is the point where the careful planning for our trip (done almost exclusively by Cait) finally reached its end and we started winging it. Mostly, we wanted to leave ourselves some flexibility how long to stay at the last few stops before Morocco, especially since both were on the beach, although trip-planning fatigue also played a factor. In conjunction with this, it was about this point where we left the more beaten tourist path and took a path more often travelled by natives who have some clue what in the world they are doing. I think we saw one other large-backpack toting couple at the station in Tangier, but the rest of the day we seemed to be pretty isolated as the only ones from out of town (whether that be be Spain, France or Morocco). This might have been exciting in different circumstances, but after this much traveling, it was more just an added stress that we didn't deal with as well as we expected, but as usual, everything worked out. This post is long, but it's a day I want to remember, so, fair warning I guess.
In the end, it was a really wild day (at this point I can't believe it was all one day). It started with waking up in Algeciras, gathering our stuff and heading out the door down towards the docks. When we got near, we saw that there were a bunch of places selling ferry tickets that looked just legitimate enough for us to trust them. We did comparison shop some, taking a break to go get some simple breakfast and lunch food from a nearby market.
We picked the cheapest place with a boat leaving in an houra and a half, although there was some debate about whether to take a faster ferry out of a nearby town for $20 more, which looking back might have been a better option. We bought the cheaper tickets however, and it took some wandering to find the actual place of departure, and there was a worryingly long passport checking line, but we made it on the ship with plenty of time to spare, considering it took off an hour late. The voyage was uneventful and the kids enjoyed wandering around the fairly secure outer deck (under supervision of course) and watching Spanish Disney channel which was playing on several TV's inside the boat.
Things started to break down once we took our first steps into Morocco, however. In what has now proven to be a repeated pattern, our lack of understanding of regular practice combined with our sub-par ability to communicate using our limited Modern Standard Arabic and my slightly better Egyptian Arabic speaking skills has put us into some questionable situations that, again, always work out alright.
The bus let us off near a square in what appeared to be near the center of town with no real plans of what to do next, as well as no real idea of where to start in exploring the city. We did our first busy Moroccan street crossing, which means no crosswalk, no stoplights and cars moving fast with no indication of respect for pedestrians, which is just as terrifying as I remember it. Crossing means walking aggressively so that cars have to stop, but not so aggressively as to get flattened by a stubborn driver not interested in slowing at all.
We sat for a while under the shade of a small tree and planned what to do next. We figured finding some food was first, and we made our way around the square to what looked like the best option, a Shell gas station. In Egypt, and everywhere else I've been, gas stations are reliable if expensive places to find food, but apparently in Morocco, gas stations only stock auto supplies, which makes sense, I suppose. So we asked around and eventually made our way to a restaurant, where we ate a ton of watermelon and some distinctively non-British fish and chips, which consisted of the standard fries, along with chewy onion rings, whole breaded and fried sardines and a whole breaded and fried fish of inscrutable species and some bread and dipping sauce. We were hungry enough to eat it all however, and asking for more directions and advice in a mixture of English, French (which is the secondary language of almost everyone here, but not of us) and Arabic, we made our way to the next stop: the train station.
We ended up taking a taxi, even though it seemed that no one wanted to take us (the taxi drivers yelled at each other for a while until one conceded to take us for 30 durham, the exact equivalent of 3 euros [doing money conversion in our head here means dividing durham by 10 to get to Euros and then trying to go from Euros to dollars by estimation, but more often then not just stopping at Euros]). We probably just should have walked, because we had time before the next train to Fez (we had looked up the time online). We had an ongoing debate whether to stay in Tangier for a day or two and hang out on the beach or to head on to Fez. We ended up deciding to go on to Fez because we were a) ready to get there and be done traveling and b) the hotels in Tangier were rather expensive. Looking back on it now, I kind of wish we had stayed a few days, maybe gone to the beaches in Spain instead of Morocco, but what's done is done and it might have turned out to be a bad option had we stayed on there, as apparently the beaches on both sides of the Mediterranean in this area are rather unpleasant.
We waited in the station for a few hours after buying our tickets, got some ice cream and had some iPad time. As soon as we saw people starting to head toward the train, we followed, because Cait had read that they overbook the trains and some people don't get seats. This was certainly the case, and we were lucky to get three seats in one of the Harry Potter (and every old movie)-style cabins in the train (the only time we had that kind of arrangement) and we eventually reduced down from one seat for each of us to two seats and kids on the laps as the train got fuller and fuller at each stop and more and more people were standing forlornly outside of our cabin.
When we changed trains after a couple of hours (and a couple of breakdowns on the part of the kids), it was our turn to join in the frantic hunt for seats on a train already too full. Someone gave up their seat for Cait and Atticus, and Lulah and I wandered up and down the aisles for an hour or so, and Lulah got her first concentrated dose of Arab fawning over American babies. That, is of course, a stereotype, and plenty of Arabs seem more annoyed than pleased by the site of a smiling baby, but on the whole, Tallulah gets much more attention, kisses, cheek pinches, here in a day then she has ever gotten in Madison. Atticus also gets a fair amount of attention, but not nearly as much, but he got plenty in Egypt, so it's all fair.
The train slowly cleared at stop and I got to sit for a while until we finally made our way into Fez. Once in Fez, we were once again without real plans. The train station was really nice and had internet, so we made contact with some friends in Fez from UW who were also there studying Arabic. However, we left without establishing definite plans with them, heading out to get some food at a McDonalds Google Maps showed us (after
almost deciding to just stay at the reasonably priced hotel next to the train station, which, again looking back, would probably have been the best option [I keep adding these asides as a reminder to my future self about the lessons that we learned and to anyone else who is reading our blog in the Fez train station unsure of whether to try to make contact with their now-sleeping friends or stay the night in the nice hotel right next door]), where we planned on using internet. We made it to the McDonalds after a not to long walk, sent our friends another email and then the internet there stopped working and they didn't seem too interested in helping us figure it out. So we grabbed some food and headed out into the great unknown.
We had somewhat indicated to our friends that we would be meeting them in the square near their house where they would guide us through the old city that is the largest car-free city center in the world and thus inaccessible to taxis. However, we weren't sure if they had a) gotten those emails, as it was late and b) if it was really clear that we were going to meet them there. So we decided to head to the square and hope for the best, looking for a pay phone to call them along the way. We thought we had a good idea of how to walk to the square (we didn't and it would have been a really long walk if we did). After going for a little ways, we decided to try to hail a taxi, and after a few occupied ones passed us, a guy driving a motorcycle/very small truck combo, which we've learned are ubiquitous here, responded to our outstretched hand by stopping and driving back. We had no intention of riding in the back of a motorcycle in the dark and brisk night (it was pretty cool here the first week or so), but after he literally risked his life to drive against traffic to come back to get us, and considering our lack of other options (not many taxis had driven by and they were all full [and, we've learned, all have a reportedly enforced restriction allowing them to only carry three passengers, including kids]) we decided to risk it. Why not, after all we'd been through that day, end our lives in a fiery motorcycle crash tumbling into the large ravine at the side of the road. We loaded up all our stuff, including our two now-sleeping kids, into the bed of the motorcycle (I don't know what else to call it) and he took off down the hill. It was terrifying. I could have sworn I took some pictures mid-trip, but there are nowhere to be found. Dissapointing. We thought he had a clear idea of where we wanted to go, but saying "the old city" in Arabic apparently wasn't good enough, because once we finally made it clear that we wanted to go to "Plaz Batha" he had to retrace his path, and then turn on a very windy road up one of the hills and through a different gate than the one he first went into and down a few more roads to take us to the square. We payed him plus a little extra and got off in the square, now freezing and still without real plans.
We tried to phone our friends on a pay phone behind a little shop, but didn't get any answer. Neither of us had ever used a pay phone before (kids these days, right?) so we weren't even sure how to really do it, especially since all the instructions were in either French or Arabic. Cait thought she might have left a message after a few tries so we decided to wait a while to see if they would show up, and then, if not, stay in one of the hotels nearby. We had almost just decided to stay at hotels first, near the train station and second, nearby the McDonalds, which would have been great options in hindsight, but had both times decided to forge on.
We waited for twenty minutes or so, constantly having to dismiss young men anxious to book us into hotels that they were apparently informal representatives of, and then, after that didn't work, their anxious demands to sell us hashish. Cait decided to try calling one more time before we gave up and got a room, while I smoked hashish (just kidding) but, miraculously (as it seemed at the time) we got through to Kyle, one member of the Kyle and Vareena (he's an American Divinity PhD [is divinity a PhD program?] candidate, she's a German PhD candidate studying the Middle East, who are both taking Arabic classes here) duo who we were hoping to stay with, and after 15 minutes or so more of shivering in the cold, they showed up to walk us through the winding streets to their house.
So, after a little prodding to get our kids back to sleep, and a few hasty snacks, we all collapsed in exhaustion on blankets and mats scattered in their oddly spacious (for the US, not for Fez we learned) front sitting room and brought to end the most harrowing day so far of our entire trip. We had finally made it to Fez after one last adventure, which seemed a fitting end to the trek that felt like it would never end.
Summary: Algeciras to Tangier to Fez and then a cross town journey to our friends apartment.