Omar Shariff is a terrible tour guide....... The Slow Enchantment of Morocco.
Our journey started on a ferry to Tangier, Morocco from Algeciras, Spain. I had imagined us sailing across the ocean in a small open air vessel as we viewed whales and dolphins, instead we were in a giant cruise-ship like boat that only had two small open air viewing areas on the back of the ship. In fact the journey inside the boat, as prioritized by the company, seemed to be much more about filling out one’s travel papers, watching TV, eating from the snack bar, or buying stuff at the duty free store. Nonetheless it was a thrilling moment to step onto the shores of my first African country.
We had arrive in Tangiers Mediano, a port entry that was located a ½ hour out of the city, I later learned, from a Spanish speaking Morococcan cab driver, that it was owned by rich people and had only recently been used by the government. A bus took us to customs and then we caught another bus to the city of Tanger. Cam and I were disoriented, I could no longer speak the language well (Arabic and French), we weren’t even sure if we’d gotten on the right bus. Luckily we kept seeing signs that said Tanger and we breathed a sigh of relief.
Right as we got off the bus a man directed us to our bags. He began to tell us things, “there is a taxi over there, the trains leave at this time”…
I thought he was the bus driver. In a flurry we told him that we were leaving soon and will did not need any tours. He told us he was a guide and he liked California. He pushed us towards a taxi driver… How much I asked the guide? 5Euros he said. I asked the taxi driver, Combien? 10Euros he said. Sorry I said and we started to walk away. The guide moved next to Cam and pointed him towards another cab,
“take this one” he said, “it is 5E” ( I found out later a taxi should cost less than 1Euro).
He climbed in the cab with us and sat in the front seat.
“Hello he said my name is Shariff and my nick name is Omar. I am a guide.”
He directed the cabby to our hotel. All the while he was rattling off things to us…
“Where are we from? Did you know pot is legal here? (It’s not) Your hotel is great a wonderful breakfast view….Are you sure you don’t want a tour tonight I can take you somewhere to get Moroccan food and we can go to the artesan market, have a cup of tea. All for only 10E.”
To this day, I am not sure why I agreed except that- I do believe in having random adventures. And I want to trust people, over thinking they want to rob or cheat me. Also I’ve had some fantastic life changing moments when I’ve accepted an invitation from strangers in the past. Since we’d arrived late enough and I figured I didn’t feel comfortable exploring the city on my own at that hour and I was hungry, we agreed to meet up with him after we checked into our hotel and got ourselves organized.
Cam and I walked up the stairs of the grand old white Hotel Continental, I was charmed by the colorful paned-glass windows. It sat on cliffs overlooking the pier and was probably once a beautiful ocean view before the industry expanded. The old man at the counter spoke four languages and had just come in from a sitting room lined with seats. He gave us our keys and we headed upstairs to our bed, which was actually two single beds. Ha ha. In our room, Cam and I pondered what to bring with us on the tour. I decided I would only bring enough for cheap food and to pay the guide. Plus an emergency stash in my bra in case we were abandoned somewhere. Cam brought about 20E plus change. We left all our documents and cards in the room and headed down to meet Omar Shariff at the gate.
I told Shariff upon seeing him, that I’d need to be back in about 2 hours so I could write. He agreed. He led us through the winding streets of the Medina, a medieval walled city. I should have been suspect when he seemed to be less interested in talking with me about the history of the area. As we passed by weavers, I asked what was going on. He stopped turned around and brought us into a shop. It was the shop of Berber weavers. They greeted us and offered us mint tea. (A daily Moroccan drink made with fresh mint and lots of sugar.) The main shop owner sat us down and asked us what was knew about Morocco and Berber culture, he gave us some insights on his tribe- the women are covered, they weave, and the men sell the weavings. This led to the beginning of “the sale”.
What I’ve learned about buying in Morocco is that it’s all about negotiation and making the sale, and a salesperson can be rather unrelentless. It started when we drank the tea and continued as he put a scarf on Cam’s head and asked me what I thought.
“He looks handsome.” I said.
“No. He looks exotic.. he said.
And mind you this conversation was entirely in Spanish. He encouraged me to take a picture. Next he invited us to look around. By this time I’d noticed that our guide had disappeared. I looked at a pair of earrings and asked the price, 48E, way out of my range. After I turned down his price, he asked what I could pay. I said nothing. At some point Cam and I were separated in the room. He was speaking with a monastic looking older man, in a brown robe, whom up to that point had only been moaning and talking in a muffled voice in the corner. I thought he’d even been sleeping. He was trying to sell Cam all sorts of things, jewelry, scarves, a hashpipe, rings. They wanted to wear us down. I told the man talking to me that I had no money to buy things with, I only had money for the guide and food, he shook my hand and said thank you. End of his interaction with me.
Meanwhile the older Berber man was speaking softer and softer to Cam as he tried to give him a more exclusive deal. Finally wrapping the earrings I’d looked at into the scarf Cam had on his head he said,
“If you make her happy, than you will be happy.”
We caved. Being strangers in a new place and not knowing we could have walked out. Cam gave him his 20E plus all the change in his pocket. I gave him nothing. In a snap our guide reappeared, he’d gone for a quick shave.
Still not talking to us he took us through another maze of streets. As we sat down at the restaurant the man told us about a set menu meal that would cost 12E. (This was a fancier meal in Morocco). I’d budgeted for 5E each. I told the guide and the guide told the waiter, the waiter said he would make us a cheaper couscous.
At this point the guide tells us HE WILL BE LEAVING US. Inside I got pissed off, and then freaked out, and then confused. And then I went inside to find my own form of manipulation, partially brought on by the situation, and yes I began to cry in the middle of the restaurant. I tried to get the guide to explain.
“I need to get ice cream with my children” he said.
“But you haven’t even guided us! I thought you’d sit down and talk with us, tell us about your city, your life. I would have been happier eating ice cream with your kids then this nonstop sales trip.”
I cried because I want him to feel bad, because I was here to connect with humans around me. He looked uncomfortable. The waiter looked uncomfortable. Shariff then told us the waiter would walk us home and in that moment the waiter brought us a coke. I drank a sip of the Coke and then Shariff asked for his money.
I didn’t want to give him the money but I was worried if I didn’t the waiter wouldn’t even walk us home. I gave him our money cursing it as guilt money, in my mind, for him to bare the burden. The waiter arrived with a steaming tangine tray of couscous with chicken, carrots, and cabbage. It was delicious. There was bread, olives, watermelon, it was a feast at 5E. The waiter was kind, we felt his energy, and he hoped that we were enjoying our food. He brought us a dessert like baklava. In the end he was a good man and true to his word, he did walk us home. He was the artist here just like the Berber carpet makers, his work was deserving of the exchange. Cam told me later that probably our guide took cuts from every location we had been, I tried to warn the waiter not to pay the guide because I’d the guide as much as him. He barely spoke Spanish and no English so my message was lost.
I leave you with this image: As we were finishing our food I looked up from the table and saw the monk-like robed Berber man, (the one who moaned in the corner and I thought he might have been feeble) walking home proudly with two full bags of groceries balanced on his arms. At least we knew in the end that some our money went somewhere meaningful- food.