October 18, 2012
Today has been the longest day ever. The last 24 hours has been a litany of subways, buses, ferries and taxis. Though the title of this post only indicates that we started in Lisbon and ended in Fes, the real travel itinerary was more like:
Lisbon (Portugal) – Seville (Spain)- Algecerias (Spain)- Tarifa (Spain)- Tangier (Morocco) – Fes (Morocco)
For those of you sitting at your desk at work (yes, we know you are reading this at work) and thinking you will get a glimpse into our exciting and exotic travels, this should provide an insight into the unglamorous nature that international traveling (especially on a budget) frequently requires:
8:45pm Wed: Left Lisbon hostel on foot to the nearest subway station, strapped down with all our stuff.
9:00pm Wed: Arrived at subway station and got on blue metro line. Transferred to next line that took us to the bus station.
9:30pm Wed: Arrived at Lisbon Oriente bus station. Are unsure of where to go. Typically international bus stations are well labeled and not hard to navigate. This place is massive, it’s dark, there is no one around to help, no signs. Once we get out of the metro we find ourselves in the middle of a long stretch of empty bus loading lanes. It is not clear if we should head towards the main station area to find out which port/platform our bus will be leaving, or the opposite way towards where there are a smattering of buses already waiting. We unload our bags onto a bench and Eric jogs it over to the main station. He comes back a few minutes later with no more insight. It’s getting close to bus boarding time, so we strap back up, head over to the few buses on the far end of the terminal and wander around looking for some sort of sign or indication or anything. We decide to start walking to a nearby Alsa bus (the line we were taking), women stops us before we board, looks at our ticket then just points us to the next bus over. We put our bags underneath the bus and get in. The bus is packed. It’s looking like we will have to sit separate with strangers. Luckily two guys who were travelling together but sitting in their own separate rows realize they are looking at the same situation and they merge into one row, letting Eric and I sit together in the remaining row. We thank them profusely. I take a Dramamine.
10:00pm Wed night: Lisbon – Seville bus (7 hours). I slept most of the time, not much exciting to say here except that Eric has the ability to wake himself up if he starts to snore in a public space, so after about 60 seconds of snoozing the first snore comes and it bolts him back awake. Only when he has his anti-snore mouthpiece (looks like a plastic retainer, it’s meant to keep his mouth open to keep the airway open) AND a Breath-Right nasal strip is he ready to snooze somewhat peacefully.
5:30am Thurs: Stopover at the Seville bus station (1.5 hours). We were not told we would have to change buses. When driver motions for those going to Algeciras to get off we are confused. He doesn’t know English, we can’t understand his Spanish. He motions for us to follow him and takes us to a young blonde girl who had already de-boarded the bus. She listens to him in Spanish and tells us in English that we will need to catch a following bus to continue onto Algeciras. Turns out she’s from Finland, and neither Spanish or English are her native language. Not surprisingly she knows six languages (Finnish, Swedish, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French). Awesome. Eric and I once again feel like stupid Americans. (Those Dutch and Scandinavians are amazing with their languages!). We chat with Blondie and her Finnish blonde friend and turns out they are also going to Algeciras to catch the ferry to Morocco. (There’s really no other reason to go to Algeciras to be honest.)
6:00am Thurs: The Seville bus station is dark and empty, there is nothing open nearby. There are hardly any benches. We make ourselves comfortable on the floor inside. At least there are bathrooms open with running water so we can brush our teeth. Eric takes a snooze. I take another Dramamine.
7:00am Thurs: Seville – Algeciras bus (3.5 hours). Not a bad bus ride, again I slept most of the time.
10:30am: Arrived at the Algeciras ferry port. Blondies and I circle all the ferry operator desks and price compare. Eric and I decide to take the shorter ferry directly into Tangier, which leaves from a different Spanish port (Tarifa) about 40 mins away by bus. Blondies have decided to take a slower/longer ferry from the Algeciras port that leaves earlier. Leaving from Algeciras however means that they will be arriving in a new Tangier port (called Tangier MED) that is a 40 min ride outside of Tangier city (and regardless on where you leave from or where exactly you arrive, you’ll have to get yourself to the bus or train station within the city of Tangier to stand a chance getting transportation onwards). We say bye to Blondies, sit down at the port café and order a nondescript sandwich to wait for our shuttle bus to Tarifa. Have realized that my nail polish has broken and spilled all over the inside of my bag. Awesome.
12:00pm Thurs: Shuttle bus from Algeciras to Tarifa (40 mins). Beautiful countryside scenery. I take another Dramamine.
1:00pm Thurs: Depart Tairfa in ferry to Tangier (35 mins). Comfortable and quick ride. They have a passport control office on the ferry, so got that taken care of before we even touch Moroccan land. I switch my ring over to the ring finger of my left hand, and warn Eric that throughout our time in Morocco I will refer to him as my “husband.” (Culturally more accepted for a couple travelling together, plus will hopefully help ward off unwanted male attention coming my way.)
11:30am Thurs: Arrive in Tangier (note that we have gained two hours due to time zones/daylight savings). Braced ourselves for the flood of taxi drivers and “faux guides” who will swarm us. Security guy checks our passports on the way of the ferry. He barely glances at them, though it seems he is asking lots of questions to a legit-looking Moroccan family. Weird, there goes that rumor that we would get harassed at the border.
11:45am Thurs: Continue walking through the port area towards the direction of town. Ignored all the offers for taxis because we are sure that the bus station was just a few minutes walk. Stopped at a bank/exchange window to cash in our Euros for Moroccan Dirham (Dh). Continue to walk towards supposed bus station. Bus station is not as obvious as we thought it would be. Asked security guard for directions to bus station. He doesn’t speak English so tells us in French to keep walking.
12:00pm Thurs: We walk up to a parking lot of parked tour buses, but it does not appear to be our desired bus station. We make the mistake of standing still and not looking 100% confident about where we were. We are swarmed by Moroccans speaking to us in perfect English selling us souvenirs, trying to get us to stay at their hotel, along with a few who genuinely want to help. Moroccan man explains we need a taxi to the bus station, and because he is not offering to take us there himself nor is he trying to sell us anything else, we realize he is genuinely just trying to be helpful. He calls over the next cab (“Grand Taxi”) that comes by. We get in. He gives us a price of Dh30 ($4) to the bus station. We request that he put on the meter (we have read that we should insist on this lest we get ripped off). He says in part broken English, part French: “No no, no need to, is same”. I am sure now that he is just trying to rip off us. On principle, we get out of the cab. The guy who tried to help is confused and now the cab driver and helper guy are discussing in Arabic.
New helpful Moroccan guy (who had just previously tried to sell us some cheap looking watches), explains to us that the grand taxis don’t use meters (opps) it’s the petite taxis that do. He waves over one as it’s coming by and tells us it will be Dh15 to the bus station. Because we are tired of the hassle and the scene we are causing (and because it’s only $2) we agree without even requesting the meter this time, and off we go to the “bus station”.
1:00pm Thurs: Arrive at the “bus station”. Notice the quotes. This was an office where it seemed you could buy tickets. Certainly not the main bus station. According to this office the next bus to Fes leaves at in two hours at 3:00pm. Not wanting to wait for two hours and now more confident that we can handle these petite taxis, we decide to check out the train station instead. (Note: it is just about impossible to find this information online beforehand, otherwise I would have that done, obvi. And forget about an information desk or visitor center who would have this information.)
1:30pm Thurs: Hop into a Petite Taxi. Moroccan driver doesn’t know English. Only French and Spanish. We try to communicate in our horrible Spanish, end up pointing to our guide book. Driver puts on meter without complaint. Takes us to train station five minutes away. We pay only 6 Dh (so much cheaper when we use the meter!). We tell him thank you. And he says it back in French. So we say it back in Spanish. I ask him (in Spanish) how to say “Thank You” in Arab. He tells me “Shakran”. I tell him ”Shakran”. He tells me “Bravo”. I am very pleased with myself for my brief multi-lingual exchange.
1:40pm Thurs: Enter the bus station. I immediately ask the kid behind the ticket window if he speaks English. He answers “No, I speak the language of the USA”. We laugh. He sells us our first class tickets on the 5:00pm train to Fes (it is the same price as the bus and an hour faster, not to mention that trains are infinitely more comfortable that buses). I ask him how he knew we were American. He immediately looks at Eric. I say “Oh, because he’s a big guy with a beard?” He says “Yes, I thought at first maybe Canadian.” We ask ticket kid (he must have only been 20 years old) where we can eat while we wait for our train. He points us towards the beach and says “there is a McDonald’s only 5 mins walking”. We laugh at him because we think he is making a joke since we are from the land of McDonald’s. He is confused about why we laugh and says “You hate McDonald’s?” We say yes, we’d prefer some Moroccan food, he shrugs and says that if we head towards the McDonald’s there might be something nearby. We have been huddling around this ticket window for quite a while now, so relieved to talk to someone who has great English, that an older gentleman (a fellow passenger getting his ticket from another window) walks over to us and asks in English if everything is ok or if we need any help translating. Another nice Moroccan just looking to be helpful.
2:00pm Thurs: Walk out the train station towards the beach (towards McDonald’s). There is a huge Hilton hotel being built overlooking the beach. (Indication of the increasing tourist demand for luxury accommodations in the country.) We seem to be the only pedestrians in this area. Weird that there should be so much construction to house visitors when there are none in sight.
2:10pm Thurs: Reach the ocean front. We look either way along the main road for Moroccan food options. Don’t see any potential lunch spots except for the McDonald’s. (What’s funny is that this McD’s looks brand new with two stories, a large rooftop seating terrace, at least 20 tables outside the front overlooking the ocean, and a state of the art play area beside it. Had it not had the golden arches, this place could easily have passed for a quality establishment.) While standing on the corner, looking completely lost and confused I’m sure, a tan skinny man with shorts and a Louis Vuitton baseball hat walks by and asks if we need any help. It’s instantly obvious (to me) that this guy must live here, is in between errands perhaps, and just genuinely want to help the very obvious bewildered looking tourists. When we pause after his question, he continues (in perfect English), don’t worry, “I’m no guide, you just look lost.” So we tell him that we are looking for some kind of lunch since we have a few hours to kill before our next train. We start talking and find out that he is from Assilah, a coastal Moroccan town about 30 minutes away from Tangier. He gives us some names of some great restaurants in Assilah and is very obviously enthusiastic about his home town. Before long he has invited us up to his apartment on the opposite corner to check out the ocean views. (Before you readers get alarmed, Moroccan culture is hugely hospitable, especially to visitors, and it is not uncommon for invitations into one’s home. Plus his apartment building is a 20 story brand-new modern building with large balcony’s, and certainly anyone who resides in there must be legit.)
2:30pm Thurs: We follow along after our new friend into his apartment building, squeeze into the tiny elevator after some Tetris-like manuvering (European elevators are a fraction of the size of American elevators), and follow him into his 15th floor apartment. The apartment is huge and beautiful, and very obviously brand-new. Inside there are two other girls and a guy, probably around our age, lounging on the couch. They seemed a little surprised at first to see us, but then seem to shrug off the fact that our new friend has for some reason returned with some rag-tag backpackers in tow. Our new friend insists that we sit down, and without asking he brings us some juice and a couple of “biscuits”, which was really a plate of a couple sticky-sweets pastries and some of the flat tasteless corn-like patties you’ll find in Morocco. Turns out the apartment residents are all from the
Netherlands (kinda), but they don’t live here (not really), and no, this is not their apartment, but no, they are not renting it for vacation, and yes they know our new friend from the Netherlands… let’s just say that they were not necessarily forthcoming with the details of their arrangement, and after a few minutes of attempted conversation we dropped it. We drink our juice, eat a polite amount of the “biscuits”, and enjoy the ocean view from the balcony and eventually bid goodbye. Our friend walks us out in order to point us to a good Moroccan restaurant.
3:00pm Thurs: Once back outside on the street our friend again starts with the recommendation that we should just go to Assilah, insisting that we would love it and giving us names and places that we would enjoy there. (Now Moroccans can be very persistent, even to the point of being pushy. He had nothing to gain by sending us to Assilah, but so earnestly wanted us to see and experience his town that he just about put us in a cab to ride the 30 minute trip there.) Eric being the male (and Morocco still being a very male-centric culture) took on the task of slowly breaking it to this guy that we were not going to Assilah today. (Moroccan men still tend to look to the man to make the decisions and give the final answer.) Eric eventually convinces him that the last thing we want is to be in a moving vehicle after all our recent travels and that we will stay around the area to wait for our train. Our friend relents but doesn’t let us walk away until he has written down his name and phone number for us, insisting that we need to stop by Assilah on the way back to Tangier (where we will have to return for our return ferry) and to call him so he can show us around.
3:10pm Thurs: Walk towards the supposed restaurant. Again with all our luggage. Are not sure on the directions as he sort of gestured in the general direction and had said both “maybe 10 minutes” and “maybe 30 minutes” in the course of our conversation.
3:20pm Thurs: We’ve walked a few blocks and come across an inviting green park space overlooking the ocean. We stop and sit on a park bench.The weather is amazing. Neither of us want to move. We notice dark clouds forming in the distance. Finally we embarrassingly decide to just retreat to the McDonald’s after all. We are tired from the past 10 hours, our packs are heavy, we don’t know where the restaurant is, or how much it will cost, or if we will get lost (the Tangier train station is on the outskirts of the city and so our guidebooks do not provide a map for the area), or if we will get caught in the rain, and besides McDonald’s is close to the train station, we won’t get lost, and it will have WiFi and electrical plugs (with one plug converter and multiple electronic devices to keep charged, there is always something that needs to be charged).
3:30pm Thurs: Settle into McDonald’s. Order basic cheeseburger meal with small soda and small fries. Is surprisingly expensive for a cheap fast food chain in a supposedly cheap country. Guess we’re paying for the brand? WiFi doesn’t work. No free refills. This McDonald’s, while very clean shiny and new, does not live up to our American McDonald’s standards.
4:30pm Thurs: Leave McDonald’s to walk back towards train station. It had started to downpour, so we have to practically run the couple of blocks. Even with umbrellas we have gotten soaked.
4:45pm Thurs: Settle into our first class compartment, we have window seats across from each other. So far, there are no other passengers in our compartment with us. Eric snoozes (per usual), I take another Dramamine and read a book.
5:00pm Thurs: Train from Tangier to Fes. (4 hours, 15 mins). A few stops along the way collects more passengers in the cabin. One of the fellow passengers in our compartment had bad body odor, other than that nothing of significance to mention on this train. After the first hour it was too dark to check out the scenery outside, so we spent the time reading and snoozing.
9:15pm Thurs: Train arrives in Fes. We gather our bags and make our way into and through the train station. Not surprisingly there are about a dozen cab drivers crowding the exit asking if we need taxi. We see the station’s taxi bank about 50 yards straight ahead. We ignore the guys who are trying to sell us a ride and head towards the taxi bank. Most of the cab drivers give up on us after their first few attempts are ignored. One last cab driver starts to talk to us, we notice there are no taxis currently available at the taxi bank, so we ask if he has a petite taxi (because those are the ones with the meter). He says “yes yes of course” and is waving us over to where his car is parked in the side lot. We can see it is a petite taxi so we decide (foolishly) that he will by default use meter. We get over to the car, put some of our stuff in the trunk, hop in the backseat, and some old Moroccan guy who had been waiting at the car and talking to our driver hops in the front seat. As we’re pulling out of the lot we asking him about the meter and if he will turn it on. He waves the suggestion away and says something vague about not using it since it is after 8:00pm and don’t worry. (Legitimately there is a 50% surcharge for any ride after 8:00pm.) Because this is our first experience dealing with the night surcharge we just assume that this is how it works.
9:30pm Thurs: Cabbie pulls over to let out old guy. We are definitely on the other side of town. We figure that this is why he hasn’t used the meter.
9:40pm Thurs: We ride through the old city walls into the old medina section of town. Cab stops at the end of a dark alley way and points to the sign for the hostel that we can just barely make out. He says it will be 50 Dh. (The hostel’s website says that it should not cost more than 20 Dh during the day, and no more than 30 Dh at night.) So we balk at the overpriced price tag of the ride. Somehow the cabbie (who had perfect English before to get us in his cab), now conveniently has very broken English and vaguely explains that its more because it is at night and there are two of us. We insist it should only be 30, he insists that it is 50. Last thing I want is to make an enemy of a cab driver, who knows where we are staying, on our first night in Morocco. So we pay him the 50 but are pissed.
9:50pm Thurs: Arrive to the Funky Fes Hostel. Receptionist lets us in and it is beautiful inside. It is a typical Moroccan “Riad” style, which is a home with an interior garden/courtyard that acts as the home’s centerpiece, and all the rooms are assessed from the courtyard. The courtyard has colorful tiling and vibrant Moroccan style decorations.
I ask the receptionist how much the cab ride should have cost, he says maybe 20-30 Dh. When I tell him we paid 50 Dh he seems upset for us. He shakes his head, tells us we were charged too much and said that the cabbie was “not good”. His sympathy makes me feel a little better about getting ripped off.
Side-note: Getting ripped off is part of the Moroccan experience. In the larger scheme of things the extra 20 Dh that we were charged is equivalent to about $2.50. So ultimately it’s not the amount of money, it’s just the principle that we were so blatantly taken advantage of that makes me angry.
10:15pm Thurs: Finally get into our room, a seven bed dorm room in which two people are already in there asleep. We drop our stuff and crash on the closest beds. This concludes our longest day ever.
So those of you who made it through this post, congrats. If you got exhausted reading it, trying doing it with 50 pounds of stuff strapped on your back.