Note: A slightly different version of this piece was first published on the travel site Journey Beyond Travel
On our first afternoon in the Tangier medina, a soft-spoken, bespectacled old man invited my wife and me to step inside his carpet shop to “have a look.” When we showed interest in a small piece, he suddenly vanished, to be replaced by “The Closer,” the younger and rabidly aggressive owner of the store. After being served mint tea and then cajoled, manipulated, pressured, and begged for far too long, we finally stumbled out, exhausted. Undeterred, we continued our walk, dodging one shopkeeper after another, each shouting: English? Espanol? Just have a look!
That evening, we met a friendly, laid-back street vendor named Ali. He was thin, with stringy grey hair, bad teeth, and a perfect American accent. We weren’t interested in the belts he was hawking, but we had a long conversation about how he learned to speak American English so well. Eventually, he offered to bring us to a restaurant for great bastillas, our favorite Moroccan dish. Ali left his wares behind on the sidewalk and we followed him to Restaurant Kasbah (on Rue Gzenaya) which turned out to be simple but beautifully decorated, frequented by Moroccans and tourists, just the kind of place we love to try.
This was our first day of a full week in Tangier, which some people might say is far too much time there. I disagree. My wife and I prefer to slow down and get the feel of a place, to talk to people and experience the culture as we travel. If you have the time, and luckily we did, Tangier has a colorful, relaxed vibe that invites you to get to know it more thoroughly. The medina of Tangier turned out to be one of my favorites in all Morocco. It was just big enough to get lost in, yet small enough that it wasn’t so overwhelming.
While we waited for our bastillas, Ali took us upstairs to the roof for a beautiful sunset view over the medina, its rooftops tumbling haphazardly down the hill to the Mediterranean Sea beyond. There, he asked us if we liked wine. Coincidentally, the one gift my father-in-law had requested we bring back from Morocco was a bottle of good red wine. But we didn’t know where to buy it in this relatively dry nation.
“I am a wine drinker and I know good wines!” Ali said. “Give me 200 dirhams (about $20 US) and I’ll get you a bottle of wine I know your father will be happy with.”
We took him up on his offer and after bringing us back downstairs, off he went with our $20. After what seemed far too long, we wondered if he would be coming back. Finally, Ali returned with a bottle of Cuvée du President. He assured us it was the best, and we happily dragged it all over Morocco for the rest of our time in the country.
Weeks later, we shared the story with the manager of Chez Pierre, a gorgeous auberge in the Dades Valley, and learned that Ali probably only paid 50 dirhams for our bottle.
Lesson learned: If a stranger in Morocco suggests giving them money to buy you something, they will most likely keep their word. But they will include a commission in the price. And if you don’t know how much something should cost, that commission can be quite large!
Anyway, the bastillas were delicious. In fact, I returned on my own for lunch, and again a few days later with my wife. The owner recognized us and treated us wonderfully. After dinner, we lingered over mint tea and Moroccan sweets. When most of the other diners had left, the owner pulled up a chair and we all talked for over an hour”about love and life, about how he met his wife when she was only 15, about their 6 children, and about our own family. When we finally left, he presented me with a beautiful Moroccan kufi (a kind of hat) as a gift. These days, I like to wear it whenever I cook Moroccan food at home.
During our week in Tangier, I returned to the medina and the area around the adjacent Place Avril 9 (Plaza de France), nearly every day.
I’d wander, making it my mission to find the American Legation or Caid’s Bar or any other interesting-sounding sites listed in my travel guide. Afterward, I’d relax at Café Tanger off the Petit Socco, nursing a café au lait and watching life go by.
By the end of the week, I’d learned the rhythms of that famed square, where locals buy meat and produce while waves of tour groups advance and recede, street hawkers rushing in to pick at them like sandpipers at the water’s edge. Sometimes the hawkers tried to sell me their wares too, but instead of feeling bothered, I talked with them. I came to understand that although sometimes annoying, these men were good people, trying to make a living to support their families.
On my last day in Tangier, a street hawker who had previously tried to sell me tchotchkes saw me. He didn’t try to sell me anything. Instead, we greeted each other like old friends. None of the shopkeepers asked me to just have a look and even The Closer just mumbled a demur hello when I passed his shop. After a week in Tangier, I felt like more than a traveler. I felt like I was home.