We arrived late in the night in Tangier. That was a bit unfortunate, since it was one day less we could see the city, but then it was one day more we got to see Barcelona, so as with most unfortunate things, there was a fortunate side. We landed at near 10:00 at night, and the passport line was quite slow going. There was one guy, a fairly modern looking fellow - that is to say, in pants, coat, and scarf - who was holding five passports. For some reason, his large family of women, composed of four large women and a baby, all sat past the passport control, tending to the baby. All of them but the mother wore a hijab, or headscarf, in the traditional Islamic fashion. My wife wondered about this, why a seemingly modern man would have his women in hijab, but I wondered if he even played a part in that at all. Unfortunately, Occam's Razor is not always so sharp and can often make a mess of things.
When finally we got up to the window, they looked at my wife's passport. For some reason it wasn't scanning on their passport machine. They looked at it closely, as though they were confused about the very existence of my wife's country, Georgia, and not quite understanding that indeed, it was a real country that existed apart from the United States. A bit understandable, since we handed the official our passports together.
After scratching his head for the fifth time, the official raised his finger and called another man over - a skinny guy with a mustache messily jutting out to the sky, waxed as though trying to imitate a Salvador Dali photograph. He took the passport and tried to scan it in as well and again it didn't work. "Sil vous plait," he said and he motioned us to where the large family was sitting. We took their seats, as now the passport check area was empty and nearly abandoned. "French? Spanish?" he said.
"English?" we replied in unison.
He grunted and frowned. "No," he said. "Uh, five minut." He left us and went to a back office, my wife's passport in his hands. Then he returned, much passed his five minut limit. The emptiness of the airport resounding with the echoes of the clicking of his shoes as he walked across the polished floor. "This visa, good, this passport, no good," he kept repeating, as though the extra time he spent in the backroom was spent rehearsing his new English phrase. "Ah, your passport?" he said to me and taking my American documents in his hand. "This passport good."
"But your embassy in Czech Republic gave me the visa," my wife explained.
"Visa good. Passport bad." Again his rehearsed phrase. He seemed proud of getting it nearly correct, as he was smiling as he said it. "Maybe you stay in Morocco three month, oui?"
"Ah, no," we answered. Maybe this was a form of strange Moroccan humor.
He then brought us over to the passport computers to show us his problem. He first put mine on the scanner. It read the numbers without a problem and brought up my information. Then he put in my wife's and put her country as Spain - which is where we flew from.
"No, I'm from Georgia. Not Spain. Georgia. Gee-ooorr-giiii-a."
As he re-conducted the search, I whispered to her ear. "Probably earlier they searched your passport as though you were an American." I laughed. It never gets old to me that people are constantly mistaking the country for the state, even when it's written on internationally recognized legal documents. If only the old president had insisted on his country being called Sakartvelo, which is how it's known in Georgian, this wouldn't be a problem. But unfortunately, American sports - and thus states - are often more well known than global politics, even by passport control officials.
The official laughed again and made one of his jokes that was more scary than funny. "Uh, maybe you want stay in Morocco for year?" He was holding my wife's passport, though now his hands were shaking. Was he nervous now?
"Look, is there a problem with the passport?" I asked, starting to lose my patience.
"No, no problem," he said, but not saying anything or doing anything more.
"So," I said.
"No problem, yes. Maybe Morocco for year, oui?" he said, still smiling and nodding his head.
"If there's no problem, can we have the passport and go to our hotel?"
"Oh, yes, yes, no problem."
He handed the passport back to my wife and led us through customs. Then asked, "Do you need a taxi? Do you need me to take you to the hotel?"
"No, just tell us where the taxis are and how much to pay."
There is a sign posted with the standard night and day prices to different locations across town. He looked at it and told us it should be 150 dirham, since the night price for the medina was 150. We left the airport to the taxi cue, which was composed of a line of light blue taxis that were all the same make and model of a 1970s Mercedes, the car which Lada modeled their Jiguli after, so they looked quite familiar to me. It was like a flash back to Georgia, the country.
"Who's next?" I asked the group of huddled taxi drivers. One came up to me.
In French then Spanish - the language we settled on - he asked where I was going.
"How much?" - it's important to always negotiate ahead when dealing with third world taxi drivers.
"Um, the board inside says 150." I've had the same problem in Tbilisi, where the taxi drivers are always trying to get more than the legal amount. And again, the same problem, where the drivers were working in some sort of guild or bargaining unit, as none of the other drivers offered me the correct price and they all backed the guy I was dealing with.
"150," I repeated. "The sign, 150."
He gave off some explanation - my Spanish isn't nearly good enough to know what he said and my patience at this point wasn't enough to care - as to why the sign was wrong. "250," he said.
"Okay, I make you deal, 225, last price," he said. It was clear now that he wasn't going to budge, as we went back and forth a few more times and he wasn't moving. And seeing that it was night and there were no other cars or people there than this rank of taxis and these drivers who had halted from their card game to look at us, it really seemed that the last price should be taken.
The airport is some distance from the city and probably well worth the 25 dollar drive that it cost, especially at midnight when no one else was near and the streets of Tangier were possibly dangerous. Not having been there, I could give no real assessment except going with the guidebooks that claimed it was dangerous. As the taxi drove, he passed a few nicely developed resort areas and a luxury golf course until finally he arrived at the medina, circling around it, appearing like a walled fortress to our right and the Straight of Gibraltar on our left, glowing cruise boats floating in the distance. And then our hotel, which was hanging over the wall, looking out across the bay and harbor to the other side of Tangier. Then the taxi took a narrow, winding road into the medina, and another narrow road going inside.
"At night time, you can't walk around the medina. It's too dangerous, you should only walk during the day." Is what I understood from his Spanish. Likewise, he could have said, "At night time it's the only time you can drive because there're too many people during the day." I wasn't really sure which he was saying, but after we parked, I assumed it was the latter.
He dropped us off in the parking lot of the Hotel Continental. A guy from outside came up to us. "Hey guys, you want something to drink? Some tea or coffee? My cafe is right there."
I looked at the time. It was near one o'clock in the morning. "Maybe tomorrow. Do you have shisha? Some nargile?"
"No shisha man, but I've got hashish. You want to smoke? Come on man, my cafe is right here. And I live in that blue house above it. You want to smoke, just tell me."
"We've got to check in, maybe tomorrow, for now we're a bit tired."
"Yeah, no problem man, just let me know. Come by tomorrow."
We left our Tangerine greeter in the parking lot and went inside the hotel. To say the place is magnificent is perhaps an understatement. The entire place is tip top with traditional Moroccan decor, wood and tile patterns everywhere that could fit. It was a scene from a grand hotel from fifty years or more ago, back when hotels were built with character and feeling, alien to this time period of mass production and IKEA. The place also smelled of the 1950s, a musky sort of we-used-to-smoke-lots-of-cigars-here-but-now-it’s-non-a-smoking-establishment smell. And indeed they have. The Hotel Continental is the oldest hotel in Tangier, and has historically been one of the most important, with people from Winston Churchill to Jack Kerouac staying there. Now it was but an old pale ghost of its former glory, but still a beautiful architectural wonder.
The clerk brought us to our room without a problem and then, without even waiting for a tip - something from my experience in Egypt I had assumed was impossible for Arabs - left us alone. The room continued in the architectural magnificence, with the wood work on the corners and the ceiling and tiles across the floor. The bed was also nicely crafted and there was gramophone in the corner, to add to the character - having no needle, the thing didn't actually work. The living area had some quite old and in bad taste couch and arm chairs, but that wasn't really anything to complain about, especially when the curtains were pulled back to reveal a balcony looking out across the harbor. For 40 dollars, we couldn't have imagine a better place, and it probably was my favorite hotel in all of our travel through Morocco.