Khalid, our guide, said he would arrange everything. We had heard that the maze-like streets of Tetouan’s medina are impossible to navigate without a guide. The place is a rabbit warren of narrow streets, dead ends, short cuts through alleyways and not knowing the place, one would quickly get very lost very quickly. Before sailing to Marina Smir we had decided that we wanted to visit the UN World Heritage listed Tetouan medina and we budgeted some of our money to cover what would be, for us, an unusually expensive day.
We had met Khalid the day before, when we arrived in the marina, and Julian negotiated with him a price for a taxi and his guiding services for the day. He arrived at the boat at 10am and led us to the taxi. Katie’s first impression of the taxi driver was that he looked like Granddad! We drove south through M’Diq to Tetouan, past low-rise sea front holiday complexes, some in use, others in various stages of construction. Khalid informed us that Marina Smir attracts wealthy families from Casablanca and Rabat during the summer months. Apartments cost €400,000 or more. But at this time of year the resort town is quiet.
We sped along the road to Tetouan, passing camels, cows, sheep and goats grazing by the roadside and in the fields on either side. The lush vegetation near sea level quickly and suddenly gave way to the bare grey and jagged Rif Mountains. We passed fields of maize, rural homes with washing hanging on lines on flat roofs, modestly dressed women power-walking with baseball caps pulled down over their headscarves, and old men dressed in djellebas riding bicycles along the road.
The newer parts of Tetouan are just like any town, with their shops, banks and petrol stations, apartment buildings and public services, but once we got out of the taxi and started walking through the walled old town we were in a different world. So surprised was Katie that she tugged at my arm, pulled me down to her level, and whispered in my ear ‘Mummy, is this the old days?’
The entire medina was shaded and cool. All the streets were very narrow, in some cases so narrow that two people going in opposite directions would not be able to pass! Other streets ran underneath multi-storey buildings. Apart from a couple of scooters, the only non-human transportation we saw was a lone mule hobbled on a street corner where his owner filled his panniers with her shopping.
Old women walked the streets, stooped and bent as they carried cans and buckets and multi-gallon bottles of water, collected from the nearest communal tap. At open doors, men worked at benches in tiny workshops – cobblers, carpenters, tailors, metal workers, repairmen. In some cases the workshops also contained a simple bed and some clothes hanging up and it appeared these tiny rooms, no bigger than Carina’s saloon, were home as well as workshop.
The market areas were divided into areas specialising in different skills and products. Close to the ancient tannery, where leather is still produced and which also functions as a public open toilet (urine is a critical ingredient in the tanning process) cobblers made, repaired and sold footwear, and other traders sold animal skin rugs and blankets, and the smell of new leather filled the air. (The tannery itself stank). The smell of shaved wood soon filled the air as we walked through a section occupied by woodworkers and carpenters, making elaborately carved doors and furniture, and repairing and transforming old doors, wardrobes and headboards into new pieces. The metal workers and electrical repairmen were next. There were little stalls selling old tools and bits and pieces of machinery, and repairmen working to repair and sell old food blenders, televisions, twin-tub washing machines and much more besides. Amidst all of these there were items for sale that we would consider in too poor condition to even give away – old shoes that had clearly seen better days, rusty bed springs, crumpled disposable swim nappies sold individually, old belts and hats, the occasional small soft toy or doll. I was struck, not by the poor quality of some of the old stuff people were trying to sell, but of the high quality of much of the stuff that we thoughtlessly throw away.
And then there was the food. Stalls, hand carts, and people squatting beside cloths laid out on the side of the street, laden with food of such colours and smells and quantities to make any food lover swoon. The scent of mint and coriander filled the air, and hand carts sagged under the weight of oranges and green peppers. There were stalls selling bread and cheese, olives and tomatoes, and large sacks of dried beans, rice and pasta. Chickens pecked on the straw in small rooms opened onto the street and other, less lucky chickens, were tightly packed in cages. In both cases, one could choose a chicken for slaughter, cleaning and plucking on the spot – chicken doesn’t come much fresher than that. Fresh eggs were on sale everywhere and we met a couple of men walking through the narrow streets carrying impossibly high stacks of eggs.
We wandered from stall to stall, buying some goat’s cheese here, some bread there; fresh herbs, bananas, pears, garden peas and broad beans, lemons and hot green chillies that I tasted before purchasing and made their seller laugh at look on my face when I discovered how hot they were.
Khalid at times rushed us along. He was keen for us to get to a place with ‘herbs’ and some type of Moroccan oil and seemed impatient with our grocery shopping at the food stalls. We soon realised why. He took us to two specific places along the route. The first was an herbalist, who worked out of a very spectacular tiled building. He sat us down in a room filled with jars of herbs and gave us his salesman pitch. He attempted to convince us to buy 250ml of cooking oil for €25 and a small amount of saffron for €10. We cook with saffron when we can afford it, and the amount he was trying to sell us is £4.50 worth in the UK. We thanked him but admitted his wares were well beyond what we could afford.
After ushering us past the carpet makers, furniture makers and cobblers working out of their own small spaces, Khalid took us to a huge three-storey shop of a co-operative, where we met a very friendly and informative man who showed us around. Our eyes were on stalks at some of the prices in this place. He showed us a bespoke wardrobe and a couple of other items made for €150,000 for a client in Oman. Our house back in Cambridge cost only a little more than that!! The craftsmanship was exceptional, but €150,000 is €150,000! Rugs were laid out on the floor for us to see, despite our protestations that we couldn’t afford anything. The cheapest item on offer was a hand woven blanket with a price tag of €150. We were asked to make the best offer we could, and we assured the man that we could not afford anything, and anyway, we live on a boat and would have nowhere to put such a beautiful piece of work.
Though the people Khalid took us to meet were incredibly nice and, particularly in the case of the co-operative, the craftsmanship was exceptional, I was struck by the relatively greater wealth of these people compared to the old women selling their bunches of coriander and piles of oranges from sheets on the side of the streets. I wondered at the relative value of €100 to the former or our €1 to the latter. We couldn’t afford and didn’t want what the herbalist and the craft co-operative had to sell; but we could afford and definitely did want the food available from the small local and, in some cases, impoverished producers.
Through some crazy feat of navigation by Khalid, who was born and raised in the medina, we suddenly found ourselves back at the same gate by which we had entered the walled old town. The taxi was waiting for us and on the way home he stopped at a supermarket, so we could add yogurt, butter, orange juice and engine oil to the purchases we had already made.
A few hundred yards from the marina we passed a young man grazing his camel on the side of the road. When we alighted from the taxi, I went aboard Carina and Julian walked back up the road so the girls could see the camel. Ten minutes later I heard Julian call my name and I stepped up into the cockpit to see Lily riding the camel home! I raced for my camera. Katie took some persuading to have a go, but after getting to know the camel by hand-feeding it, she decided to give it a try. Up she got, and Lily walked her along the pontoon.
It was a wonderful end to a memorable day. The girls were enthralled by all the new sights, sounds and smells of the medina and to add an impromptu camel ride was the icing on the cake. For the girls it was an amazing cultural experience. For Julian and me it was more than that. We were confronted by our own good fortune, our relative wealth, and our lazy and privileged attitude towards the stuff we have – whether that stuff is indoor plumbing or too many pairs of shoes or the camera that I wore around my neck.