14 May 2020

Oranges in Tangier

By In Travels and other stories

I first travelled to Europe in 2002 as a backpacker, sweeping across continents and cramming all of my travel ‘firsts’ into four short months. I didn’t expect this trip to be a travel initiation or conversion – I knew I was a born traveller at age 6, when I first visited Melbourne International Airport to farewell my grandparents who were leaving to visit the motherland. I stood before the looming, seemingly impenetrable sliding doors that led to something ‘international’ and, having no idea where they led except to a plane that would take my grandparents to Athens, I knew my mission in life was to get behind those doors and uncover the mysteries of this thing people called ‘international’. 

I dreamed about those departure gates for many, many years. I studied maps, learned capital cities of obscure countries and plotted imaginary regional trips closer to home with the aid of a Melway, starting over each time my imagined route would end on a ‘limit of map’ page. 

That first trip in 2002 was me ‘checking in’ with all the places I had so thoroughly researched; rushing to see them, get through them and then out of them so I could quickly move onto the next place. I wasn’t ready to live them, nor was I able to understand what their impact might be in retrospect, on me personally or on the way in which I was to travel in the future. 

It was to be five long years before I would reach Europe again. This time I had a pilot husband and a home in the leafy, eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I was in a respectable profession as an editor, held dinner parties using expensive wedding crockery and cutlery and had a garage full of moving boxes, should we move to some regional airline base at a moment’s notice. I was only 27 and thought I was all grown up, with my ‘wild days’ behind me. I thought I was living as one should … with ducks properly lined up and such. 

The pilot – let’s call him ‘Ed’ – and I had long hoped to get to Europe, and when we finally did in 2007, it was to be a remarkable trip for me personally. I really couldn’t wait to get back to Europe after the 2002 trip, knowing that I had spent much of those first travels excessively communicating with home, often feeling guilty for being so far away, and simply ticking sightseeing boxes, denying myself the opportunity to really experience remarkable new environs. This time, I was going with full appreciation of the beauty I was about to absorb and be absorbed into.

As I had in 2002, I organised for us to stay with my uncle and auntie in Spain, who at the time lived in a terracotta-coloured, Moroccan-style home that sprawled across a hill high above the glitzy Costa del Sol town of Marbella. From the main bedroom terrace on a rare clear night, you could see all the way across the Mediterranean to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Though most nights you couldn’t see them, just knowing they were there, dancing on that misty precipice between sea and sky, made this a special place for me. For my uncle, this view was an opportunity to look from his current home back across to the land in which he and my father had been born. 

Ed, a sweet and earnest man with his mind firmly fixed on aviation since childhood, loved my uncle, himself an aviator and but with the added charm and savvy of a successful entrepreneur. Ed would spend time in my uncle’s office playing Flight Simulator or looking at photos of my uncle’s own lightweight aircraft, mouth agape and holding onto every word when my uncle recounted tales of flying dangerously low into Morocco and France.  

One morning as we checked our emails in the office after breakfast, my uncle appeared at the door, clapped his hands together and asked, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘How would you two like to go to Morocco today?’ Having thought it would be another low-key day in Marbella, I laughed out an immediate and surprised ‘Yes!’ I had long wanted my uncle and auntie to be the ones to chaperone me across the narrow waterway to Africa, and, precisely, to Morocco. My uncle was quick to dim my excitement, sensing I was a woman with a suppressed appetite for wild travel abandon, and with a husband who was far more cautious. We would only be going for the day, he clarified; a quick trip there and back. He had to leave Spain and get back in with a stamp … something about a visa and a passport and too many details that my excited brain couldn’t catch. 

We were ready in 10 minutes flat and in the car minutes after that, taking only what we could fit into my We were ready and in the car in 10 minutes flat, taking only what we could fit into my small leather backpack. We drove along the windy coastline from Marbella to Tarifa, from where we would be taking the ferry. Towering wind turbines created a colossal pathway to our destination, their stark whiteness contrasted by the terracotta earth. Oncoming vans struggled past us, their roofs laden with goods fastened by spindly ropes, ends flying wild in the wind.

As we drew closer to Tarifa, the barren, dusty scenery became familiar to me. I had been brought here in 2002, to the point at which the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean intersect; and it was here that I had devoured an incredible tuna empanada (I never forget good food). But this time I felt nervous, knowing we were about to cross a frontier into a country that would intimidate and overwhelm me; excite and seduce me. I took all those feelings with me as I walked across the bridge and onto the ferry. The journey felt heavy. What it lacked in distance for a typical cross-continental adventure, it certainly made up for in danger.

The Strait of Gibraltar was not a forgiving passageway, as the stories told it. For us, the first few minutes were calm as we headed out of the blue Mediterranean and edged closer to the grey Atlantic. But at the startlingly adjacent angle of the meeting of the two waters, the ferry lurched forward in sudden bursts so as to keep its heading amidst hungry waves, and it became apparent how this 14-kilometre stretch of water could claim many a life; particularly of those fleeing Africa with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their hope. 

The mountains and white mud-brick buildings studding their crevices were a welcome sight as we drew closer to Tangier. We disembarked in a fairly orderly fashion, lining up at the solo customs booth to have passports stamped and be granted permission to proceed. Order ended there. 

A fog of dust, colour and loosely-clothed bodies came into effect as soon as we stepped beyond the gates, and then I was in it – a scene so starkly different from the one we left behind only 2 hours earlier. Life pulsed all around me and through me, my senses working hard to lock in each sight, sound and smell. We would only have a couple of hours to explore Tangier before needing to catch the ferry back, so my uncle hailed a taxi and we all climbed in.  

The driver weaved in and out of tiny streets, talking loudly in French with my uncle and interrupting himself occasionally to sing a line of the ‘Habibi’ song on the radio. I watched the scenes outside the taxi window with the paralytic giddiness of a child. The men slowly sipping tea outside cafes; the wrought-iron balustrades on buildings stripped of paint; the arches upon arches leading to more arch-covered streets; djellabas in every possible faded colour, hanging high from shop fronts. These were the scenes I had lusted over in coffee-table books and movies and family photos, made romantic in my mind but now a reality laid before me from a moving vehicle. What mundanity I had come from, I thought. The driver cruised around slowly for us until we reached another beautiful archway off the main square – the entryway to the medina. We would walk from there back to the ferry terminal.

The Ancien Medina was a market of many more arches, tiny laneways and goods that made me want to start an import business. Spices, leather goods, beads, jewels, tagines, slippers, pulses, teas, cushions and clothing filled the ancient caverns tucked inside the market lanes. These were the very scenes I had longed to see, bringing to life the stories my father had told me of his childhood. I felt a rush of life within me that I hadn’t felt since visiting Cairo years earlier. The chaos and dusty air within the cramped quarters were nothing short of intoxicating. Realising none of us had eaten and the food smells were making us salivate, my uncle bought a slab of warm bread to take with us. My auntie invested in a bag of oranges. Her choice was queried, as we hadn’t any cutlery to carve up oranges. She smiled her serene, knowing smile, carrying the sack of oranges as we devoured the bread and walked along the port-front boulevard towards the terminal.

Gateway to the Medina

I had noticed since arriving the sheer number of people, young men in particular, huddled in groups or languidly stretched out across steps, gazing at passers-by and with no air of having an agenda. Their gazes fell on us as we walked by, four tourists carrying little but a bag of oranges. My uncle had told us of high unemployment in Morocco and the many who had made their way to Tangier from Sub-Saharan countries, seeking solace and a life in Morocco that they sadly couldn’t attain. People lined the avenue leading to the terminal gates. Once through, we entered the passenger building and were notified by the customs officer that our ferry would be delayed by about an hour.

The road to the ferry terminal

Beyond the customs desk there was a room for passengers waiting to embark. The room was a decent size, but it was to feel smaller and smaller as the time passed. We found an empty bench and sat, and my auntie waved the sack of oranges at us, smiling. Hungrily, we peeled and roughly apportioned them, their sweet juices running quickly down our fingers. Moroccan oranges are some of the best, my auntie told us, and indeed they were. Darker than the local supermarket variety, but less intense than a crimson blood orange, they were a deep, orange colour and smelt like the streets of Sevilla. I licked my fingers and shook my hands of the excess juice, and only when I looked up did I realise that I had forgotten myself – it seemed we had an audience of young men before us, with wide, penetrating eyes. Staring, I had been told by my father, was something of a national sport in Morocco. I felt a little intimidated by it, but I tried to remember that it was harmless curiosity and we were the odd ones.

By the second hour of waiting for the ferry, the numbers in our waiting room had swelled dramatically. There were people all around us now, and we had grown tired of the oranges and tired of the waiting. The Sun was disappearing and, with it, all communication about our impending ride home.

Ed became increasingly, and noticeably, irritated. He didn’t like the staring, particularly as it was directed at me, his young wife. He stood up angrily, all shoulders and chest and brawn. My uncle, himself not a wallflower, immediately stood up and moved in close to him, so as to muffle Ed’s mutterings and block his sharp looks at the men. He warned Ed not to say a word; to just sit down and let it go. It was one thing to approach a single person about their staring, but we were now in a room with a couple of hundred people and were very clearly outnumbered. I kept my head down, breathed the stale, stifling air and, by the third hour, was myself becoming desperate for that ferry home. 

After more than four hours of waiting, our ferry had arrived. The passenger room door was opened and people poured out, pushing their way into the fresh air. We followed suit with great relief, my uncle swearing under his breath. We walked behind him in single file, me last. Among the giant freight trucks and food carts and vans we stepped, my eyes wide open in the dark night as we moved between trucks waiting to board the ferry. 

Walking carefully and scanning right and left to take in my last moments in Tangier, I noticed shadows moving about the trucks. I slowed my steps and, as I approached a large truck to my left, I saw something that was to become forever anchored in my memory. There, behind the truck, was a young man, about my age. He was alone, his silhouette rigid and charged, as if ready to approach a bull. He carried nothing. He adjusted his pants and he looked from side to side, catching my eye. His chest rose with the intake of a deep breath as he tightly grasped the edge of the truck. Taking his weight on his arms and scooting his feet underneath the truck, he shimmied deep into its bowels, and I lost him amid the axles. 

‘‘Danielle’, I heard a voice call. I snapped back to the attention of my group. They were a bit ahead of me. Was I supposed to call out? Get help? Or to leave him be?

I spent the crossing in a rigid stillness of quiet relief and also terror. Somewhere on the ferry was a truck with a young man in its undercarriage, who may or may not live to begin a new life in Spain. The thought that this man may lose his life when the vehicle carrying him began moving, haunted me. As did the thought that, at the same time, there may have been a rickety boat out on the water making a desperate attempt to cross with passengers who may or may not make it. The crossing was squally. I bowed my head down and closed my eyes, hoping he was safe, hoping he would make it. The oranges were once again passed around, but this time I refused. 

I am yet to return to Morocco but, when I do, it will be to journey to the small desert town in which my father was born and have a meal in the pub my grandfather once owned. I should then like to find the old apartment in Casablanca, in which my grandmother made exquisite dresses and from where my father wandered off to spend hours with the Spanish artist across the road. One day, I shall tell the story of the prisoners-of-war and migrants from Spain who found themselves in Morocco; a tale of two countries and of transient beings, all looking for home.  

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