Friday, May 14, 2010

Flashback Friday: Tangiers, Morocco

On Wednesday night, I attended dinner with a group of ten members of the Community of Christ who are attending a weeklong meeting at the Tuality congregation to learn about "Wraparound Ministry" (in case you're curious what that is, my basic explanation would be to watch Jerry Maguire. When you see Tom Cruise telling people, "Help me help you!", you'll get the picture). The chosen restaurant is one that I have been wanting to eat at since I first arrived in Portland in 2006: The Marrakesh on NW 21st. Its a Moroccan restaurant and the first time I ate in a Moroccan restaurant since...Tangiers, Morocco in the summer of 1993!

The picture above is of the younger version of me (ah, my bright yellow chino pants!). Our dinner at the Marrakesh has inspired me to do a Flashback Friday post about my day in Tangiers. But before I get to that, about Wednesday's dinner...

I got off work at 5 p.m. and had to sprint to catch the streetcar. That was the quickest way to get there, and I arrived about thirty minutes after everyone else did, so I missed out on the handwashing (done at the table). I've walked by the Marrakesh plenty of times in the nearly four years I've lived in Portland and have always wanted to eat there, though I saw it as a special occasion place. The menu is on the pricey side ($20 for a five course meal), but it is one of those things that you must EXPERIENCE. The decor inside is like you are in an Arab tent, with artistic carpets lining the walls, sequined cushions for your seat, and low-level tables. They also have benches for those who find cushions uncomfortable for long periods.

The best thing about eating with a large group is that everyone can order one particular meal and then share with everyone the diverse offerings. Unfortunately for me, my ban on eating land-based meat went into full effect on February 1st. Seeing the various chicken (and lamb) dishes in different sauces was tempting. I stuck with my Vegetarian Couscous dish, which the waiter (in full Moroccan garb, which only makes me think of the monkey in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie) kind of pooh-poohed!

One thing that wasn't cool about this restaurant, though, is that they do not offer eating utensils. Its strictly a hand's only affair. Dang. The restaurant I ate at in Tangiers had forks and spoons. Eating couscous with just your hands is NOT COOL. However, its a good thing our country doesn't have the superstitions or taboos that the Arab world has. In Tangiers, I sat on my left hand the whole time so I wouldn't "offend" any Arab onlookers (I did remember seeing an Arab-looking boy in Gibraltar laughing at me when he watched me writing postcards). If there were any Arabs at the Marrakesh watching me, they would be horrified seeing me scoop piles of couscous and vegetables with my left hand. Sorry, folks, but my left hand is sacred. I save the "cleaning" duties for my right hand. Always. I'm a leftie. A Southpaw. And proud of it! Message to Arabs reading this: GET OVER IT!

After filling ourselves with more food than should be legal, the waiter did the communal handwash again (with nicely hot water!) with some kind of scented hand liquid sprayed on our palms after that. Then we had dessert (some kind of coconut custard) and mint tea that is poured at our table in an artistic manner. During the meal, it was fun hearing people's various comments about various things. A good time was definitely had by all. The bill came out to $215 for 11 people. Whew! Just was we were walking out of the restaurant, I heard the sound of cymbals clashing. That could only mean one thing: BELLYDANCERS! I turned around to catch a glimpse. When I saw that the bellydancer had covered up her belly behind veils, I thought that was lame. I thought the whole point of bellydancing was to mesmerize guys with the sexy ways to shake their bellies. Lame.

It was a great evening and definitely worth a return visit on special occasions. Though, if I go again, I might have to "lift my ban" on eating chicken for one night. The idea of eating couscous with my hands is not fun and they don't really offer a whole lot of vegetarian options. Anyone looking for a special and memorable meal in Portland, though, should really check out the Marrakesh!

Now about the Tangiers trip. In the summer of 1993, my ship, the USS Simon Lake, went to Gibraltar for a port visit, which was one of the places I had wanted to see since the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights. I loved Gibraltar. It remains as one of my favourite port visits. Gibraltar is more than just the famous rock (symbol of Prudential Insurance). Its also a British colony at the very tip of Spain. Spain really wants it back, as it is a prime tourist spot. However, the citizens of Gibraltar prefer British rule to Spanish rule. One of the famous inhabitants of Gibraltar are the Barbary Apes, who reside high up the rock, in the trees. There's a saying that when there are no more Barbary Apes in Gibraltar, the British will be gone. The Spaniards can only wish!

Each time a ship is in a foreign port, the ship's MWR office offers local tours. When a day trip to Tangiers was offered for this port visit, of course I had to sign up! Unfortunately, though, we actually spent more time on the ferry (five hours roundtrip) than in Tangiers (4 hours). However, it was still worth the excursion, as it was probably most of my shipmates only claim to setting foot on the continent of Africa. Tangiers, however, is considered to be the Tijuana of Africa. Its a couple hour ferry ride from Spain and Gibraltar.

When we arrived in Tangiers, one of the things that alarmed us military folks was that we had to surrender our passports to the customs agent at the pier. He collected them all and put them all in a cardboard box. We wouldn't get them back until we left Tangiers at the end of our sojourn. Our military training drilled into our heads to never lose sight of our passport or to allow anyone else to hold on to it. What can we do?

We had a bus tour around Tangiers, with a few stops along the way. It looked like a pleasant, dusty town with interesting architecture (I love the green tiled roofs. I'd love to have a home with Moroccan architectural style). One stop included photo ops of sitting on a camel. Lame. Everywhere we stopped, there were kids hawking souvenirs. One kid was so persistent. He tried to sell me a switchblade that slides in and out (rather than swinging around from the closed position). That was illegal. Likewise a tortoise shell guitar. When I told him that all I wanted were postcards and a book about Morocco, he disappeared and a few moments later, returned with them. How resourceful! Of course I bought them from him.

Lunch was at a Moroccan restaurant and it was much the same as what the Marrakesh in Portland offered, with similar decor. We had eating utensils, though. One thing that really stands out in my memory, though, is that some sailors wanted to smoke, but a very vocal African American lady asked that they put out their cigarettes in respect for those of us who didn't smoke. They complied, which was a bit unusual. That lady instantly became my hero. I would've endured the cigarette smoke (living in Europe means that you can't escape the scent of cigarette smoke). I remember that our mint tea actually had mint leaves in it and it was far more minty-er than the one we had at the Marrakesh. But that could just be memories playing tricks on my mind.

After lunch, we went to a sales presentation on Arab carpets, which were beautiful and expensive. I think some sailors did buy some, but I thought it was a scam. I wanted to see Tangiers, not a sales presentation. Even the tourist souvenir store was not interesting to me. I wanted to see more of the city. Four hours went by quick and soon we were back on the ferry. Had I not gone to South Africa for a week's vacation in 1994, my entire experience in Africa would have boiled down to mere hours! Three crazy hours in Alexandria, Egypt in 1992 and four hours in Tangiers in 1993.

One of my friends, who was an older sailor, was big on meditation. He meditated for hours on the ferry. When I asked him about it, I thought he was a Buddhist and he laughed at my presumption. Before I met him, I thought meditation was a Buddhist thing. Christians I knew growing up considered meditation to be "Satanic" (I don't get how anyone could think that). Something about "an idle mind is a Devil's workshop." I wish I had learned to pick up the habit of meditation way back then. However, I must say that it is a very beneficial practice for anyone.

This picture above was taken at one of our stops outside of Tangiers. The water you see below is the Atlantic Ocean and the tourguide said that the beaches below was where Black Beauty was filmed. The wind was so strong, I was straining not to be blown away. I considered it the windiest place I had ever been (until my family visited the Chart House on the bluffs at the entrance to the Columbia Gorge). The gray camera bag you see hanging off my belt was a part of my accessories as I traveled Europe and Africa...until 1994. It was one of the things that my robbers in Johannesburg stole from me on my second night in South Africa. It held my camera, passport and safety deposit box key.

I think I still have those yellow chinos, but I need to lose a couple inches around my waist to wear it now. Anyhow, that was my Moroccan adventure. I'd love to return someday for a lengthier stay, and to see Casablanca and the real Marrakesh. As a young man, I had a penpal who lived in Morocco. I learned a lot about his country through our correspondence. Of all the Arab countries, I'd have to say that Morocco is the most interesting one to me. It often serves as a film stand-in for far more dangerous locales (such as Afghanistan or Iraq). If you have a chance to go, you should. If you can't afford it, check and see if there's a Moroccan themed restaurant in your area. Its a worthy cultural experience.

1 comment:

Sean Langdon said...

Glad you came! It was a fun evening!