note: I wrote this months ago, but was waiting for an opportune time to post it. We are not heading to the islands of Thailand, which means ‘net connection is unlikely. Here’s a flashback to an inter-continental travel day.
It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.
It was our last full day in Chefchouan, Morocco, which is a small mountain town in the northern Rif Mountains. We needed to figure out how to get to Seville, Spain in order to pick up a replacement credit card that had been stolen from out of a computer system. No money was taken, but it was rather inconvenient.
We had made a friend named Sophie at the B&B we were staying at in Chefchouan. She was from the Napa Valley, traveling solo and was heading to Fez. Both journeys began by getting to the bus station. Terry, who was a Scotsman running the B&B with his wife Susanne and their son Liam told us that it was rather simple to get a cab to the train station from the hostel. He’d even call the Grand Taxi for us as the regular taxis were on strike.
The “Grand Taxi” is a handy transportation system in Morocco. They have normal yellow taxis that operate just like the US. The “Grand Taxis” are little vans that seat about six. They can be found at just about any train station and generally go from city to city. The charge is similar to the normal taxis, but they don’t leave right away. Instead, they try and find more people who want to go the same way. Then, they divide the price by the number of riders. Either that, or you can just pay the full fare and they leave right away.
We had had been planning to go from Chefchouan to Tangier on the CTM (intercity) bus, then take the boat across the straight of Gibralter to Tarifa in Spain. We had an unactivated Eurail train pass in our pocket and we were going to activate it at that point and go to Seville. Our goal was to get there in a day.
No problem! said Terry, but he had a better idea. Instead of taking the bus to Tangier we should take the bus to Tetouan, catch a Grand Taxi to Ceuta and then take the boat to Algeciaras. This is how he went when he was going to Spain. It had three added benefits. First, it avoids Tangier, which is a mess of tourists hopping across for Spain for the day and notorious for the touts. Second, Ceuta is actually a Spanish protectorate in Spain, so you deal with customs before dealing with the boat, which is supposedly easier. Third, it’s shorter. No problem, right?
We woke up and ate an omelet and bread breakfast from Suzanne, Terry’s wife. Soon, we had gathered our lives into our backpacks and were ready to go. Terry got on the phone and called the cab, just like he’d done with Sophie the day before.
At this point we learned that the taxi strike had been joined by the Grand Taxis. Uh oh.
No problem, I thought. We’ll just walk to the train station and continue our journey.
Terry told us how to get there and we were off. Fortunately, it was still early, so the sun wasn’t out yet. This might have been a cooler part of Morocco, but it’s still Africa. It get’s HOT.
We walked a quarter mile to get to the main road, which is a walk we’d done every day to get to town and pretty easy. Next, we took the right onto the main road, which provided us a great view over the central part of the little mountain town. It was fun for about five minutes.
Twenty minutes later we found ourselves tracking down Moroccans. “Bus?” we’d ask and they’d point us in the right direction if they spoke enough English to understand. Around 11 o’clock we found a Grand Taxi on the side of the road. Even though he wouldn’t give us a ride, his English was good enough to get us where we were going.
Now, it was hot, but we purchased ourselves tickets to Tetouan and were on our way.
I have no idea what CTM stands for, but it’s the state-run bus system in Morocco. They’re about 20% more than the other intercity buses, but really nice, with leg room and air conditioning. We had taken CTM throughout our time in Morocco. Unfortunately, the CTM bus we had planned to catch had left earlier that morning, so it was the non-AC, no leg room bus that we boarded to get to Tetouan. Even so, we probably should have taken it to Tangier.
Two and a half hours later we got off in Tetouan, which is not a major tourist destination. In fact, there was a 40 year old man in a suit that was two sizes too large who came up to us immediately and asked the most annoying question on the face of the planet, “where you going?”
“Grand Taxi,” I responded.
The man heard “taxi” and “helped” us walk out of the train station. “You relax. Sit for five minutes and I get you taxi.” Leslie stayed while I looked around for the Grand Taxi that was supposed to be easy to find. I didn’t see any of them.
Soon, I went back to Leslie and the helper man returned with a taxi driver. He “helped” us negotiate a price of 200 dhirams to get to Ceuta, Spain, also known as the Frontier. We had been expecting to pay about 20 for the Grand Taxi. I have no doubt that the taxi would have gotten us to the Frontier for 200dh, but that’s about $20. Our budget for the entire day was 700dh.
Negotiations fell apart and we went back inside. Leslie sat down as I went to the ticket counter to try and find prices. Soon, the “helper” was talking to Leslie again. I went back immediately.
Soon, the man was helping again. He realized we wanted to pay less, so asked “bus?” Now we’re always suckers for a cheaper option, and the buses had been great so far so we went with him as he led us towards the buses.
“This one goes to Frontier! See, it says right there!” he said pointing at a sign written in Arabic. A large man smoking a cigarette came over and showed us eight fingers. We paid him 16 dirham for the tickets. We gave the “helper” another 10 as it seemed he had earned something if this whole thing worked. Looking back, I wish I had been more forceful trying to get him to leave us alone and done a better job of looking for the Grand Taxi. I can stumble through an interaction with an Arabic speaking ticket window just fine thank you.
In general, we distrust anyone who comes up to us offering us a service or asks “where you going?” It’s all too easy to find yourself on a wild goose chase known as a “faux guide” scam. They have similar characteristics all over the world. First, you are told of a sight you’d like to see but end up being brought to high pressure shops that pay the guide a commission if you buy something. The “Tuk-Tuk Mafia” in Bangkok, Thailand is expert at this. Usually, it’s easy to get away, but if you find yourself in a form of transportation you don’t control like a tuk-tuk than you can be in for a long day.
Leslie and I were sitting on a dirty, smelly, ramshackle bus with no other passengers and our bags were in the cargo hold. It was also the last bus in the line, which was a bit sketchy. We had no confirmation that we were going the right way other than the world of the “helper” man. I was acutely aware over the course of the next ten minutes that as soon as that door shut and the bus started moving we were on for the ride. We debated getting off and finding the grand taxi, or even paying the 200dh for the taxi but eventually I buried my head in the Game of Thrones Book II and resigned ourselves to our fate.
The bus driver finished his cigarette and boarded the bus, followed by two other young men. Faux guides are usually young and male (but not always), so this did little to calm our nerves.
“Hola?” I asked as I turned to the guy behind me. Spanish is the second most-known language in northern Morocco. He was in his late twenties, dressed rather fashionably and wearing a pair of trainers.
“Hola,” he said, “de donde eres?” (Where are you from?)
Soon, we’d made a friend! Turns out that Ali was going to the Frontier as he actually worked in Ceuta. He spoke a little English and a little Spanish so we mixed and matched although Spanish seemed easiest. The bus truly was the local bus with Moroccans getting on and off every five minutes. We were the only ones who rode the thing for the entire way as what could have been a 20 minute taxi ride turned into a two hour stop and go through the northern coast of Morocco. The northern coast of Morocco is beautiful and quite well developed. It reminded me of Santa Cruz, CA.
In fact, when we got off on the frontier, Ali got the three of us a taxi to the Frontier from the train station. When we were quoted prices by the driver Ali gave him a look and then the prices dropped in half.
We had been warned about the Frontier and that we could expect to be slammed by the “where you going?” brigade but Ali helped cut through the touts. Nothing keeps those guys at bay as much as a local helping you out.
Soon, we were into Moroccan customs. Ali got through quickly. We were foreigners so had a separate and slower line. He waited for us in the nexus, which is the theoretical place you are in when you have cleared customs leaving one country but haven’t officially entered the next.
Big men with guns guarded a small hole in a chain link fence. We crossed through with a cursory glance at our passports and waited for Ali. He was held up at the gate. We waited a minute or two until we saw Ali waving goodbye. I never did figure out why he didn’t get through.
There was a beautiful beach and a bar that doubled as a money exchange. Leslie made a friend of a middle-aged Spanish man who spoke a bit of English and I went and exchanged our dirham for euro. Soon we were on a local bus to the port. I struck up a conversation with a Moroccan who was studying medicine at the local university. His English was quite good and he told me he’d like to visit the USA and Europe, but it was quite hard as a Moroccan. I don’t think he meant for me to see it on his face, but it was clear that he was not happy about it. I didn’t understand how we were in a Spanish protectorate on the other side of customs, yet he had trouble visiting Europe. I didn’t want to push the subject though.
We followed the Spaniard to the port, where we were greeted by a man selling tickets. We went into his tour office and bought a ticket. He then led us to a second gate, where he helped us purchase a ticket. We had thought he’d gotten some extra money out of us for selling us tickets to a later boat. In fact, we were frustrated because there was a boat leaving an hour earlier! Then we learned that Ceuta recognized the same time zone as Spain as opposed to Morocco so we got onto the train.
A short journey across the Straight of Gibraltar and we were in Algeciaras, Spain. We got off the port and found an information desk, where the woman showed us how to get to the train station. Half an hour later, we learned that there were no more trains running that night and we found ourselves looking for a hotel in Algeciaras and a wifi connection to tell the Garden we weren’t going to make it. We found a little hotel that cost too much for what we got and went to find some tapas.
Leslie’s little brother Micah had graduated from high school the day before. It had been a long day and we felt a long way from home. Leslie cried that night.
The next morning we woke up and were at the train station at 8am. A month and a half into our around the world trip, we activated our 3 month Eurail train pass to catch the train towards Madrid.
An hour into the trip we were to get off at a stop to catch the connecting train to Seville. We made our way to the exit and found six Kiwis (people from New Zealand) who were looking for the same connection. The train stopped and we pushed the little green button to open the door.
It didn’t open.
We tried again. No luck. The Kiwis tried. Soon the train was rattling onto the next stop. The Kiwis flagged down the conductor, who spoke no English. They spoke to him in English and he didn’t understand. I tried in Spanish and he said, “push the green button to open the door.” I tried it again, “push to open!” The Kiwis tried explaining and he said, “open, open, open!” as he demonstrated the green button.
Turns out, it’s not just English speakers who start speaking louder and slower if people don’t understand their language.
The eight of us walked down to the next door and got off on the next stop.
We all tried explaining what happened to the guy at the ticket counter, but not only did he not understand English, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough and there was no train that would get us to our connection in time.
The Kiwi men watched the bags as the women went running off after a taxi with me in tow. Thankfully, this time my Spanish was up to the task.
I explained we needed to get to the next station and we had eight of us. We negotiated a price and he got a second cab. The eight of us went whisking down the highway back to the previous train station.
After a quick bite, the train came and we were off to Seville. A half-hour later and we were back in the friendly confines of one of our favorite cities. A fifteen minute walk brought us to the hostel and we were finally reunited with our credit card.
Isn’t it great when a plan comes together?
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