Impressions of Morocco
19 September 2018 | Rabat, Morocco
Barbara/hot and humid
In Chefchaouen, the incredible Blue City, we evidently had something bad to eat or drink. Our goal of leaving Tangier on Saturday went by the wayside, and we spent the day instead dealing with – well, you know, no need to describe it. Feeling a bit better on Sunday morning, we decided to make the 120-mile overnight passage to Rabat, the capitol of Morocco. The passage would take us briefly out into the Straits of Gibraltar, and then, turning the corner, another 100 miles down the coast of Africa.
You may recall in my last blog post I described the crossing of the Straits as something that should not be done without careful examination of tide and current forecasts, because of the Levanter phenomenon which can build to 30-35 knots and can become dangerous in adverse currents. When we crossed before we had none of that. I’ll describe it a bit, since I had written about the dangers, but said nothing about our actual crossing. (Thank you to one of my dear readers for pointing that out!)
In fact, the crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar between Cádiz and Tangier was a complete non-event. So much so that I didn’t even think about it when writing the blog. It took about 7 hours motoring; although it was hazy, you could see both Spain and Africa all the way across. We had 0-7 knots of wind, mostly from behind. We tried to put the jib out, but mostly it fluttered. The most exciting part was dodging the multiple freighters in both directions. The AIS says (for example) the closest point of approach will be .3 miles in 8 minutes and it looks like the danged ship is coming right at you, and you have no idea whether the closest point of approach will cross your bow, or cross behind you. Heart in mouth, you stay on course (that’s what the freighter is counting on, after all), and they DO cross behind you. (Craig has since pointed out to me that the AIS can be set so that it shows the projected course of the scary freighter. We’ll be changing that setting!)
Returning to our Sunday trip down the coast to Rabat: After clearing the police and immigration inspection at the marina, we headed out into the Straits of Gibraltar, where a Levanter wind was building. The wind curved around the point at Cape Spartel, lessened a bit and gave us a lovely broad reach for several hours as we headed south. Blowing off the land at 18-28 knots, there was almost no wave action and the sailing was terrific. Eventually though, the wind became light and varied, and by sundown we were motoring.
As visibility became worse, the fishing boats came out. We had heard that they fish in groups, stretching huge nets between them. So spotting the groups was critical. The radar sometimes helped, but I swear, some of those boats are wearing radar invisibility cloaks. Throughout the night we continued to see pinpricks of light that would grow into brilliantly lit fishing boats, but never registered a dot on our radar.
The fascinating show of the night was lightning ashore over the High Atlas Mountains. For 5-6 hours, we were seeing more than one strike per second off in the distance. Craig said it reminded him of a Star Wars space battle. Interestingly, the sky was completely clear over the ocean; the disturbances appear to have been created by the mountains themselves.
We needed to arrive at Rabat at high tide (8 am), so that there would be enough depth to get into the Bouregreg River. The marina sent out a pilot boat to guide us in past an old fort/castle, scary rocks sticking out of the water, hundreds of open fishing boats, docks teeming with people and ominous floaters of bubbly brown sludge. (New rule: wash hands after every instance of touching a dock line!)
After going through a one-hour customs/police sequence, we were taken to our slip by the same pilot boat. Unfortunately, we are out on the end of a dock of small boats. All the other cruising boats are two docks away. We usually enjoy socializing with other cruisers, but this gives us an opportunity to get to know the owners of some of the smaller boats around us. Adnan, from the 15 foot sport fishing boat next to us, says he spends all day every day on his little boat here, and in fact he appears to live on the boat. He is anxious to practice his English and tell us the practicalities of getting around in Rabat, and where to buy the supplies we might need.
I want to take this opportunity to pass along some of my impressions of Morocco. The same faithful reader who noticed the lack of any description of crossing the Straits of Gibraltar asked me for more of my impressions, particularly what it’s like being in a Muslim country.
The clothing rules are a bit difficult to figure out. Shorts are definitely not the thing for women, but seemingly OK for men. The stylishly dressed Muslim women are wearing headscarves, but sometimes with form fitting clothing, so you do sort of wonder what’s the point. Some young women are not wearing headscarves, although otherwise conservatively dressed. Older women (and by that I mean 40 or more) are wearing robes with built-in hoods/scarves, with a complete second layer of clothing underneath. I’ve been wearing long pants (difficult in this heat) or a longish skirt and a light (sometimes sleeveless) top, and it seems OK. No one has yelled at me.
Some men won’t talk to me, and some women won’t talk to Craig. At the Tangier marina we were sort of “on display”. The onshore buildings have an open-to-the-public upper level where it seems to be a fashionable family outing to come and stare at the boats and the foreigners. The docks are so closely guarded that no locals are allowed unless they work there. We didn’t see any local boat owners at all in Tangier.
There are calls for prayer at prescribed intervals during the day (first one at 5:30 am). They start with a river of wailing, coming from multiple minarets at the same time. I thought at first that they were recordings, but Adnan assures us that each one is a live person. No one seems to pay any attention. No one stops what they’re doing to run off to pray. However one day I was up at 5:30 am and did notice that there was a big gathering of men onshore, chanting and waving hand-held fireworks around. (looked like marine distress flares to me, but what do I know?)
In Tangier we visited the medina, with its narrow winding streets and tiny shops, all cascading down a steep hillside. We walked up to the top, where we found a restaurant called “Detroit Café”. There was no formal sign, just a handwritten whiteboard which offered “Panoramic Views” and couscous, up two flights of stairs. Then you enter into an airy room, looking down on lush gardens, elaborate carvings on the ceiling and some of the walls, and caged canaries and parakeets on the window sills. We ordered a nice lunch and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. We talked to a gentleman who turned out to be the owner, and he said that this was a former sultan’s palace, built in the 1600’s. The floor above us had the panoramic view, but the wind was really blowing so we didn’t go up.
We walked downhill into the medina after lunch and found a tiny hole-in-the-wall barber shop where Craig got a very nice haircut for about $5. We were accosted frequently by young men and older men who wanted to show us around, which inevitably involved inviting us into shops. They were all very persistent, although we got pretty good at saying “no”. One said, “What are you looking for?” We told him we were looking for a Moroccan courtesy flag for the boat. He assured us that his shop would have such flags. We allowed him to lead us to his shop. It turned out his shop was a carpet shop – five floors, including two vast spaces where young women make carpets. He took us up to the top floor where there was a gorgeous view of the city. (See the photo at the top of this post), He and his colleagues offered us tea and wanted us to look at this carpet and that carpet. We kept asking about the flag. What’s the price – “Oh we have that for you, just the thing, such a reasonable price, you will be happy.” But what’s the price? “We’ll make you a good price.”
As it turns out, the bag of flags was the last thing we saw, after we turned down (as politely as we could) all the carpets and assorted other souvenirs. Most of the flags were the standard plain red with a green star, but the size we wanted was only available with a yellow crown in addition. We hadn’t seen one like that anywhere. We asked whether that was going to be acceptable for us to fly on the boat, and these guys assured us, no problem, this is a monarchy, etc. etc.
The quoted price when we finally learned it was 150 dh (about $15). We ended up paying 135 dh for the flag (our dock attendant/concierge Halim said we should not have paid more than 20 dh). We walked out of the shop with a huge sigh of relief at just escaping the intense guilt-inducing sales pressure. Halim later told us the flag is a flag of the Royal Marines, but he didn’t think we’d get in trouble for flying it. We’ll see! (Here in Rabat we are two docks away from the Royal Dock. No boats in residence now, but there are armed guards...)
In Rabat we have no dock attendant, but there are plenty of security guards. The marina was built by the king, who is an enthusiastic boater. It is a fine marina, with good facilities onshore, and lovely landscaping up against the river banks. Along two sides of the marina there are shops and restaurants, and it appears to be a major destination for the Rabat residents able to afford it. At night there are families with small children and grandparents, walking back and forth or visiting restaurants. Some of the women are dressed in their finest robes and headscarves, decorated with a bit of bling.
Last night we went to one of the more modest restaurants and spent some time chatting with the owner, who told us a bit about his restaurants and his career. He started life as a fisheries inspector for the government, apparently focusing on foreign ships who fish off Morocco shores. (We asked him about the big groups of boats apparently fishing with one net between them; he told us they are for catching tuna, and showed us illustrations of such nets on his phone.) After he left his job as a fisheries inspector, he went to Quebec for 10 years to get a degree in some aspect of fisheries. When he returned to Morocco, though, he decided to go into the restaurant business, and now owns three restaurants in Rabat, two of them at this marina.
The marina is in the city of Salé, which is across the river from Rabat proper. There is a modern tram which makes frequent stops right outside the marina. Yesterday we made our first outing into Rabat, crossing the river on the tram, continuing to some provisioning errands and another foray into cell phone connectivity (with only partial success).
We plan to stay in Rabat for at least several more days. Then our next passage will likely be all the way to the Canaries – a major milestone in our voyage back to Oregon.
Best wishes to all
Craig & Barbara Johnston