As my husband and I prepared for a three-week holiday in Spain, our friend made the genius suggestion that we visit Morocco as well. We were going to be in fairly southern Spain, we had an open week after our Workaway in Elche, and we’d never been to Africa or an Islamic country. It was a brilliant idea. We decided to spend a long weekend in Fes.
Flying to Morocco was a bit expensive and we thought it’d be really cool to take a ferry across an international border, so we decided to travel by land and sea rather than plane. As we started to piece together the various steps of our transportation, we should have realized it was all a bit too complicated. But we brazened on, confident in our travel skills.
Our first step was to catch an overnight bus from Alicante to Algeciras. As per usual with public transportation in Spain, the bus was late. We had just started to panic that we’d missed it when it rolled into the station, about 25 minutes late. Based on the advertised length of the bus trip, we still expected to get to Algeciras with plenty of time to catch our 8 a.m. ferry. Somehow, the bus arrived at the ferry terminal an hour and a half later than it was scheduled to. We arrived 10 minutes after boarding closed for the first ferry.
The next available ferry to Morocco left from a different port at 9 a.m., but a ticket woman told us if we hurried, we could catch a shuttle outside that would take us to the next port in time for the ferry. We hurried outside and joined a group of people waiting for the shuttle. It was supposed to leave any minute. We waited … and waited … and waited. As it got late enough that we were surely going to miss the ferry, others began to get visibly agitated. After most of them stormed off in a flurry of displeased Arabic, Dave and I went back to the ticket counter to get our money back. The ticket woman told us we weren’t fast enough, but we’re quite sure the shuttle must have already left before she sold the tickets to us and everyone else outside.
The next ferry from Algeciras didn’t leave for another two hours. We had several train options from Tangier to Fes, but first we had to take a 45-minute taxi ride from the port to the train station, and our available trains dwindled as our journey stretched far beyond our original time table. When we finally boarded a ferry, we knew our chances of getting to the train station in time for the last direct train to Fes were slim.
We disembarked at the port, took a bus up the hill to the terminal, and stepped out to the joys of the taxi industry. A man was immediately in our faces, telling us he had a taxi waiting for us. My husband, bless him, had done his research for the trip and knew approximately how much he should pay for the taxi trip. We allowed the man to lead us to a taxi, where we were slightly surprised to realize he wasn’t going to be our driver. We agreed on a price and had our bags loaded into the boot, but after we sat in the back seat the “taxi pimp,” as I call him, told us we owed him money too. “Big money” for the taxi driver, but also “small money” for him. Dave was having none of that. He told the man that he’d already agreed on a total price, and he wasn’t paying anything else. We then had the joy of watching a five-minute screaming match in Arabic between our driver, sitting in the taxi, and the taxi pimp, leaning in the window. We finally tried to ask for our money back and our bags out of the boot when they came to some sort of conclusion and our driver took off.
Sadly, even the lightning speed of our taxi driver got us to the Tangier train station about 15 minutes after the last direct train to Fes had left. Not only were there no more direct trains, but the next train didn’t leave for three and a half hours. We heaved our rucksacks back onto our backs and walked into Tangier for lunch, where we faked speaking French well enough to order some surprisingly yummy food.
Back inside the train station, we wondered why a train leaving for Casablanca at the same time as our train to Fes had arrived and started boarding 25 minutes prior to departure, while our train to Fes was still not at the platform 10 minutes before we were to leave. When we realized the train number on our ticket matched the number of the Casablanca train, we asked an employee if that was our train to Fes. He told us yes, and waved us on to the train. Yet we still had no idea why we were on a train to Casablanca. Thankfully, the two men in the compartment with us spoke some broken English and were able to tell us that we were on the right train, but we would have to get off the train and get on a new train in order to proceed to Fes. One of the men told us he’d try to help us make sure we got off at the right stop. The compartment then filled, and Dave and I spent the next three hours sitting in a crowded train surrounded on all sides by passionate conversations in Arabic, which we of course understood none of. We were finally so stressed out, so convinced the Moroccan man had forgotten to help us and desperate to get off the train, that we stood up and decided we’d get off at the next stop. There were no announcements being made at the various stops, so we had no idea where we were and no idea how we would get to Fes. As we stood up, the man looked at us for the first time since the train had left Tangier and said “No, no, not Fes yet.” Suddenly one of the other men said in clear English that he was changing trains at the same time we were, so we’d follow him.
“We go together.”
It was by far the best three words we’d heard all day. Possibly ever. We had our first glimmer of hope that we’d make it to Fes after all.
If it weren’t for those passengers, we certainly would never have made it to Fes. Our stop was a rundown platform in the middle of nowhere, and it was already pitch-black outside (about 9 p.m. by then) when we got off our first train. We followed the businessman and a large group of other people down the platform, climbed off the side of the platform, crossed the tracks and climbed up the other platform where we got on an unmarked train that the man told us was going to Fes. We had no choice but to believe him.
When he got off a few stops later, he gave Dave a small map he’d drawn on the corner of the newspaper to tell us how many more stops before Fes. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers.
Dave had managed to send emails to our riad in Fes throughout this madness, so they were aware of our updated arrival time and told us a taxi would be waiting for us in Fes with a sign with our name on it. We were greeted by a man who spoke English and did have our name on a sign, but he turned out to simply be calling our taxi, not driving it. We waited on the street corner while our liaison called his friend to come pick us up in his taxi. He then ushered us into the taxi with said friend who did not speak English, and the liaison left. We set off with our driver, completely unsure of what was happening.
Our taxi driver pulled over just outside the walls of the ancient medina, but without knowing what a medina looks like, it appears to be the end of an alley. Standing outside the taxi was a scruffy old man dressed in a hooded sweatshirt. Our taxi driver managed to muster enough English to say, “You go with him,” and he left us with the scruffy man who also did not speak English. So what did we do? We followed him into the darkness, of course. I think Dave and I were both mildly convinced we were going to die that night.
As the scruffy man led us through concrete-walled alleys, feral cats digging through garbage bags looked up and hissed at us as we walked by, and silent men watched us from their dark corners with a small table of cigarettes and mints in front of them.
We finally turned down an exceptionally narrow alley and walked through a door that suddenly transported us into a beautiful riad, with tapestries hanging in the hallways and a four-story courtyard covered in gorgeous tile work. It was nearly 11 p.m., more than seven hours after we were supposed to arrive. The scruffy man turned out to be the owner of the riad, and he cooked us an unbelievable tajine and showed us to our stunning room. Dave and I fell asleep that night giddy to still be alive.
The moral of the story is: just take a plane!