I think what I appreciate the most about our move to Lagos four years ago is the travel opportunities. Ironically, it took a relocation to Africa before Greg and I spent any time in Europe. An expensive place to fly in and out of, not to mention an airport experience that is inconvenient on a good day and down right hostile on others, you learn to make the most of any travel time out of Lagos. It also took flying across Africa to put into perspective just how big the continent is, and with Lagos just about smack dab mid West Coast, it takes a five or six-hour plane ride North, South or East to get anywhere in Africa. By the time you factor in an intercontinental flight which is higher and faster, we can be most places in Europe in the same amount of time. So far, we’ve hopped up to Paris, Spain, Amsterdam and Italy during our October and Christmas holiday breaks.
We haven’t completely eliminated the dark continent as a travel destination; we spent an October Break in Cape Town our second year in Lagos. We flew Greg’s eldest, Nicole, over for a week of mild weather, beautiful food and a series of quintessentially South Africa experiences. We drove to the Cape of Good Hope to look at penguins and we took a ferry ride out to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years learning the art of forgiveness. We hopped a tram to the top of windy Table Mount and we spent a tipsy day sipping our way through Stellenbosch, the ‘Napa Valley’ of S.A. We found Nemo at the aquarium and we ate more dry-aged beef than we thought humanly possible. South Africa was an easy and highly enjoyable trip and are so many more possibilities that it becomes overwhelming! But it all comes down to the ‘must do’, and the must before we go will be a big game safari; I want to see elephants and giraffes and hear the roar of lions and chuckle of hyenas. It’s cliché, but it’s a cliché of a lifetime, and I can’t pass that up.
But it’s not just the personal travel we’ve done that I find rewarding. In reality, most of my glimpses of Africa have been seen through travel for work; to Tanzania to serve on a week-long accreditation team visit, to Dakar in Senegal for a two-day workshop, three times to a suburb of Johannesburg for conferences, and to Nairobi for my work as a member of our regional professional learning working group. I typically fly in, attend my workshop or conference, and fly back out again- sightseeing is not on the agenda and I’m too busy in my regular work to schedule a personal day layover. While I don’t see much during these visits, I do have a dinner or two out on the town to get a bit of a feel for a part of Africa other than Nigeria. This has been the pattern up until my most recent trip out of Lagos to attend a weekend workshop in Morocco. Ironically, of all the travel I’ve done in Africa and beyond, I figured a direct flight up and back would be a piece of cake- I had forgotten that nothing is ever easy in Africa.
There is only one direct flight option from Lagos to Casablanca on Air Maroc. Not my first choice, but it beat flying over Morocco on my way to Paris for a layover and flight change, only to turn around and fly back to Africa. Air Maroc cancelled their Thursday flight, so I had to fly out a day early. I was okay with the gift of extra time; I was one of the workshop presenters and was slated for the first session Friday morning. The extra day gave me time to refine my presentation for the millionth time, and some time do a bit of exploring. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by a colleague and friend from work, John. I had asked John to attend so he could co-present a section on teacher leadership. He and his wife Sarah (and their two kids) worked with Greg and I in Indonesia. Like any smart husband, John first got the all clear from Sarah, and off we went.
We left for the airport at 3:00 am to catch our 6:30 am flight to Casablanca. We had met the afternoon before to talk trip logistics, and it was at this time that we realized I had neglected an important component of our travel plans. In my defense, the start of this school year has been extremely busy; I had so many balls in the air I could hardly keep track. Always supportive, Greg suggested I let him know before I dropped any. Help? What’s that? Imagine my surprise when John asked how we were getting from where our flight landed in Casablanca to our conference hotel in Tangier. What? A quick Google search how far from Casablanca to Tangier yielded the following map clearly outlining an overland trip of 337 km- a little over 3.5 hours by car. A last minute airport hotel transfer clearly wasn’t an option.
I just laughed. Out loud. And so did John. And when we went to his office to admit what was going on, Greg laughed too, and I sheepishly admitted that Morocco was the ball I had dropped.
We quickly switched into problem-solving mode and weighed our options. Train? I love trains, but a train was a 5.5 hour trip, we couldn’t buy tickets in advance, we’d have to switch trains once, and we’d have to find our way from the airport to the train station – not impossible impediments, but enough to warrant exploring other options. In-country flight? I pursued this option until I discovered we’d have a 4.5 hour layover in Casablanca followed by a ‘tarmac only’ stop in Khemisset before heading on to Tangier. Ugh. Car and driver? This was deemed our most reliable option- show up at the airport, exchange money, find a random stranger and bargain hard to be driven halfway across Morocco, never mind that we’d have no way of letting anyone know where we were or who we were with. Operation Gong Show was a go.
As planned, we landed in Casablanca after an uneventful five hour flight and made our way to immigration. Luckily we didn’t need a Visa as I had dropped that ball as well. While waiting in line, we polled locals on the going rate for a taxi to Tangier- at least 150 Dirhams, about $150. We asked again when exchanging money- this time we were told at least 200 to 250 Dirhams. So, we started at 150 Dirhams and settled on 200 which included a generous tip for our driver. I left the bulk of the bargaining to John, and after five minutes the price was set and off we went.
As it turns out, our driver was friendly, as honest as the day is long, and by request, took us on a long, but worthwhile detour to experience my first Moroccan Tangine. Our scenic detour took place in Temara, a small suburb outside of Rabaat. We wended and wound our way through back streets, stopping to ask directions to a place our driver had been to only once, and three years ago at that, but swore was the best Tangine in all of Morocco. Can’t beat that recommendation.
After a 45-minute search, we reached our destination; a non-description two-story dive tucked between a coffee shop and a local grocery store. Open to the street, the tables were half-filled with locals digging into shared meals filled to the brim with steamy, bubbly concoctions- piles of local bread and platters of french fries close at hand to sop up the juice. Directed to a long line of charcoal braziers that dominated one wall, we were encouraged to take a peek. Hit by a steamy waft of braised goodness, hunger got the best of us. Throwing caution to the wind, we ordered a chicken and a beef, a couple waters, and waited with eager anticipation.
Moroccan Tangine does not disappoint. Caramelized and crunchy on the bottom from hours of low, slow cooking, the meat was falling-off-the-bones tender. Covered in heaps of melted onions and garlic, each was topped off with a speciality ingredient; dried apricots for the beef, while green olives sat astride the chicken. We ate to the point of discomfort. Then we ate until it was finished.
Back into the car we piled for the remaining two and a half hour drive. Morocco was experiencing a heat wave that day. Out of heat and food induced exhaustion, we fell asleep- John in the front seat, me in the back. We rolled into our hotel in the city center around 6:15 PM, a full fifteen hours after leaving the school compound. The rest of the evening was spent with calls back home, a lite salad for dinner, and an agreement to sleep late the next morning. After a second call home to Greg, I turned out the lights and crashed for ten hours.
The next morning was spent refilling my belly with the hotel breakfast buffet- it was fabulous- and putting the final touches on my presentation. Finished around 1 PM, we decided to see what neighboring Spain was all about. For about $60, you can take a high speed ferry across the straights to Tarifa, a lovely historic town set on a bluff overlooking the meeting of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. A quick taxi to the port, another stamp in the passport, and we were on our way.
The sun was bright and high when we docked but a persistent breeze kept things comfortable. Seeing two large sailboats tucked alongside the large breakwater, one had a blue hull and lines similar to Journey, we walked over to investigate. I snapped a couple pictures while chatting up the German Captain and his Dutch companion; turns out they were on a Swan, a beautiful vessel built by the same designer as our Hylas 44′. We walked back into the immigration building where we were immediately questioned then scolded for not entering customs immediately upon dis-embarkment. Properly admonished, we were given a quick passport stamp and a final, stern look from the immigration officer. Oops.
Tarifa was postcard perfection; twisty and narrow cobble-stone streets led past white-washed, two and three story buildings besot with colorful laundry hanging from the balconies. Having arrived during the afternoon siesta, we wandered taking pictures and simply soaking up the atmosphere of a place that despite being in the same timezone as Lagos, seemed light years away. We lingered long enough for the town to reawaken; after all, we couldn’t leave without sampling more than just the local gelato, an indulgence had within the first ten minutes of entering the town. A sidewalk cafe was the perfect backdrop for a leisurely glass of vino tinto and a shared board of local, artisanal cheese, the perfect late-afternoon snack. We each commented that a return to Tarifa with our respective spouses was a future must. Too soon, it was time to return.
Wait. Did I mention that Tarifa is in fact, not in the same timezone as Lagos, and not even the same time zone as Tangier? We discovered this by accident when taking pictures of a church. As I commented on the beauty of the architecture, John noticed a discrepancy between his watch and the church clock. After a quick check with a local we confirmed that sure enough, Tarifa is one timezone ahead of Tangier. This could have been disastrous had we missed the last ferry back. But what we did miss on the ride back was the line for our re-entry stamp. We had noticed a gathering of people as the ferry left, but got caught up in conversation so never did investigate. We discovered our oversight when trying to re-enter Morocco; the immigration officer let John through, but stopped me, asking for my stamp. I immediately ratted-out John. We were both sent back onto the ferry where we sheepishly asked for our stamp, then returned to the immigration line. Like I said, Gong Show.
Day one of the conference was great. I had a great experience presenting and the other presenters were fabulous. We celebrated with a dinner out at a restaurant located in the heart of the Kasbah. Like our first meal outside of Rabaat, my beef Tangine didn’t disappoint. An old man gave us a proud tour of the surrounding neighborhood from the top of the restaurant; a cascading menagerie of domed buildings and large archways covered the gentle swell of hills that gradually trickled to the bay below. Simply stunning. After dinner, another local volunteered himself to walk us out and down to where we could catch a taxi. There were recommended shopping detours along the way, but all in all, the pressure to buy was nothing like Cairo or Lagos. Despite best efforts, we exited the souq sans trinkets and made our way back to the hotel.
The next morning was conference day two; another whirlwind of learning and sharing. When it was done, we went back to the hotel for a couple hours- John worked on a Grad paper while I had a long Skype with Greg. The concierge recommended another Kasbah favorite called La Ne’Bab. The restaurant was stunning and the food memorable, but unfortunately, for all of the wrong reasons. We should have heeded a very angry Spanish woman’s advice when she stated it was the worst food she’d ever had in Morocco as she stalked out. We had had great luck so far and it was our last night, so what could go wrong? I’ll admit that I hesitated before eating my first bite, laughing as I recalled to John the time Greg and I ordered fresh squeezed juice at the Kelapa Gading Mall in Indonesia. I had commented to Greg that “this is probably a really bad idea…but I’m going to do it anyway.” The juice was fabulous, but we both ended up with dysentery for six weeks. John and I laughed as I shared this story, and true to the woman’s warning, it was the worst food we ate in Morocco.
I woke up the next morning and immediately took some alka seltzer to settle my queasy stomach. We met for breakfast, then had a two-hour work meeting with the conference organizers. I went back to my room to get money for shopping and took another alka seltzer. After an hour or so of buying gifts, I was back in my room. This time I tried Dramamine- but that just made me sleepy. I tried stuffing a finger down my throat to no avail. Desperate, I sent John a message and off he went to find an open pharmacy. In desperation I tried my third round of alka seltzer and this seemed to do the trick; I vomited, walked downstairs and checked out. John returned, meds in hand, and we took the hotel van to the airport.
True to the rest of the trip, it was a Gong Show right to the end. While standing in line to board the Casablanca flight to Lagos, we heard loud yelling. A woman had purchased a ticket for the wrong date and was shouting at the airline officials. After trying to placate her while holding firm to the rules, they finally gave in when she resorted to loud sobbing and allowed her to board. We landed in Lagos at 3 AM bleary-eyed but grateful to be home. Joseph, our expediter, met us at the top of the gangway- knowing I was sick, Greg had made arrangements so we wouldn’t be hassled going through immigration and customs. I turned to John and said “I love my husband”. When we were out the front door, bags in hand within 25 minutes of landing, John turned to me and said, “I love your husband too”. We got home a few minutes after 4 AM. I took a hot shower, crawled into bed, and briefly held hands with Greg before crashing. I got up around 11 AM and went to work; my Tangine belly was on the mend.
Would I go back to Morocco? Absolutely, I’d love to spend more time there exploring with Greg. Will I ever eat Tangine again? Of course. But next time I’ll listen when an extremely p*ssed-off Spanish woman tries to warn me that I’m about to veer down the path of Tangine Belly.