Escaping a guided tour in Morocco

I DON’T usually do guided tours, but it was just an extra EUR6 ($10) on top of the return catamaran trip. That’s a pretty good deal. So we booked onto our Magical Moroccan Mystery Tour departing from Spain’s southernmost point and prepared for a day of socks, sandals and inane questions from the rest of the group. We might not get to see the “real” Morocco, but at least we’d get lunch, we concurred.

On arrival at the port in Tangier, our tour guide identified us from all the other guides’ charges by the coloured stickers we’d been issued with in Tarifa. For an organised tour, they weren’t very organised and the hundred or so tourists baked on the bitumen while the guides argued about which bus belonged to which group. We learnt quickly to shout “English speakers” to any of the robed men who approached.

Eventually, we were crammed onto a plush coach with Spanish, German and French speakers and taken into the hills to admire the walled homes of wealthy Tangier. We regrouped by the road where a tired fleet of camels lifted heavy men and squealing children up for a photo, then down, ready for the next. We were still operating in euros and it was one for a ride.

Bussed back down to the kasbah, we happened upon some musicians charming a snake from a wicker basket and in a tiled courtyard two dancers were spinning in brilliant blue robes. Lunch was what you’d expect from a North African meal: couscous, shish kebab, chickpeas and harissa served with mint tea and baklava to finish, and an ear-piercing band for atmosphere. Vacating our table for the next group, we did whistlestop tours of a pharmacy and a carpet shop where a 10-minute talk preceded a 15-minute shopping allowance.

Racing through the kasbah from one attraction to the next, my partner and I were in hysterics. Our eyes were fixed on the baseball cap held aloft by our guide, and we were aware of ancient walls and intricate alleys, stunning mosaic tiles, palm trees and arches. In the market we stopped to buy olives while the group rushed on.

That’s all it took; we were lost, left behind in the warren of alleys, with no language or local currency. Rather than panic, we took it all in. The piles of dates, the colourful textiles and foreign smells. We saw a communal bread oven and a shop filled floor to ceiling with watermelons.

After a few minutes, a grinning old man in a fez tapped my travelling partner’s shoulder and pointed down an alley. At the next junction, a young woman giggled and hid her face, pointing left. And so it went, a pair of tourists loose in the kasbah were ushered through the maze and returned to the fold.

When we joined our group in an antiques store, no one noticed we’d been missing. It occurred to me that, in fact, it was they who had missed out.

Looking for Guidance? Get Lost, The Sun-Herald, March 25, 2007

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