Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tarifa: Seeing Africa from a different perspective

After a while, it doesn't matter where you live - routine sets in and the "honeymoon" feeling wears off. The cultural, environmental, and linguistic differences that were once new and special become normalized and fade into a soft indecipherable blur. I sleep through the 5 am call to prayer and forget which language I had conversations in. I find myself sometimes caught off guard when I am walking down the street and realize that the oak-lined sidewalks of my childhood have been replaced by tall looming palm trees. I never thought I'd have to remind myself that I am living in North Africa, but le voilà.

An easy way that we have learned to keep things "fresh" has been to travel. Unfortunately, it prevents a bit of a catch-22: to travel, you need money. To have money, you need a job. When you have a job, it is difficult to get time off to travel, which leads to the boredom created by routine, and by proxy, a desire to travel.

We have been making an effort to travel more frequently this Spring. It certainly helps that a condition of our visas is that we must leave the country every 90 days to renew them. Last weekend we decided to go to Tarifa, Spain. We chose Tarifa because of its proximity to the Moroccan coast. On a clear day from the beach in Tangiers you can sometimes see the coastline in Tarifa. On Friday morning we packed up a few things, took the 4 hour train to Tangiers, and then hopped on a ferry. We arrived in Tarifa around 11 pm on Friday. The gates to the port lead you right into the cobble-stoned roads of the old "medina" city. Feeling slightly off-kilter from the various forms of transportation and fatigue, I felt like we were entering an alternate-reality version of Morocco. The narrow streets, white washed walls, and painted doors seemed all too familiar. There were two major differences, however, that reminded me we had crossed the border: Catholic churches and rows and rows of bars. The weather was very mild and on our way to find our hostel we passed groups of locals and tourists mingling around outdoor tables beside pubs, smoking cigarettes, and petting dogs. Even though we felt exhausted from a day of traveling, we were pleased by our timing, because11 pm is just about the time that Spaniards seem to wake up from their afternoon siestas and begin to go out.  Below is a photo of our welcome-to-Tarifa mojitos, with mint and raw cane sugar muddled right in front of us:

The following day we spent at the beaches. Tarifa is known for its strong winds and many tourists come for the kite and wind surfing. The coastline was freckled with different colored kites and sails. We began by walking along the beach on the Atlantic Ocean (where we saw a presumably Arab female pop singer filming a music video) and then crossed over the boardwalk onto the beach on the Mediterranean Sea. Sitting on the soft warm sand amongst Spanish families, international tourists, and nude sunbathers, I was stunned by the view: across the sparkling ocean was the large dark green mountainous terrain of North Africa. We met an American woman who moved to Spain 8 years ago and has started a family in Tarifa where she opened the first English school in the city. When talking about where we were coming from, she admitted that she didn't know anything about Morocco, let alone Rabat, the city where we live. It was an odd feeling to be sitting on the beach in Spain facing Morocco and talking to a fellow American woman who spent almost a decade on the opposite side of the Mediterranean without knowing anything about the neighboring country. She was fascinated when we told her about how architecturally similar Andalucia and Morocco are because of their long complicated history. Looking up past the beach the coast of Tarifa is lined with ancient fortress ruins that are almost mirror images of those found along the Moroccan coastlines. How is it that two countries with such shared history and culture can be so cognitively disconnected?

In any case, spending the weekend in Tarifa not only helped me recharge my batteries but it also helped me reconnect where I am, what I'm doing, where I'm going, and how I'm feeling. My current global positioning is Morocco. Instead of making comparisons between Spain and the United States, I am finding commonalities between Spain and my present home turf of Morocco. Walking through the winding streets of the old Tarifa "medina" and noticing street names with Arabic cognates or stumbling upon a restaurant or boutique that markets the Moroccan or African aesthetic exoticism really helped remind me how lucky I am to be able to observe and appreciate the cultural similarities that Morocco and Spain share because of my understanding of how historically these two countries' stories weave together.

The Spaniard lifestyle is one that I can certainly get behind. Their day starts around  ten, morning coffee can be replaced with beer, and after a leisurely afternoon milling around cafés and a long lunch, it is customary to have a siesta to recharge before a long evening out on the town. Saturday afternoon we were wandering around the old city of Tarifa and heard what sounded like a crowd of people singing, laughing, and banging on drums. We followed the sound into an open neighborhood square lined with taverns opening onto the cobblestoned courtyard. Parents were sitting around outdoor tables having a drink while their children ran around together, performed on a small stage, sang songs, and played musical instruments strewn about. It is scenes like this that remind me of what I love so much about Spanish family culture. Instead of treating drinking and adult socializing as an event that must be kept separate and out of reach of the children, parents take their kids out with them as a way for the family to spend time together. It also gives children positive examples of moderate and responsible drinking.

On Sunday morning we woke up to the sound of church bells ringing outside our window. After a vegan brunch at the Tarifa Eco Center (Tarifa has several vegetarian/vegan cafés, if you can believe that!), we took a leisurely stroll around the city, had a beer, and enjoyed the sunshine. We returned to Tangier by ferry on Sunday afternoon with sand in our hair and a fresh batch of freckles.