Lost in an ageless Tangier

At midday in July, the Tangier medina was a ghost town. With shadows
reduced to slivers, even in the narrowest of the ochre alleyways, residents retreated
to lunch behind thick wooden doors or to relax inside their antique silver
shops. It was hot and still, despite the occasional breeze from the Mediterranean,
and only fools dared venture out – fools, that is, like me.

Not only was I outside, but I was
also moving quickly in the sun, turning corners and following curves without
thinking. Instinctively, I took a left at the Cafe Centrale, for decades one of
the city’s prime people-watching spots, feeling closer to my goal. I could tell
because I didn’t recognize anything – it was all new.

At last, I reached the top of a
final set of stairs, looked around and understood: I’d been here before. There
was that same grocery store selling disks of bread, and across from it the old
men with wire-frame spectacles sitting on the bench, and beyond them the
micro-neighbourhood where every child kicking a soccer ball had smilingly mimed
the motion of a key in a lock to let me know the area was ferme (closed). I
sighed, starting to sweat. I knew exactly where I was. And I’d failed, for the
zillionth time in the last few days, to get lost.

To some of you, that may sound like
a strange mission. But the simple fact is, I haven’t been lost since my first
trip abroad, almost 30 years ago. It happened during a fireworks show at
Tivoli, the grand amusement park in downtown Copenhagen. In the excitement I
broke away from my father, and when the explosions died down and the crowd dispersed,
I realized that I didn’t know where he was and, worse, I didn’t know where I

Since then, I’ve developed a good
sense of direction. I’m not unerring (just ask my wife), but I never lose track
of how to get back to where I started. A sense of direction is something you
can’t turn off. Every detail, from the angle of the sun to the direction of the
wind, contributes to a mental map that your brain builds subconsciously. It’s
like learning to read: Once you know how, you can’t not do it.

Which is why I’ve lately been
wondering, how does it feel truly not to know where you are? Are the
guidebooks, GPS devices and Internet forums pointing us in the wrong direction?
In our efforts to figure out where we’re going, have we lost something more

In the past, I’ve researched
destinations to death, zooming deep into Google Maps and uncovering unusual
restaurants in the darkest corners of the Web. Now I am avoiding maps. I am
shying away from Chowhound and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum; I will not ask
my Facebook friends who they know in Moscow or Addis Ababa.

Tangier seemed a good starting
point. Not only does it have a magnificent medina that holds out the promise of
geographical bafflement, but it is itself also lost in time and space. Since
antiquity, Tangier – at the mouth of the Mediterranean, roughly 14 kilometres
from Spain – has been a gray zone between Africa and Europe, never quite belonging
fully to one or the other, though controlled, for greater or lesser spells, by
Carthaginian, Roman, British, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Arab forces.

Today, Tangier is known in America
thanks in no small part to Paul Bowles, the novelist and composer who settled
there in 1947, and the Beat Generation who followed him in search of cheap,
exotic living (and, as William S. Burroughs said, “for the boys and the
hashish”). For a few decades, Tangier was a playground for the wealthy and the
literary-minded, but by the 1980s it was crumbling and dismal. When I told a
friend who had visited in 1998 that I would be there more than a week, he was

But what could be more appealing to
an aspiring lostie than this messy nowhere, with a fading highbrow aura and no
clear future?

Arriving in Tangier, my first
afternoon, I saw my friend’s concern was misplaced: This was a city with
direction. On its outskirts, huge apartment blocks were going up, financed by
Qatari investment firms.

But modernity – gridlike and
navigable – was not what I needed. Instead, I had the taxi drop me near the old
passenger port at the bottom of the medina, that ancient and befuddling
labyrinth that offered me the long-denied opportunity to indulge in one of my
two favourite travel activities: wandering aimlessly. Now, aimless wandering is
not as easy as it sounds. Subtle desires tend to direct you: Do I really want
to climb those crumbly stairs to a likely dead-end? Is that street, with its
shawarma stands and vendors of soccer jerseys, too touristy? And so aimlessness
often becomes less spontaneous.

My solution: submission. Left
across that courtyard, or right along that cobbled path? Don’t ask me; ask my
feet. Every day I surrendered to the whims of my limbs, and was presented with
a montage of medina moments: the interplay of geometries, the soft arches and
domes sliced by rigid shadows; a small plaza where, in the afternoons, birds
sang in a monumental cage; a blind man in his prayer cap sitting by a stucco
wall; children in knock-off Crocs; a man polishing bronze urns in the vibrantly
tiled lobby of an old pension.

With nothing on my agenda, I took
things as they came. If I happened on an orange-juice vendor, I’d order a
glass. Up in the Casbah, the walled fortress atop the medina, I walked into the
Casbah Museum, where I violated one of my rules by studying a wall-size map of
ancient Mediterranean trade routes.

The Casbah was also where I began
to indulge in my other favourite activity: sitting still. It was there that I found
Le Salon Bleu, an open-air rooftop cafe where evening views were unparalleled.

As much as I enjoyed staying in one
place, I felt guilty. The writer in me (or maybe all that caffeine) wanted me
out of my seat, in search of places that I could enter into the blog-driven
machine of my former life. How could I just, you know, sit there?

But sitting had its uses. One
afternoon, in the cafe of the Cinematheque de Tanger, a restored art house
showing Jacques Tati retrospectives and Egyptian indies, I heard my name:
“Matt?” I looked up to find a young woman staring at me. Panic! Had I met her
before? A flush of embarrassment hit as I stood to shake hands, but then she
explained. She was Michelle Fan, a 22-year-old Chicagoan interning at the
Cinematheque, and she had recognized me from travel videos I had produced for
The New York Times.

I think I recognized something,
too. Michelle was an explorer. I had a partner in crime.

That evening we set off for Cafe
Hafa, a renowned cafe that Michelle said she had visited. She led the way,
which involved a 45-minute detour through the Casbah. The sun was heading for
the Atlantic, and Michelle took us down one side road after another, none of
which seemed to have Cafe Hafa at its end. Eventually, we asked for directions
from the machine-gun-toting guards outside what we assumed was a royal
residence, and they set us straight. Five minutes later, we were seated on one
of Hafa’s dozen terraces, sipping mint tea and gazing at the sea.

I quickly fell in with Michelle and
her Cinematheque circle. With her British colleague Claudia Lewis, we knocked
on a black metal door in the medina and were welcomed into the old Jewish Cemetery,
a clifftop field where stone slabs inscribed in Hebrew and Spanish testified to
a nearly vanished community.

Often, I wondered if I’d made the
right decision in courting these new friends. I’d always imagined my quest as a
lonely one – that only isolation could lead to revelation. And indeed, I’d come
close on my own. One afternoon, I’d returned to Marshan and discovered a plaza,
lined with Greek columns that led to a cliff edge. Below lay a small
neighbourhood I’d never noticed before, and up from this tiny labyrinth came
the frenzied beat of drums. Someone was getting married. I perched on the rocks,
expecting the drummers to come into view. But though their beats swirled
through the invisible streets, the musicians themselves never emerged, and at
last I sank back on my heels and accepted the music for what it was: the
rhythms of a place always just beyond my horizon.

It was fitting. Though I’d
originally thought of Tangier as a lost city, I’d been wrong. It was where it
had always been, on the cusp of two worlds, one known, the other a mystery. My
Tangier-phobic friend had been right. This wasn’t a city you went to, it was
one you passed through, even if, like Paul Bowles, it took you all your life.
I’d thought my goal lay through the gates of its medina, but like Achilles and
the tortoise I’d spent more than a week merely marching closer. But it turns
out Tangier itself is the gate, the starting point, and now, having wandered in
its ageless corridors, I can proceed through to the other side – wherever that
may be.