Drama in the Kasbah then rockin' the strait!!

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May 21st 2016
Published: June 26th 2017
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Gran Canaria to Tangiers, Marocco

Distance travelled from Cape Town: 5229 nautical miles

I first must apologise to the stevedores of Gran Canaria who, I'm sure, do a sterling job all throughout the cruise calendar and are very conscientious in their work. In my last blog entry I mentioned that the ship was over an hour late in setting sail due to not being able to find a stevedore to untie us from our berth. I misheard the explanation. The stevedores were not 'bunking off' but they were busy in assisting with the bunkering of fuel which took longer than estimated!!

There is still over one week of the journey left so we were surprised where we received an interim copy of our account as we left for breakfast the day after leaving Las Palmas. As I have mentioned previously, a cruise ship is predominantly a cash free society (with few exceptions in the Casino for example) The cruise card which is issued at check-in acts as your key card as well as a credit card for any purchases whilst on board. There is other information contained on the card such as dining restaurant and table number, muster station and Internet ID. You can ask for a copy of your account at any time during the voyage but a final copy is posted to your cabin the evening before disembarkation when you can check the bill as you try to remember when you ordered the sixteen bottles of Moet Champagne!!

MSC automatically debt $1.50 per person towards their chosen charity UNICEF. Despite this nominal amount, we have heard a few people complain about this as they knew nothing about it. At time of booking this concession is mentioned in the small print of the small print. It is something that Roisin and I are happy to support knowing that our dollars are going towards providing hope that someone's child in the villages in the poorer parts of Africa, will be given with a chance to grow strong and healthy. Do the donations pay for water pumps or purification plants? No. Do they buy much needed medical supplies and inoculations or help fund the aid workers to administer such like? No. They go toward purchasing tonnes of…Plumpinuts!! The cereal bar full of vitamins and nutrition that every growing baby needs. There are even samples of Plumpinuts on the customer service desk. Yum! Yum! I bet the inhabitants in the remotest villages dream of the day that the next shipment of lovely, nutritious Plumpinuts is due.

'We're happy to walk fifteen miles to the nearest fresh water well and dysentery? What's wrong with the odd tummy ache once in a while??! As long as you don't deprive us of our Plumpinuts!!'

Back in Namibia on our quad bike excursion two of our fellow quad bikers were man/wife entertainers from the ship. We had only seen them briefly during the theatre show called ‘Cleopatra'. It now transpires that the husband, Ian von Memerty, is somewhat of a legend in South Africa. The compere of South Africa's version of Strictly Come Dancing he has made a career from TV and Radio and won many awards along the way. Since leaving Namibia he has had his own show on board and proved to be an accomplished pianist, singer, dancer and comedian. We met him again on the boat to Gorée Island. I turned to him and due to his association with the Strictly franchise I said:Nice to see you…?' He just turned and saidOh, Hello again.' Obviously not familiar with the British version of the celebrity dancing show!! Ian has also hosted a couple of ‘An audience with…' shows which have also proven very popular. The guy is a natural and could probably turn his hand to anything.

There is an Aristo on board this ship. We had heard whispers that a Russian Count was a fellow passenger. On the first Gala evening he was wearing his dress uniform together with sash and decorations. Neither of us saw him in his full regalia but the proof of it remains in the photo department. We spent most of Gala night #3 on the lookout but to no avail. He must have been keeping a low profile. It is said that he is easily spotted as he is usually surrounded by a small cortege. He is only the fifth Count I have come across after Count Dracula, the Count of Monte Cristo, Count Bassie and the Count from Sesame Street!!

We arrived in Tangiers at 8am. Tangiers is a port in Morocco and is known as the gateway to Africa due to its location. With its proximity to Europe it takes only thirty minutes by catamaran to travel the nine miles across the Straits of Gibraltar to the British dependency.

For the decades between 1920 and the 1950s, Tangier was a playground for the adventure seekers or the rich and famous attracting all those seeking a tax haven or a mystic destination, from authors to artists to aristocrats (including Russian Counts?) When Spain relinquished Tangier back to Morocco in 1960 its duty free status went with it thus losing much of its attraction. However, tourism is slowly increasing once more mainly due to its proximity to Europe and no doubt proximity to the sea!! (hence why we're heading there!!)

South Africans require a visa to enter Morocco. Regardless of the length of stay, if you don't have a visa you ain't coming in! All South African passports were collected last week and are now being held by the Pursers Office. Although there are no formal immigration procedures for individuals and passports aren't required to be presented, I'm assuming that those people without visas (who need them) will be flagged on the system should they try to disembark. For this reason Hanlie stayed aboard the vessel today whilst her husband Dave, Roisin and I popped in to the Medina, the old town.

On walking down the gangway to the quay, our ears were greeted by a loud squawking and screeching of some rather large birds of prey hovering above. ‘S'funny!' I though. The skies were clear not even a gull, gannet or the usual array of sea birds you see flapping around when a cruise ship is in port. It was only when we started walking along the quay that the screeching became louder. I then noticed that I was level with a loud speaker tied to a lamp post. The sound was pre-recorded and constantly being piped, probably to ward off scavengers. Well it was working. It was quite eerie hearing this warning cry but not being able to see any birds in sight.

We followed the steady stream of independent passengers who all had the same idea in mind; head for the Medina. Tangier seems to be quite a spread out city, stretching right around a large bay. Across the bay towered the modern Tangier with its multi-story office blocks and hotels standing behind a large stretch of golden sand. The old town, with its much lower buildings was only several minutes' walk from the port. The Medina of Tangiers is built on a hillside but despite the apparent steepness to get to the entrance to the Kasbah, which lies at the summit, the walk was far from strenuous.

Whilst standing looking at the map of the medina, a local came up and started explaining where everything was. We asked a few questions which he happily answered and when we thanked him and bid him farewell, to our surprise, he didn't follow us. A false sense of security??

Our first stop was practically at the first shop. Dave need to send a few postcards. The proprietor was very hospitable offering Dave a place to sit whilst he wrote out the cards. Whilst we were waiting the owner convinced Roisin to send a postcard. It was a small shop and as Dave had taken the only chair, the owner beckoned Roisin outside, said a few choice words in Arabic to some local children sitting on a nearby stone plinth who all promptly moved then he offered the wall that had recently become vacant to Roisin!! His English was almost perfect and he remained very polite throughout.

The streets of the Medina were very narrow but all thoroughfares were remarkably clean and free from litter and trash and although in some places, dark and dingy, at no point did we feel threatened. On several occasions we were approached by youths who all spoke a fair degree of fluent English. We were heading toward the Kasbah but as the signs were far and few between and those signs that we did spot were not all that prominently placed, usually high up on the corner of a building, painted freehand as an afterthought, we took a few wrong turnings. It is very easy to lose ones sense of direction in the Medina as the alleys and streets seem to run in all directions. One saving grace were the sign names that were in Arabic and Latin script, printed on sheet metal and affixed to a the side of a building or wall. On looking up I noticed that one of the street names was called HaHa. I thought to myself ‘Are you having a laugh??!' The street side was broken. It was if someone had tried, unsuccessfully to snap the sign from the wall. Honestly, it was no laughing matter!!! young men (always young men) who approached us pointed the way then led us whilst turning to provide a running commentary. It is very difficult to shake them off. However, we did notice that none of these ‘guides' were very tactile. For example the locals in Senegal were very ‘touchy-feely' but our new best friends never once came within a few feet of us but always beckoned to follow them. On two occasions we managed to lag behind and at an appropriate juncture stop to study a map of the walled city to check our progress. The young ‘would-be' guides soon got the message and never once did anyone ‘beg' for money. If was difficult to decide whether there was any ulterior motive in the locals eagerness to show us their city or whether they were just being very hospitable.

On several occasions we bumped into MSC official excursions who were following their guide on foot. This time Roisin and I had got it right. We were all enjoying the walk and the company and so far it hadn't cost us anything! The excursion coach had transported the tourists to the top of the Medina (the Kasbah) where their tour guide was now leading them down to the port gate. Other than a commentary on the history and who lived where (apparently Mick Jagger had a gaff somewhere in this myriad of buildings) we were having much more fun. Dave was in his element and kept Roisin and I amused with his ‘sparring' against the hawkers who were constantly approaching producing fezzes, t-shirts and such like hoping to lure us in to purchasing their wares. At one point I thought Dave had actually sold one of his t-shirts back to a vendor as they seemed to be discussing the quality of the material. Dave was definitely in his element. He was having a lot of fun with the street sellers. Now it was my turn:

‘T-shirt, meester?'

‘No, thank you,' I replied ‘I have five already!!' Feeling pleased with myself for the quick witted response, the street seller replied:

‘Where? You show me!!' That wasn't the response I expected; to be challenged by a street vendor!!

It wasn't long before the next seller approached:

‘Fez? Lovely hat'

‘Nah, ta!! Tha' willst not adequately sit atop my overly outsized cranium' I answered purposely using old English to ‘fox' my opponent.

‘Look! I have. See extra-large. Will fit you most excellent' Great!! I'm dealing with the only Shakespeare trained street vendor in all Morocco.

I may as well enter in to a proper conversation with him: ‘No sorry. It's not my first time to Morocco. I have already visited Casablanca, Fez and Marrakesh. I bought one some years ago in Marrakesh.'

‘Marrakesh? Schmarrakesh! Those are not real. This is a genuine fez', Great, I thought. No only an Oxford Don but also an aspiring Jewish comedian!!'

We finally made it to the Kasbah. A Kasbah is a fortress usually within the walls of a Medina and is a place for the local leader to live and the defence when a city was under attack. This Kasbah had high walls without any windows but a watch tower from which the city could be alerted to any pending attack. A door led out on to a terrace that looked out to the port where the MSC Sinfonia was moored in the distance below.

On the way back to the port, winding our way through the streets and down the uneven steps, we unexpectedly adopted a young boy about 10 or 11 years old who was keen to show us the way back to the Medina entrance from whence we came. Suddenly, without warning he stopped and went over to a few of his mates. His eagerness disappeared and once again we were free to find our own way home!! Unbeknown to me, Roisin told me later that as the young boy, who was leading the way turned to ensure we were still following, his expression changed as he spotted a policemen accompanied by a civilian heading his way. This is when the boy moved to one side to another group of youngsters. The civilian gently squeezed the boy's cheeks, followed by a friendly slap then wagged his finger at him smiling as he did so. Perhaps there was a hidden agenda after all but I guess we'll never know!

Yet another delay in departing from Tangier. We were scheduled to leave at 4pm. We finally set sail at 6:35pm. The word on the Street was that a couple of South Africans chanced their hand and decided to leave the ship without the necessary documentation in their passport. It is not clear how they bypassed ship's security. On leaving the ship this morning, we noticed that a temporary desk had been set up manned by several crew members. On the desk were spread a bunch of sheets which one assumes contained the names of those travelling under a South African passport together with other relevant details. Once ashore, as a passport is not required it would be impossible to identify who was not entitled to enter the country so we're guessing that this sheets must have eventually been presented to immigration who reconciled with the passports flagging any anomalies. We understand that couple who entered Morocco without the appropriate visas were arrested on arriving back on board and taken to a local police station for further questioning, probably accompanied by a representative of MSC. We did witness a police wagon leaving the quay shortly after 6:30pm and then within minutes we were on our way. The fate of the passengers are, at this time, still unknown. From my experience, the shipping company could be held responsible for this breach of security and be made to pay a fine which I'm sure they'd pass on to the South Africans. In turn, as the unfortunates cannot stay in Morocco they have to be transported to the next port which happens to be Valetta in Malta and may be off loaded there. I'm assuming that because they would have to exit in Italy they hold a Schengen visa, which is good for all EU countries and Malta being in the EU their entry in to this country would be lawful. This is all speculation and hearsay but we definitely saw the police wagon so I've just filled in the blanks. Anyhow, it made for a bit of drama regardless of the actual outcome!!

At approximately 8:20pm we entered the Straits of Gibraltar. It was dusk as the famous rock came into view, its ghostly outline loomed in the distance. We had now entered the Mediterranean. Ahead are now two further sea days before our next stop, Valetta in Malta.

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