Once upon a time in Tanger...

Updated: Feb 21

I sunk into a fascinating culture after deciding to walk away from a return flight to San Francisco. I arrived to the edge of Africa with a hundred dollars to my name after months of hitchiking through Europe, a beat up hiking backpack filled with few clothes and even more pressing questions that I was determined to find answers to.

I was frightened and thrilled by the prospect of being in a Muslim country, surrounded by Muslims after being pressed with Islamaphobic propaganda in the states my entire life. I wanted to find out how much of it was true. I was terribly young, and naively thought I would be in Tanger for a single day...

but I didn't leave Morocco until nine months later that time.

Leo Skala, Morocco, Tanger, Author

I would return again, unknowingly, for a year and a half several years later.

During those initial months I lived some of the most extreme, joyous, and forsaken moments of my life. I hitchhiked through the entire country, I was astounded by the hospitality and importance of relaxation in Moroccan culture, I lived with a tribe of Amazigh in the Grand Atlas Mountains and fell into a brutal streak of penniless poverty in Tanger before resurfacing.

Every real journey we take outside the bounds of our perceived limits or comfort zones changes us irrevocably, and when I left the country again I wasn't the same person. I viewed the Earth, the possibilities and difficulties of life, the cherishing of time, love and my own being in an entirely new light.

A light which took years to integrate, and which I still am in some ways.

Now, most recently I was in Istanbul working on a book of poems from the typewriterpoetryproject. On one of these tranquil writing afternoons I happened into a discussion with an Iranian woman about the beauty and rigors of travelling for a long period of time. How you inevitably encounter a person who touches you to the quick. Who speaks to your core, and whose core you speak to in return. A potent alchemical reaction brews in your encounter with one another. It catalyzes, galvanizes and forms something entirely new in each of your lives.

On that first journey outside of the States and into Morocco this person for me was another young traveler, a Quebecoise hitchhiker named Nicholas.

Morocco, Tanger, Journal of Nomads

Nico and I first met on a dusty road in the small city of Tinghir.

A town perched right on the edges of the Sahara surrounded by small desert shrubs and empty expanse. A cliché backdrop, yet one whose symbolism and pure, absurd chance neither one of us could ignore.

Nick was, in a strange way, an answer to one of the questions I'd had when I first arrived in Africa. I had been asking myself for years, 'what happens if you strand yourself in a foreign country without any money, without speaking other languages and without intention of return?' Or, to put it more precisely I had wondered what happens if you pitch yourself into a decision that risks everything, a decision which asks you consciously choose to die to the life you had previously lived in order to begin living one you've always desired to.

For me, that meant discovering long term travel, learning other languages, having my intellectual and emotional horizons expanded through contact with cultures very different from the one I was raised in.

A few days after I decided to strand myself in Morocco to pursue this question, I met Nick. He had been travelling for half a dozen years without stop, spoke just as many languages, and was just as penniless as myself. A man close to my own age whom I felt a kinship with immediately. I recognized in him that strange keening sound of a person who seeks something, and who is willing to go to great lengths in order to find it.

Even today I have a difficult time finding proper words for this emotion of seeking something at all costs which consumed my own self at that point in my life.

I was looking for identity in all the wrong places, I was looking for radical shifts of perception and understanding, I was seeking a way toward a pure and unshakable internal joy amidst the true sorrows and troubles of the world today. I was looking to escape the obsessive clock and work culture of the States that never allowed any one time to truly be or breathe.

I had searched in Alaska during a fishing season, on a mango farm in Moloa'a on the island of Kauai, I racked the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Seattle, I served as a wilderness firefighter in the forests of Washington State, I journeyed out to Burning Man for several years in Black Rock Desert.

I had a grand thirst and flair for adventure in all forms.

I sought others who had the same.

Tanger, Morocco, Medina, travel

Nick, as it turned out, was only looking for a cheap, easy and relaxing country to pass the winter in. He told me later his reasons for coming to Morocco were shallow, and that he found much more than he bargained for here, yet I wasn't wrong in discerning he had gone to extremes during his own journeys to delve deep into the strata of soul.

A mark which he recognized on my face as well when we first met.

He'd journeyed through Central America seeking the unknown and performing intense fasts, some of these experiences I've already written about in the manuscript of my novel named Gravity According to Birds. He came to Morocco expecting a cakewalk after wrongly assuming himself to be a 'seasoned traveler'- which I believe is also one of the most wondrous things about long term travel.

It will inevitably and unexpectedly shatter your expectations, and introduce you to fresh facets of life and human ecosystems in surprising ways.

It will expand your rings of empathy and understanding, if you allow it.

Nick and I fast became friends and hitchhiked from one end of the country to the other until we realized we needed to rest. The reality of hiking on a lonely stretch of beautiful road with an empty belly hoping to catch a lift to the next unknown destination no longer appealed, so we made one last push toward the beacon of Tanger and collapsed into poverty.

Now, Tanger is an extraordinarily beautiful city, that’s part of the reason we decided on it. There is something ruined and charming about it. Something ineffable in the way its white and blue buildings soak and reflect the sunshine glancing off of the two oceans it's nestled next to.

It has a fascinating and vivid history; as a notorious pirate port, as a neutral hub for spies during the second world war, as an International Zone ruled by no country and populated by eccentrics, artists, and the wealthy before this. Its myth, tangible, living beauty and true spirit of relaxation all create an ambience unlike any other city today.

This was no less true on an empty belly, and if anything I was even more highly aware of the nuances this city possesses.

Tanger, Morocco, Medina, Travel

I quickly learned more than I already knew about the notion of Africantime. I would set up a rendezvous with a Moroccan at three, wait for them until four thirty and then leave disgruntled only to be called back thirty minutes later to surprise that I hadn't waited. To be several hours late in Morocco was of no concern, and quite normal.

I found again the extraordinary hospitality of Moroccans at play when we hadn't eaten for days, and our neighbors would hear of this and bring a rich, multicourse home cooked meal. I found my initial fear of Muslims to be entirely unfounded. People all over the country and in Tanger were welcoming, and friendly...if I ever felt unsafe it was generally only a trick of the mind, my misunderstanding of certain social customs, or an unfamiliarity with the general grittiness of the city which rang internal alarm bells that didn't need to be.

Somewhere amidst this dragging stretch of poverty Nick and I each had certain illusions shattered about our reasons for coming to Morocco. We both slowly realized as weeks continued to pass that this type of drifting Nirvana, this backpacker's dream of a life without money or effort would lead us no-where. During this time Nick dreamed of starting a travelblog, while I dreamed of writing a worthy novel. Our dreams were sharpened by hunger.

They remained intangible visions just out of reach of any practical way of realizing them.

Tanger, Morocco, Medina, Travel

We were fortunate enough to eventually find seasonal jobs for a few months in Tanger, working in a hotel to get out of life in the streets, then we hitchhiked to France to work the grape harvest.

After France we each went our separate ways.

I went back to America to tie up some of the loose ends I'd left behind when I stayed in Morocco, to try and digest what all had transpired.

Nick left toward Ireland with his current partner he met during that grapeharvest, whom he continued his hitchhiking adventures with.

Five years have passed since we parted.

In those five years Nick and Cynthia have since started the Journal of Nomads. An adventure travel blog which lead them to hitchhike from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan, where they now run tours for travelers.

I traveled, wrote poems for strangers with a typewriter in the street, worked, returned to Morocco for a year and a half to write the first draft of a novel, rewrote it and had it edited many times in the years after, then studied bookbinding under a master bookbinder in Seattle and released a limited proto-type soulthreaded printing of Gravity According to Birds. A magical realistic travelogue partially about my first experiences in Morocco, yet also about my love for Tanger and the strange karma that resides in ancestral bloodlines. I still consider it in manuscript form.

It's just now, five years later that Nick and I have met in person again since we parted ways...you guessed it, in Tanger. And what a damn delight to see each other well again in these same streets we once starved in after all this time! To meet again in this city which carved, shaped and gave birth to the very fabric of our lives and aspirations to follow.

A marvelous full circle.

So, we've been revisiting various hot spots and haunts throughout the city and I'll be writing a bit more about the Tanger of today. A city which has already morphed into something slightly unfamiliar from the city I lived in two years ago while writing, and especially five years ago with Nick..

yet a city which promises fascinating surprises even still.

Morocco, Travel, Leo Skala, Author, Tanger

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