Richard had an explanation for everything.
"I hear English voices," he said by way of introduction, when he found my friend and me wandering through a residential neighborhood in the Moroccan port city of Tangier.
Richard was a visiting music teacher from Sheffield, England, he told us. He was in Tangier for a month to teach that oh-so-popular North African instrument, the alto saxophone. Even though he has no teeth.
School was out because of a national holiday, he said, explaining his presence in the middle of the afternoon but not explaining all the schoolboys walking by in their white school smocks. He was not a guide, Richard said. He just wanted to practice his English; apparently such opportunities are rare in England.
We had been fending off the Richards of Tangier from the moment we stepped off the high-speed boat that ferried us across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.
Did you need a taxi? Are you staying the night? Do you have a hotel? Here. Here. Go this way. See? I told you that wasn't an exit. Why are you ignoring me? I'm trying to help. Are you American? We love your country. You will be safe here. But you need a guide. This is not America. People will bother you. You will not be safe. I can protect you. Do not be afraid. Ahlan. Welcome. Welcome to Morocco.
I came to Morocco with an open mind. I wanted to see for myself if Tangier deserved its reputation among travelers for being the Tijuana of North Africa, a place of swindlers and hustlers and shopkeepers looking to make a fast buck off the fast-spenders. (It does.) I also was determined not to be had. (I was.)
For a negotiated fee that seemed to range from $5 to $10 apiece, the guides offered to take us to the tourist hot spots and steer us to shops or eateries that we were told had the best deals in town. The guide got the best deal of all, a commission for bringing us to his vendors.
Dealing with the "guides" in Tangier can be a maddening, frightening and annoying experience. It also can be masochistically enjoyable once you master the game or learn to appreciate the fact that, as my friend Mai-Trang later observed, you're only getting hustled if you're not getting what you want.
But here is the thing about the guides in Tangier: None of them will admit he is a guide. Most of them approach you with the phrase, "I am not a guide." Even the guides know what a bad rap they have. The official guides, certified by the tourism board, have badges. Of course there are unofficial guides with official-looking badges, making it difficult to discern the real guides from the fakes.
Mosetafa wasn't a guide either. He found us in the square at the entrance to the medina, the old Arab marketplace that remains the city's base for commercial trade.
Mosetafa said he owned a restaurant in the Petit Socco, one of the markets in the medina where shoppers jostle past piles of freshly caught fish, defrocked chickens hanging by their feet, and olives and fresh fruits spilling out of their baskets in a kaleidoscope of colors and smells.
Mosetafa assured us that we would not get ill at his restaurant, so we followed him the short distance to the Momounia Palace on Rue Semmarine, where he informed us that we could eat an authentic Moroccan meal for $10 each. Not included: tax, tip, extra tip for the waiter, bottled water, tip for the musician and tip for the lady who dried our hands after we used the bathroom. The restaurant's main dining room was empty except for an old woman Mosetafa introduced as "his cook" and a slender man in a red vest and black pants he introduced as "his waiter."
He made a reservation for us, even though the restaurant was completely empty, then took us to the roof, where we could listen to the chatter of commerce in French and Arabic in the market below and take pictures of the city spreading out before us, the white houses that disappeared into the barren mountains that encase Tangier, the sandy beaches and palm trees of the coast, the church steeples, the domes of the mosques, Spain in the distance.
Of course Mosetafa didn't really own the restaurant. Our waiter told us it is owned by a man named Tezi. And after we were finished eating, Mosetafa appeared with an offer: The restaurant business was slow today. If we'd like, he'd be happy to take us around Tangier.
Tangier is relatively cheap and easy to get to if you are already in southern Spain, which is one of the prime appeals. Our ferry ride from Algeciras on the Spanish-owned Ferrys Rapidos del Sur catamaran cost us about $50 each round trip, and it was fast -- less than two hours in the comfort of a carpeted three-decker boat. Through the sea-splashed windows, we could see the big, green, lumpy rock that was Africa coming toward us. That is also a large part of the appeal. You can day-trip to Africa.
Tangier is both the perfect and imperfect place to enter the continent. It is a gritty, seedy working town that happens to be perched amid soft, rolling hills that cascade into the blue and green waters of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. Although Tangier offers a very small window seat on the rest of Morocco, it delivers what it promises: an initiation into the exotic clash of Berber and Arabic cultures.
It also delivered Richard.
We met Richard near an arched entrance leading into the casbah, the old fortress area that has oddly shaped houses; narrow alleys filled with stray cats; public water spigots for washing people, clothes and vegetables; and communal huts where families bake their bread.
He wore khaki cotton pants and a loose polyester shirt. He was warm, a bit shy even, not aggressive like the other guides who had been buzzing about us for the past four hours.
We had climbed a long, hilly street to reach the casbah, following signs in Arabic and English that told us it was just up ahead. Before we made it to the top, we had to fend off another guide, a man with closely cropped hair. He was the "mosquito" guide.
The mosquito guide was typical of the guides we encountered in Tangier. He asked if we needed directions, ignored our answer and tried to get us to follow him to a shop he was recommending. He continued to follow us up and down the streets, past the Berber farmers in their signature domed straw hats selling fresh tomatoes and little sandwich bags of garbanzo beans, past the merchants selling drums and hookah pipes to the tourists, past the spice vendors with their wooden barrels filled with saffron and ras el hanout, a signature Moroccan spice mixture. The mosquito guide buzzed in front and beside us with his chatter.
"I am like a mosquito," he said, earning his nickname. "But one mosquito can keep the swarm of mosquitoes away."
The problem was we were still convinced that we did not want or need a guide, even though travelers who hire a professional guide in advance or get one as part of an organized tour don't have the same experience we did. They have mosquito repellent. We had a map and the determination of two independent-minded professional women to find our way around unassisted, thank you. No really, we're fine. No. Non. Nein. La. No.
Several guides, in an effort to win us over, even made a point to teach us how to say "No, thank you" in Arabic. La, shukran.
La, shukran. La, shukran. La, shukran.
It didn't always work.
It didn't work on the mosquito.
He continued to follow us up to the casbah. He only left after I turned to him and told him in perfect rude American bar girl, "You need to leave us alone at this instance."
That didn't always work either. I tried it on another mosquito the next day. After he left initially, his yellow sweater and blue jeans disappearing down an alley of unopened shops, their windows still covered in tin, he came back, angry that I had not thanked him for leaving me alone.
We also tried to ignore them, ditching them by ducking onto side streets and pretending we spoke a language no one could understand. During one intense moment of bargain shopping, I had to remind my friend to "please stop addressing me in English. I'm supposed to be deaf." It was absurd. But Tangier required it.
Richard was more shadow than mosquito. He was easy company and seemed to know Tangier and appreciate that we didn't want to see the tourist spots. In fact, he knew the city remarkably well for a guy from Sheffield, England. He knew the coffee shop owners, the police officers, the guy making the bread, the drunks on the corner.
On our unofficial tour of unofficial Tangier, he pointed out the home of famed American writer Paul Bowles. Richard described in some detail the lavish interior of Bowles's home, the blue-and-white tiled entryway, the garden court with the lilies that bloom and spill over the walls. He often saw Bowles on the street, Richard told us, and although they are not friends, they do not greet like strangers.
Richard left out just one minor detail: Bowles died of a heart attack in 1999.
For more than an hour, we followed Richard around the casbah, still pretending that he was not guiding us and that we were not being guided.
I was aware at some point, as Richard plunged us even farther into the casbah, that I had no idea where we were. We would need Richard to get out. And he knew it.
That's when the power balance completely shifted. That's the point when we were had.
"Oh, I see where we are," I told Richard, cheery and confident. "That is the main street we came up."
"No," Richard said, cutting me off. "It only looks like the main street."
Richard seemed harmless even then, but when he took us to a cliff to see where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean Sea -- that part is true -- I was careful not to follow him to the edge. We peered down a hillside littered with garbage, the town dump, Richard said.
Richard turned out to be a horrible liar but a brilliant hustler. "Please," I told Richard when we were finally ready to go, "let us kindly pay you for a bit of your time."
He led us onto a side street, where he told us we would need to pay him about $20. We refused. Richard told us he was unemployed and had six hungry children at home. We were greedy, he told us. He asked me darkly if I thought he was a dog or a donkey. He was a liar, I told him, and we would discount his dishonesty from the price. I then listed his litany of lies: the music teacher; Paul Bowles; Sheffield, England. Really, my friend told Richard, if you had just been upfront with us in the first place . . .
But Richard knew. He had been guiding longer than we had been guided. With a little more negotiation, we gave him about $12 and called it even. He leaned in to kiss us on the cheek before we parted. "Be happy," he said, grinning. I watched to make sure he didn't try to pick my friend's pocket.
In the end, we probably should have just hired a guide right off the boat. We would have insisted that we be taken where we wanted to go. We would have negotiated a price upfront with the promise of a "bonus" if the guide delivered what we wanted.
But then we never would have met Richard, who for the price of lunch back home, showed us the city he didn't want to claim as his own, that we would never have found on our own.
On the way back to Spain, the mist of the speeding boat splashed my face as I stood on the deck to watch the city slowly fade from view, moving back to its exotic place on the map, a continent away. Somewhere within the centuries-old walls of the casbah, now whitewashed from the glare of the setting sun, was a music teacher taking a break from the saxophone.
Numerous ferry services operate from the Spanish city of Algeciras to Tangier, Morocco. It's best to have a ticket before you arrive and a hotel reservation if you plan to stay the night before an early morning departure. By car, Algeciras is about 2 1/2 hours south of Seville. The Ferrys Rapidos del Sur, or FRS, runs year-round from Algeciras and Tarifa, another Spanish port. At press time, FRS did not yet have an international licence to operate out of Tarifa, so U.S. citizens can only depart from Algeciras. The ride takes about 70 minutes and costs about $50 round trip. For schedules and reservations: 011-34-956-68-18-30, www.frs.es /eng/index.htm. For info on Morocco: www.tourism-in-morocco.com.