How much can we learn about the culture of a country when we spend one night here, two nights there and pass through many towns and cities in the space of a few weeks? That’s the question I’ve asked myself since we returned home from a tour that covered much of Spain and the tip of Morocco, arranged by Rick Steve’s “Europe Through the Back Door” company. Mr. Steves is a local travel guru who discourages “tourism” and encourages “traveling,” by which he means replacing resort-style accommodations and shopping expeditions with learning more about the culture in the places we visit and interacting directly with the people who live there.
After reflecting for a few days, I decided that although a Rick Steves’ tour can’t provide anything like cultural immersion, it does a better job than we could do on our own without spending more time in a single place, and gives us subtle glimpses into culture that we may not be aware of at the time. I’ve already written about food, an important part of culture. As far as getting to know people better, most of my interactions with Spaniards involved asking for directions when we got lost, but these showed us that strangers were friendly and always willing to help. My longest conversation took place with an Argentinian couple as we traveled to the Madrid airport in a shuttle bus. That probably doesn’t count.
Our primary tour guide, as well as the local guides in each place we visited, shared interesting histories, legends and perspectives. I wished I could take an art history class from the guide who took us through the Prado Museum in Madrid. Just how many of those famous Spanish court painters added their own faces as well as those of friends and family members to their works?
The most striking introduction to a new culture came from our two days in Morocco. We had the good fortune in Tangier to go on a tour of a home remodeling project. The house in the casbah, where homes of the rich and poor are all hidden behind windowless wooden doors, belonged to a friend of our guide, Aziz. There we saw many examples of local arts and crafts that we would never see on our own.
Spending a few hours wandering through the medina (market) of Tangier brought us in touch with a women’s clothing stall-keeper affectionately known to his friends as Ali Baba, a delightful man whose English skills allowed him to keep us entertained as we negotiated prices for several scarves. “If I sell these to you for less than eighty dirhams (about $9) I will be forced to give up my business. I will no longer be able to earn a living.” Nonetheless, he gave up one for eighty and a second for the same amount. His last offer was two hundred fifty dirhams for three scarves. A nice deal for him and sounding great to us in our confusion. We were happy to pay, knowing that we had not driven him to bankruptcy, and pleased that the outcome of the negotiations brought him enough satisfaction to let me take his picture.
The biggest culture shock came immediately upon arrival in Tangier. The waiting tour bus took us a few miles from the ferry dock to a busy boulevard and stopped. “Now you will have your first Moroccan adventure,” said Aziz.
“You mean exchanging our euros for dirhams?” someone asked, as we spotted the currency exchange.
“No. Crossing the street,” he said. “That will be much more thrilling.”
He was right.