Africa

Adventures in the Blue Mountains

As I sit here musing upon my time here in Morocco in my last few days in the country, I don’t think I will ever forget my time in Chefchaouen.  Chefchaouen is a small mountain town in the North of Morocco that’s about a 2.5 hour drive from the Mediterranean coast.  It’s beautifully nestled into the side of a fairly large mountain (at least according to me), and while this seems like a description you’d see in a guidebook, I really did fall in love with the town.  Upon arriving, the first thing you notice about Chefchaouen is the spectacular sky blue color most of the buildings are coated with.  Not to mention the fact that the entire city, particularly the Medina, is on a very steep incline! No matter where you are going it always felt like you were getting a workout; either going up or down very steep inclines.

I went along with just one friend this time, and the journey is even a fond memory.  We had originally planned on going to Al Hoceima, a pleasant beach town on the Mediterranean, but halfway through a train ride to get us halfway there, we decided to completely change our plans, get off the train at Fez, and head up to the mountains for a weekend instead of the beach.  This ended up being a spectacular choice because while the weather was nice, it definitely was not beach weather!  So we spend the night in Fez, reveling in the fact that we had finally found a cheap hotel outside of the Medina.  The Medina in Fez is probably the scariest city I have ever been in during my lifetime.  Not for any reason like theft or anything, but simply because it is such a labyrinth and it is almost impossible to have a sense of direction in the tight streets that can only literally be used by donkeys if you want to carry a heavy load.  No cars or motorcycles here as in other Medinas like Rabat’s.  They went about things the old fashioned way.  So we wandered around Fez that night, and around 8am boarded a bus that would take us to Chefchaouen.

Whenever and wherever I travel in Morocco, the first thing I do is find a relatively cheap hotel where I can drop my stuff and continue on with whatever the day has in store.  Then I usually find a café or a souk that I can relax or peruse at my leisure.  First, we found some cheap food: some local bread and locally made goat cheese, which the North of Morocco is apparently known for.  However, when we tried the cheese, I was a little disappointed because it didn’t have the salty and strong flavor that I’m used to getting with a goat cheese, but perhaps that was a good thing.  Then we went on to wander around the souk, which was a very tourist-geared place in Chefchaouen.  So as we’re wandering, we get the usual harassment from shopkeepers telling us to come look at what they had in their stores.  One man was extremely persistent and he had some interesting things, so we decided to take him up on his demand/request.  Who knew that I would be spending the next 5-6 hours of my life in this man’s shop?

How in the world did this happen, you ask?  There were far too many beautiful things, and, of course, after a certain point, the Moroccan mint tea just kept coming.  I think it might be physically impossible for me to decline Moroccan tea when it’s been freely offered to me.  First, there were the bracelets, necklaces, pendants, rings, and earrings that we went through first.  Then, there were the various Berber knives my friend saw, and then we found out that we were actually talking to a man who had previously been a nomad and was traveling around the country selling goods his tribe made.  When we asked him how long he will stay in Chefchaouen since he is a nomad, and he replied that it all depended upon feeling.  One day he could wake up and just decide that it was time to leave and that would be it.  Case closed and bags packed.  This was all a very interesting idea considering he had everything from lanterns to leather travel bags to mountains upon mountains of scarves.  Naturally, my friend and I, who have almost a scary similarity in taste for everything from clothes to movies, started to look at this humongous scarves that were lining the walls.  We asked our now host to tell us what those were used for, and before we knew it, we were playing Berber dress-up.

First, we tried on the long scarves, which are wrapped around your body several times to completely cover everything, very much like a toga or sari would do.  Then, we got a lesson on how to wrap a Berber head scarf, which was just as long if not longer than the scarf/dress, into a turban.  Finally, they put us into these very loose-fitting-to-the point-of-down-right-ridiculous size traditional Berber dresses.  They were beautifully embroidered with a yellow-gold thread around the hems, and made us both look like “Berber princesses”, as one of the other customers who came into the shop remarked.  During all of this we engaged in some very intense and not-so-intense cultural exchange about what people in America do in their free time and home decorating.  At one point, for instance, we had taken off two of the scarves that we had liked on the wall, and realized that now it needed some color, so my friend and I were trying to pick out other colors that would work well in that same spot.  The manager of the store overheard us and took out the exact colors we were talking about from a small trunk in on of the corners of the room, and puts the scarves up on the wall.  He was then talking about how he wished he could capture the light through the scarves, and we both simultaneously remark that he should put two scarves in the doorway that leads out to a terrace at the back of the shop so as to provide a little screen and to better display them.  He absolutely loved having our input on something he didn’t seem to have any sense of, and after a while we began to feel almost at home in his shop.

At the end of our time there, we were both so tired from nodding, smiling, and generally being agreeable for such a long period of time, and all we wanted to do was head back to the hotel and sleep!  We both only ended up liking and purchasing the scarves, but having the true Moroccan experience of getting to know a shopkeeper and drinking several glasses of tea with him and his cousins, who also helped to run the shop, was quite spectacular.  I’m sure this will be one of my most vivid memories of Morocco.

Jessica
Jessie was born into a traveling family. After going on vacations across Europe with her family growing up, she has always had the desire to travel. So when she got the opportunity to travel to Thailand and Cambodia with the non-profit group, Teachers Across Borders, she discovered her love of studying other cultures and hasn’t been able to let it go. From her experiences in Cambodia, she became involved in the non-profit organization, Cambodia’s Children Education Fund, and has followed her interest in education to Morocco. She’s. She’s currently studying culture, Arabic, and education in Morocco, and has been fortunate to become a sister in a large family of 9 living in the Medina of Rabat. You can follow along as she discovers Moroccan family life, culture, and a little bit about herself as she reflects upon her experiences.

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