So, I’m caught up on our time in Europe…just as we’re about to leave Morocco. I posted a few pictures last week of our first stop, Chefchaouen, a little town in the Rif Mountains. We took the boat from Tarifa in Spain to dusty, sun-soaked Tangier, and thanks to Morocco’s efficient bus system, were able to get all the way to Chefchaouen by mid afternoon.
We haven’t been too thrilled with the information in the Lonely Planet Morocco book. The latest edition was published in 2009, so prices have changed, ticket offices have moved, hotels and hostels have fallen into decay. Plus, it lacks a singular voice in its recommendations, and consistency suffers in both facts (e.g., prices of travel, visas, etc.) and opinions on what to see.
A glaring exception, however, is Hostal Gernika – recommended highly by the guide’s authors. The Spanish woman who runs it made us feel at home right away, and to call it a hostel when each room has a bathroom and shower isn’t really fair. We had a comfortable room right beside an immaculate rooftop terrace, perfect for enjoying the hostel’s great breakfast and escaping the late-night heat of the narrow streets below.
The city itself is built into the side of Jebel El-Kelaa, a peak in the Rif that, we were told, gets snow in the winter. That was hard to believe, as temperatures were in the 40°C range (100+ in Fahrenheit). But mitigating the heat are the winding walls of the medina, painted cool blue throughout the entire old part of the city. Aside from getting stung by a yellow jacket when I disturbed a nest that was under our dinner table, our first night was pleasant enough.
The next day, we took the obligatory tour of the former royal palace in the center of town and admired the parallels between the architecture and decoration here and those in Sevilla. In fact, Chefchaouen used to be a Spanish outpost until the early 20th century, and to this day, when you’re recognized as a foreigner, you more likely to be spoken to in Spanish than French.
By midday, the sun was hot, with few clouds to make the temperatures more bearable, so we headed to Ras El Maa, a waterfall at the base of El-Kelaa. As waterfalls go, it’s not tremendously impressive, but it does attract a lot of local folks looking for respite from the heat, and if they need to wash some clothes or a rug. On either side of the stream, the town had built chutes that led to perhaps a dozen wash basins. Moroccans seemed to have perfected the art of moving water to suit their needs. Driving through some of the driest parts of this country, swaths of green will suddenly burst from the rocky hardpan – the result of leveraging mountain streams and rivers via expertly engineered, cement-walled irrigation ditches that flow through nearly every town and in some cases right through houses themselves. So while kids played in the ankle-deep spillway in the stream, men and women washed clothes or used the continuously flowing water to help them in soaking and beating the dust out of their massive area rugs.
We spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, stopping at nearly every fresh-squeezed orange juice stand that seem to price a glass of the beverage on a sliding scale – the more you look and talk like a Moroccan, the less you pay. Our American-ness also earned us a few false friends in the form of carpet sellers, who have learned to leverage Western guilt by learning copious amounts of English, talking really fast, and accusing you of prejudice if you don’t join them in their shop for a cup of tea. “No pressure! No pressure,” they say. “This is not Marrakesh. This is Chefchaouen. We are friends here.”
With no intention of spending a hundred dollars or more on a rug, we nevertheless were lured in by a plump diabetic Moroccan who speaks better English than I do (learned from the 500 channels he gets with his satellite dish) who served us tea (his without sugar) and threw out en vogue clichéd phrases to indicate he was a businessman of principles like “This comes from a women’s cooperative” and “We pay the mountain people a fair price for this.”
We didn’t buy anything, and he seemed to take it well, though that did little to assuage the feeling that we’d just been taken for a Moroccan pony ride. We did however stumble on a random square with few tourists and a café with lots of men watching soap operas and playing dice-based games. For less than a dollar, we sat and drank a couple cups of mint tea while several boys played soccer on the cobblestones in front of us, stopping every so often for a drink from the spigot in the middle of the square.
For all its modernity – electrification and running water seem to be seen as a right rather than a luxury, as opposed to less-developed countries – its big cities that hum with traffic and hold both some of the newest and oldest vestiges of civilization, and the genuine belief on the part of the occasional Moroccan you meet on the street that they’re really more a part of Europe than Africa, our first few days in Morocco made clear in my mind which continent I was on. From our rooftop terrace, I watched the streetlights come on just as the slightest chill brought on by darkness began to stir activity. The smell of cooking fires and occasionally burning trash – two scents I’ll forever associate with my time in Niger – swirled skyward. And the chorus of prayer calls began, one after the other, from the five mosques visible from where I stood, the disjointed round leaving little doubt that this is Africa.