La Prisa Mata: Morocco 101 (2/4)

(part 2 of 4)

March 29: Tétouan – Oued Laou –Chefchaouen

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Tétouan from our hotel room

Not wanting a repeat of the previous day’s events, we decided to take the coastal road from Tétouan to Oued Laou and then head inland to Chefchaouen. Oued Laou (oued means river in Arabic – you’re welcome) is traditionally a fishing village, but nearly the entire place is a construction site at the moment. The pristine beaches have apparently been discovered by European tourists and there were hand-painted signs everywhere advertising cheap rooms and apartments for rent. But old customs die hard and there was a small boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, leading a cow leisurely down the middle of the main street by a rope which was tied to the animal’s ear.

As we got farther up into the Rif mountains we passed an ancient lorry flipped over on its side at the end of a dangerous curve. It had been filled (most likely way beyond its actual capacity) with firewood which was now spread all over the road.

We pulled over to snap some photos of a waterfall. I was helping Lola scramble down some loose gravel when she slipped and fell flat on her back, scraping her elbows all to shit in the process. Unfortunately, she kicked my feet out from under me, as I was walking backwards in front of her while holding her hands. I landed right on top of her. So that was fun. It was almost as fun as watching her jump around and howl in pain as we applied some sort of Spanish hydrogen peroxide to her wounds. I am a bad husband.

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Lola (post-fall) at the waterfall on the road to Chefchaouen

In Chefchaouen we parked in a dead end alley near the medina and attempted to call the owner of the apartment we had reserved. Three tries and no answer. A guy walking by asked if we needed any help in perfect Spanish. We explained the situation and he handed us his cell phone.

“Maybe you will have better luck with my phone. Excuse me.” He saw a friend and walked down the street to have a chat. We tried the number a couple more times. No answer.

Rosa yelled from around the corner, “It’s over here!”

A few minutes later the guy came back and we returned his phone. He was happy to hear we had found our place. “Enjoy your stay in Morocco!” he yelled as he slipped into a little fruit and veg shop.

“I’m amazed at how well everybody speaks Spanish in this country.”

“That’s common in the north,” Toño informed me. “When you get down south it’s all French and Arabic.”

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in the Chefchaouen medina

The owner of the apartment, on the other hand, didn’t seem to understand much Spanish. Or French. Or English. When Lola said, “We tried to call many times,” while pointing to her phone, he responded by smiling and nodding his head. He didn’t seem to be at all put out by the fact that we had arrived a day late, but he did seem to understand that our reservation had been cancelled. The apartment was still available, but since we no longer had a reservation Toño went into full-on Moroccan haggling mode.

Amigo, we made the reservation through a website. Now that’s gone. Finished. So we have to negotiate a new price.”

The guy seemed to understand and wasn’t at all upset about this. Everything seems to be up for negotiation in Morocco. If you don’t haggle over the price of pretty much everything, people seem to think there is something wrong with you.

“The original reservation was 800 dirhams a night. So the website was taking how much? 150 or 200 dirhams off the top?”

The owner thought for a moment, then wrote “650” on a scrap of paper.

Amigo, don’t break my balls.” Toño bounced up and down on one of the beds. “This mattress is older than my grandmother. And there’s only one toilet for the five of us.” Toño walked into the bathroom and came back out shaking his head and holding his nose. “Hombre, you’re breaking my balls. I think… 550 is a reasonable price.”

The owner nodded and they shook hands. One of the highlights of the trip was watching Toño haggle.

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Chefchaouen from our apartment

We moved the car closer to the apartment and made a new friend in the process.

¡Hola amigos!  Madrid or Barcelona?”

“Barcelona.” Toño is half Catalán.

¡O, qué pena!  Madrid has a better team. Do you need any help unloading your car?”

“No, shokran. But what is there to do around here? Is there anything interesting to see?”

Toño knows Chefchaouen inside-out from previous visits, but he likes to get in good with the street hustlers. The guy was full of information and everybody who walked down the street greeted him. An old woman slipped a coin into his hand. He thanked her profusely, “Shokran. Shokran.”

Amigo, do you have any water?” I handed him my water bottle. He took a big, long swig off it and then poured some over his head. “Ahhh, I was thirsty.”

He looked around cautiously and whispered, “I smoked a lot of hashish today.” He laughed like a maniac.

“Keep the bottle.”

Muchas gracias, amigo. Shokran. And if you want to buy hashish you come to me, OK?”

“Will do.”

“The guys in the medina are ladrones.”

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tiny bakery in Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen (or simply Chaouen, which means “peaks”) is a beautiful little town situated at the base of the Rif mountains. There is a noticeable Spanish influence on the architecture here which dates back to the arrival in the late 15th century of Jewish and Muslim refugees from Granada. The majority of the buildings are blue-washed, a tradition that started in the 1930s with the arrival of Jewish refugees from Europe for whom blue symbolized the sky and the heavens.

There was an old gate into the medina near our apartment. We dropped our bags and went for a stroll. We stumbled into a bustling open market which was a complete assault on the senses. Most of the sellers were squatting low to the ground or sitting on blankets alongside their goods. Everybody was dressed in long robes and gowns and strange, colorful costumes. It was like we had been transported back to the Middle Ages, except everyone had a cell phone.

Mar: “Everybody looks like an extra.”

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Rosa in the medina

I spotted a tiny, cluttered shop full of musty old books, magazines and postcards. It looked more like a bookstore had exploded than an actual bookstore. It was so tiny that if you wanted to browse, the owner had to step out into the street. I bought a tattered old paperback (A Durable Fire: The Letters of Duff and Diana Cooper 1913-1950) which I wasn’t even remotely interested in. It was more like the price of admission than a purchase since the owner was extremely friendly and allowed us to take a few photos.

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tiny bookshop in Chefchaouen

Toño shook his head in disappointment when he found out I hadn’t haggled for the book. “You’re going to give us tourists a bad name.”

I found a restaurant in our guidebook that sounded like an interesting spot for dinner. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones who thought it sounded like an interesting spot for dinner. Every American with a passport was dining there. I was forced to eavesdrop (I had no choice, it was as if somebody was dragging their fingernails across a chalkboard for 45 minutes straight) on a big table of college-aged Yanks. One couple was telling, in horrendous detail, how they had met while studying in Marrakech. They had just gotten engaged and their friends were all “Oh! My! God!” and “That is soooooo romantic, you guys!” and I was starting to feel queasy. When the waiter came over to take their order the soon-to-be newlyweds, I suppose in an attempt to impress their less-worldly friends, started ordering for everybody in Arabic. The waiter didn’t understand a word. After a lot of confusion and awkwardness the waiter pleaded with them to order in English. That made my entire day. I am a horrible person.

Anyway, the food was amazing and I had my first bowl of harira which is an extremely heavy soup made with tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas, flour, eggs, onions, rice, some mystery meat (possibly lamb) and a load of spices. I ordered this a few times during the trip and it always arrived with a small plate of dried figs and/or dates and a handful of heavy filo pastries filled with nuts and dried fruits which were slathered in honey.

March 30: Chefchaouen

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Plaza Uta el-Hammam

Sat in a café across from the Grande Mosquée in Plaza Uta el-Hammam, the main square, for a couple hours people watching, drinking glass after glass of painfully sweet mint tea and chatting with our waiter.

“Another tea?”

“Why not…”

“That’s the spirit. La prisa mata.”

He went inside to prepare more tea and the girls started slobbering.

“He’s handsome.”

“Did you see those abs?”

“And that butt…”

“And perfect teeth! You don’t see that much around here…”

He had Lola, Rosa and Mar wrapped around his little finger. Toño and I didn’t think we’d ever get out of there. But his stories, whether they were true or not, made it all worthwhile: “When I was a boy my friends and I used to capture birds and paint them exotic colors. Then we would sell them to the tourists and say they were rare birds that you could only find in this part of Morocco. If we sold one in the morning we would tell the buyer that the bird only sang at night. If we sold one at night we would say that it only sang in the morning. But we couldn’t sell them on rainy days because the paint would wash off!”

He had heard about the protest we got caught up in on our way to Chaouen. He set us straight. The growers were protesting the fact that people have been given permission to grow marijuana in other parts of the country. These protesters wanted the same right to grow without harrassment, without officials looking for bribes to turn a blind eye to what they were doing.

We strolled through the peaceful, shaded alleyways of the mellah (Jewish quarter) where I almost bought an oud which is similar to a lute, but it wouldn’t stay in tune. Cheap junk for the tourists (like me). Then we hiked up past the Ras el-Maa waterfall and an unkempt graveyard to the Spanish Mosque located on a hilltop not far from town. The mosque was built for the locals by the Spanish in the 1920s, but was never used.

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graveyard on the way to the Spanish mosque

As we watched the sunset the local muezzins began the call to prayer. The voices echoed throughout the surrounding countryside with the help of the crackly loudspeakers mounted in the minarets of the roughly thirty local mosques.

A guy walked up to Toño and said in Spanish, “I would like to return the pen you so graciously lent to me.”

Toño took the pen. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, but thanks for the pen.”

Then Lola recognized the guy from the Tánger Med port.

“You lent me a pen at Customs and then you drove off before I had a chance to return it. This is not the actual pen you lent me, but it works just fine.” He was from Ciudad Real. Funny moment.

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Chefchaouen from the Spanish mosque

March 31: Chefchaouen – Fez

Lola and I woke up early, grabbed an empty 1.5 liter water bottle and went out in search of fresh squeezed orange juice. The day before we had seen a small fruit and veg stand which had a juice squeezer sitting on a table next to a couple of glasses right in the street. A sign resting on a mountain of oranges advertised a glass for 5 dirhams (about 50 cents). We asked the guy how much it would cost to fill the bottle, but he told us the squeezer was broken which begs the question, Then why is it out in the street next to a sign advertising fresh squeezed orange juice?

We ended up in the Plaza Uta el-Hammam where a café owner filled our bottle for 60 dirhams which we considered an amazing deal since we’re used to paying about 3€ for a single glass of fresh squeezed orange juice in Plasencia. We sat admiring the red walls of the kasbah as the owner squeezed all those oranges. Lola was especially happy because she had a great view of the handsome waiter from yesterday across the square as he set up tables and chairs and engaged in other activities which allowed him to flex his insane muscles in public.

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Lola in Chefchaouen (check out the old fella in the background)

We started off for Fez after breakfast. A couple hours later we stopped at a gas station seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There were dozens of pairs of shoes lined up outside an unassuming door next to the restrooms. I was getting good at spotting mosques. At the gas station/mosque I learned that you should always have some small coins on you when entering a public restroom. There is usually a woman keeping everything tidy, the floors mopped, the sinks wiped down, the little plastic buckets filled with water to wash your piss from the trough or to push along your solid waste when there is simply one of those porcelain platforms (aka: a hole in the floor) in the stall. There is usually a table at the entrance to the restrooms with a little dish on it for you to drop a coin into. I walked out of there without dropping a coin in the dish – I didn’t have any coins yet – and the cleaning lady berated me in Arabic.  (Lola wants everybody to know that most of the women’s restrooms did indeed have toilets and most were much cleaner than you normally find at rest stops in Spain.)

Back on the road, Toño told us a story about two friends of his who were traveling in Morocco several years ago. In the middle of the countryside they were flagged down by a guy sitting on a broken-down car. They gave him a lift to the nearest town, nearly a thirty minute drive, to search for a mechanic. When they got to town the man said he was hungry and invited them to eat with his family. After an enormous meal followed by several cups of tea, they offered some money because it appeared that the family was in no position to be feeding complete strangers. The man refused their money, but would they be so kind as to accompany him while he visited his uncle who… wait for it… just so happened to have a carpet store nearby! After the meal and the family’s hospitality they felt obliged. They went with the man to the carpet store where they were served more tea and a plate of pastries was brought out. They made a couple of small purchases and continued on their journey. A week later they were passing through the same area again and you’ll never guess what they saw – the same man sitting on that broken-down car attempting to flag down passing cars (presumably with foreign license plates). Everybody’s hustling…

We passed some construction workers on the side of the road prostrating on prayer rugs a few steps away from the heavy machinery. In Spain workers take a smoke break; in Morocco they take a prayer break. After three and a half hours on the road we caught our first glimpse of Fez and the towering snow-covered Atlas mountains off in the distance. At the first red light a guy pulled up next to us on a moped.

“Are you in need of a hotel in Fez?”

“No, thanks. We have a reservation.”

“What is the name of the hotel? I can take you there.”

“No, thanks. Shokran.”

The light turned green and the guy stayed right alongside of us.

“I know a very good restaurant! I can take you there!”

Toño tried to lose him, but it was no use. Another red light. Now he was on my side of the car. He knocked on my window, but it was broken so I couldn’t roll it down.

“What is the name of your hotel?! I will take you there!”

He was persistent, I’ll give him that. He reminded me of the paperboy in the 80s movie Better Off Dead. “Two dollars! I want my two dollars!”

The light turned green again. Toño took off full throttle, but we couldn’t shake the guy. Then we came to a roundabout with a police checkpoint and the guy vanished into the air.

to be continued…

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