Blue houses with Blue windows: Morocco
Morocco: an enchanted, alluring melting pot between Europe, the Middle East, and Africa... My heart has longed to return ever since I left the first time, and last weekend I finally had the opportunity to dip back in.
I never realized until I was there in 2015 that the Strait of Gibraltar is only 14km (9 miles) wide, and that it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to Tangier from the southernmost surfing village of Tarifa, Spain. A short 40 minute ferry ride will get you across the mouth of the Mediterranean and a new stamp on your passport (finally.) When I was there last time, I stayed with a kite-surfing guide who told me he frequently kite-surfed between the continents! Be that as it may, we chose to take a plane from Madrid.
My dear friend Andrea came to visit me from Canada and we spent the week catching up in Zamora and surrounding areas, but when I realized I had a longer-than-usual weekend, we decided to hop over to Marrecos and go on a zesty new adventure together. Over the past 6 years we've traveled long and far to visit each other's homes, but had yet to go somewhere foreign together (we're both adventurous little ladies so it was long overdue.)
Andrea and I found each other on Craigslist back in 2011 when I moved to Montreal and needed to sublet an apartment for the summer. It was between her and a man that included a picture of himself (shirtless with a bowl of fruit) in his ad, and as intriguing as that was, I'm so glad I went with her instead, as we are soulmates that will be forever entangled in each other's lives. She's one of the most positive, inspiring, and contagiously radiant people I've ever met. I stand by the fact that she helps me grow every time I'm near her to be a more aware and present human being. I adore Andrea.
Conveniently, I had another dear friend named Katilin (who is also incredibly strong and inspiring) that was beginning her 4-month-long backpacking trip and wanted to meet us in Tangier before coming to see me in Spain. Squad! She flew in a few days before us then arranged to meet us at the airport with a taxi to take us straight to Chefchaouene (one of the two famous "blue cities" in the world.)
Taxis in Morocco are much cheaper than they are in America (as with everything) and due to the bad weather and bus schedule, we decided this was the way to go, even though it was a long trip. A lot of Moroccan taxis are old, lemon-chiffon yellow Mercedes Benzes that are souped up and personalized on the inside, which surprised me the first go-around, but this taxi one was not one of those. Typically you can just buy one individual seat in a taxi, like a bus, then wait for other people to show up that happen to be going to the same place you want to go and pay virtually nothing. It's a very different system than our taxis! The roads were hilariously bumpy, and I nearly stabbed Andrea in the thigh with a knife while trying to catch a run-away piece of fruit I was in the middle of cutting as we lurched over a pothole. A few hours in, our driver decided he wanted to stop in a village for some food, so we just pulled right on over in the pouring rain and crossed the street on a hill that was already beginning to resemble a chocolate-milky waterfall.
Mint Tea and Bones
Morocco smells like mint tea. Morocco smells like dirty puddles. Morocco smells like boiled snails and freshly squeezed juices. Morocco smells like hash. Morocco smells like manure. Morocco smells like textile dye and like metal polish. Morocco smells like tanning leather and like fish markets and hand-made soaps. But to me, Morocco mostly smells like mint tea. Andrea has a much better nose than I do, and I loved hearing her play-by-play as we walked down the streets. For the past 2 years the smell of mint shot me back to Morocco in my mind, that powerful olfactory nerve, and in this large dining room of a restaurant in wherever- we-were, I was finally reunited with this aromatic beverage from the heavens.
We had a difficult time ordering vegetarian couscous between French (Andrea) English (Kaitlin) and Spanish (me) but we were content and excited to be there in general, and eventually communicated what we wanted. I've noticed that every single restaurant in Morocco seems to have a prominently-displayed picture of their King looking over you as you eat. Once the food came out, it was sweet and savory and delicious all at once, and also distressing after I bit down a little too hard on a mysterious bone of some sort, a vegetable bone I'm sure, but it's all part of it, no pasa nada. I also got reacquainted with my foe from the previous trip: the pit toilet (a ceramic hole in the floor.)
We finally made it to Chefchaouen after a 4 hour ride and pit stop, and I was pleased to find we were staying in the Medina this time (last time I didn't.) In most cities I've visited in older parts of the world, there is a new section and and an old section. "Medina" is the name of the old sections of Moroccan cities and within them are "souks" which are the markets. Most of them are maze-like and lacking in any kind of structure, and is crowded, confusing, and bursting with life. It's easy to get lost, which can be both good and bad, as you wander through shops and lanterns and tunnels of colors and aromas and offers for marriage for life or leather goods. Our hostel had substantial, cozy beds with lots of blankets and a lovely red-headed Mexican guy named Ivan who befriended immediately before heading on our merry way to explore.
I'd reached out on Couch-surfing before going to Morocco to see if anyone was available to show us around, but we went out on our own initially anyway, as the lure of the blue was too much to put off even one moment longer. We had an unfortunate encounter almost immediately with a man that was harassing Katlin way too aggressively... Initially with trying to sell her hash then potentially trying to place said hash in her back pockets...This was a horrible and misleading way to begin, because we never had another encounter even close to as off-putting as that (thankfully.) Kaitlin handled it like a champ. Boo for aggressive men potentially ruining first impressions!
We began investigating Hammams (public baths- something I really wanted to do while we were here as I wasn't able to find a proper one last time) and Katilin found a man selling boiled snails and chick peas from a cart. I've been a vegetarian for most of my life but I eat shellfish, and decided that a snail was in a shell and I was in Morocco, so Andrea and I both tried them with her! They had the taste and consistency of mushrooms marinated in whatever delicious broth they had going on.
This little blue world is spectacular, and hard to fully convey in words... It feels like you're walking through a hypnotizing, intoxicating dream. Though there are many shades of blues and many types of doors, all of them are painted with a vibrant mixture of straight pigment and lye (I think) and they're electric, even on an overcast and rainy day... Tourists wander around in awe as the local children run past you to get to the nearest water fountain and the old men sit in their pointy-headed cloaks watching the world walk by. The vendors are less aggressive here than in Marrakech, and it's a delight to wander in an out admiring all the different goods they're selling. The moroccan aesthetic is colorful and rich and magical, and I constantly have to resist buying literally everything they're trying to sell...
Magic Magic Magic Magic Magic....
I realized at some point I'd lost my umbrella that I nervously smuggled through airport security, and we were walking back to the hostel to meet up with Ivan for dinner when a man leapt out of a cafe towards us. We all assumed he was just trying to sell us something like the rest, but he grabs my arm and says "I know you!"
"You KNOW me? How?"
"Couch surfing!! I'm the one you've been talking to on whatsapp! We're about to start a concert, come inside!"
Luckily I was wearing the same hat that I had on in my whatsapp picture, so he was able to recognize me when we walked by, and we entered in a candle-lit cave cafe with loads of pillows and even MORE delightful mint tea. They don't drink alcohol in Morocco, so the mint tea flows like wine. It turns out our new friend Ali Mohamed (ha) is an incredible percussionist! and we were serenaded by the flamenco-esque music he and his partners were creating. We all practically melted at how dreamy it all was. Just look at how happy my lil A looks here...
We shared a Tangine (roasted vegetables cooked in a volcano-shaped ceramic dish with lid) and Moroccan salad and debated paying 16 euros (and insanely large amount in Moroccan and Spanish terms) for a secret bottle of wine, then didn't. We made friends with the other musicians in the band, one of which was Spanish and eventually coaxed me into doing a really shitty flamenco dance attempt while they played.
Later that night we finally met back up with Ivan and a new friend named Zofia in the hostel and planned out next day and talked in the bunk beds. We all wanted to try and see these lovely waterfalls that were semi-close by, but it ended up being too rainy for the hike and drive to get there. Plan B was to hike to the Spanish Mosque that overlooks Chefchaouene and the Rif mountains around it, then hit up the Hammam before 6 (Women go in the morning, men go in the evening.)
We began the morning with a delicious ever-lasting breakfast in the main square with a nice view from the balcony overlooking the ancient fort. Bet you can guess what we drank! It starts with "Mmmm" and ends in "eee!!" Mint tea for days. Bread with almond butter and jam and goat cheese and olive oil and one fried egg. M'smmen (crispy moroccan fried pancakes) and Beghrir (spongy moroccan not-friend pancakes.) And watching the people scurry as the rain began to pour again.
Hike to the Spanish Mosque and the Call to Prayer
I'm a sucker for poppies, and we stumbled upon so many glorious fields of them on our little hike up to the mosque. I was in heaven. Ivan is a fellow photographer, and knows much more about lenses and the technical details of cameras than I do, and it was so fun to get a little lesson from him about all of this. We then did some shoots back and forth in the poppy fields, until we got kicked out by an angry man who acted as if we had trampled his dreams and livelihood forever :(.
We heard the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) multiple times on this hike, and it seemed to be more frequent than usual, though maybe we were just losing track of time daydreaming amongst the flowers. The call to prayer is something that can be startling to first-time visitors to Muslim countries if you don't know about it because it's loud and confusing if you're not expecting it. It happens 5 times a day, the first at sunrise (potentially the most startling one, as I can attest to from my first time in Marrakech,) and is a scheduled prayer projected over loud-speaker from the minarets of mosques all across the cities. It's actually really beautiful once you know what it is.
We eventually made our way back down, covered in mud and very content. There is a lovely waterfall that runs through the city at the base of this hike, which was a nice substitute for the larger waterfalls we weren't able to make it to. We grabbed a delicious sandwich to share for 15 dihrams (1 euro 50) and grabbed our bathing suit bottoms to head to our bath.
At one point, one of the shopkeepers stopped Andrea and asked if she would trade her tote bag for an item in his store. She was really intrigued and thought about it for a few hours, and we eventually went back to do some bartering. She got a lovely silver ring he made himself, and he got a Canadian tote bag with a gorilla on it. They were both extremely happy and we've joked that this picture looks like an engagement picture with Andrea's new Moroccan family. (We have no idea who the kid is- he snuck in last minute)
Now, this hammam...
Hammams are basically just public concrete bathing rooms, some of which have been around since the 1500s with sun-rays beaming down cutting through the steam from the sky vents. Ultra-relaxation. Apparently in the past they were a prime gathering place for women to socialize and gossip about life and politics and what-have-you when they didn't otherwise have much reason to leave the house. It's fascinating that bathing isn't a private thing in this culture, and wonderful to see all these real ladies' bodies in a room together, open and free. It felt so communal and I felt so lucky to be welcomed into this world. We paid 50 dihram to get in (5 euros) then 20 dirham (2 euros) for the soap, shoes, and buckets that you take in with you. You leave your bottoms on.
Once inside, a very maternal moroccan woman offered to scrub us for 20 dihrams each, too, and we obviously agreed. When in Rome, right? It's INCREDIBLE how much dead skin I had? This mostly naked total stranger scrubbed down every inch of my body, urging me to look at my dead skin peeling off, as she slapped me in the face occasionally with her breasts while reaching around me to get the tough spots. It's amazing how quickly that wall is broken down and how you start to feel like a tiny little child and that this strange woman is your mother. Totally recommend it.
When I tried to go to a hammam the first time in Morocco, we couldn't find it and were unfortunately mislead to a fancy private spa hammam. This was still extremely relaxing, and much more luxurious, including a 17 step scrub, soap, wash, repeat process from a different less-maternal stranger. The main difference is that it was in a private room that most Moroccans could never afford to go to, whereas this one seemed much more authentic. It was magical in a different way, but I'm really happy to have found where the locals go and spend a few hours amongst the women of Chefchaouene. So fresh and so clean.
The last night: shopping.
We got a delicious dinner of Moroccan soup, sandwiches, and salad across the street from the fort (actually in the new city) for less than 2 euros each, then meandered back through the souk to try one last attempt at haggling for a bag I'd had my eye on since we arrived. There was one particular soap store than enchanted all of us, too, and we ended up buying one of the magic, dead-skin-removal gloves that our hammamy (get it?) scrubbed us with.
Andrea and I both also got a rug from this charming and persuasive vendor and the man behind the loom wove adorable little friendship bracelets for all of us (Ivan got one with "Man colors" which ended up being light purple and black and white.) and then we went back home, goods in tow.
We woke up early the next day to catch the 9am bus, which we would've certainly missed had Kaitlin not been so persistent and proactive. We entered through the back gate to the station then she insisted we get on the 9am bus to the men in the lot (it was past 9 at this point.) They ran to catch it, and we followed, all waving our arms and screaming, dying laughing, and somehow managed to hop on before they screeched away. We stopped in Tetouan for an inexplicable and confusing amount of time, where we had an avocado milkshake (heavenly) and FINALLY got on another bus back to Tangier.
The sun was out and the ride back was beautiful and fascinating. We passed one man doing sit ups in a track suit in his yard, and one man just beyond that in his pointy-headed, traditional cloak, watching over cows. A man on the bus was seemingly preaching to everyone, but then we realized he was actually just selling massage oil! Perhaps he was preaching about massage oil, we will never know. The Rif mountains are gigantic and rocky and beautiful, as well as the country side. Apparently people grow a lot of marijuana around here but, despite my best efforts, I couldn't see any from my bus seat.
A city that might've been named for a Greek Titan's daughter, a city referred to as the "Door of Africa," a city where Tennessee Williams and Willam S Borroughs hung out, the city where Naked Lunch was written. Marrakech is orange, Chefchaouene is blue, Tangier (and apprently Fez) is white. Lucky for us, Katilin made good friends with the owner of the guest house where she stayed the first two days before we arrived, and he generously invited all of us to come back and stay there again for free Sunday night. This lovely place was also in the medina (!!!) and was extraordinarily beautiful.
We got settled in, took in the view from the rooftop terrace, then headed out to find some food. We decided to picnic in the park, as it was a beautiful day, so we went to the central market to collect all of the delicious things. The problem with this plan, we realized, was that we didn't have any way to truly wash the produce, and the markets themselves aren't necessarily sanitary, but we got some fresh cheese wrapped in a palm leaf, tomatoes, bananas, mysterious orange fruit, more moroccan pancakes, olives, and some delicious cooked food from a bakery.
Lounging in the sun and getting stuffed, we gave some fruit to a kid that was asking for money, which soon brought all the rest of the kids to ask too. Andrea (who hates olives) continued to bravely try them, and finally kind of liked one that was marinated in lots of spicy goodness... After we were well satiated, we walked to the beach and said hello to the Mediterranean. There were some camels hanging out on the beach and horses available to ride, and some garbage and almost no shells. The camel man offered to sell it to me. I wish! Take my camel to work every day! This day was warm enough that some people (men) were even swimming.
Tangier has a really incredible movie theatre in the middle of town right outside of the medina (Cinema Rif) where I spent a lot of time in 2015 chugging espresso and using their WIFI. I like to imagine all the artists and writers and espionage spies back in the day hanging out around here catching a film. This time around they were having an African film festival and we managed to make it over there in time for the last screening of the night, a documentary about the Italian island of Lampedusa, the southernmost spot of Europe and therefore the frontline for receiving refugees from all over Africa. It was a beautiful, quiet piece comparing the relationship of the Italian locals to the Mediterranean and the relationship the Refugees have with it. It was brilliant and powerful and particularly fascinating to me, as I've directed a documentary in the past, am about to go work for an arts organization helping refugees have access to film and theatre workshops, and recently visited a different Italian island in the Mediterranean (Sicily) where I heard about Lampedusa. Fire at Sea- go see it if you can! Katilin had also made friends with the manager of the theatre somehow in her day and a half alone (little miss Tangier over here) and he was kind enough to sit beside me and translate the parts I couldn't understand, as it was subtitled in French.
Ivan had to dash after the film to catch the midnight train to Marrakech, and we headed back to our free little palace. Andrea had an early flight the next day to Barcelona and Kaitlin and I were going back to Madrid a little later in the day.
After a delicious free breakfast the next morning and one last tea with Kaitlin's Moroccan father, we made our way back to Spain, and eventually back to Zamora by blabla car. Blabla car is an app that is basically organized hitchhiking, and it's a good test for me every-so-often to see how my Spanish is coming along. Nothing like being trapped in a car for 3 hours with a total stranger that doesn't speak your language to force you to practice! This time, I was actually able to carry out a decent conversation for at least an HOUR AND A HALF. Progress!
The next day my stomach was really unhappy with me, which lasted for about a week. Totally worth it for all that moroccan magic magic magic magic, though.
We all agreed that the trip was completely magical. It's sometimes hard to adjust to things you're not used to (harassment, haggling, pit toilets, stray cats in really poor condition, language barriers, bones in your vegetarian food, stinky hostels with loudly snoring men, feeling like everyone is trying to take advantage of you, lingering intestinal problems) but there is something so beautifully overwhelming about throwing yourself into a completely foreign, stimulating place. Morocco is an assault to your senses, and we surrendered and were rewarded tremendously.
Here are some practice-paintings I started on using the straight up pigment powder they sell there! Still not sure exactly what I'm supposed to mix it with... Inspiration everywhere.