chefchaouen, morocco: the blue pearl of north africa

i met ben and abby in a dingy little coffee shop next door to the bus station in fes.  the coffee wasn’t particularly good, but i’m not sure what could be expected from bus station coffee shop.  i opted instead for a takeaway yogurt and boarded the bus.  we chatted idly for a couple hours, trying to enjoy the sights on the drive, but a strong tradewind from the north had sent storm clouds from europe sweeping down into morocco, dampening the sights and the air. thick clouds blocked many of the scenic views of the rif mountains, and when we did eventually stop for a break, everyone only piled off the bus and then huddled under the overhang of the gas station.  when we eventually arrived in chefchaouen hours later, it was raining lightly and we all just wanted to get to our hotels.  we parted ways and agreed to meet up again somewhere in town, though we never did.  i was okay with it;  they were on their own adventure and probably wanted some time alone, and i had a new city to explore.

chefchaouen is not a big city, and once again i incorrectly assumed that i could just find my own way to my hostel at riad baraka by navigating from memory.  after not being able to locate the hostel and stumbling up and down the uneven, serpentine streets, i began speaking to an old man who had been trying to lure me into his restaurant.  i ended up making a deal with him that he would show me where the hostel was if i ate at his restaurant.  fair enough, i was hungry anyway.  as i sat and ate, i noticed the horrible smell of rotting fish drifting from my pack, and suddenly remembered it as the same smell that had been emanating from the cargo hold of the bus i had ridden in.  something in that abyss of despair had spilled onto my gear, and now i smelled like yesterday’s garbage.  perfect.

harmony hotela spanish omelette and 2 pieces of bread later, the old man led me a few minutes walk away to the riad baraka, making sure to stay upwind of me.  when we arrived there he began asking me for some sort of token or gift to remember me by.  i didn’t really understand what he wanted at first, but i didn’t really have anything i could share with him and i felt badly about it.  i pack relatively simple, clothes and toiletries, and camera and laptop, and that’s about it. i don’t buy mementos or souvenirs. ever.  so i disappointed the man and we parted ways, though i’m sure he was probably relieved i hadn’t given him anything with that god-awful pungence on it.

blue rooftopsthe riad baraka is a beautifully quaint hostel nestled inside the medina of chefchaouen, run by 2 sons (who were currently away, establishing another hostel somewhere else) and their feisty firecracker of a mother, named ann.  ann is a comically impatient elder englishwoman with a soft heart hidden away beneath her sarcasm and “tough love,” and her brash personality is one of those that filters people out immediately:  you either love her or you hate her (go to the comments section of their hostel world profile and you’ll see.  about every 7 comments, someone has clearly been offended by her, but every other guest seems to love her). when i first arrived, it was breakfast time in the hostel and she was running around maniacally, talking loudly and barking orders at her staff and replying gruffly to questions from guests as bob marley played in the background.  it took me all of 5 minutes to realize that this woman was a female version of me in about 20 years.  i loved her immediately.

she instructed one of her staff, a gentle young german man named tobias to get me all checked in.  the other staff, monsief and mohammed were nearby, preparing things in the kitchen room around the corner.  they both gave me big smiles to welcome me and i felt at home.

cat astrophei laid my pack down next to my bunk and laid down for a moment on the bed.  it was the most comfortable hostel bed i had ever laid on, and i verbalized my satisfaction, thinking i was alone in the room.
“yeah they are not bad beds, eh?”  a friendly voice called out from the corner.  i looked up to see a northern face with long red hair and a red goatee.  Matthijs was a good-natured man from holland with a hippie soul (and an ear for heavy metal) and an up-for-anything attitude.  he had needed a holiday and had hopped on a plane to morocco a week earlier, exploring many of the same places i had been, giving us a lot of common ground immediately.  after chatting for a few minutes, i realized my backpack was near his bed, and the rancorous odor was permeating the entire room.

rooftop construction“i’m so sorry man, my bag got something on it in the ride over, let me get this thing out of here,” embarrassed, i dumped all the contents out on my bed and then ran to the rooftop terrace where i sprayed it down with febreze and left it outside, hoping for the best.  when i came back down into the lobby, matthijs and ann and a few others were laughing.  they had all noticed the smell when i arrived, but nobody had said anything.  and now everyone knew where it had come from.  i explained what had happened and we all had a laugh about it.

that night, the storm clouds again moved in over the city, unleashing a torrential downpour.  the hostel had been rather empty upon my arrival, but it was now full, as passing tourists had sought refuge from the storm in the city.  it was cold and wet everywhere, and the city didn’t have particularly good drainage but was smartly built into the side of the foothills on steep slopes, so any excess water just ran through the streets and out of the city.  intelligent and convenient design, except for when it’s dumping buckets, in which case certain
stone-cobbled streets turned treacherously fluid and slippery.  the next few days became a humorous exile, as all the guests in the riad baraka would spend most of the day huddled up inside staying dry and warm, waiting for any break in the storm to run outside and see some small part of the city before it began downpouring again.  it forced everyone in the house to mingle and get to know each other.  i spent most of this time with mattijs and two other attractive american women named emele and mihae. emele was from hawaii. ladies on the promenade she had a big smile and a loud laugh, and she had one of those personalities that had an internal burning desire to make friends and conversation with every person she came into contact with.  mihae was also equally sociable, but she tended to be slightly more reserved when compared to emele.  she wouldn’t necessarily start conversations up, but she would jump right in if something was happening that she could contribute to.  with smiles always on, these two  were the life of the party, and everyone enjoyed being around them.

during one of these rare “dry spells,” we went out to do some shopping.  someone in the group had wanted a moroccan tunic, and emele and mihae were just curious to see what kind of deals were to be had.  as were shopping around, i helped one of the younger backpackers with us, a kid from australia, avoid getting taken advantage of by a moroccan salesman, saving him about $20 and
teaching the kid a little about bargaining in the process. as we walked, i marveled at the spectacle of how blue the city actually was.  painted by jewish immigrants in keeping with old jewish customs in the early 1900s, specific areas within the small town (population is still only 40,000 today) were painted blue to mark the jewish neighborhoods.  in later decades, there was (and continues to be) a slow exodus from morocco among the jewish population, leaving parts of the city blue without reason.  eventually the remaining residents of the city decided to just paint the entire town blue, uniformly taking ownership over their nickname as “the blue pearl of north africa.” it truly was a unique place, and i loved the tranquil atmosphere it promoted and the relaxed temperament of the people.  chefchaouen was a gem in the desert.

shopping malllater, we had all decided to get some food, and i told everyone to just stick with me and let me negotiate a meal for us.  we walked as a group to a central area where 5 or 6 restaurants were situated and i walked patiently, waiting for someone from any of the restaurants to approach me.  about 5 steps onto the main walkway and 3 different men stepped toward me, the second two backing down to wait their turn once the first one had my attention.

“my friend, nice tagines here!  very good food, i give you good deal!”

i gave him a surprised look, as though i hadn’t even thought of it.  i turned around toward the group, playing my part in the small act. “hey are you guys hungry?”  i asked them, trying to sound as genuine as possible.  they looked at me confused, as if to reply “of course, dumbass.  that’s why you brought us down here.”

i turned back around to face the restaurateur.  “i think we’re hungry, what can you do for us?”  the man made us an offer of a 3 course fixed meal for 60 dirham each ($6 US dollars), and started explaining the options, which everyone else in the group listened intently to.  knowing that all the restaurants would have basically the same thing, i slipped away to talk to the other men who had tried to approach me.  he asked what the first offer had been, and when i replied he said he would beat it by 10 dirham.  i told him i would confer with my friends, and i returned to the group and politely interrupted the man’s hard sell to the group.  after informing him that he had been underbid, the first restaurateur, came down to 40 dirhams each.  i then looked over to the other man, who clearly didn’t want to go that low.  the third man didn’t even try, as soon as he heard that number he just turned around and walked back to his maitre d’ stand.  we went in and enjoyed our dinner, which was essentially a variety of different tagines, which is the signature dish of morocco.  it is basically lamb, chicken, or beef prepared with chickpeas and olives (among other spices and assorted ingredients) in a teardrop-shaped clay pot that sits cooking over hot coals.  it’s a delicious meal.

that evening we retired to the hostel just in time to catch the sunset during a break in the storm.  mihae remarked that she felt really safe being escorted around by mattijs and i because we looked like vikings that nobody wanted to mess with (referring obviously to our red beards and long hair), which everyone had a good laugh over.  anne came up quickly to the rooftop with a bday and quietly informed us that it was tobias’ bday and she wanted to surprise him.  a few minutes later tobias walked out onto the terrace to smoke a

a rooftop birthday cake for tobias
a rooftop birthday cake for tobias

cigarette and was surprised to see everyone in the hostel waiting for him with cake and beers.  i watched as ann, monsief, mohammed, and tobias laughed and enjoyed their cake, and everyone else joined in.  i laughed as i thought about the people who had never understood ann and her abrupt humor.  it made me think how some of my favorite things in life were the things that took a little longer to comprehend.  things that you had to study just a little longer to find the beauty, but once discovered, it never disappeared from your sight again. ann clearly had a soft heart, even if she sometimes did her best to keep it hidden.

we stayed outside all night, drinking, laughing, telling stories, even passing around a hashpipe.  it was then that i learned just how “full-on hippie” chefchaouen was, as most of the country’s “hash” is produced up in the mountains behind the city.  for the uninitiated, hash is a variation of marijuana preparation where the plant is dried out, then covered, beaten with sticks for hours and compressed down into a tar-like resin, and then smoked commonly in morocco, even if it is still considered illegal.

blue sunsetwhile we all sat around on the roof and enjoyed the rare hours of dryness between storm fronts, everyone in the group began hilariously calling mattijs “the chimney,” due to his ability to consume large quantities of hash around the clock without being affected (leave it to a dutchman to have such specific superpowers).  a couple of the australians and a canadian had tried to keep up with him, round for round, but one by one they all eventually tapped out and went searching for their beds.  there were only a few of us left when suddenly emele remembered that the next day was thanksgiving.  non-americans still awake looked at us blankly until mihae, emily, and i remembered it is a uniquely american holiday that no one else celebrates.  emele got really excited and explained to everyone the significance of thanksgiving and then we hatched a plan to go to a nearby restaurant recommended by ann and place an order in advance for a chicken bastilla, a traditional moroccan dish reserved for special occasions that takes hours to prepare.  i was thankful that there had been other americans there, because i had completely forgotten the date and hadn’t been paying attention in weeks to the season.

viking in morocco
a viking in morocco

early the next morning mattijs, mihae, and i all arose early (emele was sleeping off a hangover) and headed for the hills.  rain had been sporadic and i had wanted to get up into the rif mountains and see what was up there.  10 minutes walking and we were already outside the city walls and walking a thin dirt path straight up into the hills.  the rif mountains weren’t overly dramatic in sight, and the path itself was rather unremarkable, but it was still nice to get out into nature after being
cooped up inside for so many days.  along the way we encountered some stray dogs, a big cow with large horns that was harmless, though it did scare us at first, and a couple of isolated small huts.  a repeated “whack-whack-whack-whack” sound echoed from within the huts, and we deduced that hash was being made there.  eventually, after hiking for about 3 hours, we passed up into the thick line of clouds and the mild condensation began to turn into rain.  we made the decision that no summitting was going to occur, as safety was more important.  we headed back down the mountain and into town.

at dinner, our group had gone from 4 people to suddenly 12.  all the other europeans in the hostel had been curious about this “thanksgiving holiday” that the 3 americans had been talking about.  we arrived at the restaurant to find it almost completely empty, and the restaurant owner was extremely pleased that he unexpectedly had filled up half of his restaurant on a decidedly slow night.  we were relieved and excited to learn that he had actually made a little more than what we had ordered, so we would have enough for everyone.

the bastilla was wonderful.  after we had been drinking moroccan mint tea (the “whiskey” of morocco) and eating olives for about 15 minutes, the owner of the restaurant brought out a pair of large serving trays with a giant pastry, steam wafting up and permeating the room with waves of sweet and savory scents.  everyone looked at the dishes, unsure of how to begin.  after a couple seconds staring, the group started laughing at the awkward moment that had resulted.  not wanting to wait any longer, and starving from the earlier day’s calorie burn in the rif mountains, i jumped up and dug right in, slicing into the pastry and piling a heap of of the bastilla onto my plate.  chicken, almonds, eggs, and a variety of spices wrapped in a phylo dough with powdered sugar on top, the moroccan bastilla is a perfect blend of sweet and savory.  there was plenty to go around, and i helped myself to seconds and then thirds while mihae and emele explained to the rest of the group what sorts of dishes were normally consumed at an american thanksgiving, as well as a short history of what is taught to children in grade schools growing up.  it was funny to watch reactions of people around the room when trying to explain some of the dishes that get prepared for thanksgiving in america, and i think there wasn’t a person in the room who wasn’t happy with the experience that night.  i remember at one point looking at mihae and emele and smiling, just being thankful that i could share a tradition like this with faces from all over the world.  it made me appreciate the holiday in a new light, and made me realize that it may be one of the more pure and unadulterated holidays left in america.  the irony was not lost on me, having this realization while not actually in america.

1502427_10100156091907707_4077146974082324650_oat the end of the night we thanked the restaurant owner for the incredible meal and then shuffled out into the cold and rainy night.  chefchaouen had been very good to me, and had provided me a peaceful shelter from much of the bustling chaos that existed in many of the other cities of morocco.  i hadn’t intended to spend so much time with these strange yet interesting travelers in this tiny town in the mountains, but in the end i realized that it had been well timed, and this little hostel family of mine had become inexplicably close.  each person was a beautiful soul on their own journey, and the unwelcome weather had forced all our paths to intersect in this most random of locations.  it had forced me to invest the time to learn about them all more intimately than i ordinarily might have, and i was better for it.


this week’s airwave augmentation comes from the brand new release from the tallest man on earth, out this week titled “dark bird is home.”  if you haven’t been listening to tallest man’s  dreamy, wandering folk tunes for the last few years, you’ve been sadly missing out.  this is my favorite cut off the album so far, but i’m sure with more listens, that’s bound to change 3 or 4 times.  enjoy…

and for those following along at home…

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