The following is the true story of falling in love with Morocco, one of the last true kingdoms on earth, after my fiance and I crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain.
Staring blankly out the window
as our ferry pulled into the port at Tangier, all I could think about was how I wanted to die. After dragging our rolling luggage on a scenic 3-mile jaunt from the bus stop to the port while snot ran down my face and my head felt full of wool and spiders, I had had enough for several days. Maybe even weeks. But I grabbed my suitcase anyway, and Damien, perhaps feeling a touch of pity for me in spite of himself, took it from me and handed me his backpack. Together we walked the ramp down. Before we had even made it to the street, the shouting began.
“Taxi? TAXI? HEY YOU WANT A TAXI?”
“TAXI? HEY 10 DIRHAMS TO TANGIER?”
“YOU NEED A TAXI?”
It was an apocalypse of Moroccan taxi drivers, desperately trying to herd some of the last tourists of the season into their tan 70s Benzes. No matter how frantic their hands got, Damien’s face got progressively angrier and more distant as he resolutely pushed us forward through the swarm and out the other side. One final cabby stranded on the edge looked at his face, shrugged, and asked him if he wanted a ride. He agreed.
As we started the drive into town, the cabby pulled to the side. “My friend, my friend – I just have to pick up my brother.” A man hopped in the taxi with us, and we pulled out, disturbed, winding our way up to the city proper.
At the entrance to a labyrinth, complete with claustrophobically small corridors and towers of stone, the cabby pulled over. His brother got out with us and pushed us into to showing us to our hotel, buried somewhere in the center, for a few dirhams. What can you say but yes when you have no idea where you are or how to navigate a medieval city? The suitcase wheels sounded like the clacking of rails on a train moving through a tunnel and brought out curious faces from around corners.
Our hotel was a riad, or Moroccan mansion, that was well past its glory days but well kept. The French woman who greeted us at the door brought us up the narrow stairs to the third floor to get our entrance paperwork so the government would know where we were throughout our stay.
Moroccan riads are traditionally open to the sky in the center, and the larger ones often have a garden, fountain or pool
"Where are you from?"
she asked in lightly accented English.
“America,” we responded.
“Do you speak French?”
“No, we don’t.”
The look on her face suggested that when we spoke, rat droppings and used hamburger wrappers came out of our mouths.
“Oh, well. In America don’t you have to take foreign language classes in school?”
“Yes, we both took Spanish.”
I slept for most of the time we spent in Tangier after that. For the little of Tangier that we saw, it was covered in dirt, a distant memory of Hollywood golden days. Men crowded together in tiny cafes to pore over the latest soccer match and their tea. Women looked away when walking together in the street. And when we were ready to leave, we went hunting for another aging, tan Mercedes-Benz.
This time, Damien’s face was stormy before he even started talking to a cabby and darkened further as their negotiations continued. Damien relented, and they settled on 500 dirhams to drive us to Chefchaouen.
We hopped in the cab and silently rode for hours as the city molted, losing its shape to winding hills with concrete huts, and from there into the stark, empty vastness of the Rif mountains. We wound into the heights of town just as the sun was starting to touch the rim of the bowl of peaks surrounding us and paid another stranger to take us through a new medieval maze to our next hotel.
Staying in a palatial room in Morocco might only cost you $20-$40 a night – this one had a living room and bathtub that would easily fit 5
In Chefchaouen, life is hushed
As it rises, the sun in the Rif mountains warms only the weathered blue walls it lights. It leaves the shadows in winter. From the kasbah, or central fortress made of sandy stone, it’s easy to get lost for a day in those cold shadows of the souks nearby. The smell of incense, piles of spices in every color, tin tea tables as big as a truck wheel engraved with fine patterns, huge lanterns cast in bronze and filled with the light of a thousand distant stars, a rainbow of purses hanging above the alley, the smell of wood shavings as you pass a carpenter’s shop where they are carving pea-sized flowers into a table, rugs on the walls outside shops and homes waiting to be bought or to be dusted, and everything is blue, blue blue. They say that this is because the Jews painted their quarter blue when they fled here during the Spanish Reconquista in the middle ages, but there are no Jews here anymore.
Cats are everywhere in Morocco, and our first riad was home to three
We land in a shop
with an enormous hand loom at its heart and walls made of cotton rugs piled high. The proprietor inside starts in Spanish as usual – especially with Damien around – but instead of addressing the man I’m with, he addresses me directly. He switches to English, asking if I need help or want anything. It feels good to be visible again. We buy two rugs.
Rugs for sale hanging in the street in Chefchaouen, Morocco
We get offered hashish in the street
We decline. We laugh and hold hands. We watch families take their kids to school in a building covered in zelij, or multicolored decorative tiles. We see little old men walking the streets in their sandals and djellabas, which make them look like wizened wizards to us.
A school in Chefchaouen, Morocco
At the end of the day,
we trek back to the heart of the town to the high tower that is Aladdin’s restaurant and wind our way up the stairs through peaked doorways to the highest floor. From up here, the maze of the medieval city stretches out before us like a fine blue and sandstone rug woven with the intricate patterns of alleys under the light of the first evening star and the orange glow of a sleepy sun. A woman hangs laundry on her roof. The call to prayer echoes across the bowl of mountains, high and haunting and beautiful and alien to our ears. We sip hot green tea with crushed mint, sweet and warm against the cold evening air. I love this country, and I can’t wait to fill my heart with it.
The largest intact medieval cities I have seen are in Africa, not Europe
Going to an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar culture is challenging, but when you open your mind, it becomes beautiful.
Leah Herman is a UX wizard-in-training and serial hobbyist. When she isn’t traveling the world with her fiance, Damien, she can be found throwing teapots in a pottery studio, gardening, cooking, gaming, or petting their rescue dog, Scout. Some of the interesting places she has been include Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and childhood summers spent in her uncle’s off-grid cabin in the remote Norwegian wilderness.
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