I originally had this blog in as a section of my Spain blog since it was just a weekend getaway and we headed right back to Malaga from Morocco. But I started writing and realized Morocco had such a big impact on me, it needed its own space. Enjoy!
After touring so many Spanish cities, it was time for a slight detour. On Semester at Sea, I visited Casablanca and Marrakesh in Morocco, and absolutely loved both. My friend Brody was really interested in spending a few days in Morocco since we would already be so close, and I happily obliged. Instead of going all the way to the West Coast of Morocco though, we headed right down through the Northern border from Tangier to Chefchaouen.
A quick ferry and a not-so-quick taxi ride (our taxi driver, Chawne (“CHAWN-ee”), was an awesome dude who took us to his neighborhood to let us try homemade desserts from one of his wives and provided detailed, interesting information about his hometown of Chefchaouen the whole way there) brought us to the mountainous village of Chefchaouen, which is famous partly for its high density of blue buildings. Fun fact: they paint buildings there blue and white to ward off mosquitos and heat, respectively.
Upon arrival, Brody and I jumped out of the taxi and met up with an 87-year-old tour guide who immediately bragged about having four wives. He led us straight through the winding medina and down a few small alleys to our hostel. We met up with the guide about a half hour later to get a personal tour of Chefchaouen.
Once reunited, he led us through the market, more of the medina and some of the foothills surrounding Chefchaouen, stopping often to tell us a little bit about the history of the city and offering great viewpoints for photographs. He even took us to a Berber house (Berbers are basically farmers – many have massive marijuana farms on their property) for tea, which we politely declined given the scathing heat outside.
Once back to the hostel, we got settled and struck up a conversation with some folks on the rooftop terrace. As beautiful as the view was from up there, we were far more intrigued by the musician from Pittsburgh, the three Canadian girls (two from Quebec, one from Toronto), the three Brazilian backpackers, the Mexican girl who lives in the bush in Central African Republic and the Peruvian guy. It was one of the more eclectic group of people I’d met yet, but I shouldn’t have been surprised, given our location.
Part of the way through our discussions on gun violence in American, gay marriage and whether people with less material items are actually happier (the Mexican girl, Carla (unsure about the spelling, sorry!), had been told by an African man that he would literally kill his wife for the chance to get an iPhone – she argued that they are more content with less, but still wish more than anything that they can have the valuables those who are most fortunate often possess), the Ramadan evening prayer began blaring from all the mosques in Chefchaouen.
Just like my previous trip to Morocco, I was there during the heart of Ramadan. In Casablanca four years ago, I witnessed literally hundreds of thousands of Muslims performing the evening prayer at Hassan II mosque, right on the water. Though there was no spectacle of that kind in Chefchaouen, being there during Ramadan again added a truly inspiring aspect to the trip, because you see how hard these men and women work, even when cleansing their bodies in the name of Allah by fasting from food and water for about 16 hours each day. I decided I had to try it.
But first, we spent our next full day on a grueling hike through the Rif Mountains. Two peaks of the Rif Mountain range bookend Chefchaouen, which is nestled between them. Because of the relentless heat and thin air (we were about 4,000 feet above the town, which is already 5,000 feet above sea level), climbing Jebel al-Kelaa quickly proved itself to be the hardest hike I’ve ever attempted.
We came very close to the peak but couldn’t quite finish. Even so, I’ll never forget having to scavenge for water, weaving through sun-bathing goat herds, trying to chat with a teenaged Berber (who, by the way, was bounding from rock to rock with long pants and sleeves as if he was on a damn sidewalk, not a blazing hot, borderline vertical mountain face) and basically tip-toeing our way through marijuana fields. It was worth every drop of sweat, every sore muscle and every sharp breath to spend the day doing that hike.
After cleaning up, we ate at an amazing local restaurant, which had come highly recommended by our tour guide, and fought back tears (okay, slight exaggeration) at the delicious concoction of beef, vegetables, cous cous, dates and naan that lay before us. We ate about three meals each for the cost of one Spanish meal and the food quality was deliciously sublime. Oh, did I mention the rooftop terrace had more wonderful views of Chefchaouen?
The next day, we mostly lounged around and spent a few hours walking through town and looking in the shops. Thank goodness, too, because it was the day I’d chosen to fast. I got some pro tips from my buddy Amr, who is Muslim and was in the midst of Ramadan himself, and went to work with just a half-loaf of bread and a huge bottle of water in my stomach by 3:26 a.m.
When we woke up, I realized immediately how difficult pulling off the fast was going to be, even if I just laid in front of the fan for 16 hours. The first thing I wanted in the morning was a cup of water and one of the hostel’s massive, delicious, two-dollar breakfasts. As the hours wore on, it became the thirst that really got to me, especially when we were out in the heat of the town. I was able to suppress the hunger pretty easily (bread that morning had been a good choice), and mostly refrained from swearing (another aspect of cleansing oneself for Ramadan), but just had my mind on gulping down a huge bottle of water from about 11 a.m. on.
We ended up at the same delicious restaurant as the night before right around 9:15 p.m. My fast ended at 9:23 p.m., and I dug into two plates of food and two bottles of water just before the evening prayer began blaring from a nearby mosque, signaling the end of the day’s fast for everyone. Even though I did it just out of curiosity (and to challenge myself), I gained a ton of respect for those who do it every day for 30 days in a row. I mean, I was on my bed in a hostel for three-fourths of the day, and these people are out working in the sun and praying five times a day on top of the fast. It is really, really impressive (fun fact: Ramadan ends today!).
You’ll notice that Morocco is a country of extremes for me: “the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.” “The best food I’ve ever eaten.” “The hardest hike I’ve ever done.” “The most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.” But it’s all true. I’m not exaggerating. Go there, check it out. You’ll love it.
Anyway, one other extreme that may surprise some who have a pre-conceived notion of Muslim countries is: “The friendliest locals in the world.” Between my time in Casablanca and Marrakesh and now my time in Chefchaouen, I can say this to be undeniably true. Sure, I haven’t been to every country, but of the many I have spent time in, Moroccan people have been the most hospitable, interesting bunch. And this is during Ramadan, when you’d expect people to be on edge (which they might just be – who knows how nice these people are when they aren’t staving off hunger and thirst?).
Among the many locals we met who improved our experience with their basic generosity was a rug salesman named Mohammed, who I’ll never forget. He caught us in the street on our last night, after dinner. He asked us to come see his shop, and after initially resisting, we decided “why not?” since it was our last night in Morocco.
Not only did Mohammed do an amazing job of selling the rugs and walking us through the history of each thread, but he showed us how the rugs were woven in the back of the shop, had great conversation with us that was unrelated to the sale, and invited us to have breakfast with him and his friends in the shop the next morning (an invitation we had to sadly decline, given our early bus out).
We ended up spending almost two hours talking to (and buying three rugs from…) Mohammed and learning all about each other. Just for the record, if you go to Morocco you will get hassled to go into the shops. This is how business is conducted there, so if you’re not interested just politely say no and move along. Mohammed reiterated a few times that people in Morocco are the same as people in the United States and nobody is there to rip anybody off.
I felt this to be true already, but many tourists seemed to think differently. That’s a shame because, again, Moroccans truly are the nicest people I’ve ever encountered. They give respect and expect it in return, but if you are friendly and conversational and put a smile on your face, you’ll never regret your interactions with them.
Anyway, I won’t belabor the point here. That’s for another blog. Check out some of my pictures from Morocco and decide from yourself when (not if!) you’ll visit: