As an entry point, Tangier doesn’t do Morocco justice- think Morocco’s “Rocky Point”- It’s mildly seed, slightly over-developed, and caters to the young European tourists with a fine beach dotted with nightclubs. Tangier may have its pleasant spots, but we didn’t stick around long enough to find them. Not long after arriving, we took a 4.5 hour bus to the town of Chefchaouen.
Chefchaouen is one of those spectacular places you’ve seen pictures of all your life and never knew its name. It’s affectionately termed “the blue city” for its breathtaking characteristic of having had all its walls painted ice blue. The effect is particularly impressive given that the city is a traditional old medina, which means that all houses are built together into what is essentially an expansive adobe Kasbah cut into organic sections by undulating open-air hallways with the occasional archway. The city is also picturesque for its location nestled high on one side of soaring, verdant mountaintops. Multiple steep hikes offer impressive views overlooking the quaint old medina. The main trailhead is positioned just outside the city wall, where a cascading waterfall has been retrofitted to double as a Laundromat and swimming hole. Gazebos on each side of the river house rock wash basins. Water is siphoned to these structures, which each day attract hoards of women who carry their dirty clothes to the site and wash them in nearly the same was the people of this town have for centuries. Their children help carry the clothes and then find a splashing spot in the lagoons to spend the rest of the morning. Beyond the beauty of this place, it provides serenity little known to the tourists of northern Morocco.
After two days hiking around “the blue city”, it was time to move on to the decidedly less peaceful city of Fez. Fez is a “must-see” for many Moroccan tourists, but as I have said before, it can be overwhelming. Karen, for legitimate reasons, had already shown signs of stress upon entering Morocco. Our relatively relaxing time in Chefchaouen had ameliorated the situation a bit, but after another long bus ride and the initial shock of the spectacle that is Fez, not to mention checking into our usual hotel- a favorite of volunteers for being cheap and convenient, but perhaps a bit shabby to the uninitiated observer –Karen’s stresses had returned. Add to that occasional adverse reactions to the food, and we were beginning to realize how difficult it can be to travel Morocco in the style we usually do, without the many months we had to get used to the place. Fighting our urges to live like the locals, we tried hard to accommodate; seeking the less trafficked areas and the higher-end fare. The fact remained though, Fez is stressful, and even if we left, we still faced 2 days of bus travel to get back home. By our second day, we had decided to abandon our more ambitious travel plans and take advantage of the decent train systems in the northern half of Morocco. One days train travel got us to Marrakech, where we spent the night, and then a 6 hour bus/taxi ride got us home before dark- even though the second bus overheated within an hour of our house and had to be doused with multiple buckets of water while its passengers waited in the afternoon heat.
Once in the seclusion of our abode, we were all finally able to relax. We stayed in site for five days. We spent the first few days mostly confined to the house enjoying the silence and escaping the heat. Then one afternoon, our tutor and her sister came over with coffee and snack, and stayed for a few hours chatting. The next morning we met them again at their house for breakfast of egg tagine. After breakfast, it was time to start making the rounds and showing Karen of to the rest of our community. First we went to the local health clinic, where we translated shop-talk between our nurses and Karen- who was most recently a school nurse. This mostly consisted of trying to convince the Moroccan staff that nursing is still a difficult job in America despite access to modern technology and better education- they seemed to imagine a hospital environment where nurses just press a button all day. It proved a useful opportunity to fulfill the second goal of Peace Corps; to engender better understanding of America on the part of host-country nationals.
As we were leaving, the cleaning lady at the clinic invited us to her house. That afternoon, after wandering through the fields, we met her at her house. She fed us tea, bread, cookies, and almonds, and then walked us to her relative’s house, where we chatted briefly with lots of her family. Finally, we made the long walk to the fields so that she could cut her daily supply of animal feed. When we arrived, I offered to help, and suggested a race. She was very excited about this idea, responding with the Berber equivalent of “Bring it white boy”! I was soon declared the looser, despite a decent showing. When I complained that my cutting tool wasn’t sharp, she snapped back smartly with, “you’re not sharp”. We each took our turn collecting some of the weeds, and then our host suggested that we wanted around the fields and look at the aquaducts while she finished up. We did this for a little while, and when it seemed to be getting late, we wandered back, where we found our host twenty feet off the ground in a tree, snapping branches off and throwing them down to another woman below. “Hey”, she said, “Ready to go”? She climbed down, grabbed some of the branches, packed them into a large wicker basket already full of cut weeds, and tossed the whole thing onto her back. When we were within sight of her house, she let Amber and Karen each take a turn carrying the basket, which they were happy to do, and which she got endless enjoyment out of- the idea of a foreigners doing hard labor is hysterical to most Moroccans. She still talks about it.
The next day we did some English speaking, which must have been a relief to Karen. In the morning, we visited the director of the post office for tea. He speaks impressive English, is always welcoming and generous, and has been one of our most helpful unofficial work counterparts. Then, in the afternoon we visited the pharmacist, who studied some English many years ago, and who I have been tutoring in English over the last few weeks. Soft-spoken and blithe, he offered us a light supper, while we gave him the opportunity to practice his newly acquired language skills.
Having visited most of our favorite community members- except for our host-family who were regrettably out of town – it was time to leave site again, and make our way to the world-famous “Gnawa Music Fest” in Essaouira! Essaouira is a gorgeous, well-designed city, with beautiful beaches and a laid-back attitude. Known for its fresh fish, the old medina is built right up against the ocean, waves lapping against its rampart walls. The Music Festival the city hosts each year invites a wide range of world music, but is named for the Moroccan style of music called “Gnawa”. Developed by Moroccan slaves from southern Africa, Gnawa is bluesy, but upbeat. It is usually played with a 3-string rebab and handheld metal cymbals, which are woven with soulful stories mixing TashlHite, Arabic, and the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, so that even native Moroccans struggle to understand the lyrics.
We had arranged to stay with some of our favorite volunteer friends in a rented house for the duration of the festival, so we met up with them and got settled in to our temporary digs. Then we went out in search renowned grilled fish stalls. We found our target a short time later; a number of stalls lined up facing the ocean, each one with a table full of fresh fish displayed at its entrance. The fish is sold by weight and is grilled up promptly after you hand pick it from the selection. Unable to decide, I asked for a mixed plate which came with divine shrimp, sole, sardines, calamari, and a steak of something else I didn’t recognize; maybe shark. As we enjoyed our meal, the sun set on the water in front of us and the music began.
Most of the festival music begins in late afternoon and lasts until 3 or 4am the following morning. At least five stages are set up in various locations around Essaouira. Two are directly on the beach, and the main stage is positioned in front of a huge open plaza overlooking the ocean. We were eating next to this stage, and were drawn into the crowd when we finished out meals. A Gnawa style band was performing with a collection of other musicians who seemed to represent a healthy cross-section of world music. Together they thrilled the crowd with jazzy improvisation over a seductive beat. Colorful beams of light shot out into the night. People stepped, twisted, and gyrated. Children moshed, couples swayed, teenagers break-danced, and friends did the conga line; everybody smiled.I could probably go into more detail about the rest of our time in Essaouira, but I wouldn’t do it justice. In the mornings, we would sleep in and then head to the beaches; swimming and laying in the sand. Tens of PCVs had come to the festival so we were constantly running into and spending time with all of our friends. As the sun started to fall, we would seek out delicious dinners and then make our way to the stages. It went like that for 2 ½ wonderful days. When it was all over, we spent one last night with Karen in Marrakech. We met up with two great volunteer friends of ours and had a delicious meal of Moroccan specialties- Pigeon Pastilla, classic goat tagine, and “Tangia” a cured meat unique to Marrakech. The restaurant was on the second floor with a balcony hanging over the “Jmaa Al-Fna”, perhaps the most famous spot in all of Morocco. It teemed with humanity, a cacophony of sounds and smells wafting our direction. The smiles that we all found in Essaouira, were still being worn. And though Karen’s trip was not all relaxing and attractive, it was a full representation of Morocco. That is what I love about Morocco; the excitement, the surprise, the excess, the variety. It’s what I hope to remember, and it’s what I’m glad Karen could experience.