Vivid Memories in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Categories Cultural Quirks, Morocco

I was so distracted by my own thoughts that I did not notice small crowd of children until I paused to breathe in deeply, looking up from my lap. In my frantic attempt to jot down the ups and downs of the last few days I had temporarily lost my sense of place. Scrawling into a worn notebook, my hands were smeared with ink and my lip curled in concentration. I was trying to remember every aspect of the chaos that got me from Marrakech to M’hamid, squinting my eyes shut as I re-imagined the careening roads and monster trucks barrelling straight for me, shunting to the side of the road at the very last second. But then I took a deep breath and opened my eyes to find a dozen children staring straight at me with confused and curious looks on their faces.

One of the more curious children in Chefchaouen, Morocco

One of the more curious children in the group.

I was in Chefchaouen, a tiny town in Morocco’s Rif mountains. It was a last minute decision to make the trek up from Marrakech  but I had heard so many wonderful stories about the dizzying medina and its narrow blue buildings that I wanted to see it for myself.  I took an overnight train from Marrakech to Tangiers, despite the fact that everyone told me it would be impossible to reach during Eid al Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice). Sleepy-eyed, I stumbled off the train at dawn hoping to find one bus that would bring me up to Chefchaouen. The train station attendant and anyone else I queried advised me to head to the CTM bus office, separate from the bus station. They all had the same refrain: you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.  Advised that the office would open just after the call to prayer, I hopped into a taxi, shivering in the early morning chill. My driver took a different view, flatly informing me that I was most certainly not going anywhere today. In his view, I ought to have just stayed in Marrakech.

“It’s a holiday – don’t you know?”

Yes, yes – I knew. But I had hoped that one of the buses would be heading to the Algerian border and that I could board it too, hopping off in Chefchaouen.

For several hours I sat crouched at the side of the road near the office, following a tiny patch of sun that did nothing for my cold hands and toes. I tried to ignore the uneasy expressions of the men streaming toward the call to prayer, a river of white jalabas and yellow babouches glaring at me as they passed. At around 8am, an older man with crazed white hair came over to my patch of grass to spit on me, then took off as two dogs chased him away. I decided to take a taxi to the main bus terminal as waiting near the CTM offices no longer seemed advisable.

When it was time to cross Tangiers once more for my bus, the prayers were fully over and throughout the city, men had begun to drag sheep across alleyways and main roads for the beginning of the feast of sacrifice. The smell in the air had changed, and fires were lit on almost every street corner, the roads devoid of cars and echoing the bleats of sheep on their way to slaughter instead of the usual car horns.

Sacrifice for Eid on the streets of Tangiers, Morocco

The streets of Tangiers, Morocco during the Feast of Sacrifice.

Sheep skins on the streets in Morocco during the Feast of Sacrifice

Sheep skins on the streets.

In the end, the CTM office was open, the bus attendant laughing at my stubborn refusal to give up on Chefchaouen. He noted that there was no bus scheduled but because of an earlier bus breakdown, many Algerian workers heading home for Eid did not make yesterday’s bus. Last minute, they decided to run the route despite the holiday. I dropped off my bag and started up the street, following the smell of sheep. Of course, in Montreal and New York many of my Muslim friends celebrate Eid al-Adha but none by traditional sacrifice. Inching toward men scraping charring off of a sheep’s head, I asked in French if I could watch them as they went about their work. Confused, they agreed and then asked what I was doing there, drifting around Tangiers alone at the start of a national holiday. I explained my desire to get to Chefchaouen, took out my camera and started photographing their handiwork. Conversation flowed easily. One man wanted to discuss emigration to Canada, another asked me if I spoke Spanish (given Tangiers’ proximity to Spain, the “bonjours” had switched to “holas”), and then they both started peppering me with questions about my life and my time in Morocco.

My week in Chefchaouen had barely begun and already it was quite the adventure.

Tangiers, Morocco during the Feast of Sacrifice

Friendly chatting on the streets of Tangiers.

The bus ride itself was uneventful, and I made it to my Riad in one piece, to the shock of its owners who had assumed that it would be impossible to find my way there on the day the country stands still. Set in the heart of the old medina, the Riad was off a tiny alleyway and accessible only by foot.

I dropped off my belongings and started to wander. Digesting Chefchaouen would take time. Blue doors against blue sky, shades from pale to bright all mixed together and an overwhelming sight to see, especially after an exhausting morning of ferrying around Tangiers. There were tourists, but mostly there were locals going about their lives.

Chefchaouen blue, Morocco

Chefchaouen in the bright sun.

Chefchaouen medina and its quiet alleyways

Quiet alleyways in the medina.

The medina was a maze of miniature. Secret alleys and doll-like doors, painted in brown or blue, grommeted with brass. Every corner held a wondrous surprise of colour and texture and echoing laughter from the children playing ball, ricocheting giggles and kicks off the slender walls. Perfectly groomed green plants sat on doorstops, contrasted against ochre and blue, and colourful laundry was strewn across windows and side streets, adding to the rainbow. In every direction, the shadows of someone hunched over a cane, hood pulled up to protect against the wind. And the most reminiscent of all, the sound of jalabas whispering against the cobblestones as men walked to prayer, leather babouches rhythmically scraping against the sides of the stairs with a slow climb to the top.

Walking in Chefchaouen, Morocco

One my favourite photos from the week.

I knew this wasn’t realistically “Chefchaouen” – it was only a small part, the medina. Walking outside of Bab El Lyne gate brought reality crashing back. A hard blink, a glance up at the electronic clock from a nearby bank and colourless buildings and I remembered, of course, that Chefchaouen was a city like many others, with roundabouts and grocery stores and regular roads. But spending a few days inside the medina without leaving its deliciously cloistered alleyways made it easy to forget the outside world. Stepping into that labrinyth of blue was like stepping into another time zone on a planet far away, with creaky doors and sounds from elsewhere.

On my first day, I tried to wind my way up and up to the Ras el-Maa, what town residents kept referring to as “the source”. A tiny waterfall spurting out of the mountain, the el-Maa served as a meeting point for locals, a picnic spot and a place where people came to do their laundry among the tourists and wanderers. After half an hour of walking, I rounded a corner and found myself exactly where I began, somehow losing all my ground and netting out right outside my Riad. I needed to start out once again.

This was the theme: straining to see what lay around the next corner, hoping I ended up where I wanted to be, only to find myself exactly in the opposite place. I spent most of my time in Chefchaouen exploring in a wholeheartedly ineffective manner, the small directional victories carrying my enthusiasm to the next set of buildings high above. Those miniature triumphs were hard to come by; most of the time I was spun in a circle, on the other side of town or a quiet square I never knew existed.

A typical afternoon during Eid in Chefchaouen

A larger square within Chefchaouen’s medina. Great tea shop on the righthand side.

Wandering the medina in Chefchaouen

Wandering the medina in Chefchaouen

Getting lost would have been frustrating anywhere else, but in Chefchaouen it was part of the fun. Without the aggression from Fez’ medina, I was content to drift aimlessly and take in all the sights, stopping for tea or nos-nos (half coffee, half milk) whenever I wanted. Spice shops dotted the sides of the street, full of kharkhoum (turmeric) and Moroccan oils, incense and musk . A communal bakery called a furn fired up at dawn, burning from the giant pile of branches just outside the low building. Young women would run their kneaded, uncooked dough to be baked in the community oven, and then rush back home hours later with fresh, warm bread.  And everywhere, on each corner, sheep skins and blood from the remnants of Eid. I arrived to Chefchaouen as the last sacrifices were being performed and by the time I explored the town, the air was full with the smell of roasting mutton.

Mint leaves

Mint leaves figured prominently in my tea-soaked diet.

Dried herbs and spices from a shop in Chefchaouen

Dried herbs and spices from a shop off the main square.

The older women were the gentlest of all, nanas who moved at a slower speed than anyone else, graceful but hampered by arthritis. On my third day in town, I left the Riad in haste, skirting around a corner and almost knocking over an elderly woman who was leaning against a wall and out of breath. I took her arm and slowly we stumbled up the length of the stairs to the next road, her face a mixture of shock and laughter as the men in town pushed by us and stopped in their tracks, wondering what a smiling tourist was doing holding hands with a local grandmother. At the top of the stairs, she turned to me and patted my cheek.

“Your mother raised you well,” she said in French.

“Thank you. I’ll let her know.”

And off she went into the sun.

On the road near my Riad in Chefchaouen

On the road near my Riad in Chefchaouen

My week in Chefchaouen is full of these snapshots, vivid in colour and deeply etched in my mind. But none is as close to the surface as that moment when I opened my eyes a dozen children, staring at me with total discombobulation. I smiled slowly and the eldest came forward.

“What are you doing?”,  he asked in French.

“I’m writing.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to remember.”

“Why?”

“Because I think your town is beautiful, and I want to capture that beauty so I don’t lose any of it later.”

“But how are you writing?”  he asked, more forcefully this time.

“Pardon me?”

“How…” he said gesturing to my notebook impatiently, “HOW?”

Impasse. I wasn’t sure what he was asking me. Was it a permission problem or a question about what I planned to do with those words? I closed the notebook carefully, not wanting to lose the memories I had already jotted down. The children all stared at me, foreheads knotted, until a smaller girl came to the front and plopped down in front of me on the stoop, staring up at my face with wide eyes. She took my pen and mimicked what I was doing, then stopped and stared up at me for approval. I gave her a hug, still concerned that I had somehow offended my impromptu hosts.

How?” He asked again, more softly.

A man walked by, slowing down when he saw the kids surrounding me and pausing entirely when he caught a glimpse of my baffled state. He spoke with the eldest in Arabic, and then he said what stuck with me ever since:

“Often, the women here cannot write. They think you are in your teens, and they want to know why you, as a woman, can write but many of the women here cannot.”

Surely that couldn’t be it? But it was. I remembered reading that Morocco’s overall literacy rate was approximately 56%, considerably lower when only women were measured. The older boy waited for my answer.

“I learned in school,” I said slowly.

And then I ripped out a paper for the little girl sitting at my knee and asked her for her name, trying to teach her how to do it herself. Until the sun went down, those kids stayed with me, practicing letters and joking in a blended mix of Spanish, Arabic and French.

I’ve written before about how travel keeps life in perspective, but it isn’t just about the big things, like the fire in Myanmar that prompted my original post. Sometimes it’s about the smaller things too. A long bus ride to the Rif mountains, full of migrant workers hoping to get home to their families. A moment in Essaouira as dusk approached. Confusion over coffee in Bangkok.

Or an unexpected afternoon teaching children how to write their names, their arms full of ink.

-Jodi

Child in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Things that confuse children in far-flung places: self-portraits.

 

60 comments to Vivid Memories in Chefchaouen, Morocco

  1. My goodness, Jodi. There is such an evocative sense of place from both your writing and your photos in this post. I find it really quite stirring. And, err, sorry that a man tried to spit on you – why??

  2. Oh so beautiful Jodi. In a twist of luck, I love how you were able to catch that bus. (I had a similar experience in Botswana a few years ago when luck was on my side and I was able to catch transportation unexpectedly).I love your description of the old women. Looking forward to your next piece on Chefchaouen as well!

  3. Wow Jodi! I’ve been following your travels since I joined the travel blogging community a few months ago. This has to be one of the best posts I’ve seen you write. Loved the storytelling of it all; bit of a longreads feel to it as well. Morocco is high on my bucket list!

    Hope to see more posts like this every now and again!

  4. Beautiful posts and pictures! Love the bright splashes of blue and what wonderful interactions. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Incredible story, Jodi. I was taken by Morocco when I went nearly three years ago, especially by the way people still marveled at me (and I’ve been in a few border towns nearer to Spain, where I live). Beautiful country and an oft-misunderstoof people.

  6. Wow Jodi- You inspire me to take my writing to another level and to try to capture the little moments more…

    Eloquent, captivating, beautiful piece.

    I look forward to returning to your blog more often!

  7. This is truly a remarkable post. Thanks for putting our lives in perspective. Imagine…we make our livings writing and there are thousands of women the world over who have never picked up a pen. Great photos here, too.

    • Thank you Melanie! The Myanmar piece (“how travel helps keep life in perspective”) was a much harder one to write, but I wanted to give a perspective in a different, smaller way. We’re a lot luckier than we remember sometimes :) I know you know this (having read your writing) as many others do too, but it is quite easy to forget. Hope you are well and safe travels to you.

  8. Great, Jodi, absolutely great again. I love your writings so much, worthy experiences you give.
    Love Barbara-Germany-Augsburg

  9. What a beautiful piece of writing really evocative of life in Morocco. Hope you enjoy the rest of your travels & looking forward to reading your next post.

  10. A beautiful experience and you’ve recollected it eloquently! As much as I love your photos, your words and stories simply inspire me.

    • It’s been nice to write a longer piece again. I was so tired from writing the book that I kept to photoessays for the most part these last months. (Says the woman who is about to post a photoessay on Chefchaouen ;) ) I definitely want to get back into the writing – I’ve missed it!

  11. Jodi, this is such a beautiful (and beautifully written) post. I really felt like I was there with you on this inspiring journey :)

  12. Beautifully shared. It is those reflective moments, where we pause and slow down our travel pace, that we can learn more about the place we are visiting. I am sure you will be the talk among those kids for days to come!!

    • Thank you. They left each clutching their pieces of paper with their names written down. Hopefully it spurred at least one of them to pursue it further, to the extent the resources existed for them to do so!

  13. That was a beautiful piece Jodi. Chefchaouen is now on my ever-expanding list of places to see in Morocco. I’ll go read your Essaouira post now.

    It was a pleasure to meet you in London last week; I know it was a busy time but meeting people like you and Mike S was a highlight of WTM. Safe onward travels.

  14. Jodi

    Not sure if you remember me from your Montague Street days, but have just started blogging myself about our renovation – not quite as exciting – and was thinking of you and your travels. This is the first of your blogs that I have read and it is fabulous and I will now be a more frequent viewer of your site.

    Nicola

  15. Chefchaouen looks like a fascinating place that I’d love to visit, ntm the whole country of Morocco. What an enjoyable read…

  16. I really enjoyed this piece of writing from you Jodi. You so beautifully described the town and the children. I bet they were thrilled to have you spend the afternoon with them teaching writing.

  17. / Your mother raised you well,” she said in French. /

    / “Thank you. I’ll let her know.” /

    / And off she went into the sun. /

    You are on the spot Jodi, Such tiny moments make life of course :) :)

    Its a great pity that most of us miss these tender memorable moments with our eyes set on well known tourist attractions that are advertised.

    Heart rendering writing again Jodi..thank you so much :)

    • Thank you Ravi. I don’t think it has to do with tourist spots, to be honest. Even in a crowded place full of tourists, those tiny moments can be had. It’s just a matter of keeping yourself open to that connection, right? I agree, though, if we’re simply looking up at a building or two we will miss these miniature marvels and the human side to where we travel. Thank you for reading!

  18. Great post!
    Also loved the story of the old woman. You know, often I feel like getting connected in that kind of way, but I’m still too often scared to get a negative reading, which is of course weird if you want to do a positive thing:-)

  19. amazing post! I’m heading to Morocco in January and your writing made me already understand the place a little bit and prepare for it. thank you!

  20. What a lovely story Jodi. I have some friends in Chefchaouen at the moment and they were trying to explain the town to me on Skype but they didn’t go anywhere near what you could with this story. Thanks so much :)

  21. glad you enjoyed Chefchaouen … I was there over a year ago when visiting the country. sweet people (with the exception of the touts, lol) and the blue medina was quite beautiful.

  22. Amazing post, Jodi. I think this might be my absolute favourite. While I was reading it, it really struck me how sentences can make you yearn for a place or time or feeling…I have no idea why, but your sentence about stopping for tea or nos nos while exploring made me yearn for more time to travel, or more to the point, for the freedom to travel at whatever speed you want, and to discover something that is so normal to the locals in a foreign country but is an exciting find for the traveler. And then your description of helping the older woman with the stairs, or practicing letters with the kids, well…I agree with you that those are some of the reasons to travel. Beautiful post – thanks for sharing!

  23. Great post, Chefchaouen seems like a magical blue town, I always enjoy seeing photos from there. The literacy aspect is surprising, I never knew there was such a divide like that in Morocco, that is a true travel experience.

    • It’s fairly abysmal (the literacy rates). The sprawling divide between cities and the smaller towns were surprising too. I’d read about it but it remains more jarring to see those contrasts in person.

  24. What an amazing story. I am going to Morocco this August and would love to go to this Chefchaouen. That was a wonderful thing you did.

  25. Wow Jodi, what a absolutely stunning, beautifully written story. The question of, “how?” makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Beautiful images, I want to go to Morocco now!

  26. This piece is beautiful, from you vivid descriptions to your saturated photos. Makes me want to visit, but more than that it really describes why we travel. It’s the little moments, the peculiar questions and the unexpected blessings that make a life on the road worth living. Thanks for sharing!

  27. really enjoyed reading this. thanks for showing this side of morocco. can’t wait to visit this country someday. i just hope that everyone gets to learn how to write in that beautiful place…

  28. I was very moved by this piece (as I am by all of your posts), Jodi. A beautiful chronicle of life. I have to say, though, what struck me most was the image of that little girl learning to write her name. What gift have you given her, Jodi! To believe that perhaps someday, somewhere, things could be different – priceless.

  29. Wow! The sheep heads really got me. Even after that why is it I’m always hungry after reading your posts?

    • Even with a sheep’s head? :) Someone recently asked me when it was that food became a priority, but I think it happened bit by bit, and now it’s merely the way I prefer to see the world (through what we eat). I’m happy to see many of my readers agree! Safe travels to you :)

  30. I cannot tell you with how many classmates I have shared this link in fits of wanderlust. Lovely, lovely photographs. So alive. Living vicariously through you, darling, and ingesting the sights of Vietnam now too :)

  31. Hi Jodi,

    I just loved your blog because it is what i have been doing! Travelling as free as a bee. When you start you will never be able to stop i know very well. So nice i’ve seen we’ve been to the same places at the same times. I just started writing my blog. If you have any suggestions i am open.
    Thanks
    Hilal

  32. wow – quite the photos! Don’t get me wrong…I love visiting the markets in far away places…but I have always had trouble with the animal markets! Still dying to get to Morocco – thanks for some great insight.

  33. I really love all your photos.

  34. This is a wonderful piece of art.. reminds me of my time in the “blue city of Morocco” back in September 2012.

    love & light

    el

    let there always be a road

  35. Morocco is so colorful and amazing. I am glad I landed up at your blog. Thoroughly enjoyed this post :)

    PS: You have an amazing looking blog. It looks serene :)

  36. Thank you sister for this vivid description of a magical place.. The blonde child is beautiful ma shaa Allah, i would love to be writing and our of the blue comes a wave of innocently pure and crystallised waters of life

  37. lovely! I am going next year and you have really inspired me!

  38. An absolutely stunning piece of writing. I’m about to go there myself – now more excited than ever!

  39. Very nice report on Morocco with beautiful photos, thank you for letting us share a good time!

  40. I wish I had something more to say after so many comments here, but I guess most have been said. Let me just add… #selfie! YAY!

  41. Hi Jodi!

    Your travels here sound AMAZING! I am studying abroad in Spain this semester and I am looking into traveling to Morocco. I came across this city online and I would love to visit here. Your pictures and descriptions look beautiful. Do you have any advice for me? As a 19-year old female, would it be okay if I came here alone?

    Thanks!
    Kara

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