Adventures are lessons in disguise.
This weekend was my first major trip since arriving to Morocco. Three other exchange students and I planned to take a trip to Chefchaouen and Akchour over our three day holiday weekend. Wednesday last week we threw together the plans, booked a place to stay, and paid for a taxi through the university.
We went through an official website to book our guest house. We picked a place with good ratings and one within walking distance of the old medina, or the center of the city. Originally we planned on staying in an Airbnb but decided that for our first trip it may be more realistic to stay in a place where we all felt more secure and that would provide more amenities just in case anyone were to need anything. The online description of the guest house we stayed at set our expectations pretty high. We learned when we got there that website descriptions are not always as accurate as one would hope.
With all ours plan set by Wednesday night we packed our bags set out on our first adventure at four o’clock Thursday afternoon. The drive there was absolutely stunning. It was four hours of nothing but curvy mountain roads with breathtaking views of the Atlas Mountains. None of us slept on the way there because of all the excitement we had for the coming weekend. The taxi driver was like something out of a movie. He weaved through traffic like he was playing Mario Cart. The road in certain places is falling apart and we spent more time than I was comfortable with in the left hand lane because the pavement was cracked and sliding down into the ditch in the right hand lane. It works though. From what I have seen Moroccans are great drivers and handle road conditions very well, much better than many American drivers.
The best part about the drive there was when we stopped at a gas station so our driver could use the restroom. The four of us stayed in the car and a group of Moroccan boys noticed we were sitting there. The group of about six 8-years-old boys walked right up to the window, knocked on it, and pressed their faces right on the glass. They were trying to get the attention of the girl sitting in the seat right next to the window. We tried to ignore the boys but it wasn’t easy because of how close they were. The four of us could not stop laughing. They were only there for maybe a minute before our taxi driver came back and chased the boys away. This is one of my favorite memories of Morocco so far and one I hope to never forget.
We arrived in Chefchaouen just as the sun was going down. Our taxi driver stopped and pulled over to the side of the road so that we could wait for the other taxi with students from the university to catch up. The view from the side of the road was spectacular. We could see the entire city of Chefchaouen tucked into the bottom of the mountains. The view only made us more excited to explore in the morning. We got out of the car to take pictures like typical tourists but with no shame what-so-ever because the view was worth it. The four of us ran across the street to take a picture and instantly drew attention directly to us. It took maybe five minutes of us standing there before an older man who lived nearby came over to say hello and to welcome us to Chefchaouen.
My parents from the very beginning taught me the concept of stranger danger. However, I have learned it is so hard for me to just ignore someone completely. I instantly feel guilty. I was always that person in grade school when a teacher asked a question and no one answered so they would obnoxiously wait in silence… I would be the one who out of pure guilt would raise my hand to answer the question.
This was the same situation… I said hello back to the man and he asked if I speak French I shook my head and said I only speak English and he proceeded to talk to me in pretty good English for what seemed like a long time but was only like 15 minutes telling me all about Chefchaouen and the village were his family lives the mountains. It amazes me how many languages people from Morocco know. In the US, there are body language signs and awkward pauses that tell a person when the conversation is over but the man didn’t mind the silence in the slightest. When the four of us stopped talking and just looked out at the beautiful landscape he stood there quietly right next to us pretending to marvel at the view he sees every single day. It started to cross a line when we asked where we were staying to which I lied and said I had forgotten the name of the hotel. I think our taxi driver pick up on this because very shortly after he asked that our driver looked at us and said yalla, or let’s go. The man said good bye and we got in the taxi and drove away. Once all the doors were shut and we were down the street the other girls looked straight at me and said I need to work on being less friendly to which I agreed and we all laughed. I ended up learning this pretty quickly during my time in Chefchaouen.
We arrived at our guest house around nine o’clock at night. Thankfully, with help from a few people walking down the street our taxi driver was able to find where it was because our map didn’t register the street that the guest house was located on. When we pulled up to the front gate no one was there and all the lights were off. Our taxi driver got out and knocked on the door. Finally, a man came to the door and invited us in. He didn’t speak English so he called another man to come and help us get checked in. The other man arrived twenty minutes later, welcomed us, and told us the rates for the two different apartments, or guest houses he had available. Confused I showed him our confirmation number from the website. He checked his email and he said he had nothing showing we had a reservation. I went right into panic mode thinking that we might not have place to stay. After the man double checked for our confirmation and still came up empty. He apologized and offered us the guest house for the same price we paid online but he needed it in cash and not credit card. I had only brought 100 MAD which is around $10 USD again I panicked. But almost like magic I blinked and the other girls I was staying with all pulled out more than enough dirhams to cover our stay for the three nights. Saved again. With the craziness over the man gave us the keys, brought us extra towels, and left. When the door closed the four of us looked at each other and laughed at how crazy the last 30 minutes had just been. Lesson two of the trip call ahead to confirm your reservation.
We had assumed we would eat dinner at a restaurant either at the hotel or nearby. But after seeing the chaos of the city as we drove through to get to our guest house we knew it probably wasn’t the best idea to go out this late at night. So we scavenged up some snacks and had pretzels, hot chips, and cookies for dinner. Another lesson learned… plan out when you’re going to eat ahead of time or bring food to cook.
The next morning we all woke up at 6:30 to see the sunrise from our roof top terrace assuming it would be spectacular being that we were surrounded by mountains. It turns out when the sun rises on the other side of a mountain it’s not really visible until almost three hours later. The sky was lit but there was no sun. So we all crawled back into bed choosing not to start the day just quite yet.
Once we all got up and got ready we walked into town with the help of an offline map we had downloaded the night before. The app is called maps.me and I cannot give it enough praise to explain how much it saved us. Most of us don’t have data and from the night before we learned that google maps isn’t always super reliable so we looked for something different we could download and use offline. This app is amazing. It knew all the narrow streets of the medina. Almost every building is labeled and places where you can find drinking water are marked. It saved our butts to say the least.
It was Eid so the medina was empty but thankfully there were a few cafés open and we were able to have breakfast. At breakfast I did it again… A man came up to us welcomed us to Chefchaouen and proceeded to tell us his entire life story. It was interesting and I learned more about Morocco from the perspective of a local but again the friendliness crossed a line when he pulled a chair up to our table and talked to us for 45 minutes. Once we finally said our goodbye we ran into him at least four more times while we were walking around the medina. Chefchaouen is small but it didn’t seem accidental if you know what I mean. I learned very quickly that politeness can come back to bite you, or in this case follow if you’re not polite the right way.
For the rest of the day we explored the beautiful blue painted streets, took pictures, and bought our families gifts. By midday the medina was still empty except for the few traces of the holiday we saw like men with blood covered t-shirts and a small groups of boys probably around the age of seven fighting over who was going to hold the bucket they were carrying with a sheep’s head in it. My first thought was how cute are these boys who are so proud of what they have in their bucket. My second thought was in the states someone would probably have a heart attack if they saw what I just saw. The experience made me feel farther away from home but in a way that also made me feel lucky to experience something so different. For lunch the four of us shared couscous, pizza, and a plate of fries in a café.
Before heading back to the guest house we grabbed some snacks and other necessities at a corner store. We had learned better from the night before to not go back without having at least something to eat. When we got back we went for a swim in the pool at our guest house before we watched the sunset. In the US I would never set aside so much time to be present for both a sunrise and sunset but I think that’s something I have really enjoyed about traveling these last few weeks. Traveling makes you think about time as a precious resource. Every day while you’re traveling you wake up and think how can I experience as much as possible before dark and what moments do I want to be sure not to miss?
We woke up early again and got a grand taxi to a town on the other side of the mountain called Akchour. The area is known for its beautiful hiking trails and waterfalls that are positioned right in the middle of the Riff Mountains. Based on the view from the car ride there I knew it was going to be amazing.
From what we had read online the trials were clearly marked and not very difficult. When we got there it was a different story. It had only taken us 15 minutes to get lost three times. The last time as we were about to go straight up the mountain (a two day hike) a guide waved us over. He knew that we definitely did not want to go that way. So he pointed us in the right direction and we started walking again only to take a wrong turn once again and run back into him. Finally, we gave up and just decided to follow him and the couple he was guiding. We felt weird and didn’t want to step on the couples’ toes but we had a suspicion that’s what was happening because they were not being very friendly. Finally, the lady looked at us and said, “If you can pay the guide that’s fine, if not… stop following.” Making it much more dramatic than it needed to be. We had no problem paying and after we talked it out with the couple and the guide we all had an amazing time and got to see one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life. Communication is key.
Once we were done swimming in the falls we walked back and planned on eating at the café at the trailhead. Well… once again a meal didn’t quite go as planned. Due to it being a holiday weekend the café was closed and we had two hours to kill before our taxi was going to back. So we decided to walk back to the edge of the water and at least have tea and relax to kill time. We ordered four mint teas and watched the guy walk away and return five minutes later with a handful of fresh mint leaves he had just picked from the side of the mountain. He brought us our tea and although it probably wasn’t the cleanest tea I’ve ever had it was definitely the freshest.
I feel asleep almost instantly on the drive back to Chefchaouen. I was exhausted from hiking and swimming in the falls. By the time the taxi dropped us off, we were all starving. Imagine trying to get something to eat on Christmas day in a small town. Nowhere was open and we had nothing at the guest house. So two of us decided to grab a taxi real quick and try to find something and bring it back. Starving and on a mission I hailed my first taxi! Every time before that someone has always called and gotten one for us. We found the first place open and ordered the first thing we could think of, couscous. At this point I would have eaten anything. Within 30 minutes we had sat down, ordered, and paid… which if you have ever been to Morocco that is nothing short of a miracle. Meals, especially dining out, in Morocco can take hours.
When we got back we decided to eat dinner on the rooftop and as we were eating we heard the family who lived in the house next to the one we were staying at bring their goat outside. We all instantly remembered it was Eid and realized that this was probably not going to end well for the goat. I’ve always been weird about killing animals. On thanksgiving, if I see my mom prepare the dead turkey the chances of me eating it go down dramatically. In that case the animal was already dead so needless to say I was not about to watch as they slit the throat of this cute little goat that all the small children were petting. So while I hid the other girls peaked their heads over the side of the terrace and watched as they prepared the goat. In the end the family took the goat back inside and we never found out what happened to the little guy. We all assumed he didn’t make it through the night.
When we came back inside I got a notification from my bank that my card had been charged for the guest house. Again I started to panic (I do this often) but this time for good reason. I realized that when we paid in cash we hadn’t gotten a receipt from the man. We had no proof of paying and I had no idea what to say to the website who had charged me. So we got ahold of the man who we had paid a few days earlier and I tried to talk to him over to telephone but the other girls pointed out to me that when I was trying to explain the situation I started talking really fast (another nervous thing I do) so he definitely couldn’t understand me and said that he would come and talk in person. While we waited for him to get here I tried to anticipate how this was about to go. Every terrible scenario possible crossed my mind. When he got there though I could not have been more wrong. I explained what had happened and showed him the charge to my account. The man apologized for the confusion and gave us all our money back, just like that. I cannot express how thankful I am for the hospitality of this man and many other of the Moroccans I have met. This was another lesson learned. Many of the transactions made in Morocco are in cash and while you don’t need a receipt for everything, for big things like this….ALWAYS GET A RECIEPT!
It’s hard to explain how I felt on our last day in Chefchaouen. So much had happened and I learned so much in a very short amount of time. When I walked down the street to hail a taxi I walk with less hesitation and much more confidence in my capabilities. Having learned the hard way this weekend we asked the price of the taxi before getting into it. Another very important lesson.
We got in our taxi and headed towards the old medina. For breakfast we have some delicious msemen with honey, jam, and goat cheese. Msemen is similar to a pancake or a crepe. It’s eaten at any meal usually with cheese, honey, or meat. It’s very popular in Morocco. After breakfast we did some quick shopping before we had to go back to the guest house to check out.
We walked up to a small store that was right in a middle of the medina that had stacks of rugs and blankets sitting on tables and lining the floor. All of it was very beautiful. The owner of the shop came up to us and he said he had another shop with a much larger selection if we wanted to check it out. Apprehensive at first I wanted to say no we were fine but we gave in and followed the man through the baby blue alleys to a small little hole in the wall that we otherwise would never had noticed. This store was amazing! Rugs and blankets covered every inch of the walls. The man in this store was so charismatic. He showed us all the colorful hand woven wool blankets unfolding all of them and laying them out on the floor so we could see the designs. He explained to us that they were made with live wool not dead wool. Which means they shear the wool off the sheep instead of killing the sheep then taking the pelt to the tannery where they take the wool off chemically. Live wool is much softer and higher quality because it still has the natural oils from the sheep’s skin. The three of us all got one!
The next shop we went to was the entire reason we went into town. The shop is called La Botica de la Abuela Aladdin. You can smell this soap shop from five yards away. It was amazing. This building is two stories of homemade bars of soap, small bottles of Moroccan Argan oil, and perfumes. We had heard of this place from people at school, two Egyptian girls we met at a café two days ago, and from sources online. This place is a must visit in Chefchaouen.
After we were done spending nearly all our money at the soap shop we stopped by a place that I had seen that was selling canvas paintings of Chefchaouen. Something I knew would be perfect to brighten up my walls in my dorm room. I picked one out and bartered for the first time on the price! In the US bartering is unheard of and even in some places probably considered slightly rude. It felt good though to finally feel confident enough to do so in Morocco. Small victories!
After we were all done we took a taxi back to the guest house packed everything up and handed over the keys. Just as we finished taking our picture in front of the building our taxi pulled up to take us back to campus. The drive back seemed to take forever. Which was probably because none of us wanted to leave our picturesque paradise and head back to reality where its eight a.m. class and late night homework sessions in the library instead of shopping in the blue city and swimming in waterfalls.
Lessons Learned in Chefchaouen
- Always get a receipt for any large cash transactions
- Bring the appropriate footwear. I hiked for three hours in sandals.
- Always plan out meals and always bring snacks just in case.
- Ask the price of taxi ride before getting in
- Don’t assume there will be signs on the roads or on hiking trails
- Me is an amazing app
- Grand Taxies are great drives but require motion sickness pills
- Communication is key
- Have fun and be present in every moment of the trip