Morocco, Week Ten

As I write this, I am nearly out of peanut butter.1

My tenth week in Morocco was challenging. I had one of those workweeks where the few rewarding moments are swept away in a deluge of minor catastrophes.2 Despite all of that, this week I put the finishing touches on a school reading contest (with the help of my intrepid student volunteers, of course), fleshed out ideas for a few library fundraisers, and got paid. And, of course, read one of my other favorite childhood books to the kindergarteners, In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. Loved the amazed faces when Micky flies his dough-y airplane to get milk for the bakers.3 Still in store for the kindergarteners: Pierre, Just A Dream, Cautionary Tales for Children, The Adventures of Isabel, Amos & Boris, The Paper Bag Princess,4 Two Bad Ants.5

The aforementioned young ladies from Bristol stayed two nights with me early in the week, and were lovely house guests. They played with Loki, shared pastries, and commiserated with me over a rough day. On Thursday, two of my favorite people in Tangier came over for dinner6 and we chatted and joked late into the night. Friday evening I curled up on the couch and watched Empire of the Sun with Loki, who was very interested in the airplanes and scenes with young Christian Bale crawling through rushes and tall grass. (He was less interested in the coming-of-age and cross-cultural tolerance aspects of the film, as they involved neither cats nor shiny objects.) Later he climbed the drying rack and swatted at tiny imaginary airplanes in my living room.

I woke up early on Saturday7 and, after a brief game of tag with Loki, hopped in a car to Chefchaouen8 with a friend. Since my first visit consisted mostly of hiking the nearby mountains, I was determined to spend this time in an exhaustive exploration of the town itself. My tour began, naturally, with a Moroccan-style breakfast on a shady rooftop. Fresh bread, olive oil, eggs, four types of cheeses, and some kind of shredded meat.9 A scraggly kitten camped out under the table, helping us to finish our breakfast. After eating, we traversed nearly every street and every shade of blue. We climbed hundreds of steps to the very top of Chefchaouen and stood beside the old city wall, surveying the cascade of blue rooftops and valley beyond. I caught and released a very daring grasshopper, then skipped back down the steps to the bottom of Chefchaouen to explore the ancient walled kasbah. Wandered through the prison,10 then climbed two towers and looked down at people passing through the streets. Saw flocks of birds sailing down from the mountains and weaving  between mosque towers before alighting in the town square. I even had a chance to be an annoying know-it-all when I overheard three American tourists discussing a rosemary bush in the kasbah garden. “It’s basil, guys.” “No, basil has actual leaves. It’s gotta be sage.” I think I walked up and, with barely concealed amusement, corrected them. Also gave a good tip about cooking potatoes with rosemary, though it was likely lost on my listeners.11 Upon taking a photo of intricate green tile in a doorway, I was smacked on the rear end with a plastic water bottle by an old woman, who grinned and cracked what I’m sure was a hilarious joke in Arabic.

Now that the architectural and historical exploration had come to its end, we spent the next two hours exploring the local shops. We had a long conversation with a weaver, and sat in a huge room filled with folded carpets while a pair of merchants unfolded each in front of us on the floor to display its color and pattern. All afternoon, we bartered, laughed, argued, admired.12 I found the happiest cat in town curled up in a pile of blankets outside a weaver’s shop. I bought a blanket I’d been lusting after since my first trip there, with every shade of blue to remind me of Chaouen’s painted walls.13 We attempted, for at least an hour, to locate a green blanket that wasn’t woven out of fluorescent thread.14 Everywhere we went, we were shown the same blinding lime green/forest green combination. We explained, in multiple languages, what normal green should look like, pointed to relevant colors, and gesticulated wildly. Each shopkeeper was so keen on making a sale that he dug out every blanket he had that even contained a hint of green.15 After being shown about twenty different fluorescent green blankets in twelve shops, I announced, “If you can show me a tree this color, I will buy your blanket.”

Exhausted by the bright colors, we tiptoed up to another rooftop café, where I sipped mint tea and watched the late afternoon bustle of the town square. On the way to the hotel, we ran head-on into a wedding procession and were engulfed in smiling, singing women who sprinkled me with flowery oils as they walked by. Later, I found myself walking up the street side-by-side with a little girl who wheeled a pink stroller in an extremely businesslike manner. Since she looked like she knew where she was going, I accompanied her for about five minutes, earning appreciative smiles and laughter from nearby women and children. Just after sunset, when the edges of the mountains were glowing and the moon hung low above us, we trekked up a small mountain to Chefchaouen’s most famous mosque. We sat on a wall and nibbled a chocolate bar while lights gradually blinked on across town until the whole valley looked like a reverse night sky, with a city of stars below and the real sky dark above.

Back at the hotel,16 we shared a stranger’s chocolate cake and conversed for hours about religion, global politics, travel, and–of course–Morocco. Read myself to sleep only to be awakened at four o’clock in the morning by an overzealous imam in a nearby mosque. My friend had happened upon a geode the night before during our walk up to the mosque, so–being the avid rock collector that I am–I set out on my own to repeat the journey. After reaching the mosque with no sign of amethyst, quartz, or any other attractive mineral, I continued up the side of the mountain. I sat on a boulder and looked back at the town, cut in half by early morning sunlight and shadow. A woman herding goats made her way up the slope past me, shhing and clicking at them as they meandered across the rocky ground. Lost in thought, I gazed down at the tiny figures moving about blue streets below.

Eventually, like the ill-fated protagonist in so many fairy tales, I wandered off the path. About halfway up the mountain, I crossed paths with the goat herder a second time. She was sitting on the shady side of a boulder with her daughter while their goats grazed contentedly nearby. I nodded and sat down a few feet away, but was soon invited to share their shade. Through gestures and smiles, I introduced myself and told them how much I loved their town and their mountains. The girl, Nada, watched me, curiously, before deciding that I was okay and enlisting my help in digging six little holes in the dirt. She scampered around collecting dried rodent pellets and handing them to me to deposit in each hole. I assumed this was to be some sort of game, but after a while I realized that she was just trying to occupy the time. I pulled out the colored string I carry with me everywhere and showed both of them the friendship bracelet I’d been working on. We sat together, squinting in the sunlight and listening to happy goat bleats, for nearly half an hour. Before leaving, I dug two spare friendship bracelets out of my pocket and tied them around Nada’s wrist. She met me again on the road down the mountain and grinned at me before disappearing behind a whitewashed gate. My search for a geode was long forgotten.

  1. I am doing my best, however, to eliminate both peanut butter and nutella from my diet. Because this is a task of near-Herculean proportions, I’m just taking things one day at a time. []
  2. Catastrophe is a strong word, but I felt pretty strongly all week. []
  3. Did you know that this book is listed as one of the most controversial children’s books ever written, mostly because of depicted nudity, and has been banned in many places? The kindergarteners giggled through the first couple of pages but got over it quickly. Toward the end, when Mickey’s dough outfit falls off and he’s naked again, one of them exclaimed “Oh my goodness!” []
  4. True story: I dressed up as the Paper Bag Princess one year for Halloween. My dad got a paper grocery bag and cut out a neck hole and two arm holes, then I trick-or-treated in it all night. []
  5. I have a much longer list, but perhaps my overabundance of opinions on children’s literature are best left for another day. []
  6. Spaghetti with fresh onions, garlic, green pepper, and carrots in the sauce. Fruit smoothies accompanied by assorted French and Moroccan-style pastries for dessert. []
  7. Or, to be precise, every hour beginning at 2:00am. []
  8. A charming mountain town about three hours from Tangier, known for its gorgeous blue walls and handwoven blankets. Known affectionately as “Chaouen” by locals. []
  9. Still on my unique and confusing pollotarian diet, but maintaining my “try everything once” rule. []
  10. Tried on the shackles chained to the wall, but my small hands slipped right through them. May have made a joke about how no prison can hold me. []
  11. If they can’t even tell the difference between rosemary and basil, they probably don’t spend much time cooking. []
  12. I even managed to pick up a birthday gift my darling sister and celebrated track star, of whom I am very proud. []
  13. Just in time for winter, too. A strategic purchase. []
  14. An earlier attempt at a gift for my sister, who loves the color green. []
  15. Except for one obviously colorblind one, who thrust brown and red blankets into our arms. []
  16. A fabulous place, by the way, Hotel Molino is in a 400-year-old riad in the heart of the medina. This was my second stay there and this time I had the pleasure of meeting the owner. He showed me around his beautiful garden and even gave me two aloe vera plants, something I’d been searching for since arriving in Morocco. Highly recommended. []

4 Responses

  • What’s wrong with peanut butter and nutella, I mean besides the obvious: severe soil erosion in the case of peanut cultivation, and dairy products from what I would guess to be non-free-roaming cows in the case of the Nutella?

    How old was the child who said, “Oh my goodness!” when the dough outfit fell off?

    I can picture you saying that, “no prison can hold me.” Very funny.

    The old woman who smacked your behind probably said, “I’d like to get me some of that.” (Can I say such things here, on this blog?)

    “I found myself walking up the street side-by-side with a little girl who wheeled a pink stroller in an extremely businesslike manner. Since she looked like she knew where she was going, I accompanied her for about five minutes, earning appreciative smiles and laughter from nearby women and children.” Lovely image, all of it.

    “We sat on a wall and nibbled a chocolate bar while lights gradually blinked on across town until the whole valley looked like a reverse night sky, with a whole city of stars below and the real sky dark above.” Ditto. Superb.

    And then, you saved the best paragraph for last. What a story! And as for your pictures, I think these are some of your best so far from Morocco. Thank you.

  • The photos are incredible, Serena. Where does that marvelous Chaouen blue derive from? Is it a dye or mineral in the soil?

    I wish I had you teaching with me years past. You have a gift.

  • Shocking that you should share with kids in a conservative foreign country the nudity in Sendak’s frightening night kitchen. Next thing you know you’ll be reading those poor giggling children that most censored picture book of all, “And Tango Makes Three” in which Tango is adopted by two gay penguins.

  • @Faith
    Traditionally the 3 basic colors (Yellow (From desert stones) , Red (From Central morocco stones), and Blue (From cobalt)) were used to paint the interior of the houses.
    It only after that synthetic dyes entered the market that Chefchaoun became blue.

    You can detect if it’s real or synthetic very easily, the synthetic one is mixed with lime (boil when mixed with water) and is usually lighter.

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