Morocco, Week Twelve

“The only things they trust are the racing ships
Posiedon gave, to sail the deep blue sea
like white wings in the sky, or a flashing thought.”
The Odyssey (Homer)

One of the perks of working in a school1 is getting to hear children say all sorts of silly things. Students at AST (especially the kindergartners) are fond of exclaiming, “Oh my God!” at the drop of a hat, for instance.2 Talking about volcanoes? “Oh my God!” Finding out that a dinosaur in a book is too tall to fit on the page? “Oh my God!” Explaining that a tomato is a fruit? “Oh my God!” I suppose our students just have a flair for the dramatic. And not just in one language, either! On Monday I happened upon a little tyke sitting outside the office, where kids usually wait for parents to pick them up. His family are native French speakers, so sometimes I ask him questions in French.

Me: “Bonjour! Tu es malade?”
Student: “Oui, je suis trés, trés malade.”
Me: “Oh, c’est beaucoup!”
Student: “Oui! C’est trés beaucoup! Je suis trés beaucoup malade!”

And this is just a five-year-old. You should see the high schoolers.

Week twelve was also the week that the first grade discovered Schoolhouse Rock. I’ve been showing them a few songs during each of their scheduled library sessions, and they’re loving it. Sometimes they even start singing along with the chorus! Good to know that something so well-loved during my time (and before) can still excite children today. On Tuesday, to my extreme dismay, I came down with the superbug that’s been going around.3 Most of my week’s activities were accompanied by sad sniffling and self-pity. On Thursday I welcomed a friend from Germany, Patricia, who is traveling south through Morocco to sub-Saharan Africa to complete a documentary project. I took her on a tour of the medina at night, climbed up to my usual mint tea rooftop haunt, and ended the evening with a yummy vegetarian Moroccan dinner. Sniffles at a minimum.

Friday was the start of a four-day weekend for me (midterm break) and I celebrated by waking up early and having an invigorating swim in the school pool. Dried off in the sun while reading The Odyssey4 and snacked on some pastries. Patricia and I packed up a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, tomato, green peppers, carrots, and cucumber before heading out on the town. I had intended to take her to a great spot in the kasbah that overlooks the Atlantic ocean all the way to Spain, but instead got horribly lost. After wandering around the city for over an hour, we ended up in a beautiful rocky spot right next to the water. Fishermen tended their lines nearby and the sun shone white and tiny through the last of the morning mist. We wandered along the ocean wall for another hour, hopping from rock to rock and receiving strange looks from passers-by. On the way home, I found a cat family snuggling up for their mid-afternoon nap.

I continued to relax throughout Saturday, beginning with a soothing and uneventful bus ride to Chaouen.5 Patricia explored the city while I sat in the hotel gardens, drank homemade juice and tea with friends, chatted about healthy eating, and read my book. I found a fantastic green insect6 and made many failed attempts to capture it on film. (Eventually sketched it instead.) Got a massage later in the day and fell asleep to the sound of water trickling outside my window.

We woke up early on Sunday morning and set off for the mosque on the hill, just in time to see the sun rising over the mountains. And then do you know what we saw?7 We saw another mosque, on a second hill, away across the sloping farmland. So we went there. In the process, we wandered into someone’s backyard and paused behind a barn, looking around at the scenery.8 And, of course, from there we saw a trail winding up into the mountains. The lady of the house leaned over her fence to say hello, and I asked her (again, through gestures and smiles) whether it was possible to reach the top of the mountain on that trail. She nodded and waved encouragingly, so up we went.

From the top of the mountain we had a great view of the valley, complete with little houses, fields, dirt paths, and–of course–upset donkeys. But then I turned and looked up at the mountain next to ours. And would you believe it, there were a couple of tiny people waving and cheering at the top. “Well, gee,” I thought to myself, “I could go there.” It took me about fifteen minutes to convince poor Patricia accompany me on this challenge, and then we were off! Down the trail until there was no more trail. Into a ravine. Straight up a few rock walls, with the wind blowing us sideways. Through prickly bushes. By the time we arrived at the top, scratched and breathless, the happy hikers were long gone. A boy watched us from a distance, perched on a rock with his dog and goats nearby. After taking in the view and catching our breath, we decided it was time to head down. It was my silly idea, of course, to attempt a loop and go back on opposite side of the mountain. Neither of us were thrilled with the idea of inching our way down the cliff face we’d just had to climb, and assumed that an easier trail existed on the other side. The goatherd demonstrated with sweeping arm gestures the course of the path down the hill, and, squinting, we thought we could see where it twisted away down the mountainside.9 So with naïve enthusiasm, we set off downhill.

After about five minutes, the trail disappeared. After half an hour, we ran out of water just in time for the hottest part of the day. We waded through bushes and thorns, catching sight of trail after trail, all of which wove in and out of trees, shrubs, and boulders, eventually ending abruptly and leaving us even more lost than ever. (Luckily, we were always within sight of the top of the mountain and the wide valley across to Chefchaouen. Just no way of getting there!) Finally, we picked up a more promising trail, following human, dog, and goat hoof-prints through the undergrowth. We crested a second mountain, then looked down at–oh joy–the wide dirt road that leads back out of the mountains and into town. We half walked, half tumbled the rest of the way and set off down the dusty track with renewed energy.

A woman and daughter passed us, grinning, with about forty goats in tow. Perhaps surprised to see anyone–let alone two foreign women–this far into the mountains, they invited us to their house.10 Exhausted and intently focused on reaching Chefchaouen, we politely declined and continued on our way. We probably only walked on that road for about an hour, but it felt like three. The afternoon sun beat down on us and we tried to focus on encouraging things like a patch of shade at the end of the next switchback, or the delicious fruit salad that we would eat when we got back to the hotel. By the time we stumbled in through the upper city gates, we must have been quite a sight. Scratched, bruised, covered in dust and dirt, a little sunburned, hair marvelously askew. We waited in line at the spring behind two little boys, who took one look at us and waved us up to the tap. The first taste of water after our adventure was impossibly wonderful.

As our morning stroll had turned into a day hike, I soon realized that I had under an hour to grab my things and head to the station to catch my bus back to Tangier. Upon arrival, however, I found myself in a crowd of dismayed Moroccans. The bus office’s computer was down. By the time a slightly grouchy man got everything back up and I reached his desk, the last ticket had been sold. I hung around the bus station, trying to decide whether to buy a ticket for the next day and add another night to my stay in Chefchaouen. Suddenly, and miraculously, one of the other frustrated travelers told me that there was a second bus about to leave, with just two spots left. I paid a slightly shady-looking man my bus fare, was rushed aboard, and settled into the last remaining seat, hoping that the bus would indeed carry me to Tangier. I envisioned a number of alarming possibilities, but–resigned–decided that this was all part of the adventure. The bus sputtered to a start and chugged its way up the hill and out of town. Every time the bus slowed, its engine sputtered and whined a bit, and I watched the other passengers exchange worried looks. I closed my eyes and went to sleep.

The bus stopped again in Tétouan (about an hour away from Tangier) and, after waiting to make sure it got started again, I pulled out my book and read all about Odysseus and his travel-related catastrophes until we arrived safe and sound (and sputtering) at the Tangier bus station. Walked to a park to meet a friend, ate my weight in salad and stewed beans,11 then ended my day with a huge cup of every ice cream flavor12 in the shop.

  1. Other than the long holidays, of course. []
  2. Imagine this with a slight Moroccan accent. []
  3. My immune system is pretty good, but apparently not good enough to withstand an infection bred in a school full of small children. []
  4. I’m working on it right now with one of my students, and it makes such a difference to re-read it after so many years. There are passages in the book that are simply breathtaking, and reading it near the Mediterranean just feels right somehow. []
  5. Yes, again. It’s the most beautiful place I could think of to go within a three-hour radius. []
  6. A type of shield bug, I think. []
  7. Warning: this is going to be just like the song my parents used to sing to me when we went hiking, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”. []
  8. Our reverie was interrupted sporadically by the sound of upset donkeys. I don’t know why they were upset, but if you have ever heard a donkey bray you’ll understand what I mean. The sound echoed across the hills, and I got the distinct feeling that the donkeys were just complaining to one another about the quality of their hay, or the lack of universal health care options at their local farms. []
  9. Can you see where this is going? []
  10. Which was, I assume, the lonely farmhouse where the road met our trail. []
  11. I hadn’t actually eaten yet that day, since the walk was supposed to be a leisurely pre-breakfast stroll, and then I was rushing to catch my bus. []
  12. Minus bubblegum. []

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