November 21, 2015
The view of the Rif Mountains from high on this stoney perch is stunning. It’s Bilay’s favourite spot and it’s easy to see why; two crashes (one each) and a few hours stranded on the side of a mountain pass while Nita’s heart runs wildly out of control all seem to slip away here. Even with the chill in the air that’s accompanied these long, white tendrils of cloud that cling to the pot-ladened hillsides, there’s little in either of us that wants to leave.
Eventually we make our way down to the small cinder-block house, past the families gaggle of mangy-looking dogs, along a stone wall and in through the front door. Inside, Nita’s awake and once again food is making it’s way from somewhere else inside this house to a plate in front of her. Fatma, who’s finally allowing Nita to feed herself, still looks quite concerned and hasn’t left her side. We all sit together in the room and once again awkward silences are broken for moments with an attempt at conversation. We feel so incredibly fortunate for this family and their seemingly endless hospitality.
The three men who found us roadside return and deliver a shopping bag filled with energy drinks to the table beside us. It’s a lovely gesture – though energy drinks are the last thing Nita needs to be consuming. With a grateful smile I take one and begin drinking it; I’m exhausted and anything to keep me awake for the evening is appreciated. Bilay lets us know that we’re invited for dinner even though we haven’t stopped eating since we arrived! We kindly accept and we’re invited to join the rest of the family for TV time.
Omar’s house is fairly large for the region and the room we’re in seems to be a family area. The hallway leads to what looks like two small bedrooms, a kitchen and finally the living room. Just across from our room is a bathroom that’s never been completed – there are no services here and the ground is still dirt. With water being brought in from a well, and electricity running from a generator in the back, the toilet here is outside and simply a hole in the ground with a bucket of water and ladle for cleaning ourselves. It’s awkward at first but, to be honest, it’s a much nicer set-up that some of the “full” bathrooms we were faced with in Tunisia.
Inside, the walls are sparsely decorated with the primary colour being that of the cinder blocks; a light shade of grey. Entering into the living room, we’re greeted with wide smiles from the entire family. Nita wraps herself in a blanket on the seats that line the walls, and the family takes places around us, all with excellent views of what looks to be a 10” black and white television. “This is our favourite show…” says Bilay, and after a good hour of watching it we decide that it’s some kind of mystical Hindi soap opera filled with betrayal, murder, magic and flying carpets. As a beautiful young woman’s plan to poison her mentor is foiled and she lay dying by her own hand, Bilay asks if we speak Hindi; apparently the look of concern on our faces has led him to believe we can! Certain that we can’t, we remain amazed at how many languages everyone else in the world seems to know. We’re truly dragging our feet in North America.
About halfway through what feels like a four-hour program, Nita looks at me and suggests she feels well enough to continue on tonight. It’s a crazy thought, though I know exactly where it’s coming from. We’re in a house filled with strangers, our Canadian-ness has us feeling like we’re putting people out and we’re only 120km from our destination. A quick look at my watch puts the idea to rest; it’s 8pm and, while it’s surprisingly light outside, it’ll fade quickly. Besides, the young woman on the television is still not dead. This is turning out to be the longest TV death ever.
The three men who plucked us from the road are a riot. They joke and laugh at each others expense almost the entire time we’re there, only occasionally descending into serious and dark conversations that remind me very much of the talks I’d witness with my own father now and again. One of the men is definitely more serious than the others and is constantly annoyed by Bilay’s attempts to communicate with us in French – at one point snapping at the young man with a fierce fire in his eyes before muttering under his breath. There’s a definite desire to break the lingering hold of colonialism here – something we’ve felt throughout our journey across North Africa. For some, it seems, the languages of prior European occupation are still offensive. Here in the Rif – perhaps more than anywhere – the push for independence has played an important role in the identity of the people who live here.
Nita and I are both beginning to fade. The toll of the day has our eyes drooping and there’s little we can do to stop it. Dinner seems a long ways away yet and, as we approach ten o’clock we have to excuse ourselves from the room. We feel a little rude if I’m to be honest; I’m fairly certain that they’re making something special for us. I let Fatma know that I can come out again for dinner if she’d like but Nita needs to sleep. While it doesn’t seem to be a problem, there is a certain amazement at our missing dinner!
The room is a relief – not as an escape from our incredibly gracious and kind hosts but for the simple quiet it affords us. Fatma checks on us with Bilay, and after assuring her that we’re doing fine she leaves and turns out the light. Like the end of almost any Peter Jackson movie, this false-end to our night happens about four or five more times. Eventually we explain a final time that we’re truly fine – that sleep is all that’s needed at this point. They give us lovely smiles, offer Nita some sweatpants for sleeping, and with the most lovely gesture, leave the room. Tucked into our sleeping bags, the wonderful feeling of release rolls over us and, in my fading thoughts, I believe sleep is not far away.
It’s at about that moment, when one foot is in the real world and the other where anything is possible, that the door flies open and the room is doused in a bright and unforgiving light. “Kebabs!” Like the best doting mum any child could have, our plea of being fine has fallen on deaf ears. Fatma and Bilay bring us both a plate of more fantastic smelling food, set it around a table and sit with us to make sure it all gets eaten. Even in a foggy, sleep-induced daze this food is some of the best we’ve tasted. Devouring every scrap it safe to say that Nita and I are both surprised at how hungry we actually are. Fatma, its seems, knows best.
Satisfied that we’re properly nourished, Fatma takes her leave and we finally succumb to the sleep that’s been so elusive. It’s glorious.
We awake early the next morning; last night, when we suggested that we’d be leaving this morning, Bilay tried hard to convince us to stay at least a few more days. It’s a beautiful gesture but to be honest our goal is to simply get out of the house and back onto some decent tarmac with as little drama as possible. Nita’s feeling a little better this morning but the reality is that her heart is too touchy to risk any excitement.
We’re up before anyone except Fatma, her sister and one of the young boys. We quietly load the bikes under careful supervision and repeated offers of breakfast. Fatma is truly a wonderful, wonderful person. The light warmly drenches the valley below while we say goodbye to our amazing hosts and an offer of some Euros for resupplying their cupboards is quickly shooed away. Instead, Fatma gives us hugs, repeatedly taps her heart with an open hand and smiles widely before stuffing our now empty hands with another round of energy drinks for the road! We wave and, without waking the rest of the family, roll our bikes down the narrow gravel road.
There’s a lot on our minds this morning. Our time in Morocco has been far more eventful that we expected – or wanted to be honest. Nita’s heart is the primary concern and keeping everything level is key. We wind our way down the rocky track and make a tight hairpin onto the pass that brought with it such strife and beauty the day before. The remaining 5 km are nothing like the previous 70 km or so. The road is intact and drops us gently toward the more major N2 – still a narrow and twisty cliff-hugging ride in it’s own right.
With a final right hander we’re off the pass. We breathe a sigh of relief before beginning to settle into the day. Perhaps four or five turns in, the idea of keeping Nita calm is tested to it’s limit as three feral dogs bolt out of the hills to meet us on the road. Rolling onto the throttle, two chase Nita while the largest begins gaining on me. As I pick up speed I’m amazed to see the white mass with brutally bared teeth gaining on me. He looks vicious. Now, by my left foot, he begins gnashing wildly and I grab a mitt-full of throttle. Even then he keeps up for a moment as the tight turns keep my speed in check. It’s truly terrifying.
“Oh no! I think I hit one!” It’s Nita, the sense of calm long gone from her voice. Luckily for us, knocking the dog off it’s feet also seems to end the chase. My pursuer breaks to the left and slows to a trot while Nita’s remaining stalker has stopped to check on it’s dazed companion. Without slowing we continue to motor along the winding road as fast as we comfortably can.
Eventually, the adrenalin is replaced by laughter. So much for keeping calm! We laugh about it for some time and soon the rhythm of the road settles into our bones and the beauty of the day takes hold. The road twists and turn as it lowers us briefly to the valley floor where a dirt road carries us into a small river-crossing before climbing sharply back along the other side. The road may be “Main” but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely complete. There’s a sense of fun creeping back into the day but to be honest, we’re both quietly waiting for the next shoe to drop.
At just about 100km, the days ride should be fairly quick – about an hour as the crow flies (or the as the GPS lies, we like to say!) – but we know that it will likely be two- to three-times that based on our experience. And that’s assuming that Nita’s heart doesn’t explode along the way. About forty minutes in we’re both incredibly happy that we hadn’t continued last night; while the road is in decent condition there are plenty of sections where 40 or 50 kph is the best we can do. There’s also very little along the route except for two larger towns that neither of us feel compelled to stop in. Running into trouble along this section of road would have, amazingly, been more problematic than yesterdays mountain pass.
While the roads are mostly quiet, there are stretches that suddenly become quite busy with trucks and taxis. The narrow roads make passing the trucks tricky, and they rarely slow down when coming head-on which makes for some nervy riding along the narrow ledge of a decent drop. The nice thing about them is that they all (mostly) behave in a way that’s predictable – unlike the taxis! Taxis really do seem to be the same everywhere. The old diesel Mercedes Benz 240D W123 becomes a beacon of terror and focus for anger on these roads as they ride within inches of the bikes while waiting to pass and, head-on, they often overtake in our lane with little regard for anyone else.
Beyond it’s moments of frustration, the road is wonderful to ride. Away from the dodgy towns it seems to climb constantly on our journey to Chefchaouen and, while the corners lack a certain fluid grace, they seem to complement the landscape perfectly. It’s a place that requires effort and strength – physical and mental. Three hours into a one hour ride, the cold settles into our bones and our bodies are beginning to tremble noticeably; we’re almost there and the incredible views of the distant valley floor easily make up for any discomfort. One last mountain pass through a bank of dense fog and the sun, which seems to have diminished considerably over the course of the day, sends a single, large beam to reveal Chefchaouen tucked into the mountainside. It’s like the sky on earth.
We take a low road into town which we’re happy to do; there are plenty of steep hills reaching in toward the old city making a long day longer. We arrive at Cassa Annasr and are met in the parking lot by it’s owner who’s visibly upset that we didn’t arrive the night before as expected. Taking his irritation as concern for our safety we quickly realize that this is not the case; in a roundabout way he divulges that he was up until 2am calling other hotels in town to see if we’d decided to skip out on him! It’s only when we fully explain our last 24 hours that he attempts to show some concern – but’s it’s not really an Oscar-winning try.
To smooth things over, we let him know that we’ll still pay for the night we missed – an offer that seems neither here nor there for our little friend whose mannerisms and stature reminds us a lot of the actor Omid Djalili. He also tries to give us a downgrade for the same price hoping that we wont notice. Which we don’t, right away. When Nita politely asks him about the discrepancy, he tries to brush her concerns aside which only works to bring out her inner bulldog – decidedly a bad move on his part. Suddenly, having seen the formidable force that is Nita reacting to being rudely dismissed, our hosts demeanour shifts to sheepish and he assures us that while he can’t refund tonights costs he’ll adjust the price on the following two nights to make up the difference. There’s no doubt in our minds he’ll need to be reminded for that to happen. The next time I see him alone he’s sure to tell me how nice my wife is and while he’s smiling, his eyes tell me he’s properly scared.
The room is actually pretty sweet (though typically half the price we’re being charged); the bed is tucked onto a ledge, it’s clean and there’s that familiar smell of sewage that reminds us we’re not at home anymore. All in all, Cassa Annasr is all we need – besides, we’re here for the town, not this place. And Chefchaouen doesn’t disappoint.
Once we’re settled into our room, the owners son offers to show us how to catch a taxi into town. He’s a fabulous kid – perhaps ten, maybe eleven – but he acts like a middle-aged man. There’s a quickness to him that keeps us on our toes and he helps around the hotel like it’s his own. He waves us down a petit-taxi which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fixed-cost into town – five dirham or about $0.60! It should be said that every cab-driver we have in Chefchaouen during our time here is great – sure, sometimes it’s a bit of a thrill-ride, but they definitely break our streak of crazy cabbies!
Our driver drops us in the Plaza Mohammed 5, a large roundabout that leads in towards the Medina and seems to be a central meeting place for everyone here. Rather than head straight for the old-town right away, we walk the square and get comfortable with the vibe here – something we like to do with most new places we visit. It’s amazing what a little walk around a place can tell you and here, on the modern side of Chefchaouen’s walls, the streets feel just fine. The sidewalks along the main street are lined with cafés and restaurants where people young, old and ancient gather to talk about life and love.
We grab a small lunch at a modern looking sandwich joint and, with barely a foot in the door, we’re met by huge smiles from it’s staff. “Welcome! Welcome!” The scarved woman quickly helps us to a seat, smiling and joking with us the entire time. People often talk about how warm the Moroccan people are and while we’ve had some ups and downs, we have to agree. There’s a willingness to smile, to talk, to shake hands, to look at you in the eyes when we’re talking. To connect. They ask questions and want to hear the answers. Yes it’s a generalization, but it also seems generally true.
As an aside, I always find it funny that getting money out of ATM’s in North Africa is easier for a travelling Canadian than in France and the UK. Pulling some dirhams out for the next few days reminds us of how far Canadian currency can go here – sure the hotels can be relatively pricey, but everything else is incredibly affordable – especially if you’re willing to wander out of the tourist zones, which is something we absolutely recommend.
The light is fading and we decide to take a walk down some side streets before heading back to Cassa Annasr. While Nita’s taking a photo, a restauranteur pitches his meals to us which, having just eaten, we decline. Seemingly offended, he begins to wave a finger at her and tells her that no photo’s of the restaurant or it’s street can be taken! With a smile, Nita calmly chuckles and asks the man if he’d prefer us not to share his wonderful-looking business with the rest of the world. Taking a moment to think it over, he dramatically presents his street to us with a long sweep of his arm as if revealing it for the very first time.
As we navigate the streets back to the petits-taxis, we see groups of riders desperately trying to find lodging for the night. While there are plenty of places to stay, many of them have little or no parking which can be a real concern. We see one particular group riding up and down particularly steep hills, pulling u-turns and disappearing only to reappear on a different street a few minutes later. We feel for them – after a long day on the road, sometimes the challenge of finding a place to stay is the last thing you want to do.
Back at Casa Annasr the power shuts off at ten and we spend the last hour before sleep listening to the owners son learn French from a tutor. It’s wonderful to lay in bed and hear the repetition of phrases and the coaching of young from old. There’s a lot of respect in the young boys voice and it warms our hearts to hear the dialogue unfold. Once the lobby falls quiet, it doesn’t take long for us to fall asleep, happy for a day without heart issues.
Our remaining two days in Chefchaouen are wonderfully similar – and a great way to catch our breath from the previous weeks trials. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we make our way into town intent on spending it within the walls of the Medina. It’s a different taxi driver every morning but their enthusiasm for delivering us to the edge of the ancient city walls is the same; they love this place. Rather than head in through the main arch, we make a left and head up a steep side street before turning right and entering through a smaller entry to the northwest.
Passing the archway is like walking into clouds. The walls that line the crooked and uneven street is a beautiful blue that feels airy and somehow light – but only as high as the painters brush will reach. From there, the paint fades into white giving the unintended illusion of clouds sitting idly. It doesn’t take many steps to feel the magic in this place.
We move through narrow streets completely uninterrupted by the street-side vendors; this medina is a far cry from those we encountered in Tunisia. Here, the people selling their goods prefer to leave us to our own devices – to find our own way to their goods. And it works. We spend ages moving slowly through their offerings. There’s so much to see; from rugs to pottery, engraved purses to ancient doors. My favourite will always be the spices which are stacked so beautifully, colourful layer upon colourful layer. And lets not forget the smell. Wonderful spices fill the air for what seems like miles before yielding to cured leather and the sweetness of honey. No wonder this place fills peoples dreams when they leave.
There are no hard sales here – well, except for the occasional drug dealer inviting us to try his wares with a whisper and a smile. After our fourth or fifth offer, we can’t help but wonder aloud if some of the dealers aren’t, in fact, undercover officers working tourists into a trap. Eventually, we begin to enjoy restating their offers loudly; “Do I want hash?! Why no! No thank you! Does anyone here need hash?!” For some reason, people stop asking.
The central square outside the Kasbah, while very touristy, is lovely and filled with vibrant energy. People from all walks of life line the cafés while callers stalk the sidewalks trying to wave people into their restaurants with varying techniques and success. We pick a place slightly off of the beaten path and everything about it is mediocre – though we do get to see a young man work his charm over and over again. He’s incredibly likeable and decide to visit his restaurant on our last day. Sipping fresh juice we watch a large group of performers gather on the street, then slowly fill the air with melodies and rhythms that make even the most serious onlookers wiggle at least a little. They shout songs with wide smiles and knowing glances for close to half an hour before relaxing into quiet conversations and eventually dispersing. We feel like we could stay in Chefchaouen for far longer than planned and never grow tired of its energy.
As we make our way back to the hotel we meet a shop-owner who sells truly beautiful rugs. We talk for an hour about life in Chefchaouen – about the “Hippie trail” and what it was like to live here in the sixties. How the people who’ve been here since that time try to continue a long tradition of welcoming strangers into the city and let them do their thing without pressure. He’s a mellow man with a kind face and a world of wisdom wound into every story he tells. We leave his tiny store with two rugs and full hearts.
At some point over the course of our time in Chefchaouen we realize that our journey in Morocco simply can’t be what we had planned. There was a grand vision here – a route that was to take us from the Rif, south toward Fès and the Atlas Mountains. Then further south toward Merzouga and the giant dunes of Erg Chebbi. From there we had planned a run toward Agadir via Tinghir and Ouarzazate to visit the parents of our dear friend Mudy whom we met in Tunisia. From there we were to head north through Marrakesh, Casablanca and finally Tangier – but now we feel it may not come to pass and, somehow, we’re both feeling quite alright with it.
The next morning we prepare our bikes and, as suspected, we have to remind our host that he’s to adjust the price – which he does without bother. “Issa, are you Muslim?” It’s a question I get asked frequently because of my name. I explain my beliefs briefly and he fires me a coy smile. “I want a good review, Issa.” I smile and tell him I’ll be honest.
We decide to make our way 200 km south to Fès, a bustling city with another beautiful medina and an active arts community. We’re excited to get there and to take some time to ponder our next steps in this beautiful country while also giving Nita’s heart a chance to mend.
Our day begins with a wish for uneventful travels along Moroccan roads and, this time, we get it.