Chefchaouen, Morocco

“Excusez-moi, mais j’ai oublié un mot très important.  Comment dit-on ‘thank you’ en français?”

Let’s backtrack a bit.

Two hours by bus to Tarifa, an hour by ferry to Tanger (English: Tangier) – hello Maroc!  Boy, these names are confusing.  Maroc in French, Marruecos in Spanish, Al-Maghrib in Arabic, and of course, Morocco in English…

This is also my 7th continent – that’s as far as I’ll go!  Still, it’s sorta cheating though, just going to Morocco.  There’s plenty more of Africa to see, but that’ll have to wait for another year.

Getting off the ferry, I needed to make my way to Chefchaouen (or Chaouen for short).  One tout at the ferry terminal asked for €60.  Psh.  I told him I wanted to take a bus, and he asked for €4 to go to the bus station.  Blah.

Knowing that those prices were inflated, but not quite knowing what to do, I just started…walking.  The bus station was 4 km away.  Luckily, as I tried to dig out my guidebook from my bag, a Spanish man came up to me and asked me what I was up to.  Yay Spanish speaking!  He told me to grab a petit taxi, one of the blue ones off the street, and that it would cost me no more than 7 dirhams ($1, €0.65 – take that, ferry terminal tout!).  He told me that the buses to Chaouen would cost no more than 50d.

I got to the bus station, and found a bus leaving immediately for 30d instead.  However, the man putting my backpack in the luggage hold asked for a 10d tip.  I knew it was inflated, and I tried to argue for 5d, but he wouldn’t budge nor give me my luggage back.  Strapped, I paid anyway.

The bus journey was long, and it was a pretty hot day.  After two hours, we stopped in a pretty but small city, but I was confused as to how much further I had to go.  I turned to the woman sitting next to me, in a bright green dress and matching hijab, and then…

6 years of not speaking French.  I had to dig it up.

She told me that we were in Tetouan.  Hmm, how to say “how many” again?  Cuanto…no, that’s Spanish…comment, où, quand,…ah!  “Combien…heures…à Chaouen?” 

Blahblahblahblahblah maybe one and a half, came the reply in French.  This was gonna be hard.  I had bits and pieces of French floating in my head.

She started the small talk, asking about my travels, whether it was my first time in Morocco.  “Oui, c’est mi – errr… mon premier fois en Maroc.”  Hmm, how did you say “day” again?  Oh, “today” is “aujourd’hui”, so “day” must be “jour”!  “C’est mon premier jour ici aussi.”

“Ah!  Bienvenue, et bon voyage!”

How do you say “thank you” again in French?  I was able to pull off these other sentences, but not the word “thank you”?!

“Excusez-moi, mais j’ai oublié un mot très important.  Comment dit-on ‘thank you’ en français?” 

She laughed, a little taken aback by the question, as if she wasn’t sure that I was really asking what I was asking.  Her reply initially did not include the word “merci”, but eventually it did…and then I remembered.  Heh.

With the glass wall now broken, we chatted a little more.  Turns out she actually doesn’t speak too much French, although I could hardly tell.  Her name is Rabia, 35 years old – she left school as soon as she got married (and I assume young), so she speaks Arabic well but not so much French – with two kids.  Her family lives in Tanger, but her husband is sick and staying with family in Ouezzane – which is why she was on the bus.  She was quite intrigued as to how I was travelling alone, and that she would never do that herself, preferring to travel with friends.  I countered with the fact that travelling alone gets you talking to people, kinda like we just were – and she agreed.  Had to break into a few English sentences as my French is still too weak (she knows a bit of English just through listening to the news), but just talking to her helped me remember a lot.  She asked me whether I knew any Arabic – loaned words in Hindi/Urdu are all I know – asman (sky), lekin (but), bilkul (absolutely), ishq (love)… Heh.  Having to explain in French why I knew that was a little bit difficult.

She gave me a few suggestions on my route, and also a bit of advice on how to travel.  I tried to ask her about tipping for the bus luggage hold – she told me indeed that it was 5d, and that I should ask for a ticket next time if I sense that I’m being ripped off.  She told me that she was speaking to me not as if I were a stranger, but as if I were her son – awww!  After a bit more advice, including declining offers to stay in people’s houses, we arrived at Chaouen, and I said my “merci beaucoup” to her and parted ways.

Then came the tough part – or so I thought.  Finding a hostel.  I had no booking since I wasn’t sure that I could make it to Chaouen in a day, but I had a hostel name in mind and the (really vague and generally bad) directions that I gleamed off the internet, but no idea how to get there from the bus station.  However, one man at the bus station approached me and asked me if I was looking for a hostel.  I told him I had two names in mind…and he asked me in English,“Souika and Mauritania, right?”  Go figure.  I followed him.

First, we had to pick a language.  I asked, “English, español, ou français?”  Spanish it was.  “No me pregunta por una propina, sí?”  Nope, he wasn’t going to ask me for tips.  Phew.  Nice guy, his name was Moustafa, and during the 15 minute walk straight uphill, he gave me a little intro to the town in Spanish.  He was just a friend of the owners of both hostels, and he had no real affiliation with either.  And when we arrived?  Nope, no tip.  Honest man!  A decent hostel too, only €5 a night!

After I dropped off my things, I walked around town.  Unlike everywhere else I’ve been so far, there are no specific sites of interest in this town.  But there’s one thing.

It’s super pretty here!  Nearly all buildings are white with blue accents – if not entirely blue.  It’s kind of like Jodhpur, India, where I went last year.  Walking around though, I was accosted with plenty of “konichiwas” and “Japon?”…of course.  But these people are different…they weren’t trying to solicit my attention so that I would spend, they were just happy and generally curious, with a tone as if they just wanted to properly welcome a guest in their town that they just thought was Japanese.  But hey, it’s still annoying.

I immensely enjoyed getting lost in the medina’s twisty paths, cooled down and totally surrealised by the blue colour – the city isn’t big, so most paths lead to the main square, and if you’re lost, there are plenty of locals who will help you.  The problem is language…Spanish seems to be the language of choice here if you don’t speak Arabic, due to the Andalusian colonial past here, but I often received French replies when leading off in Spanish, and Spanish replies when leading off in French!  Oi.


While wandering, I was stopped by a foreigner who recognised me from the boat from Tarifa to Tanger.  (I think it’s because of how ridiculously I stood out wearing two backpacks… :P)  He introduced himself as Joseph, an English-New Zealander born in Egypt, living in France, but now living in Chefchaouen for the last 9 months, having quit his job to become a democracy activist due to the Arab Spring.  Whew!

We talked for a bit, and I followed him to where he was staying – a local woman’s house.  On his way out, someone said something to him in Arabic, and it left him clearly disturbed.  He later told me that that the man was looking down on him, thinking that he was sleeping with the local woman.  Fundamentalist.  A very small minority reside in Morocco, but as with any religion, always an unfortunate presence of intolerance.

He invited me for tea, and we headed off to the river…where there were tables and chairs set IN the river.  Bricks to put your feet on if you don’t wanna get wet.  Okay.  On our way there, he said hi to many locals – it seems that people are easy to get to know here, and everyone was extremely friendly.  It also helps if you’re like him, learning Arabic and exploring whether to practice Islam, but the locals were equally nice to me when he introduced me as “un chico que fue en el mismo barco de España”.

Over a lovely sweet mint tea with something called yerba luisa in it (English: lemon verbena), we had a long political discussion.  His friend Leila (a Moroccan woman from Tanger) was in the area and ran into us, and she joined us.  They both shared a joint of hashish – a practice that isn’t legal, but widely tolerated in the area (Chaouen is on the border of many marijuana plantations.)  (Joseph’s a heavy smoker, but it’s haram – he hasn’t decided whether he’ll quit yet.)  Unfortunately, with our setting in a river by some trees with two glasses of sweet-smelling tea, we were fast swarmed by flying insects.  Eek!  Leaving a few sweet tea-soaked mint leaves on the table seemed to do the trick, although quite a few still tried to crawl in our glasses.  A few even drowned in Joseph’s tea.  He didn’t seem to mind, picking them out.

I had some small talk with Leila in French, using Joseph as my translator when I couldn’t continue.  Getting better!  She also invited us to go to the waterfall of Akchour the next day, I politely declined – I only had a day to spend in Chefchaouen.  Leila split off when we headed for dinner…to Joseph’s relief.  (Haha, apparently she asks him for money from time to time.)  Joseph picked a cheap local place to have harira, a Moroccan soup that only costed us 5d each.  On our way there, he ran into another friend, and another, and another…or maybe they’re acquaintances.  At least one more asked if I had been to Akchour yet.  Heh.

Over dinner, he asked me about my own opinions.  I’m quite conflicted myself!  Democracy…it works and it doesn’t work.  It depends on the culture, but for me, it’s still the way to go.  I cite my example of the Chinese travelers I met in India, who seemed absolutely unconcerned with human rights abuses and censorship in China (which they were aware of, and yet they were also under the influence of propaganda and didn’t believe the Tiananmen square massacre happened despite reading about it) as long as their government brought them a prospering economy.  Joseph wants to implement something that would allow people to create legislation or constitutional amendments by vote rather than by a small group of career-minded politicians.  Sure, that seems ideal, but what about the fact that many voters are clearly uninformed, or misinformed, or ignorant but think they are informed?  What about extremists who will never compromise?  And what about voting anonymity?  Why is it that we vote in the west without our vote associated to our names on the voter’s list, yet we sign petitions with our own signatures?  Lots to think about… and indeed for him too – he moved down here with this enthusiasm, but admittedly hasn’t done anything concrete yet.

After dinner, we both needed to rest – but not before he ran into his friend Mohsin, a local guy around my age working at his parent’s restaurant in the touristy main square of town.  Very friendly guy, spoke Spanish but not French.  We talked in Spanish about our own backgrounds, and he had a lot of enthusiasm for Canada (a friend of his studies somewhere he can’t remember) and Cádiz (another friend working there as a musician).  Also, he asked me whether I had been to Akchour yet.  Haha, now I wish I had the time to go!

What a strange day that was.  I’ve never talked to so many locals before – and all have defied my initial instinct to be apprenhensive and untrusting of strangers, who usually ask for money.

This morning, I met a few people in my hostel – Wong (Hong Kong), a woman travelling alone for two months, Jody (Sydney), travelling alone indefinitely and gone for a year so far, and Inara (Germany), a grandmother also travelling alone indefinitely, having been gone for four years already.  As she says it, she’s travelling until she dies!  And she doesn’t even carry a camera around – why take pictures when you’re never gonna upload them anyway?  She initially planned to stay in Chaouen for two days, but has been here for three weeks, relaxing everyday, meeting locals, and trying to learn a little Arabic.  After all, she doesn’t have a schedule, she’s got all the time in her life left and is in no hurry.  What a different crowd from Spain’s hostels…

We headed for breakfast near the plaza.  A yummy fresh crepe (tastes more like roti prata) with Spanish chocolate-hazelnut spread?  3d.  Fresh squeezed orange juice?  5d.  Bam, breakfast.

My goal for the day was to find any building that matched my turquoise-electric blue shirt.  I set off on my own, but eventually ran into Wong.  And indeed, we found a matching building!  We then headed off to the mosques on the hills for some great views of the town.  On our way, we went into a few shops, and none of the shopkeepers here were annoying or pressuring, which was great – I hear it’s unfortunately not the case in Fes or Marrakech.  They can all function in Arabic, Spanish, French, and English though – wow.

The way to the mosques was long, and it was a very hot day.  Having lost the trail a few times, locals were only glad to point us in the right direction in whichever of Spanish or French they felt like, even when we stumbled into their backyards by accident.

On the viewpoint of the first mosque, we met Jean, another Hong Kong woman travelling solo.  (We all commented on how strange it was that three Cantonese speaking people could run into each other – we’re a rare breed when it comes to travelling without a package tour!)  Switching to Cantonese (for them, from English, and for me, from…everything) was initially weird for us but a welcome relief from something more foreign.  Both Jean and Wong have such great stories!  They usually stay with locals (Wong usually couchsurfs), and that makes me want to change up my travelling style next time.  Both are staying in hostels in Morocco, however – couchsurfing hosts aren’t really to be trusted here.

Wong and I continued up to the second mosque while Jean stayed behind.  After we were done our walk, however, we were extremely thirsty.  Wong left to rest at the hostel, while I downed a glass of orange juice and a glass of avocado-orange juice – yes, it’s delicious and it’s an amazing combination!

I met up with Inara and Reiko, a Japanese girl also travelling alone indefinitely (she just started, and she’s enjoying all the konichiwas; it seems that our hostel is full of Japanese independent travellers too), and we had a late 4:30 pm lunch/dinner.  Tagine and mint tea!  Mmmmm.  I wanna learn to cook with cinnamon some day.  Locals at the cafe were extremely nice to us and very eager to converse.

What a lovely town.  I can see why Inara’s been staying here for so long!  Unfortunately, I’ve only got 11 days in Morocco, and a flight already booked from Marrakech – I’ve gotta keep going tomorrow!

One thought on “Merci

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