You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2009.
Yesterday morning after I’d made the pastry for the pumpkin pies and put it to rest in the fridge, seen the kids off to school, and had coffee, Donn and I headed up to the Takkadoum market to buy a chicken. Earlier in the week I’d gone there hunting turkey and I’d found one all right—over 13 kilos, pure white, gobbling at me from its cage under the counter. I eyed it askance, while Khadija laughed heartily at the thought of Donn and I and 3 kids needing a bird that big. I don’t think it would even fit in my oven!
So Thanksgiving morning found Donn and I at our old friend the chicken seller’s, eyeing the white chickens hopping about and pecking each other. I tend to be somewhat tender-hearted and was tempted to choose the scrawny one being attacked by bigger birds before common sense intervened—first of all I was choosing a bird to EAT, hardly an honour for the chicken set, and secondly, well, I was choosing a bird to eat.
We’ve come a long way quickly from that first experience of choosing our pretty pretty chicken. Turns out we, in our ignorance, bought a stewing chicken. We made a lot of jokes about how we’d ended up with the marathon-runner of free-range chickens—that thing was skin and bones under all those feathers, tough and sinewy. Now we know. Take the white ones in the little yard, the one the slaughterers are tripping over.
We picked out the chicken, watched it die, let them pluck it in their machine, brought it home. Donn left to deliver some photos to a client and I finished baking the pies and then dumped the bird out into the sink. Surprise! It still had the organs. I’m a strong believer in my right to be a Victorian female if I feel like it so I left it for Donn to deal with. (aside: yes, I know REAL Victorian females would have had no problem with chicken innards, but I am using the term to mean helpless and feminine and I can squeal at mice and climb on chairs if I feel like it. I am Woman!) Once he’d come home and done that, and we had forced Ilsa to take these organs in a bowl outside our gate for the feral cats to enjoy (Us: Think of the great stories you’ll have to tell your kids! Ilsa: yeah… I dunno), I was ready to cook it.
I must admit that I have come around completely to Khadija’s way of thinking. By the time I was done with it, the chicken was tender and juicy and falling off the bones and tasted way better than the frozen, shipped-from-Brazil chickens available at the supermarkets. I rubbed it with rock salt, let it sit an hour or two, rinsed it, and stuck garlic slivers, s & p, thyme and rosemary all over the outside and inside. In my fear of it being dry, I poured a tiny bit of olive oil over it, stuck it in the oven, and basted faithfully. It was perfect. The meat tasted subtly of herbs and garlic. The house smelled heavenly. Of course we had dressing and mashed potatoes and corn soufflé and fresh peas and green beans to go with it. (I shelled the peas myself and they were perfect) We even had a tin of cranberry sauce, thanks to an American friend here who took pity on us.
What’s to say about Thanksgiving besides being thankful and eating a lot? We did those things. We followed up with a cheese course (we learned good things when we lived in France) and then pumpkin pie for dessert. We spread this meal out over about 4 hours, so we were comfortable. The kids skipped afternoon school—and you’d better believe that made it on their list of things they’re thankful for. When I wrote their excuses this morning, I wrote “Thanksgiving” in the “reason for absence” line. I wonder what the French will make of that?
Of course today isn’t a holiday. It very nearly was. Tomorrow is the biggest Eid of the year—Eid Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid elKbir, the big feast. In Mauritania they used to call it Eid elHamm, Feast of Meat. (Like Americans calling Thanksgiving “Turkey Day.”) Our neighbours bought their sheep last Sunday; we heard it arrive, lowing and bleating and protesting. It’s settled down now, resigned to its fate. (In fact, I haven’t heard it since yesterday—perhaps it is already in pieces in their kitchen)
The Muslim calendar is based on the moon, so holidays move throughout the western calendar—approximately 10 days a year. Our first year in Mauritania, the end of Ramadan coincided with Christmas-time; this year it was mid-September. So, for the first time in about 30 years, this Eid has nearly coincided with American Thanksgiving. I ask, why couldn’t it have been just one day earlier so we could have had an American Thanksgiving weekend? At least Elliot has Saturday morning off school.
Ismail’s mother has already sent us a plate of goodies. I will never lose weight living above this woman!
Eid Sayeed! Because I know you secretly want to see this, I’m attaching a video a friend took during last year’s Eid. This is a river flowing red with sheep’s blood, washing into the Atlantic. The sheep are slaughtered in the street and the blood rinses down into the little tributary. Mmmm. Guess Donn better not go surfing this weekend!
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US. It’s a uniquely American tradition, so ex-pats struggle to find ways to celebrate; buying live turkeys in the medina, hoarding precious cans of pumpkin or cranberry (the fresh stuff being out of possibility), keeping kids out of school for the afternoon so the family can feast. Often Americans celebrate together. We’ve done that in the past but this year, it’s just us.
I’ve pulled this old post out of the archives because it’s a good reminder for this time of year, although it was originally written around Christmas. It was published in December, 2006. I think of Amina fairly often. We’ve lost touch, but I hope to find her again someday. The world is small.
“Do you like jazz?” Amina asks me one day during women’s hours at the gym. I know Amina because she’s in my Advanced Conversation class at Oasis Books and Language Center. She is kind and easy to talk to; once when our car was in the shop she gave me a ride home after class. Her car was one of the nicest I’d ever been in.
I do like jazz, I tell her. “There’s a jazz concert tonight at the CCF,” she tells me. “Would you like to go? I can pick you up at a little before 9.”
The Centre Culturel Français—the French Cultural Center—is located on the grounds of the French Embassy. Here your children can take ballet or karate classes, watch French movies, borrow French books. There are concerts and theater shows, and a small art gallery.
We go to the concert and we both enjoy it. The jazz quartet is lively and obviously enjoy themselves. It’s the drummer’s first concert in Africa, the saxophonist tells the audience. Amina has brought a camera, and afterwards has her picture taken with 2 of the band members, for a good memory. “Quelle gloire!” jokes one. (What glory!)
Afterwards, we sit in the small garden café and sip cokes and talk. I find out that she was married at 18 to her cousin, a man she did not know beforehand. “It is forbidden in our religion—a girl is supposed to be able to say no,” she says. “But in our culture they say, ‘What does she know?’ We do not marry for love.” She blinks, hard. “We have many problems, my husband and me,” she tells me. She is hungry to hear of how Donn and I met, how we fell in love.
She and her husband have a small daughter. They live in a desert town in the southern part of Morocco. “I have no friends there,” she tells me. “My…how do you say it? Husband’s sister?…is jealous of me. If I go to the dentist she tells everyone I am pregnant. Why would she do that?” Surrounded by petty gossip and jealousies, unable to really talk to a husband who is often traveling, she sits in the cool garden and mourns her fate. “I was only a teenager, so young, I knew nothing before we were married.” She has enjoyed her 3 months with her family in Nouakchott but her days are numbered—she must return just after Christmas. “Please, could you come visit me there?” she begs. The words spill out of her. I imagine that it is not easy to talk of her problems to her family; she is desperate for a confidante. Throughout the conversation, she blinks back tears.
It is nearly midnight; we leave our bottles on the table and walk back out to her beautiful new car. We drive home; she drops me off.
I return to my family; to my husband of 16 years whom I did marry for love and who still loves me, even more now than he did back in 1990 when we promised each other to be together forever. I return to my 3 sleeping children; Elliot with his wild curls and mischievous brown eyes, his love of medieval times and his sense of humour; Ilsa with long golden hair, artistic and creative, always with her nose in a book and a funny turn of phrase; Abel with his strawberry-blonde surfer’s shaggy hair, his tender deep blue eyes, his sweetness that always seeks to build others up, his bizarre sense of humour that keeps him acting out Looney Tunes and Calvin and Hobbes.
I feel so rich that I am almost embarrassed with it. Tears sting my eyes.
It’s easy at this time of year to feel discontent. I’ve been struggling with that myself; looking at pictures online of Christmas decorations in beautiful modern houses, snow outside. This year instead of our normal tiny sort-of-pine charlie-brown-style tree, I want a big one—not even fresh, just a big artificial one so we can hang all our ornaments. But that night I see clearly; trees and tinsel, snow and trimmings are so infinitesimal as to not even be worthy to be called the frosting on the cake.
I am so rich that all the world should envy me.
Back to Chefchaouen for one last look.
Once in 20 years, I take a photo that Donn didn’t see. These are always wildly exciting times! Last time (i.e. 20 years ago) he sulked and nearly quit photography as a career option because he couldn’t believe that I could just pop along and take this amazing photo that he hadn’t even seen. This wasn’t quite as dramatic–few things are anymore now that we’re all grown up–but he is still just so bummed that I saw all these angles and curves and he didn’t. So I’m smug, and happy, and feeling good about my “artistic eye” and not letting it go to my head, since this is apparently a twice in a lifetime thing.
The rest aren’t that exciting, but I like them.
The name Chefchaouen means something like “look at the two horns” because you are supposed to see the two horns that curve round the town. This is one of them, at sunset.
Looking across the valley
Staircase to rooftop terrace at Dar Mounir
Et voila! I’m actually, believe it or not, DONE talking about our two day trip! Except…did I remember to tell you that we used only one tank of gas for the entire trip?
In which I pretend to be a food blog, but am shown up by the inadequacy of my photos. My friend Jill needs a good recipe for lamb tagine. So you all get to enjoy it since this is the easiest way to send it to her.
First, buy your lamb. For 6 people, I used half a kilo:
Next, arrange 3 onions and some garlic on the countertop:
Group all the spices you’ll need:
Note: you do not have to store your pepper and ginger in old jam jars. That is up to you. It is not necessary to the making of a good lamb tagine.
Now, chop one onion, the garlic, and a bunch of cilantro (not pictured above. Deal with it). Top with bit of preserved lemon.
Take a pan and add a staggering amount of oil. We use half olive and half sunflower. (Did I make it clear that my role here is photography and buying the ingredients? Khadija is doing the cooking) Add the lamb…
And the onions mix on the cutting board and this much ginger:
This much ground pepper:
And this much of an obscure spice blend called Pilau Seasoning, which someone gave me and Khadija unearthed from the back of the cupboard. She says it adds a nice flavour. I would suspect any sort of spice blend would work.
Add some saffron:
Don’t forget your bouillon cube, without which no African can cook!
Don’t forget some salt:
Now, turn on the burner fairly high, and brown the meat on all sides.
Meanwhile, chop up the other two onions:
And add them to the mix,
along with some water.
Meanwhile, take some prunes and put them in some water
Along with this much cinnamon
And two of the enormous sugar cubes that they sell at the hanut and that your 12 year old will come home with when you send him to get GRANULATED sugar, for pete’s sake, (I would suspect it’s about 1/4 cup of sugar)
And simmer away on the stovetop, like this
Now, get out some of your blue and white dishes to photograph for Jill, whose husband is coming to visit us and who has been instructed to return with blue and white dishes for her. Jill is very nice and she has a small daughter who is cute as a button, funny and articulate, named Elizabeth. Coincidence? I don’t think so!
These bowls are very small, good for serving olives or nuts in, or for putting sour cream in on Taco Tuesdays:
This pic was actually taken at the Potteries:
Add a picture of a vase, just to show Jill some more of what’s available here (good luck with that luggage requirement!):
When you have finished, make some salads:
Dress the carrots with mayonnaise and the greens (and reds) (and purples) with a simple vinaigrette–pour some oil and vinegar on it, add a little salt and pepper, and mix.
Boil a couple of eggs:
How’s that tagine coming? Check it. Your prunes should be all cooked down now and carmelized:
The lamb should be falling-apart tender and ready to be put into your tagine server, which is also blue, may I point out. Then put just the prunes on top:
Chop the eggs into quarters and decorate with them:
Serve it up. Your table should look like this (faded tie-dyed Mauritanian cloth with embedded glitter from twins 5th birthday optional):
The next morning, we allowed ourselves to be caught and cleaned like good little fish by a waiter trolling for customers from the row of restaurants that line the square. This metaphor was emphasized by the fact that we should have gone to one of the larger restaurants on either side, which were full of Moroccans. There was just one other expat couple in ours, and the omelette Donn ordered was distinctly fishy.
The coffee was adequate however, and we filled up on toast and jam and freshly-squeezed orange juice, which is a basic not a luxury here. We were in a hurry, because we had a long drive ahead of us, and friends who would be waiting for us to pick up our children.
Chefchaouen is east and north of Rabat. Instead of heading back the way we’d come, we opted to follow another one of those tiny yellow squiggles on the map northwards as far as the Mediterranean coast, at which point we could turn left (west) and head over to Tangiers, then catch the autoroute down the Atlantic coast towards home.
We ended up on the worst road yet, but it was worth it. The edges were mice-nibbled and the tarmac was cracked and pitted, and best of all, it was only one lane wide and we were up in the mountains at this point. I will say that the oncoming trucks with their overbearing drivers weren’t what scared me—it was my photographer husband’s habit of driving directly without pause onto these very narrow turnouts, perched precariously high and with no guard rail, grinding the wheels down into the gravel and then leaving the car running while he got out to inspect the view. In retrospect, his photos make it all worthwhile, especially given that we didn’t plunge to our deaths.
I really just want to show you pictures, but first I am going to comment on a frustrating reality—no one would allow us to photograph them. Donn’s ethics forbid him from using a long lens and taking blurry photographs unaware, so we always ask nicely, and no one would agree. This was incredibly frustrating because the people were so beautiful; women with faces like old wrinkly apples and little pink cheeks, men in hooded dejellabas like characters in a medieval drama. We are used to people not wanting to be photographed. It was the same in Mauritania. But there, usually if you talked to someone for a while, they’d agree. In Chefchaouen, we never got anyone to agree. One young man even shouted at us for photographing him, although we hadn’t—we were photographing a building, using telephoto lenses, and he wasn’t in our pictures at all.
I’ve been looking at calendars and postcards with people in them, and they are all blurry. It’s evident that not everyone shares Donn’s ethics. I must admit that I don’t even share them myself! Here is Donn, waiting till this woman passed so he could ask her if he could photograph her. She said no, of course, and that even after we chatted with her for about 10 minutes.
And these two boys came running up to watch Donn photograph the valley near their homes. They hung out and chatted rapidly, but I knew they’d never let me take their picture.
I really cannot recommend this drive highly enough. First you wind through the mountains…
…then you come down through the hills and out into a truly horrific market, which is sort of like driving down a crowded aisle at Safeway, only with live sheep and oncoming traffic, then you make it through that, thankfully, and come out here:
which pretty much makes everything in your life meaningless unless you can move here and go for long walks on the beach every morning, or something like that.
We stopped for coffee at a fascinatingly-named cafe:
Cafe Carrion. Roadkill Restaurant. We stuck to the coffee, which was excellent. Muy bueno, as they say in this part of the world. (Spanish was more common than French)
We meant to stop right on the Med for pizza, but we somehow just kept going…
stopping at hairpin bends to photograph and getting passed by trucks full of men, or sometimes trucks full of sheep, who drove agonizingly slowly up the hills and then whizzed rapidly down, practically going up on two wheels on the bends,
and we didn’t actually stop for lunch till 5 p.m., by which point we’d left the coast and were cutting back across the mountains to the autoroute.
Donn had grilled meat again and I had a really good lamb tagine with raisins and onions and potatoes, followed with Moroccan tea. We made it home safely, long after dark, picked up our filthy and exhausted children (Me: Abel, when did you last shower? Abel: I have NO idea! Me: I have an idea) and I decided to write approximately 8,000 blog posts about it all!
Don’t think we’re done yet. Coming tomorrow: sunset pics from Dar Mounir!
I hope you enjoyed that alliteration! Here is the picture that I couldn’t get to post.
Going mad with the angles here once again!
On our one full day in Chefchaouen, (YES we’re still on this. One, two and three here if a. you’re just joining us and b. you care) we followed Begoña’s instructions and headed to the far side of town, where a path leads straight up the mountain’s side. We were tempted to head up, but didn’t have the right shoes. Chefchaouen is located in Morocco’s Rif mountains, right next to two national parks, and just walking around the medina is a pretty good workout, between the steep hills and the well-worn, slippery cobblestones.
We came out of the medina at the river, where washhouses are set up and every day local women come to wash their clothes, spreading them out to dry on the bushes and rooftops. The river is channeled into the washhouses and joined by a tributary waterfall or two on its way down the mountain.
We wandered our way downstream,
eventually crossing back into the medina and coming up near where our car was parked. It was Friday afternoon, and we rested our feet a while in the square, watching the mosque empty out.
We decided to lunch at the famous Casa Aladdin, which offers a commanding view of the town square from its 3rd-floor terrace.
Unfortunately it was too cold to sit outside, so we opted for an enclosed space on the 2nd floor, and I fail to see how it was any less charming.
Looking straight up at the ceiling and lamp hanging from it.
Aladdin definitely lives up to its name, although I did feel a little sorry for the waiters dressed like Arabs as Hollywood might have imagined them in the 50s.
Like the fireplace, complete with fire?
This is the seating area on the second floor
I know you care what I had for lunch. Aladdin only offers a 3 course menu. Donn started with the
zaalouk (eggplant and garlic salad; if you like, sometime I could post a recipe and pics) and I had harira soup…lovely on a cool fall day. Next Donn had a pastilla, which is a traditional Moroccan dish of chicken and almonds in a flaky pastry with cinnamon and powdered sugar on top and is absolutely incredible. (note: ok to be TRULY traditional we’d have to use pigeon…) I had chicken skewers with saffron rice and cauliflower on the side. He finished with fruit salad; me with mint tea and a patisserie. We were incredibly full and relaxed. Our total was around $20.
We wandered back out into the fresh crisp air. The weather wasn’t bad at all; cloudy and cool, but no rain and intermittent bursts of sunlight. We had pretty much exhausted the medina, so we wandered into the non-touristy area, viewing cheap clothes made in China and eyeing bright pigments, sold in powder form and available in bulk, used to create Chefchaouen’s unique blues, turquoises, and even pinks and violets. We bought a blanket.
Not one of these blankets…
Yes, okay, you’re right–these pics were taken in the touristy part.
That night we split a small but excellent pizza at one of the restaurants which line the square.
(pic coming tomorrow. I give up. It’s Friday night and I don’t want to be on my computer anymore!!)
Each restaurant spills out into the square, with table and chairs set up and ropes delineating where one café ends and the next begins. Waiters would stand at the edge, where their tables began, trolling for customers as if they were fishing. Even just walking by and not even glancing their way wasn’t enough to avoid them, and woe betide anyone who actually stopped to examine the large colourful menus posted in the square!
They were fairly easy to shake off, though, unlike the men in the shops or trying to encourage us into their shops. We would explain, “We’re not tourists; we live in Rabat; we’re not shopping now.” They would be shocked! Of course they didn’t care if we bought anything! We had to just look, just look, come in, sit down, all the rugs in the store will be shaken out before us.
We had found Casa Perleta at last! I finally learned how to spell and pronounce it. We were welcomed in by a Spanish woman who said she did have a room available for Thursday but not for Friday. She showed it to us and we agreed pretty quickly.
Casa Perleta is a riad, an old Moroccan house that’s been converted into a small hotel. These are very popular as you can imagine. They are usually decorated with all the wonderful architectural details, lanterns, paintings, pottery, and cloth that Morocco has to offer—which is plentiful. Prices range all over, but the ones we’ve stayed at have been very reasonable, around $50-65/night, often with breakfast included.
If I were a real photographer, I would put a black border round this so it didn’t bleed off into the white space, but I am not. Sorry. At least I know enough to apologize.
C.P. is well done and charming, and even has free wi-fi, but for me its real pull was Begona, the woman running it, who went out of her way to be helpful and informative. After showing us the room, she took us up to the terrace with its view over the town, then she carefully explained to us how to move our car to a closer parking space. Chefchaouen’s old medina has 9 doors, each with a different name, and they are only about 100 metres from the Bab el Souk, located at the end of a steep alley. First we found our way back to the parking lot where we’d left our car, where we saw a friend from Rabat and his family! Small world; small country. Ignoring the map which Begona’s Moroccan friend had drawn us (it utterly confused me; it was backwards from how she’d described it. I believe this is a consequence of thinking in Arabic vs English), we easily found our way through more crowded narrow alleyways to the Bab el Souk, outside of which is a very small parking area guarded by a man who feels you are there to put his children through college, or something. We found him aggressive and unpleasant, especially compared to the parking attendants at the place we’d just left. We eventually bargained him down to the price Begona had told us was normal, and dragged our case back along the bumpy well-worn cobblestones of the medina.
Once we’d settled into our room, we joined Begona and some other guests on the rooftop terrace. She carefully unfolded a map and explained to us how to navigate the medina, recommended a variety of restaurants depending on our mood/budget, and told us which sites were not to be missed, while we all drank sweet Moroccan mint tea in gold-rimmed glasses and munched tiny patisseries brought from a bakery just down the street. Then we set off to explore the medina by night.
Since we were still quite full from Abdul’s excellent tagine earlier in the afternoon, we got a small supper at a place we walked past, with wild décor and a menu in English that said ‘think you coming!’ at the bottom. I had a greek salad and a cheese and potato omelette for about $3.50. I am mentioning prices because I occasionally read other Moroccan blogs, and the prices they quote seem to always be in the $30-40 range for meals and $200 for hotels. I want people to know there are plenty of other good options out there, and you can eat very well for very little here.
In the morning we enjoyed our complimentary breakfast. Begona explained that each little neighbourhood in the medina has its own mosque, hammam (public baths), and communal oven. There’s a small bakery just a few doors down that she frequents for the churros and patisseries and other goodies she serves.
Although we knew in our heads that Friday was a holiday (Green March Day), somehow we hadn’t been thinking when we made our plans (or lack thereof), so we were happy that we were able to find a nice room in another riad that night. Chefchaouen was apparently filled with teachers from international schools that weekend; our fellow guests at Casa Perleta were teachers at the French school in Casablanca, and we met a large group from the American school in Rabat over lunch.
We moved over to Dar Mounir, a place that made me feel like an Arab hobbit. I loved the doors. I took approximately a million pictures.
The door to our room
Door from inside
The walls are actually white, but the light coming in through red curtains gave the room a cosy glow. The bathroom was terracotta, though.
Our bathroom. Well I guess you could have figured that out…
Sitting area. I did not see anyone sit here.
(Yes I know I am pitiful and snap-happy, but at least I’m not in every picture flashing you a peace sign. See? A bright side.)
Dar Mounir didn’t have the equivalent of Begona, although there were two friendly helpful young men. Donn moved the car and I checked us in, and then we set out to explore on our one full day in Chefchaouen.
Part One here. Warning: this looks to be getting quite long. Feel free to skim.
We drove on, replete, sleepy after all that food. By now we were coming into the foothills of the Rif Mountains. We drove through olive groves, past family groups harvesting olives. These were usually groups of women, with their hair tied up and long red-striped cloths round their waists, a cross between a skirt and an apron. They spread a white cloth under the tree and hit it with long sticks, providing a thwack-thwack rhythm to our drive, then gathered round to collect the hard green olives into buckets. Little girls chased curly-headed toddlers, who would sometimes wave but more often just stare as we drove by. Once when Donn stopped to photograph, they shouted NO! NO! at him and waved their long sticks, but when they realized he was photographing across the valley and not them, they calmed down.
We came to the town of Ksar-el-Kbir, where we tried in vain to find the tiny road that would lead us on to Chefchaouen. Do not worry if you decide to drive from Rabat to Chefchaouen—it’s actually not that hard, and there are decent roads. But we didn’t want decent roads. We wanted to drive through the mountains and through the villages where women carry backbreaking loads of…something green?…in baskets and small boys chase runaway donkeys. We wanted to see the long light across the green valleys and narrow little rivers chuckling among the blank grey stones. So we turned around, seeking that road. We asked two teenagers on bikes, who smiled that complex blend of embarrassment and stand-offishness, admitted to speaking no French, and flagged down an older man on a scooter, who told us we’d gone 25 kilometers too far. No, no, we protested, fluttering our map at him. THIS road—this tiny yellow squiggle connecting Ksar-el-Kbir to Chefchaouen. “You don’t want that road,” he told us flatly. “It’s dangerous.” We insisted. Finally he conceded to show us the way back to it, waving perplexedly as we turned up a steep little hill. Admittedly it wasn’t the sort of road you’d want to show off to tourists. It was frequently one lane wide at best, nibbled at the edges, winding round the mountains, no guard rails between us and the precipices. We were often greeted at blind curves by large trucks, and somehow it always fell to us to be the ones who slowed way down and crept off the pavement onto the wide shoulder, even though the drop off was on our side.
See? The road was fine. In spots.
We got to Chefchaouen (it’s pronounced shef-show-en, in case this is driving you crazy) about 4 in the afternoon and set about first of all finding our way into the medina, which involved driving down a really scary street filled with people and cars and small furry animals, all of whom were apparently determined to be exactly in the spot where we already were. A middle-aged man dressed in a traditional djellaba, the long hooded robe ubiquitous in rural Morocco, approached us, eager to help. Having ascertained that we were Americans, he became even more friendly. He told us we could park where we were. He told us that he had an American girlfriend. He told us that he had a shop that sold many traditional things that we should come visit, where we could have tea and smoke a little hash.
But no, we hadn’t misheard. As we later wandered the streets of the medina, we were offered drugs many many many times. This was a mystery to me. We are typical 40ish Americans. I am nowhere near my ideal weight. Donn is balding. We are boring, nondescript. We do not smell of patchouli, or dress in interesting colourful rags and stride the streets with two large dogs on leather leashes, as so many of our compatriots did. But nonetheless, we were frequently offered hash, rif, marijuana, etc. It was bizarre.
We always said no, being good citizens who still remember Nancy Reagan and her handy slogan. “No, merci,” we said consistently. This was enough for most. But a few would continue to follow us, insisting. One said, finally, just as he was having to accept the cold hard fact that we just weren’t going to agree, “Paranoid?” “No, just annoyed,” said Donn. He cracks me up.
But this came later. We declined the man’s offer to help us park, and soon realized that we weren’t even in the medina yet! Eventually we came to a spot where the road ended and we were able to park. We entered the medina, which is quite large, in search of Casa Perlita or Perlida or whatever it was.
Chefchaouen has an interesting history. For a long time, no Christians were allowed to enter—although Jews were allowed. One of the first Frenchman to penetrate its walls was poisoned when he was recognized as being in disguise. This was over 100 years ago now, and ironically Chefchaouen has become a noted tourist destination. I’ve read that in the summer season, tourists can outnumber the locals! I can see why–it’s a charming town, tucked up against the hills, near two national parks, in a beautiful part of the world.
But now our first job was to find the Casa Whicheveritwas, the one I liked the look of on the internet. We set off at random from the parking lot. Most people we asked hadn’t heard of it. We popped our heads into a tiny shop where a man sat at a loom, weaving a large rug. “Casa Perlita?” we said. He pointed in a general direction, so off we went. Every so often we’d ask someone else, who continued to point us in the general direction. Eventually, when we were quite close, we asked someone who actually knew the place and took us right to the door.
When we realized that all three of our children were spending part of their vacation with various friends in Casablanca (remember: not a fun city), Donn and I looked at each other and knew this was a golden opportunity not to be squandered just sitting round Rabat. A kid-free weekend! (Ok, it was Thursday and Friday nights, but close enough)
We decided to go to Al Hoceima, on the Mediterranean coast. I did a little research online, but wasn’t able to find a hotel. I called a friend on Wednesday night to see if we could borrow a guidebook. “Go to Chefchaouen,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite places in Morocco!” She’s been here 8 years; she ought to know. We were easily convinced.
I did some research on hotels and found one that looked great—Casa Perleta, in the old medina. I meant to write down the info, but what with one thing and another I didn’t, in between finding sleeping bags and enough toothpaste for 3 kids who’d be sleeping in different places and packing for ourselves and deciding what books to bring, while Elliot was making chocolate chip cookies to eat on the train and I was making curry for dinner and trying to keep the onions out of the cookies. So it came about that we were several hours down the road when Donn said to me, “Which hotel was it we decided on?” I said, “Casa Perlita, Perlata, something like that.” “Where is it?” he said. “Do you have the address or the phone number?” “Uh…no…actually,” I said.
No worries. We like adventures. We turned off the autoroute at Moulay Bousselham and headed down a small pockmarked road into the countryside. There had obviously been recent rain, and all the potholes were filled with water. We bumped along for a long time, heading inland towards the mountains. At one point we came to a town where there was a roundpoint, quite new, but no signs. We guessed that we should turn, but the man we asked told us no, go back. We did and came to a second roundpoint, this one even newer, but still with no signs. We turned right on a whim, feeling that it looked more promising although the road was barely one lane wide at that point. Miles later, we asked a small boy, and he confirmed that we were right.
We went on and on. Eventually we came to a small city set on a hill. As we crested it, we were greeted by the unmistakable smell of grilled meat and the sight of tagines smoking away. We pulled over and Donn went to talk to the friendly man grilling meat. Donn loves mischwi, Arab-style barbecue. He ordered a plate of grilled meat and I opted for a tagine.
We sat down at a dusty plastic table, and soon a woman came to wipe the dirt around a bit and set down two pieces of paper to serve as placemats, along with napkins and forks to hold them down. The tagine had been smoking away so it was soon set before me, the lid lifted off with a flourish to reveal meat and vegetables in a savory sauce with just a hint of spice. The grilled tomatoes were the best! Soon, Donn’s plate of grilled meat was set before him. I ordered a glass of sweet mint Moroccan tea to finish up with.
It was a lot of food, but we ate heartily and did our best to finish. Everything was excellent, cooked to perfection, served with a smile. Our total bill was about $11. Abdul was friendly, letting me photograph him, insisting that next time we pass this way, we come to his house for couscous.
But now my family is calling me to watch a movie, so I’ll post this and continue it tomorrow.