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.