Saturday 11 May 2013

o : Chefchaouen


Dear o,

I was just falling asleep when a bright light shone in my face.  I called for Al to turn it away but heard only mumbling, and the light still flashed back and forth.  I opened my eyes: it was coming from outside.  Al was still beside me, feigning asleep.  There were voices, two flashlights peering inside and around Archer.  A knock on my window.  Two men there, then three, and then four, trying to get a look.  I rubbed my eyes and stretched and acted bothered by the interruption of my sleep.

“Oui?” I asked.  I rolled down the window a little.  It was midnight.

“C’est problème ici," one said.  "C’est problème pour vous garer ici.”  All four were trying to jam their heads inside, and in the dark I couldn’t see their faces: hostile, friendly, shocked, bored?

“C’est problème?” I asked.  “Pardon, nous dormons ici pour vingt ou trente minutes.  Nous sommes fatiguès.”  I lied.  We planned to stay the night, albeit in the arched-back front seats, there on a little clearing between a cactus farm wall and a dirt road.  The four men, more like boys, were likely heading home from work.

“Non, vous devons depart.  C’est problème ici.”

“D’accord, d’accord, nous allons maintenant.”  I closed my window but two of them didn’t move, while the others continued inspecting Archer.  They weren’t finished with us.

We crossed the Strait of Gibraltar yesterday afternoon through some hazy / polluted skies, leaving Al’s mom in Algeciras, waving and shouting goodbye from the side of the road as if cheering us on in a road race.  We bought a carton of Camel cigarettes in the shop – for bribes at borders, if our charm or derision doesn’t turn out as well as we hope – and as we passed it tried to perceive, in vain, how the Rock of Gibraltar is a slice out of England under the sun.

Our passports were stamped at the reception desk onboard the ship – no queues, just put your elbows down – and then we drove to queue up for the vehicle import and inspection area.  We realised this wasn’t really a queue either, but just a little place to park while trying to flag down an official – but not until we had waited politely and, to everyone else, stupidly, for a good while. 

We eventually found a jolly man in a blue uniform, who laughed and joked and scribbled on our green form, and then sent us for a ten-minute walk to the police office outside the tall white fence because this was the first time Al’s passport had been used.  At the front entrance of the administration building – the Gare Maritime, which more closely resembled a shopping mall – were big and flashy metal detectors, unsued – maybe never used.  And up the stairs to the police office: an even more sophisticated code-entry pad, handprint-scanner and electronic gate.  We looked for signs, other doors, found and pressed an intercom button which gave no answer.  A man came by with a wide, knowing smile, and indicated we just slide through the space between the machine and the wall.  We did, found a polished, non-uniformed policeman who made fun of our French and talked sports (football and Muay Thai) while typing Al’s passport into the system.  We were clear, and on the way out joined two others who casually slid with us between the freshly painted wall and the fancy security machine.

The jolly customs official asked us to open the back and we dreaded having to untie and open all of our stuff, as was happening to another car two spaces down.  He asked to see the inside of Al’s scuba gear bag, asked what it was, spoke/joked about diving, made fun of Al’s bare feet, and sent us on our way.

Are you catching my attempt at the letter’s theme?  It has something to do with when to give a shit.

Driving into Tanger for a quick bite and some long-dreamt-of thé à la menthe was a quick learning curve.  Roundabouts?  Do whatever you want, just don’t pause.  Lanes?  Make your own, just don’t pause.  Road signs?  No, we don’t do road signs.  For bearings we used the sun (which was luckily setting), a canal we hoped would lead to the ocean (it did), and a compass (which pointed more towards the engine than north).  Honestly, how do they do it?

When we got on the road back out of Tanger we elected to come here, to Chefchaouen because its on the way to Fez and a guidebook says it is “the prettiest town in Morocco”.  We pulled onto the dirt road when we figured we were close to the mountain ranges, which we would tackle during the day.  The spot wasn’t perfect, but it seemed safe and silent.

Another knock on the window.  I opened it a little. 

“Pas probleme, pas probleme, vous dormez ici, et aprés, allez-vous, ok?” 

“Ok, merci,” I said.  “Bonsoirée, monsieur.”

“Da rien,” the leader said, and then they all shouted almost in unison: “Salut!  Bon nuit!”  Suddenly they were cheerful, happy to help, and didn’t give a damn.

So we slept there until the copper dawn and came here.  I don’t know if this is the prettiest town in Morocco, but it’s certainly beautiful: built on a mountain-side with a wall around the old town and with a terrific vantage over the green valley.  The sun just rose above the cliffs ahead and the thé à la menthe is served. 

If you took away from Morocco the scenery, the colourful, nestling towns, and the laid-back, inherently social attitude, I’d still visit for the thé à la menthe.  In fact, I’ll probably write a letter to you one day solely on the merits and texture and taste of good Moroccan mint tea.  But think of what I’d miss: least of all, the chance to learn when to care, when not to care, and how a little chat in between can make the whole difference.  For a time-obsessed, end-oriented stresshead like me, that’d be a boon.  On the other hand, maybe that too is in the tea?



Mosque and mountains, Chefchaouen