continued from This American Girl in Morocco: Part I, The Ascent
We quickly learned that directions come at a price in Morocco.
Alone on the edge of a mountain, after hauling our luggage off of the local bus, the five of us crammed into a taxi en route to Chefchaoeun.
I hadn’t squeezed that tightly into a vehicle since my early high school days when one friend was unlucky enough to have a driver’s license and the rest of us reaped the benefits.
When we reached the city walls we followed our guide like exhausted sheep into the medina. We had no idea how to navigate this tangled walled city and our requests to discover it alone were adamantly dismissed.
Chefchaoeun seemed worlds away from bustling Tangier.
I felt as though I had defied gravity, walking across the floor of a swimming pool, swallowed by the blue walls around me. Everything seemed slower. Quieter. Softer. Like moving through water.
Children approached me speaking French; as shy as they were eager. Goats perched in trees while feral cats made alleyways their homes. Narrow paths and stairs forbid cars from entry.
At Hostel Souika we were greeted in English, a welcome reprieve for me and the Germans who had struggled through Spanish all morning, relying heavily on our Mexican counterparts. Moroccan was a language none of us tried to attempt.
I climbed the stairs to the terrace, to what appeared to be a dreamy hippie drug pad with mattresses piled on tiled floors made private by colorful hanging tapestries. The view of crumbling blue rooftops nestled in the arid mountain range was stunning.
I left Spain in search of adventure, and in that moment, more visually stimulated than I had been in ages, I knew I found the place. In the following weeks I would enter positions more thrilling than I had planned for: in the path of a knife wielding child, lost at night in the souks surrounded by dead animal heads, haggling with poker faced rug kings in Fez, stranded in a bus station on the outskirts of Marrakech, and on the back of a camel in the Sahara desert.
In the lobby our guide and the hostel manager began passionately conversing in Moroccan. Neither man had eaten since the night before, and both were likely suffering from dehydration and nicotine withdrawal. The interaction rapidly became aggressive.
Our guide demanded payment from the manager, who refused on account that I already had a reservation. Words became shouts, shouts became shoves, fists flew, and two large Moroccans threw our guide outside.
The conflict appeared to be resolved until our guide began demanding we compensate him outside the hostel. He angrily haggled with the boys who had no intention of backing down.
In the process we became enemies with our guide, two passersby, and the next-door vendor.
Finally we paid the fifty dirhams. Resisting out of principle seemed more costly. Not to mention, our guide did in fact provide a service. In my culture directions were free, and certainly never forced upon me, but I was willing to open my mind to a different standard.
It became apparent that we were a magnet for tour guides of this sort, and had difficulty walking anywhere without being offered “directions” or drugs. We actually began hiding or changing direction to avoid the uncomfortable exchange of being taken somewhere we planned to discover on our own for exorbitant rates. In retrospect firm boundaries would have fared better than feigned politeness.
I watched in wonder as vendors slathered on saccharine sweet compliments then shouted insults when a sale wasn’t made. All I could do was shake my head when men depriving themselves of water in the name of God were selling drugs. Perhaps I had already been exposed to the same contradictions in my own culture, and they were simply more overt in Morocco where people appeared to embrace expression over repression and aggression over passivity. At least I always knew where I stood, even if that position changed often.
As I tried to view each interaction with sensitivity, I imagined how my Moroccan brother in law, who is as opinionated as he is polite, would respond.
The boys did not let it go so easily. Both Germans wished they were still in Spain. When “Mexico City” angrily complained about being constantly hassled, I remembered how many trinkets, sweets, and massages I had turned down when attempting to relax on a beach in the Yucatan.
Perhaps as the token gringo I was accustomed to the dark side of traveling in a developing country. When my appearance immediately gives me away as a foreigner, the opportunistic few always come knocking. My own politeness has placed me in unfavorable positions more than a few times abroad.
As a woman I could sympathetically decline and be regarded a lady, whereas my male escorts were incessantly bothered and occasionally insulted.
I realized that surviving as a tourist in Morocco meant striking the delicate balance between feeding a salesman’s ego while engaging with him long enough to not offend, and having the self-assurance and boundaries to not be taken advantage of.
Hustlers aside, Chefchaoeun proved to be absolutely beautiful in every sense of the word and we spent the afternoon simply marveling.
Walls, houses, and streets painted every shade of blue on the spectrum.
Doors and steps ingeniously decorated.
Gorgeous leather bags in all shapes and sizes for sale on street corners.
Brightly colored powders for paints popped against the blue backdrop.
It was a visual delight.
In fact it was more than I had imagined.
I left Spain alone and uncertain. I found myself in Morocco with four allies, eager for whatever came next.
Soon I was in the midst of another adventure, a small child throwing knives in my path.
to be continued…