The word “tangerine” originated in Tanger, Morocco, where the high-speed ferry that Ethan and I had taken from Spain docked. In port, dark eyed men bumped against us asking, “What do you need?” and “How can I help?” Having been warned that kind offers like these might lead to getting mugged around the corner, we gripped our backpacks tightly and zigzagged through the throng toward the taxi stand.
Chefchaouen, a 15th century town on the side of a mountain that is painted various shades of blue, is a two-hour drive from Tanger through hillsides dotted with olive trees and square, squat, dwellings. After an intense negotiation, we got into the back of a yellow, 1980s era diesel Mercedes driven by Hamid, who looked a little like an Arabic Tony Soprano. Our hard fought good deal may have not really been that good, as Hamid’s taxi never made it over 50 miles per hour. Whenever he could, he shifted into neutral to coast, which filled the interior of the car with exhaust but saved some precious, expensive fuel.
Hamid’s cell phone rang halfway through the drive. There was a torrent of loud Arabic and then he said, “Amigo!” and handed the phone to Ethan. Uh-oh, I thought, the beginning of ransom negotiations perhaps? But it was only Hamid’s twelve-year-old son, Abdullah, who wanted to practice his English.
“Hello?” said Ethan, smiling at the polite sweetness of the boy’s voice. “Did you learn your English in school?”
“No, sir,” Abdullah responded with a perfect American accent. “I learned if from the television!” When Ethan handed me the phone I told Abdullah we were from Los Angeles. “Ah!” he said and his father’s smile in the rear view mirror was very proud. “A lovely city, madam.”
Chefchaouen was culturally as far away from Los Angeles as I have ever been. Filled with donkeys, haphazard stone buildings stacked on top of one another, and desert peddlers selling teapots inlaid with camel bones, live turtles, and aromatic olive oil soap, every little blue nook contained something amazing. We followed our noses to a stand surrounded by locals, thinking chestnuts might be roasting on an open fire, but instead found a savory broth studded with delicate, brown and white striped snails for sale. Despite being very hungry from a long travel day, neither of us could bring ourselves to try it.
In Chefchaouen, most Moroccan men wear long robes with pointed hoods, pulled down so that their faces look shadowed and secretive. And it seemed that most did not appreciate seeing a blonde woman walking around with her head uncovered. After being hissed at several times, sunken eyes staring with open disapproval, I took the black scarf from around my neck, wrapped it over my head and tucked my shaggy mane under my jacket. I felt torn between wanting to be respectful and wanting to passively support the burgeoning women’s movement in Morocco that pushes for more freedom and choice. During our twenty-five hours here, I saw only one woman in a burka. Most women wore colorful headscarves and patterned robes, so perhaps the score is evening out.
These days, foreigners are treated much better than they were, say, one hundred years ago, when any “Christians dogs” who tried to visit Chefchaouen were driven out or killed. The woman who owned the narrow, skyward-rambling inn where we slept in a room with a pitched ceiling painted in swirls of red and blue, taught us how to make sweet Moroccan mint tea and bought us fried dough from the stall next door—two for nine cents. Plus, the shopkeepers who spoke English seemed happy to have us. “My goods are the most super-duper!” exclaimed one, displaying an exquisite leather bag. “The food is not just the best here,” said another, waving us toward a candle-lit restaurant with a roaring fire. “It is the most super-duper!” Lured inside by the smell, we ate a beef tagine stewed with apricots and almonds and cinnamon-and-honey flavored chicken pie. It was indeed a most super-duper meal.
At dusk in Chefchaouen, intermittent fluorescent lighting turns the walls a ghostly blue and the wrapped, robed locals hurry home in anticipation of the evening call to prayer. With the kasbah (the local palace) painted a dusky, diluted red by the setting sun, and the melody of an ancient language in the air, it was not hard to imagine how it was here hundreds of years ago. Women filled jugs from the towns deep, fresh wells and large, whole animals roasted slowly over wood fires. Only the occasional street hustler dressed in western clothes and trying to sell us hash, broke the feeling of traveling back in time. It was super duper stuff, they promised, but being non-smokers and averse to spending even one night in a Moroccan jail, we politely declined.
The crow of lazy roosters woke us late the next morning—it had been our first night away without our kids in a very long time. After reading in our guide book that the Moroccan tribe that makes up the majority of Chefchaouen held “boy markets” here as recently as 1937, we thought it best they stay in Spain with Aunt Steph. Once more we wandered the narrow blue alleys, skirting donkeys carrying propane tanks, studying the Arabic stop signs, perusing the stalls of hand knitted leg warmers to find just the right pair, and generally wishing we had more time in Morocco. And then, we hopped into another old diesel Mercedes—a sweet looking, bespectacled man named Mohammed driving this time—and bumped back down the mountain toward modern life.