Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Adventures in the Blue City: Travels with Kane:

After a lovely sojourn in Amsterdam over a long weekend, I headed back to Morocco on a monday evening. The Dutch border guard was curious of my intentions in Morocco, so I explained I was going there to study French at a fraction of the price of France or Belgium. He gave me a smile that indicated he respected the logic.

The flight out was interesting. I sat with an African fellow from Ghana, who had been at the North Sea Jazz festival. He was a jazz musician, we sat chatting about culture and music and sipping Moroccan red wine in paper cups. He gave me one of his CDs, which looks quite professional. I don't have a CD player so I haven't had the pleasure of listening yet. He was heading home to Accra, (“I left my heart in Accra”), and just transiting in Casa.

The arrival to the Casablanca Airport was without issue. I arrived around 8:30pm, grabbed my gear and headed to the train back to Rabat. I was told to take the train to Casa Voyageur, not the usual Casa Port station, and switch train there.

We pulled in about 15 minutes before the 10:30pm train to Oujda via Rabat. The train arrived on time, but the cars were dark. We climbed on the train, and sat in the heat. We sat and sat and sat. After about 30 minutes, ONCF (the train company) said that the train was not functioning correctly. This set off a maelstrom of indignation from the passengers. Groups of men berated the ineffectual conductors, who could offer no information of when the train would leave. They announced that the train was broken, but couldn't provide alternate transport; the mob went nuts. They booed the conductors and looked for a manager, who was nowhere to be found. I got off the train and began considering staying the night in Casa. The confusion fumbled on past the hour mark, and grabbed my things to begin finding a cheap hotel nearby. But just as I walked into the lobby, the train lights turned on and it started moving. I chugged my way back onto the now-moving train.

I finally arrived back to Rabat just after midnight. I caught a cab to my host family's apartment. We had been trying to work out my return of the keys, because some of the family was around in Morocco during the summer. Yassine, my host brother, had mentioned that his mother was in the family village and his older brother Younes was in Spain. I had told him I would stay at the apartment for two days, then head out. I didn't wait for a confirmation, and since I had the keys, just rolled with it.

My return to Rabat was kind. I saw lots of friends and acquaintances from the medina and around the city, who were happy to see me. Rabat had not changed much since I had left: little things like new concrete over Sharia Mohammed V, the main thoroughfare through the medina which had become a construction war zone before I left; inflation set in, and the price of orange juice had gone from 4 to 5 dirham (50 cents). Little things.

Abu Hurrayrah got back to work feeding his stray cats in the park, and I looked into future plans for French class and other details of life. I grabbed favorites like the fried sardine sandwich with fried peppers and fried eggplant stuffed in khubz (round crusty bread), and tajine. My first day back was overcast, but the sun re-appeared the next day and I was back in my element.

My friend Kane, who was running the Next Level Morocco program, was in-country and we had plans to connect and head to the blue city of Chefchaouen.  I had been once before, 15 years ago with my friend Patrick and we had loved it.  But frankly, I had my concerns about heading there because I had been reading articles about how the Riff Mountain area was facing some instability but I spoke with a few tourist agencies and a few Moroccan friends and felt comfortable that the situation was fine in Chefchaouen.

Kane “NovaKane” Smego is a Poet and MC from Durham (“Bull City”), North Carolina, and has been involved since the program's inaugural season. Kane had been the MC on the Next Level Zimbabwe program, and had done phenomenal work there. Since then, he had gone on to serve as a site manager in his own right, on the NextLevel Thailand program on the second season and Next Level Brazil in the third. Kane and I had been having a long-running apprenticeship and friendship since the first season.

Since I left the program, he is taking on a bigger role. As it were, he is now the most senior site manager on the Next Level program. He is running two residencies this year, in Morocco and Viet Nam.

He was finishing up with his pre-tour in Meknes and Casablanca, and we made plans to link up the next morning at the train station in Rabat, then make our way over to the Gare Routiere de Rabat (bus station).

As I was packing up that afternoon, I heard the door click. Sure enough, it was my host mother Zohra, back from the village and a lil confused why this adopted son/squatter was in her home. Oh Morocco, you are always so magical when it comes to timing.

Once the initial surprise wore off, and I explained in Arabic what I was doing there and that I was leaving the next morning, we got to catch up and chat about using the apartment moving forward. Like any good mother, she force-fed me a second dinner later that night.

I wore up early, said goodbye and headed to the train station to meet Kane. He caught his early morning express from Casa and we linked up in Rabat with no issue. We caught a taxi over to the bus station, and chatted with the driver in Arabic. Kane had studied Fusha in college, and had done some work in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. The driver decided we must be Moroccan and need Moroccan names: Kane became Samir, and I, Mohammed. I couldn't argue with that.

We arrived at 9am to the bus and faced the scrum of touts and travelers. Not quite trusting the facts (no zig-zag, meaning no con), we got the tickets at the bus company window for the 10:30am bus to Chefchaouen. We grabbed some coffee in the bus station cafe, and with dead roach laying belly-up on the floor—decided we would grab some breakfast elsewhere.

The bus was coming up from Casa, and was supposed to arrive at 10:30am, but that was all inshallah time. Around 10:15am, we sat by the bay aisle, which Mr. Zig-Zag,who ended up being more reputable than initial impression, pointed out. 10:30 came and went, with little surprise. Around 10:45am, amid the confusion, we gave some backsheesh to Mr. Zig Zag to alert us when the bus arrived. In a sea of coaches, finally our rocinante appeared. I stashed our stuff in its belly, as Kane found us seats aboard.

The bus was a sweltering affair. No air con to speak of, and no windows. We settled in; Kane's legs nearly too long to fit in the Moroccan seats. We would switch later to give him aisle access to stretch his legs. In the baking midday heat, we headed north—past Kenitra (of increasing interest) and on through the northern passes.

The countryside grew greenish-brown and verdant as we pushed on towards the north-center of Moroccan terra firma. The bus baked as we rumbled on. Fields of olives dotted the hills, and Kane remarked that the countryside reminded him of California; my own ideas of an Andalusian Southern California came back to me.

We sweated and chugged along the northern route. As we got closer, the bus broke down for a long, hot spell. We filed off the bus as they worked to fix the radiator. So close yet so hot and far.

Eventually, after about 6 hours of a ride that could be done in 5 hours or less, we arrived to Chefchaouen's blue splendor. We hopped a taxi into the center, and entered the blue-walled city through the Bab al-Ain gate. We navigated the blue alleys, past the rapacious touts, until we found a good pension, called Andaluz. It was high-season, so rooms cost us 120 dirham ($12) a piece. Kane got the penthouse suite with two big windows that caught the cross-breeze coming in from the alley; I took an interior room with deigns to switch into his room after his departure.

We settled in, and wandered around a bit to find food to fill our famished tummies. We wandered through the main square, Plaza Outa al-Hamam, and down the road a bit until we found a good, cheap sandwich shop. We chatted with the fellows in the shop about the mountains as we ate fried egg sandwiches stuffed to the gills with all sorts of accoutrements like pickles, potatoes and chili—alongside the famous frittes of Chefchaouen.

And it became clear to us that Chefchaouen was Hispanophone not Francophone. The northern belt of Morocco had been part of Spanish Morocco—under Spanish protectorate for decades. The lingua franca of Chef was Spanish not French. Kane speaks Spanish fluently and I speak it well (and better than French), and that changed the linguistic calculations greatly.

We wandered through the old blue city, past the Thursday market teeming with figs and peaches. We made our way through the narrow blue and white alley ways, whose cool air flowed in the shaded passageways. It's hard to give enough words to describe the blue brilliance of the blue pearl that is Chefchaouen. It is a blue dream of hues of periwinkle, royal blue and even the occasional violet. Sea blue and aquamarine twotone. Every faded and brilliant shade of blue imaginable, and accentuated in a sea of white. No words do any justice to the blue beauty of the narrow alleyways—just slipsliding away down corridors of light blue dreams.

We ascended the city, and ended up at the top of the wall above the city—taking in the setting sun over the blue city from its ochre city wall.

We made our lost way back through the city to our hotel. We settled in and up to the roof-top terrace, where we made fast friends with some students from Rabat. In the sun's fading light, the blue city shimmered.

Under cover of darkness, we returned to the Plaza Outa al-Hamam for dinner. The restaurant touts plied menus with pushiness. We ended up lured into a spot with purple cushions, more by the cushions than the annoying tout who would only get more so as the night wore on. We dined on tajine, and fended off a pushy pusher whose mala onda knew few bounds. This was all forgotten over dessert, in a lil spot with great homemade flan for 3 dirham (30 cents) and the stellar zaazaa, a yogurt dessert with bananas, avocados, dates and crushed peanuts.

We returned to the roof top, where we found black hole chairs under the stairs.

The next morning, we got a proper breakfast with coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice. Kane had massman, a Moroccan version of the crepe which is almost closer to a fried flatbread than crepe; I had an omelet oozing with melted cheese that I ate with thick pieces of warm khubz, black olives and bildia cheese a bit like labneh. A solid breakfast for $3 all included.

After lazing around a bit, we went hiking up between the two horned mountains which gives Chefchaouen its name (“between the horns”). We grabbed some cans of tuna in tomato sauce, khubz and water as we ascended. We past the campsites and cemetery on to the mountain road. We slowly worked our way up mountain road as the blue city disappeared below. As we got higher up, we passed fields of Chefchaouen's cash crop.

I chatted with Kane about his work as a wilderness guide and tour leader on various exchange programs in Peru and Brazil. Kane loved hiking and had lead a number of expeditions with students. He had some really solid, impressive experience running tours in the wilderness, and we discussed future plans to do a reverse apprenticeship so that I might learn some of those intangible skills.

We had hoped to make it all the way to the top, but it was hot and starting to get a bit late. On a good day, we were later told, you can see Spain and the city of Malaga from the mountain top. We didn't quite get there since we were lacking sufficient water and time, but we made it two-thirds of the way up, and under a shady tree we had our lunch. The tuna in tomato sauce may not sound like much, but after climbing up a mountain, it was stellar. We dipped the crusty bread into the oily tomato sauce and fished out the tuna chunks.

We began making our way back down, and met some locals who lived up there. We shared some tea and hospitality, before setting off back down from the mountain heights.

We followed the dusty path back down into the hot blue city before the sun began its descent. After cleaning up a bit, we wandered out for a well-earned dinner. We passed the lit square in its nightly glory; from a white mosque, men clothed with white jelabas stood at the precipice of a white Moorish arched door.

We saw a restaurant with a rooftop terrace, so we circled around until we found the entrance into Casa Aladdin. We climbed level after level until we got to the top. The lights below twinkled like the stars above. We dined on steaks—Kane had lamb, I had sirloin. The meat came perfectly spiced in cumin and other Moroccan flavors. We returned after dinner to the rooftop of the guesthouse and joined our Rabati friends for a night cap. I sipped whiskey that warmed my already sore body.

The next day we took it easy. We had a big breakfast at a local spot in the plaza. I had fried eggs and a big bowl of bisara, a thick lentil soup covered with rich pools of argan oil. Kane had a tajine khalie, which is eggs fried with dried meat chunks. We hung out on the roof as Kane did laundry, listening to hip hop of old and new school varieties. I gained a bit more appreciation for some of the newer rappers. I still don't love Kendrick Lamar or Chance the Rapper, but I can understand their popularity; I liked J Cole, who is closer to my style of hip hop.

Kane also played me some of the catalogue of his friend and fellow NL alum, G Yamazawa. G is dope, 'nuff said.

We ventured off the rooftop to have tea in the blue square near the Andaluz. The cafe in the square is perfect. Unlike the Plaza Outa al-Hamam, this is a plaza frequented only really by locals. It is a small blue square with a blue and white moorish well in the middle. The plaza is filled with cats and kittens, and Abu Hurayrah is back in action. The plaza is about as authentically Chouen as you could possibly find. It is also the newest site of my virtual office, as I sit here writing up the blog in its arched shade.

We did preciously little that Saturday. We sat on the roof as the sun set behind us, casting a glance of light on the blue city in the mountain canyon. We ventured down for dinner at a nearby spot run by two women. We bounced between languages with Argentines and the Moroccan restaurant staff, and dined on excellent tajines.

On sunday, we headed to Akshour and its cascades. First, we walked down through town to the bus station. Kane got his CTM ticket, the nicer bus service which would prove to be worth every extra dirham. Then we headed over to the Gran Taxi spot to catch a shared taxi over to Akshour. In a roomy blue wagon, we drove through the verdant tierra and winded around valley curves. We lucked out with only 5 in the van—usually filled to the brim with 6 people and something we paid an extra 5 dirham for but well-worth it.

We arrived to Akshour in the midday sun, and it was a scorcher. We looked on apprehensively at the parking lots full of cars, and worried if this was going to be worth it. We learned that it would be.

We followed the patch until it started going up. It was a strenuous trek but nothing beyond managing. I don't think Kane was especially winded but he is in better mountain shape than me. Anyway we trekked up the path until we reached the top and to the Ponte de Deiu. The Bridge of God. Truly so, as the view off the natural bridge was incredible. We crossed the Bridge of God, and were faced with two divergent paths.

There was no signage, and both looked to be legitimate trails so we went left since we could see that is seemed to descend.

So we went down the trail. It was a fine trail, with some challenges but nothing too bad. It was fine...until it wasn't. As we got further down this “trail,” we realized that it was not right. It wasn't a real trail, but a well-defined “social” trail. As I learned from Kane, a “social” trail is a trail that looks like a trail because many have passed it so it begins to look like a proper trail. But not planned, and not actually a trail....ao we began facing obstacles that were not planned to be passed.

The trail started to get a little hairy, and a lil “gnarly” as Kane would say. We had to grab claw-holds to rock face as we carefully climbed over spots not meant for tread. We were slowly and deliberately making our way down, examining every challenging spot from different angles and vantages—leaving nothing for chance.

And then we got to the spot that was really meshi mizzyen, not good. We had to climb across a rock precipice with a steep drop that went nowhere but down. The rock grips were minimal and the footholds were really lacking. Kane slowly studied the challenge. After a few minutes, he went first. Prudently and deliberately, he crossed the threshold.

Then, it was my turn. I took my time sliding down to the rock ledge, and slowly turning my body. I grasped on tight as I tried to reach my foot out to the next toe hold. It took me a few harrying tries. At one point, I was stuck. With fear, I started muttering a mantra: “I don't like this. I don't like this. I don't like this.” And I didn't. But with patience and care, I crossed the threshold.
On the other side of the obstacle, we continued our descent down the mountain. We were getting close. We could see a group of guys lounging on a rock in the river below. As we got closer, they saw us and realized we needed assistance. In a cacophony of Arabic, French and Spanish, they helped us get down the narrow rock face until we couldn't get any lower.

They were sitting on a rock just off a pool of water just past a small waterfall. There was no way for us to get to them without jumping in the water. So we took off all our valuables (wallet, phone belt, etc) and put them in our bags, and Kane hurled the bags down across the river. Thankfully, both bags cleared the ravine and were caught.

Then it was our turn to jump off the mountain and into the cold mountain river lake some 20-25 feet below. I had taken off my shirt but had my empty jeans and shoes on. I needed to take a leap off the clip and needed some grip to push off to clear the rocks below. From down on the rock, the shebab cheered for me to jump. And I leapt.

I dropped quick off the heights, and into the mountain-cold river lake below. I broke the surface with a a rush of cold relief, and let myself crash on down to the bottom—where I dragged a toe against the bottom. I floated up with a single right arm in the air. They erupted in cheers, and I flashed a V for victory.

Then it was Kane's turn. He leapt out into the void and came crashing down into the cold water. The shebab cheered for his flight as well.

I swam my way over and pulled my soaking body up the rocks. We greeted and thanked our new friends. We told them our story of woe, as we let the adrenaline slowly dissipate.

We stayed on the rock for a while, hanging with the fellas and eating a lunch of tuna in tomato sauce with baguettes. We dried off, and leapt in again—this time from closer vantage.

Later in the afternoon, we followed the river just slightly upstream. There were plastic tables and chairs set up in the cool, clear water. Further upstream, a canopy of forest shielded the sun's glow. Tagines boiled on small stone charcoal stovetops. We sipped mint tea, and counted our blessings and luck.

Eventually, after a few more dips in, we made our way back to the entrance. This time we took the river path, as we had learned—we were only really 20 minutes from the entrance. We passed little cafes set up on little islands in the mountain river.

We hopped a cramp mercedes grand taxi back, my still wet jeans probably making me little friendship with the passenger stuck next to me.

We returned and hung out after the day's adventure, before grabbing some immaculate Berber tajines on a nice rooftop restaurant. A chocolate fondant cake was the reward for surviving the adventure.


The next morning, Kane headed out by early CTM bus back to Rabat. This time, his air conditioned ride took only 4.5 hours. 

Meanwhile, I switched into his old room, with two large windows that catch the cross-breeze and have been settling into Chefchaouen in my own regard.  

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