Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

The wrong town in Morocco

September 1, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Since I try to be the kind of guy who can admit his mistakes, I’ll say this up front: My first act upon arriving in Morocco from Spain was to mispronounce the name of my destination while arranging a long-haul taxi from the ferry-port at Tangier.  Hence, instead of traveling to the town of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains, I ended up in the city of Tetouan, near the Mediterranean Sea.  I swear this is not as dumb of a mix-up as it looks on paper.

Moreover, since traveling without luggage allowed me to be flexible and make the most of my accidental destination, this detour ended up making my day more enjoyable than if my travels had gone exactly as planned.

Of the many thrills travel can offer, one of my favorites is the simple joy of moving from one new place to another.  Hence, I had departed Algeciras, Spain that morning high on the prospect of crossing the Straits of Gibraltar by ferry and getting my first taste of Morocco.

This buzz continued as my videographer and I arranged a taxi out of Tangier and up the Moroccan coast.  The plan was to hit Chefchaouen, a picturesque old backpacker haunt with a reputedly laid-back vibe, by mid-afternoon. Justin actually did the taxi negotiation (I was off checking for buses), so he made the initial mistake of saying “Chefchaouen” with two syllables and Anglophone pronunciation (“Chef-chwan”) instead of the more accurate three-syllable/French pronunciation (“Shef-sha-wan”).  When the taxi driver replied with the name of another two-syllable town — “Tetouan?” (“Tet-wan”) — Justin nodded, a price was settled, I was waved over, and we were off.

Sadly, I cannot blame the mix-up entirely on Justin, since he immediately noticed that the directional signs along the highway were pointing to “Tetouan,” not “Chefchaouen” — and I responded with some tedious pedantic spiel about how, as with Hindi or Hangul or Cyrillic, there are multiple ways of transliterating the Arabic writing system into Roman letters.  Had I been a little less high on the notion of rolling through an exotic new landscape (and a little more attentive to the ways of four-vowel French diphthongs), I might have paid more attention to my own lecture and realized that Justin’s concern was valid.  A map or a guidebook could have immediately clarified this confusion, of course, but in my no-baggage state I’ve chosen to carry neither (I’m doing most of my route-planning online, using my iPod).

In less than an hour (another warning sign: Chefchaouen is not that close to Tangier), the cab driver steered us into a medium-sized city not far from the coast and asked us where we wanted to be dropped off.  I told him a gate to the medina (old city) called “Bab Souk,” and when he said “Bab Tout?” I shrugged at the monosyllabic simplicity of the word and said yes.  Look on a map, and you will see that the old city of Chefchaouen does not have a “Bab Tout.”  To grasp the scope of my mistake, you’d have to imagine a Moroccan Celtics fan optimistically convincing himself he was in Boston upon hearing the phrase “Madison Square Garden.”

Justin and I entered the medina through Bab Tout and wandered the old city for upwards of an hour before a Belgium-born innkeeper named Jean-Marc kindly informed us that we were still a good hour way from Chefchaouen.  Tetouan, where we were standing at that moment, was a town ten times the size of our presumed destination.  Though less popular with foreign tourists than Chefchaouen, he said, Tetouan was fascinating in its own right: It has an extensive old market and medina studded with low, cube-like white houses; it is surrounded by almond, orange, and pomegranate orchards; it had a historical reputation as an operating base for pirates preying on Mediterranean shipping; it was rejuvenated in the 15th century by Muslims and Jews kicked out of Spain during the Inquisition.

Jean-Marc suggested I stick around for a few hours and get to know the place better, and — since I had no baggage to slow me down — that’s just what I did.

As accidental discoveries go, my timing couldn’t have been better, since farmers and merchants from the surrounding mountains were taking advantage of a once-a-month tax-break for ethnic-Berber vendors: Tetouan’s narrow market alleyways were jammed with women in colorful costumes selling little  piles of spices and onions and goat meat.  As I walked through the medina, I got the sense that the Berbers were as stoked to be there as I was: They, too, were travelers, visiting the “big city” from their isolated homes in the countryside.

After enjoying this scene for awhile, I decided to challenge myself with an experiment I’ve always wanted to try: Instead of fixating on the most foreign-seeming sights before me (the pointy-toed slippers, the rainbow-colored Berber hat-tassels, the neat stacks of disembodied goat-hooves), I decided to wander the market on a quest for the most banal items I could find.  I did this in part because I was traveling with a cameraman — and since most every travel documentary for the past 100 years has focused on exotic images, I decided to counterbalance the colorful stereotypes by looking for toaster ovens, and Chuck Taylor basketball shoes, and used DVD copies of “High School Musical 2.”  Berber wares would speak for themselves on film, I reckoned, but the most telling details of Tetouan would be the small, ironic modern ones.

Unfortunately, this initiative lasted less than ten minutes before Justin and I were accosted by Bilal, a local 19-year-old who claimed he wanted to practice his English with us.  Having traveled in similar countries (like Egypt) before, I knew that a) it would be hard to get rid of Bilal, and b) he hadn’t approached us to practice his English, but rather to steer us into jewelry shops and leatherwork kiosks in the hopes of scoring a commission.  Bilal was harmless enough, as touts go (if a bit perplexed as to why we kept stopping to film faux-Baroque picture frames, or used ball-caps that read “Saigon, Vietnam”), and eventually I agreed to let him guide us through the market.  My only condition was that we remain in the Berber-merchant area, and that we not end up in a carpet shop.

There is perhaps no greater testament to the powers of Moroccan charm and persuasion than the fact that I found myself in a carpet showroom approximately thirteen minutes later.

The carpet shop was owned by a genial, djellaba-wearing old fellow named Mustafa, who Bilal claimed (rather unconvincingly) as a distant uncle.  The moment I walked into Mustafa’s showroom, he started in on an intricately choreographed presentation-routine worthy of a TV shopping channel.  Despite my repeated claims that I had no interest in buying a carpet, Mustafa just shot me a winsome grin and spouted carpet facts (how the red hue comes from poppies; how the finest wool is from the neck of the lamb) while three employees raced around unrolling rugs and theatrically caressing the merchandise.

Mustafa’s pitch, which appeared to be memorized, included everything from Vaudeville-style jokes (“Look at how generous we are: If you buy you pay only for one side; the other side is free”); to Berber ethnography (“traditionally, these carpets are presented as tribal wedding gifts”); to the earnestly asserted conviction that I could buy a truckload of his rugs, saunter into Bloomingdale’s department store in Manhattan, and sell them for an enormous profit (which, Mustafa hinted, could then be used to buy more of his rugs).  “If there’s room in your heart,” his refrain went, “there’s room in your house.”

I eventually convinced Mustafa that my heart was a stubbornly minimalist place that had no room at the moment for Moroccan handicrafts, and he was quite the good sport about it (“if I stopped trying to sell every time a tourist said they didn’t come to Morocco for a rug,” he said, “I would not have a business any more”).

After Mustafa’s shop I was beginning to think I’d give Chefchaouen a miss and stay the night in Tetouan — but by this point Bilal had taken it upon himself to find me a ride up to my initial destination, and I didn’t have much luck in convincing him I was no longer interested.  With the help of a guy named Rasheed (a friend of Bilal’s who sported a rugby shirt that said “Oakland Athletics” on the front and “Chicken Gourmet” on the back), we found a taxi driver named Mohammed who agreed to make the one-hour drive Chefchaouen.

Bilal and Rasheed tagged along for the road-trip, which featured blow-dryer-hot air streaming in through the windows, and a number of blind-curve passing maneuvers (one of which involved an over-laden propane truck) as we wound our way up into the Rif mountains.  After paying Mohammed for his dare-devil driving services (and tipping Bilal for his at-times dubious guide-service), Justin and I hit Chefchaouen’s old town for some more adventure.

As it turned out, however, the tidy medina of Chefchaouen (a gentrified old hippie haunt, similar to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, or Matala in Crete) was a letdown after our afternoon in Tetouan’s old town.  Chefchaouen featured lovely blue alleyways, tasteful handicraft shops, and peaceful travelers’ tea-houses — but we’d been spoiled by the heady buzz of mild chaos that results when you show up the wrong place and make the most of your situation.

Note: Special thanks to Jean-Marc Schneider of the Dar Rehla guesthouse, who helped Justin and I get our bearings (and allowed us to film on his roof) while we were in Tetouan.

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