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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  • Jim

    As the saying goes: A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour. ~Author Unknown

  • Tracey

    Rolf, thanks so much for sharing this amazing journey with us. I'm also a minimalist with wanderlust... who somehow is currently living in a 6-bedroom home with 8 people and a dog, and owns so much stuff she feels like a non-sentient-creature-harming house fire would be a blessing. *blush*

    Back before I encumbered myself, my husband and I visited Morocco; in fact, it was our last overseas trip before starting a family. I absolutely loved it, and think of our trip every day. We focused on the "imperial cities" of Fes and Marrakech. Meknes was also an absolute delight. *sigh*

    Whilst there are certain realities which mean we probably aren't going to be following exactly in your footsteps anytime soon (for every thing there is a season!), reading your blog is certainly helpful in encouraging me to identify which limitations are necessary given our circumstances, and which are simply limitations I impose on myself. There are plenty of things we own which we don't need, and plenty of things which we don't do, which we could. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • hahahah! That was great... the epic mix up. Im on the first leg of my trip around the world and fortunately haven't run into that just yet. Im in South America and I am latin.. I have been dying to head to Morrocco and will be heading to Africa in the middle of next year. Im really excited to be in a culture that isn't western at all.. loved the video! looking forward to the next posts

  • I just don't know about those sunglasses.

  • will

    Funny ive seen other travel shows in morocco and they ended up in a rug shop too :P

  • Ahmed

    Thanks for this going to the "wrong" town. Tetouan is very nice place in northern Morocco at about 60 km from Tangier, 60 km from Chefchaouen and about 50 km from Spain.
    You can have more info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T...

    Good luck

  • I didn't see any first-aid or health-related items in the packing list posts - there is nothing special you have to travel with, even to Africa? Not even a vitamin? lol

    Love all of the posts and videos - you guys are doing a great job! I had to go back and read every post and watch every video and I can't wait for each one to come out! Very inspiring! We're about 2 months away from being debt-free empty-nesters and I would love to start planning a road trip, big or small, using your philosophies!

  • Rolf

    Thanks -- and good luck in your own travels!

  • Rolf,

    I think you actually have to go through Tetuan to get to Chefchauen. Anyway, it looks like it was a nice side trip. Hey, I know you are probably going to Fez...do yourself a favor and detour up to Sefrou. My wife is there with her family for another three weeks and she'd be thrilled to meet up with you and your cameraman and show you what a real shepherds family lives like in Morocco. Not to mention, you'll find Sefrou to be a very different place from Fes. Let me know and I'll get you contact information. Also, if you'd like to meet up with some colorful expats and locals in Fez, I'd be honored to introduce you (virtually though as I'm in Turkey right now).

    Lol on the ATF comment. The camera always adds ten pounds but that does look heavy.

    All the best,

    Vago

  • Rolf

    Thanks for the offer, but sadly I am no longer in Morocco! (The videos lag a few days behind the journey, due to the time it takes to edit them.)

  • Angela

    So funny. Had to taken a bus who knows where you would have ended up!

  • Actually, we did take a bus from Chefchaouen to Fes. It was extremely long, crowded, and hot, but a good experience nonetheless.

  • sg

    what do you do when it gets too hot to wear the vest?
    Also, what about water? how do you carry that?

  • RolfPotts

    On transit days I have no choice but to wear the vest (but it's still cooler than wearing a full backpack). The vest actually has room in the front outside pocket for a water bottle, but I usually just carry the bottle in my hands.

  • I enjoyed that! I live in Morocco and I've never been there. You've inspired me.

  • Anis

    Great video!! Love it

  • Thanks Anis!

  • Dar Rehla

    Thanks for the link to our website.

  • That's is an awesome accidental detour. You really know how to make the best out of accidental situations.

  • Animesh

    It's "aphrodisiac and the medicament for rheumatism" !!

  • Thanks! We had a feeling he said "rheumatism," but weren't 100% sure.

  • Marika B

    If you never get lost, you never discover new places
    (freely translated from a Swedish indoor-parking-receipt-proverb).
    Best way to discover is to just wander around, ask locals (maybee not in a medina/kasbah in Marocco, where there's a big chance you end up in a shop). I often travel just with handluggage, how many outfits do you need! good luck!

  • Guest

    I loved the carpet guy's salesman patter, it was excellent.

  • Btw, in China I would ask my hotel receptionist to write down the name of the place(s) I wanted to go in Chinese on a little slip of paper, so I wouldn't have to worry about how to pronounce them or rely on complicated games of charades. Then again, as this entry superbly shows, getting lost can be wonderful!

  • Hooray for your inattentiveness to four vowel French dipthongs! :D Most delightful and awesome... so many things in this post and video made me laugh, like your heart being 'a stubbornly minimalist place', your Coles purchase, the line with 'thirteen minutes later...', and the hat with Saigon written on it!

  • RCAQ

    How cool is that?! Seriously, first the redefinition of Tapas (yeah, I was in the same boat as you when it came to that) - Now the wrong town story - Ah, man, this is quite what makes the whole "project" spicy & tasty -

    Btw, I was quite surprised by the fact that the carpet guy just let you go w/o trying to be a pain.

  • Barbara Dove

    I Love getting 'lost'! It's amazing what you can discover! And even better without bags! I agree!! :)

  • Patrick

    That first photo of you makes you look like an ATF or DEA agent. I know you have said the jacket is working great, but it does look a bit bulky in this photo. Is it just the photo?

  • Rolf

    I think it looks bulky in the photo because it's unzipped in the front and hence hanging around my sides. Whenever you see the vest in the videos it's fully packed, but it doesn't feel heavy or bulky at all (though sometimes it feels hot -- but not hotter than wearing a backpack in the same weather). Do you think it looks bulky in the video?

  • Surprisingly, the vest looks pretty trim in the front where you have everything stored, but it has a weird bulgy tendency in the back that seems a bit awkward to me, like you've decided to pack a small thin pillow on your back.

  • AdventureAaron

    Best video yet! I am surprised you didn't get offered the mint tea. I found it amazing that everyone acts as your local tour guide and everyone knows a carpet guy. Cant wait to see more

  • Nicolaï

    "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."

    This made me laugh hard-out. Great read, Rolf. I've been wanting to go to Morocco for years, and I just can't take it anymore! Enjoy the mild chaos!

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