Local experiences in Tangier, Chefchauen, and Essaouria Morocco – from Beach to Hammam

July 15, 2007 3 Comments »

Local Experiences in Tangier, Chefchauen, and Essaouria Morocco

Fishing Boats

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The last week of travel through Morocco was when I finally hit my groove…I had started to get really comfortable with ‘real’ travel again. When I first arrived in Morocco – I was rather tense, on guard, and untrusting. Marrakech was a crazy place full of grime, strange people, strange culture and religion – it was a shock to my system. However – after about 2 ½ weeks, you get used to it – you acclimate to the environment around you. The people don’t seem scary and dangerous anymore – instead they are intriguing and you work your best to try to get through that initial exterior shell so you can see their real personality. The local transportation doesn’t seem as puzzling, the markets don’t feel as threatening – your favorite phrase becomes la shukran (no thank you). The grime doesn’t seem as grimy, The feeling of never being clean just becomes a part of life. But most of all, you become patient again. You realize how things work, you stop fighting it and go with the flow…you accept things.

The first two weeks of travel through Morocco was like listening to my ipod with the volume turned up…loud and grating to my ears and pysche, making me tense and jumpy. However in week 3 it’s now as if the volume has been slowly turned down to an acceptable level…things are now humming…and this is a good place to be internally. You’ve found your balance…you look out of the oven-like bus and smile at your surroundings. Your bus breaks down in the middle of the journey…oh well – wet a bandana with some water and sit and wait – inshallah – knowing that yelling and getting worked up about it isn’t going to get the bus fixed any faster here…just be patient.

Seeing blue in Chefchaouen

My last week of itinerary found me in 3 great towns – Chefchaouen, Tangier, and Essaouria – and finally back in Marrakech for one last night. Chefchaouen was a beatnik little town in the mountains – a place where you could simply relax at a little café, drink mint tea and sit and read all day. Chefchaouen was known for two things…the color blue, and the Moroccan kif capital (pot…in English). All of the buildings were painted various shades of blue, the doors were painted blue, the shutters were painted blue, some of the streets were even painted blue, the pots that held plants were painted blue – and if you sat long enough in a café, I think some old lady would have come around and painted you blue too! As for the kif…well…I honestly know nothing about it…but was offered it many times! I had enough drugs in me since I had come down with a nasty cold! I spent my days trying to rest, catch up on writing, and doing a few short hikes into the hills and around the town.

We had some cramped accommodations in Chefchaouen as there were 6 of us sharing one bathroom with semi-warm water and a shower (over the toilet as usual) that barely dripped water out of it. I had a cold – but 3 of my fellow travelers and bathroom sharers were seriously sick…the ‘I really need a bathroom’ sick – so the shared space was interesting to say the least! The hotel did have a really nice little terrace though – you could watch the sunset over the blue hued buildings surrounded by the mountains…very relaxing. Our terrace was so nice that we all decided to do a little picnic for the sunset. We set out in the Medina to gather nibbles…olives, goat cheese, bread, pastia (chicken pastries), nuts, M&M’s and of course wine. All were very easy to find and were actually super cheap (a pint of olives for $1…a bargain!), however, the booze seemed to elude us as usual in Morocco. We asked at a few shops if there was a store to buy wine in town – but most people said that they didn’t know of any…damn, dry country!!

However, we were determined. We finally came across a man at a little bar/café and asked him if he had wine for sale. He said that he did not, but if we wanted to buy alcohol we could go down the hill, around the corner, look for the Marco Polo Travel Agency sign, go to the second door past the travel agency and knock on it…there…we could find our booze. Cool…I felt immediately transported back into the Prohibition 1920’s…if only I had a flapper dress! As we followed the man’s directions exactly – we joked around about needing to know a secret knock…we really didn’t know if this guy was full of shit or not…but we all were hoping that this was the real thing!

Sure enough…we arrived at the second door, and gingerly knocked on it. A middle age man cracked the door a bit and stared at us. Karina asked if he sold wine in her best French – he looked us up and down and opened the door…we were in…no flapper dress required!! We made our wine and beer choices happily and walked back up the hill to our terrace spot for a laid back evening. Finding booze in Morocco is always a challenge – but this was definitely the most clandestine we ever had to be!

Tangier – gateway to Europe

Next, we took a local bus to Tangier – yet another hot, motion sickening bus ride…the worst one yet. I used to think that one of the most painful ways to die would be to drown or to get caught in a fire…I’m starting to think that being trapped in a hot vehicle is going to make it to the top of that list…maybe I should think of happier things…moving on…

We arrived in Tangier, the main port of Morocco, Africa’s gateway to Europe! Being the gateway to Europe also means many other things…it means that it’s also the gateway for the drug trade to Europe, as well as the gateway for illegal immigration into Europe. Think Mexico to America = Tangier to Europe. Now, that creates an interesting mix of people in Tangier. You’ve got the vacationing, affluent Europeans that want to take a close by trip to Africa, and you’ve got the seedy underbelly of drug and people trafficking. This may scare some people off, but I must admit, I kind of liked it there! For one thing…it was the first place to offer us some ethnic cuisine options, like tapas! In addition – the seedy side meant that you could find booze much easier than knocking on a secret door. The first thing we did was check into our hotel, shower the bus stench off of us, and go out for sangria and tapas…joy. We topped it off by going to an Italian restaurant – one with air conditioning!

The next day we went on a little road trip to the beach. It was my first Moroccan beach. This normally doesn’t seem like a big deal…a beach…but this was really an interesting outing. For the past 2 weeks I have been fascinated by the women of Morocco. More specifically, the Muslim women. Their lives are so very different than mine. You don’t see many of them out, when you do they are covered head to toe. I have sat in cafes full of 30 men…but not one single woman…it’s a weird feeling for me. I would love to learn more about the women’s lives, how they live, their thoughts on things, and especially what they think about us…western women – but you never really get a feel for that, because they are invisible. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that extreme, women do get out and I’m sure they live a very good, happy life, but it’s just so different than myself, a female solo traveler, we are on opposite ends of the spectrum. So I was curious to see how many women were at the beach and what they were wearing.

Morocco’s beach culture

As a traveler in a Muslim country, I have been totally respecting the dress code…covered shoulders and knees, loose fitting clothing. However, the beach is one place that the dress code doesn’t really apply…supposedly. As western tourists – we showed up to the beach, set up camp, and preceded to strip our layers of clothes off down to our swimming suits. For the first time- I was actually very self conscious of my flesh…you feel rather naked all of a sudden. We enjoyed the ocean breeze, watched the men flock around us (trying to be nonchalant about it of course), put on heavy, heavy sunscreen and had some good beach time.

However – I was well aware of my surroundings. I scanned around me to watch the various women on the beach. Any women over the age of 15 was about 50% more covered up than I was. Some had swimsuits…but they looked as if they came from the 1950’s…covered your ass and hips in a rather unflattering way. The majority of women were still in their full pants and long shirts as well as a head scarf. I have to believe this wasn’t for sun protection…this was just a cultural thing. Sitting at the beach covered up is really foreign to me…it made me hot just looking at them! However, some women would pull up their pants past their knees and sun the lower part of their legs. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but wonder what these women thought of me lying next to them in my bikini…did they think that I was trashy, different, interesting, or just sinful? I will never know. After our beach time we wandered the Medina and made our way back to Tangier for a beautiful sunset at the northwestern most point of Africa, Cap Spartel. I was amused at the fact that I had now been to the southern most point, and the northwestern most point of Africa…as well as the highest point…not bad for such a big continent…I covered the main geographical points of interest!

The next day we did a little walking tour of Tangier to the Kasbah, and some of the major sites. My favorite was our trip through the fish and meat market. The markets were pretty active…and not one female in them…it was definitely a man’s world. The smell was terrible…the only way to cope is to breathe through the mouth…and even that doesn’t completely work! On top of things, I wasn’t really prepared to be walking through the market…wearing flip flops is NOT advised. Oh well, once you are in, you are in…flip flops and all – you suck it up, breathe through your mouth, try to avoid the big puddles of animal remains, and keep going. I’ve been to many markets during this 10 month journey…and I love it when I see something new in a market. I was all of a sudden stunned when I went past the butchers and saw a huge cow head sitting on the counter. I was actually taken aback. It wasn’t just a simple cow head – instead all of the skin and hair had been singed off of it – so it was a skinless and hairless huge cow head staring back at me. Eewwwww.

We boarded an overnight train to Marrakech that night. This was my first train journey in Morocco – and it was waaayyyy better then my previous bus journeys! The sleeper cars were air conditioned… Humdulilah! Plus, they were fairly clean, and they provided a sheet and pillow…not too shabby. We had prepared for the train ride by buying a bottle of vodka…and sat up until midnight just hanging out in the bunks drinking vodka and sprite – great sleep medication for the train! We arrived in sweltering Marrakech that morning and immediately grabbed some fresh orange juice and hopped on a bus to Essaouria – a 3 hour journey.

Visiting a Hammam in Essaouria

Essaouria was a charming little beachfront town…and it had a different climate than the rest of Morocco that I had visited…it was livable for humans! It’s the windy city of Morocco – which made it a popular destination for wind surfers from around the world. It also was about 30 degrees cooler than Marrakech…which probably made it about 70…time to pull out my long sleeve clothing! It really was a great break from the heat. The town was charming, full of tourists, but still charming. This also meant that it had a bit of a night life – which was also a welcome site! We did a walking tour of the town, the next morning that provided us a trip into the Medina…but this Medina was different….it was built by the French. This may not mean much to you…but this meant that the Medina was built on a grid meaning that you didn’t have to pay any young children to find your way out of the maze…you could actually do it yourself.

However – this grid did present problems for the Mosques. Mosques must face Mecca – which is normally pretty easy since there is no rhyme or reason to the streets. However, when you put a mosque on a grid and that street doesn’t point to Mecca – you now have a problem. They solved this problem by building the door frame at an angle!

I had been in Morocco for 20 days and I still hadn’t experienced one of the most cultural of Moroccan experiences yet…the hammam. A hammam is basically a public bath house – a place to come and socialize and get clean. Basically they are dark, hot saunas…and if you travel to Morocco or Turkey…this is a must-do! The hammams are organized by gender, so we went to a women’s hammam in the Medina. It was startling to me that we were walking through the streets of the Medina passing women in their full dress and head scarves, and then we entered the hammam down this little set of steps, turned the corner, and there was a woman standing in her underwear. Talk about night and day! Like the beach experience – the hammam really intrigued me. Women who are completely covered up in public, came to a public bathhouse to bathe in their undies.

We chose the deluxe hammam treatment…which basically meant that you had your own personal woman in undies that washed you. These washing women were hearty…middle aged, boobs sagging, belly hanging, but they scrubbed 20 days of grime off of me! First you strip down to your undies and are led into a dark, tiled, humid room…the kind that you find it hard to breathe in. There was one little window that provided fresh air – the size of a greeting card. The lights glowed yellow like a dimly lit romantic restaurant…the kind that it’s too dark to even read the menu. There were sinks at the other end of the room with 3 basins – one with hot water, one with cold water, and one medium temperature water. The woman provided you a little mat and motioned for you to lay down. She filled up a huge bucket and came over and abruptly dumped it on you…welcome to the hammam experience. This dumping and scrubbing continued for about 20 minutes. They scrubbed everywhere, you basically laid there like a fish out of water – helpless – and they moved you around and continued to pour buckets of hot water over you, and scrub you down with soap and a loofah mitt!

Once they had sufficiently removed all of the dead skin with the loofah, they then put a mud pack all over you and left you in the humid room for about 20 more minutes – to bake. While baking…your mind kind of wanders. All you can hear is the splashing of water, the sound of wet foot steps, it’s a weird out-of-body experience. Since 4 women from my group all went together – we sat around in our undies, and mud packed bodies, and talked. After all, this is what the hammam experience is about for women…socializing. It is historically the one place that women in this culture could come and talk to each other – so they would sit in the hammams for long periods and have a hen party. After baking in the mud and socializing it was time for the final wash down and massage. More buckets of water dumped all over – including the process of pulling out your undies and pouring water inside of them, as if you were 5 years old again. It was a strange experience, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed – I was certainly cleaner than I had ever been in Morocco!

They even provided us with a fluffy, big towel at the end…a true perk considering every towel I had ever been given in Morocco was the size of a hand towel and about as soft as sand paper. The best part of the whole experience though was walking outside for the first gasp of fresh, cool air again. It was like stepping out of an oven…it felt good to take nice deep breaths and have the cool wind hit your super clean body!

That night was our last night together as a travel group – so we went out and celebrated with tagines, couscous, wine, and vodka. We were even treated to a birthday cake as we were celebrating Rob’s 21st birthday…oh to be so youthful again. We finished the night at a hip little Riad club dancing the night away, drinking our bootleg vodka out of water bottles until 3AM as if I were 21 again! The next morning we all said our goodbyes and headed back to Marrakech on our last local bus ride. In true form, the bus broke down and we were left sitting in the sweltering heat of the bus until they found the correct part in the next town…patience.

For my last night in Morocco, I decided to treat myself…I stayed one night at a high-end Riad with a proper shower, air conditioning, a pool, fluffy white towels, and a great big bed. A riad is basically an old-style Moroccan home…a small entryway that opens up into a large courtyard with rooms situated off the courtyard. Many riads are being remodeled into hotels these days. There’s nothing better than earning these little rewards that you give yourself.

After 21 days in Morocco – I earned this…and it felt great. In fact, this lovely little riad was an oasis for me – it allowed me to recharge before I was heading off to the next backpacking journey through Egypt. The best part is that I had the whole riad to myself…I was the only guest there that night even though it had about 6 rooms to rent out. People pay thousands of dollars to reserve an entire riad for themselves…I lucked into it and only had to pay $100 for my room. I sat out and ate by the pool one of the best home cooked Moroccan meals I’ve had…all by myself…it was bliss. I was content to simply stay inside the walls of the riad, leaving the craziness of Marrakech behind and turning my AC to a chilly 21 degrees Celsius…soaking up every bit of freon I could before heading back out into Arabia for 2 more weeks. After 21 days baking in the heat, I was treated to the best send off Morocco could give me; on my taxi ride to the airport…it started to rain…yes, rain. It was a very small amount of rain…but it was rain none the less. The volume in Morocco was officially turned off.

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