“Honey, slow down! You’re scaring me!” Lisa said.
“I’m only going 60 km per hour. It’s like 40 miles per hour back home!” I replied.
“Yes, but the speed limit is 40 and there are tight turns here. I’m sliding all around my seat and hitting the window!”
“Exactly! We could drive the speed limit and get there in three hours, or I could drive crazy fast and we could be there in two and a half.“
“Why are these the only two options? Can’t you slow down? My heart is beating fast and I’m starting to sweat.”
I probably should have listened to my mother when she advised me not to drive here. Don’t do it she said. All our friends advised against it she said. And what did I do? I went ahead and did it anyways. I’ve driven in Europe and Africa so I’m an expert I said. By the second day of driving, a speed trap scooped me up for driving 69 in a 60.
“You have an infraction.” The policeman said.
“What is the fine? Can I just pay it here?” I said not caring if this was an official operation or a palm lining shake down.
“Do you have 150 dirahms?” He asked.
“No problem.” I said while getting out my wallet and thinking that paying a 15 dollar fine for speeding was a pretty good deal, so I tried a little morning levity:
“I’m here in Morocco for three weeks and will probably speed again. Can I pay 1,000 dirahms for the right to drive over the speed limit for the next three weeks? Do you have, like, a speeding pass?“
“Sign this recipt and leave please.”
While forking over my 150 dirahms I glanced over and saw Ava and Lisa laughing their asses off and waving through the windows of the car while taking pictures and video which were certain to make their way onto social media. I smirked at the irony and shook my head in disbelief, cursing all the cosmic karma that brought me to that moment on a dusty rural road in the heart of Morocco.
Riad Stays and Medina Mazes
Even though we left east Africa for the north, Morocco feels like a world away and doesn’t look like it even shares the same continent. We had a red-eye through Dubai from Nairobi and touched down the next day at noon where we collapsed in our hotel beds and spent the first day in Casablanca getting over jet lag and exploring streets farther and farther away from our hotel.
The farther from home your travel, the more drastic the change in local customs. The morning muezzins blaring out from the mosque minarets remind you that Islam is the dominant religion here where 99% of the population touches their head to the carpet 5 times per day, inshallah. Alcohol is taboo. Men are discouraged from wearing shorts and women must cover their shoulders. Still, it’s a small price to pay for entrance to the rich medinas and exquisite riads which are older than our home country is new.
In traveler’s circles, I’d first heard whispers of Morocco’s enigmatic riads decades ago. These homes once owned by wealthy merchants were tucked away in old labyrinths of shops called medinas which were the principal areas of commerce going back thousands of years. Riads all have a stylistic central courtyard padded with comfortable seating areas with rooms usually lining the perimeter rising up 3 floors. Having breakfast on the ground floor while gazing up at the ornaments, carved ceilings and doorways is pretty mesmerizing and makes for good mealtime conversation. It’s easy to see how this region inspired Paul Bowles with its artistry and abundant and cheap ‘kif’ which lead to Morocco becoming a must see stop on the hippy trail of the 1970’s. In every town, we invariably rubbed shoulders with an aged, sun-dried hipster who came decades ago and never left.
Medinas sell wares both new and old. Traditional clothes for men such as the full length robe and ‘djellaba’ for women are juxtaposed next to knock off Gucci imposters and sweat whisking Real Madrid jerseys. The difference here is stark with the younger generation vying for cultural assimilation with nouveau brands and the conservative majority on the other side wanting to preserve their traditions and not let all their years of hard work be corrupted by the values of western infidels. Namely, people like us.
Driving in Morocco
Despite the ticket on our second day here, driving really hasn’t been that hard outside the cities. Inside the cities is another story, and just thinking about driving to our next destination makes me sweat to the point where I’ve grown accustomed to having a spare change of clothes ready for our arrival, as my driving outfit will be predictably soaked. Since the riads are in the medinas where cars are not allowed, we have to drive as close as we can, pay for short term parking, shlep our bags to the riad through the maze, and go back to retrieve our car with the help of our host and finally move our car to overnight parking in a process that takes about an hour from start to finish. Add the incessant horns on tight city roads, locals yelling at you to move your car or not knowing where to go can make you rethink your trip to Morocco. “We came here to relax. Didn’t we?”
Chefchouen: The Blue City
Chefchouen is known as the ‘city of blue’ and we never got the same answer as to why the locals paint the alleys of their city this particular hue but it’s striking and makes for an instagrammer’s wet dream on par with Santorini in Greece. One story is that the color took hold when Jews holed up here as refuge from Hitler during world war 2. Another is that the color is fabled to deter mosquitos. I asked our riad manager and he said: “I don’t know, that is the only color we’re permitted to use now.”
Typical Moroccan cuisine is breakfast followed by a large lunch and a light dinner of mainly pastries. It wasn’t until our 5th day in the country (and second night in Chefchouen) that we had our first proper dinner at a restaurant as a massive lunch at 2 or 3 in the afternoon would usually satisfy our cravings till breakfast at 8am the next day.
Hammaming it Up
After a morning workout on the roof of our riad and lessons on multiplying fractions, typing and work on Ava’s brochure on the game parks of east Africa, I decided to visit the local sauna or ‘hammam’ in town. The last time I visited a hammam was in Istanbul with my father in law, and I was so violently manhandled that I walked out with a pain that reminded me of a Sunday morning after a rough football game the night before against a much superior team.
The bathhouse here caught the last few years of the Byzantine era and smelled of mildew, sweat and 400 years of exfoliated human skin lining the drains. Whereas the public saunas in Korea you go completely naked and soak in pools of different temperatures, the hammams here are more modest, so you go in your bathing suit and are scrubbed by the docent with an exfoliating brush and just sit and sweat afterwards. The ceiling has a few dimly lit holes letting in light from above, but it’s generally a dark, dank, rudimentary place that has that has remarkably withstood the test of time despite rarely innovating its facilities.
So far, we’ve been able to cobble together enough French, Arabic and Spanish as a family to get around, but the farthest reaches of Morocco will test our ingenuity when English speakers dry up. In the meantime, we’ll be taking those turns slower, and having some baksheesh ready for whatever policeman or delicatessen selling pastry shop lies in wait, ready to surprise us at the next turn.