Our brother/sister trip around Africa ground to a halt at its second stop, in Chefchaouen, Morocco.
Chefchaouen is a sleepy little pueblo in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. The entire medina is painted different shades of blue, creating a surreal effect when wandering the streets. Tourism has exploded here in recent years; “even five years ago, Chefchaouen was nothing,” my local friends said.
Chefchaouen is famous for three things, they’d continue:
- The water, which comes straight down from the nearby mountains, and is some of the purest drinking water in all of Morocco;
- The hashish, which is grown in the nearby mountains and offered to you everywhere;
- And ‘the relax.’
Sounds pretty good, right?
Yeah, sounded pretty good to me, too.
“I have to come here at least once a year,” said Waheeb, a Moroccan climber I meet in Chaouen. Waheeb’s a character: he claims to have crossed Africa on foot, from Somalia to Senegal. And I have no reason to doubt his claim.
“Even if I am somewhere else in the world, I will return to Morocco — just to visit Chaouen. My soul just doesn’t feel right if I don’t visit this place enough,” he told me one night, sitting out in the crisp mountain air, staring at the stars.
I could see where he was coming from.
Chefchaouen felt like a bath for my weary soul.
Christina and I took jobs at a hostel in Chaouen.
For four hours a day, I sat at the front desk, played music, and chatted with interesting people from all around the world.
Not a bad job. One of the better ones I’ve ever had, to be honest.
Pay wasn’t much (wasn’t anything), but the experience was more than worth it, in my opinion.
If only because sitting at that desk is where I met C.
I passed 10 weeks in Chefchaouen.
A pleasant period, in memory. Long, easy days in the sun; people, coming and going; and women.
There is no easier way to become a great flirt than as a receptionist.
Take passport, smile big, make eye contact. Ask questions. Fill out paperwork. Try to be interested. If you’re not, don’t fake it. Move on; don’t get fixated. Watch the body language. Play good music. Let the people churn around you. If it all goes bad; they’ll be gone tomorrow.
A fine, open way to live your life.
You can read further thoughts on this topic in Chefchaouen: a Story of People.
I have many flaws. There is much about myself I do not like. But I think my openness is, far and away, my greatest trait. I won’t ever apologize for it.
Allowing yourself to grow close to people, though, comes with its risks.
She walked up to me speaking rapid-fire French.
The horrified expression on my face must have given me away, because a second later, she said, in English: “Oh. You don’t speak French.”
I laughed. “Noooo.”
“Don’t you speak French here in Morocco though?” she asked.
“They do, more in the south,” I answered. “I’m also not Moroccan.”
“Oh really? Where are you from?”
“I’m from the States.“
“Really? How’d you end up here?” she asked. I got this question a lot, sitting at the desk in Chaouen. This was such a common exchange, that I’d come up with a variety of off-the-cuff answers.
“Just doing some illegal immigration,” I said with a wink. We riffed on the topic for a minute. She got in her digs about Trump. I took them stoically, with a smile. What else was there to do?
“So, are you here to check in?”
“Yeah, but I’m supposed to meet a group of my friends,” she said. “Are they here yet?”
“Ah, the big group?” I asked, looking down at the reservations sheet.
Bookings at our hostel were recorded on an oversize sheet of paper: three sheets of paper, really, taped together. Across the top, the seven days of the week were written in French, atop the columns. Down the left axis, the five rooms of the hostel, subdivided into our 32 beds. When we got a booking, we wrote the name in the cell. If a person cancelled, we took a scrap of cut-out paper, and carefully glued it over their name. It was a mess of a system; written by four different people in three different languages. But that was Chefchaouen — Beautiful chaos.
“No,” I told the woman in front of me. “They haven’t shown up yet.”
“I’ll wait!” she said, happily. “I’ll just go sit outside,” she said, and went out the front door. She took a seat in the alley out our door, where I could see her. She happily gazed off into the blue distance.
I passed a lot of time in that alley myself; it was warm, sunny, and you could watch life passing by: the slow rhythms of a quiet mountain town. Old men in traditional djellabas — huge robes that made them look wizard-ish. Women in burqas, women in hijab, women going uncovered despite the mutterings that followed them. Children, from the nearby school, running erratically, putting their fingers on the glass cases of the shopkeepers, asking for 6 eggs, a 2 dirham loaf of bread — running the errands for their parents. Cats coming, this way and that: there are endless cats in Chefchaouen. The Moroccans love them.
It was a good alley.
I let her be, and turned my attentions to my Moroccan friend, Mohammed.
Mohammed came and hung out with me sometimes in the evenings. He worked at another hotel in town, and he worked hard. “Who was that? Is she staying here?” he asked. “Yeah, I said, she’s with a big group, but the rest of them aren’t here yet.”
“She can stay in here, she knows, right?” Mohammed asked. Moroccan guys are always trying to spend time with foreign women.
I smiled. “Yeah, I think she’s just gonna sit out there and wait,” I said. I shrugged. “If she wants to be cold, let her be. So how’s work, man? How you been?”
“When I get off, bro, all I want to do is come here sometime, you know?” Mohammed told me. “It’s too much, lately. I just want to travel. It’s all I can think about.”
“You should!”” I said. “Have you found someone to watch your hotel yet?”
“No,” he lamented. “Since you turned down my offer,” I don’t have anyone else reliable to turn to,” he said.
I had turned down Mo’s offer to take his place. It hadn’t been a very good offer. And I liked getting to see my sister every day. That was how I had let him down: “Este, aqui, es una cosa hermosa, a trabajar con mi hermana cada dia, sabes? No estaría lo mismo.”
Mohammed and I mostly talked in Spanish. It was neither of our first languages, and truthfully, we could communicate better in English. But we both found enjoyment in the sound and the feeling of español — so that’s how we talked, mostly.
Chefchaouen, again, I have to say it: a wonderful, dreamy place.
Mohammed and I passed some memorable evenings, sitting at that desk, talking of life and playing the guitar. That evening, too, was memorable. We passed an hour or so, chatting, talking shit, and listening to music. Watching the woman in the alley, as night fell, and she got chillier and chillier.
“You can come in, you know,” we called out to her. “You can join us!”
She jolted awake, seemingly shaken from her reverie. She looked around, as if noticing where she was. She rubbed her bare shoulders, and then agreed with us — it was cold. She joined us in the lobby.
“Hablas español?” we asked her, continuing as we had been.
“Sim,” she responded. “Hablo em pequeno.”
She spoke with a strange accent, and the grammar was bad — and if I notice your Spanish grammar’s bad, it is bad.
We tried to converse for a few lines, before she said: “I can’t! Every time I try to speak Spanish, Portuguese just keeps coming out!!”
We laughed. “That’s ok, we can speak English.”
“I was living in Lisbon for the past six months,” she clarified. “I’m thinking in Portuguese.”
“Ah, I’ve heard good things about Lisbon,” I said. “I was hoping to go there on this trip, actually, but it didn’t work out.”
“Oh!” she said, swooning. “You have to go! It’s so magical. I love her… I’ve just applied for a job with an Italian company. Now I’m on holiday, then back to Italy, where I’ll convince them to give me the job. But if they don’t, I’ll do as you do, and go work in a hostel in Lisbon. She’s worth it!”
“I’m sure you’ll get the job,” I said, reassuringly.
“I hope so!!” she said. “It’s like a dream job… I had the first interview, and it went well, so I’ll just have to convince them how great I am.”
“Ahhh I just applied for a job too,” I said. “Writing for a rock climbing magazine.”
“Really?” she asked. “You’re a writer?” I nodded. “What’s your dream job?”
“Writing for a rock climbing magazine,” I deadpanned. Then I laughed. “I love to climb,” I added. “It’s one of my passions.”
“You must have really strong hands then,” she said.
I shrugged and held them out for her examination. She grabbed them, rubbed a bit. I smiled. “Rough…” she said. She raised her face from my hands to my face. Our eyes glanced off one another.
“My hands are smooth,” she said, quickly. “I’m a total wimp.”
“Dame,” I said, gesturing. “Gimme.”
They were smooth. Not the hands of a person who spent much time outside, if at all.
I rubbed them for a second, and let them fall.
Mohammed was still sitting beside me — and that was enough flirting for an introduction, anyways.
“Want me to check you in?” I said. “I can do it before the rest of your group arrives. Then you can go drop your stuff off in your room, head upstairs — whatever.”
“Yeah, that’d be great!” she said.
“I’ll need your passport,” I told her.
Repubblica Italiana, I saw, emblazoned on the cover. Pasaporto. “Ah, Italian?” I asked. “Bad news for you — I generally don’t like Italians.”
“Why not?!” she asked, offended.
“Dunno,” I said. “The ones I’ve met just don’t gel with me.”
“Well,” she said, “ have you ever been to Italy?”
“Nah, I said. “Never had a reason.”
“Most Americans don’t travel much,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“No, most of them don’t,” I said as I flipped through her passport, idly.
The only real thing I had to do as a hostel receptionist was copy down people’s passport information. All the information on the data page went into our big book, and then we had to get the Moroccan visa number from the entry stamp.
The Moroccans liked to stamp passports on the very last page; and I liked to flip through all the other pages before getting to that last one. It provided a good way to get to know a bit about a person. And you could almost always ask something about a person’s travel history that would trigger further conversation.
Lots of Europeans backpackers came through Chefchaouen. Many had pretty similar passports. Turkey; Thailand; LOTS of Macchu Picchu.
This one had three big Zambia visas.
“Zambia?” I asked, surprised. “What the heck were you doing in Zambia?”
“Well, she said, “that’s where you have to do the visa run from Mozambique.”
I raised my eyebrows even further. “And what were you doing in Mozambique?”
She paused for a perceptible second. A calculation took place. “Well,” she said. “I followed my girlfriend.”
“That’s really cool,” I said. “I love shit like that.” I flipped to the Moroccan stamp, copied down the visa number, and handed her her passport back. I smiled big. Her fingers brushed mine as she reclaimed her document. My heart fluttered.
We chatted a little more.
I finished checking her in. Mohammed said his goodbyes. The rest of her group arrived. I checked them in.
I clocked out, went upstairs, and found my sister.
”I’ve just met the coolest woman,” I said. “I think I might be a little bit in love with her. My only problem is, she’s a lesbian.”
It wasn’t a joke.
“Well,” Christina said, “There’s not much you can do about it if she’s a lesbian.”
“Ah, all I know is the last person she dated was a woman,” I justified. “This is 2017, that doesn’t mean anything, really.”
“Fair,” Christina responded, noncommitally.
“There was some chemistry there,” I said. “I’m gonna go for it anyways.”
That was the start of my problems.