Morocco: An Exercise in Saturated Sensation

Mohamed calls it green but I’d say it’s more like turquoise. I don’t know how to say turquoise in Arabic, nor can I describe the most of the hues of the mosque’s zelij pattern. Navy and seafoam, off-white and azure. Tall and stately and a splendid sight for travel-weary eyes, the qa’abeh of the Hassan II mosque stands far above the remainder of  Casablanca. With only an hour or two to while away before out bus ride, we hail a cab to take us where our guidebookless sensibilities direct us– the place we can find without a guidebook. Mohamed is our cab driver’s name, and with a warm snaggle-toothed smile he agrees to chauffer us to the mosque and then the bus station. He even throws in his personal tour.

Enormous swells rise from their ocean bed and collapse like thunder, spraying visitors of the former King’s seaside legacy. Mohamed takes our picture and tells us the mosque can and has held 100,000 worshipers. The size is impressive, but I am more taken with colors that weave their way through intricate zelij, Moroccan style mosaic that clings to columns, arches, fountains and floors. Navy and seafoam, off-white and azure. They bewitch and enchant me. I decide I like Morocco.

Corbet on Wheels

As our bus rolls north into the countryside, the colors graduate into a pastoral palette, and I feel as though I am driving through the Gustave Corbet painting “Stone Breakers,” gone African. The walls of the hills, cut open unwillingly to pave roadways, reveal their raw innermost red. It’s a saturated brick color that I associate with native American pottery and rural Rwandan roads. Grass of various milky browns colonize the vibrant soil, as do trees whose olive green leaves betray their likely fruit. Donkeys of deep brackish brown and black shade themselves beside walls of white stucco; cows graze amidst tall verdant stalks with golden feather tips. In and out of consciousness I watch children with cinnamon skin and Spiderman backpacks (the hero seems to have cultivated quite a following in the Arab world) wander home from school past men chatting in gray cafes. I fall asleep watching murky clumps of sheep draw patterns across a surface that mimics their hue like a chameleon.

Darkness descends, dragging the bus up a winding mountain path that causes a woman in the seat across from me to vomit into a plastic bag. Brianna’s face turns sickly pale under her red hair. A few yellow lights dot the distant horizon, illuminating the way to Chefchaouen.

Impossibly entangled alleyways stretch before us in this small town, a product of the medieval sensibility that continues to reign here. We are so taken with the sight that we sit in our taxi in the center of town for a good five minutes before the driver wonders cheerily in Arabic, “Are you going to stay with me for the night, then, or do you prefer a hotel?”

I’m in Morocco! Thrilled with this realization I purchase a celebratory guidebook, even though we’ve already purchased the necessary chapters online. Allie buys two sandwiches for a portly old woman who begs by the entrance of the medina. She lights up and wipes her hands on her red and white striped skirt, lays the sandwiches beside her and continues to beg.

Blue this town and Everybody Around

We wake up in blue. It is our hotel walls, the view out the window and  everything we could not quite see during our dusk arrival. There is hardly a horizon between sky and buildings. The constant flow of color is interrupted only by the starchy green mountains that dare to peak through this soliloquy of blue.

At 7 AM we descend the hotel steps to capture the light most flattering to our resident color, grabbing hungrily at the morning shades with our camera lenses. Robed figures with pointy hoods scurry past amidst morning errands, as do uniformed children and teens with books in tow. I chase after colors until I find that I have done so at the expense of staying with my fellow photographers. I am suddenly alone in a strange town. The blue darkens and grows sinister.

Breathing to collect the calm I have dropped, I gather my composure into a basket of hopes for time alone. As I start to search for my lost comrades, adrift in a sea of blue alleys and wrong turns, my calls of American names drown in unfamiliar ears. I ask a woman with light eyes and a pink night-gown like dress if she has seen two American girls taking pictures. Her response is only confusion, probably caused principally by the sound of a white American girl speaking the unspoken Standard Arabic, then she reconsiders and points towards a downward sloping road. I follow it, finding a window-sized door that opens onto a one room doughnut shop, where people break the night’s fast with sizzling oil drenched pastries. I try to remain cheery as I attempt to decipher the chef’s response to my repeated question about the Americans. The same woman from earlier points be further down the road.

Now on the main street, car-less in this early hour, I recognize the book store where I purchased my guide the night before. Alhamdulilah! I know my way back to the hotel from here, where the others must no doubt be waiting worriedly. Yes, all I have to do is head up a street right in front of it… but something tells me the only street there is in front of it is the wrong one. I buy a pan au chocolat to temporarily relieve my lost-ness and commence to walk up and down the same street four or five times, bewildered. The woman at the bottom of the street who is counting out olive branches hardly looks up from her tasks as she shakes her head in response to my query about the Americans. In desperation I approach a cab driver with the card that holds my hotel’s address, and when he shakes his head I am about to give up, remembering that New York Times Column I read whose concept is “getting lost.” I wonder why anyone would want to write a column about getting lost, as the frustration is far from inspirational or interesting, until, can it be? The cab’s fare knows the hotel and points to a tunnel burrowed in the side of the wall, which in the day light, I didn’t recognize as the entrance to the medina. Panic releases its constricting grip and I decide that perhaps getting lost was actually kinda fun. The blue cracks a smile, shaking its head knowingly at yet another tourist that has fallen under its spell.

Wake up and smell the sights, touch the taste, hear the sensations

The rest of the day is spent wandering through minor destinations in constant presence of picture-perfect scenes, which we of course take pictures of. Sensual experiences bombard our every sensor: piles of pure color—the powdery paint base that’s responsible for the town’s hue, henna on our hands that makes our irritated skin feel like stretched canvasses, steaming heaps of vegetables over yellow couscous and under yellow raisins, a creaking wooden staircase that leads to a mecca of soap with rich scents of all the best and strangest kinds, mint and rose and curry. I bargain with a man who has on display a collection of bills from around the world. I get the price of silver earrings down to half the quoted price, then switch targets at the last minute and pay the first quote on a pair of candle sticks, and elemental error that I continue to beat myself up for after miles of blue walls.

The sun sighs and begins to set, turning blue into deep periwinkle. We search for a waterfall we read about in lonely planet, but it turns out to be more of a trickle than a fall, all of which is guided down a serious of damns that serve as the town laundry machine and who knows what else. Not surprised, (Lonely Planet, to which Allie is a dogmatic devotee, has repeatedly disappointed in this town), we wander irresolutely up the mountain past a door to nowhere, that is of course painted blue. I photograph the door and imagine it to open onto another town like this one, only purple, or to have once opened to a family home where the people only wore blue and had a blue cat, or to be un-openable, pinned shut by the varicose thorns of a miserly cactus. The possibilities linger in my imagination as a goatherd clucks his goats up the hill, and they scurry past the sun as it yawns and tucks into its blue bed.


*Due to internet troubles I could not upload photos to this post, but if you want to see pictures you can look at my album on facebook:

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