“Mom, I’m hungry.”
“Have a banana and go back to sleep.” I look at the clock. 2:00 a.m. Two nights in a row.
“Okay. Here, I left you a little bit.”
“Thank you, now go to sleep.” I toss and turn, trying to get comfortable despite my aching left arm. No, don’t Google it.
I do, anyway. Of course, first result is a heart attack. Waves of thoughts drown my brain like what if I die in my sleep and Vivian is left alone in the room, by herself, in a country half way around the world from what she knows. Stop, you are not having a heart attack.
My chest tightens and my jaw aches as my brain struggles to get a gasp of rational air. I think about my mom, the issues she’s having and trying to hide, the vivacious and unstoppable person I once knew slowly disappearing under the strain of trying to keep herself the same.
Stop. You are having an anxiety attack, calm down. Deep breaths.
For an hour in a minute, I take deep breaths against a wet pillow. I’m not ready for any of this.
We woke to the sound of rain against the window pane. Looking at the clock, I realized I slept past my intended time due to two nights of interrupted sleep. Vivian was still sleeping soundly, so I started getting myself ready before waking her.
Vivian’s favorite view from our room
Running about five minutes late, we met up with our traveling companion for breakfast before getting ready to meet our guide for the day.
So far, I have been unable to eat everything put in front of me. Not from a lack of trying, the food is delicious. I can see the various influences of cultures from the Roman olives to the foods brought back along the spice routes from India. It’s like I’ve died and gone to foodie heaven.
Unfortunately, the serving sizes are massive. At the risk of appearing rude for not eating all the food, I eat what I can before pushing myself to sickness.
Unlike some of the other tourists staying in the riad, we bravely face the mist and rain in order to experience ChefChaouen. We meet with our guide for the day in the downstairs lobby of the riad. While previous travel has involved wandering around finding nooks and crannies, the compromise involves 4 guided tours.
I’m beginning to understand the benefit of guided tours.
The first thing we learned is why Chefchaouen is blue. There are many reasons, but the primary had to do with diseases and mosquitoes. Children were at particular risk, so in order to protect the children the whole city was painted blue. When asked why blue, the guide’s best guess was something in how they make the blue dye puts off a scent that is a repellent.
It’s true, there was not a single fly or bug to be found in the old medina.
Also, the color blue was specific to the Jewish refugees who were part of the original formation of the medina and is of significance to Islam as well. And the blue repels the sun, creating a naturally cool environment inside the houses in the hot summers.
So really, all the reasons people have heard are true, according to our guide. All except the Jewish refugees coming only during WWII. The Jewish community was second in the country after the Berbers, long before the Moors and before Morocco’s conversion to Islam.
As we wandered up and down the small corridors and steep stairs, our guide educated us on the strong original culture that resides within the walls of the old medina. Despite addition of electricity in 1948, most houses still use candles for lighting, the old Arabic dialect is still used, and protection of the children is still the number one priority of all residents.
Revised rule #1 still stands for this trip, but my first discomfort from cultural shock is slightly relieved while in this small town. As my cultural shock subsides, Vivian’s will increase, though.
In the upper part of the town near the newer sections outside the medina walls, there were tourists in every pathway and alley. The further we meandered and talked, the fewer tourists we saw. Instead, we found people going about their daily lives. Children ran bread from their homes to the local bakers as we were told about the local infrastructure supporting the elderly with no family and the destitute with no money.
The medina wall against nature
While my mom and her cousin were awed by how many families live together in a single house, anywhere from two to six families of five or more people, I was struck by the vibrant green of the mountains against the blue city.
After the French defeated the Spanish, the medina was no longer allowed it’s own king and government, and the city grew outside the walls though hampered by the terrain. Also, as the city grew in size the threat from monkeys, wolves, and other wildlife including invaders grew less. However, the old city within the walls remains a cultural entity of purity while an international tourist magnet.
After walking for about two hours, our travel companion was ready to head back to the riad for a rest and I was tired of carrying Vivian on my back while trying to balance an umbrella. Our guide walked us through the maze of streets to the riad, and Vivian and I went in search for lunch on our own.
So far, walking the streets alone with my daughter, finding the restaurant suggested by the riad, and spending an hour just me and her has been a highlight of this trip. For just a moment, we were flexible and immersed in exploring and experiencing.
I am starting to get a sense of watching friends, though. When Vivian and I walked to the restaurant, we were greeted at the door by someone who was expecting us. Yet at no time during lunch did they greet anyone else in that manner.
The skylight over the riad plaza
We returned to the riad to relax in the room before joining my mom and her cousin for supper. I feel confident of the small portion of the medina we’ve learned so far, walking from restaurants and the riad in increasingly larger circles. Another day or two, and I could easily navigate the tiny town on my own.
However, we do not have a couple more days as we are scheduled to leave for Fes.
The awkward dance of not stepping on each other’s toes will become more awkward the next day after leaving the protection of the tiny blue city in the mountains, as we come face to face with the reality of traveling together, traveling as Americans in Islamic North Africa, and traveling as each struggles with their own bit of travel sickness.