Beep! Beep! The sharp honk of a white scooter pulled me out of my trance.
Monday in Chefchaouen: it’s a market day. Traders set up stalls or lay their wares on tarps along the sidewalks down Calle Zerktouni, a short street off Avenida Hassan II, and continue into the residential areas. Outside the blue and whitewashed medina it was loud, full of life and full of locals. Women in djellabas crowded around one seller–he was hard to miss because he was throwing a toddler-sized pink and white fleece djellaba in the air and yelling something in Arabic I couldn’t understand. The women rummaged through his piles of the warm, traditional clothing.
I caught the stares of many, ostensibly the only tourist in the melee. They weren’t menacing looks and unlike in the medina, no one beckoned me to “Take a look”. They were the eyes of the curious, trying to place me when I had left the confines of the place where I am understood: in the medina, among leather shops, artisans, and spice sellers, buying things for prices they would never pay.
A woman in a blue-grey headscarf caught my eye. She was olive-skinned with piercing hazel eyes and I thought “She doesn’t look like many of the Moroccans I have seen until now.” It was then I started to notice that I had seen more light eyes, ranging from the brightest of browns to the iciest of blues, and fair skin in the last two days than I had seen in the last month of my trip to Morocco…
* * *
As I left the souk hebdomadaire I still felt a bit in a daze. I didn’t have any particular plan so I decided not to overthink it. I saw the sign for Ras El Ma–the source of water that runs down the mountain and feeds the medina’s water fountains. I followed the sign, walking among the schoolchildren heading home for their lunch break.
After a steep uphill, there was a fork in the road but no signs and no one to ask which path to take. I went left, following the cars and taxis. Eventually I arrived at the bottom of a stony hill and I just felt I should climb instead of follow the paved road to the top. I figured that the journey would be just as good as the destination, and perhaps more rewarding. It was a well-worn path between people’s homes, but most of the marks in the mud were hooves–donkeys or goats I suppose.
As I started up the hill, I saw the old Spanish mosque that the owner of my hostel said I should see. I decided to use that as my target for the climb since I couldn’t seem to figure out where the source was, even though I tried to walk upstream. I would go to the source tomorrow.
* * *
Another fork on the trail. One looked impossibly steep, the other a more gradual but muddy walk. I went right this time and eventually lost sight of the mosque I was using to keep my bearings. Eventually that path came to an end with a red fence blocking my entry to what was likely someone’s home.
I turned around and saw a gap in the trees leading up. I debated with myself. “Going up might just lead to steep path you won’t be able to manage; going back the way you came…Well, you know what’s there already.” I started climbing up, past a field of sheep to the sound of barking dogs (I was certain I was trespassing at this point). After a few minutes of climbing I could see the mosque again. I paused to catch my breath: it was a steep ascent and my legs were quivering. I turned around to see how far I had made it.
Looking over the towns in the v alley, I was proud. I found a new energy. I turned around and made a dash to the top. At the exact moment I was level with the mosque at the top of the hill, I heard it:
“Allaaaaaaahu akbar…” It was the afternoon call to prayer. Soon every minaret was exploding with the sound, every muezzin calling in his own style, echoing through the mountains behind me. I turned around, I just wanted to see everything to the soundtrack of this chaotic symphony of words.
I’m not a religious person but at the top of that hill, nearly in the clouds, feeling so small among the layers of mountains and valleys in the distance, it was a spiritual experience. I felt alive and at peace at the same time. I closed my eyes to let the sound of the call to prayer take over, to feel the wind swirl around me.
At that moment I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt serenity and inspiration.
It was the first time since starting this solo backpacking trip in Morocco where I wasn’t wishing I was sharing the experience with someone else. I was content to be there without the self-consciousness, wondering if they were thinking or feeling the same way.
I can only remember feeling that a few other times in my life and each one makes me well up when I think about it. It’s those moments where everything just seems to come together–a feeling of achievement, a sense of awe, vulnerability–and you just feel like your heart is bursting with…I don’t know, love?
I walked back towards the medina using the agave cacti and prickly pear lined path I should have taken, crossing paths with young goat herders and other travellers. At the end of the trail was Ras El Ma, the source I was looking for. I laughed to myself–isn’t life funny? Even when you don’t arrive where you wanted to, you still find what you were looking for.