On Ramadan, Tummy Bugs and Food Porn: Notes from Chefchaouen

I’m not even going to bother writing an impractical guide to Chefchaouen.

It would consist wholly of stifling hot bedrooms, baking hot terraces, rumbling tummies, fevered brows, the same stretches of empty and well-trodden lane, closed doors, silence. You’d have to be floored with a ferocious tummy bug and exhaustion to truly retrace my footsteps.

We are still in Chefchaouen. Day 5. Or maybe 6.

 

Still ain’t nobody here but us chickens.

 

We were supposed to have left yesterday morning, on a bus back to Fes. According to our optimistically insane original plan, we would then be hanging around in baking hot Fes from 3pm until 9:30pm, which was when our even more delusionally optimistic overnight bus to Merzouga was to have left. I still have the tickets for both in my wallet.

Six and a half hours, with nowhere to lay our bags or to rest our heads.

Six and a half hours in the crankiest, hottest hours leading up to the end of the fast.

Six and a half hours in a city we were already up to here with.

And then 12 more hours on a bus into the desert. Where we would then proceed deeper into the desert, on camel back, to go camping.

In the heat of summer.

In Ramadan.

Did I mention that Doug was still sick?  And that I was teetering on the edge of it, precarious from chronic insomnia?

No, it simply wouldn’t do.

At midnight two nights ago, in our tiny, overheated, fanless room at the guesthouse where we spent our first three brutal, sleepless, fevered nights here, accompanied by the late night revelries of our neighbours who celebrated their feasting hours by banging on things and blowing horns until all hours, we abruptly changed our minds about everything we had planned.

A great big hypothetical red X was scrawled across the lower half of our Lonely Planet map of Morocco and we started to look longingly at places that were, say, three hours away. On the coast. Maybe with a pool. And a terrace. And a fan, at least.

At 1am, I emailed one of the cushiest riads that we could feasibly afford in Chefchaouen and booked 2 more nights. We weren’t going anywhere soon.

I couldn’t decide whether I was old, tired, burnt out, sick or lazy.

After barely 2 weeks in Morocco, all I wanted to do was stay inside and sleep for a week. Which is why we are still in Chefchaouen two days later, in a riad we can only afford if we close our eyes and pretend the price is in, say, Burmese kyats. It overlooks the town and the sprawl of the surrounding low rise mountains. It’s a very, very pretty room, with an Arabesque chaise longue for me to lie in and indulge in my nausea and dizziness. The bed is huge and engulfing. We’re sleeping like Sims running on empty.

 

The view isn’t bad. And the mini-private-terrace ain’t so bad either.

 

At first I felt strangely guilty, not wanting to go out and explore much. I did that in the first few days here, while Doug stayed in the room, sick. I ventured out into the unnaturally silent back streets in search of something, anything open, so I could bring back bread and cheese, perhaps, or even just a bottle of water. I said hello and had brief chats with the few people who had also ventured out (old man, artist, cat). Most of the time, it was deserted.

The thing is, Ramadan changes everything here.

In Ramadan, I’ve been told repeatedly, everything shuts down. Or if it doesn’t shut down entirely, then it only opens for Iftar. The things that are open are catering to the tourist set: souvenirs, set menus containing the same 5 tired dishes in four languages, more souvenirs. Anything off the beaten track, away from the touts, is closed. Bus service is limited; seats sell out immediately. Grand taxi prices skyrocket and haggling changes nothing. Ramadan is, overwhelmingly, a prix fixe month.

Everyone’s circadian rhythms are rearranged during Ramadan. Days are silent, empty. If there were tumbleweeds here, they’d roll past. Shops are shuttered tight. If you want to go exploring, all you will see are cats and closed doors and tourist trinkets and their vendors.

 

Men at the night cafe.

 

The nights are crowded, noisy, brisk. The dusk streets are filled with kids, running, shouting, blowing on party horns. People buying up rounds of bread, trays of dates, bags of syrup soaked sweets, massive bottles of drinking water.  People often stay up until the sohur drummer comes by at 2 or 3am, making sure no one sleeps through the opposite of breakfast. Night time streets in Chefchaouen in Ramadan smell like hashish and bread.

 

Setting out the syrupy sweets for evening shoppers.

 

They eat their last meal in the early hours of morning, before sunrise, before starting the next round of fasting. Some then sleep until the following afternoon, to best avoid the stress, heat, and exertion of trying to function on no food or drink or nicotine. Others, like builders and cleaners and cooks in touristy restaurants, must face their hunger, thirst, exhaustion, frustration head on.

Today is Friday, the holiest day of the week during an already holy month. The noon call to prayer lasted most of the early afternoon. It was lilting, droning, hypnotic. Nothing is open, which is just as well as I’m too dizzy and nauseous to leave my decadent orange chaise longue. Doug wandered out on his own at midday, after 4 days of feeling appalling and barely eating at all, to try to find something to eat. There were even fewer options available than usual. He came back with a tiny cup of strawberry yogurt  for me and a few tiny bags of Spanish crisps.

Even if there had been places open, places where you hide yourself discretely at the back or upstairs so as to not offend or tempt or torment, there is the issue of quality. With no one eating until sunset- and very few Moroccans eating out in general, as Ramadan is a time for family and home cooking- menus shrink in scope (Tagine or couscous? Or maybe you prefer couscous or tagine?) and the food that’s there is often sitting there…and sitting there…for ages. Guesthouse managers have told me incidents of food poisoning go up during Ramadan because turnover in restaurants drops sharply.

Sometimes, as a non-Muslim  living and travelling often in Muslim countries, I try to find excuses for myself for not fasting. I feel rude looking for food before sunset.  I tell myself, well, I’m exempt because, say, I’m travelling. Or I’m sick (I am). Or I’ve got my period. Or, simply, I’m not Muslim. When I was in Turkey, I tried fasting for the first few years but failed miserably even though those Ramadans fell in the cushy, dark, cool winter months. My blood sugar plummeted and I spent days trying to not faint while teaching. It’s hard to wrangle ten year olds when you’re fighting back the stars in your eyes and the closing darkness.

Today, my excuse is that I’m sick.

Tomorrow we will head out to Tangier in an overpriced, private grand taxi (all to ourselves because we haven’t the energy to wait until a shared one fills up, to bargain fiercely, and even less energy to then change and re-bargain at Tetouan and then again in the outskirts of Tangier). Every bus seat was booked up days ago.

To be honest, I’m happy to be carried from door to door. I’m tired. I’m sick. I’ve barely slept in a week. I’m glad we drew that giant red X across the lower half of the country and took the softer, gentler route along the coast.

I know this puts me firmly in the travel wuss category, but at this point, I don’t mind. I like passively looking out the window at Morocco.  I look forward to iftar. I look forward to catching up on my sleep.

I’m going to consider this my minimalist tour de Maroc.

 

Well past my bed time.

 

Let me now show you my etchings: Food Porn (the Iftar Edition)

 

Rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Italian wife, Moroccan husband who looks like an imam (and who speaks fluent Italian). Easy to walk past and not even see the entrance.

 

Not a bad view, really. Both times, we were the only people up there.

 

Their antipasti.

 

Made from scratch. Real tomatoes. Real parmesan, brought down from Italy.

 

Last night’s iftar olive selection.

 

Action shot of bread.

 

Goat cheese salad. Drizzle of lemon and oil.

 

Veggie tagine, with spoonfuls of harissa thrown in for good measure.

 

Chicken pastilla (no pigeon available), sprinkled with the unexpected- cinnamon and icing sugar.

 

There are chopped nuts and spices amongst the shreds of bird.

 

A slightly nibbled tarte au citron. It was lovely.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.