Back at home, safe and sound, and much improved for a good night’s rest and some non-rich, non-spicy Moroccan food eaten at a normal hour instead of late at night.

Travel provides such immense context: there’s really nothing like going somewhere completely different to make where you’ve come from feel like home. Even then, you adjust so quickly. When we flew out of the Casablanca airport yesterday, after four hours of driving from Fez, we remarked on how strange it all seemed when we first arrived. But after just one week, the airport looked perfectly normal, civilized even, compared to the wilds of the Fez medina. And Lisbon — oh, Lisbon! It now seems like a paragon of modernity, cleanliness, and efficiency. I guess that is the point of travel, after all, to put where you’ve come from into context.

Context I certainly gained from this trip. It literally feels like I’ve returned from another world, an Alice in Wonderland place where everything is more: more loud, more bright, more friendly, more vibrant, more spicy… just more. Of everything. Some of it was utterly incomprehensible, such as the streets in the medina (any attempt to use a map was a total joke) or the complicated system of baksheesh and bureaucracy. Other things were totally familiar, such as the smiles people gave me, or the way the women and I bonded without a word over beautiful jewelry, intricate henna, or cute children.

I am glad to be back, and have to laugh at how suddenly this is the place where everything feels easier. Once I struggled to understand or do anything here, to keep up my walls against the onslaught of the outer world, but no more. As we were driving back through Lisbon yesterday afternoon, I felt myself relaxing and expanding, almost the same way I do in California. This is definitely home now, or the closest thing I can get to it short of flying for 15 hours. Gabe and I went out to the store later on, and we greeted our neighbors and walked down the street with confidence, just as you would at home. How things change.

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To quickly catch you up on the past few days…

Our intrepid guide informed us on Sunday night that he had managed to procure a more comfortable car than the 20 year old convertible, so we agreed that he would pick us up early on Monday morning to head up into the Rif mountains. Our goal for the day was a small town named Chefchaouen, although since it took 3 hours of driving to reach it from Fez, the journey really was more important than the destination.

This trip let us see our fourth and final snapshot of Morocco, which began with two big and very different cities, Casa and Rabat, then moved on to the Fez medina, and finally took us up into the mountains. All four were distinctly different: Casa was big and impersonal, hectic and dirty; Rabat refined and European, with a quiet old medina and the wonderful Chellah; Fez was a patchwork tapestry of colors, smells, people, and tastes.

The mountains showed us yet another side of Morocco, starting as we wound up from Fez through the foothills of the Rif and into the craggy crests of the mountains themselves. The lush fields of the lower valley gradually gave way to hillsides covered in olive trees and herds of “geep” (goats and sheep, a term coined by our guide), donkeys by the roadside, and small towns along the way, then at last to scrub and brush winding along a narrow, gravelly river. The last bit reminded me of nothing more than driving up through the Sierras, or along the Eel River as a child — that’s the thing about California, it encompasses so many different kinds of landscape that you’ll always find things that look familiar wherever you travel.

After climbing the long, winding road up through the mountains (which made us all very, very glad we hadn’t elected to hire a car and do it ourselves!), we at last came around a corner to see a steep valley with a white and blue town painted across the opposite hillside. We had reached Chefchaouen.

This small mountainous town was certainly quieter than Fez, with a much more low-key medina, but physically it was even more bright and colorful. I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but it was. The people dressed in a riotous mosaic of colors, which our guide told us was a Berber thing — the women wore aprons of brightly striped blue and red material, often with another strip of fabric wrapped around their waists, then headscarves in yet another color. I was sad that it wasn’t warm enough for them to wear their traditional straw hats, which had strips of brightly colored tufts of wool sticking out of the seams along its tall conical shape. We did see them for sale, but it wasn’t the same.

The buildings themselves were also brighter than the dusty tans and browns of Fez. Almost all of them were painted in various shades of blue, which my guidebook informed me was done by Jewish refugees from Spain. Some of the stairways and passages between the buildings looked like they were cut into icebergs, their cool blue tones stretching back into enticing courtyards. It was marvelous, and fed my obsession with photographing doorways.

We ate lunch, and then committed ourselves to doing what our guide told us the town was good for: “pottering” around the streets, doing a bit of shopping, and generally taking it all in. I made my first and almost only purchase, a brightly colored scarf handwoven by an old man who was blind in one eye, although I insulted him deeply by refusing to barter with him. We also stopped for our second cup of mint tea at a hotel that our guide was checking out for some other clients, which gave us a chance to see inside one of the houses and get an incredible view over the rooftops. It helps to have good connections.

On the far side of town, we came across a gushing river springing out of the mountain, which had been channeled into thatched open-sided huts for doing laundry on either side of the river. The women there were using the built in boards to scrub out their clothing in the fast moving water, making me intone my customary mantra: “I love my life, I love my life…”

Before long, it was time to turn for home again, which we did reluctantly, hesitant to leave such a beautiful town after taking so long to get there. Darkness fell while we were driving, and again, we were glad to have a level-headed and hugely competent driver at the wheel, as the trucks and slow vans with no headlights had claimed the middle of the road and were not easy to pass. We got home safely, very late but happy to have glimpsed another side of Morocco on our whirlwind highlight tour of the country.

We might as well have just slept in the car, for less than ten hours later, we were back in our guide’s car again to make the long drive down to the Casa airport. Originally, we’d planned to take a mid-afternoon flight out of Casa, which would leave us plenty of time to get the train back from Fez. But then a week after I finished booking everything, our airline wrote to say that they had moved the flight up by two hours, which did not leave us plenty of time for the train. Sigh.

So we drove back to Casa, which gave us another four hours to pick our guide’s brain about Morocco and hear his wonderful stories about guiding people through his adopted country. He was a wonderful source of information and insight throughout our time with him, full of a recent convert’s zeal.

Door to door, our trip back to Lisbon took almost ten hours, only one of which was spent flying. There was the four hour drive, followed by the requisite two in the airport, during which I made one last Moroccan purchase — a pair of bright red leather slippers, which I’d been coveting all along.

The flight itself was easy and straightforward, but then we were faced with another hour of waiting for the lone immigration person to process both our flight as well as one that had just landed from Brazil. Great. The rush hour taxi ride back to our flat took another forty five minutes, and when combined with the time difference from Morocco (they don’t do Daylight Savings — I think time is already too abstract a concept there), there we were, ten hours of traveling later. Seems wholly disproportionate, but there you go.

So I survived our first trip to Africa. To my great surprise, not only did I survive it, I loved it. Even as we were taking off yesterday, I was already figuring out if we could come back before we go home in August. It’s unlikely that we will, but it’s nice to leave a place while still wanting to spend more time there. I loved the beauty and madness of it all, the fatalistic logic that God will take care of everything, insh’allah, so you don’t need to worry about it. I found their all-pervading religious beliefs and strict gender divide fascinating, especially as it meant that men left me more or less alone, and I didn’t have to deal with the harassment I’ve encountered while traveling elsewhere (Cuba, I’m looking at you.)

Most of all though, I loved the people. The families who welcomed us into their lovely homes in Fes, the incredibly strong, patient, kind-hearted women who cooked our meals and took care of our every need, the people who smiled at us on the street, even the ones who stared at us as if we were aliens from another planet… I was blown away by their warmth and their quirks, their kind smiles and wary eyes. They live a life I could never conceive of, nor could they relate to my own, and yet I felt more welcomed by them and more genuine connection than I have with anyone here in the six months we have lived in Lisbon.

Bottom line is, I would go back in a heartbeat — that is, of course, once I’ve had a chance to unpack and do laundry and my stomach has returned to normal. What a wild, wonderful, incredible adventure through Wonderland.

As for photos — I connected my camera to my computer last night, and discovered that we’d taken over 1000 pictures while in Morocco. Good God! I thought there was some mistake with the camera, but no, that’s how many there are. I won’t make you look at all of them, but I am going back through my posts from the past week and adding slideshows at the end. You can also see all of them on the lefthand sidebar, and I will try to cull them down into a highlight reel sometime soon. If you do manage to make it through all of them, I hope you will have some small idea of how richly varied and fascinating this trip was.

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