A Blue Rug from Chefchaouen
The mint tea is hot, strong, and sweet, and weirdly reminds me of a mint julep served hot without the bourbon. Thinking back to the gallons of bubblegum flavored Inca Kola I drank in Peru, plus the gallons of mint tea I’m sure to drink in Morocco, I laugh at the 22 year old version of me that told my parents sugar is the devil and avoided it at all costs. I wonder how much of this stuff you can consume before pre-diabetes sets in, and for the hundredth time on this trip I promise myself I’ll drink more water, just as soon as I can brush my teeth.
We’re sitting on a comfortable bench in a small shop crammed to the ceiling with all sizes and colors of Berber rugs. A stack of the rugs nearly two feet high occupies the floor in front of us. Kira and I have found ourselves on an impromptu shopping excursion, working our way through the dozens of options to find one to decorate our future home. My only stipulation is that it needs to be blue.
Nearly every wall in Chefchaouen is painted in a beautiful, watercolor blue that fades like tie dye in the rain and dries in new shades each time the sun shines through the clouds. We’re told the dye for the paint comes from a powder found in the nearby mountains. The reason for the color choice, rare in a Muslim country more commonly known for green doors and green trim, is a little more uncertain, I think kept deliberately vague to add to the mystique of the town.
No matter the reason behind the paint, the aesthetic of this small northern Moroccan town is captivating, and despite its popularity it still has an authentic feel. While it’s true that the famous photo spots you’ve probably seen on instagram are actually curated by locals trying to make some money from the tourists (you’ll pay between 5–10 dirham, or 50 cents to a dollar US, to take pictures at one of these side street photo booths), the town is filled with artisans that practice trades handed down through their families for generations. And even though a blue door in Chefchaouen is featured on the cover of my now severely outdated 2017 edition of Lonely Planet Morocco, Kira and I are two of maybe a dozen tourists spending the night here. We run into a gaggle of teenagers on a day trip from the American school in Tangier, and knots of Spanish tourists can be seen disembarking Sprinter vans to wander the maze of the medina for a few hours, but by sundown the city is quiet save for the echoing call to prayer. Restaurants are empty and their owners seem surprised to see us; we’re stopped on the street and thanked for visiting. One smiling man wearing a worn Patriots hat fists bumps me. “Welcome to my hometown,” he says, “make sure to tell your friends about our beautiful blue city!”
I’m sure things were different here before Covid, and maybe this summer these narrow blue alleys will again be filled with backpackers. For the sake of the artisans and small business owners here I hope tourism rebounds the way it has in Peru. But for now I’m grateful we’ve gotten to visit Morocco when the country has just reopened for travel, and I’m selfishly happy we got to have Chefchaouen almost to ourselves.
We filter down our stack of what seemed like dozens of rugs to just one, and the bargaining begins. It’s easy to log into Reddit and debate the ethics of haggling with local merchants, but the real life fact is that paying asking price for a rug in Morocco is about as smart as paying twenty percent interest on a new car. Plus, it’s part of the game and to pay asking price takes all the fun out of the purchase, both for the buyer and the seller.
The owner of the shop is lighthearted and fun. “No worries my friend,” he says with a broad grin that shows a mouthful of sugar-rotten teeth, “if we do not find agreement, you will leave with your money and I will keep my rug, and we will both be happy!”
Twenty minutes and several rounds of contending prices later, I apologize and say we simply cannot afford his rug. I set down my empty glass of mint tea and half stand up to leave.
“I swear to my god!” The shopkeeper says. “Ok, I will take your price!” He smiles again, and there’s a twinkle in his eye. “You my friend, you are like an American Berber!”
The next morning I haul the rug — which must weigh at least 20 pounds and is a beautiful blue reminiscent of the darker shades of Chefchaouen’s walls — through these streets for the last time. Unlike Cusco, which I feel like I’ve just left and I’m already itching to return to, I doubt I’ll ever come back to this blue town. But I’ll never forget it’s colors and it’s people. And I think for the rest of my life, every time I’m negotiating something, I’ll remember to bargain like an American Berber.