Tetouan + Couch-surfing: our double baptism in Morocco

Arriving in Morocco was for us an endless number of first times: in the country, in Africa, in the Arabic world and, also, doing couch-surfing.

Couch-surfing is an online platform that promotes cultural exchange by helping you to find accommodation in houses of local people, who are interested in meeting travelers from around the world. There is no money involved, simply, the host opens the doors of his house without asking for anything in return. It is a win-win situation, where travelers have the opportunity to really dive into the local culture, and the hosts, have the possibility to learn more about the world through meeting with travelers.

We had read a lot about how couch-surfing works in Morocco: that many times the listings are false, that in the end they ask you for some money in return, etc. Now, after five weeks in Morocco I have no doubt that this can happen in many cases, but in this, our first experience, we were very lucky and it was the opposite.

Before reading further, a clarification: what is this post?

This is a story of our experiences and is 100% subjective. If what you are looking for is practical and useful information for traveling in Morocco, with statistics and specific data, you can find all that and much more in this post Morocco: practical guide for travelers (by clicking here).

First time in a medina, or a change of paradigm in the blink of an eye

The first stop on our trip was Tetouan and there Abdelouahed (onwards, Abdel) awaited us, a twenty-four years old Moroccan, of Berber origin, a native of southern Morocco, who lives in the heart of the Medina of Tetouan for almost a year now. And it is very important to highlight this “in the heart of the medina”, because for the traveler who is new to an Arab country for the first time in his life, this is a very particular location. But before moving forward, what is a medina? The medinas are the old neighborhoods of the Arab cities, they are walled and you enter through a certain amount of doors that depends on the size and importance of the medina. That would be the definition of a medina from the technical point of view. From the subjective point of view of my first time in a medina, I can say that it was a sensation that I would like to be able to keep in a bottle to open it whenever it is always fresh, always there. It is something that I never want to forget and at the same time, I want to forget it completely so that it can be a first time. On previous trips I had been to places with very different cultures, such as in Southeast Asia, but this … this was very different. I leave a bit of the text I wrote at that time:

It’s hard to describe what I felt when I arrived in Tetouan. To give an idea, I will mention some phrases that are probably not very original but that are quite close to what I felt: time travel, trip to another world, cultural shock, infinite stimuli, etc.

And the medina! To call her a maze would be to fall short. I remember when the streets of Córdoba (Spain) seemed to me labyrinthine, which now after having been in the Tetuan medina, seem like a beta version.

And I also wrote:

Some places where I was, I remember them for their colors, others for their architecture, others for their flavors, etc.

I think Tetouan will be the first place I remember … because of its smell.

Tetuán’s medina smells like everything: over the centuries, the animals that walk around (free or caged, alive or dead). It smells like humanity, everything we are. It smells like houses without a bathroom and also houses with bathrooms that are too luxurious. Smells goat cheese and carpentry a few meters away. It smells like mint in all its forms: fresh, in the form of tea, in the form of soap.

I chose this image of one of the beautiful doors to the medina by the sky in the background and the pure air that represents me, which sometimes seems to have forgotten to enter.

Returning to our arrival, I remember that a few days before arriving, as logic indicated, we asked Abdel for his address. He replied that most of the houses in the medina have no address… how? Did i read well? That they have no address? And how do they receive letters? Or for someone to visit you? All these questions were because, we had never been to a medina before! We still had many adventures ahead and a world to discover. Here are some photos of our first impressions of the next day, our first day touring a medina.

And since we could not go directly to Abdel’s house, because… he had no address, he proposed to meet us at the Royal Palace of Tetouan and go together from there. We met, we liked each other in the blink of an eye and after walking a few minutes between chickens, butchers, carpentry and shops of all kinds, we arrived at his house… and there began another chapter.

The brown door on the left is the entrance to Abdel’s building

Immediately when we entered, I realized that Morocco and Argentina , my home, with everything that makes up what for me is “normal”, were separated by a lot more than eight thousand kilometers and an ocean, they were also separated by a huge, immense, never before experienced, cultural gap, which now had the opportunity to unite in me.

The home of Abdel, was only a room, about twenty square meters with some mattresses on the floor, a window overlooking the terrace and an access door that you could see trough and that was locked with a padlock, no locks or latches, just a padlock. Without bathroom, without kitchen, without armchair, without bed, without anything that had previously been part of my normality, when I lived in Argentina. The room was inside a small building with a central patio and many rooms around it, something similar to what in Buenos Aires is known as “casa chorizo” or “conventillo”. In the building there was no running water and the neighbors took in water with buckets or bottles from a tap on the street by the door. On the ground floor was the “bathroom” that was shared for all the inhabitants of the building and consisted of a latrine, which, given its smell and appearance, I tried to use as little as possible and I still can not believe how I did not vomit when I had to do it. That was all. If you are wondering how people used to bathe, it is very simple, they almost do not. Abdel explained that in the summer he bathed in the terrace, with buckets of water and more or less once a week he went to a hammam (also known as a Turkish bath or Arab bath, which is public and people pay to use, so it is not something to go every day).

The view of the medina from Abdel’s terrace
Abdel’s house

It is very interesting, how traveling allows you to become aware of and experience the countless realities that exist in the world and how many ways there are to inhabit it. The reality of Abdel was totally unthinkable for me before I met him, but his immense generosity and friendliness compensated each and every one of the comforts we did not have during those two days with him. The goal of the couch-surfing is, as I said above, immerse yourself in the local culture and that’s what we did. We are immensely grateful for this experience, in which we were able, for two days, to really live like locals (or at least like many of them) getting to know their daily life, their customs, their meals and some words of their language. It was thrilling to walk around the medina alongside our host as if it was our lifelong neighborhood. He was also an excellent guide and took us to places where we probably would not have found our way to, such as the perfect spot on the hills to see the sunset with a panoramic view of the medina of Tetouan. It became an epic memory:

Sunset of an not agitated day in Tetouan

Was it hard, uncomfortable, difficult? The truth is that yes, at times it was, but we do not regret even for a second. I wanted to travel the world to really know it, to generate anecdotes, to tell it as I see it. Probably if we had stayed in a place according to our “normal” standards, it would have been more comfortable but we would have missed the most valuable things that this couch-surfing gave us: know a reality so different from ours and the friendship of Abdel.

PostScript 1: If you want to help me to continue with this project, don’t forget to share!

If you have any questions, queries or suggestions, you can leave it in the comments below. And if you think someone can serve or interest this information, I thank you very much for sharing it!

PostScript 2: how do we continue?

If you want to read what happened at the next stop of our trip, you can click on the photo below to read the next post…

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