Chefchaouen "The Blue City"
Most people go to Chefchaouen or "Chaouen" as the locals call it, to gawk at the Old Town's stunning blue facade, or to indulge in a bit of hedonistic behavior if Amsterdam is off the hit list. Clinging to a Rif Mountain in the northwest of Morocco, the city was founded in 1471. This is one town where you just can't take a bad photo, unless you are totally vision impaired. Chaouen is known for its beautiful woolen products and woven blankets. The locals and tourists alike gulp the local goat cheese in bucket loads.
Beasts of Burden
I had been in Morocco for 2 months and I kept seeing donkeys everywhere. Kids gleefully trotting them along often with three squashed onto the back of one poor creature. Women in colorful clothes were leading their donkey that was either laden full of washing or grass animal feed. And of course, the men rode their donkeys along the roads, moving out of the way of passing vehicles, only if they felt inclined to.
Donkey Parking Stations
I knew when we were approaching the center of a country town, as there was always a parade of donkeys tied to trees just prior to the commercial center. I nicknamed them the "donkey parking stations" and I later found out that a donkey is referred to as a "Berber four wheel drive", which amused me no end. Apparently you can buy a donkey for about US$200 and it is usually the only possession that many of the locals in the countryside own. So you get the picture, I was becoming obsessed with these beasts of burden that I was seeing all day, every day and everywhere.
I did live in Thailand for a number of years, so of course elephant riding had to be done. But I did do it in a "non-tourist" way, where "no elephants are harmed". As for riding camels, you can't be in Morocco and not experience this when you go to the desert. I knew that camels had been referred to as "ships of the desert", but I found out that they are really known as "Berber desert four-wheel drives". Yes, prior to my donkey preoccupation, I was fixated on camels. Anybody would think that I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder of the animal riding variety. I like to think that I am merely curious about local transport.
Ask and You Shall Receive
I mentioned to the owner of the riad that I was staying at in Chefchaouen, that I wanted to have a ride on a donkey. He had the temerity to roar with laughter, but agreed to find a local with a donkey that could take me for a ride, for a fee of course. We agreed on a time and a place and before I knew it Mohamed (every second male in Morocco is named Mohamed) and Burrito (that's the donkey) were standing at the riad's door, patiently waiting for the crazy Australian woman that wanted to ride a donkey.
The Donkey Saddle Up
After attempting to throw a leg over and failing miserably, despite the fact that I was standing on a stool, the riad owner had to physically grab me and literally throw me onto the donkey's saddle. I am a tad on the short side, but this was a tall donkey with a very well padded saddle. The saddles are not a conventional saddle as there are no stirrups. It is like sitting on a very round mound of packed hay and this is when bowlegs would definitely have been a blessing.
Making a Spectacle of Yourself
Amidst the guffaws of the local shopkeepers at my mounting antics, we took off through the cobbled lane-ways of the town. The whole ride was a case of playing dodge the hanging items or the overflowing baskets of blankets, clothes and anything else the locals felt like selling in the lane-ways. Being a typical female I squealed every time the saddle shifted to one side, as I could only hang on to the front of the saddle, which was just "wrapped" around the donkey's middle. I almost lost my head to a row of hanging aubergines when we went through a vegetable market. I said a silent mantra of "Hail Mary's" despite the fact that I am not of that persuasion, whenever the donkey slipped on the well-worn cobblestones, which he did quite frequently. I had a permanent tight-faced grin from hanging on in fear. We did our donkey dance past laughing and waving kids who thought it was a huge joke and were calling out to their friends to come and have a look. Old brown crinkled faces of the men broke into toothy grins, whereas prior to this they would only sternly look at me as I wandered around town. Even the local women smiled, which was a rarity.
The Funny Roadshow
Meanwhile I was caught between laughing so hard that I had tears running down my face and clinging to the saddle in fear of falling off. The reactions of the locals and startled tourists, was hilarious. Cars got out of our way once we had to hit the road at one point, with some tooting their horns, others giving me the thumbs up and clapping, as we trotted past them.
The "Donkey Whisperer"
Mohamed, who by now I had affectionately nicknamed the "donkey whisperer", lead us to the highest point above the town where the view was magnificent. Thank heavens there was a cute little cafe set under some trees, as I was in desperate need for some caffeine to calm the nerves. At this point a super friendly old local asked if I wanted a joint, to which I politely declined. I had visions of me as high as a kite trying to hang on to the saddle, which totally unnerved me. He then offered to take me to his cannabis farm and said I could even ride the donkey there, to which I burst out laughing. This region is a prolific source of cannabis and hash is sold all over town. In fact it is easier to get your hands on a joint, than a bottle of wine, I found out earlier during my stay.
Been There, Done That
Little did I know what lay ahead of me with the return journey despite the hash mind imagery of earlier. It was definitely a downhill ride, on slippery ancient stones, with Burrito almost on his knees at several points. In retrospect maybe I should have accepted the joint. He obviously wasn't used to going through the village and belonged on chunky farmland somewhere. But, then again he did have a very vocal female on his back.
So for a few entertaining hours, I was the joke of the town, but I have never laughed so much for so long. Riding a donkey is now crossed off my bucket list and I am no longer obsessed with them.