Traveling With the Moroccan Chameleon That Didn't Want to Die
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan

A travel writer helps a quirky North African gris-gris go back to Mothern Nature near Chefchaouen.

Morocco travels with Chameleon

"Glad to see you again," said Kike as we met again in the narrow hall of a budget guesthouse in Asilah, a small seaside town on the northern coast of Morocco. The more he came forward, the more I realized he was holding something in his hand: it was a small, strange and blackened creature I couldn't properly discern. When he got in front of me, Kike lifted his hand and deposited that thing over my left shoulder, stepping back to observe my reaction.

I shuddered when four tiny claws clasped and pulled my shirt's collar, but It was only when I saw the long tail and two bulging eyes covered in camouflage-colored skin that I realized I had a blackish chameleon hanging over my chest.

"Where the heck did you find this?" I looked back at Kike. His mouth was curled in the crumpled smile of someone who's got a long story to tell.

Moroccan Chameleon on a camera

A Lizard Rescue Mission

I had met Kike and his girlfriend Belen only a few days before in a Bedouin tented camp on the sand dunes of Merzouga. They came from Malaga, the Andalusian city that gave birth to painter Pablo Picasso, and were traveling to nearby Morocco for a couple of weeks. A few days later, we met again in Marrakech, where we endured the touts and stress of the Jeemaa-el-Fnaa square together.

We realized that we were all heading back north to the Riff Mountains, home to the famous blue city of Chefchaouen, although they wanted to see Essaouira first —a western Moroccan port where Jimi Hendrix and an European girlfriend supposedly spent several hazy days.

"We'll catch a train from Casablanca and will meet you again up North," proposed Kike over one last cup of Moroccan mint tea in Marrakech. We parted ways a second time, exchanging mobile phone numbers and promising we would meet again in Asilah. The last thing I expected, however, was seeing the two Spaniards turn up with a third unusual guest equipped with claws and tail.

"She's Picassina," explained Kike after he had pulled the chameleon off my chest, "in honor of Malaga".

Then Kike finally explained: he had spotted Picassina on a street stall in Essaouira, trapped inside of a plastic bottle. She was almost as black as the dark wooden table that carried, besides her, all sorts of stuff, from fresh vegetables to knives and tacky souvenirs. And Kike, a tall, muscular fellow with a big heart and a wave of slick hair combed to the back of his head, couldn't let that lonesome and terrified reptile die an horrible death by asphixiation.

Truth is, since ancient times, Moroccans have used chameleons for ritual and magic purposes. They believe that the smoke from a burned chameleon can chase away the evil eye or cure wounds. This interesting yet cruel habit hasn't died off, despite Morocco's development. Locals still look for these creatures, selling them off live at local markets.

Moroccan Chameleon in a cup

"I paid less than two euros for her," explained Kike as Picassina slowly made her way from his right hand up his forearm, lifting one claw after the other with deftly slow precision, and rolling those incredible skin-covered eyes that only had a tiny orifice in the middle. She didn't look good: her color was blackish-brown, most likely because of the stressful afternoon she had spent inside the Pringles box that Kike and Belen used to carry her on the train from Casablanca.

"We have decided to set her free," said Kike, caressing Picassina's spine and tail with the back of his hand. "I want to bring her to Chefchaouen and release her in the wild," he announced.

The famed "Blue City" of Morocco, a gateway to the Riff Mountains and a popular tourist spot on the edge of the world's largest hashish-producing region, had plenty of wild nature and mountains for Picassina. She started turning a bit grayer, as if she had understood we were plotting her liberation.

Traveling with the Chameleon

The next morning, we took Picassina out of her Pringles box. She flipped her claws in the air as if she was riding on a tiny invisible bicycle until Kike placed her on top of my navy-green hat. She felt like a light yet important presence on top of my head. Armed with our backpacks, we walked to Asilah's main taxi stand looking for a ride to the city of Tetouan, from where transport continues to Chefchaouen.

Moroccan Chameleon travel

Soaking the warm morning sun and enjoying the cool seaside air from the top of my hat, Picassina the chameleon started losing her blackness and getting to grips with her new form of partial freedom. "Look at her," my wife said, "she's turning the color of your hat."

Picassina still had a sad smile on her face, but we all guessed it was a part of her anatomy, rather than a sign of her discomfort. By the time the next shared taxi was ready to go, Picassina had turned into a lighter shade of ochre, almost the color of the Moroccan desert. And no local person or taxi driver seemed to mind or realize that I had a chameleon perched on top of my head.

To avoid attracting any sort of attention, we put Picassina back into her Pringles box while we changed cars in Tetouan. We joined two other Moroccan women wrapped in loose robes and headscarves, setting off for the mountain town. "Mister," Kike said to the driver as he deposited Picassina between the dashboard and the central air-conditioning vent, "I hope you don't mind if we have another non-paying passenger."

At first, the driver froze as he saw Picassina climb over the dashboard, but then started a jovial conversation, telling us about the secrets of his trade. The two women at the back, on the contrary, were terrified: after a few high-pitched shrieks, they preferred to cover their faces with their robes, and didn't say a word for the entire length of the trip. As we drove along ash-gray peaks and verdant valleys, Picassina found a scythe of light on the dashboard and stood still with her head tilted upwards, like a model basking in the sun at a Hollywood's poolside.

Moroccan Chameleon car travel

The Invisible Monster

The plan was to hike behind Chefchaouen's Spanish Mosque, a popular sunset spot on the upper fringes of town, and continue walking away from the tourist hordes, looking for a quiet spot where we could release our dear chameleon. But we didn't do it immediately: with those bulging eyes and perennial downward smile, Picassina had conquered our hearts.

Continue to Page 2

Read this article online at: Traveling With the Moroccan Chameleon That Didn't Want to Die

Copyright © Perceptive Travel 2019. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Buy The Travels of Marco Yolo at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Buy Nazi Goreng at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Sign Up