It probably sounds spoiled—in fact I’m sure it does—but travel through Europe was getting a little, well, tedious. It’s not that traipsing through the galleries and cafes of Westrern civilisation’s crucible hasn’t been an inspiring adventure, but it’s just all been too easy. Having cut my backpacking teeth in the slums and rice paddies of Asia, I’ve been pining for the sensory assault of a developing nation, the utter confusion of getting lost when I can’t read the signs, the humiliation of haggling over a roll of toilet paper with a street vendor and of the gastrointestinal Russian Roullette I play every time I sit down to eat.
But now, now I’m back.
“Casa, Casa, Casa!”
“Hello, where you go?”
“Meknes, Meknes, Meknes!”
standing in the middle of Tangier’s chaotic bus station, drowning in a sea of touts, beggars and snack sellers and trying to find a ticket to the town of Chefchaouen. Swatting away the pushy ticket vendors, I spot a young German girl with a pierced lip and a fire-twirling stick struggling with the advances of an amorous local, so I rescue her with a warm “Hi Honey!” and a jealous glare. We exchange the obligatory questions—where have you been, how long are you staying—and I ask her where she’s headed.
I’ve been pining for the humiliation of haggling over a roll of toilet paper with a street vendor and the gastrointestinal Russian Roullette I play every time I sit down to eat.
“I don’t know!” She stares about wildly at dozens of cities listed around us, each costing no more than handful of coins. The din and jostling crowds are forgotten for a moment as we grin madly at each other; we’re backpackers in a travelling candy store of possibilities: fertile valleys, towering mountains, sandy beaches, bustling cities or endless desert. “There are too many choices!”
I pull out a silver disc from my pocket and decide to indoctrinate another traveller to its cult. “Heads for Meknes, tails for Asliah,” I propose, handing her the coin. “Are you game?”
“Asliah!” she giggles as it lands by her feet. “I’m going to Asliah!”
I figure I should practice what I preach and put my own plans on the line. “Heads for Tetouan,” I shout over the touts, “tails for Chefchaouen!”
Tetouan it is.
We bid each other farewell with a “Good luck!” and a long hug—this somehow seems appropriate even though we’ve spoken for only three minutes and I have no idea what her name is—and within seconds I’m being carried away with a flow of passengers onto a steaming bus filled with sweating men, muttering women and their screaming babies.
At times its tempting to think of Morocco as a mysterious African basket brimming with natural beauty, historical majesty and rich cultural tapestries. Unfortunately all these wonders are absent from the filthy, God forsaken town of Tetouan. As the clearinghouse for the 85,000 hectares of marijuana cultivated in the surrounding Rif mountains each year, Tetouan is a bustling but seedy town filled with junkies, drug dealers and crime lords. I’ve also managed to arrived on market day, when every budget hotel is full and shady characters from around the country descend on the town for their cut of the illicit pie.
first hint of trouble comes from the bus driver, who hands me my pack, grasps me by the shoulders and pleads with me to, “please, please be careful in Tetouan. This is crazy city.”
At times its tempting to think of Morocco as a mysterious African basket brimming with natural beauty, historical majesty and rich cultural tapestries. Unfortunately all these wonders are absent from the filthy, God forsaken town of Tetouan.
No sooner have I stepped out of the choking underground garage, than I’m accosted by Hassan, a lanky Moroccan with wide brown eyes and fifteen missing teeth.
Faux guides like Hassan are a common pest in Morocco. They scour the streets and medinas (old towns) for foreigners, warmly welcoming you to their country before insisting that they help you find your hotel, or a particular tourist attraction. This non-negotiable offer is free of charge, you understand, because as your newfound friend, the guide only wants to offer the best of Morocco’s famed hospitality. When you reach your destination he will meekly suggest a small tip is appreciated for his efforts. How much? “As you like”.
It’s only when you’d “like” to give anything less than an exorbitant 50 dirhams (AUD $8.50) that the trouble begins.
Despite making it abundantly clear to Hassan that I can find my own way, he insists on tailing me for an hour through Tetouan’s sidestreets before yelling something about ungrateful foreigners and storming off. I finally find a spare room in a dingy hotel, dump my bag and sit down at a cafe with a well-earned mint tea, only to have Hassan materialise by my side and resume his demands.
“I help you,” he slams the table with his fist, “you give me fifty dirham! You are rich tourist, you no care for fifty dirham!”
“No,” I counter resolutely, “all you did was annoy me for an hour. Do you want me to get the tourist police?”
At the mention of the police his mood changes. He stares at me icily and grabs my wrist. “Ally,” his voice is now hushed, “I will be honest with you, I am junkie.”
Hassan clearly assumes that the brusied arms, track marks and uncontrollable twitching haven’t made this obvious enough.
“I will have fifty dirham for sniff of heroin,” he continues. “You can give this to Hassan as friend,” he punctuates this with a toothless smile, “or Hassan can follow you tonight and take this from you as not your friend.” To emphasise his point, Hassan opens his jacket to reveal an intimidating thirty centimetre blade peeking out from beneath.
“So you’re threatening to follow and stab me,” I observe rather insightfully.
“Ishallah [God willing], I will not have to.”
is really starting to piss me off. “Allah wants nothing to do with you!” I snap back at him and shake my wrist free of his grip. “I will not give you fifty dirham for threatening me. I will give you ten dirham just to go away.”
“I will be honest with you, I am junkie.” Hassan clearly assumes that the brusied arms, track marks and uncontrollable twitching haven’t made this obvious enough.
“Ten dirham! This is nothing! You give me forty dirham!”
“Twenty-five or nothing.” I throw the coins on the table and glare at him. “This is all you'll get from me.”
He jumps up, and for a moment I think he’s about to stab me there and then, but instead he grabs the change, shouts “Cheap tourist!” and storms off.
It’s only after dusk, as I’m strolling through Tetouan’s bustling streets and sipping a freshly-squeeze jus d'orange, that I realise what Hassan had done amounts to a mugging; after all he’d used the threat of violence to extort cash from me. And what had I done when faced with my first ever mugging by a drug-crazed, knife-wielding nut job? With my newfound Moroccan business refelxes I’d actually bargained with the man ... over AUD $6!
I kick myself, count my blessings and start back to my hotel around midnight, but soon hear my name being called in the distance. Hassan is running towards me, and by the content smile on his face I deduce that he’s managed to score a hit and all is forgiven.
“Ally!” he shakes my hand like an old friend.
“Go away,” I spit at him.
“Ok, ok. I know you feel bad about not giving me money. No problem!” He turns to leave, but parts with some lasting advice. “Ally, as your friend, I tell you something. Tetouan is a crazy city. Please do not go into the medina at night, not even I go there.”
from a shady, intimidating figure like Hassan I figure this is sound advice. There’s only one problem: my hotel is in the medina. Slap bang in the centre, in fact. And to make matters worse, I really hadn’t paid much attention on my way out this afternoon, so I’m going to have to spend at least half an hour looking for it.
What had I done when faced with my first ever mugging by a drug-crazed, knife-wielding nut job? With my newfound Moroccan business refelxes I’d actually bargained with the man.
I spend the next hour slinking around the narrow, dimly lit alleys of Tetouan’s medina avoiding eye contact with the transients, pimps and bums eyeing me from dark doorways. Every now and then I ask to stop someone, “Ou est Hotel Centime?” only to have them regard me with a mixture of pity and disbelief, and point in an ever more confusing range of directions.
Just when I think I’ve found my bearings, I hear some shouts nearby and round a corner to see a young Moroccan man with torn jeans lying on the ground in a pool of blood trickling from his head. I spot his attacker running off in the distance and bend down to assess the situation.
“Are you OK?” I offer my entry into the Dumbest Question of 2004 Awards.
The man groans, turns over and looks at me briefly and then lets out a startled yelp, scampering to his feet and bolting off down the street.
I start to sprint too, figuring that if I don’t make it back to my hotel soon my obituary will read more like a Department of Foreign Affairs travel advisory, and ten breathless minutes later I stumble back into my hotel.
The hotel itself—a manky, worn building frequented by Moroccan prostitutes and Africans saving enough cash to pay people smugglers the €10,000 they demand for clandestine passage to Spain—is filled with warm conversations and laughter. I collapse on a sofa in the tiny common room, and a plate of pasta is immediately presented to me by a smiling Nigerian with a large scar on his forehead. I wolf it all down, partake in some exceptional coffee and teach the ten people crammed into the room how to play Snap. After some rather forward advances, the prostitutes leave me alone when they realise I have no EU citizenship to offer, and I spend the rest of the night gorging myself on fresh watermelon and deciphering a Spanish movie about psychopathic children playing on the television.
Tetouan, I decide, really is a crazy city.
Having banished the coin for the next few days, I resume my tentative plans and head to Chefchaouen, a deliriously cute town that was settled by Muslim and Jewish refugees felling the Spanish Inquisition. Draped out like a turquoise-speckled white sheet over the Rif mountains, its ancient medina is a distillation of the rural Moroccan cliché. Whitewashed houses with powder blue doors lining narrow, stone paved streets packed with carpet sellers, spice merchants and tea shops.
because I’m a little confused, but largely because I’m easily led, I jump off the bus ten kilometres too soon on the outskirts of the city. Slinging my pack over shoulders and setting off uphill, I glare at the goatherd who convinced me this was my stop, but he’s already started off down the hill to his waiting flock.
The prostitutes leave me alone when they realise I have no EU citizenship to offer, and I spend the rest of the night gorging myself on fresh watermelon and deciphering a Spanish movie about psychopathic children playing on the television.
On the outskirts of the town’s ville nouvelle I’m accosted by a friendly tout who guides me to a “super cheap” hotel and demands nothing more than a t-shirt from my pack. After a quick shower, I grab my satchel to start my explorations but notice that my brand new, state-of-the-art, AUD $600 digital camera is missing from its usual pouch. After almost twelve months in over thirty countries, it seems I’ve finally suffered my first theft. Oh well, time to find a police station.
Having endured two hours spent being passed from one office to another while perfecting my “somebody has just stolen my camera” mime routine to the amusement of the non-English speaking police, I’m finally directed into a large office with a partition in the middle and told to wait for the detective. Around the divider I can barely make out a middle-aged man slumped in a chair with handcuffs pulling him back, while a towering officer with a handlebar moustache leans over him.
The detective is busy questioning a suspect for what I’m later told is a serious assault. For twenty minutes I listen to him shout questions at the whimpering man, every now and then underlining his questions with backhander to the suspect’s face. When the suspect finally collapses into tears and starts pleading in Arabic, a clerk starts clattering away at a rusty typewriter and the detective storms around the partition, his expression making it clear that catering to the needs of butter-fingered tourists is not his idea of a productive day at the office.
Detective Handlebar listens to my story in an uninterested fashion, summons a clerk, and three hours later I’ve been given a police report for my insurance company and the feeling that finding my camera won't feature too highly on the Chefchaouen Police Force’s to do list.
I’m pissed. Within three days of arriving in this country I’ve been mugged, attacked and robbed. Where’s the mysterious romance of covered spice markets and bubbling houkas? Where’s the fantastic food and warm hospitality?
I need some space to clear my head, I hike to the ruins of an abandoned mosque on a hill overlooking the town and climb into its crumbling minaret to enjoy the stunning view and reminisce on the great photos I might have taken. I’m not alone, though. A twenty-something Moroccan is perched on a ledge, puffing a cigarette and gazing into the sky.
When the suspect finally collapses into tears and starts pleading in Arabic, a clerk starts clattering away at a rusty typewriter and the detective storms around the partition, his expression making it clear that catering to the needs of butter-fingered tourists is not his idea of a productive day at the office.
“Salam al-Eykum” I greet.
“Al-Eykum salam,” he responds. “¿Español? ”
I learn that his name is Mostafa, he’s twenty-eight, unmarried and a “farmer.” We talk contentedly for half an hour before he invites me back to his house for some tea and and with nothing better to do for the afternoon, I agree.
We hike up the Rif mountains for an hour, passing tiny villages and shepherds tending to their goats, before climbing over a ridge and descending into a wide valley. Mostafa spreads out his arms. “Welcome to my farm,” he says, but I’m not listening. I’m too busy staring dumbstruck at the acre upon acre of full-size marijuana plants spread out across the field below me.
“O-Oh,” I stammer, “you’re that kind of farmer.”
Over the next hour Mostafa gives me the grand tour of his humble operation, taking me through the process of sowing, cultivating and harvesting his own special breed of dope, and then demonstrates the method of converting all that green gold into famous Double O hashish. Having grown up in the mountains, Mostafa built his illegal farm secretly, using water he pipes in from over three kilometres away and techniques he picked up from other farmers as a child. He wants to save enough money to abandon his farm and open a guesthouse, but just can’t seem to save enough to keep loan sharks who finance his operation at bay.
“How much do you produce each year?” I ask while lost among a forest of two metre tall plants and wondering how I ended up here.
“I am small farmer,” he confesses, “only two tonnes.”
Only two tonnes?
As we sip tea in his dirt-floor hut (with the obligarory Bob Marley album wailing in the background) an hour later I can’t help but let my university-honed business instincts kick in.
“Mostafa, you’re going about this all wrong. You tell me you’ve got a fantastic product, but nobody knows about it. All the Europeans I meet keep harping on about King Hassan hash, not yours. What you need is decent marketing. Let’s start with your brand identity: Double O. What do you want that to mean to people? How do you want people to feel when they smoke your hash?”
He thinks carefully for a moment, “Well, you know, happy.”
For another hour we sit hunched over an upturned crate and a notepad as I scribble out a detailed brand personality chart, outline a realistic budget (factoring in costs such as labour, bribes and cigarette papers) and even develop a whole new side business for him: Mostafa’s Rif Mountain Tours. By my calculations, and save for a drought or a daramatic drop in the demand for Morocco’s world-renowned hashish, Mostafa should be the owner of his own guesthouse in just under five years.
Mostafa’s offer of ten grams of resin as payment for my services, I stumble down from the makeshift shack and watch the sun sink behind powder blue Chefchaouen as three shephards beat a drum and wail an ancient song in the distance. In the failing light I make my way back into town, and after nearly acquiring a harem of ten Moroccan beauties (another story, for another time) I indugle in cups of tea offered by sympathetic store owners who have heard about the theft of my camera and are determined to make up for it with overenthusiatic hospitality.
“What do you want Double O to mean to people? How do you want people to feel when they smoke your hash?” He thinks carefully for a moment, “Well, you know, happy.”
Upon hearing of my Middle Eastern heritage, one shop keeper, Abdullah, insists that as his ‘brother’ I join his family for a dinner party that night to celebrate his sister’s return to the city. I agree and spend the evening feasting on tagines of chicken, lemon and marinated olives, couscous and host of mouth watering dishes I can’t even hope to name. We sing, we dance, and I make an utter fool of myself as I try to pick up some basic Arabic phrases but end up sounding like I’m choking on a chicken wing.
You know what? I think I like this place.
Run, run, run. Dodge left, parry right. Squeeze through that gap. I’m sidestepping motorbikes, musicians and thousands of people in the chaotic theatre of Marrakesh’s Jema el-Fna square with only one goal in mind: to find a toilet, now. As my stomach churns I yet again regret yesterday’s bravado in the face of some very questionable hawker stall meat. Panting, I stop for a moment to get my bearings and gulp down some water. Having spent the last few days in laid-back Rabat and Meknes unsuccessfully trying to replace my camera, I arrived in the imperial city of Marrakesh this afternoon and am still struggling to cope with the crush of people and the oppressive 45 degree C (113 degree F) heat. I’m parched and my t-shirt—plastered to my body with dust and sweat—is soaked through, but if I don’t find a toilet soon, my pants will be too.
For the briefest moment I’m lost in the spectacle of this square: each night hundreds of musicians, dancers, snake charmers and story tellers descend on the heart of Marrakesh’s medina to entertain the city’s heat-crazed residents. Scores of hawkers dishing up tasty tagines, snails by the bowlful and fresh orange juice fill the air with the dense smoke of charring meat and shouted exclamations of their culinary prowess. Between them filter dozens of hustlers, hash-dealers and henna tattooists, all plying their wares with discreet but persistent advances.
I spy my hotel through a gap in the crowd and launch myself at it. I sprint through the cluster of Moroccans, my feet pounding in time with the drumbeats of a nearby percussion group. Swerve left past the local with the closed eyes and arms flailing in time to the drums, dodge right between a storyteller shouting the climax of his tale to a gaggle of awe-struck children. Run, run, get to that toilet.
I’m sidestepping motorbikes, musicians and thousands of people in the chaotic theatre of Marrakesh’s Jema el-Fna square with only one goal in mind: to find a toilet, now.
I know that Morocco and I got off on the wrong foot. But this, this is what I came for; Jema el-Fna is what travelling’s about: insanity, culture shock but above all a roaring good time. I clutch my stomach, draw on the last reserves of my energy and race through the hotel door. Left past the receptionist, right up those stairs. Run, run, get to that toilet.