Continued from Part 1

Saturday morning, I am back at the campground, this time with Posie and Noel, my iPhone loaded with satellite shots of the trail from Google Maps and screen captures of the relevant pages from the Lonely Planet guide to Morocco, which assures its readers that el-Kelaa “can easily be climbed in a day if you’re in reasonably good shape.” Several local adults hanging out at the campground wave to us as we pass by, and after enquiring of our plans, estimate the hike will take us four hours – though whether they mean for the round-trip or each way we neglect to ascertain. Instead, I ask them to confirm that the trail starts behind the campground, seeing as how I’ve failed to find it twice already. They assure us that it does, and that we can scale the hill right here if we want to take a short-cut.

We thank them, climb above some of the designated campsites – and head straight into a dead-end of dense woods. We descend, move along a little bit, and try again; we climb into another dead-end of dense woods. Eventually we return to the main road and follow it for no more than a quarter-mile, at which it leads to a right turn clearly marked – by yellow-and-white paint on the rocks – as the route to el-Kelaa. I passed this turn twice already in the last 26 hours. Sometimes you have to search for a path in life; sometimes it’s been staring you in the face and you just don’t see it. It is now 10:30 in the morning and the sun is rising a lot faster than we are. This is not an auspicious start.

Nonetheless we start following the road – a loose definition that only suffices for four wheel drive vehicles – towards the “hamlet” of Ain Tissimlane, apparently two hours hence. It’s quite a steep climb, but as we rise above the tree line, Chefchaouen reveals itself below us and, as if it was possible given the view from within the town, or from the Spanish Mosque, the Blue Pearl now looks yet more majestic. This is, truly, a special place, and I am almost sad to be leaving it behind for the day. But leave it we do, and soon the road levels out somewhat; other than the occasional jeep taking trekkers into the heart of the Talassemtane National Park many miles further along, we don’t encounter another person until we are almost an hour into our journey.

Chefchaouen as seen from the walk to el-Kelaa

When we do, we see him from a distance. He is lounging against a boulder, as if it had been placed there entirely for his convenience, and he is clearly waiting for us, as if he knew all along that we were coming his way.

Sure enough, as we approach the youth in question, he eases off the boulder, falls into step alongside us, greets us, asks where we’re going, and then gets straight to the point.

“You want a smoke? Hash?”

I decline, politely and firmly enough – I’m getting used to it, after all – but he only repeats his invitation, so I repeat my declination, and we carry on like this for a few yards, side by side, until he finally grasps that maybe my wife and I did not come onto the mountain road today with our 11-year old to buy cannabis. Rather than drop back to resume his perch on his personal boulder, however, he starts walking ahead of us, quickening his pace, like he wants to turn the next corner before we do. There is something inherently disconcerting about this act, so much so that Noel also notices it, and asks me quietly what we should do.

This is probably the time to announce – to the reader, most certainly not to our young Moroccan dealer – that I am carrying a couple of thousand US dollars on my person, in a cloth money belt clipped around my waist, under my shorts. Cold currency of the greenback variety is an essential requirement of our ongoing, year long journey. It will, for example, cost us $100, in cash, each, to enter Tanzania in a week or so, and the same most likely for India two weeks later if we can ever figure out the visa application. Nepal has a similar requirement, as do countries on our South East Asia wish list. It’s reassuring perhaps, that they all insist on US dollars over any other form of currency – except for Tanzania, which in a show of apparent loyalty to its former imperial overlords, also accepts pound sterling – but it puts a heavy burden on those of us whose travel extends beyond a single port of entry (fee). As to why I don’t just leave the cash in our room, buried innocuously inside a work folder or a pair of underpants at the bottom of a loaded backpack, it’s because every single guide (both printed and human), every expert, every veteran traveler, warns against it. The odds that your room will be ransacked at least once on a round-the-world journey are seemingly much higher than the likelihood of being physically robbed of one’s undergarments.

And so, just as Posie keeps our passports in her Scottevest (Google it), I have made a habit of keeping my money belt on me at all times. I want it to become like a second skin, to the point that I am almost unconscious of its contents, in as much as you would never suspect, from a casual conversation on a street corner – or a desolate four-wheel drive track in the drug-growing Rif Mountains of Morocco – that I have anything more valuable on me than my wits.

It is that air of insouciance I try to project as I quietly tell Noel just to keep walking at the same speed. If we pause or slow down, we will be emoting fear which, if our local dealer has malice on his mind, he will somehow sense through the back of his head. Still, my ears are all but flapping for any giveaway sound – or sounds, because while there are three of us, we don’t know that there is only one of him. The youth furtively rounds the corner about fifty yards ahead of us, and a minute or so later, nervously and with no concrete plan of action, we do the same.

There are no accomplices. There is, in fact, no one to be seen. All around us is dry, dusty land and faded winter brush, with no evident hiding spaces of any kind, except for various boulders here and there. Our local drug-dealing teenager has, quite simply, vanished into thin air.

We are not sure whether to be relieved or disconcerted by his disappearing act, but given that we never set eyes on the teen again, it turns out to be the former, and we will later laugh at our brief fear over his harmless attempt to sell us cannabis. At the same time, we have never been able to figure out where he went. If I didn’t know better, I’d have assumed we were high.

On the walk to what we hope is Jebel el-Kelaa. You never know what lies around the corner.

Our next encounter, a little further down the road, is with two men and a donkey. The donkey has a platform on its back, and the men are loading it with copious bushels of a long green plant, which I don’t need a guide book to identify as cannabis. By conservative efforts there is probably enough already stacked on the donkey to keep a house full of British college students stoned for the duration of their entire three-year course, along with the additional years required for failing exams on account of being stoned in the first place. There are smuggling towns not far from where I am standing that Lonely Planet describes as “beyond the law,” where “travelers are strongly advised to pass through and not spend the night,” but these two young men smile as we pass by, like they’re doing nothing more abnormal than collecting grapes from the vineyard to make wine – which, when you think about nature’s natural highs, is pretty much the case. Or at least it would be, were there a cannabis field nearby. But there isn’t. It’s as if the plants had been left behind a boulder for someone – two men and a donkey, perhaps – to pick up down the line.

Continue to Part 3

Related Posts


1 Comment(s)

  1. 5 January, 2018 at 10:26 pm

    Your post is a timely cotritbunion to the debate

Leave a Reply


Calendar of posts

June 2021