Finding Paradise (chapter 3)
The following is based on a true story about a journey I took with my boyfriend. We traveled through Morocco in the 80s and it didn’t quite go as planned.
I had specifically told Ray that I wanted the window seat. The seats were in groups of three and I had told him that I would prefer if he sat next to me, rather than somebody I didn’t know. It didn’t work out like that. So instead, I had the only flute-playing Moroccan sitting next to me on the bus, invading my personal space and rubbing his leg against mine for the whole journey.
The outside scenery however, was almost enough to distract me, it was breathtaking. There was so much open space and after living in a city all my life it seemed like the world had just opened up. It was never ending. The sandy landscape against the deep blue sky conjured up images in my mind of films I had seen as a kid. Like Lawrence of Arabia and…that was the only one I could really think of. I could almost imagine a caravan of camels alongside the bus as we went. It was so nice just to watch the world go by the window and contemplate the road ahead. There is something liberating about not knowing where you are going.
I felt kind of sad though.
I had been feeling strange since we had arrived at Tangier, I wasn’t sure why. I stopped wearing shorts and t-shirts and started wearing trousers and long-sleeved shirts. It seemed more fitting. I suppose it was a sign of respect during Ramadan.. Even the book had said that, to a degree, tourists should respect the local customs. I never smoked in public either. Maybe this explained the strange feeling.
So here we were again, another bus and another destination. It was still exciting!
We stopped off at a few places along the way, people would get off the bus and we had no idea where they would go, there was nothing for miles. Or at least it seemed like that to us. Others clambered aboard, carrying bags of shopping, chickens and one person even had a goat; which was strapped to the roof rack! Where were these people even going? Where had they come from? It was amazing just to think that all this activity, that we were now a part of, was happening here everyday. I was sorry we never got more photographs.
Every time we pulled up at a bus stop. Beggars with missing limbs and small children would get on and walk up the aisle asking for money. Some of the kids were selling very dodgy-looking bottles of water and chewing gum. The Moroccans would just ignore them and look out of the window.
There were no tourists on these buses, this was the real Morocco.
It must have been about 5 p.m. It had taken us nearly 2 hours to get to Chefchaouen and once again, we were back on the street looking for a taxi. Thanks to the guide book, we knew that we wanted to go to the Sud Bahia Hotel. It was rated to be one of the better ones outside of the medina.
The taxi rank was a stone’s throw from the bus station. We got into a taxi and a young lad also got in and sat in the front with the driver. We presumed they knew each other. They talked amongst themselves and the conversation got a little heated. Eventually the driver turned to us and asked;
“Is this man your guide?”
We told him that we didn’t know who he was or what he was doing in the taxi. The driver started to slap the young man over the head and pushed him out of the cab. We thought the whole thing highly amusing. He had some nerve just entering in the taxi like that and pretending to be our guide, almost like a Scouser.
Chefchaouen must have been the most beautiful place I saw in Morocco. High in the Rif Mountains this blue-washed town glowed in the sunlight and there was a distinct smell of burning charcoal in the air. We pulled up outside the hotel. This one was a lot nicer than the one in Tangier, a little bit more expensive though, around 2 pound fifty each. The decor was so Arabesque and intricate. The main hall was enclosed by a line of arches on both sides and in the centre sat a huge round brass table, with cushions dotted around it. We were greeted by the hotel manager, a jolly man clad in traditional dress with a fez sitting on his head, rather like Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca. When we told him we were from Liverpool, he was thrilled.
“Liverpool, the cup winner’s cup,” he laughed, eyes beaming, “good team. Champions!”
“Of course,” responded Ray proudly, “Liverpool´s the best.”
Ray wasn’t always the most humble of people. He was very good looking though. In fact, he looked a bit like Jim Morrison, and he knew it. Lean build, dark wavy hair, full mouth and dark deep-set eyes. He was also quite friendly, when he wasn’t under pressure.
We checked into the hotel, put our bags in the room and took a shower. It was still light so we decided to go for a walk. We didn’t see any other Europeans at all, it was getting to the point where we weren’t even looking now. We were so obviously European, but when the locals attempted to make conversation with us, they would often mistake us for French tourists. Young lads would pass us in the street and speak to us in French, but by this point we were so used to being hustled all the time that we just ignored them. One young man took umbrage with our behaviour and pointed out how rude we were being:
“You come to our country and you don’t speak to the people.” he said. He switched to Arabic, which we didn’t understand, and he walked off shaking his head in disgust.
Ray and I Just looked at each other.
“He is right,” I said, “I mean how would we like it?”
I felt quite bad about it and Ray did too. We decided to make more of an effort to be a bit more friendly.
As it was only our first day, we decided not to go into the medina (walled city). Although the medina in Chefchaouen wasn’t very big, we thought it might be too confusing. There were a few shops outside the medina selling handcrafted goods including hand-painted mirrors and brass ashtrays. There were also ‘harcha’ for sale, those sweet batter Moroccan biscuits, which I really wanted to try. They looked delicious! The only thing that put me off was the assortment of flies that came with them, which we had thought were raisins initially.
After our little stroll we went back to the hotel for something to eat. We ate a delicious traditional Moroccan meal cooked in a Tajine dish; a shallow clay vessel with a cone-shaped lid. The dining area was similar to the entrance hall only bigger. It was all very luxurious. Afterward we went upstairs to our room, where nobody bothered us or tried to hassle us in any way.
We sat and looked out of the window while the Ramadan festivities commenced. The sun was setting and people started to put up their stalls. The sound laughter, traditional Moroccan music and a random trumpet playing filled the air. It was quite a thing to witness. All these people coming together for their most important festival of the year, pretty much like we do at Christmas or Easter I suppose. We had no idea how far into the festival we were or went it would finish.
“I want to see if I can get some stuff tomorrow” Ray commented, as he got undressed for bed.
One of the books he had, even told him how and where to buy hash!
“Can’t you do without it?” I asked, still looking out of the window.
“No, that was the whole reason I came here. Duh! We are in the Rif Mountains”
He gave me that look as if he was about to add “stupid” to the end of the phrase. He seemed to have developed a notion, or perhaps I should say an illusion, that he had elevated to a different spiritual plane, a mystical place that I had not yet reached.
“I don’t know Ray, I think it is a bit dodgy myself, I don’t fancy the idea of getting caught.”
I got undressed too.
“Well, I won’t get caught. Don’t worry I’ll deal with it, you don’t have to say anything”
He jumped into bed and pulled the covers back.
“Come on, get in bed then.” he smiled, eyes gleaming as he rubbed the sheet with his hand inviting me to get in beside him. I knew what he wanted, but I was not feeling in the mood and as soon as I got into bed, Ray’s hands started to roam.
“Ray I am really not in the mood at the moment, I’m tired.”
He sighed and pulled away, disappointed. We didn’t say another word and in no time at all we both fell asleep. That night I didn’t even hear the muezzin calling.
The next morning we awoke just as dawn began to break. It must have been about 6:oo am. I felt refreshed after a deep sleep. I hadn’t slept like that for a long time, it was most likely due to the fresh mountain air. Ray was a bit grumpy, probably because I didn’t participate in the nocturnal activities he had hoped for. He got dressed, smoked a cigarette and read his book. I got dressed too.
“Shall we go out for breakfast?“ I asked. “Buy some bread or something?”
Ray said that he was more interested in buying some hash, to get it out of the way. Personally, I could have done without it, but he seemed to be having withdrawal, if that were at all possible with hashish. I mean it had only been about 4 days since our last smoke. He consulted his books, and read out loud, confirming that we were in the best place to score. His eyes shone with delight as he read.
“It shouldn’t be difficult to find a dealer then, eh?” I provoked jokingly.
“You just leave all the talking up to me. Okay? I don’t want you to confuse me”
“Like I really want to know.” I answered back.
We locked up the room and went down to reception. As we left the hotel we almost literally stumbled over an elderly man sitting outside. Well, to be fair he was probably only about 45 but he looked elderly to us. He knew we were there and was just waiting for us to walk out and enquire.
He greeted us.
“Hello.” His gaze was so intense. His eyes seemed to sparkle like kaleidoscopes. Yasser Arafat immediately came to mind. He was the image of him! He was wearing a traditional long stripy djellaba with a little tassel on the hood and carried a walking cane, which completed the look.
“I can be your guide. I can show you the medina.” He stated to us.
I just couldn’t stop looking at his eyes. They were almost hypnotic. Ray quickly took him up on his offer and was raring to go. I wasn’t too keen at all, but Ray tried to convince me otherwise, he wanted desperately to see the medina.
“He seems harmless enough,” he said “I reckon we should go and see it with a guide the first time then, maybe, we can find our own way round later on.”
I supposed he was right, there would be very little risk, I mean it was daytime and it would be a good idea to get a look at the medina. We set off straight away. Breakfast would have to wait.
Medinas can be rather complicated places to walk around if you are not familiar with them. A system of narrow streets which all look the same are set out like a maze, which can become very disorienting. The guide books had told us that Chefchaouen was a rather small medina, unlike the one in Marrakech where you really did need a guide. Another great advantage of going with a guide was the fact that other hustlers would leave you alone. We had plans to go to Marrakech later on, if we survived this and weren’t sold into slavery.
We entered through a narrow blue-washed archway into what looked like an alley. We turned a corner into another alley, and then another. Everywhere we turned looked the same — It reminded me of the Christmas Grottos we used to have in the UK. It was obviously our guide’s intention to take us to all the shops to get his commissions. Even though we had told him we were travelers and not tourists, he didn’t seem to understand the difference. People stared at us, it was so obvious that we were European.
The first shop we entered was a carpet shop. We were led to a back room where the carpets were woven by very talented 10-year-old girls. They giggled shyly as their nimble fingers worked the wool into the carpet. It was quite something to see, it was also a little sad too. These young girls probably couldn’t even read or write and it was likely that they would end up in arranged marriages and then become mothers sooner than they should.
The owner of the shop was doing his utmost to sell us a carpet. We tried to explain that we were traveling and could not carry a carpet round with us. He just did not seem to grasp what we were saying; or he didn’t seem to care. A beautiful carpet was unrolled before us and I was told to take off my shoes so that I could walk barefoot on it and appreciate the fine quality of the pile. I played along. The shop owner was insistent that we buy a carpet and kept lowering the price. It was a bargain but we just couldn’t do it! The poor man must have thought that we were just trying to barter, every time we refused, he lowered the price! We explained that we were very sorry but we just couldn’t take a carpet with us. Our guide looked disappointed with us. So were we. We could have had a handmade Moroccan carpet, for next to nothing.
Our guide then took us to another place, a workshop where, using simple tools, they manually stamped designs on round brass trays. These huge brass trays sit on a stand and are in fact tables. Just like the tables in the hotel. A similar thing happened in this shop, the owner showed us the most wonderful table. We had to decline once more and we were very apologetic and very sorry that we couldn’t buy anything.
We then went to clothes shops, shoe shops and finally a tea shop, where people sat dotted about the floor smoking joints. Ray rubbed his hands together. I could see that this place had his full approval. It seems that our guide had taken us through a series of tests to see exactly what it was we wanted to purchase.
An American hippy with a smile on his face, extended his hand, smoke slowly rising from every orifice on his face, he nodded approvingly as he offered the joint to us. Ray didn’t have to be asked twice. He toked on it like it was the last spliff on the planet and then passed it on to me. I thought of declining the offer but decided to have a few puffs just to be sociable, without inhaling too deeply and passed it on straight away. I didn’t want to get paranoid, or rather, more paranoid that I already was.
Our guide beckoned us to leave, so we did. Once outside I suddenly started to feel a bit stoned, and a bit paranoid too, or rather, a bit more paranoid. Our guide had met a friend who now accompanied us on our trip through the medina. This man had a friendly face but was holding a small stick in his right hand, which he would continually slap into the palm of his left hand, like some kind of hired thug would do with a baseball bat.
“You shouldn’t have smoked so much” I said to Ray “I mean look where we are… anything could happen. We don’t even know them…”
“I didn’t smoke that much. I only had a few drags”.
I went on.
”I mean… what if…”
“Don’t be so bloody paranoid!” snapped Ray “I am gonna get some hash off him anyway, no matter what you think.”
What could I say?. We then entered another tea shop. I remembered breakfast at this point, I must have had the munchies. We ordered some strange spicy cakes and a pot of mint tea and we sat down at a low table on some cushions. The tea was served in a beautiful silver teapot on a tray, with a few pretty coloured Moroccan tea glasses. The cakes looked a bit odd, but at least they had no flies on them!
I grabbed a cake, it tasted really nice but then again when you have the munchies, ground cardboard on toast tastes really nice
Our guide never took his eyes off Ray.
“So you wanna buy some hash?” he said, his eyes glazed, I was scared to look at his eyes, just in case he sent me into a trance. I was too busy with the cake.
“Too right” smiled Ray “I mean we are in Morocco, that’s why I came here!”
He looked around him as if he was looking for approval, his smile slightly idiotic and at the same time he was trying to act like he knew what he was doing.
The guide leaned forward with both hands on his cane and fixed his gaze on Ray. He seemed to have some kind of deformity that caused him to limp, perhaps he had contracted polio when he was a child and this was why he used the cane. He looked almost like a caricature of somebody you would expect to meet there. His cream and brown striped djellaba was the nicest one we had seen, it was made of cotton, the stripes looked woven. Not like the horrible touristy acrylic ones we had seen for sale. The groovy hood with the tassel was where he kept his stash, which he pulled out like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
“Try this” he smiled, placing a ready-made joint into Ray’s hand.
He didn’t have to repeat himself. Ray had already lit it up and was puffing away. He passed it on to me. It was so easy to smoke I couldn’t even feel it. I took one puff and passed it back to the guide, he motioned to me to pass it back to Ray, and just sat and observed.
“It is good, no?” he asked knowingly.
“It’s Okay” said Ray, trying not to look stoned, which was impossible because he was. He handed the ‘spliff ‘ back to ‘Yasser’ but ‘Yasser’ passed it back to me.
I smiled and took a tiny puff. The effects from the first puff had already started to take effect. It was pleasant and actually seemed to take away all the paranoia, the wind blowing through my brain had blown it all away. The fact that my face felt numb on one side and my vision had gone blurred was of no concern to me. I was mellow.
The guide smiled.
“Look at your eyes,” he said to Ray, “and the girl.” He laughed.
I thought that was a nice warm gesture, ´the girl’, not ‘your girlfriend’. We were both quite stoned by now and it wasn’t just because of the hash, it was the whole situation, it was just so surreal. It suddenly dawned on us that we were there. In Morocco. All the preparation before leaving and traveling through Spain had seemed so rushed — right up until this moment. Time stood still for a moment and I was now able to take in my surroundings.
“Okay, yes, I want some of that” announced Ray finally, tightening his lips and nodding.
“I can get it for you tomorrow. I meet you outside hotel?” smiled Yasser as he stood up, making it clearly obvious that business was over and we had nothing more to discuss.
They both agreed and we left the café and made our way back through the narrow streets of the medina. The paranoia started to set in again with an added feeling of claustrophobia. Maybe it was a healthy paranoia. I mean we were in the middle of a medina with Yasser Arafat’s twin brother and his right hand man. They showed us where we could buy cheese and bread and a few other things we might need, and in no time at all we were back outside the medina.
We went back to the hotel, had something to eat and then crashed for the afternoon.
In the evening we went out for something to eat and walked around for a while. It wasn’t long before the square was filled with families, children holding balloons and the usual trumpet players. There were many stalls selling a variety of things from clothes to religious lanterns. Dates and Vimto seemed to be quite popular.
Ray was just waiting for tomorrow. We went home and tried to get some sleep, we were so tired all the time.
When we woke the next morning we realised that we hadn’t said what time we were going to meet Yasser. (He had told us his real name but it was too complicated for us, so we just called him Yasser). Ray got some money together, without really having any idea of the amount he wanted to buy or how much it cost. I was pretty sure he didn’t even know how to convert ounces into grams! Mind you, neither did I.
We had breakfast in our room, cheese and bread, with orange juice that tasted more like wine. We strolled down stairs at about 9:30.
As we left the hotel, we practically tripped over Yasser again. He had been there waiting for us but this time with his right hand man. I wasn’t too friendly; they really bugged me. They only spoke to Ray anyway - I should have stayed in the hotel.
We went back into the medina again, and through the narrow streets until we reached a clearing. That made me feel so much better; an open space! The narrow streets were very claustrophobic, but the walk seemed shorter today. We crossed a small brook and sat on some nearby rocks. Ray, Yasser and his guy were deep in discussion. I just looked at the scenery, which was very pleasant. A brook flowed through some nearby bushes and shrubbery and cut accross the clearing. There was a lot of vegetation, with a few wildflowers dotted about here and there. In front of us were some trees and a huge mountain, behind us was the medina. There was nobody around.
Ray turned to me, very stressed out.
“How many grams are there in an ounce?”
“I don’t know! doesn’t it tell you in your book?” I snarled “Anyway you told me I didn’t have to say anything. Remember?”
I wasn’t a lot of help, but I could have done without it. Ray couldn’t. I didn’t think it was a good idea either — I was just going to keep out of it.They carried on talking and I looked around at the scenery.
A jacket stuffed behind a rock caught my attention. Why would anybody leave a jacket there? I thought. The stream wasn’t deep enough to swim in, there weren’t any houses nearby nor any people, for that matter. I guessed that I was just being paranoid. The mountainside was in front of us, so the way home had to be downhill, we had walked uphill to get here; I did these calculations in case we had to run away. I looked at the wall of the medina and wished I hadn’t. There was a huge streak of red paint on the wall, well it looked like red paint, it was about neck height, descending to waist height. Then I really started to get paranoid thinking that we were going to be killed or sold as slaves and our clothes stuffed under rocks. ‘Maybe it wasn’t paint, maybe it…’ then I noticed some shoes lying there. I stood up. Yasser, his guy and Ray also stood up.
“Come on let’s go, everything is cool” said Ray with a very satisfied look on his face.
My heart pounded in my chest. We all walked back through the medina again. Panic over. We bid farewell to our guide and his friend — I hoped that we would not be seeing them again too soon in the near future.
On the way back to the hotel we bought some more provisions.
“We have to change hotels now,” said Ray.
“Why?” I was a bit pissed off, “What is wrong with the one we are staying in?”
“The book says after you buy hash you should change hotels.” He said.
“Great” I sighed “all we need is to get caught now, eh?”
I couldn’t see the difference whether we changed hotels or not. It was obvious that everybody in the town knew who we were. We built a joint, smoked it, and then went for a walk.
I didn’t mind going out in the daytime, the views were amazing and this picturesque village was beautiful. The most beautiful spot we would get to see. Almost immediately after leaving the hotel, we met Yasser again. He was becoming a real pain in the ass. He wanted to show us more things and as we were in a good frame of mind, or maybe just stoned, we humoured him for the afternoon.
When we got back we changed hotels. We moved into one in the medina. It was a lot cheaper, about £1.50 a night, but it was nowhere near as nice. We had a first floor room with 3 bedrooms, a fantastic view of the Rif Mountains and we even had running water in the room. We also had access to the rooftop.
Another day was beginning to fade out and the streets filled up again. Ray wanted me to go with him to buy some candles, but I was too paranoid. He left and came back really buzzing as he explained to me how he had managed to get across to the shop owner what he wanted even though he couldn’t speak the language. He was a great communicator and people really liked him.
We went to bed. The days seemed to be rushing by. I never heard the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer that night either.