Greetings from the great American roadway… Highway. As we wind our way South in the camper van on the crowded roads of the United States, I tell Ms. B. about other journeys in far away places. This week’s story is another in my series about fun travels in Islamic countries. Pennsylvania is a long way from Morocco but the terrain is surprisingly similar and humans are nice everywhere.
The original title of this story was “The Road Less Traveled.” I thought it was an appropriately respectful literary reference to Robert Frost’s famous poem. But alas, I have since been informed that the road less traveled has been traveled upon too much in literary circles. It has become a cliche. Wrapping my brain around that onion of irony caused my circuits to over-load so I slightly modified the title to protect my readers with overly sensitive circuits.
Azilal, Morocco; Dec. 30, 2008.
Two pathways diverge into the horizon. To the left there is the main highway and a direct luxury bus that will take me all the way to the Promised Land of Marrakesh. To the right there is a side road and a crowded collective minibus that will take me to the mouth of the Todra Gorge….. On the map of Morocco, the Atlas Mountains cover the entire center of the country. On the southern side of the mountain range in the very center at the bottom is the Todra Gorge. Going north through the gorge and up into the mountains there are a series of dirt roads and poorly paved roads that continue climbing until they reach the village of Imilchil in the very center of the High Atlas mountains. From Imilchil, you can continue on more precarious, dangerous roads over and down the other side of the mountains to reach the main highway that connects Fez with Marrakesh. Between the Todra Gorge and the main highway is approximately 180 kilometers. There are no buses or regularly scheduled transportation services along this route but there are occasional trucks that take villagers back and forth between the various markets. Theoretically, if you have patience, and you don’t mind walking some or getting stuck in a village for a day or two, the route can be traversed without too much difficulty….. But there are lots of beautiful women partying in Marrakesh and the mountains will be very cold this time of year. I hate the cold and I love partying with beautiful women. It makes no sense to take the long way through the mountains. Come on Pat… It’s only a luxury bus. You can do it. Don’t be proud….. I don’t know, perhaps it’s a sign of some deep seeded psychological problem that I choose to suffer so. But, nevertheless, I do. The party in Marrakesh will just have to wait. I shoulder my pack and head for the crowded minibus to take me to the gorge…….
It is Christmas morning when I check into Hotel La Valle at the mouth of the gorge. The gorge is an up and coming place for rock climbers and Hotel La Valle is kind of a climbers’ crash pad. I spend the day hiking up and down various side trails that branch off the central gorge. The scenery is spectacular with bright sunlight shining on massive rock walls. At one point, I hike over a ridge and circle around to reach the top of the gorge and look down from above. It’s always fun to stare into the abyss. I get a little lost on the way back and have to play charades with a Berber mountain man to find the right trail but I make it back to the hotel in time to watch the sunset from the rooftop terrace. I sit back, smoke some hashish, and watch as rays of sunlight illuminate complex images within the contours, cracks and crevasses of the massive red rocks. All in all, it is a very nice Christmas despite the fact that there is no heat in the hotel and the temperature is below freezing.
The next morning, I eat an early breakfast, check out of the hotel and set out walking with my full pack. I follow the road north through the center of the gorge. It’s 20 kilometers to Tamtatoucht, the first town with hotels or auberges. I might catch a ride somewhere along the way and if not 20k is not a very long walk for a day. As it turns out, two different trucks carrying passengers stop to offer me a lift but I wave them both on because I am enjoying the walk so much…. If the Atlas Mountain Range is a monster, the Todra Gorge is the monster’s gullet. A beautiful rushing river snakes through the center of it and giant red rock cliffs rise up all around. I stop several times by the river to smoke hashish and one time I soak my feet and head in a small waterfall. The temperature is a comfortable 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun is bright. The road is paved except for in a few places where it is washed out. Five or six vehicles pass me during the day and I walk by two road crews so it is not as if I am completely isolated. But human contact is minimal and planet earth contact is full on. After a few hours, I walk up out of the gorge and into the mountains. Barren rock hills in the foreground with snow capped peaks in the distance. In the mid-afternoon, I reach the town of Tamtatoucht.
At the very beginning of town there are six hotels to choose from. As I stand in the middle of the street trying to guess which one will be the cheapest; I am approached by Ali who offers me a room in his for 40 dirhams (5 bucks). Sounds good to me…of course there is no heat and the temperature is so cold the pipes freeze but I have a warm sleeping bag and plenty of blankets. Besides, the food is good too.
The next morning the plan is to go to Imilchil. The problem is that Imilchil is 60 kilometers away. I can’t walk it and transportation is unpredictable. Ali and another guy inform me maybe yes, maybe no on transport to Imilchil. So I pack up my stuff and wait outside the auberge for a truck to come by. None does. After two hours, I start walking. I am not planning on walking the whole way I am just hoping it will change my luck or perhaps there will be another place to stay further ahead. I walk through town and it is much bigger than I thought. Spread out over a couple of kilometers, I pass a few more small hotels and I stop in a cafe for a coffee. Once again, I am informed maybe yes maybe no on transport to Imilchil. I continue walking until I reach the other side of town and then I meet a young guy who speaks Spanish. He informs me that there is definitely transport to Imilchil tomorrow morning for the market but that there is none that day. He then offers me a room at the luxury hotel where he is the caretaker. I say I can’t afford a luxury hotel and he tells me it is off season so there are no guests. I can have a room with dinner and breakfast for only 150 dirhams. Why the hell not?
The hotel is on a hilltop and the stonework construction is impressive. My room has a big window with a million dollar view of snow capped mountains. I have my own bathroom with hot water, a big bed with lots of blankets and a little electric heater on the table next to me. To top it off, they even bring my dinner to my room…room service…not bad for a bum like me… And the next morning, I cram myself into a minibus with ten or so villagers and head over the mountains to Imilchil. The road to Imilchil is not for the faint of heart. It’s more of a dirt track than a road…. impassable without four wheel drive. There are numerous hair pin turns with steep drops into canyons and no guardrails. We pass several mountain villages where we stop to let off some passengers and pick up others. We go up and over a high mountain pass on a road covered in snow and ice. A couple of times I think for sure we will be stuck but somehow we always continue forward. After three hours of discomfort, occasional fear and astonishing views we arrive.
If you plug the variables for perfect mountain village into a super computer, the answer it is likely to spit out is Imilchil, Morocco. Situated smack dab in the center of the High Atlas Mountains, surrounded by snow capped peaks with a beautiful lake nearby, the setting could not be more serene. I pile out of the minibus, walk up and down the street looking at hotels, choose a cheap looking one at random and walk in. An older guy (60s), dressed in a jalaba is seated in the lobby next to a small wood stove. He is smoking a hand rolled cigarette. “Can I help you?” he says without getting up.
“Yeah, uh, I’m looking for a room. And you speak English.”
“Yes, I speak some. What is your name and where are you from?”
“My name is Patrick and I’m from the U.S.”
“My name is Mohamed and you are very welcome here in Imilchil. Would you like some of this? It is hashish.” He stands up and reaches the joint towards me.
“Sure thing.” I take the joint and hit it good and hard twice. Wow, I’m stoned. It’s good hashish. Mohamed smiles and shows me to a room. It’s one of the shittiest rooms I’ve ever seen. Cement walls, bare floor, tiny window, rock hard bed, and a disgusting toilet down the hall. Mohamed then proceeds to tell me I can have these wonderful accommodations including dinner and breakfast for a mere 150 dirham. Same price as the luxury hotel, pretty funny huh? But I am stoned out of my mind so I don’t care that I am being overcharged. It’s a crappy room but it’s a crappy room in paradise. I pay the money, put my bags in the room and go outside walking.
It is a typically awesome afternoon. About 40 degrees Fahrenheit, blue sky and sunshine, surrounded by snow capped peaks. I hike to the lake and then over some hills. I follow a river upstream for a while and I circle back to town for the picturesque sunset. In the evening, Mohamed makes me a mighty fine chicken tagine. Afterwards we are joined by Mohamed’s friend Mustafa and the three of us sit around the wood stove smoking joints and conversating in a mixture of languages (English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Berber). I tell them about my unusual traveling life and then we have a rather involved discussion about some of the misunderstandings between the western world and Islam. I sure am learning a lot about Islam getting stoned with guys named Mohamed. Nevertheless, my room is still shitty and I freeze my ass off at night.
The next day my destination is the other side of the mountain range. I am hoping to get as far as Azilal; the stop off place for Cascades D’Ouzoud, Morocco’s big waterfall attraction. From there, it’s only two more hours to Marrakesh. Of course, there is no public transport between Imilchil and Azilal and the road is neither straight nor direct so I am going to have to wing it. I know Beni Mellal is the name of the big city on the other side of the mountains so I go out into the road by my hotel in Imilchil and ask about transport to Beni Mellal. Sure enough, I find a cattle truck with two cows and 14 villagers that is heading over the mountains. After a game of charades, the driver of the truck informs me he will take me to Arbhala where I will surely find further transport to Beni Mellal. I throw my pack up on the platform above the cows and climb up to sit down. Except for the cold; it is a rather glorious way to travel. Surrounded by villagers; behind the cab of a truck with two cows down below and behind me, I have spectacular mountain scenery and the perfect surroundings from which to view it. The ride itself though, is like a damn scary roller coaster ride; holy hairpin curves, squeaky brakes, no guardrails and steep, steep drops. After a couple of fearful but fun hours we arrive in the small farming town of Arbhala. It’s just a couple of mud streets with a few shops and cafes. The truck stops in a field behind two houses and all the passengers climb off. Now what? How do I get from here to Beni Mellal? No one in town speaks English so I just keep smiling at everyone and repeating like a mantra Beni Mellal? Beni Mellal? After a while; the driver connects me with a local guy and indicates for me to follow him. I follow the guy through the muddy streets to one of the cafes. The local guy talks to an old guy at one of the tables outside and I hear him say Beni Mellal. I repeat like a parrot… Beni Mellal. The old guy indicates for me to sit at one of the small tables so I do. I order mint tea. I wait in that cross roads cafe for an hour or so watching the action surrounded by people whose language I don’t understand.
Eventually; the old guy in the cafe directs me into a share taxi that has six other people in it. My backpack goes in the trunk and my body squeezes into the vehicle. An extremely uncomfortable journey, a car built for four, now holding seven people travels for two hours on winding dirt roads with steep hills. By the time we arrive in the small city of El Ksiba, my body is twisted into a pretzel knot. And El Ksiba, of course, is not my destination but it is the end of the ride. So now I’m in a city surrounded by strangers who don’t speak my language. Having no other options, I continue chanting my mantra… Beni Mellal? Beni Mellal? How do I go to Beni Mellal? You know, it never ceases to amaze me how nice people can be on the planet earth. We hear about so much nastiness on the news but my personal experience is almost always the opposite. Here I am, this crazy looking stranger, with wild hair, dirty clothes and a smelly backpack. I am wandering around like a lost fool. And the truth is, people look out for me. I am passed around from nice person to nice person; shown this way and that way until finally I am loaded into a share taxi on its way to Beni Mellal. How beautiful is this world?
No doubt, the ride is uncomfortable again. But it is only an hour or so before we reach Beni Mellal. Once again, I am forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers. I am in this big city parking lot and people are speaking to me in French and Arabic and Berber. I want to go to Azilal so that is my new mantra…. Azilal, Azilal, I want to go to Azilal. I smile and look confused. They pass me around. Shake their heads. Discuss things. Put me in the hands of a teenager who takes me up to the main intersection and flags a cab. I keep saying Azilal as the teenager discusses things with the taxi driver. The taxi takes me across town to a different parking lot, drops me off, points towards a cluster of vehicles and says “Azilal”. A little while later I am crammed into a share taxi and on my way to Azilal.
I arrive in Azilal in the early evening. I meet a young local guy who speaks English and he shows me to an awesome cheap hotel. Its still two days before New Years and the big waterfall and Marrakesh are both within striking distance. So I made it. I took the road less travelled and made it to the other side…. It sure wasn’t easy but it definitely was fun.
And now, well, it’s going to be a wonderful New Year.
If you like this story, perhaps you would like to buy the book that it is a part of. It is available as an e-book or a paperback. Thanks. Buy the book.