We step through the ornately carved 15th century archway of Chefchaouen as the bus, that had brought my girlfriend and me here from Meknes, pulls away.
This medieval Moroccan city found in the Rif Mountains is painted in spellbinding pastel blues. We carry our bags on our shoulders through an azure labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets, passing countless stained wooden doors until we arrive at the centre of the old Medina. We are engulfed by the hubbub of the market; merchants shout to us from their stalls hawking an insatiable supply of woollen scarves and tacky trinkets, the overpowering scents of saffron and curcumin drift over from the sizzling meat skewers. Veiled women walk in large groups through the market, old men in long multi-coloured robes smoke cigarettes in the shade.
We are narrowly missed by a large ram being pulled along the street by its spiral horns. The owner and his son tussle with the animal to control its bucking legs. The town is preparing for the festival of Eid al-Adha. This annual tradition sees the sacrifice of a ram of the roof of the family house, its skin flayed and burnt, and its blood left to run into a ceremonial bowl. The meat is then shared between the families and offered to the poor.
A short distance down a side street and we reach our hostel. Meeting us at the door of this three-storied stone building is Anne, the grumpy British owner. She greets us with a smile-less handshake and checks us in to our room.
‘How long ‘ave ya been in Morocco?’ Anne asks in her east-London accent as she leads us up the staircase.
‘About a couple of weeks now’, I answer, ‘We started down in Marrakech’.
Anne snorts, and retorts ‘In that case I don’t need to tell ya about rules number one and two’.
We exchange a puzzled look and she adds, ‘Don’t go out at night and don’t trust anyone’. She hands us the keys.
We drop off our belongings in the room and make our way to the rooftop where fellow travellers are enjoying beers and rolled kief joints. The relaxed vibes are conducive to the Rif Mountains, one of the world’s largest cannabis growing regions. The afternoon drifts on by and the ocean-blue hues of Chefchaouen blend seamlessly into the cloudless mountain skies.
Early evening and we venture down into the heart of the Medina where a spider web of streets encircle and crisscross around us. Children gleefully chase each other in and out of tall stone archways; tajines crackle and hiss steam in the street vendor’s smoky stalls. But one odour rises above the rest — the sweet grassy smell of hashish. A man leaning against a wall notices us and walks over. With a bold voice he bellows ‘Welcome to Morocco! Want some hashish?’ We politely decline this illegal offer he’s made so publicly on the street. The man insists and produces a plastic-wrapped chunk of potent smelling hashish for us to inspect.
‘Very good quality, very good prices’ he encourages us to smell it.
We try a whiff of the dark-green sticky substance. We buy a couple of grams for 200 dirhams (around 17 euro). The deal is done and the man quickly spies two more tourists nearby and moves to try his luck with them. We wander onwards through the thick waves of passers-by. Having already recently suffered from food poisoning, we search for a simple clean-looking restaurant in the central square. Exhausted and hungry from our day’s journey, we soon settle on a small family-run eatery and order a simple chicken tajine before heading to bed.
We are awoken the following day to early morning calls to prayer. We climb to the roof of the hostel, and as the sun greets us we find Chefchaouen in a noticeably different mood. The smells of burning hair and flesh invade the air; the sacrificial rams have met their ends on nearby rooftops. The mosques call out a holy prayer that calls for a day of rest. The once bustling Medina now lies dormant, the market, shops and restaurants all closed, the once ubiquitous coloured rugs that hung from every stall are now all packed away. We glance around us at the emptiness; it’s clear the whole town has succumbed to the festivities of Eid al-Adha.
With the holy day in full force, our options are limited. We wander around the deserted streets passing a mangy-looking stray dog that chews on the leftover bones of the holy rams. A young skinny man dressed in jeans and a worn out pink Nike t-shirt makes his way towards us. His green eyes contrast his dark olive skin. Between puffs of his cigarette he smiles revealing a few missing teeth and greets us in French — a language we don’t speak. I try English, he doesn’t understand. We finally settle on a mixture of Spanish and Italian, the only languages we sort of have in common.
The man wishes us good fortune us on the holy Muslim day and asks what we think of his country. We answer that it’s a beautiful part of the world. He grins again. He asks where we are both from and we answer Italy and Australia. Upon hearing this he cackles and says, ‘Mafia! Kangaroos!’ causing us to laugh as well — clearly our most important culture exports to Morocco.
We ask the pink t-shirt man what there is to do today given that everything is closed. His green eyes widen at the question and he leans forward — how about visiting his cannabis plantation? He farms it in the nearby hills. We hesitate. What can we say?
The surrounding Rif Mountains that lay beyond the town’s walls are calling to be explored. We had been told about the possibility of the uniquely Moroccan tour in a cannabis farm. But we decide to give it a miss this time. The perennially smiling pink t-shirt man shrugs and tells us to come find him if we change our minds. We shake hands and he proudly exclaims, ‘Welcome to Morocco!’
Early afternoon and somewhat bored we return to the hostel to eat a simple lunch. Afterwards, we try some of the famous Chefchaouen kief. Its grassy sweat flavour is pleasant. Anne tells us to hike to Spanish Mosque that overlooks the town on a nearby hill. The kief’s high is mellow and allows you to be active and we are happy to have something to do, so on Anne’s advice we prepare to depart.
‘Don’t bring any more cash than you need to. There are criminals that operate in those hills’. I slip around 500 Moroccan dirhams into my travel bag — around 40 euros — and we walk out.
The town is still practically deserted and we pass a group of tourists taking photos of the cats lying in the shade to escape the hot African sun. It’s now mid-afternoon and climbing the steps to the Spanish fort proves to be a sweaty experience. We pass by an old Moorish cemetery where a family sits near a grave stone. We eventually reach the hilltop where Spanish Mosque sits in ruin and disrepair, left to the mercy of the elements by the locals who once despised the building’s Spanish colonisers. The building is uninspiring but its view is unforgettable. From here we can see far into the endless peaks of lush valleys and mountains, interrupted only by the ultramarine shimmer of Chefchaouen.
Trudging along the path ahead, we see our pink t-shirt man. He recognises us instantly and bounds up. As it turns out, his cannabis farm is right near here — just a short walk over the hills, or so he claims. He takes out a pack of cigarettes and offer us one. My girlfriend takes it and he lights it for her. We stand for a moment smoking and gazing out onto the valley below. By now the day has been uneventful and perhaps this is our last chance to seize what’s left of the afternoon. We agree to go with him and he grins, beckoning us to follow him into the hills.
We snake our way through rocky outcrops and solitary crooked trees. The path ahead is worn by the hooves of centuries of herded livestock. Despite his slim stature and loosely-fitting sandals, pink t-shirt man leaps expertly from rock to rock, navigating the trail with the air of someone who has done this his whole life. The sun hangs low in the sky behind us, the last of its heat warming our necks. In the nearby hills we see men herding sheep. Our guide ambles along the steepening path, always maintaining a few metres distance in front. Every so often he turns back to us, flashing us his ever-present sharky smile as though enticing us to follow as he draws us ever further from the safety of the shore. As we struggle a little to keep up, I call out to him — how much further?
‘Very close my friend!’
We come to fence made of odd pieces of wood. We hop over and turn around a large rock and there in front of us is a field brimming with tall cannabis plants. Hundreds of them growing in neat little rows. We wander in delight through this secret farm, stopping to sniff the pungent flowers. Our guide lights a cigarette and points out the different strains that he grows. A donkey watches us while munching some prickly grass, unfazed by our presence. We take photos of the illicit plants; the man makes sure to stay out of the shot.
Our guide then brings us to a small courtyard where he dries the plants. There are two Moroccans already seated on logs, one old and one about the same age as our guide. They jump up to greet us, grabbing some dried cannabis branches that were placed on drying racks. One of them takes out a long thin knife and begins slicing off dried chunks. They murmur to each other in Arabic and begin to show us the process of extracting the kief. First they place a large plastic bowl covered by a black stocking. On top they sprinkle the dried flowers and begin to batter it with thin sticks. They remove the stocking and scoop out the fine clumps of powder that have collected in the bowl. We sit there laughing at the simplicity and resourcefulness of their method. One man runs to fetch us some sweet mint tea. He ceremonially pours it and re-pours it from a decorative teapot.
Our guide chatters to the other men then walks over to us. He sits and says, ‘For you my friends only 1000 dirhams’. We stop. That’s about 80 euro. We decline and say we don’t need any. He leans forward close to my face, his stench of tobacco and sweat strong in the air.
‘No, my friend now you buy’.
I notice something shift in his previously charming eyes. The other men watch on from a short distance, their bodies casting long shadows. One fiddles with his knife. The air around us suddenly feels very cold. Everything is beginning to feel strange and my girlfriend shoots me a fearful look. I reach down slowly into my travel bag and draw out only money we have — the 500 dirham. The man scoffs, grabbing the money, ‘No, 1000’.
‘You think we take you rich whites here for fun?’ shouts one of the other men in broken Spanish.
‘We don’t have anything else’ I plead. The other men come closer and the older one says something in Arabic. Pink t-shirt barks back at him. They exchange a few heated words. We slowly rise from our seats and begin to prepare to run. Pink t-shirt turns back to us:
‘You’re lucky we don’t have guns’ he growls.
At this our hearts leap. My sweaty hand grips that of my girlfriend and we start back away towards the path. Pink t-shirt shouts abuse in Arabic and spits. We rush through the field and back to the farm fence. The men follow calling back to us.
The well-worn path, so clearly mark before, suddenly drops away, leaving a sweeping mountain landscape and no clear way home. The rapidly setting sun threatens a world of darkness and danger. After what seems like ages of running, we turn back and the men stopped pursuing. Tumbling over fallen trees and rocks, we press on, the chilly mountain air urging us not to stop. We rush past ramshackle farmhouses and goats, but nowhere that we recognise. The sun dips behind the mountains. We need to get back to the town.
At long last we find our way back to the Old Spanish mosque. Down below Chefchaoen sparkles in the last of the dusk light. My girlfriend and I stare at one another, panting and sweaty. Below we hear the evening call to prayer and the promise of safety in the hostel.
Relief. We walk down the winding steps back towards the walled city, a little wearier and a little wiser.