Sorry for posting late. I am on a trip; I thought I had uploaded my post to my USB, but I hadnt. So I have to write this post from the cyber. Next weeks post will probably be a couple days late as well. This entry is going to be sort of a running diary again; I dont know how else to describe whats happened the last few days.
Friday morning I woke up early in my site and caught transit to Tounfite, then Boumia. Another volunteer and I had a meeting with an association guy about a project. It went alright. I took transit to Midelt, had lunch, then caught a bus to Meknes. I was trying to find transit to Chefchouen, but there was none til the next morning. Hotels were very full, so I got a spot on a roof. In Meknes I had some interesting conversations. The one that stands out is with this group of guys sitting on the hotel stoop. We got into the normal religious discussions and I heard the most insensitive things Ive heard yet. The guy had some confused ideas about christianity and he was just railing on the religion. I didnt know how to respond; suppose I really was a Believer, how dare he say such virulent things about my religion? Would I ever dare to challenge Islam like that to a Muslime? No. He started talking about how there are mosques in every country, so the call to prayer is always going off somewhere. He said "I think if the call to prayers stop, the world would stop turning." Which obviously shows an ignorance for history. Most of the time talking with people about religion makes me more tolerant, this conversation made me less so.
The next day I got up at 330 am (actually, I didnt sleep. I stayed up til 330.) I took the 4 oclock bus to Chefchouen, getting in at around 830 or 9. I was amazed by the towns medina. Many of the buildings are painted this dreamy light blue color. It feels very tranquil in the morning. I had breakfast, bought some food, then started my trek.
The town is originally called Chouen, which means "peaks." Chefchouen means "look at the peaks." Either way, the name is appropriate. The peaks are big and awe inspiring. Theyre not actually that high in altitude (the highest nearby peak is 2000 meters, compared to the 3800m peak near my village) but they start from near sea level. They are the greenest peaks in Morocco, by far. They sit right near the Mederiteranean Coast, so they get a ton of precipitation from the Sea. Trees are everywhere, its so green. Springs and streams seem to be around every turn. The mountains are very steep, which means that youre constantly doing switchbacks; changing your perspective of the mountain. The first day was a hard hike. It was hot, I was very tired, and I had to climb like 800 some vertical meters to get to this pass. Great views of the mountain and looking back into the valley. I made it through the pass and descended a little way to where a small house converted to hotel was. In the valley, the climate changed noticeably. On the Chouen side it had been hot and kind of dry. Now it was cool and wet. The trees were different. The hotel was comfortable with good food and a shower.
The next day was an even more amazing hike. The mountains were even steeper and the climate was quite different. A bank of low clouds rolled in off the ocean and kept things wet and cool for most of the day. I had my Lonely Planet Map and two paragraph description of the days hike as my guide, but that turned out to be insufficient. I later realized that the Lonely Planet Map says "not suitable for navigation." Oops. After some scrambling over backcountry I ended up on a path, although not the path that I thought I was on. (My motto for the hike was: Im not looking for the path, just a path that goes in the right direction). I dropped down into a mostly dry river bed and hiked down it, going North, for a while. The going was tough. The rocks were big and it was obvious that in Spring time the bed was full of rushing water. The cliffs on either side of the river bed loomed over me, high and impossibly steep. The river bed started to fill with water and I saw a path heading up the mountain in the direction of the village that I was aiming for, so I took it. I made it high up on one bank of the river, looking down several hundred vertical feet at the river below. My guidebook said that I ought to "descend down to Akchour (the village with hotel I was planning to stay in)" at this point. I ended up on the wrong path, however, and made my way back down to the river bed. At this point in the river bed, it was now a slowly flowing river. I got wet and ended up wading through portions. The cliffs were now directly next to the river. Before, if a part in the river was impassable, I would scramble on the riverbank around the difficult part. This was no longer an option.
I was a little worried, but the guidebook gave me some hope. I was about 1 or 2 miles south of the village. One mile from the village, on the river bed that I was walking, there is a tourist attraction (a river carved bridge that towers over the river). The guidebook says that it is possible to walk from the attraction to the village. So if I could just make it to this bridge, I would be in business. The river was getting more and more difficult; the water was getting deeper. I was carrying a pack with camera, Ipod, and phone, so I couldnt exactly get it wet. After a little while, I came upon three Moroccans swimming in the river. They had stopped at this swimming hole where the water was quite deep and slow, maybe 15 feet. There was no way around the swimming hole. I had no path. The guys saw my dilemma and told me they would help me swim the sack over to the other side. It seemed like a good idea, or at least the best one that was available. Have you ever tried to swim while holding something above your head? Well I hadnt. Its very difficult. My sack had 3 books in it, some clothes, some other stuff, so it wasnt light. But between the 4 of us, we passed, dropped, and swam the bag across the (long) swimming hole. I walked the rest of the way with these guys and hung out with them the rest of the night.
The next day, Monday, I walked back to Chouen. The last day was thankfully relatively easy. There were lots of confusing paths, but the area was more inhabited so I could ask for directions.
What to say? These mountains are amazing. I couldnt stop taking pictures; over 200. The people living back in the mountains have interesting lives. They are extremely isolated. The roads are terrible. I cant imagine what its like in winter. I wouldnt call them welcoming, but they were nice to me. One thing that I havent mentioned thus far is their sources of income: basic farming, herding goats, basic tourist stuff, and growing marijuana (actually kif, which is less potent than marijuana). Marijuana fields cover the land that is flat enough to grow on (most of the land isnt flat enough). I read that 90 percent of farmable land in these mountains is used for marijuana. The Rif mountains are historically the most neglected area in Morocco. Underdeveloped, underfunded, poor. Cultivating marijuana has brought these people some money. The downside of it is that most all the farmers, as far as I could tell, smoke a lot. Kids as well. The kif plant is such a pervasive part of their lives.
Peace Corps does not have any sites for volunteers in the Rif, mostly because of the drugs. The drugs would be a big obstacle for a volunteer, but it is exactly the sort of place that Peace Corps work could be helpful. It would be extremely interesting to learn about the people of the Rif.
Im back from the trek now, in Chouen. The city itself is overflowing with tourists. Ive been speaking with them a lot and Im developing a negative opinion. Theyre ignorant and disrespectful of the culture. Before I came to the hostel, there was this French guy who had been living in Chouen for 2 months at the hostel. He had learned a couple words in Arabic; the other tourists at the hostel look up to him as being wordly and knowledgeable about Morocco. I couldnt believe it; this guys been living in a hotel for 2 months in one of the most touristy cities in the country, smoking hash and drinking all the time. Great. But Im trying to get over my negative feelings for the tourists, its unfair.
So far, this feels like a blessed vacation. The trek was incredible. Every bend in the path brought a new surprise. Reflecting honestly on my choices on the trek, I may have been not planned well enough ahead of time. But every time that I was in a pinch, I had some luck. The two biggest languages here are Arabic and Spanish, so those are fun to practice. My Arabic is coming along nicely, but I would need some prolonged exposure if I was going to get good.
I hope all is well. Im meeting another volunteer here in a couple hours (ive been alone this whole time). Well stay in Chouen for another day, then head up to the Med Coast. Ramadan starts Saturday, so I would like to be back in my site for that. Take care.