Trippin'

Trippin' is a collection of travel stories written by a young Australian writer. They talk of the humor of living a life on the fringe, the frustration of being down and out, and the stories of all the people he met along the way. The journey speaks to anybody who has experienced life on the road, or shares a thirst for the freedom that comes with spontaniety and transient living.

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8. Couchsurfin' from the mountains to the sea

 

Occurred - July/August 2011, Agadir, Ourika Valley, Essaouira (Morocco).

If I had to construct a list of the three most influential lessons that I have learnt on my travels, the fact that Morocco and Couchsurfing don't mix would definitely top the list. Couchsurfing is an alternate travel experience that can be chosen for two sole reasons. The first is because it enables you to see and experience the true nature of a specific area without spending money on accommodation. It's basically the equivalent of throwing yourself overboard with no life jacket, but with the experience somehow turning out awesome. The second reason is money related, and has usually got something to do with the fact that you were ludicrously broke, couldn't afford a meal - let alone accommodation - and used the method of hopping couches to keep you out of the gutter at night.

I think my motives were taken solely from column A but solidified by the grim reality of column B. In any case, Morocco probably wasn't the most ideal place to begin my Couchsurfing experience. As popular as the concept is, it is still my belief to this day that it functions better in the developed world. I did a short stint of it in Bristol in England and had a riot. I stayed in my own room, shared the same customs and cultures as the people who hosted me, and basically just got along with them on a normal, human level. But unfortunately for most westerners, the strict religious methods and customs of Morocco can often impact on your experience - especially if being accosted by a Moroccan who wanted to spoon with you at 3am was something that occurred.

I had never been to Morocco before, or even Africa, and the fact that I was able to change continents and cultures within only hours gave me a huge urge to travel there (quite irrationally) alone. Clearly I had no idea what to expect. The only predisposition that I had in my mind was a story that my Grandma had told me 8 months prior. It was related to Turkey, but due to my cultural ignorance at the time I had put the two countries in the same compartment in my mind labelled 'places where shit goes horribly wrong'. She had told me that on arrival to Turkey, her friend's son was robbed at knife point, drugged and found in an ice filled bath tub with both of his kidneys missing.

The story obviously set off alarm bells in my head. I imagined some sort of Texas Chainsaw Massacre grade plot with me as a protagonist. Considering my track record of getting myself into situations that had the potential to end this way, I took no chances - especially considering that I was entering a continent that could eat you alive without anybody even turning an eye.

The feeling of crossing over the Strait of Gibraltar and knowing that I was entering a polar-opposite, undeveloped continent gave me a euphoric feeling that can only be experienced when you are in the presence of something indescribable. But as I sat there on a flight with 50 Moroccans it was difficult to hold onto this thought. My love for travel was completely destroyed by the two drug dealing Berber’s that sat next to me, offering me an ounce of mountain hash. It seemed like only another routine procedure to them, seeking out the only white boy on board and attempting to ram drugs down his throat.

I landed at around 11pm (which probably wasn't one of my greatest ideas) and on arrival was greeted by the shittest excuse for an airport that I had ever witnessed. An enormous grey shed on a vacant block of dirt was all the Moroccans needed to guide in flights from all over Europe and other areas of Africa. It felt as if I had just arrived on Mars, being completely detached and removed from every idea that I had ever had about my conception of 'home'. Even though I had travelled to rural parts of Asia and all around outback Australia I was never actually completely alone. Somehow I couldn't help but think that I had bitten off more than I could chew as passport control stared at me intently, trying to figure out whether or not I had an ulterior motive for being in the country.

Five days before leaving the UK I had arranged to stay with a couchsurfing host in the centre of Agadir for three nights. I didn't really know what to expect by doing this, but considering I had no cash I really had no option. I was basically bound by any couchsurfer that hosted me for this very reason, which as it turned out, escalated quite quickly.

The name of my first Moroccan host was Rasheed, but I only knew him by his couchsurfing name which went something along the lines of 'bE hAPpY EvEryDaY AnD aLL yOUR dReaMs WiLL CoMe TrUE.' Despite the fact that he wrote like my 27 year old cousin and all the 15 year old slappers I knew in Australia, I was intrigued to meet somebody from Morocco, especially because he was a student in an undeveloped country.

The only piece of information that I had about Rasheed was that he lived at the address 91 Derb Bdid Riad Zitoune, Agadir. I had written it down on a piece of paper ripped from my writing book, and showed it to the taxi driver when we exited the airport. Considering the location, there was no way that I could expect him to speak English, so when he reeled off a bunch of information to me in 3 other languages (English not being one of them) I couldn't help but think that he was trying to tell me something important.

I rode with him for over an hour, stopping countless times to ask random Moroccans on the street where the address was. It was at that point in time, followed by countless other times during the weeks that followed, that I realised the full extent of my stupidity. Firstly, I shouldn't have booked a flight to Morocco that landed at 11pm - it's just plain dumb. It takes only an infant to tell you that darkness increases the scare factor of a place by about 300%. Secondly, couchsurfing probably wasn't the raddest of ideas, especially when finding a hostel in a Moroccan city would've been hard enough. The fact that I was trying to find one single house, and was doubting what their houses even looked like to begin with, was borderline impossible. Suddenly my manager giving me £300 pounds instead of £200 when I left Bristol didn't seem like such a stupid idea after all.

Eventually we rolled up to a block of apartments with the name 'Derb Bdid' written on one of the walls. The property was manned by a security guard and the streets were filled with young Moroccan kids playing games with rocks. They were all dressed in rags and stared as a ragged white boy rocked up to their hood. My taxi driver accompanied me up a long flight of stairs and hung around like a bad smell for the money that I owed him. I knocked at the door in a sweaty and dirty heap, hoping that some form of human would open the door and welcome me in some friendly fashion.

I was greeted by a rather lanky fellow called Mohammed. He was around 22 years of age, wore an XL basketball t-shirt and had a face full of acne that would make any pimply-faced teen shed a tear. His lips and gums were cracked from the Moroccan weather, and his teeth were brown and decayed from all the butts and hash he had probably smoked.

It was as if a bomb had just exploded in my mind and immediately made me re-adjust my thoughts. I put myself in Africa mode, which was basically just a mindset that I should've always had – being friendly, not arguing, not staring violently at somebody – but I was too stubborn for that in Australia. I remembered that only 8 months prior my mother had told me 'not to be such a smartarse' when I was in a foreign country, so I heeded her warning. Morocco was probably the best place to use her advice. Thankfully enough the man was warm and welcoming, and despite the fact that he wasn't Rasheed he still let me enter without question. I paid the taxi driver an exuberant amount of cash and shut the door, unaware of my oncoming reality.

As I entered the apartment I wasn't sure of what to expect. On the one hand Agadir is the most tourist-orientated city in Africa, therefore making me think that perhaps the students who studied there had a lot of money and could probably afford majestic things like minx statues. On the other hand I couldn't help but imagine a bunch of newborn babies crawling around in amongst a pack of chickens that were about to be killed and sold. On arrival I saw a living room fitted with 4 mattresses for guests, a blown out bathroom with a drop toilet, a shabby kitchen with nothing but a small table and a portable gas stove in it, and two bedrooms with 5 beds in each of them. This was what Mohammed, Rasheed and 8 others called home.

'So, my friend, tell me what they call you,' Mohammed said, beaming with excitement.

'My name's Mike and I'm from Australia. I'm here to couchsurf with your friend Rash - '

I froze, realising at that point in time I had no idea what the name of this guy was. So basically, to bring everything down to a realistic level, there I was standing in an apartment that I had found with the address obtained on an internet forum, populated with a bunch of people whose names I would never entirely know.

'Mark, my friend, welcome. Would you like some tea?'

'Oh yeah, rad, that'd be awesome,' realising by now that everybody outside of Australia calls me Mark.

'Rasheed is the man you look for. He is out with friends, will be back soon. You are in our home, one million welcomes my friend.'

As the night progressed I learnt more about the Moroccan and Berber people. Rasheed returned in a drunken haze, brimming with enthusiasm as he saw me standing in his kitchen with a bunch of his Moroccan home boys. I was immediately welcomed, given the best bed in the apartment, and fed nice and proper with a quality tagine. Moroccan's are truly amazing in the way that they can provide for anyone without even having enough for themselves. Over the next few days we toured the city, played beach soccer on the Agadir shoreline and discussed everything from politics to relationships. He truly confided in me, using couchsurfing as a means to make new connections from all over the world. It was at that moment that I realised my fortune. Through a bloodline that I had no control over I was given the right to travel, work, and live where I chose. People like Rasheed were lucky in his country because he was able to study and, with government permission, was given the right to see his French girlfriend on special occasions. For the majority of his friends and family, this would only be a dream.

After a few days of couchsurfing I decided to take a bus to Marrakesh. It was on route for me to make my way into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains to meet another couchsurfer that I had arranged to stay with while I was still living in the UK. I hadn't heard much about it, but knew that it was the biggest city in the country and therefore capable of providing some entertainment for one night.

I arrived to an unwavering 50 degree heat, and as I exited the bus I was met with a plethora of roads and construction sites. I felt lost once more, except in this case I had nowhere to go. I was overwhelmed with everybody attempting to pocket a cab fare, and decided to do the only logical thing that would also be inexpensive – walk. I bought an old, beaten up water bottle full of warm orange juice and made my way along the winding streets, headed for the city centre.

Once finally entering what I thought to be the city centre I spent 10 dirhams on a seedy chicken burger at a random restaurant. After around 2 hours of wandering aimlessly, looking for the sector of town that contained hostels, I was starting to give up. Clearly I had underestimated the enormity of Marrakesh and its maze-like feel. I tried to clear my head and think, but with the dozens of Moroccans throwing themselves at me for various services it became difficult.   

Eventually I realised that I had no choice - I had to let go. I was a 20 year old white male travelling solo with no money, and if I didn't let myself become engulfed into whatever the culture and its people were all about I would have no hope.

After 5 minutes of standing aimlessly on a street corner, looking confused, I was suddenly grabbed by 3 guys. They were just another 3 faces in a sea of people at the time, and could've been anybody. They seemed like the Moroccan equivalent of the three beers in the Goldie Locks fable, with one guy looking heinously old, one middle aged guy who seemed normal according to Moroccan standards, and a young boy of 17 or so. I turned around frightfully, and anticipated some serious shit to go down.

'No, my friend, it okay. Where you go?' the middle aged man said calmly, his gold plated teeth shining in the sun.

'I have no idea man, I can't find anywhere to stay,' I replied.

'We show you the places, and if you don't like, you are welcome in our home.’

I used my western rationale to weigh up the potential dangers of the situation, but I couldn't think of any. I was already somehow hoping that I could stay at their house (just for the sheer hell of it), and the fact that they were willing to show me the hostels first seemed perfect.

As we began walking to the Jemaa el-Fnaa (one of the largest market place squares in the whole of Africa) it wasn't an easy task keeping up, even with the decrepit dude. I became engulfed in a sea of hash dealings, market exchanges and chicken slaughtering.

I decided pretty quickly at that stage that there was no way I was going to walk for hours on end in search of hostels. It was 50 degrees and I really wanted to lie down, so I asked politely if I was welcome in their home, and they agreed.

As if going into overdrive, we entered the first of many narrow alleyways on the walk back to their crib. Everything was moving so quickly. I turned around to try and grab a glimpse of the directions we had taken, knowing the next day that I would need to bail and would probably be flying solo. But as I looked behind me I also saw a pack of Moroccan guards closing in on us. I had no idea if they were after us, but they were definitely heading in our general direction. They pushed through the crowd, knocking fruit off a nearby stand and grabbed Abdul, the middle-aged guy, by the neck, and thrust him into the wall. I looked on but was too shocked to act.

'My friend, my friend,' Abdul screamed at me over the sea of guards. 'Tell them you are with me!'

I panicked immediately.

'He's with me! He's okay!' I screamed. 'Let him go!'

I had no idea why I said this, and thought a few moments later that perhaps I'd gotten myself into a serious dilemma by saying that we were such tight buddies. But in any case the guards took their hands off his throat quickly and walked away disappointed.

'Thank-you my friend, thank-you,' he said, as he panted furiously.

'Dude! What the hell was that all about?'

'Well, you see... I am no guide. I wear no suit or no things. They see a white man with me and they think I am going go mad. They think I'm going to kill or hurt them.'

'I don't really understand, man.'

'You see, my friend, in this country the tourist are better than us. Without them the country is very bad. You save us.'

As it turned out, Abdul and the other two men were all related. The older man was Abdul’s father and the younger boy his brother. It was Abdul’s job to use his intermediate level of English to lure tourists into his father’s home, allowing them to stay in his room for the summer whilst his wife was away. The younger boy was probably just there to level out the ludicrous notion of an old man and his seedy son strolling the streets looking for business.

As I finally entered Abdul’s place of residence I was greeted by a man even more decrepit than the father. His house was hidden in a small ally-way of the Medina, with battered tree-house steps used to climb up to the lounge-room. The man I met inside could barely move or speak - but he did use his hash pipe to mentally experience all of the places he couldn’t experience in real life.

I took a seat next to him as Abdul and the other two made arrangements for dinner and the night ahead. Despite the fact that I had couchsurfed only 20 hours prior I was still being treated with the same degree of care, even if it did cost me. For 150 dirhams I was given my own private room, fitted with a private double bed topped with red heart shaped pillows. I understood the logic in why they had these pillows, but because I was alone and moneyless it just reminded me of the fact that I knew absolutely nobody within a 2000 kilometre radius.

Throughout the course of my night I learnt about two of the most integral components to Moroccan life – tea and hash. Women were of course important, but definitely not integral in their eyes. I don't think Moroccans had realised the importance of procreation due to all the pot they had lying in front of them. Abdul explained his logic with a simple equation:

1) ‘tea the same as woman’

2) ‘hash better than woman’

3) ‘tea and hash and I don’t need woman’

The next morning I awoke at 11am to find the kitchen filled with a smoky haze. Abdul and the older man lay asleep on the floor. I had hit the sack earlier on in the night, but felt kind of regretful leaving without saying goodbye and knowing at that moment that Abdul didn’t even have a proper place to live. I was simply another ungrateful westerner jetting from a reality that I wasn’t prepared to deal with.

I hopped in a taxi and rocked on up to a small mountain village called Ourika Valley, or Setti Fatma as the local Berbers named it. I had organised to stay with a couchsurfer called Mohammed and was stoked at the time, imagining some Jungle Book grade tree houses that somehow implied a sweet experience.

In reality the experience was definitely not what I had hoped for. I had previously arranged to meet Mohammed at the major taxi rank of the village. This was easy to pick out, but unfortunately the time and date of our meeting and his actual appearance were all unknown. Not only that, but there were literally 100 yellow taxis lining a road that was 10 meters wide.

At first, I attributed these errors to Mohammed, but in retrospect it was probably just a dick move on my part. But as I stood there waiting, in a sea of yellow taxicabs and screaming Berber tour guides, one single man caught my attention.

He looked far older than everybody else, perhaps 60 or so, and sat perched on a rock smoking a cigarette. I wouldn't have even noticed him if I didn't realise that he was also staring straight at me. He wore baggy blue jeans, a haggard maroon shirt and a blue cap, and looked as if he had no intention of washing them. His face was filled with wrinkles, but his hair was as black as the night, and in amongst everybody else he looked like the only person that wasn't in a hurry. If anything, it looked more as if he was studying everyone that passed him. Every tourist and even every local seemed to be under his watchful eye as he decided who he approved of and who he didn't.

But I still couldn't shake the thought that he was most likely just like every other Moroccan I had met so far. Underneath their smiles and kindness you could tell that all they really wanted was your money – it was as if they were all a part of an elaborate plan to rip off anybody who could afford anything. And at the moment I was still unable to detect any difference between these people and the man that stood in front of me, even as he spoke his first words.   

‘Are you okay? You appear lost,’ he said in a clear and fluent English accent.

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I’m just waiting for my friend.’

‘Is there something I can help you with?’

'Help me?' I thought. I knew exactly what he was getting at, and even if I really did want his help I still couldn't tell him the truth. I couldn't break with the fact that I was waiting for somebody that I had never met and was actually in need of somebodies assistance.

‘No, okay, because you guys always want money when I ask for help! Not this time man, not now.’

‘Hey,' he replied, 'If you think I want your money, you are wrong. And if you think I am like that, then we can’t be friends. If you want my friendship, it's there. Otherwise we have no business with each other.’

My heart sank. My smart-arse remarks were finally met by somebody who could actually see that what I needed at that point was a friend. But again, I still couldn't see it. He smiled just like the taxi driver who had ripped me off from the airport and looked just as eager for a friendship as the other taxi driver who had charged me money to hunt down a taxi in Marrakesh – even if I didn't ask him. And as lucky as the situation was at that moment (what with me meeting somebody who wanted to help me whilst I was completely stranded in the Atlas Mountains) I was too stubborn to realise. I was furious with this mystery man Mohammed for standing me up. My visions of living in the mountains were flooded with a realistic sorrow that perhaps I had crossed the line this time. But in any case, I gave myself up to this man in front of me, even if I still did not completely trust him.

Setti Fatma village, whilst being one of the oldest Berber villages in Morocco, is now completely populated with tourists. But it's really no surprise when you imagine seven cascading waterfalls and bars and restaurants in the mountains. The village itself is old and quaint, with tourist elements like hotels and westernised restaurants not actually removing the purity of the place as much as you would expect. The most influential element that heightens tourist sentiment is the fact that Moroccans believe in haggling far too much. The more frequent and intense the haggling, the more infiltrated the place becomes with tourists.

I took a seat with the old man, introduced also as Mohammed, in a cafe with three other men. It was situated right next to the taxi rank, with little boys running round, getting in the way of their fathers as they were trying to work. Everything seemed to be in sync with the people who lived there, even if I couldn't help but feel like they were undertaking some form of Moroccan grade Italian Mafia meeting around me. They spoke in a variation of Arabic, Berber and French as an army of tourists lurked only 20 metres away, in a completely separate life. But what struck me as completely crazy was that somehow, in one hour, I had managed to (1) befriend what appeared to be the leader of the whole village, and (2) score free accommodation. Mohammed took my 'student' status quite seriously, and understood that I wasn't in fact what they deemed to be a tourist. I walked with him over a makeshift bridge, crossing a fresh river that flowed through the entire village, and walked up the stairs to my new home - Cafe Berber.

I would be lying if I said that my Grandma's story didn't flutter around in my mind whilst I was walking with Mohammed. At first, admittedly, I thought I was going to die. The whole 'old man takes skinny white boy into the mountains; rape ensues' thought was an all too frightening outcome. But what I was met with was in fact the exact opposite. I was introduced to the three main 'players' in the game, or more realistically just the employees of the cafe.

Ahmed was the youngest and most confident with English. He was the waiter of the restaurant, had slicked back hair and wore, at all times, a white Ralph Lauren shirt and a white singlet with black slacks. He was the product of westernisation with a heart of gold. The other two men, Imad and, low and behold, another Mohammed, were the cooks. They both spoke minimal English, but with one of them looking like a young Eddy Murphy and the other like the sweetest old man you'd ever known, they were immediately welcoming.

They allowed me to pitch my one-man tent on the roof of their cafe for as long as I wanted. I was ecstatic, not only because I was right next to the chicken slaughtering area, but because it was the first opportunity that I had been given to use my killer tent.

Mohammed aided me in setting up my tent and establishing myself, making sure that I felt at home with the environment and the people around me. He sat me down at the cafe, fitted with small tables and lounge style chairs and pillows and ordered me some tea.

'So, why is the real reason that you are here?' he said, as if knowing that I was hiding something from him.

'Have you ever heard of couchsurfing?'

'No,' he replied.

'Well, it's this website that connects travellers all over the world with each other. I came to Morocco only a few days ago, and arranged to stay with people along the way. One of the guys I spoke to lived here, so I asked whether I could stay with him. It seemed like a good thing to do, because I wanted to see the mountains and everything. And, yeah, now I'm here, and I don't know where he is.'

'You need to be careful here,' he replied. 'There are some people who will help you and some people who only look like they will.'

'Yeah I know that. In Europe it's fine to stay with somebody you don't know, but I'm not sure about here.'

After several hours of bantering I slowly became comfortable with everything and everyone around me. It was almost as if Mohammed had to prove himself to me, rather than the other way around. But eventually I settled back and got comfortable with the haven that I had found, and quickly became very curious as to how Mohammed found himself there as well.

'I was born here,' Mohammed said. 'If you look up there [pointing towards the top of the mountains] there are small Berber villages. I was raised there, and came here every week to get food and other things. You can still see the camel tracks that we took. After a few visits to places on the coast for family I came back here and worked as a tour guide. I used to take people into the mountains and to see the waterfalls and everything.'

The fact that Mohammed was a tour guide played havoc with my mind for the next few days. In the days that followed he led me on countless walks into the mountains, smaller villages and up to the waterfalls, but I was never quite sure if he wanted money. I was confused, not knowing whether to trust him completely or revert back to an ignorant state of mind that questioned the motives of everybody I came in contact with.

But Mohammed never asked for anything. Perhaps my stories of Europe and Australia were my payment, or perhaps there was no payment at all. Underneath all of my worrying it really just seemed as if what Mohammed and the others wanted was for someone to educate them about a world they knew nothing about. It was one of the first moments in my life where I had noticed and understood that some people value their time as knowledge rather than money.

During those first few days I also learnt several other important facts about Moroccans (or perhaps just Berber people). Firstly, it was clear that none of the people I knew changed their clothes. Mohammed wore his rugged blue jeans, faded maroon shirt and flat blue cap day in, day out. Ahmed sported his fancy attire each weekday to bring in the tourists (with the exception of his Saturday washing day). At first I was surprised, but quickly enough I realised that it was absurd to think that they had a closet full of clothes. Imagine, Mohammed living at the foothills of the Atlas mountains with a raging wardrobe the size of my Nana's - it's just ludicrous. In any case, the clothes that these men wore actually began to define them as much as their personalities.

The second, and perhaps more gruesome fact, relates to something that the western world could never fathom. First of all, there was a total absence of toilet paper. Not only did Morocco use drop toilets that required you to uncomfortably squat, but afterward they left you with nothing but a tap in the corner of the room to clean yourself up with. Initially I was baffled, watching as Ahmed or Mohammed would waltz on in, do their business, and strut on out feeling lighter than air. To this day I still cannot understand why they were so stoked. Perhaps they had a secret little stash that they weren't telling me about.

As one week came to an end I began to realise that Mohammed's need to care for me was far more emphatic than I had first anticipated. But after countless days of roaming (sometimes solo and sometimes with his aid) I finally came into contact with a group of people who knew the original Mohammed I was meant to stay with. The group lived in a house higher in the mountains and hung out at a small cafe that played Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. Most of the people who went there were either Berber or Moroccan, but there was also a Spanish brother and sister duo that appeared from time to time.

I began walking up to this cafe almost every day to escape Mohammed who was beginning to father me far too much. At first I felt comfortable knowing that I could never get into too much trouble with him around, mainly because everybody in that particular area knew me because I was connected to him. But after a week or so my need to simply do as I pleased prevailed, even if it wasn't just Mohammed that caused me to make this decision - I was more so just interested in what motives the Spanish travellers had for being in Ourika Valley.  

One night in particular I snuck out of the cafe and walked up the rocky mountain towards the other bar. I wasn't in the best of sorts, having just indulged in an enormous tagine and the obvious delicacies that follow. But soon enough I arrived outside of a dimly lit outside seating area and sat down, next to the older Spanish brother. After an awkward degree of chit-chat I finally began questioning him subtly.

'So how long have you been here for, man?' I said innocently.

'Ummm, dunno,' he replied unenthusiastically. 'Maybe 2 weeks, maybe more.'

Knowing that I'd seen him the day before, I attempted using some of our previous experience to begin a conversation - I had realised already from our previous encounters that he wasn't entirely normal.

'So what time did you go to bed last night?'

'Dunno. Maybe 1 - don't really look at the time.'

'Oh, okay.'

After another long stint of silence I decided to throw out all of my moves.'

'Ever been to India?'

'No.'

'Must be hard to find your way up to this cafe at night.'

'No, not really.'

It was at this moment that I had felt as if I had learnt something new about Ourika Valley. At first, all of my focus had been on the people who were native to the area. I hadn't really been in a position to look into any of the tourists who travelled there. In my case, I sort of half found the place by chance and half found it on purpose. I had always wanted to see the mountains, and perhaps live a lot of the stereotypes that go along with that. But this guy was another story. This was a clear example of somebody who was trying to be so different that he had imploded in on himself. Living in the mountains and experiencing minimalism is one thing, but to fly off the actual radar of personality transformation just makes me believe that they have become the exact opposite of who they wanted to be. And as coincidence would have it, I named this fellow 'Mr. No' - fitting really when you think that living in the mountains would usually enable you to relax and be more open minded about people and situations.

It was around that time that I decided to move on with my Moroccan experience. I had quickly developed a feeling of total comfort, established entirely through the love of the people I was staying with. They essentially took me in as a member of their own family and I was grateful for it. They gave me everything, and even allowed me to teach their younger brothers and sisters how to play the guitar and tell them stories of mobile phones, technology and the Australian landscape. But unfortunately I had limited time and knew that once I became comfortable it was time to move on. This was a rule that I had created for myself all over the world - it was as if I would throw myself into a situation that was so far removed from anything that I had ever experienced, and then attempt to make a life for myself in that setting. Once I had accomplished this I always knew it was time to throw myself into another world.

I packed up my tent, said my goodbyes and hit the taxi rank where I had begun my small journey only 2 weeks earlier. On my departure I saw Mr. No attempting to haggle with taxi drivers for a cheaper fare into Marrakesh. He had his small wad of scrunched up dirham bills and a pocket full of coins, and clearly couldn't make ends meet when he asked me for an extra 30 dirhams – it's quite humorous how friendship worked in a place like that.

I didn't know it at the time, but the next 4 hours of travelling that I was about to endure from Ourika Valley to Essaouira on the coast would be brutal. I boarded the bus in Marrakesh with a stomach full of old, deep fried food, banana smoothies and processed meat, and somehow assumed that my kick-ass immune system could handle it. But as fate would have it I was entirely incorrect. I met with my next couchsurfer, Yunes, in complete agony 4 hours later on the windy coast.

Yunes was a 20 year old Moroccan-grade middle aged sleazy Greek man. He insisted on taking me around the Medina of Essaouira at midnight, following a variety of girls and making me flirt with them. I was furious, knowing that at any minute I was about to vomit everywhere. At around 2am we finally ended up entering his house. I passed out in a random room almost immediately but spent the entire night on the drop toilet. Unfortunately, this situation enabled me to learn more about the second fact that I learnt about Morocco in Ourika Valley.

I spent the next few days loitering around with this sorry excuse for a host, and eventually left spontaneously to another couchsurfer in town.  

Desperately, I had contacted Khalifa during my stay with Yunes but again had no idea what to expect. I bailed from Yunes' place in the early morning and walked into the main Medina where he picked me up in style. He had long black hair tied back with a headband, smoked camel cigarettes and wore killer shades. I was impressed and ecstatic that I was finally going to have another positive couchsurfing experience in Morocco after Rasheed in Agadir.

We took a cab out to Khalifa's pad, getting dropped at a dusty commune of apartments. His place was fitted with a chilled lounge room, a guitar and amazing Moroccan tunes. He had two housemates, both of which did not speak a drop of English. One was a younger man with a huge afro and sideburns to boot. He played the guitar and smoked hash religiously. The other was a middle aged man, fitted with a mouthful of decaying teeth but an unwavering desire to learn about everything without knowing how to verbally communicate.

The following day, after eating a communal tagine, I accompanied Khalifa to his shop. It seemed as if it was almost mandatory that you owned a shop if you were native and lived in the city. Aside from perhaps running a tourist company that would take tourists out to rural towns in the desert on small trips, managing a small shop looked like the only way to make a living (with the exception of begging). Whichever way you looked at it, Morocco was dependant on the money of tourists, and unfortunately the native people believed in very specific (and sometimes incorrect) ways of obtaining that money.

I had done the same on this day as I had done with Yunes (the only difference being that I was somehow expected to wait for him whilst he worked). But on this particular day I somehow believed that everything would be fine.

Unfortunately I was wrong on a multiple of levels. Firstly, not only was I asked to accompany him, but I was forced to work for him. Khalifa insisted that I use my English to rope in western tourists, and obviously I refused.

'Mike, you listen to me,' he said sternly. 'This store is my life, and when you come into my life you become a part of that. If you walk into Morocco, you walk into our life.'

'Man, that's bullshit,' I replied. 'I'm not fuckin' working for you. I'm here to see the city and how you live, not throw away my morals and force people to buy shit from you.'

Unfortunately, these were actually my true words. As fate would have it, my frustration didn't take long to fully blossom. My idea of a positive experience was totally crushed by another person who just wanted to screw everybody over. Somehow, Khalifa had the idea that the louder and more persistent you were with tourists the more they would want to buy something. He would always be using an illusion of kindness and generosity to make money. Everything he did, every action, seemed to have an end point in his mind that benefited only himself. And I couldn't stand that. After being with Mohammed and the other cafe workers in Ourika Valley, I could see true potential and knew that Khalifa did not possess it. 

On the second night we visited a bar and we met with some Spanish travellers. They had met Khalifa on the street and, forced into seeing him again, agreed to meet him for a drink. Khalifa got absolutely trashed on red wine and bailed into a taxi, leaving me and another Spanish guy stranded. I was forced to use my intermediate level of Spanish and my goldfish grade memory to find our way back to his house in a city that I had no control over.

It was in his apartment, at around 2am, that I received the first real shock to my system. Before this moment I knew that Khalifa was devious at heart, but because he had never harmed me directly I was unable to completely ride him off.

We were all sitting in his lounge room, and Khalifa was attempting to sleaze onto the only Spanish girl in the house. It was an impromptu party and everybody was dancing to Arabic jazz and blues and just generally having a good time. But the focus was still always on Khalifa. It seemed as if he possessed an element of control even with the people he was close to.

But this Spanish girl was not feeling it at all. Myself and the Spanish travellers spoke about the dilemma whilst he was dancing or making other advances, and eventually they decided to up and leave. But suddenly the room fell silent and everything felt eerie. I was the only one standing up, and 10 pairs of eyes were staring at me. Khalifa was at the centre of these piercing stares. The Spanish guys had left minutes before me, leaving me alone. Khalifa spoke.

'What the fuck do you think you're doing?'

'Excuse me?' I replied.

'You come into my house, you eat my food, and then you fuck with me!'

'What?'

'Get the fuck out of here. Get the fuck out of my house.'

'What? Are you serious?'

'Yes I'm serious. You fucked with me. Get out of here.'

'But it's 2am. I have nowhere to go.'

'I don't care, fucking leave!'

My stomach dropped harder than it had ever done. The intensity of Morocco and attempting to couchsurf had finally hit me in its entirety. For the past 2 and a half weeks I had been on the run from a normal life. I was attempting to see the country in a way that was far too ludicrous for anyone, especially me, to imagine.

Luckily for me, Khalifa stopped me as I was walking out and began bursting into laugher. Apparently, besides the generic view of Moroccan people being welcoming and loving, they also like to fuck with foreigners in a sadistic way.

I stayed one more night, but left the day after. The night following the drunken rage incident Khalifa tried to make it up to me by attempting to spoon me in the single bed that I was sleeping on. He knocked on the door late that night, walking into what was literally just a giant room with marble floors and me in the middle of it, sleeping on a funked out mattress on the ground. He apologised, and believed at the time that male 'intimacy' was an integral component of Arabic culture that he wanted to share with me. Despite the obvious humour, I was actually scarred. I have known from a young age that once I actually had to refuse sexual acts from a man in real life I had to get the fuck out of where ever I was.

I bailed the next day, with a plethora of thoughts swirling around in my brain. I was confused and still didn't come close to understanding what their culture was all about. On the one hand, they were all welcoming and friendly to anybody they met, offering them tea and food and a good time. But what I discovered is that underneath all of these niceties was a clear monetary motive. But this was only what I had taken from my personal experience. Aside from Mohammed in the mountains and Rasheed in Agadir, I was treated like a slave who was forced to adopt the customs of the country I was in and subscribe to their lives. Fortunately enough I was still a traveller and not a Moroccan shop keeper, so I threw on my backpack and booked the next flight out to Spain.

In the days that followed I was slowly brought back down to reality. My sister and her boyfriend came and visited, and with them I returned to the mountains to see Mohammed, Ahmed and the young Eddy Murphy. I discovered pretty quickly that I had found pure bliss with not the Moroccan environment or culture, but the people - the people who weren't controlled by constricted practices, but those who simply wanted friendship. I hit the airport feeling satisfied with the truth that I had acquired, and was even more stoked with one small, seemingly unimportant fact - their toilets had western grade toilet paper.

 

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