Sometimes the most poignant gifts of travel are the most unexpected, and sometimes innocence is the key that unlocks a transformative travel experience. This premise is at the heart of Lonely Planet’s engaging anthology An Innocent Abroad, which presents 35 tales of life-changing trips by acclaimed and emerging writers. In the coming months, Wanderlust will be presenting a series of excerpts from this collection. Today’s story, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford, describes a heart-pumping, perspective-widening adventure in the mountainous wilds of Morocco.
I can’t remember why we had to go to Morocco. We’d never been abroad. My wife, Kristina, had lived in Japan and Hawaii with her Air Force family. But she had been a child then. And that was not true travel, anyway; just a version of removal. I’d been to Mexico, but only to play basketball for my church team. Once I’d crossed a bridge to Canada just to drink a beer at age eighteen. But I came right back. Europe, however—never; never England; never to Asia. Double-never to Africa.
We were in our middle 30s. Suburban Jersey-ites, transplanted from the South. I’d written a novel and had a romantic idea that I wouldn’t “go abroad” until my books paved the way. They hadn’t yet.
Morocco was, however, vividly on my screen—along with Timbuktu, Trieste, Annapurna, Bali; exotic names which, if you went to the places they represented, would signify something interesting about you, even if they were hell-holes. “We were in Annapurna—you remember, sweetheart…” “We took that long, dusty drive down to Timbuktu. It was that long year it didn’t rain.” I thought like that. Travel was good because you could tell about it—sort of the way many boys think about sex.
But I’d read Gavin Maxwell’s book, Lords of the Atlas, about Thami El Glaoui, the ruthless Pasha of Marrakech, who well into the 20th century savagely guarded the mountain passes into Morocco from Maghreb and knew no mercy. I’d also read Paul Bowles, who lived in Tangiers and was American and mysterious and brilliant. Like everybody else, I’d seen Casablanca. It was all enough to make me want to go there.
The reasons you decide to go someplace are rarely logical. Ideally, I suppose, one’s first foreign travel would move you outward from home in widening, concentric circles. From America to Canada and Mexico. Then to….well, Greenland and maybe the Caribbean? That isn’t how it happens. Something draws you—a name, a book you read, a friend’s tale of adventure, a movie, something you fantasize. An impatience with your own ignorance.
So, in 1980, we went.
A Morocco Adventure Begins
First, it must be admitted, we went to Tunis. I had to find Tunis on the map. A New Jersey friend had been posted in the US embassy there, and he invited us. Parties on the parterre. Handsome, lacquered people. A trip into an actual desert. Tunisians idling in cafés, drinking coffee, sniffing fragrant flowers. The ruins of Carthage were nearby. Everyone was nice. I’d never been in an embassy. But my eyes were tending west.
What we thought we were going to do in Morocco, I don’t know. Be there. Soak Morocco up like a sponge. Don native garb, figure out what and where the Kasbah was (or a Kasbah, if there were more than one), lurk around the steps at Paul Bowles’ house. We didn’t know how to travel. We could’ve got guidebooks, like Brits. Read some history. But I didn’t like the too-planned feel of that. Tourists read guidebooks, but only got to see the usual stuff. We weren’t tourists. We were Americans abroad. We’d find and see things others wouldn’t.
Our flight from Tunis to Tangier—on Royal Air Maroc—was not to be without incident. In subsequent years—due to seeing too many movies—I’ve always found crossing international borders to be fraught, disagreeable ordeals. Even in Europe today, when to go by train from France to Germany is barely noticeable, it still feels risky. As if stiff-necked, crisply-uniformed border police were about to enter one’s compartment, barking orders, requiring documents.
As soon, however, as we were inside the wobbly old DC-7 and buckled into our Royal Air Maroc seats, someone began shouting in French from the back of the plane, insisting a certain Arabic-named passenger was on board but unaccounted for. A very uncomfortable silence lingered inside the cabin. We were all looking around to see who was who. What was this all about? Then all at once we were noisily told—all of us—to depart the plane immediately. Something was highly irregular. With us out on the blistering asphalt in the whistling desert wind and the beating sun, our luggage was piece by piece tossed from the plane’s cargo hold down onto the tarmac. We were rather rudely told to go stand by our bags until all pieces were matched to passengers. Which proved not to be possible. Mr. Ali or Mrs. Ali wasn’t actually on our plane, though his or her luggage was. This fact was presently certified, and the Ali luggage trucked away. We were all told to climb back on, which we did.
Why, though, I asked Kristina once were re-belted in, why would it make so much difference if a simple piece of luggage without its owner went on our flight? A short flight over to Tangier. What was the problem? Whoever owned it would catch up sooner or later. That’s how people thought then.
In Tangier all was extremely agreeable. A bit of Arabia, a bit of Africa, a bit of Europe—everything nicely sized down. Two distinct and beautiful oceans. Not too much of anything, only quite hot. Our hotel—I want to call it the Mediteraneé—was greenly bowered and stucco’d above the city though not all that high. There were ceiling fans and a greenish tint to the air, tiny red birds in the eucalyptus, non-poisonous lizards on the viney walls. We enjoyed a spacious balcony over tree tops and roofs, and far in the distance the silent, green Mediterranean. There was no atmospheric mosquito netting on the bed and no one wore a turban or a white suit, but there was gin in the patio bar and the other guests—whom we didn’t talk to—seemed interestingly preoccupied and to have all been there before and know the staff. To me, it was perfect. We imagined Paul Bowles probably came there on weekends, although we didn’t know what he looked like.
In the many hours of the day and night the muezzin recited the Adhan from a mosque, the starkly tall tower of which we looked straight toward down the hill. Its presence and willowy call were comforting and reliable and good. I knew nothing about Islam, but felt sure it was unfairly thought about where I was from. I could easily live in Tangier.
Road Trip into the Atlas Mountains
Something about the presence of The Rif (the northern-most lowering spine of the Atlas Mountains) made us feel, after a day or two, in need of adventure beyond what we’d so far experienced. We needed to go there. The word alone—Rif (say “Reef”)—bespoke ancient, isolated, craggy places and the blue-eyed Berber ancestors of the terrifying Glaoui. We were told at the hotel that if we went by the easterly route, we could reach Fès more quickly and pass along The Rif. In Fès, I’d been told, you could enter the medina and never be heard from again and not really care if you were never heard from again. It was like in a Bowles story.
A car was required. Euro-car at the airport had these, though not any good ones—no Renaults or big, powerful, deep-throated Citroens to mow down the mountains. An ancient gray, snail-ish Deux Chevaux was the best we saw in the dusty lot. It would hold what we brought and would be economical, if pokey. It was cute, in a way—foreign. In the 60’s, we’d once driven an ancient Beetle with slick, rubber-band tires from Texas to Montana, right up through the Rockies. All had gone well, then. This would be like that.
Someone must’ve told us about the kief merchants. Morocco was all about drugs—we knew that. Weren’t those men in jubbas, sitting around hookahs in the Kasbah, smoking hashish? Back in the States, the strongest, most bliss-inducing, brain-crunching black-tar rock was said to be “Moroccan.” We understood you could have it shipped right from here to your house in Princeton, where we lived (assuming the Postal Service wasn’t wise to you). Of course you didn’t want to get caught with drugs in Morocco, and definitely didn’t want to buy anything here. The police were ghoulish and violent (distant relatives of the Glaoui). And Moroccan jails—full of luckless American youth, wasting away forever—made Mexican jails look like Holiday Inns. We were on our guard. We weren’t druggies anyway. Kristina was a professor at NYU.
Today, the thought of driving an old rickety, underpowered French rent-a-car through treacherous, mysterious Moroccan mountains seems poorly advised on the face of it. Much has happened in between then and now, of course. Back in 1980, though, I didn’t give it much thought. Moroccans drove on the right. There was good hardtop. The stop signs all said STOP. Traffic lights were the trusted red-yellow-green. The rest you’d just deal with. I’d driven a station wagon through Mexico to play basketball, and we’d done okay there—at worst, a few laughable miscues with the natives. But if you had a flat someone would always help you for a little dough. There was a universal language of amity. People were more or less the same wherever. They were good.
What we’d heard, somewhat darkly, however, was that if you drove the highway (it would be the N2, today), you very well might see citizens standing on the side of the road, holding big chunks of hashish up in the air, wanting you to stop and buy it. This was very different from the rustic, rural farm stands we had in New Jersey, where every fall we bought red tomatoes, eggplants and mums, plus decorative ears of corn to hang on the front door. Selling hashish was known to be illegal—even in Morocco. These sellers were breaking the law. The fact that they did it anyway, that everyone knew they did it (including the police), that it was a local custom and vital spring for a trickling revenue flow—that didn’t really change things fundamentally. Any attempt by us to participate in the colorful local micro-economy wouldn’t be a good excuse if we got busted for buying drugs on the side of the road.
Don’t Stop was thus the order of the day. Have no business with these people. Yes, the often disheveled, usually smiling, impoverished-appearing man (or woman) might be a local villager scraping along by selling the odd brick to passing Americans hoping to get innocently loaded at day’s end. But that impoverished appearing man also might be someone else. A policeman. Or a policeman could be waiting in the weeds just behind him to arrest you. Or he might be a desperate character scheming to kill you, steal your money and leave you in the weeds. Many things could happen, almost all of them bad. It wasn’t our country. It was theirs.
The road out of Tangier was clear and straight and everyone, indeed, drove on the right. There was modern traffic and the mountains rose out ahead of us. Along the way we passed hand-drawn carts and people carrying things on foot and on their heads, and many just standing on the dusty shoulder, watching us go by. It was the undifferentiated, third-world interface of urban, ex-urban and rural– pretty much the way I expected it. Mexico in Arabic.
After a while, the road turned south but still angled easterly toward the mountains. What had been the flat, oceanic plain of the Mediterranean began to be rising land, rocky and characterlessly delving, like the back-lot where American Westerns were shot. Big boulders on the roadside, low scrub trees, nothing growing, no one living anywhere in sight, no animals or buildings.
Which was where we saw the first human being selling hashish. He was standing atop one of the big sand-colored boulders, holding what must’ve been a brick of dark hashish in the air for us to see and immediately stop and buy. “Jesus,” Kristina said, as I kept on driving, possibly a bit faster, “it’s just like they said in the hotel. It’s amazing.” By then—by which I mean immediately—other men became visible atop other big boulderish rocks or else scuttling out from behind them, flagging at us and similarly holding up what we assumed to be entirely illegal chunks of hashish—which, were we to stop and make a purchase, would land us in jail or worse.
I wasn’t stopping. Indeed, I pushed the little French sewing machine right up into its highest measurable speed, possibly 60. The roadside soon became quite cluttered with people—men and women, young and old—wanting to sell us contraband drugs. We didn’t see anyone else stopping. Indeed, ours seemed to be the only car on the road. It didn’t seem really feasible to turn around and drive back to Tangiers, since we’d have had to slow and stop to turn around. And that, we felt, would’ve given the kief sellers a chance to swarm us and block our way. And so as the road became narrower and devoid of traffic, and unhappily rising into the first elevations of the mountains, and as I persisted in my unwillingness to stop, the whole experience of “being abroad” began to be decidedly and quickly creepy—and dangerous.
“I don’t think this is such a good thing,” Kristina said.
“No,” I said, pushing my face nearer the narrow windshield like a fighter pilot, taking a better grip on the oversized steering wheel.
Some of the hash dealers by this point—we were far from any town or settlement—were darting brashly out into the roadway, shaking their chunks of hash at us, then dancing back onto the dusty shoulder as we hummed past. Rather like a matador brushing a passing bull. Only there were quite a few matadors. And I noticed that when we didn’t stop, the smiles they were showing us when we faced them, were all changing to barking, scowling frowns of resentment as we disappeared on down the highway, headed where we couldn’t really have said.
It is not an exaggeration to depict this, almost 35 years later, as a very bad scene. I saw no police; though the appearance of police would’ve been as anxious-making as heart-calming. Why were we here, they’d have wanted to know. Did our car contain contraband? Was this chunk of high-quality kief in the boot not ours? Did we think it was all right to buy drugs here? Let’s have a look at your documents? As panicked as I was beginning to feel, I actually didn’t mind not seeing a police car.
Spirited Local Encounters
Though I was suddenly fully alarmed to see in the rearview mirror, a pint-sized white pick-up pull out from behind one of the big boulders and grow quickly in size as it sped up behind us. In pursuit. “They’re following us,” I said.
“What are you going to do?” Kristina said, craning her neck around to view the truck, a dilapidated Datsun of the sort I’ve since seen members of the Taliban use to transport prisoners to their execution sites. “You assholes,” Kristina said back at the truck, which had a driver and also a rider who was leaning out the side window waving another big block of hashish and of course smiling. The driver began honking his horn, and I could see through the several panes of dusty glass between us, that he was also talking animatedly, possibly shouting, occasionally waving his arm out his own window and clearly wanting us to pull over.
Which I did not intend to do. By now the road had further narrowed and become windy up into a low revetment of mountains. Off to one side was now a steep fall-off. It would be easy, even without being chased and harassed, to drive right off and never been found again (a theme, here). I was now driving faster. The white Datsun had begun making radical automotive attempts to pull alongside of us, its tires scattering gravel and dirt and risking its purchase on the perilous road. The driver was going on shouting at us. The rider with the brick of hashish was all the way out the passenger window to his waist, waving and flourishing the brick in the hot mountain air. Our Deux Chevaux was maxed out in both speed and maneuverability, hitting the sudden curves precariously so that I had to drag on the steering wheel to keep the wheels nearer to the mountain-side shoulder than the cliff side, where the Datsun was doing its best to pull even with us.
I had never been terrified before. I realize that only now. I was 36. Kristina was 34. I hadn’t gone to Vietnam, though I’d tried. I hadn’t done especially perilous things in my life—dived deep into an ocean, raced motorcycles, sky-dived, committed crimes that got you killed, risked my life for either good or bad reasons. But up there on that mountain road in the Low Atlas, the Rif, with my wonderful young wife in my charge, and my own ignorance and imprudence on vivid display, I was extremely scared to be where I was and doing what I was doing, and hadn’t the slightest idea what I should do to save us. Keep driving and faster? Don’t stop? Hope something happens to make all this bad shit go away? Those seemed to be about my best choices.
At about which point, the Datsun with the two men inside went churning right past us on the left, dizzyingly tempting the abyss, and swerved hard to the right in front of us, so that to avoid a collision, I cut the Deux Chevaux wheels sharp to the right, slammed the brakes and came to a rattling stop half on the shoulder and half up the side of a rocky embankment that almost flipped us over but didn’t.
The two men in the Datsun were already out and walking toward where we sat in our car, shaken up and badly discomposed. These men didn’t look like anybody special. They were ordinarily dressed—soiled-looking trousers and t-shirts—not large, not menacing, not particularly intent. They were just walking toward our car. And they were murderers. These were what murderers looked like: guys who worked in your back yard at home.
“They’re going to kill us now,” Kristina said, staring straight out at them.
“Yes,” I said, “I think they are.” Or I said something like that, something movie-ish and grave sounding.
I didn’t have any sort of weapon. We were Americans abroad. We weren’t armed in any way except with poor judgment. The two men stopped 20 feet from the Deux Chevaux. They weren’t apparently armed either, although I assumed they were armed. In the back seat of our car was a 64-ounce glass bottle of Coke—empty. This, I grasped, holding it like a cudgel, by its neck, and without more movie-ish words, barged out onto the roadside and into the heat and still-settling dust—bent on doing what, I’m not sure: die defending my wife and self with an empty pop bottle.
“What’s wrong with you?” one of the two men shouted at me in French. My French was somewhat better than infantile, but wasn’t set up for this kind of impromptu give and take. And yet it sprang forth, to my rescue. “You’re scaring us to death,” I shouted at them, in French (I don’t know where it came from). My big Coke bottle was gripped at my side.
Both men started laughing. “What are you going to do with that bottle?” one of them said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s all I’ve got.” I wasn’t laughing. I was angry. But I was more afraid than angry. Kristina said they were going to kill us, and I thought she was right and this was how getting killed probably always got underway. Nothing glamorous. They shot you while you were holding a big Coke bottle in your hand, then went and had a nice lunch.
“Why won’t you let us sell you some kief?” the one man said. The driver. “That’s all we want to do. It’s what we do for a living. You won’t let us do what we do.” He’d begun speaking English now and seemed—they both did—extremely good-natured and agreeable.
“I don’t want to buy any kief,” I said. “Kief’s illegal. It’s crazy.”
“Well, all you had to do was say that,” the driver said. “You were being extremely unpleasant and unfriendly.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You scared the shit out of us.”
This man now advanced toward me, while the other with the ingot of black kief began walking back to the Datsun. Kristina hadn’t left the car. It was very hot and the air was thin in the mountains, and we had no idea in the world where we were. Morocco.
“Look,” the man said. He wasn’t tall, wore a faded, smiling-Mickey t-shirt and sock-less dusty shoes. He was possibly 30, near my age. “Let me just give you my business card,” he said. “When you get back to where you live—in America or Canada or England—if you write to me and order something, I’ll send you some hashish. It isn’t expensive. I’m Mike,” he said. The card, which was softened and had been in other hands before mine, said “Muhammed ‘Mike.’ Businessman.” An address was provided. I don’t remember it now. I long ago lost it.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s probably what I’ll do. I’ll get home and write to you.”
“Then I can do my business properly,” he said. He still had his big beaming smile. He extended a small hand to me. We shook each other’s warmly. Then he turned and walked back to his Datsun. He honked and waved as he and his friend drove away. I waved back. Kristina did not.
Some years ago I read that Emerson, the Ur-American genius of the here and now, wrote that “travel is a fool’s paradise.” I understand that. And although I’ve gone many places in these intervening years—not yet to Bali, it should be said, not Timbuktu, not Annapurna or even Trieste—I’ve never “traveled” again, never gone someplace I didn’t have good business to be, where I couldn’t have asked myself the question, “Why in the world are you here?” without knowing the answer. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.
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Richard Ford is the author of eleven books of fiction, most notably Canada, which won the Prix Femina Etrangere in 2013, and Independence Day, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. He`s the author of many widely-anthologized stories and essays, and writes frequently for newspapers in Europe, including The Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, La Nouvelle Observateur, and La Reppublica. He lives in Boothbay, Maine, with his wife, Kristina Ford. This extract is adapted from An Innocent Abroad, © Lonely Planet 2014 (www.lonelyplanet.com).