On the Road to Chefchaouen

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Several companies ran buses to Chefchaouen and I assumed that I could just turn up and get a ticket. I was wrong.

I left the bus station in a bit of a daze. There was no Plan B. I am doing well if I have a Plan A. I supposed that I would have to walk back to the Medina and spend another night in Tangier.

But there was a small crowd around the grands taxis and a driver was calling out for passengers for Tetouan. It was on the way to Chefchaouen.

Grands taxis are everywhere in Morocco, cream in Tangier, white in Fès, silver in Meknès. They shuttle between towns the length of the country, these rumbly old Mercs from the seventies and eighties. Their suspensions sag, their bumpers droop, and there are great gobs of filler in the side; their interiors are a blend of fake leather, fake wood and real duct tape. But old Mercs never die.

You pay for a place, which is not the same thing as a seat. Two people share the front passenger seat, four squeeze into the back. Mercedes only fitted seatbelts for five, including the driver, but they never work anyway, and it is said that the drivers take it as an insult if you try to put one on.

You will wish you were wearing a seatbelt, though. The drivers push their grands taxis as hard as you can push a 2.4 diesel which has been to the moon and back twice. They use whichever side of the road is convenient, overtake where they want, and ignore the flashing lights and honking horns.

When other motorists see a grand taxi in the mirror, they take it as given that it wants to overtake. If they see that the road ahead is clear, they signal it to the taxi driver with their right-hand indicators, and if they spot something coming after he has started to pull out, they warn him with their left-hand indicators. Not that it always deters him.

I got out at the bus station in Tetouan, walked around the corner and found another line of grands taxis, this time painted in a washed-out seventies blue.

“Chaouen?” a driver asked.

“Oui.”

“Un place?”

“Oui. Et un grand sac.”

“De rien.”

That was about the limit of my French conversation.

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The grand taxi charged up into the Rif Mountains, through villages where people went about on donkey carts and storks nested at the top of each pylon. The slopes were thick with cannabis plants. Around half of the world’s hashish comes from Morocco, most of it from these mountains. Growing it, processing it, selling it, buying it and smoking it remain highly illegal; but it has, for centuries, been a major part of the local economy – it was legal until independence – in an otherwise poor region of a country with huge unemployment.

The sun was hot, the grand taxi was decades too old to have air-con and the winder handles (remember those?) for the back windows were missing. But the journey to Chefchaouen was short. We stopped at the Medina gate and I asked the driver where I could get a petit taxi to my hotel.

“Oui. Petits taxis, ici.”

He flagged one down, a Peugeot 205 from the early eighties with a rattly gearbox and turquoise paintjob.

Gare routière,” I tried to say to the driver. The hotel was across from the bus station.

Carre rue tiers?”

I showed him a print-off from the booking site and he puzzled over as if it were in code.

 “It’s on…. Erm…C’est…sur Avenue Al Maghreb?”

“Seize heures avez nous Alma Greb?”

A small crowd came over to laugh at the stupid foreigner.

“Parlez-vous français?” one asked.

Non. Désolé .

Well how do you know what I said then? He probably thought, and rattled something off to the driver in spirited Arabic. By his tone and gestures, it seemed to be along the lines of, “Oh, just drive him out of town and dump him there. Bloody foreigners”.

I was apprehensive, then, when the driver hurtled past a sign for the gare routière, and barrelled round a roundabout and up a boulevard, seemingly heading out of town. But it was just a taxi driver’s shortcut.

C’est combien?” I asked when he stopped outside the bus station.

Vous parlez français?” he said, with an implicit why the bloody hell didn’t you say so before?

Un petit peu,” I said, greatly overstating it.

© Richard Senior 2015

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