Story and photos by Luke M. Armstrong
My world stopped. The tempo of my pulse changed when I remembered our bodies are not meant to smash into rocks. My heart’s audible pace reminded me how much it enjoyed beating.
The mountain had seemed an easy climb from far away. But it led me to limbo. I was suddenly on a ledge that seemed too steep to descend. In front of me was a rock face that no experienced climber would continue to free climb. Up or down? Each choice seemed to carry a good chance of falling.
“Death by Mountain” would make a better obituary than “Death by Stupidity.” But either would have been an accurate way to describe what had taken me out should I fall.
I shook my head of superfluous thoughts and looked down at the city below, resolving to reach it again.
Below me sat Chefchaouen, Morroco. Rising above me were the Rif Mountains, the world’s hash production capital—the place where the term ‘reefer’ comes from. I had traveled here seeking adventure, but finding it, I just wanted to be safely home.
A Welcome Punch in the Face
From the beginning, my trip to Morocco was blighted. Within minutes of arriving in Casablanca, a man who had been sleeping on a curb shakily rose and wobbled zombie-like towards me. He walked up to me and punched me in the face.
After the blow he backed up and looked me straight in the eyes. He nodded in a drunken way as if to say, “Yeah, that’s right, whenever I wake up and see foreigners, I punch their faces!”
A group of Moroccan shop owners ran to separate him from me. One pleaded with me not to punch him back. “This man is crazy. Can’t you see, he’s crazy! A crazy-crazy-crazy man! Do not hit him, please!”
The bum continued to glare at me as he slowly stumbled backwards and lay back down on the curb. I stood my ground stoically, and looked on with a startled awe.
Now, up here on the mountain, I hoped to be lucky enough to live to be punched another day.
Up Or Down?
I came up this way, so I must be able to go down. It’s not like the mountain had changed. How could I have thoughtlessly climbed up such a steep ledge? I stared ahead and saw the cliff only got steeper. Descent was the better option. The only option.
Taking a deep breath, I waited for my heartbeat to slow. I turned my body backwards and faced the valley while I inched a foot downwards. At what felt like the speed of geological change, I inched downward. The sun was setting slowly and the peaks surrounding the valley began to fade to black. I paced myself with the sun’s fading light and slowly we left the sky together.
When I finally touched safe ground, I felt connected with every shipwrecked sailor ever saved by a shoreline. I turned to the overpowering mountain before me. I shook my head and laughed as my anxiety deflated, then headed back to town.
Islamic Hippy Seeks Spiritual Trinket Buyers
Mohammed was the first person to speak to me as I re-entered civilization. “Come in, come in brother,” he told me in English. “Very old, very spiritual things are being sold here. Let me share with you some mint tea.”
It was good to be spoken to when only hours earlier I was unsure if I would ever converse with anyone again. Upon entering his store, he sent an adolescent boy to prepare tea. His store was four walls of impulse buys—Moroccan metal trinkets that would look great in a box in an attic.
He insisted that I sit down while he showed me his “spiritual treasures from the Sahara.” My brush with death made me reflective. I remembered decades before when my dad took my brothers and me into our basement to show us the treasures from his youthful, globetrotting days. I imagined doing the same thing one day with my as yet, non-existent kids. I saw myself showing them fake silver pots, eccentric amulets, cobra candle holders, and ecstatically jeweled boxes as I told them about the Moroccan mountain that nearly led to my demise.
I picked up some silver bracelets. “Oh brother,” Mohammed gasped, “these are made by the Blue People of the Sahara. They are a very spiritual people. They are nomads who make these charms to protect themselves from evil spirits. You know about the Blue People? They are a very spiritual people. I am a nomad, too. I only leave the desert to come here to sell these things for my people. We are a very spiritual people.”
I hoped Mohammed was genuine. The Moroccans know how to move merchandise from their store to your luggage. They invite you in. They give you tea. They become your friend. They express delight the friendship that has formed. And then, they sell you a rug.
But Mohammed lacked the pushiness of his peers. He was obsessed with the spirituality of each object. He wore a nomad’s garb and towered over me like a basketball center. His stature and long grey beard made him an ideal type-cast for Osama bin Laden. But unlike Osama who had preached jihad, Mohammed spoke of peace and love and the spirituality within his wares. I had met my first Moroccan hippy.
Finally, I dished out some dirham and tossed a few bracelets and a brass paperweight into my bag. As I was leaving he stopped me, “Brother, you seem to be a very spiritual person. Me and my brothers…we are all far away from home like you. Every night we share dinner and music in a very spiritual environment. Please join us for dinner. It will be a very spiritual night. Every night is a very spiritual night.”