“I’m going,” I told her. “Will you join me, or stay here?”
“Just go then!” She finally screeched. “Maybe I‘ll come later. Just give me a few goddamn days!”
“You mean you‘ll meet me in Marrakesh?” I knew we’d never find each other in the Atlas Mountains.
“Yeah, I could meet you there.” She thought a moment before adding. “How about I meet you in Marrakesh on your birthday? That‘ll give you a few days in your precious mountains. We can celebrate your big twenty-three by smoking a bowl of hash together.”
That was a hopeful signal. She didn’t want to end our relationship.
Nancy and I had been staying in the quiet, Oceanside town deep in Morocco for over a week. She loved it, but I felt we had been too long in this city. The Atlas Mountains beckoned. That was a place I wanted to explore before we moved on across North Africa to Egypt. I
Arguing long into the night, Nancy and I finally agreed that we both needed a break from each other. Since our first, electrically charged meeting at Bob’s house, two months ago, we had been together every day. They were hard charging days of traveling rough across Europe. Our nights full of passionate love, the wildest sex, bonded us into a team. We traveled on a shoestring, camping in caves, in the snow and abandoned barns. It was romantic as hell, our hot bodies enflamed each other despite the winter weather. Where would I ever find such a tigress of a woman? Our mutual desire led us to this Oceanside town in Morocco, but we‘d hit an impasse. Did we need a break, or to break up?
A brief separation would give us the space to see whether we should remain together, or break loose to pursue our individual destinies. Nancy worried me. She seemed to be settling in for an extended stay. She hung out in the cafes and disappeared long hours with strangers who got her high. I was an open-minded guy, torn between wanting an open relationship and my selfish jealousy.
Savvy travelers had told me that the best way to get to the Atlas was via Marrakesh, 176 kilometers away. The previous night I’d insisted on it.
My birthday was on the 26th in seven days. This was the 20th of March. If I left early in the morning, it gave me six full days before our projected rendezvous. Time enough, I hoped, for a peek at the Mountains and the people who lived there. This was my chance to explore on my own, but in the era before cell phones, or any telephone service in the high Atlas, a lot could go wrong.
Our traveling companion, Gerhard, had been to Morocco several times. He gave us the name of a popular Riad or cheap hotel, right off Djemma el Fna, the main square. It was popular with young backpackers and easy to find. A good point of reference. I intended to live on the cheap, camp in the mountains. In town I was assured I could crash with westerners I met.
This jaunt through Morocco was just a side trip on the grand adventure I envisioned. It was to be a journey across Africa and the Middle East to India that I had been planning for years. The later part was to be a pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines and teachers, from which, I imagined, I might never return. But the first part was all adventure. I admired the Nineteenth Century British explorer Richard Burton. With my more limited resources, I wanted travel as he had. He wasn’t a mere tourist, insulated among his own kind, with all the prejudice of the colonial mindset. He dressed, ate and mingled with the people of country, learning their languages and ways. He was the first true anthropologist.
Rising earlier than the sun, gingerly extracting myself from Nancy’s still sleeping side; I dressed hurriedly in the dark room. Without waking her, I put all my mixed, confused and compromised feelings aside, as I grabbed my ready packed rucksack. It was lighter now. I’d be leaving Nancy’s extra stuff, which I’d been carrying, as well as most of mine, behind. As the first hint of light infused the horizon outside our open window, the tinny Muslim call to prayer broke the silence to waft over the city. I quietly descended the stairs. All precious silence dissipated as I ran into our landlady.
“Where you going?” She asked suspiciously eyeing my pack. She had begun her morning chores, ordering her sons about, splashing buckets of water to clean the floors, sidewalks and courtyards around her building. She immediately took me to task. “You skip out on rent?”
“No, no!” I assured her. “I’ll be back in plenty of time and anyway, my companions are still here.”
Out the door and down the street, I finally gave in to my exultation.
“Hooray!” Was as much a sigh of relief as a battle cry for what lay ahead.
I strode purposefully across town, ignoring the smoggy square where the buses rendezvoused with paying passengers. I was checking the feasibility of hitchhiking in this country. With limited funds, I was bound to see as much of the world as I could. In fact, I was convinced that I’d see more of it than the better off tourists, who stayed isolated from regular people in expensive hotel ghettos. They saw only what the tour operators showed them, whereas I rubbed shoulders with the common folk.
I’d first heard of Marrakesh in the song “Marrakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills and Nash back in 1969. It was just a name to me then. I’d had no idea that it was a real place until years later. Fabled Marrakesh was on the adventurous hippie trail. Now I was going there, although hardly by Express. Hitchhiking, I depended on the grace of strangers.
Alone and distaining the bus conductors, who tried to wave me aboard. I walked through the city gate to the eastbound highway. Whenever I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle I stuck out my thumb. I was excited. The real adventure had begun.
Or so I thought, but only an empty road greeted me as I trudged on. An hour passed and then another with nary a ride. I counted only six cars total, none of them even slowing down. It was still early, I thought cheerfully. Kilometer after kilometer went by as the sun rose ever higher. The passing traffic consisted of an occasional Arab riding a donkey piled with an impossibly high load.
Essaouira, Morocco. Thursday, March 20, 1975
“I’m going,” I told her. “Will you join me, or stay here?”