Morocco can be seen from Algeciras, the point where travellers catch the ferry across the Gibraltar Straits. Algeciras is a town with the usual random menace of a port. It’s full of mean little hills that channel the energy of the town down to the docks where Moroccans try to sell you hash. Pssst, pssst, pssst! They hiss, looking both ways before they cross the street in case any police cars are coming. Not really the kind of place you want to hang around after dark.
From Algeciras, Morocco can be seen, the point where travellers catch the ferry across the Gibraltar Straits. Algeciras is a town with the usual random menace of a port. It’s full of mean little hills that channel the energy of the town down to the docks where Moroccans try to sell you hash. Pssst, pssst, pssst! They hiss, looking both ways before they cross the street in case any police cars are coming. Not really the kind of place you want to hang around after dark.
As in many port towns the best thing for the traveller to do is leave. The ferry only costs around 15 bucks and two hours later drops you off on the corner of Africa. For some reason the Spanish still keep a toehold enclave in Africa called Ceuta, a white washed town that just about maintains a European feel. A short bus ride to the border, however and all pretense are dropped; the Third World pushing, begging, slavering at the mouth to get out.
Coming into Morocco is a breeze but the bottleneck is tighter in the opposite direction. Morocco has applications pending to join the EU but most people intent on settling in Europe go by any means they can. People smuggling is big here as children and adults cram themselves into storage containers or cling onto the undersides of trucks to reach the Promised Land of Europe. Spain is awash with Moroccans without papers, work or respect. The increase in street crime has done something to strangle the sympathy of the Spanish to their plight.
As I waited with a crowd of other backpackers to get our passports stamped at the immigration cabin, an everyday comic drama was being enacted on the slope in front of us. On the hill overlooking the customs channel, young men scrambled up and down to catch the parcels thrown to them from accomplices on the Spanish side. From time to time the customs officers would save face by attacking some poor young guy at the fence with their batons but no serious move was made to stop it.
It was surreal. The contraband must have been innocuous enough that the authorities didn’t care too much about it. Or maybe the customs guys were all paid off and just put on a show of chasing some of the handlers away. But in any case why would a government let that be the opening scene for visitors to its country? I received my passport and walked on into Morocco with a shrug. Some mysteries won’t worth unravelling.
As the first white meat of the day came through the gates the taxi drivers descended. The general consensus is that the main risks in Morocco present themselves at the border and the first main city of Tetouan. Here the pickpockets and con artists are thick as thieves and specialise in preying on the newly-arrived and confused. They began reaching for our luggage and asking us where we wanted to go in French and Spanish.
English may be the world language these days but it seems someone forgot to tell the Moroccans. The official tongue is Arabic (but a bastardised dialect that hardly any other Arabs succeed in understanding), followed by the dialects spoken by the indigenous Berbers. Then came French which even most of the young still speak fluently, followed by Spanish which in the north of the country is spoken by anyone who has anything to do with tourism. Finally, in last place, comes Engish, spoken only by some university students and the more enterprising guides.
The famous Moroccan hashish is just as good as you imagined it might be and many travellers never get beyond the Rif mountains where it’s grown. Hashish is so cheap in the mountains that when backpackers arrive there they act like they’ve broken into the sweetshop. They hang around the more relaxed Rif mountain towns, eating well, smoking good shit and playing guitar with other travellers on guesthouse rooftops.
The more adventurous or entrepreneurial head to where the stuff is grown higher up in the Rif. If you get that far though you’re pretty much expected to buy something. I’ve heard of hippies driving their vans through the mountains with Moroccans driving on either side on motorbikes, offering them kilos of hashish through the window and trying to force them off the road.
With 40 years of expertise in selling to stoned hippies the families in the Rif mountains have seen it all. If you deal with them though they extend to you their protection and advice; they’ll tell you how o get past the police road blocks, help you wrap the pieces of hashish to be swallowed or, if you’re big-time, arrange a speedboat for a kamikaze run to Spain.
Spain is so close that a speedboat can make it in around 15 minutes. The coastguard can’t man every beach and so every month when there’s no moon high-powered launches sprint across carrying immigrants of sacks of hashish. The coastguard is empowered to fire on sight and occasionally the hashish is thrown overboard when they’re intercepted. Hippie folklore in Andalucia is awash with stories of coming across sacks full of hashish on the beaches.
For all the demonstrations about legalising hashish/marijuana in Europe I’m pretty much happy the way things are. So many people smoke now that the police in much of Europe have given up on busting people for being caught with a joint. Yet the business still stays in the hands of the families who have traditionally run the business. And there’s still room for dealing a bit of hash at home and for the small-time adventurers to make some money on the odd kilo here or there.
If it’s ever legalised the big tobacco firms will buy up all the production and turn it into a multi-national product. They’ve already bought the trademarks to names like Lebanese gold, Moroccan black and squidgy just in case the market ever opens. Then the crops will become GM, chemicals added, it will be taxed to hell and go exactly the same way as tobacco. A plant which, incidentally, is still illegal to grow on your own in most of the First World. I’d rather that the hashish business stayed in the hands of small-timers as far as possible.