Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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Morocco Photos Part Un
"The idea of arriving in Africa by ferry was to help me feel a spiritual connection with the traders and smugglers, pirates and soldiers who have been navigating these legendary straits for countless millennia . . . The air hangs heavy with the promise of adventure, intrigue and the thrill of the unknown. I suspect that, whatever your purpose, arriving in Tangier by night will make you feel like you have come to the right place."
- Pete McCarthy

     Fuchs Dispatch: now with Skeet Shooting®! That is to say, I did the first part of the Morocco trip in the company of another snap-happy digital photographer – namely, one Josh Schroeder (née Skeet). The main result for the dispatch is that you get a lot more pictures of me, which of course is great news if, like me, you really like looking at pictures of me. However, in addition to being a capital fellow, formidible intellectual, and tops traveling companion, Skeet is also a fine amateur shutter-bug, so there are some darned nice shots here that I didn't get myself. Though, you'll note that my camera generally produces better image quality than his. Then again, I can't carry mine around in an Altoids tin. (Note: Josh not only can carry his camera around in an Altoids tin – he actually does. Curiously eccentric.) Look for the official Skeet Shooting icon – – so Skeet gets credit where it is emphatically due.

Additional note to those of sensitive constitution (read: Mom): all significant profanity and untoward humour has been abstracted out to pop-up footnotes. If you don't care to be subjected to profanity, please don't click on the footnote links (when you hover over them, it will say "view footnote" in the status bar at bottom-left of your browser window).

  • Supreme Badasses of the Universe that we are, having survived the exploding trains of Spain, we depart Europe from the Spanish port of Algeciras. Needless to point out, Supreme Badasses of the Universe sit on the upper decks of ferries regardless of weather conditions.
  • Another benefit (they are! they are!) of having a 2nd photographer, is the grand new possibility of the meta-dispatch! Yes, for the first time, you the reader can go behind the scenes, and see where the magic happens! (Yes, okay, it's pretty much just a guy scribbling obliviously into a notebook and simultaneously missing everything and ignoring travel companions.)
  • Morocco hoves into view! the ancient sea-trading port of Tangier!
  • Tangier is the oldest city in Morocco, a former Roman capital, disputed for centuries by Arabs and Berbers, subsequently in the possession of Spain, then Portugal – who gave it to Charles II as a wedding present in 1661. However, Tangier is also a complete hole and scary as hell to boot. So all we see of it is the dock and the first grand taxi we can find, which drives us through the mountains to Chefchaouen.
  • Very nice SkeetShot® of cacti, particularly from a speeding Mercedes.
  • We climb up to this remote mountain town, rolling up to just outside the walls of the medina, where we get our first glimpse of the stunning natural setting that makes Chefchaouen a prized (albeit inaccessible) destination: the Spanish mosque on the hill. Sitting admiring it, we're approached by an incredibly nice and measured (positively scholarly) older man called Mustafa. We sit and talk for some time and he gives us advice both on mountain hiking guides and on a hotel.
  • After following his recommendation and checking in, we take a turn around the medina. From almost everywhere one is reminded where this place gets its name: from the two horns (mountains) that perch above the town.
  • Getting dumped straight into the medina was, shall we say, an immersive and culture-shocking experience. I was fortunate enough to have a bit of experience of the developing (read: desperate) world, traveling in Africa. Josh hasn't. The immediate plunge into poverty, a totally different religious culture, and – in particular – the hordes of people who were achingly keen to sell us the products of the town's major agriculture industry (recreational drugs) – left Josh in a state of, let's say, culture smithereens. This more or less gives you the flavour. (And that was him mustering himself for a photo.) I should stress that Josh soon pulled his cultural shards together and mastered that most delicate art of being the insanely wealthy, and equally insanely conspicuous, first-world day-tripper.
  • Chefchaouen is famed for its crazily blue-washed, glowing medina walls. As the impossibly narrow and twisting alleys are mostly filled with carts of spices, nuts, figs, olives, and dates, it smells pretty groovy, too.
  • The main mosque for the medina sat on the major square. We kept returning to this same spot, an al fresco restaurant, for mint tea; and made friends with the owner, Hassan from Meknes. Moroccan tea is so sweet it makes your tongue try to escape out of your ear. "I've come home," I whimper. (Anyone who has seen me sweeten tea will understand.) Hassan and I exchange pens – a strange Moroccan ritual, but not one to my benefit. However, he also gives us a second round of teas for free.
  • The medina at night is pretty magical (if only because the dirt isn't visible). Here's my Kodak award-winner. Over a 3-course dinner (for 60 dirhams apiece), we plot our major caper: tomorrow's hike. Walking back, I get a text from Ali.

  • Morning, and we make a false start on the hike. We're 5km out of town in a car with a local guide and some Brits when it becomes apparent two things have been greatly exaggerated: 1) the seriousness and distance of the hike we're paying to be taken on; and 2) the danger inherent on just heading up into the mountains, from town, ourselves. We get a cab back, regroup, and head up, under full-steam human power, straight toward the middle of the two horns. The jumping-off point is the nicer hotel that overlooks the town.
  • Even just climbing to the beginning of the beginning of the hike leaves us towering over the town.
  • We're a little unsure of which is the proper trail-head. When in doubt, follow the goats. You can bet they're going up.
  • We stopped to take a lot of vanity/trophy shots – thinking, bwahahaha, that we were high up at that point. Little did we know. Here's Skeet lookin' all buff.
  • Here he is lovin' the view.
  • I was there too!
  • This rock should by no means be able to perch there. We suspect a practical joke. Or a trap. Did we mention the warnings? We were initially told not to go up into the Rif Mountains (precisely where we were, erm, going) because most of the territory is controlled by Berber kif farmers. And they can get a little nervous, so we were told, about white guys poking around their cash crop. Ahem. Did I mention that both the words "ruffian" and "riff-raff" came from descriptions of the inhabitants of the Rif? Or that the Berber mountain tribes are famed for their ferocity as fighters? We continued to climb, going hard and gulping harder.
  • El Cristo del Skijto
  • This is a very cool picture of me.
  • This is very probably the coolest picture of me ever taken. You see that trail down the valley cut? Yeah, that's how we came up. And that's Chefchaouen in that little patch of green. Ultimately, Josh (who, by the way is an Eagle Scout and avid hiker and camper and knows about this stuff) estimated that we hiked 10-12 miles and climbed 6000 feet.
  • All the way up to the cloud line.
  • We had to keep adding and removing layers, balancing the countervailing temperature factors that A) we were climbing B) a mountain.
  • We didn't see a single other tourist up here. Only goats, goatherds, and kif farmers. Arabic became our fall-back language (behind the 3 words of Berber I half-learned). And the stakes seemed high – we didn't want any little misunderstandings about whether or not the two of us worked for the DEA. But, as it turned out, the kif farmers belied their ominous reputation. Yeah, it was completely scary coming upon pretty much anybody up here (never mind people wielding sharp farm implements), where we were completely alone, isolated, and cut off from any help. But it fairly quickly became clear that all the kif farmers wanted was to sell us kif. They really, really, very much wanted to sell us kif. After we politely turned down kif 8 or 12 times, they smiled and let us go on our way. As Josh was to put it, "This place does have the friendliest drug dealers of anywhere I've been."
  • After we had negotiated a number of these encounters without getting murdered, and also climbed this mountain, we became Supreme Badasses of the Universe again. Ahh. We begin to develop a strong resolution not to turn back until we hit the top. We want to see the valley on the other side. We shoulder our bags, laden with water and food from the souks and power on.
  • We hit a couple of false summits. We roll on. We hit the snow line. Yeah, snowball fight, baby. It is here documented that I throw like a girl.
  • This is it. The pass. Are we above the cloudline? You judge. We realise we've been feeling safer for a while – because we're also above the peopleline. I think how much Mark would love it up here.
  • We kick around for awhile. The feeling of utter isolation and peace is pierced every 20 minutes or so by the text beep of my phone – T-Mobile welcoming me to Morocco everytime we crest something. We're kicking around when the weather starts to roll in a bit thicker – and we find some dung that Josh can't identify specifically, only that it definitely belongs to a carnivore (or carnivores). Casually stretching and yawning, we begin the descent.
  • The biggest threat to our safety (aside from the prospect of a sprained ankle) turns out to be goat-herding dogs. Some particularly mean and territorial ones menace us and I gear up for potential canine cricket. Luckily, the only time it looked like it might really come up, this nice goatherd woman loudly scolded the hounds of hell in question, and they let us pass.
  • Here's a nice SkeetShot® of that promontory we each stood on on the way up.
  • A couple of hours of scrabbling downhill later, town comes into view! We're gonna make it! Though our calves disagree. We also run across some guys who've just delivered a baby goat. I attempt to pet it; it attempts to take my finger. Headline: "SW London Man Killed in Rif Mountains; Bitten To Death By 6-Hour-Old Goat." Or, as Skeet had sagely put it, in response to some inexplicable howling we heard at one point: "Some days you eat the goat; some days the goat eats you."
  • Nice SkeetShot® of the other side of the impossible hanging rock, with the light against him.
  • Yep, after climbing over an entire large northern Moroccan mountain there's only one thing a body wants: mint tea. (Also because there's no alcohol sold in the medina.) Hassan from Meknes comes and sits at our table and tells about his life here. In the shadow of the mosque, he also shares with us a printed copy of the current prayer call schedule – and at this time of year, it turns out the muezzin is going off just that little bit much earlier every day. We talk about something that made us laugh on the ferry – and then realise, to our disbelief, that that was yesterday. Venus rises over the minaret.

  • Morning and we sit out in the lee of the of the mountains and the Spanish mosque, first light bleeding over the ridgeline, drinking our coffee. We then head for the bus "station" (a little podium in front of a little restaurant) and hop ours to Fes. It's just not a third-world bus ride without a woman with a chicken; and by the time we arrive I can count to 100 in Arabic.
  • Josh makes a friend, a young lawyer, on the bus. This is a lucky thing as he volunteers to lead us to our hotel in Fes's medina, which, without him, we'd still be looking for it. To our delight, we discover a balcony right outside our room. I begin a long photographic love affair with the building across the way. I can't resist shooting it every time the light changes. I'm like Monet in London. Except that I'm no Monet. And we're in Fes. And the Houses of Parliament don't have nearly as much character as this building across the way.
  • We make a very ill-advised unaccompanied sally into the medina. OH MY GOD. That picture's actually from later, when we take our guided tour at a quieter time. But those first minutes in the world's largest medina. 965 streets. (All of them cramped, dark, and curving.) 365 mosques. (All of them seriously forbidden to infidels.) About 80,000 shops. (Selling, well, everything.) Think claustrophobic. Think teeming with people. Think lost. Think being assailed, on every street, at every corner, over and over again, by touts, guides, and other hustlers who will not take no for an answer – in any language. Think fearing for your life when the spurned hustlers start getting threatening. Think about retreating rapidly to your hotel – we did. And that balcony became our salvation – a way to been in the medina but not subject to it. With this experience, not only was Josh back in full-freaked-out mode; I was pretty much right there with him. Anyway, long story slightly less long: pay for an official guide. What you're really paying for is not so much the guide showing you around; you're paying to keep the other wannabe guides off of you. Totally different experience. Also we weren't there during rush hour.
  • Skeet shot knife grinders. For some people, this is a tourist attraction. For others, it's just another day at the office.
  • Skeet shot me indulging my bag fetish in, I guess, the garment district.
  • Our guide took us up to above the famous leather tanneries. As noted in Morocco Photos Part Deux, Rough Guide calls this "tourism at its most brutal".
  • Skeet got the lime pits in his shot.
  • And his (award-winning, if I do say) close up gives you a (small) sense of what it must be like to work there.
  • A little perspective.
  • We toured the second nicest Medersa (Koranic school) in town. (The nicest is closed for repair, until like 2009.)
  • Three-level zelijj (tile) work.
  • We learned to recognise "Allah" in Arabic, as it repeats, oh, every few characters.
  • Courtyard fountain. I don't know why I wasn't shooting any of this myself. Oh yeah – I was running out of camera memory, and I knew I could get Josh's shots later.
  • Combo taxi/lorry service for the medina, on his lunch break. I liked that guy.
  • Our guide took us, naturally, to a rug seller – then excused himself "to pray". (Funny we didn't hear the muezzin.) When it became clear that we were not rug-buyers, but still had God knows how long to kill until our guide returned, they took us up to the roof to look out over the medina. Skeet shot the minaret of one of the major mosques.
  • He also shot me outside of one of the mosques, which presumably we would have been torn limb from limb if we had entered.
  • You could, though, peek in.
  • This is possibly my overall favorite SkeetShot®. There's a semi-famous fountain at one of the main medina "intersections". (I bought my friend Jacqui a postcard of it, actually from within sight of it.) And Josh wanted a shot and but this old guy comes up to, well, fill a jug with water from the fountain. So Josh is waiting for him to clear out, half out of politeness and half out of not wanting him in the shot. "Go! go!" I exclaimed. "Take it! This is your shot!" I like it even better in black and white (like the postcard). And with the extraneous figures taken out. Once again, one man's tourist attraction is another's water fountain.
  • Here's my pet building (across from our balcony) in the fading light of the evening.
  • Here's our local nut vendor, just below the balcony. Did I mention we ate like kings in the medinas?
  • Here's sunset from the balcony. Also visible are the neighborhood starlings, who massed and wheeled and dove and called.
  • The next day, we took a daytrip a half-hour south to go hiking around the town of Sefrou. One of the highlights for me was actually sitting in the sun with Josh, on this tiny bridge, talking for over an hour (mostly about his new career plan).
  • We find we keep getting guided around this country by guys named Mohammed. This one takes us first to waterfalls. There's this real pernicious idea out there that all tourists want to see waterfalls.
  • Then we got on with the serious business of an ass-kicking hike. (Though, inevitably, not nearly as ass-kicking as the last one.) Here's me and Mohammed (and our asses).
  • Soothing aloe action.
  • Hikey hikey.
  • Josh lookin' all buff and the landscape lookin' all barren.
  • We had to share a bit of road with huge trucks.
  • This was probably somebody's local pub but, lamentably, it was shut.
  • Sheep herding is a loooonely business.
  • The last major section of our loop was across a quite barren plateau, covered with igneous rock formations . . .
  • . . . the edge of which looked back over the town.
  • Back in the same little cafe where we hired our guide, we enjoy the pause that refreshes. "I'd like to buy the Islamic world a Coke . . ."
  • We hopped a bus driven by a guy trying to fill it up before departure by shouting, very rapidly, "Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes! Fes!" He must have been successful because when we passed a police checkpoint, all the people standing had to duck down out of view. On the bus, Josh makes friends with a young school teacher and poet called Nabil. (M: "Man, people like you.") Together, we returned to the medina through, erm, one of the gates. Nabil walks us to our hotel and within steps we are debating politics, Bush, 9/11, the Jews, a putative "president behind the president", the Palestinians, Sharon as terrorist, Sabra and Shatilla . . . Nabil's debating style is quite tolerant, even as he spouts what, to my ear, are some extremely kooky ideas. We disagree strongly but civilly. (I was and am grateful for the skillful example of how to do so.) We make arrangements to have dinner together the next night, then part. At which point, Josh is like, Man, he and I spend an hour bus ride talking about common interests and setting up a pen-pal program between his students and my mom's students, all happy-happy. . . ten seconds with you and you guys are re-fighting the Yom Kippur war.
  • We return to our balcony sanctuary. Here's my baby in the evening light. Making the scene x12 more magical was the muezzin, whose otherworldly voice filled the purple air with the call to prayer. Immensely happily, I recorded it for you. Listen to it while looking at the dimly-lit building across the way, as I did. muezzin.wav, 189kb
  • We rise on our last full day in Fes and have an entirely gratifying breakfast on the patio. Here it is in the early light. My personal prize-winner.
  • We then spent some quality time in a local netcafe (until their router went down and neither Josh nor I could revive it). We returned via probably the coolest gate in the medina walls and geared up for a hike up to . . .
  • The Merenid Tombs. This site, the burial ruins of a royal family, sits on a high hill overlooking the whole medina.
  • It is a darned peaceful spot to sit around in for an afternoon.
  • And just when you think it can't get any better . . . they have goats!
  • Here's my favorite little lambsie divey. She ran away when I tried to take her portrait.
  • You can see the medieval wall snaking around the medina.
  • Here's another nice SkeetShot® of the ruins.
  • The apothoesis of the magic undeniably came with the mid-day call to prayer. Chanting muezzin voices floated up from one, two, a dozen, a hundred mosques all around the medina. Truly otherwordly. Or, as Josh nicely put it: "Certainly a five-times daily reminder that this is not your place." We descend, wander around the main city park, and have a fruit and nut repast from the souks.
  • Finally we head home, get cleaned up, then go back out and sit in a cafe waiting to meet Nabil. It's all men – all watching Real Madrid play Barcelona on an outdoor telly. Nabil shows up and takes us for dinner in the ville nouvelle, then on a long walk. All the conversation was equally contentious – and eye-opening. But, still, I think, Man, here I am debating the Palestinian situation with a Moslem guy in Fes, standing outside the Royal Palace. Nabil asks when we leave. M: "We'll be gone by 8AM, inshallah." J:"Actually, God's going to decree that we get up at 5."
  • In the morning, we share half a train journey. Then I break west, for Casablanca; and Josh breaks north, to jump back on the ferry and backtrack through Spain. When he gets to Madrid, the memorial inside Atocha has grown to take up half the station.

  danger     dftre     hiking     photography     skeet     travel  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
ARISEN : Odyssey
ARISEN : Last Stand
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 1 - The Collapse
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 2 - Tribes
Black Squadron
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 3 - Dead Men Walking
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 4 - Duty
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 5 - The Last Raid
ARISEN : Fickisms ][ – This Time, It's Personal
ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple
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