Most of you know that I live at the end of a road. The road goes down to a town big enough to have a twice weekly market, and that town is on a major Moroccan road. Unfortunately, if I want to use public transportation to get anywhere, I have to go down the mountain in a public van very early in the morning to the market (souq) town and catch a taxi or bus from there. I made plans over a month ago to head to Imilchil this weekend, a town further into the mountains – to do that in public transport, I’d have to catch my first van at 4 in the morning, catch a bus to another major town, and then get an afternoon van up from the city to Imilchil. Alternatively, I could hike to Ait Haini and take the same afternoon van up the mountain from there. I had done the Ait Haini trek once before, so I knew the path – I decided to bite the bullet and solo hike it.
A few days before I left, I started telling some select people in my town where I was going and how. I invited several friends along, but with it both being so close to Ramadan and it being a long hike, I was declined. Everyone I talked to voiced concerns – an unsavory character would follow me, a nomad would think I have money and slit my throat, I would get attacked by a pack of dogs, I would get bitten by a poisonous snake, etc. My decision to hike alone was universally viewed as a bad idea. Knowing I was being stubborn, I still baked some bread, packed my bag, arranged to let a friend know at regular intervals where I was the next day. I tossed and turned a bit, trying to get some sleep before waking up for a dawn departure on Saturday morning.
Dawn came, and as I double checked I had everything in my bags I heard the public transport go by my house – no turning back now! I filled up my water bottles in the spring, gave the last of my food scraps to a goat herd behind my house, and was off.
About 20 minutes into my hike, I noticed two guys on a different part of the mountain than me, seemingly just looking around. I was a little nervous, considering that the major fear which had been instilled in me was that I would be followed. Not about to quit less than half an hour in, I kept walking and soon lost track of them. About an hour later I completely lost sight of my town as I followed a faint path up the mountain – and then noticed there were four guys on the path, maybe about 10 minutes behind me. At this point I really started to get nervous, and I called my friend to let him know I’d be calling a little more regularly – I couldn’t think of any reason for a group of people to be taking the path that day; the only time people take it is to go to a livestock market on a different day of the week.
I kept hiking, at this point a little freaked out. I could tell it was a group of young guys, but I couldn’t see them well enough to recognize anyone – there are a whole lot of people that only live in my town for the summer, so it could very well be guys who live in another part of the country most of the year. I kept hiking, forgoing water breaks but knowing that there was really no way I could stay ahead of a group of healthy teenagers for the remaining 5 hours of the hike.
Finally, as I was nearly at the saddle, the guys caught up with me, blaring Justin Bieber from a cell phone. Gesturing at a companion, a guy I didn’t know asked me, in Tashelheet, “Do you recognize him?” Looking over to the person indicated, I immediately relaxed. It was a high school aged boy, Mohcine, from my extended host family. I’d just eaten lunch with him the day before. I called my friend to let him know I was safe, then got the story out of Mohcine. As I suspected after seeing him, it turns out that a concerned member of my host family (Fatima, the one who’d done the best job of laying out scenarios that would end in my bodily harm or death), had asked him to see me safely through my hike. He and his friends had decided to make a vacation day out of it – most had never seen the other side of the mountains, so they brought supplies for tea and lunch and planned to hike back as soon as they’d fulfilled their protective roles. The two guys I had seen earlier in the morning were in on it as well; they’d just taken an alternate route up the first mountain and met us at the top.
In short, I had been assigned an honor guard.
Hiking with six young men between the ages of 16 and 18 absolutely changed my hike: my pace picked up, the calm was replaced by joking and music, and we only took three breaks – one to climb a tree, one to get more water at the spring in Itto Fezzou, and once to boil ourselves some tea. This shaved at least an hour off the time from February, and it certainly went fast!
I thought I’d have a sort of awesome story now about braving the mountains in the face of danger, but I like this story better. It’s a great illustration of how my community is always looking out for me, sometimes in the ways I least expect.