(Published November, 1999)
Christian Fowkes in Tazekka National Park
"Salaam. Labas. Sb'hare, labas? Hum Du'lah."
(Hello. How are you? Good Morning. How are you? Thanks be to God.)
"Labas Karim. Friouato?"
(How are you, Karim? Where are you going?)
"La, Bab Bou Idir."
(There, Bab Bou Idir)
"Wah Ha, Y'allah."
(OK. Let's go)
And so at seven in the morning I hop into a Grand Taxi, pay the mol-taxi my fare of 10 Dirhams and wait for 20 minutes or so until we begin our ascent into the mountains surrounding the small city of Taza. For me this is an above-average day because I will be getting the opportunity to do what I love to do -hike through the Cedar forests of Jbel Tazekka. An added bonus is the fact that I get to do it as a part of my job while working with the Department of Water and Forests.
I am currently serving as a Parks, Wildlife, & Environmental Educator (PWEE) Volunteer in the Tazekka National Park. My title obviously has many implications as to what I may be working on in the Park, but in fact don't let the title fool you. As many Volunteers will tell you, our titles can be deceiving, because in fact we can work on a variety of projects that can cover a vast area of subject fields. Currently I am involved in continuing the development of the Park's hiking trails.
Slowly, the struggling taxi climbs over the first of the steep ridges on its way to Bab Bou Idir. Rising from about 800 meters in Taza to over 1980 meters, Jbel Tazekka towers over the area. After about an hour of traveling around hairpin turns on a one lane highway, we arrive at Bab Bou Idir. Built by the French and used as a summer camp by the French colonialists and French Nuns, Bab Bou Idir continues to be the central gathering area for the surrounding valleys. It is here that I exit my taxi and begin to trek up the road towards the towering landmark that is Jbel Tazekka.
Luckily, I flag down a camion that is on its way towards one of the several villages located deep inside the Park. Graciously I squeeze into the already jam-packed camion and struggle to breathe as we screech around curves, the force smashes the weight of the other three occupants against my compressed diaphragm. But hey, it's a lot better than walking the 6 km. up to the trailhead.
"Shukran sahabee, laiown."
(Thanks, friend. God be with you)
(God be with you, Karim)
Solitude. Silence. These two words can describe Peace Corps to many Volunteers, and they say a lot about how service itself can feel sometimes. But today I have sought out these exact circumstances. Today solitude and silence will be the scaffolding which I will use to slowly inch up this difficult trail and reach the peak of Tazekka. Tazekka may not reach the heights of some of its cousins outside of Marrakech, but it is still a tall reminder of how little we can be sometimes. With this in mind I begin my hike and mark the entrance of the trail with a quick pass of the fluorescent spray paint. Now anyone who wishes can follow me and enjoy these beautiful woods.
Continuing throughout the day, I check the trail for trash, mark confusing turns, clean debris out of the way, and generally make the trail just a little bit better than before. But it isn't always as nice as this, because villagers sometimes don't like the fact that the old goat trail now has some weird paint marks. Talking with them, it seems that they do not fully understand why someone would want to 'walk around without any goats'. Vandalism is constant and trash is reoccurring, but in the end everyone seems to pitch in and leave the trail markers alone. But then again, what could be more fun than throwing rocks at a sign when you are 12 years old and watch sheep all day?
After four hours on the trail, I reach the summit of Jbel Tazekka. Cedars as wide as a car tower over me. Their majestic limbs reach out, trying to cover the head of this mountain. Halfway finished, I stop to relax under the 'woosh, woooosh' of the wind blowing through the trees. The only thing I don't like about Tazekka is the small radio tower on top of it. However, there is a work crew that watches over the tower. There are actually two crews, they rotate on one week intervals. I approach the gate and exchange the usual round of pleasantries and learn that they remember some of the previous Volunteers. While we share stories and tea, I convince them to let me climb up the radio tower. Reluctantly, they agree but only up to the first platform. Perfect!: It's about 10 meters clear of the treetops.
Fes. I can see Fes...a city that is over 100 km away. I have never seen anything like this incredible, unbelievable view. From this vantage point, I can see the entire Taza Gap, the same pass through which the the Arabs passed en route to the Atlantic over 1000 years ago. I take it all in again: the silent solitude on top of that mountain. I smile and begin my descent from the radio tower. It is time to resume doing the job I have come here to do. Half the trail still remains to be marked and the sun is setting fast.
For me this trail is an example of what Peace Corps can be all about. You struggle through winding and seemingly endless paths, some of which abruptly dead-end, causing you to turn back. At times all you want to do is stop and you look for the quickest way out of your current situation. But in the end when you reach the zenith and take that deep breath, breathing in the air of confidence once again, you begin to look around and see just how many little accomplishments it took to get you where you stand. That new point of view is what makes the experience so worthwhile... so enjoyable, so beautiful, and so memorable.
I have seven more trails to mark, and at least as many more times to enjoy the view.