Thursday 30 September 2010 – Essaouira (Morocco)
It took us 17 days to be able to leave the paradisaical blue city of Chefchaouen and yet we were quite sad to walk away from the riad Baraka and its kind British owners. Joseph led us in the right direction and we rode towards Meknes after refilling the Transalp. The ride was sunny and hot. The roadside filled up with more olive trees as we approached our destination. We arrived at our hotel early enough for a quiet walk around after having taken a good shower. Meknes isn't blue but its fortification walls and gates are stunning. The style is very African already with square shapes, very tiny windows and that tint of dry sandy mud. The crenelations at the top give it a medieval look that plunges me back to the glorious times of “Prince of Persia” which I was addicted to on my old 286PC. The streets of Meknes medina are much larger than in Chefchaouen. People are nice and friendly. No pushers, lots of veiled ladies, “caleches” (taxi-carts pulled by a horse) everywhere and not only carrying tourists, lots of motorized taxis too... they've got two kinds in Morocco, the big taxis, usually beaten up Mercedes-Benz 200D or 220D dating back from the 70's like the one we had used to go and get back from Tetouan and “petit taxis” which are smaller but just as beaten up if not more, sort of remains of Peugeot or Fiat for most of them. Just seeing these antiques everywhere is reassuring us about the level of fixing skills we can expect from local mechanics.
There aren't many bikes here. There're crowds of small 49cc mopeds, just like the one I was riding when I was a long hair teenager: Peugeot 103 or Motobecane. The richest ride scooters and we saw a good amount of Vespa zooming pass us in the medina. But no big bikes. Ours starts attracting attention. That's a change ! In Europe, our grand-mother Transalp was the oldest looking bike in town. Everyone there was riding fancy new models, even the cops in Sevilla with their shiny new Transalp. Bikers in Andorra had laughed at us asking if we were part of some sort of vintage competition ! All the mechanics we had consulted had said “it's a good bike but well... it's an old machine...you know.” with that little jump of their shoulders that meant there just couldn't be anything to be done about it. Some people we met had even looked shocked and in disbelief hearing about our planned journey while starring at our wheels like they would have done at a particularly disgusting public rubbish container. We never bothered. It's an old bike so what ? Great, we won't have to wash it and whine at the slightest scratches then.
And we did well... because here, our prehistoric vehicle has regained its former glory without having to remove a single smashed mosquito from its - rather sticky by now – dead insects infected fairing. Kids love it, parents stare at it with dreamy eyes, mechanics praise it as the best bike together with the Yamaha Tenere and truck drivers give us the thumbs up as we take them over. Due recognition and respect at last !
The other thing I like beside riding bikes for endless hours is taking pictures and videos. And the good thing about nowadays digital cameras is that one can keep shooting nonstop. I come from a time when would-be photographers like me had to carry a donkey load of lenses and flashlights doubled with a camel load of films. And one had to be shot conscious in those times. I envied the pros and their seemingly endless supplies. I survived two weeks on a Thai beach once by reselling one dose of Kodak a day to addicted travelers. Fortunately, these days are over. Ex-smokers can keep the illusion of having a pack of fags in their pockets except it's now called Canon or Olympus so small cameras have become. The Lumiere brothers might have put Thomas Edison to shame with their five kilos invention, the Japanese laugh last. Films ? Ha ! I've got 16gig on my SD card ! Who cares about contrast mess ups or disgraceful underexposures !? At worst, a little editing on the laptop and the pic gets as straight, as sharp, as contrasted and as centered as one can dream. Red eyes is now a thing just for pot smokers. There's no waste ! So I just keep shooting. All one needs to bother about is to avoid calling attention. I hold my camera against my chest, pointing left, walk in crowds and keep pressing while talking to Abby or looking in another direction. Then I delete all the crap from the card on our laptop, edit some of the pics and post the best ones on my Multiply. I like doing that, capturing someone's natural “atmosphere” feels like finding a large piece of strawberry on my jam coated toast or downloading free movies from the Internet. The medina of Meknes proved to be a perfect playground.
But I really wanted to see Volubilis. It would, hopefully, be much more interesting than the empty places we had ended up visiting in Meknes anyway. The first of those were the ex-royal stables. After all Meknes is famous for its pedigree horses. Fine, I love horses, I used to ride them when I was a kid, I was bold enough then, although I still had hair... now I don't have hair but I'm not so bold anymore. Go figure ! English is a very strange language.
So everything was fine except I don't see the point of visiting stables, being even imperial, if there's no horses in them. And then the second empty ripoff was a jail that an old king named Ismail had ordered to be built to contain 40000 prisoners. Apparently he used to kidnap quite a few foreigners and then wait for their ambassadors to come and pay a ransom for their release. Traditions are hard to wipe away sometimes huh ?
Anyway, to our greatest disappointment, the place was deserted, no moaning prisoners, no skeletons ornamenting dark corners, no over-salivating chained hystero-maniacs, not even ghosts of dis-handed camel robbers. No torture of any sort was taking place, at least at the time we visited, we were the only ones in agony, so boringly empty and pointless the whole thing was.
So we went to Volubilis. Not that we expected much action from a site deserted more than 15 centuries ago and further decayed by a devastating earthquake in the middle of nowhere but I'm sorry, I've studied Latin for too many years, I just have to see more mosaics and therms and columns. I like the way the Romans seem to be thinking since I visited Pompeii a long time ago, when I was a hairy hippie. I mean, who would paint a god weighing his genitals in a scale, against a duck, make him win and hang the whole thing right on top of his living room entrance door these days ? It wouldn't be just politically incorrect, it would be a social disgrace, an example of artistic taste gone totally wrong, who knows, even a blasphemy perhaps ! Well, to me that shows that Romans must have been far more relaxed than us, they didn't visit hot websites in the back of their wives, they ordered porn mosaics for their dining rooms instead. That's class ! Imagine the catalog of patterns ! That beats Moroccan carpets, no question asked ! What did crawling innocent babies see first in their early rampant lives ? The fornication of the god Pan with diverse pagans ! That calls for applause ! One is almost tempted to forget about the slavery thing when one realizes what a common lack of frustration the Romans were living by !
I notice that pornography ceases to exist as soon as it's antique. Then it's art. I've seen bunches of Athenians, sodomizing each others around vases, exhibited in Victorian museums and no one complained ! I have a personal photo collection of many delicious looking female bottoms shot, often in front of many consenting visitors, in several museums and parks around the world and I've never got arrested for statuphilia. They're pieces of art, yes, but still, they were made from real models... see my point ? Ladies disappear but feminine charm is immortal... if you love her beauty, turn your girlfriend into a stone for the eternity to appreciate, it will have more success than uploading a picture of your naked ex-girlfriend on some obscure website...
Volubilis has no statue, few columns but an interesting collection of mosaics, most of them representing hunting scenes or fishes except for two places, the Hercules house that presents the semi-god's diverse accomplishments in life and the house of Venus that did contain some nudity, mostly harmless to our present rigid morale since apparently no one had been mosaic-ed in the middle of smoking a cigarette.
I found a postcard representing a mosaic, wrote a note behind and posted it to my parents.
Why am I mentioning such detail ?
We were in the middle of ruins, lost in the middle of nowhere, there wasn't a single soul living around. Why was there a post office ? Were there that many tourists really ? Can I have a job here, please ?
We had planned to go to Fes the next day. We didn't. The Transalp had decided otherwise. It started on one cylinder... again. Damn it ! It looks exactly like that time when one CDI unit failed. We had that fixed in Carcassonne and we even had a brand new spare unit with us just in case but could it fail that quickly ? We'll never make it at that rate, that part is hard to find and costly. This time I'm frankly disgusted ! This bike is a constant pain in the neck !
The carpark guardian approaches. He's a 30 years old jovial looking dude. He suggests to go and get a mechanic and he soon returns with a greasy gentleman riding a smoky Vespa.
-”Italian bike” he says straight away, pointing at his old tuned up scooter, “best mechanic !”
My mind gets confused for while, stuck between pictures of Geoff's Ducati back in Hong Kong and the pile of crap in front of me but, by the time I was going to say hello, the mechanic was already checking the Transalp out. He checked the spark plugs but I already had done that. Then he said, it's the segments.
How long would it take to be fixed ? Three hours, really ? Ok, then... go for it !
Storks were flying above us. A whole flock of them. Their flight was very graceful and easy. We couldn't take our eyes off them. We had seen some huge nests on top of some columns in Volubilis, the same sort we had seen on top of some electric posts along our way in Portugal and we guessed they were built by storks, they looked just like the ones in Alsace in the East of France.
Three hours later, the cylinder had come back to life. It needed a valve adjustment, the mechanic said. But he wasn't speaking French very well and I suspect he said the first thing that came to his mind because how could a simple valve adjustment fix a cylinder on strike ? However, the bike was working again, that was the main thing, and the mechanic was assuring me there would be no problem crossing Western Sahara and Mauritania with it. I mention it here so that I can sue him later, should something ever happen !
But visiting Fes was now out of the question since we wanted to be in Rabat on Monday to obtain our Mauritanian visa as soon as possible. Rabat must be expensive and modern we thought.
We made the trip there the next day and ended up in a riad in the medina of Sale, very near Rabat, called Dar Nawfal.
The place was huge and our bedroom was the size of a dormitory but the riad was splendid. The terrace, where we had our meals, wasn't as pleasant as Joseph's one but we were happy to relax there for hours, eating grapes and listening to the muezzin sing.
Well, sing... I don't wanna sound too picky or critical, but, as much as it sometimes sounded magic, like in Chefchaouen when the muezzins of all the mosques seemed to have had an agreement or a sort of order in their performance. Some were creating a kind of choir in the background while another would sing the main lyrics, it sounded great. As much sometimes one has to wonder how minaret singing selections are being made. Or is the muezzin that old ? Shouldn't he be in an hospital rather ?? I mean, it really sounds like he's dying !
Some others laugh... I'm not kidding ! Or at least they giggled. Makes me wonder... why don't they just record a nice voice somewhere and simply broadcast it ? It's always the same “God is great” anyway. It'd save lots of disturbance. Imagine having an amplified alarm bell instead on top of European churches, wouldn't that be a reason for endless complaints !? Sounding at 4:30am too ! I guess it's ok to party loud all night around here coz one can always point at the nearby mosque for making more noise anyway !
Sale, we were told, used to be a republic. It's said also that it was created by pirates and that's why it was a democratic land, electing its leader. So that's where the guy who pirated my Facebook account the other day must have lived, I thought, you bugger !
Abby's visa for Morocco has almost expired ! What the heck !? Well, she had entered the country with her Hong Kong passport instead of her British National Overseas one. Hong Kong passport visas for Morocco, she just discovered on Internet, are only valid for one month, BNO gets three, like me.
Abdulah, our host at the riad Dar Nawfal, suggested to take us to visit the cops to see if they could extend Abby's visa. Bad news, they said it would take longer than the expiry date to get all the permissions required. Alright then, no worries, we still have a few days in front of us before the deadline, we'll simply ride back to the border which is only 300km away and then Abby can cross and come back with her BNO passport stamped for 3 months.
We failed fulfilling our Mauritanian duty the next morning. Breakfast on the terrace was too good, we arrived at the consulate at 11:15. It closed at 11:00. So we spent the day visiting Rabat medina instead, we took a look at the tomb of Hassan II near the Hassan Tower (near Hassan Square right at the end of Hassan Av. yes) and then walked back to Sale.
I told Abby, please don't make jokes about Hassan...
The next morning, we didn't have breakfast and rushed instead to the consulate where we arrived fifteen minutes early. Some French guys started talking to me while I was filling my visa application and gave me some cards of places to stay in Mauritania. We discussed petrol and it definitely sounds like we need to find jerrycans and, more annoyingly, a place to carry them on the bike. I hardly see how we could load more than ten liters and even that is pushing it a bit.
Anyway, the guy at the Mauritanian visa counter took our applications and off we went... only to realize soon enough, that we had totally forgotten to mention the fact that we needed the visas for the 25th of November and not for just now. We returned. At the counter, the employee wouldn't hear a word of it. It's too late he said, the applications are already inside, there is nothing he could do... I didn't insist much, just watching the way he looked at me, I didn't stand a chance. So I sent Abby instead and soon enough of course, the annoying dude was calling his mate inside and fixed the problem. Forget multi-tools kits, take a lady along instead, efficiency and satisfaction guaranteed !
The visas were ready by 2:00pm. They gave women priority which was a good thing because there were only two women, Abby and another for a queue of about twenty dudes who all decided it was ok to jump me in the line.
I guess they did so because they knew Abby would return immediately with both our passports which she did, and two shiny new Mauritanian visas. Then we went to the neighboring Senegalese embassy to get Abby her fix. Being French, I don't need a visa for Senegal. Being Chinese, she does. I've stopped even commenting on this sort of frustrating nonsense but no worries, the feeling is still there, it's still boiling deep inside... I hate borders !
And nope, it wasn't going to be that simple ! Senegal embassy in Rabat, just next to the Mauritanian consulate, isn't, I repeat, is NOT delivering visas. Senegalese visas are available in Morocco, but in Casablanca.
Sometimes it's not boiling just deep inside...
Repressing our profound desire to yell at representatives of countries we had yet to cross, we just passed our way, hijacking a fine patisserie on the go in order to vent off our excess of bitterness.
We had nothing left to do in Rabat, it was time to get to the border. We would grab that evasive Senegalese visa in Casablanca on our way back to Marrakesh.
Leaving Rabat unfortunately meant turning our back from Abdulah's mother excellent cuisine that made such a nice change from the usual couscous/tagine menus but hey, life sometimes feels like ripping off a wet bandage from a still fresh wound, it hurts but you gotta do it. Looks like we'll get lots of those feelings if we keep on meeting nice people and then leave...
Lots of cops in Morocco ! There's at least two every 50km. One can tell they're out for money, all the locals complain about it. They stop cars for speeding as the limit drops from 100km/h to 40km/h every time one approaches a roundabout which is almost as often as in Europe (except they're there for absolutely no reason whatsoever) and then they wait for bribe to let go. That's all they're after, it's so obvious one's gotta laugh but damn ! So far we've been ok. I tried a bit of over-speeding and was signaled to slow down twice but they didn't stop us. I don't think they speak English and our plate is British, that might be why.
Traffic is ok so far, the general driving isn't bad, the most dangerous commuters are the pedestrians who tend to cross anywhere without much care. The rest is quite fine, not worst than in Hong Kong anyhow.
120km/h is fine on that deserted highway that takes us back to Ceuta. The Transalp is happy at that speed and Abby too. When I hit 130, the bike start wobbling a little and the air flow takes Abby's feet off her foot-pegs. No rush. We arrive in Fnideq, the nearest Moroccan town to Ceuta and Abby takes off to the border while I take a nap.
She returns a few hours later with duty free cigarettes and a brand new visa for three extra months in Morocco. We're getting there !
We leave early after breakfast the next day as we want to make it in time to the Senegalese consulate in Casablanca. Fortunately our GPS knows the address so it should be a breeze to get there. It took nearly four hours but we eventually parked our bike neatly in front of the consulate without hesitation thanks to it. My nervous system appreciates modern technology.
Abby got in while I smoked a cigarette outside, under the floating Senegal flag. She returned soon and announced that, should she choose to enter Senegal with her Hong Kong passport, it would take weeks to obtain an eventual permit. But if she choose to go with her BNO passport, she doesn't even need a visa, she'll get three months, just like me.
I just had to get in too and ask confirmation myself ! Abby was right...
Casablanca looked very European and very costly too so we didn't hesitate long before heading towards Marrakesh where we arrived at nightfall. The first hotel we spotted was an Ibis, we booked it, it had been a long riding day, the third of the kind since our departure, we were knackered. No muezzin was loud or out of tune enough to wake us up that night !
What is it with all Moroccan medinas that makes merchants sell exactly the same stuff everywhere ? I'm looking for a new leather cigarettes holder so that I can remove from my sight all the warnings, anti-smoking slogans and disgusting “medical” pictures that I'm forced to buy with my smoke. They're all the same everywhere, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Rabat now Marrakesh... and they do look as if they were manufactured in China too ! However that's the first time we see wild animal skins for sale. Live ones too ! A young guy offers us to buy a chameleon. A buzzard gives us a strange look from behind the bars of its tiny cage while we avoid breathing too deep as we pass the skull of a wild boar hanged on the wall by its semi detached face. Nevertheless, we resist the temptation to shop around quite well... In fact, being riding a bike is a perfect safeguard against shopping sprees. We've got no room, full stop. Try beat that argument ! The only additions we collected since our departure are a can of chain lube and a spare CDI unit. And a Templar looking Malta cross for me from Carcassonne... which I sort of regret purchasing since we're now in Muslim land. That's probably not the most diplomatic piece of ornament one could wear in a land full of Sarrazins... although I did travel in Muslim regions before with the Star of David around my neck. Yes, I am a stupid trouble loving atheist... but I survived it much easier than one would think, so much for prejudgments.
Anyway, lost in Marrakesh medina, surrounded by dead wilderness, approached by shark looking impalers of errand rolling crusaders, stunned and disorientated by scores of identically supplied stalls of spices, leathers goods, colorful carpets, brass kitchenware or oriental patisserie, having various reprehensible substances offered to us at prices defying all competition, Abby and I began walking in a circle. Twice we found ourselves face to face again with the semi-detached one of that seriously decomposed wild boar and the buzzard was now starring at us with a very irritating look on its beak.
Of course, as soon as we gave him a pretext by asked him for directions, the guy we had stopped started following us, offering hashish from his sock and morphine on the go. That's just the way it is. It doesn't matter where we end up, that's the sort of stuff we're regularly getting when walking the streets. We just have to live with that and try to ignore it quietly. People would follow us and talk to us in the most friendly way and at the end of the conversation request some tip from us. For what ? For talking to you ? For replying you when you asked where I come from ? What sort of custom is this ? Should we start charging also for all the unrequested invitations to purchase carpets we had to politely decline ? We're tourists and we're dying to throw our money away, is that the general idea ? Or is it just aggressive marketing ? Why is it that people just can't tell the right price of stuff and try to nick more money just in case ? When it isn't led by greed, isn't bargaining simply the direct consequence of a previous cheating attempt ? When then can I trust to pay the right price ? Never ? Why !? Strange atmosphere for doing business anyway...
The other day, we saw two guys fixing a horseshoe to the hoof of their mule and we took a look as Abby had never seen it done. One of the guys asked me for thirty bucks for taking pictures. I pointed to him that I didn't have a camera. Then it's ten bucks for looking, he replied, not laughing. I asked him how much he charged for breathing Moroccan air and we passed our way.
Enough of large cities anyway, let's go to Essaouira instead ! Essaouira is one of the first city I wanted to visit once the plan for this trip started forming in my mind, thanks to a friend who lived in Morocco for years and described it as one of the most pleasant spot he had found. It's a little town on the Atlantic coast and it should be cool. That's where Abby and I had planned to stay for a while, at least a month, to regain our strength and take a good breath before heading towards Western Sahara and Mauritania. The tourist season is well over, now is the perfect time to leave Marrakesh and finally see how it looks.
The GPS gets us out of the city and in the right direction with ease and style. Essaouira isn't far away, a two or three hours ride at most. Soon the landscape changes around us as we ride into... the desert. I'm not sure when exactly the view opened up that big but I suddenly realized that we were surrounded by an immensity of nothing, up to the horizon. And I loved it ! I felt like a bird playfully flying low as I swung the Transalp from left to right on that very long straight section of road towards the ocean, like a surfing stork on a moon large land of emptiness ! It wasn't the same “Easy Rider” stuff like the one I had felt in Portugal, that was more planetary than that, like a ride in space. Can't wait for Western Sahara then !
As soon as we entered the limits of the city, we spotted some dudes on the roadside waving keys at us. We had heard about them being the best providers of flats for rent which was exactly what we were after. I stopped the bike next to one guy and, sure enough, he suggested to show us some places.
We told him what we were roughly looking for and he took us to a couple of furnished apartments before taking us to a place, slightly off city limits, where we discovered a cute bungalow sort of place in the middle of a garden, far from any mosque and with a spot to park our dear grand-mothership.
The flat's got a bathroom, a kitchen with gas and fridge, a bedroom, a living-room with satellite TV, what else could we ask for ? Ah yes, the price... not cheap, however far cheaper than a month rent in Hong Kong. We'll take it then, for one month. We wanna visit the region for a while, take some rides in the wild a bit, get off-road, try the Moroccan “pistes” we heard so much about, see how good the Transalp can handle it.
It's nice to settle in one's own place for a change. We totally unpack the bike, decorate our place a little with the sarongs we took along with us, making it feel home a bit.
The beach is five minutes away from our place. It's a huge one, it's got camels, horses and quads racing on it. The sea sees kite-surfers racing, above it mostly. It's a perfect place for this sort of sport because of the wind that blows almost non-stop from the ocean. It's not that we're freezing really but it isn't very hot frankly. We easily could do with a few additional degrees. There's tons of seagulls everywhere, the sound they make reminds me of Brittany... the temperature as well actually. There's a dove in our garden that could be singing from any French garden. If I smell pancakes I'm straight out of here to Mauritania !
Abby and I are watching the seagulls on the beach for a long time with the watch towers of the medina in our back. We walk around in the little streets, surrounded by, once again, the same display of Arabic touristic gear then go shopping at a nearby supermarket to fill up our empty fridge.
A quick look at the internet gives us an idea of what sort of pistes we can find in the region. But no map to check them with. We decide to ride South, towards Agadir. The wind is quite frightening, I have to slow down several times and hold the bike tight. After a dozen kilometers, we spot a road on our right that seem to head back to the coastline. Soon the tarmac disappears. The path is covered with rocks, pebbles and sand. After a few kilometers a crossroad gives a purpose in life to a road sign that points to a certain Zifouane beach on my right. Let's try that. The path gets worse. There's now holes among the rocks. In some parts the sand seem to have piled up to form quite a good layer. The Transalp couldn't care less. I try the third gear and give some gas, it doesn't care either. Good bike ! The landscape around us is amazing, we're surrounded by mounts and we can spot the sea shining in the sun in the background. We cross the path of a few camels, a few kids mounting donkeys and a flock of goats and sheep that seem on their own.
The road takes a nice long curve around a valley. Abby gets off and decides to film me riding it. While I'm gone, three vagabonding camels arrived by the road and seemed unhappy to see her standing there, They starred at her and yelled loud. Abby was glad to see me back, I think.
Soon later, the path took a distinct downward attitude and as we rode and slid the slope down, I spotted a little river at the bottom. Ah ! There we are, I thought, finally, time to get wet !
The way forward must have been in use at some time but it had become obviously too deep now and another path to the left, and then back around, seemed to be the new favorite in town. I try. The stream of water looked much more shallow and sure enough, the Transalp went through happily. Then it was all downwards. The ocean got closer and closer until we reached a deserted but huge beach laid at our feet, down the cliff. The immensity of the sand, plane and untouched since the last tide, seemed to be moving in the sun light as if sucked into the flood. A small boat coming from behind a cape touched ground and disembarked piles of cases of freshly assassinated fishes that were loaded on a donkey's back and carried up towards us. The dead silver bodies passed in front of us, aligned in their plastic coffins while we watched silently, holding our helmets in our hands.
On the way back, the Transalp showed signs of thrill, as we crossed the little “oued” again, by splashing Abby and me from head to toes. Or maybe I was speeding, I dunno but I ended up with my feet swimming in my shoes for the rest of the day. Next time I'll wear my boots.
Abby has now learned the skills of spaghetti cooking so our nutritional future in ensured. The wind still blows hard, it would be a signal 3 if we were in Hong Kong. I've got to find a garage and change the oil of the Transalp, last time was in Carcassonne. Apart from this terribly worrying task, well, we also plan to have siestas, naps, relaxation periods, slow cruising rides and as much of a good time as we can get. Life's hard.
Nish & Abby