The Road Issue 10 - May - June 2007
Ian Mutch The Road editor escapes the desert and dashes up the coast for home
By late afternoon I cruised into the outskirts of Marrakesh and headed for Essaouira, the fabled coastal town that the Brigadier had raved about, a place with good karma in spadefulls sufficient to attract Cat Stevens, who has a base there.
I didn't see enough of Marrakesh to make a proper judgement but the neighbourhood outside the medina was a pretty grim grimy mess of oily streets cluttered with mopeds, bicycles and donkeys around which I steered an uncertain chicane in my effort to find a sign for Essaouira. There was no way I was going to get frisky on this road that looked like it had been painted with diesel oil in a malicious effort to unseat me and I crawled along with supreme caution.
The road narrowed as I got further from Marrakesh, a fact that did nothing to deter oncoming vehicles from reckless overtaking that depended on me surrendering most of my lane to them. I accepted this as par for the course for the most part until one particularly aggressive driver raised my blood temperature and evoked an angry gesture from me at which point I noticed it was an ambulance. Clearly drumming up trade I concluded.
I slowed as the sun sank and a dog wandered across the narrow road on which I now found myself, then a flock of sheep. I was now doing what I'd been warned not to do in Africa, night riding. I was counting down the miles now, willing Essaouira closer as I strained my eyes against the night and counted the mileage on the odometer, grateful for the straightness of the road and the huge soft-tuned engine thundering gently, dependably beneath me.
At first site the town seemed unexceptional. A clean modern sea front sporting hotels and apartments, little of the ethnic charm I was anticipating. I headed along the waterfront to a fishing harbour close to an old stone wall which I sensed enclosed the ancient town wherein lay the real attraction of the place. Passing here with the engine still running I was approached by the inevitable tout.
"You want hotel?"
"You have apartment on beach only 200 Dirhams, garage for moto."
This sounded pretty good and I fell in behind a squat middle-aged man on a moped who appeared magically from the shadows and sped off unencumbered by lights, waving at me to follow him.
The Harley's engine barely turned over as I followed the tiny banshee of rust howling its heart out in front of me as we followed the sea wall for a half mile before turning off up a side road into a street of rubble. "What the hell" I thought "we'll just go with it, it'll probably be OK."
Dismounting outside a four storey terraced apartment, my guide opened a narrow door and showed me into a large tiled living room beyond which lay a modestly appointed kitchen and two bedrooms. It wasn't inviting but it would do for a night. I nodded and paid the 300 Dirham price that had rapidly evolved from the quote I'd obviously misheard ten minutes earlier. The garage door was now opened to reveal a small problem. Access to the garage was hampered by a steep concrete sill about eight inches high. I tried riding in but the Harley's frame grounded defiantly, this was a 'no way Jose' situation but my host grabbed a hammer and began smiting the cement that challenged his livilihood with a crazed resolve that was terrible to behold. The poor fellow was obviously in a panic at the thought of losing a tenant and would rather have rebuilt his garage than missed out on the money.
"Hang on, hang on" I protested, guilty at the sight of such sad desperation. A collection of building materials in the garage offered a solution and with a plank and some pieces of marble to support the underside of it, I breached the sill and rolled happily inside to the immense relief of the owner who saw his prize captured.
With my gear installed and the door locked behind me it was time to go out on the town, a mission assisted by my new friend who invited me to board his moped. It seemed for a moment that the tiny bike would break or fail to move under the combined weight of the two of us. Dreadful, rusty sounds of metal-shearing protest punctured the night air as we crackled off toward the sea front, my legs flailing in the air as the suspension bottomed out on the pot-holed track and the flimsy rack buckled beneath me. Half a mile of this eccentric transport was enough for me and I dismounted within site of the medina walls to find a restaurant that could fill my empty stomach.
It had been another spartan day of fasting since my late breakfast and a long day's ride that had bought me triumphantly to the Atlantic coast. Home always seems closer when the ocean is in sight, possibly a feature of being an ex seafarer for whom water is a highway to home. It felt very good to be here, very good. Desperate for food, I entered an empty cafe with all the sterile appeal of a station buffet at midnight. Rows of oblong formica tables inhabited an antiseptically tiled floor about
which a waiter in a waistcoat and white shirt strolled with the indifferent demeanour of one whose income enjoys no more than a tenuous link to his performance. I looked at the uninspiring menu, sat down, stood up, thanked the staff, and walked out.
"There had to be something better than this", I thought, and there was. The Medina was only a few minutes walk and once inside its ancient walls the world changed graphically. This was Alice in Wonderland different, Dr Who quantum leap different. Narrow streets devoid of traffic, al fresco restaurants shaded by knarled trees, arty vendors by the drove, artists studios, paintings in windows, sculptures, wood carvings, spices, beaten brass vessels and hookah pipes. Fantastic! This was what Essaouira was all about, Morocco with a vengeance but without the hassle. The lack of pressure from the traders was almost eerie, had I become invisible? I felt instinctively comfortable and volunteered a coin into the lined hand of a beggar woman crouching in a doorway wrapped in shawls.
"Shukraan" she mumbled gratefully. I understood that, Shukraan, thank you, the word I had been trying to remember when the population of Chefchaouen helped me right my motorcycle just three days ago, three days, only three days, it felt like weeks.
I took a seat beneath the spreading branches of a plane tree where I ordered mutton cous cous and orange juice. A strange gaunt looking woman of middle years approached, stared at me intently and sat down at an adjacent table where she was joined by a female companion with whom she exchanged not a single word. Each lit cigarette after cigarette, blowing the fumes vertically upwards from pouting fish-gulping lips with a deliberation that persuaded me they were a brace of mutes communicating by smoke signals.
Wandering back along the seafront I found the youth of the town promenading with good humoured high spirits. How different it was to an English town at night where groups of youths instinctively arouse anxiety by their inebriated posturing. Nothing in the demeanour of these young people telegraphed the slightest menace and this in an Islamic culture which supposedly hates and despises us Westerners. We could learn a lot from them. Maybe democracy's not all it's cracked up to be. The trouble with democracy is that it delivers what people want or at least what most people want which is a bit of a problem when most people are oafs. The Islamic theocracies on the other hand endeavour to deliver what they think God wants of us. Comparing the poor but happy youth of Essaouira with the drunken riff raf populating English town centres at night I can't help feeling that maybe God knows a thing or two.
Four in the morning found me grappling for a mobile phone that had disobeyed my efforts to programme it for eight and was cheerfully arousing me to the sounds of Button Moon, the ring tone having been selected by the son of an old friend whose mother was the bride at the wedding I'd attended in Gibraltar a week earlier, back in that other world beyond the looking glass which is the Straits of Gibraltar.
I rode down to the Medina, parking up in a dedicated bike bay next to a manned cubicle where I guessed it would be safe. Ten Dirhams was the charge for the parking service which I parted with cheerfully, entrusting my laptop to the vendors who I imagined would discourage any interference. I had by this stage made a security deposit of CDs filled with images back at the Bikers Home of Ouarzarzate so that back up of the best pictures was assured in the event of theft. I didn't worry much, I had a good feeling about this place and my confidence in the good nature of these people had grown with the passage of time. I was in no rush to leave a place I'd anticipated as some kind of spiritual target for my trip and wandered down to the fishing harbour where blue-painted open boats rattled gently together under the bright morning sunshine. It was the same startling blue of the medina buildings in Chefchaouen, transmitting the same cool crisp karma that resonates with an appetite for clean simplicity, like images in a children's picture book. Postman pat with sardines.
The Medina was every bit as good as I'd remembered it from the previous evening only now more stalls were open. I took in the fish market, recognising the slender Ga fish from Whitechapel market. Thin cats lurked, sea birds circled, fishmongers sharpened knives, who'd be a fish? I entered a courtyard of traders, tapering cones of spices defying wind, gravity and clumsy tourists, walls of ceramics, jars of potions, blocks of exquisite smelling resins dusted with powder like marshmallows.
"I'll take this one, no no it's enough I am travelling by motorcycle, I have little space." I picked a block the size of big india rubber, I'll keep it in a draw and take it out to sniff so I can remember Essouaria, I decided, and I do.
An old man with a bag of pipes, simple bamboo tubes with a piece of horn on the end. "I can just about fit one in my bags, it's very cheap. He shows me the mouth end where a small reed flap has been cut from the tube of bamboo, it must go right inside the mouth, he demonstrates, wonderful haunting notes, fantastic, you
can practically feel the serpents uncoiling from baskets. Stop the music I'm getting nervous. It's time for lunch, can I possibly get sardines, that is the question?
The square is wonderful, warm but not hot, great to sit down and watch the world, great to be able to travel, great to be alive. It's too early for sardines, the boats haven't been unloaded yet, shame. I'm a little disappointed but there is something good about this non availability, there's discipline to it. It's like fruit in season, it's the old pre supermarket, pre digital, roast on Sunday world. The old cherries in spring, chestnuts in fall world where seasons kept order and Christmas was special. The joy of disappointment the pain of waiting, the excitement of a treat, how we've lost these things in the Sky TV 100 channel instant recall world of fingertip command that is Western culture. "I'm sorry the boats haven't been unloaded yet." Great, fantastic, good, OK I'll have an omelette.
Across the square a young man in a wheelchair took up station, helped by the waiter who unfolded a flap across his lap, setting up a box and some cards on it and popping a brush into the cripple's mouth. The waiter exchanged a few words and returned to the restaurant. Soon an omelette appeared in front of me, a Moroccan omelette flecked with capsicum and fenced by crusty chunks of baguette. Wonderful, simple wonderful life. Ten paces from me the cripple was laughing, a man leaning on his chair back talking to him close up. He picked up a card, put some coins in the box and moved off, the cripple carried on painting with the brush in his mouth. At the next table some English girls were making plans in their rosey fun gap-year world of youth and light and future. Crisp affluent enunciation, pretty, smooth tanned limbs, head-tossing laughter. I looked at them and thought the world could be better, it could always be better, I always want more, but then again I could have less, I could have a lot less. Bill paid, I strolled over to the cripple and bought two cards, holding a note toward him, his head was shaking sideways, the brush painting the air in front of his face, his mouth making a word.
"Eh?" Box, the box, of course the box, put the money in the box, his hands didn't work, oh blimey, idiot me. His eyes grinned at me and I wandered off, balancing emotions. Self righteousness, gratitude, humility, how did I feel, how should I feel? I pushed the cards into my back pocket as a voice appeared at my elbow.
"You want hash?"
"What's that? hash, no thanks, twenty years too late." He grinned at me, and I ambled on to where a Harley-Davidson sat, leaning on its side-stand, chrome shiny beneath the desert dust. Snake pipe thrust into a pannier, key in the ignition, hit the starter, rumble rumble, goggles down, gear in, clutch out. Eyes from the kiosk watching me. Life could be worse, yep, it wasn't perfect, maybe, maybe the young English girl with the tanned limbs hmmm maybe but remember Desirate, be happy with what you have, life wasn't too bad, it wasn't too bad at all.
Heads turned, eyes followed me as I growled up the seafront, sleeves fluttering in the wind. Out of town heading north at last, heading for home and feeling good, life wasn't too bad.
On the coast now with the sea on my left and an on-shore salty breeze over the cliff tops. These were seriously high cliffs, maybe hundreds of feet high dropping vertically to the foaming Atlantic, nothing West of here but water all the way to America. What might be in line with us, New York, Long Island, no we're further South than that, North Carolina, South Carolina?
"Hey what are you's all doing over there with yarr backs to the sea?"
Eh? Good question, what were they up to? At the side of the road, 20 yards from the cliff edge, men sat facing inland, long rods tapering into invisibility in the air and somehow anchored to the ground at their feet, their backs to the sea, dark faces under hats, these fishermen; were fishing.
My map had been marked with some pencilled advice by the Brigadier, 'good road' was the advice here and so it was in a manner of speaking, good view, easy riding, not much traffic but then whaaaat!
I was doing about fifty when I hit the brakes. I guess I'd been looking out to sea my eye was off the ball, certainly I hadn't noticed that the road up ahead had been used for military target practise. There had been no signs, not a clue. Like Donovan sang. 'First there is a good road then there is a bad one yes there bloody well is!' That was how it went wasn't it? This was seriously bad, holes over six inches deep and yards across. I was probably still doing 30mph, the lumpy bits were upon me, time to let go the brakes and face the consequences. "This is where we come off, this will hurt, ooooh" Bang! crash, suspension bottoming out oomph, lurch, bang again, blimey, don't brake now, wobble swerve, cor blimey! loads of dust and . . . stone me I'm still upright! Well call me theatrical but this was a close one. "It'll look like nothing in a picture" I thought, like eagles turned to sparrows by distance and a short lens. I pulled a litre bottle of water off the bike and dropped it into a hole for perspective. A car approached and I flagged him down, warning him but he was wise to the hazard, slowing to a crawl and driving off on to dust at the road side. A friendly grin and on he went, so did I.
I headed for El Jadida and found a hotel with a good room overlooking the pool, luxury. I empty my panniers and take out a shirt from which a familiar face emerges. A face with antennae sprouting inquisitively from its edges. My friend the cockroach from my room in Essaouira, fancy seeing you again.
The dining room was vast, a couple sat at one table, a solitary man at another, me at a third. I ordered fish with a Moroccan salad, lettuce, beetroot, tomato and shredded carrot. The first beer came up flat. Beer, and I was complaining, the first drink all week but it was absolutely flat, flatter than the fish. The waiter changed it for another, pouring it before my face, both of us watching as the fluid settled in the glass, still as a mill pond, I don't believe it! another bottle, flat as a pancake, one more please and it's third time lucky. A guitarist appeared as I ate, beating out some Western rock classics. I clapped, my solitary applause echoing hollow around the walls of the big room, all diners but me gone
now. The guitarist grinned, cleared his throat and launched into a moody ballad. A couple of shorts on a sofa in the bar and time for bed. The guitarist was playing for me, no-one else around, the contract hung unspoken in the air, you play 'til the last guest leaves. Back in my room I spend twenty minutes fiddling with an incomprehensible TV remote, before giving up and hitting the sack.
Casablanca, a big city, prosperous suburbs, big houses, modern buildings in the centre, loads of traffic but nothing an ex London courier can't cope with. A car toots at me then another, a woman in a four wheel drive leans out of the passenger window and points at the back of the bike. Bloody hell there's a bungee hanging down, dancing about within inches of the back wheel spokes, oops, thanks lady, good hoot. The traffic is competitive and I nearly got swiped setting off on green as a car flies through against a red, blimey! just missed, could have been grim, never mind, a miss is as good as a mile. Another guy hoots, what now? He points and points again, stabbing the air with a forefinger. "Zip", I hear the word 'zip' . I stop and check all pockets as a cop comes over and explains that a rear pocket of my strides is unbuttoned. The pocket only holds my mobile manual, but it's visible, good of them to be so concerned, good people.
Motorway at last and I'm in another world of smooth surfaces and 70mph speeds, wow, now we're moving, now we're going places. I feel good, I've done the Sahara, I'm on my way home, one more night in Morocco and I'm on the ferry back to Europe.
I order a Cappucino and a pastry, plant myself at a corner table and watch the world as three motorcycles pull in to tank up. English plates, three youngish guys, one small girl, rather cute. I nod at them, have a chat, take a picture, the only British bikers I'd met. Gary on a Fazar 1000, Max on a GS BMW and Jeff on a Honda Firestorm and Cheryl, Gary's girlfriend. They'd been down to Agadir staying with a friend they'd met in England.
"You look like you've done a lot of this" says Gary.
"A fair bit" I answer, feeling weathered, a little knarled, a little Anthony Quin.
Back on the motorway it occurred to me that I had done no helmet-less riding. I'd hardly thought about it such was my preoccupation with the trip though the Brigadier had told me that there was no law here. It wasn't what my guide in Tetouan had told me though. As I rode into Asilah I spotted a cop on a roundabout and made a point of taking off my helmet a little way down the road and making a circuit of the roundabout bareheaded - no reaction. Riding around in the town however, a local gestured to my head, "casque" he said "le casque obligitoire." Bugger.
A young chap on a bicycle offered to show me accommodation. "Good and cheap inside medina, right by sea, come look I show you."
Asilah is as close as a town can get to the sea, the medina being built right out to the rocks on which the Atlantic swell was exhausting itself in plumes of rose tinted spray. Horizontal shafts of orange light illuminated the damp clouds, a dry ice show a la maritime Afrique. Tourists and locals gathered on a stone wall to salute the passing day, courting couples framed in the ruddy glow, sundown silhouettes holding hands and gazing West as a red orb flattened on the horizon of the great pond, sucking it from sight. Going going gone! Still the couples sat, cinema lovers reading credits, hanging on to the magic, keep the spell alive, don't let go of your dreams. I turned to leave, catching a last image in departure, an iron gate set into a wall the view through it to the watery mist above the waves, froth on a blue cappucino.
Slowly I joined the exodus wandering back into the medina, night was falling, food was calling and I had an appointment with the best restaurant in town. A piscine tagine arrived with beetroot salad and cat entourage. Cats to the left of me cats to the right, cats beneath the table cats beneath my chair, cat ON the table, studying the fish, glancing at me and then - hunger over caution, a lunge, a snap of the jaws and the fish is going backward across the tablecloth.
"Oi!" too much already. Fish back on the plate, cat looking astonished. Small children buzzing round my ankles, hide and seek behind table cloths, shrieks of laughter, past bed time laughter, too much worrying round my table, dodging ducking diving, too much, too much, who'd be a teacher? Get these muts away from me.
The zip on one of my panniers has broken, too much forcing ever more stuff into it, the downside of soft luggage. A marmite jar is never empty, a soft pannier is never full. One more snake charming pipe, one more crystal, just one Tagine cook book and then this lumpy camera, zipppp damn! The teeth open like a grinning shark behind the tab, enough already. I clip the leather stud flap over and hope for the best.
Finally I dropped down to the coast and soon I'm on the ferry back to Europe just an hour away. Back through the looking glass, out of Africa.
A young attractive western couple in white turbans sit smiling serenely on a sofa, extras from the movie I had just left. The next time it's showing I shall buy another ticket.