An unexpected encounter
100km out of Chefchaouen and I’m happily trundling along on the bike, my thoughts intermittently interrupted by passing cars where the driver or passenger provides some form of encouragement; be it waving, cheering or enthusiastically beeping the horn. One Landrover overtakes, but pulls over just ahead of me and as I cycle past, I hear the driver shout out, ‘Helen!’.
What? Wasn’t expecting that.
I slam on the breaks, turn back to see who it is and am somewhat surprised to see Youssef’s brother, Reda, who I’d had dinner with the night before, leaning eagerly out of the window. I turn back and he asks if I want to join him and Liza, a Polish girl, and go to visit his relatives in El Hajeb.
I didn’t really want a lift – I thought it was a bit like cheating. But for me the trip is about the countries I travel through and the people I meet. The cycling is a means to enable this and to turn down an invitation for the sake of a few kilometres seemed absurd. So I slung the panniers in the back of the 4×4, strapped the bike to the roof and off we went….
Needless to say, Reda’s aunt and all her family were incredibly hospitable and after several days in El Hajeb, seeing the surrounding area and partaking in Ramadan festivities I headed to the coast. I needed to get a visa for Mauritania from Rabat. For this, I used Kenitra as a base, staying at Abdul’s (Reda’s cousin) apartment.
In all, I spent two weeks off the bike. In those two weeks I experienced a side of Morocco that the passing tourist rarely gets to know. I’ll say more about this in another update, when I can give the friends and families I’ve made the time they deserve.
Travelling in Ramadan has been great, but there are several disadvantages – one being that normal working hours (if you can call them that in Morocco) just don’t apply. And so, with a third trip to the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat, I finally came away with the visa I needed.
The art of procrastination
In England, I am very skilled in the art of procrastination; always finding things I don’t really need to do and doing them instead of doing things I really need to. Of course, anything that needs to be done, can always be done tomorrow and if it can wait until tomorrow, then why not the day after that. I’m well adjusted to working on Africa time. Take today for instance – a day off to write this update and buy some things in town: despite getting up at 6.30am, I’ve only just got to a cafe to write and it’s now gone lunchtime. First there was some washing to do, making tea, buying and eating breakfast; none of which can be done too quickly. Then cycling from Khalid’s place where I’ve been staying took a good deal of time – only three kilometres from the cafe, but first the tyres on his bike needed pumping up, then we stopped to talk to some friends, then looked for a repair shop to fix the loose chain, then stopped at another friend’s house to drop off some bags, a stop at a shop for food and drink and then finally to the cafe. Everything slowly slowly.
In Morocco however, I’m good at getting on with the things I need to do, they just take an awful lot longer than they should. The main reason for this is that, since my arrival here I’ve barely had a moment to myself – only when cycling, and not always then either, do I get time alone.
Moroccans by nature are very friendly and will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. My first three nights were spent in hotels, but since then I’ve been welcomed into people’s houses and invited to stay for as long as I want. Indeed, I’ve had to turn many people down and sometimes it has been difficult to leave. This probably explains why it has taken me twice as long as I expected to get here. I must have some willpower to continue though, because if not, I’d never have got this far!
The cycling continues
Having finally managed to leave Kenitra, the plan was to start cycling from Azrou, just a short distance from El Hajeb where I’d stayed at Reda’s aunt’s house on the edge of the Middle Atlas. However, by the time we finally left Kenitra having fixed one problem with the 4×4, stopped for lunch and then tried to get the windscreen wipers fixed (it had started raining, which made driving a little tricky) it was getting late. It is clear to me now that there is little point in making plans here – they will only change numerous times and what actually ends up happening usually bears little resemblance to the original idea. And so on this occasion, I ended up leaving from Mrirt and taking a different route altogether, through the heart of the Middle Atlas mountain range, along the back roads that either don’t feature on my GPS, map or both.
I cycled along increasingly small and bumpy dirt roads to the source of the Oum-er-Rbia river. It was a pleasant evening ride, or at least it was until it got dark and started to rain. I arrived at the source cold and bedraggled, but after a hot shower, hearty tajine and relaxing in the Berber-style hotel room I was soon back to normal. Shortly after I was fast asleep on a mattress of multi-coloured blankets as is typical here.
I had planned for an early start the next day and in true Berber fashion, I left after midday, having been to explore the source of the river, chat to the locals, eat breakfast and drink lots of tea. The tea here, is not like your good old English breakfast or even Earl Grey. Rather, it’s a green tea with an unhealthy quantity of sugar added for sweetness, which may partially explain the poor state of many Moroccan’s teeth! Sometimes there’s mint added too, but I prefer it just with the sugar.
I had hoped to cross the range and get back on to the main road in one day, having been informed the road across was about 30km from the lake Aguelmame Azigza which I arrived at after a couple of easy hours. This I realised was a gross underestimate when at the next junction there was a signpost telling me I had another 76km to go. There was no way I would be covering that in the remaining hours of light. Especially with the hills, state of the roads and lack of food I had on me.
I cycled until it was nearly dark where the road had turned into little more than a dirt track due to the rain and subsequent rockfall. I also passed by a small collection of houses where there was a little shop to buy biscuits and bread which solved the problem of food. I just then had to find somewhere to camp. I spotted one flattish area between the trees on the hillside, but thought I could get a bit further before dark, so I continued. I hadn’t counted on the road becoming rather steep and slowing progress to a crawl. Twenty minutes later, I could barely make out the surroundings and was wondering whether to turn back to the spot I’d found before when the hillside to my right flattened out into the perfect camping area. It also happened to be part of a smallholding where the Berber family were sat outside.
After extended greetings that are typical in Morocco and consist of welcoming and introductions in Arabic, Berber and French together with shaking of the hands which are then kissed and placed on the heart (all very touching and time-consuming!), I asked in my far-from-fluent French if they would mind me camping there for the night. It turned out they only spoke Berber and so after some animated hand-signals from me to assist my French and explain my dilemma, they insisted I stay in their house for the night.
I did feel more than a little guilty for intruding, but after sharing out the biscuits I had and sitting together drinking tea I felt more at ease. Their mud and stone house was simple but clean and certainly sufficient. Indeed, far more like a home than some you find back in England. We sat on the mats laid out on the floor with a small, low, round wooden table in the middle for the tea and food. The wood-burning stove in the centre of the room kept the place cosy and warm and in the corner was piled up blanket on top of brightly coloured blanket, presumably for use when the snow starts falling in a month or two. On three rickety wooden shelves, dented but shiny kettles and pots were neatly lined up together with glasses, plastic containers for food and a spice rack. Everything you need for a fully functioning kitchen.
Having washed outside while the mother laid out a space for me to sleep in the next room, we sat down together again for a simple meal of meat, probably goat, and bread. It tasted great to me though – I was ravenous by then!
It was an early night – electricity hasn’t reached these parts, so once it’s dark there’s only so much you can do by gas lamp. It was also an early start – when the two children were sent off with packed bags to school at 6.30am. I’ve no idea where the school was, but it can’t have been close. Fortunately they had a donkey for a taxi service. After breakfast of more tea, bread and home-churned butter I said my good-byes and left the mother to milk the cow and the father to pray.
I made one wrong turn first thing – navigating in these out-the-way places without a map is sometimes a little tricky. I knew I needed the ‘main’ road across the Atlas, but at times this was indistinguishable from the smaller dirt roads leading to clusters of houses. Usually there was someone nearby to ask directions, but it was still early and the only other life I came across was a group of barbary apes.
Once back on the ‘main’ road, it was several hours before I came across another vehicle although I did pass several shepherds and men on mules trundling along. My first encounter though was with a young man about my age who was walking with his dog. As I crawled slowly up the long switch-backed road, he took the more direct route straight up and our paths crossed on several occasions. It was only at the top of the hill that we stopped to make conversation, which quickly turned into him asking and then demanding fifty dirhams from me (which I really didn’t have on me). For a brief moment I thought I could have a problem on my hands – he was grabbing onto the handlebar and refusing to let go. So when my polite explanation that I had no money for him and then ruder response when he still wouldn’t let go failed, I slapped him on the arm. I didn’t slap him hard, but he was clearly shocked that a girl could possibly hit that he let go instantly, which gave me enough time to make a speedy getaway down the other side of the hill. If he’d tried at any other point on the way up, things may have been a little trickier for me.
Leaving the cedar tree covered hillside, the road opened out onto a grassy plateau being grazed by a lonely herd of goats. Once I’d crossed the green expanse, the road began winding downhill, with spectular views in the direction of the high atlas mountains, the highest peaks of which have already received their first light covering of snow. Towards the bottom of the hill, I came across the first car of the day and then soon after spotted electricity pylons, which had been absent for two days and even a couple of the mud houses had satellite dishes pointed skyward.
I arrived in Midelt about 4pm feeling rather tired, so decided to stop for tea to recuperate before cycling bit further to find somewhere to camp. At the cafe however, I got chatting to Lhoussain, who invited me to stay with his sister and her family in town. Once again, an offer hard to refuse. Although very tired that evening, I didn’t get to bed late, having been for a tour of the town, eaten another delicious tajine with the family and had my hands decorated with henna.
A long day and lots of apples
The following day I covered 140km to Er-Rachidia. This was my longest day in Morocco so far, but the main reason it took all day was that I stopped countless times to take photographs and chat to people I met along the way.
First there was the elderly Berber lady at the top of the 1907m pass, dressed in matching faded blue and white print skirt and blouse with off-white woollen under-trousers, worn out jacket and intricately detailed silver bracelet hanging loosely off here right wrist. I got the impression, that these clothes were once her smartest outfit and were no reduced to everyday wear to keep warm up in the mountains. We didn’t speak the same language, but we sat side by side happily eating a couple of the small orchard of apples I had been carrying in my pannier, having bought more fruit by the roadside earlier.
Then there was the bus-load of dutch tourists who had stopped to take photos in the Gorges de Aziz and couldn’t quite believe I might want to cycle through Africa.
Then there was Khalid who’s car had broken down but said he would be in Er-Rachidia later and I was welcome to stay with him. If I went to Cafe Islane when I arrived we’d probably meet.
Then there was a young boy who passed me in the opposite direction on a bike, quickly made a u-turn and pedalled after me – he just want ed to talk to me and practise his French as he wants to be a tour guide.
Then there was the middle-aged, moustached Moroccan whose van had broken down on the last hill before the lake. He transports fruit and vegetables between Midelt and Erfoud. He had even more apples in his van than I had in my pannier so we ate a couple of his apples and chatted a bit until I said I really had to be going if I was to reach Er-Rachidia before dark. With that, he gave me two more apples (as if I needed more!) for the road and off I went.
I cycled past the lake as the sun was setting and I pulled into the cafe as it was almost dark where I immediately bumped into Khalid. I’ve been staying with him and his friend Omar for two days. Unfortunately the first day I was ill, having drunk some dodgy water and spent most of the night stumbling in the dark to the toilet. Some ‘Berber medicine’, a herb called chihe, promptly made me throw up the remaining contents of my stomach and more or less cured me though.
So having fully recovered, my appetite well and truly restored, I’m ready to get on the road to Erfoud tomorrow.
Since writing this update I have been to the desert and can unequivocably say that the last sentence I wrote was an over-optimistic outlook rather than the reality…. more on that later though in my next update ‘Desert Runs’.