Sunday, January 28, 2007

Wild West Morocco

from John:

Bonjour! ça va?
Well, we finally managed to pull ourselves away from Marrakesh and took a Posh Bus to Tiznit (It is Tiznit, isn't it?), just south of Agadir. As usual, our journey lasted longer than we had been told and we arrived late and weary and turfed off the posh bus on the edge of town (we weren't posh enough). It was midnight and the streets were empty except for waifs and strays and a couple of anxious backpackers wondering if their hotel would be open. We reached it after a brisk march - but the hotel was dark and the the door shut. What to do? Gayle shrugged and gave the plate glass front door a heavy pounding - enough to wake the neighbourhood. Through the glass, at the top of some stairs, a man suddenly appeared and indicated to us to turn the door handle. The door had been unlocked and Gayle had given it the Policeman's Knock. We legged it up the stairs into a small hall surrounded by bedrooms and conducted the rigmarole of registering in sotto voce with Abdul, the nightwatchman. Poor fella was visibly shaken by our Sweeney-like entrance. Feeling like Dennis Waterman to Gayle's John Thaw, I dearly wanted to feel Abdul's collar and whisper into his shell-like: "You're nicked my son!"

Tiznit's the kind of place that gets four lines in the guidebook - nothing touristy, a small provincial capital, low-key no hassle, no-one interested in us really, which is a good counter- balance to Marrakesh. Noticeably fewer women out on the streets. We foraged for food: a yoghurt in a tiny 3-table shop - the yoghurt homemade natural slightly sweetened and served in a large glass with a teaspoon; pain au chocolat from a bakery - sometimes known as 'pain, où chocolat?'; café au lait for me and a thé à la menthe sans thé et sans sucre s'il vous plait for Gayle in a café. Breakfast like this usually lasts up untill lunchtime.

The medina (old town) was quiet and unhurried and we wandered aimlessly down the streets to the Grand Mosque and the Source Bleu which was the original spring for the town. The spring has dried up, and the concrete tank was a little more like a Source Bleah. Something drifted over towards us as we peered into the murky pool, but we could not make out whether it was animal, vegetable or mineral.

There's a sleepy little coastal village called Mirleft not far from here, so we decided to check out the Moroccan beach scene. Popular with camper vans and surfers, we had read. It is. Mirleft is a one-street town that looks like something from a spaghetti western - the street lined with an arched arcade down both sides, dust blowing back and forth from the smart hotel on one side and the scruffy cafés on the other. We stayed in the smart hotel and ate outside one of the scruffy cafés after promenading up and down the street three or four times. We had fish and chip butties and a mint tea for me and a mint tea without the tea and without the sugar for Gayle. Old men, young men, small boys and mangy dogs walked up and down. It wasn't the most exciting evening we'd had. Until there came a scrape of chairs and the yelp of a dog from behind us. All of a sudden everyone was on their feet and the whole street converged around our scruffy café. I noticed a drunken bearded man in a djellaba looking around, squinting, staggering slightly. Then Gayle pointed out a chubby well-dressed guy on the veranda of our café trying to look menacing and relaxed, slouching against a pillar but staring at something. Or was it someone? The drunk reappeared on the steps of our hotel opposite the café. He was trying to tuck his djellaba into his jeans, stare across the street and stand up all at the same time, and he was struggling. Although a crowd had gathered, there wasn't a sound. Gayle hissed in my ear " It's a showdown!!"
Who would draw first? The smooth man tried mean, then he tried a sarcastic smile, and then went back to mean. The drunk just fumbled with his djellaba as if he was looking for his door key. And that was all. Without a signal, everyone went back to what they were doing before, and the two principles disappeared. And that's all there is to tell about Mirleft.

Our next stop was Tafroute (rhymes with sprout), which is a little place in the anti Atlas famed for the crazy granite rock formations around the town. We stayed a while and took meandering hikes up the surrounding valleys and over ridges. The landscape is unsurprisingly dry and barren here, but some of the valleys have springs and palmeraies, so all you can see is brown and then an oasis of date palms. Villages are scattered far and wide and we wandered through them - some still with original mud and stone houses, but most replaced with concrete breeze block houses of varying stages of completion. Remarkably for such a desolate rural area, there were plenty of mansions dotted around - the result of money earned overseas or in the bigger Moroccan cities.

On our first day out we passed a bearded man walking into town and looking like he'd been walking for sometime. We met him the next day at our hotel - an American whose name Gayle couldn't remember, so we called him the Talented Mr. Ripley. A talkative man with a roguish curly moustache, he told us he had walked all the way from Agadir, with two other travellers with him on different stages. Where did he sleep? Well, high above the valleys, up on the rocks, away from the dogs. Where did he find water? Well, he asked at every village - you know that Muslims can never refuse anyone water, and he also collected water from wells. But how did he get water from the wells, we asked. ( We had seen them - all bottomless or bone dry - some 150 metres deep we'd been told.) Well, he happened to have a very long piece of nylon cord, of course. And so it went on - and he told us that he walked in many places like this - the Pacific Crest Trail Mexico to Canada. Oh, and he shouldn' t really be here as he should've married a girl he met in Guatemala, but "that's another story". How did he support himself? Well, he wrote a little, here and there, and painted a little. What did he write? Oh, children's poems, that kind of thing.........We talked a while and he seemed to be looking for partners for the next stage of his trek into the rocky desert. Gave me the spooks a bit - everything he told us could have been true, but at the same time I had a funny feeling that if we went with him we'd never be seen again, and he'd be practising my signature off my credit card in no time. Hence the name: the Talented Mr.Ripley.
We also met a very friendly Brazilian Japanese woman who had travelled to many places that we are heading. Within one hour of meeting us she had told us of the most wonderful place in China to visit, explained how to get a Pakistan visa for 1 pence, confided that she hadn't had a bowel movement since she'd arrived in Morocco a week previous, and invited us to stay at her place near Tokyo even though, and she pointed to her cell-like room, it was no bigger than this. Marvellous.
On another day's walk we also met two British couples who were campervanning (I'm not sure if this is a legitimate verb) around Morocco. They offered us a lift back to Tiznit for onward travel, which we accepted. They were a real hoot - persuaded to visit Morocco by others in Portugal who had promised them good driving roads and lots of other English campervanners. And what had they found? The roads were dreadful, the Moroccans awful drivers and French in every campsite! Did they speak French?? Why should they? English is the universal language. We took them to a campsite in Tiznit brimming with French campervans that looked semi-permanent - some had gardens. Awful, frightening and amazing. Crammed tight into what was nothing but a walled carpark. No, they weren't going to stay - they would head to Mirleft. We said nothing but farewell.............

In Taroudannt, our next stop, we did make a startling discovery. As we wandered the streets of the medina we came across a cheap hotel run by Zinedine Zidane no less. When we arrived he was just beginning to get the barbecue going at the front door and was preparing some shish kebabs of liver and heart. The hotel was a little like him - rather charming, but past it's best, but how could we not stay?? Unfortunately the smoke from the barbecue went right through the hotel - by the morning we smelt like a couple of kippers. Now, this might all sound a little far-fetched to you all back there in Blighty, so Gayle was going to take a snap of us together as proof. Unfortunately, I made a polite enquiry about his family and he didn't seem to take it too well. These football stars are so sensitive...........

And so onwards to Ouzarzate and the Todra Gorge, but that will have to keep........

Au revoir

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Concrete or Sprouts?

from John:

Well here we are in Marrakech, getting used to the smells and sounds of foreign lands, French keyboards, and super-hard beds. Our first days have been spent doing a little sight-seeing and planning our route for the first few weeks and generally lounging around. The weather is good - mild and cold at night but comfortable to walk around and it looks like it hasn't rained here since Noah dropped anchor.
We have found ourselves a room in a cheap hotel on "Cheap Hotel Alley". These places are nearly all the same - rooms around a tiled patio on three floors, with a roof terrace of cast iron garden chairs and tables and a cushioned bank of seats along one wall. It is to here that we retire as soon as the hustle and bustle of the streets and souks gets too much - which is around 2.30pm. There's the usual mix of residents including stoned bearded men chunnering in French. From up here we can easily see the Koutoubia - the tallest minaret in the city and in which there is the loudest sound system of all the minarets. At the call to prayer the muezzin always makes a hesitant cough and a "un,deux.....un,deux" before launching into full call, out-blasting the other calls around the city. From up here we can also hear the snake charmer's pipe from the Djemma el-Fna, the big plaza which becomes a hive of activity at night time, with food stalls and plenty of people who gather for the entertainment: storytellers, witchdoctors, fortune tellers, jugglers, bands with transvestite dancers in full burqa doing a very modest belly-dance. It's winter - everyone promenades in thick coats and fills up on a hot spicy toddy or the ubiquitous mint tea. Trays of glasses queue up stuffed with fresh mint and crowned with an enormous block of sugar waiting for the tea to boil. We have passed on the sheep's head foodstall and settled for sausages and greasy pancakes. We watch somebody trying to putt a golfball on a tiny green - the kind an executive has in his office, or the saps who pay to lassoo coke bottles with a rubber ring tied to fishing rod - all the fun of the fair. Then there's a short walk to our favourite yoghurt parlour for a glass of sweetened natural yoghurt and maybe a vanilla slice............
The souks are the place to shop - but we have not spent long here. There are countless stalls selling the same things - lanterns, spices, leather sandals, jewellery, and shawls. Fortunately, Gayle already has a full rucksack.........

Pillow talk: "What's your's like?" "A sack of sprouts. How about yours?" "Concrete" "Do you want to swap?"

We are heading south on Monday towards the coast to Tiznit, Tafroute and Tarrandant (sound like a bunch of solicitors), before bumbling along beneath the High Atlas and returning to Marrakesh and then ambling northwards. We've scheduled our crossing from Tangiers to Spain for the 20th Feb, and then from Barcelona to Genoa on around the -6th March .

A bientot