Saturday, 25 October 2008

9: Lazy days in Tata

Since the last entry in Agdz I rode across to Tata, via Foum Zguid, an exquisite journey through a stark and desolate landscape. In the 270 km between Agdz and Tata I can almost count on two hands the number of settlements that I passed. Since I have yet to erect my tent in Morocco and have become accustomed to staying in affordable hotels, I tend to try and make a town each evening and find a place to sleep there. So after a long day down to Foum Zguid I ended up in Hotel Bani. The lobby of the hotel appeared to double as a motorcycle repair shop and after checking on a couple of the rooms I settled on one just off the repair shop floor, where I could wheel my bike into without unloading it. After throwing the remnants of a now petrified loaf of bread into a bin in the repair shop I dusted down the rickety metal table and plastic chair. A closer inspection of the bedcovers led me to suspect that it was not common practice to change the covers between the departure and arrival of occupants so I decided it would be prudent to camp on the bare concrete floor with my new and untried air mattress that I had bought in Spain. After a hearty dinner of yet another tagine and yet more bread in a nearby cafe, I retired to my concrete floor, tired from the day's exertions and eager to get an early start on the road to Tata the following morning. I had a restless night on the floor, however, and despite the comfort of my mattress, I found myself waking up in pools of sweat and wringing my new travel pillow dry.

I had been having some kind of pleasurable dream when I came to in the darkness of the cell. I checked my recently purchased, made-very-definitely-in-China alarm clock and saw that it was just after 5am. I wasn't sure why I'd woken up, and then it started again. A loudspeaker on a pole outside my room was piping in the Koranic verses that were being chanted by a sombre sounding gentleman in the nearby mosque. I pulled up the hood of my sleeping bag over my head and faded in and out of consciousness whilst the chanting continued for a further hour. Moments after the chanting stopped, the shrill alarm of my new clock told me that it was time to knock back more vanilla-flavoured yoghurts, and a loaf stuffed with banana and peanut butter and get back on the bike.

Early morning and late afternoon is my favourite time for being on the bike. Not only is the temperature generally more agreeable, but the long shadows cast by the light give the landscape more depth and contrast than the blinding light of the midday hours. Riding east towards Tata, there was a pleasant chill in the air and an even more welcome tailwind that carried me along the first straight 40 km very enjoyably. Such was the tailwind that I had begun to plot the day ahead and review my estimated time of arrival in Tata. Then, mysteriously the road seemed to get stickier and the bike heavier and I realised that I had passed an invisible line and that I now had a stiff headwind to contend with for the remaining 100 km to Tata. In Tissint, I found the only cafe of the trip and ordered my mid-morning staple of an omlette, bread and a coke, instead of the regular mint tea. Deciding on food and drink is really just a question of deciding how you like your sugar.

The dust clouds blown up by gusts of wind forced me to take shelter inside the cafe and I sat content to be out of the sun whilst groups of school boys studiously examined every detail of my bicycle, the younger ones being particularly impressed with Tiger. After ordering the food the owner-chef-waiter of the cafe set about visiting the various stalls in the vicinity, gathering up supplies to put the meal together. After a long spell in the latrine he emerged and with a worringly short and soapless rinse of his hands under a tap in the corner of the room, he set about preparing the food. Having just recovered from a week's worth of olympic sprints to the nearest toilet, hole or bush, I was sensitive on this particular issue, but I enjoyed my omlette and wonderfully fresh, still warm bread and headed back into the white light. A jolly police officer waved me through the checkpoint in the middle of town.

The ride to Tata continued into ever strengthening headwind. Despite the road's orientation varying from southeast to northeast and back to east, the wind appeared to be a constant headwind. Gusts of fine sand easily passed my wraparound sunglasses and stripped another layer of skin off my lips. I deemed the occasion a suitable time for my recently acquired headscarf and I have found the long strip of blue cloth to work admirably well at keeping me cool and covered up from the elements. In addition, and this idea is still in experimentation phase, but I believe wee terrorists are less inclined to pester me when I have my head covered. The combination of cycling gear and head-dress also provides endless delight and photo opportunities for the now dwindling number of tourists passing by.

With 20 km to go to Tata I had to stop by the roadside and dig into the remaining reserves of chocolate, water, and bread to stave off the shaky leg syndrome that I could feel coming on. Moments later, out of the apparent uninhabited wilderness, a fellow and his five donkeys were making a beeline for me. "Unbloody believeable", I groaned outloud. Expecting a demand of some sort I braced myself for the encounter. Rashid introduced himself, however, with a shake of my hand followed by the typical touch of your heart and outlined the journey he was making on foot from Rich to Assa. If you plot this on a map of Morocco this is approximately 1000 km of foot plodding. An incredible journey, which despite my non-existent Arabic and his virtually non-existent French, I determined would take him approximately five to six weeks at the pace he was currently traveling at. I handed him a half litre of water and the remaining half loaf of bread, which he ate hungrily, before thanking me and heading on his way. I headed on towards Tata, with renewed enthusiasm at the prospect of a shower, another tagine, and thankful that I had Rocinante rather than five donkeys to travel with.

According to wikipedia, Tata has a population of 40,000 people. I would have thought more like 400, but regardless of the population, Tata is proving to be a pleasant break from the road. I have found peanut butter that is sold in 2 litre paint tins, very useful for the weight-conscious cyclist. I've been invited to a splendid collective meal of camel tagine, which I had initially taken for mutton, accompanied with fresh, creamy goats milk, and I've drunk mint tea by the pint, whilst watching the world go by. There is even reasonably priced beer available, but the bar isn't all that inspiring, and like the couple of others I've poked my head into in Morocco, feels to me like a dirty, little secret, hidden as always behind covered windows and occupied by those whose main intent appears unfortunately to be reaching the bottom of the next bottle.

Anyhow, having settled into the joys of cycling through Morocco, life, and camel steak, tastes good.

Tata, Morocco
Trip distance: 5790 km

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

8: "Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel"

A modern day tourist caravan winds its way through the dunes at Erg Chebbi

I thought I might expand on last week's rather pessimistic entry and elaborate further on my thoughts about children and cycling in Morocco. A question that I always find interesting is how is it that two people can visit the same place and then come away with vastly different experiences? While the postive or negative events that the traveler experiences in these places undoubtedly are vital in their perception of the place, I think how the traveler feels internally and how they view their experiences that shapes so much of their accounts.

I've had plenty of time in the saddle over the past few days to ruminate further on why children here see a cycling European as a likely source of sweets, pencils and dirhams. I've also met several cyclists at this stage and one of the first topics of conversation was the children we've encountered. Like a scene from a Mad Max film, I've been cycling across an apparently barren, rocky plain, when suddenly I see a group of children who had been playing contentedly, or keeping on eye on a herd of goats, jump up and run at a angle that is timed to intercept me further along the road. Yells for water, sweets, and more rarely my bicycle, fill the air, as the children perform admirably well at bearing down on me. And let's be clear, we're not just talking about the poor kids here, but also children who are obviously well-dressed and playing in front of houses that are adorned with all the accoutrements of a wealthier household.

The key factor here is that the children never appear to approach Moroccans, no doubt fearing the rebuke that they would receive. So somewhere along the line the children have learned that by pleading to a nisrani they will potentially receive something in return. Four years ago, when my cousin Mark and myself were touring here, we came upon a caravan of Spanish four-wheel drives that were tossing sweets out to children waiting along the roadside of a popular off-road tourist track in the High Atlas. There was no human contact here, instead it was like feeding time at the zoo. A few days ago, I heard a story from someone living in Merzouga about a group of holidaying Europeans who had loaded their vehicles up with clothes and other items and then pulled up in a village near Merzouga, handed the items over to the presumably surprised villagers and driven off. No need was identified. No one consulted. Such indiscriminate giving may momentarily salve the conscience of a visiting European, but it reinforces a stereotype that foreign tourists will just give things if you demand it from them. The dangers are obvious. Children run out, not just in front of bicycles, but also cars, 4x4's, and motorbikes. They may also avoid going to school and wait for passing tourists at the roadside instead.

European perceptions of poverty are not always accurate either and judging the wealth of a household is not always as easy as one might suspect. The other day another traveler related a story of how he was invited into an old man's house in a small village for tea. The front of the house looked tatty and afterwards the traveler offered to pay for the tea. At that point the old man smiled and in his unkempt djellaba, led the traveler over to his garage. Behind the rickety wooden door were the possesions bought with remittances sent home from a son in Europe - a recent model Mercedes and a new motorbike.

While children may just be having fun and seeking something sweet for their teeth, it's also important to recognise that begging replaces what a social welfare system might offer people in other countries. This is particularly important in Muslim societies, where a strong emphasis is placed on acts of charity to those less fortunate. One of my favourite stories is recounted by my friend Charlie about an epsiode from his first travels to Morocco, some years ago now. Charlie was sitting at the front of the fully occupied bus, waiting for it to depart, when an old man clambered up the steps and put out his hands for money. Not wishing to be perceived as the hapless, gullible traveler, Charlie resolutely refused to hand over any of his money. Unperturbed the man moved on down the bus, requesting money from the other passengers. Nearly everyone on the bus gave something to the old man.

Alright, well that's enough on this particular subject for now. As I fear I may have created a bad impression with all this talk of begging and children descending on me, it's also vital to note the huge generousity that I've experienced whilst traveling in Morocco. On previous trips I've landed up at the doors of people close to sunset and been given a bed and dinner with no hesitation. Everywhere I pass through people shout greetings and give good wishes. Tourists in their rental cars and four-wheel drives often wave as they pass by. The other morning I was interviewed and filmed briefly by a Hungarian documentary crew that I had met at a cafe in the middle of the rocky wilderness between Merzouga and the Draa valley. Funny stuff.

Coming up along the River Draa to Agdz, where I'm writing this entry, I realised just how extensive some of the damage from the recent flooding has been in this part of the country. Many roads are only partially cleared of the debris from landslides and from the flash flooding that occured. The size of rocks that could be moved by flowing water alone was truly impressive, not to mention devastating for walls and irrigation works that were in their path. Arriving in Agdz last night, I had to follow a five kilometer detour, along a newly graded piste, as a section of the main bridge into town had been washed away. It seems like a fantastic injustice to live in a land normally so deprived of rain, only to receive too much, too quickly, and have to start cultivating and building all over again.

Agdz, Morocco
Trip distance: 5514 km

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

7: Rainy days on the edge of the desert

Heavy flooding on the way south

Crossing over to Tangiers, I cleared the remarkably hassle-free passport control and customs and headed down the Atlantic coast to Rabat, a two and a half day journey along a surprisingly barren stretch of coastline. After collecting my Mauritanian visa in Rabat and enjoying a couple of evenings in the city with a group of people met through couchsurfing, I continued inland via Meknes towards the Middle Atlas mountain range. My intention had been to cross over some of the high mountain passes that lead into the Todra and Dades gorges but early rain and snowfalls haven't cooperated with my plans and instead I found that just riding along the sealed roads was a challenging enough. Even some of the main sealed roads have been cut here in the south and I'm trying to find out which route I can take back towards the Atlantic now, as I met Gerhard, a German cyclist yesterday, who had found himself cut off and roads closed with the runoff from the sodden mountains reaching into the normally dry desert region around Rissani and Merzouga.

Earlier today I was a couple of mouse clicks away from booking a flight back to Dublin. Adjusting to riding alone in Morocco has been harder than I would have imagined. The transition from an 'invisible' cyclist in the ride down through Europe, to being a very obvious outsider hasn't been a smooth one and I have found the demands of many people, particularly those under ten years of age, for sweets, money, my bicycle, and sunglasses quite a strain. Of course, it's not the first time I've been in such situations, but you are an easy target on a bicycle. While other tourists prefer air-conditioned buses, four-wheel drive vehicles, or fast motorbikes, and can therefore be more selective in what and who they choose to interact with, the cyclist has no such luxury. And, of course, this is the beauty of cycling too, that you have this proximity, that you break down barriers and are able to engage with people more readily. So I'm taking a day off to read up on how the global economy is descending into freefall and to sit back and take in a place for a day or two before packing my bags and riding on.

I've posted some photos too, just click on the link to the slideshow. I realise they are mostly of landscape rather than people. I'll try and work on that.

P.S. The above was written on a grim day in the desert. I just bought a headscarf from a group of guys that I've been hanging out with here in Erfoud for the past couple of days and they have convinced me that rather than cooking my head it will keep me cool. Inshallah. All is rosy once again.


Erfoud, Morocco

Trip distance: 5143 km

Saturday, 4 October 2008

6: On the banks of Fortress Europe

Looking across the Strait of Gibraltar towards Morocco

"You're looking a bit thin", my mother announced with slight disapproval, several sentences into our first conversation in several weeks last night. There was a short pause, followed by, "So you're going to Africa then?"

Despite several enriching visits to various regions of the continent over the past four decades, her voice retains the fears of a generation that has been bombarded by a consistently negative image of the African continent. The very name inspiring images of excrutiating poverty, 'tribal' violence, and life-threatening diseases. While in some parts such factors do have a devastating impact on many people's lives, rarely are the deeper historical root causes of these factors analysed sufficiently well, or presented clearly by the Western media. Furthermore, rare is the positive image of Africa that is presented to us. Debates about whether external factors (the legacy of colonialism, for example, or the role of Western-biased trade agreements) or internal factors (in the form of corruption, or bad governance, for example) have more influence over the other in shaping the continent's contining social, political, and economic woes remain controversial. However, behind these larger issues is a continent, countries, and peoples that, just like any other, are living their lives. As a traveler, I often think, you are arguably less susceptible to problems in many parts of Africa than in many parts of western Europe or north America, particularly when traveling in rural areas. At this point in any discussion I usually throw in my story about the three cameras that were taken whilst I and a couple of friends were swimming along the Wild Coast in South Africa a couple of years ago, only to be returned several days later after the intervention of the community leaders and the local traditional healer. I try to imagine how the same situation would play out in other settings and I doubt I'd still be taking pictures with the camera.

My cousin Mark joined me from Colorado for the last two weeks of the European leg, from Lisbon over to southern Spain. We crossed the arid landscapes of southern Portugal and Andalucia, stopping off at a number of cities enroute, including Sevilla and Cadiz, catching a famous biennial flamenco festival in the former. A number of factors led to a decision to change my crossing point from Malaga to Tarifa, where rather than crossing over to the Spanish enclave of Melilla, I'll now cross to Tangier. The principal reason for the change of plan is to allow me to pass through Morocco's capital, Rabat, to collect a visa for Mauritania, as there are currently mixed reports about being able to get a visa at the border. And if you look at a map of the region, you really don't want to be told you have to go back to Rabat for a visa. So having gotten my wheels trued, bought enough spares to build an additional bicycle, and been presented with a proper pair of new cycling shoes from Mark, as well as stocking enough peanut butter to run a small plane, I'm ready for tomorrow morning's 35-minute high-speed ferry crossing to Tangier and the next leg of the journey.

Hasta Luego!

Tarifa, Spain
Trip distance: 4331 km