CHAPTER 6 – WIPE THAT SMILE OFF YOUR FACES BOYS, A FERRY AWAITS

 

May 18th – Rest Day, Essaouira

 

Essaouira a decent place to chill out for a bit, if it was not for this pan handler stalking us through the medina for 2 days. Usually the guys asking for money in Morocco genuinely need it… if you have a wretched leg, or are pushing one of your family in a wheelchair who ain’t looking too rosy then by all means a couple of dinars find their way into your tin. But this guy is unique! Fully able gent with all senses functioning and well dressed to boot, but he has seen a few too many B- Grade horror films and magically appears to the sound of screeching violins around corners, eyes like a rabbit’s in headlights and hand outstretched. He is agog to find we are not emptying our wallets into his cupped palm so repeats the scene a few times through the day. Eventually we succumb just to see if his facial expression changes – to our disappointment, not!

 

What is interesting about this place is the number of “A VENDRE” signs on the buildings. And there is no shortage of French queing up to buy up what is essentially pretty ordinary property in an average beach town. It’s all quite a contrast -  the English phenomenon of “A home overseas” is searching out nice spots where the language and culture are completely different from what we have at home. For our Gallic friends it seems as long as they can still speak their beloved French, then pretty much anywhere gets the thumbs up.

 

Lunch today on the waterfront a big disappointment, but as Pierpaolo notes and anyone who has watched Speed II, Rocky IV or Police Academy 8 will testify, the sequels never quite measure up to the expectations set by the original.

 

May 19th

 

KM START = 14,866 (Trip = 4,496 )

KM END = ???

 

Route:  Essaouira > Safi > Al Jadida > Azzenmour

 

By now we have figured Algeria to be a logistical nightmare with no certainty of being allowed in even with the correct paperwork. So our misión now is to undertake a game of PONG on a Mediterranean scale. Head up to Tangier, catch the ferry to Sete in France, then another ferry back from Marseilles to land over the net in Tunisia. Our ticket from Tangier is booked for the 21st, so we have a leisurely 2 days to make our way up the small stretch of Atlantic coastline.

 

And what better way to return to our saddles then with the deep cleanse and relaxation provided by Hammam Number 4? Well it all looks good on paper, but the theory of the sequel again makes its presence known, and we endure the most rancid public hammam in the whole of the Ottoman Empire. The local guys in there are all digging it though, having their various layers of crust peeled off while performing Aerobics Oz Style. Seems the hammam doubles as the gym in this town, and by the looks of the water, perhaps the leather tannerie and laundromat too.

 

Winding up the coast roads and its all very forgettable stuff; apart from the industrial nosesore known as Safi. The pipes of the Phosphate processing plant are all very MC Escher in appearance, but the smell is beyond what my limited vocabulary can convey.

 

If anything sticks in the mind today, it is the role of the humble Donkey in Morocco. On every road we have travelled in this country, we have seen a donkey and cart at least every 5 km. This beast of burden performs the role of Vespa scooter, Peugeot hatchback, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Transit van all in one; No wonder why it won Moroccan car of the year for the last 5 years running.

 

Will this situation change as the Moroccan economy expands in the future? I think not. An average daily wage buys you 6 litres of gas in this country, but you can fill up your donkey’s tank for free. Donkey’s don’t need MOT’s every year, and you can get one on the road without compulsory Third Party Fire and Theft. Donkeys are, at the moment, exempt from the congestion charge. Got a male and a female (2 donkey household)? You can upgrade to a new donkey each year, at zero cost and zero percent finance! Economically speaking, the donkeys integral role in the Moroccan transport network is assured for the forseeable future.

 

Original stop of Al Jadida (renamed Al Jazeera by us) is a bit of a dog’s breakfast of a town, so we push onto Azzenmour and are well rewarded. With no reservation and our guide book hotel full, its up to the local kids to hop on the back of our bikes and lead us through the twisting paths of the medina to a wonderful riad. There is no commissión or asking for money – the kids here, now numbering 15 and drawn to the bikes like Posh Spice to a camera – just want to yell “Bonjour” to us and have their pictures taken on or around the bikes. This is the real joy of the country here and now – a place unaffected by the tourist droves, where kids just want to be kids and foreigners are a fun novelty.

 

Dinner in town, as recommended by the local police, is at an open air chicken restaurant. Match of the Day Morocco is playing on the televisión. The food is great, and the game a savoury reminder of what passion and committment on the football field actually looked like before Murdoch and his henchmen threw gazillions to the talented yet mono neuroned oafs on the back (and front) pages of his ragtops. Exemplorary staff – hungry in attack and granite hewn determination in defence. The bit about the fans carpet bombing smoke flares on the field when their team went 2 – 1 up with 8 minutes to go wasn’t exactly sporting though.

 

 

May 20th

 

KM START = ??? (Trip =  )

KM END = 15,620 (Trip = 5,250)

 

Route:  Azzenmour > Casablanca > Rabat > Asilah

 

Breakfast on the terrace overlooking town, retrieve our bikes from the stable in the medina (even our bikes enjoyed the local hospitality!) wave goodbye and take a few goofy photos with the super friendly kids and its off up the coast to the most famous of Moroccan towns.

 

Oh what delights the day will hold! Casablanca … the very name of the place can turn the most stubborn of homebodies into a wistful travelling romantic. As Etain O’Carroll phrases it in The Lonely Planet Morocco (2006)

 

“Big, brash, restless and eager, Casablanca is Morocco’s heaving metropolis… Casa, as the city is known, is a city of incredible contrasts… it offers a unique insight into Morocco. In many ways, Casa represents the hopes and dreams of the country and once you’ve had your fill of Morocco’s more traditional charms it can be a fascinating place to discover.”

 

The term “shit hole” I find less prosaic yet infinitely more succinct.

 

It’s very easy to get caught up in the romantic imagery of that wonderful 1942 film, starring a stellar cast of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, all performing at their mesmoric best. But let’s not forget that back then, as it is now, Casablanca is essentially a story of 2 people escaping a shit town. Looking at the choking traffic and Industrial Lego architecture, Pierpaolo gives the dubious virtue of crowning it the “The Milan of Morocco”, and with no consideration to the optimisitic musings of Etain O’Carroll, we take the lead set by Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund and get out by any means possible. Only by visiting this place do you realise what a gentleman / masochist Humphrey Bogart was by volounteering his only ticket out of here - to the bloke that stole his bird!

 

Which brings me to another point of digression. In CHAPTER 1, I make reference to our preparations for Algeria and Tunisia perhaps being undermined by my penny pinching purchase of a 1989 edition of the Lonely Planet Guidebook to the area. It being 18 years out of date will surely make it of limited use (but very cheap – Alloga TM)?

 

Au contraire, mon frere! After being unimpressed by various towns that receive good write ups in my new Lonely Planet, I was starting to question if I had lost touch with the whole “travel – enjoyment through discovery” ethos. Geoff Crowther and Hugh Findlay’s words are however a comfort when looking at the 1989 edition, basically stating in 20 words that you can give Casablanca a miss from any Moroccan itinerary.

 

Why this difference? Has Casablanca suddenly become more interesting, an anthropological hot spot, a 24 hour party town all in the space of 18 years? Of course not. The thing that has changed is the authors who write the books. I myself am a self confessed cultural and archaeological ignoramus, and as such I like my guidebooks written by similar individuals.

 

Etain O’Carroll and the vast majority of the new Lonely Planet authors all seem to have degrees in political science, cultural anthropology and other such avenues of study. They are in other words masters at looking at things we bypass or take for granted, and justifying them as important or interesting.

 

Geoff and Hugh are like the lads next door. It’s pleasing to read on the cover that Hugh wandered around the world doing this and that for many years, and Geoff gets lost in Africa when not brewing mango wine at home. These are honest blokes that didn’t spend 3 years writing a thesis on an infinitely dull topic. If I want to know about cultural upheaval in the Roman Empire circa 100 AD then I’ll ask Etain and Co, but if I want to know if a place is crap or not, then  I’ll take Geoff and Hugh’s archaic advice as gospel. As such I will make a point of researching old edition travel guides for future voyages.

 

As the Canberra of Morocco, there is no compelling urge to discover the gems that await in Rabat, so we motor on all the way up to Asilah – the last decent town on the coast before the hell hole of Tangier.

 

The road is again forgettable, save for a 15 kilometre stretch of Van Gogh Provencale landscapes. Twisting licorice road, deep red clay loam soil, dark green olive trees sprouting from the sides of the road with grenades of wildflower yellow and purples – all set against a powder blue sky.  It all puts a smile back on the face, one that is quickly wiped off at 50 km/h on the next roundabout.

 

Touch the brakes before entry, lean in, twist the throttle on exi…. WHAAA??? Why is the bike still leaning down? And whats that rubbing on my trousers? And how is it I can now see my front wheel?!

 

The answer is you dropped your bike, dummy! Pity it wasn’t in the sand, but I scramble off the roundabout lane clear of any traffic coming from behind, prop the bike up on the side and wait for Pierpaolo. No cuts or scratches or bruises, the bike is absolutely fine – just a few scrapes on the kickstand and front forks, and some swiss cheese treatment to the back pannier bag… a lucky escape. Thank God for full protective clothing and leather gloves. Naturally it can never be the biker’s fault, so I look around on the road trying to justify this fall from grace. Diesel spill? Gravel?

 

Actually it’s a join in the middle of the roundabout lane. The inside of the road is a good 3 inches higher than the outside on the joining point, and coming into the corner I’ve scraped my centrestand on the top of it and lost the whole show. No excuses, my responsibility - should have read the road conditions better. With bike and body all in tact it’s a subdued 2km ride into Asilah.

 

Asilah is the same sort of feeling as Azzenmour – very relaxed ex Portuguese seaside town with nice friendly locals. We find our hotel easy and enjoy a fresh caught seafood meal, recollecting what a carbuncle on the backside of humanity Casablanca was.

 

May 21st , 22nd and 23rd

 

KM START = 15, 620 (Trip = 5,250 )

KM END = 15,674 (Trip = 5,304 )

 

Route:  Asilah > Tangiers > Sete (France)

 

Some serious questions are now being raised between Pierpaolo and myself, primarily “Why does our room smell like a seal with halitosis”. It’s something that we have been mildly aware of not just here but in our last hotel. Admittedly, 2 blokes on motorbikes with limited changes of clothing in 32 degree heat was never going to be the Chelsea Flower Show riding in to town, but we are at an impasse.

 

Bags are sniffed, t-shirts are questioned, and after this hasty Spanish Inquisition of our garments it is our socks (Pierpaolos were worst, honest!) that are sent into the solitary confinement of a plastic bag. The detectives slap each other on the back after a mission well done, and life resumes as normal.

 

It turns out to be a big clean out day. Our bikes, jackets and trousers are all totally filthy so we make a point of getting them all scrubbed up and presentable for the ferry tonight. Jacket and trousers are taken to a mystical chap next door to the hotel who runs the garage parking place. Speaking in rhymes and with perpetually glazed eyes, it enters our mind that The Grateful Dead lost one of their percussion section on their tour of Asilah back in ’71. But he gets the job done and by the time we roll out in the evening we are looking catalogue clean.

 

We have avoided Tangiers on our visit as it is reknowned to be a dump. What dilligence in our decision making! For fear of using too many metaphors in this blog, “The Tijuana of Morocco” would fit the bill nicely. Anarchic cars and trucks puking out uncombusted diesel against a backdrop of flat roofed and flaking buildings. That’s why we didn’t send you all a postcard.

 

Spirits are lifted when we remind ourselves that the 36 hour ferry to Sete has a “disco bar and swimming pool” on board, according to the brochures. We ride our bikes up the ferry ramp and park them next to a nice German lad, going back home early to lick his wounds after crashing his bike in the desert. There is a nutty fella with a Fresian coloured URAL and sidecar from Hungary, returning from doing the world famous (in Bamako) Budapest to Bamako Rally. We tell him we’ll see him on board – we have urgent matters to attend to.

 

Like celebrity basket cases after a 2 week stint in The Priory, we dump our bags in our Lilliputian cabin and head straight for the bar. Cold beer tastes amazing after this abstinence, and pretty soon we end up chatting with Laki the Hungarian. Now to those who don’t know what a URAL motorbike is, it is EXACTLY a BMW R71 of 1940 with all the mod cons and accessories you would expect of the period - drum brakes all round and even a modern foot operated gear change! Made in Russia, cos it was Stalin that bought one, disassembled it and reverse engineered an entire factory to knock out replicas in order to mobilise his military ambitions.

 

English is Laki’s 2nd / 3rd / 4th language, but he proceeds to machine gun out various disconnected stories of travelling in India and Africa, which only goes to confirm that in this day and age, you really do have to be mad to buy a Ural.

 

Time has escaped us – its 11pm already and we realise we have not eaten. And so the nightmare that is the Tangier – Sete ferry dawns upon us. No restaurants are open, there are no shops on board to buy food – the best we can manage is a bag of crisps and yet another beer at the disco bar. A rather rotund DJ in his mid 40’s is spinning the discs to a dance floor occupied by 5 French girls stepping side to side. It could be worse I guess, and as Allah would have it, the Moroccan folk fusion disco starts coming through the speakers and not coincidentally the 5 French girls disappear from view. We retire to the comforts of our cabin, if ever the phrase could be used.

 

First of all, we have to descend beneath the car decks to get to our Cabin on Level 2. On a ship this is usually a giveaway that you are travelling peasant class, as there aren’t usually many window seats below the waterline. Perform some kind of origami and fold ourselves into our tiny bunk beds and turn off the light. And then we are aware that Cabin 2652 is located at the back of the ship inside the engine, approximately 150 cm from the main crankshaft bearing. The continual vibration and the smell of diesel is overwhelming to the point of sleep.

 

DAY 2 in Hell

 

Wake up all disorientated – pitch black in the cabin but its 11:30 AM and breakfast has been missed. The Cafes and restaurants are closed and the 2 shops on board are simultaneously shut. Not even a vending machine in sight. Oh dear. Have to hold out till 12:30, when the first sitting of lunch occurs. The formality of travelling in the nautical world is killing us.

 

I take a walk around the ship up to the lofty heights of the 6th level and amused to find large cabins, fake Reeboks parked outside,  full of dishevelled Moroccan men smoking cigarettes and reclining in the opulence and serenity of their surrounds, with full 180 degree Mediterranean views. I have the feeling we got sold the dud tickets!

 

At 12:30 we obediently form single file outside the 1 decent restaurant, only to get knocked back bouncer style because we are in peasant class and forbidden to eat amongst the bourgeoise. We are pointed in the direction of the general cafeteria, and whilst queing up, the convivial ambience of the surrounds makes you want to ask the person next to you “So what are you in here for”, expecting a reply of “10 for Armed Robbery” or something similar.

 

Looking at the entrails on the trays of our other inmates, it seems a wise move to plump for the vegetarian option, which is basically riz a la concrete and bread from the Flintsone period. Our stomachs are empty, and like a car crossing the Nullarbor, we are relieved to fillup at this opportunity rather than question if its 98 octane or not.

 

As the Chinese proverb goes, out of crisis comes opportunity – they even write the two words using the same charcters I am unreliably told. The message here is that if any of you can suffer 36 hours at sea and fancy a career change, then there is a fortune to be made selling 24 hour sandwiches and pizzas on the Tangier – Sete ferry. But don’t expect much in the way of staff accommodation.

 

Or pool facilities. The swimming pool in the brochure has been mislaid at customs or something and is not on this boat – the open air solarium is however in operation, and after our meal we seek repose in the sunlit breezy space amongst the noise of  “technicians” affixing wonky seats to rusting posts.

 

As it can be surmised from all of this, the situation on board is truly crap, but it all serves to further confirms our suspicions on Cruise Ship holidays and their relative ranking in our “Things to do before you die” list. I used to think Hell on Earth was IKEA Croydon at 3PM on any given Saturday, but now I know it is a 2nd floor cabin on the Tangier – Sete ferry. The thing that amazes us is all the French passangers onboard seem completely oblivious to how shit the whole thing is.

 

An amusing tidbit of information from Laki, and something for the scandal seekers amongst you. Going back to Ural motorcycles, Laki tells us, to our disbelief, that there is now  a 6 month waiting list for these anachronistic mobiles. And its not because Wallace and Grommit are about to do Mission Impossible IV, with John Woo destroying trailer loads of the things in the finale 15 minute stunt sequence. Demand never used to be like this, or at least they weren’t until the company was taken over by a US investment firm 3 months ago. 2 months ago it just so happens that the Iraqi army placed an order for 300 of these machines, as they are allegedly well suited to carrying munitions and breaking down frequently in the sand. Did someone say “Inside information”?!

 

Going back to our cabin, and there is a smell above and beyond what the diesel fumes can carry. We trace it to our board shorts , and suddenly all accusatory fingers in the case of Stinky Smell vs The State point in the direction of the Essaouira Hammam 3 days ago. We issue an Amnesty International apology to our captive socks, imprisoned under false charges, and isolate the board shorts to their cramped concealed quarters.

 

The Scandal sheet stops here and normal reporting will resume after our next ferry. We can only hope its better than this one.