Joined: Aug 2009
Chapter 3: Gimme Eh-yuros!
I woke late the next day, and with only an hour to get to the docks, the language barrier proved strong enough to keep me holed up in my room, washing down muesli bars with UHT milk for a quick breakfast. Human interaction was unavoidable at customs, but the CNP officers proved efficient, and I was quickly through the boom-gate que and into the boarding que. Queing was becoming a prominent feature of border crossings.
The old Moorish fort at Tarifa provides welcome shade from the morning sun.
The ferry itself was surprisingly sleek and modern, unlike many of the dented, dusty, clapped-out vans and cars that squeezed their way into its belly, packed with varying collections of junk. Not game to leave my own possessions unattended in the cargo hold, I slung every bag I had over every appendage available and doing my best impression of a human packhorse, I lumbered my way up the stairs to the main lounge, and took my place in the third que of the day: immigrations. The wait in line (or rather, blob) gave me a good chance to observe the human tapestry that flowed past.
First person to guess the nationality of the fellow in the yellow robe gets a prize.
With my forms done , I lugged my bags to the upper deck. Tangier was faintly visible on the horizon, so I found myself a spot on the rail and took the some obligatory photos.
Naturally, everyone in the hold started their engines 10 minutes before the doors opened, giving me all the motivation I needed in my oxygen-deprived state to ignore the protests of the crew and split the lanes of cars as soon as the ramp hit the pier, leaving a big black stripe and an echoing squeal in my wake. Once the dizziness subsided, I made my way to que number four: customs. This was the one I was worried about. Not speaking a word of French or Arabic, when challenged by police over having photocopies of my vehicle forms, I had no way of explaining it was a hire bike. My Lonely Planet French phrasebook set a standard for utter uselessness that it would maintain for the rest of the trip, having neither the word for 'hire', nor any instruction on turning written French into spoken French (two entirely different languages, it would seem). Fortunately, I was saved by a friendly Spanish-speaking customs official, with whom I was once again able to make my situation more or less understood with a bastardised mix of Spanglish and hand signals. He treated me like a regular VIP, walking me right to the head of que five (boy, did that get me some dirty looks). Shortly afterwards, the police returned to inquire about the contents of my luggage.“Pistol? Hashish?” one asked.
“What? No, no, definitely not.” I replied, hoping that my emphatic head-shaking made up for speaking English.
The police seemed satisfied with my declaration, so my official unlocked the gate and pointed me on my way. I tipped him a full 10 Euro for reducing what I had been told would be a 3-4 hour saga to about 45 minutes, and rode a short way to the nearest cash exchange.
No sooner had I dismounted, I found myself face-to-visor with a toothless middle-aged man in a dirty suit, pointing around vigorously and rubbing his fingers together as he demanded euros (pronounced “Eh-Yuros”, with extra spittle). Without thinking, my Australian sensibilities kicked in, and I looked around to see if I'd illegally parked or failed to pay a toll. It took a moment before I realized he was simply demanding money, at which point I gave him my best French “No”, and tried to walk off. But he wasn't giving up so easily; moving in front of me, the demand was repeated, this time more forcefully.“You! Gimee Eh-Yuros!!” he cried.
I moved to sidestep, and he put a hand on my chest. I brushed it off, but it came right back with the same demand. Unsure whether this was just pro-active begging, or the beginning of a mugging, I was starting to get a little annoyed. The arrival of another car caught his attention, and I slipped past as he moved off to harass the newcomers for their 'Eh-yuros'. I quickly withdrew my first few Moroccan dirhams, and moved back to the bike, but I was too slow. Old mate was back, one hand up in a blocking gesture, the other rubbing his fingers together as he resumed his request. That was it. Still mildly hypoxic from carbon-monoxide poisoning, garbed head to toe in riding gear in temperatures well over thirty degrees, I'd done five ques already that day on only 250ml of UHT milk and a crappy Spanish muesli bar - I was officially out of tolerance. I intercepted the outstretched hand, and raised a gloved fist.“No.” I said.
No further requests for 'Eh-yuros' were forthcoming.
I wasn't happy with the way that situation had panned out. Well aware I was pretty much draped in finery, I wasn't sure how I felt about having refused than man my charity. I'm a generous person normally, but was well aware that capitulating to begging in the long term helps no-one, and providing effective aid to the needy in Africa is far more complex than simply handing out cash on street corners. His aggressive attitude had not helped. Nonetheless, I felt guilty for having resorted to threat of violence to dissuade him, and coupled with the reminder of my linguistic ineptitude at customs, that encounter had soured my entire entry into Morocco.
Maybe this was why when I came to the next roundabout, I did something a little strange. Rather than follow my GPS on the main drag out of town, I turned right. For some reason, I just didn't feel ready to leave Tangier just yet. And so, I went up the hill towards the old-town, hoping to see more of this 'gateway to Africa'. Thus I received my first lesson in the extent (or lack thereof) of coverage of Garmin maps in Moroccan cities. I became quickly lost in a maze of tight, one-way alleys, sometimes crammed with traffic, other times deserted. As much as I would like to say aromas of exotic foods and spices filled my nostrils, that would be a lie; much of it smelled like a tip. And everywhere I went, heads would turn and follow me with eyes that weren't quite hostile, but quite clearly said “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”. However, this may well have been just as much to do with my bike, as with the fact I was riding it the wrong way down a one-way pedestrian footpath. It was strange, exotic, grubby, and not entirely inviting. But a worthwhile excursion for the experience.
After half-an-hour of cruising the streets and alleys weaving between fruit stalls and garbage heaps (often adjacent), I pushed up the hill, assuming the higher sections of the city would have the wealthier 'new' suburbs, and hopefully some proper roads. My plan worked, and before long I was back on track. The seaside boulevard was far cleaner than the old medina, but the smell of trash still lingered on the sea breeze, and my frustrations were only exacerbated by African traffic. While Bangkok had been jam-packed mayhem, it had been a controlled mayhem, where the individual skill of each driver and a series of informal customs and 'understandings' had kept people from actually colliding (even if it was only by inches). No such 'understandings' were present in Tangier, and traffic at roundabouts was literally like riding in a bumper-car ring full of selfish children – push in, then wait for impact and blast your horn in indignation. It wasn't until I was clear of the city that I could stop and relax. I picked a scenic spot on the headlands and had another muesli bar and a litre of water for lunch.
At least he has a good view....
Amidst the dry scrub and shanties, the estates of the wealthy can be found, fenced off from the rest of the countryside.
The N16 from Tangier winds its way along a beautiful coastline, which I'm sure one day will become as overdeveloped as its sister shores to the north in Spain.
Before long, I turned south off the highway and onto a rural backroad, hoping to bybass the bustle of the Ceuta. My detour soon became a single lane strip of bumpy tarmac, and shortly thereafter stopped bothering with tarmac, and just became bumpy. Not that this bothered me – after my morning of frustrations , I was all too eager to open up the F800 and indulge in some throttle therapy. Out here, I was the fastest thing on the road, and the cars that had cut me off with horn blasts before were left trundling along in my dust. The F800 was proving its merits on the hard-packed gravel, comfortable on the bumps whilst seated, maneuverable when standing. Maybe I'm spoiled coming off the tail-happy 950, but it still felt a little underpowered. Truth be told though, I still had easily enough power to give me quite the exercise in panic braking when upon exiting on particularly rough corner I almost ran head-on into terrain not even the F800 could hope to cross.
Someone had plonked a dam in the road (or the road in a dam?) and failed to update the maps. I soon found a re-route, and before long I was parked on an embankment overlooking a large roundabout on the outskirts of Tetouan, taking a photo of the eerily western-style of green turf garden that dominated its centre. Unthinking, I swung my DSLR out of my bag and took aim, and almost simultaneously, so did the gaze of the nearby police directing traffic. It seems they did not appreciate the photographic merits of this particular traffic island, and despite their formal uniforms, clambered with surprising haste up the embankment and promptly detained me. As I wondered exactly what was so highly classified about this roundabout, I realized it may have simply been the police themselves (although they had been far, far out of shot). As I contemplated how the hell I was going to explain my way out of this with hand signals, to my surprise one of the officers started speaking in English.“Where are you from?” he asked in a friendly tone.
“Ahhh, Australia! Kang-gar-rooo” echoed around the group. “Why are you taking photos of here?”
“The roundabout and the mountains, they look very nice” I replied.
This seemed to confuse them a little, and the brief conversation that followed didn't really explain why I couldn't photograph this roundabout, but with the photos deleted I was returned my camera. “You take photos of other mountains, these ones maybe” said the officer, pointing over my shoulder.
I apologised and they sent me on my way with a smile and a handshake. For my first time coming afoul of the law overseas, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience.
The most remarkable features of the N2 highway heading south were the traffic, and the views. In a strange way, the two complemented each other. Forced to slow to a crawl behind overladen buses and cars in varying states of disrepair, all pouring black smoke like you wouldn't think possible (including vehicles that would be modern by Australian standards), you have ample opportunity to survey the valley that sprawls below and the mountains that tower above, as the road snakes its way south along the length of the valley.
I think their air-con was broken...
Roadside stalls are a part of life in Morocco. From shack to shops, much of the shopping we do at the corner store can be done at the side of the highway.
Not a bad view to have when stuck in traffic.
Chefchaouen (pronounced shef-show-en) itself is a medium-sized town some distance back from the highway, nestled in a valley between two mountains. Unlike Tangier, it did not smell of garbage , and the boulevard I followed through the new-town could have been taken out of any western city. Moroccan cities have a unique and very different layout compared to Australian settlements, owing to their far more lengthy history. Some cities are hundreds of years old, and consequently have an 'old town' or medina near their original center. These tight-packed mazes of mud-brick apartments often lie adjacent to or surrounding the ancient Moorish fortresses that served as the core of the towns governance, but also contain mosques, gardens and businesses. Modern times, however, have seen development of semi-western urban areas on the outskirts of the original city, often complete with entirely new CBD's - a modern satellite-city adjacent to its ancient namesake.
I was bound for the medina, it being the cultural and historical nexus of the town. Problem was that the road leading in ran out in a fenced off, busy courtyard-come-carpark some 500m before my GPS waypoint. On my second lap of the carpark, as I stopped to appraise the width of a gap in the fence, a thin dark-skinned man came forward and politely asked me in good English if I could use some help. I'd been warned previously about 'helpers' in Morocco, and how they would often rely on the ignorance of foreigners to make a quick buck, and after my encounter outside the bank in Tangier I was still feeling a little defensive. Despite finding his quiet, unobtrusive manner to be a welcome chance from the bustling surroundings, I declined his offer with a quick 'No thanks'. But by my third lap of the car park I realised a) I could probably use some help; and b) I wasn't going to enjoy the rest of my trip by spurning all human contact.
I told him where I was headed, and despite looking about half my weight, he insisted on helping me carry my bags, first to my orignal bed & breakfast, and then to two others when it turned out to be full. As we trudged up and down the blue-painted streets of the medina, we talked, and I got to know him a little better. His name was Abdul, and having taught himself English at an early age, he made a living by helping silly tourists like myself around town. He was good at his job, and seemed to be on a first-name basis with every restaurant, hotel, corner store and carpet shop owner in town. Indeed, after setting me up at the third hotel, showing me the nearby hole-in-the-wall (literally) convenience store, the tow square, the main mosque, the bank, nearby restaurant owners, I bought us two cokes for about a dollar all up, and we sat down on some steps and had a chat about the evening's entertainment options.
"If you like, I show you one more restaurant, and then take you to friends wool factory to see some Berber carpets"
“Sure, sounds great. Can we stop by the main square for lunch?”
“No, no! Do not eat in the main square, it will make you sicker than dogs!”
“Abdul, all I see around here are stray cats.” I said.
“Exactly. Dogs are all dead.”
Abdul took me to the wool factory, where I was given another VIP welcome, and given my first real lesson in Moroccan hospitality, as the owner came down and showed me around his workshop, sitting me at his looms, and piling rug after rug on the ground for my inspection as he bought my glasses of sweet mint tea (which is actually delicious). After all the show he put on, I felt obliged to buy at least something, which I guess was the whole point, and after a round of haggling I left with a five-by-three foot camel hair rug, whose fire-retardant abilities he proved to me by attempting to set fire to it with his lighter. I actually felt a little guilty – feeling generous, I'd actually meant to try and tell him I needed to find an ATM to get more cash, and instead accidentally persuaded him to sell it for the remainder of the cash on me – almost half the marked price.
Everything must go!
On the way back to the hotel, I asked Abdul what sort of money someone would usually pay for the help he'd given me, and he replied with the same ambiguous answer that I'd received in the carpet store.
“You say a price, and we will see if it can make us both happy” he said.
I fished the last 20 euro note out of my wallet, which seemed to certainly make him happy. I knew it was a gross overpayment by local standards, but I didn't care. Abdul had proven his worth, and then some. And so we parted ways on good terms, and I headed back to the hotel for a nap.
Dar Yazid is a fantastic B & B, with cozy comfortable rooms, a rooftop courtyard with an amazing view, and a darn good breakfast to boot. Also, best hotel artwork of the trip.
I woke later in the dark to the sound of music. I ventured out into the alleyways again, saying hi to the local boy at the front desk, dressed a stylish western fedora and playing on his smartphone. Much like in Spain, the city came to life after dark, and as hungry as I was, I spent several hours exploring the streets and indulging my zoom lens.
Main square by night. Apparently all these people would be sick like dogs by tomorrow.
More rudimentary tastes are catered for too.
Late night trading. Chefchaouen is actualy quite the tourist destination.
Had to go back to the carpet shop to get a shot of their leather goods.
These kids were *seriously* good at soccer.
It's all about the bikes.
By the time I'd had my first Moroccan dinner (an excellent couscous and beef stew) and made my way back to my room, I was exhausted. No philosophical musings that night – I was asleep before I hit the pillow.