Chapter 7: I'm more of a Thai man, myself....
As is often the case when traveling somewhere new, retracing my steps back along the N13 seemed to present an entirely new slideshow. Leaving the desert plain and heading back into the central highlands, the road to Azrou was now scattered with the nomad encampments of goatherds. The hills seemed somehow greener, the road curvier than I remembered. I wasn't until I entered a pine forest that I realized my memory wasn't failing me, just my sense of direction. I had in fact left the N13 and was heading to Ifrane, yet another of Morocco's little paradoxes. Nestled amongst pine forest in the foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains, the green parks, neat streets and steep-roofed stone houses made this town seem more appropriate for Swiss Alps than northern Africa. The mid-afternoon sun beckoned an early halt, to spend the evening in this invitingly peaceful scene. But being a slave to my schedules, I barely slowed for a few photos, before pushing on to Fez.
These lads were either bike enthusiasts, very bored or possibly very stoned. For the merits of the F800's rotax, it let me down a little here - despite my best fork-bouncing, it would not give this man the wheelie he so desired to see.
Cool and green, Ifrane makes for an inviting destination.
Fez is ancient. The original home of the Moroccan royal family, the Medina is over 1000 years old. It's big too, the Old and New cities being home to over a million Moroccans. The traffic reflected this. After 3 days of relative calm on the open road, the bustle, whilst slightly more organized than Tangier, was nonetheless a jolt to my tired system. Pulling up at one set of traffic lights in the New city, I was surprised to hear a voice chirp out beside me in English.
“Hey, hey! You, sir! You are looking for hotel, nice hotel?!”
A wiry boy sat atop a banged-up scooter in the lane next to me. Assuming for the time being he was simply tying to be helpful, I pointed at my GPS and shook my head.
“Shukran, Non, Merci. I have a hotel.”
“No no no, you get lost! I take you to better hotel” he insisted.
By now, I was pretty sure I knew where this was going and what it would cost me, but at that moment, the light turned green. 'Saved by the bell!' I thought, as I took off up the road, but my escape blocked by traffic, he pursued, joined now by two of his mates on equally dilapidated bikes, all casually splitting impossible gaps between cars, following me up the broad avenue. Each light was the same tedious conversation, and at last, with patience worn thin, I gave up on diplomacy and resorted to horsepower. With one last 'Non Merci!” I filtered the three cars in front and before the scooters could follow, the light turned green and I twisted the throttle to the stop. Hoiking a squealing, flying wheeling for all the intersection to see, I sped off down the avenue with a properly African disregard for speed limits, lanesplitting and even the curb of the next two roundabouts.
When my mirrors were free of scootersmoke for a good several minutes, I stopped, reset my GPS, and was soon cruising around the hotel district near the Medina. I was just about to try and find the second one on my list, when the narrow streets began to echo the now-familiar strain of the two-stroke chorus. With precision that would make synchronized swimmers swoon, my persistent pursuers pulled up in a phalanx around me.
The walls of Old Fez intersect the modern roads, marking the approach to the medina and old city.
Defeated, exhausted, and admittedly a little unsure about exactly how to get there, I agreed to let them take me to the next hotel on my list. Easier to find than I thought, Pension Campini turned out to be a cheap but rough little hostel with one very
appealing feature: it was not 100 meters from the local police station, in view of a guardhouse. My guides didn't ask for any money, but rather insisted that they come back later, to take me to their father's tannery, cousin's restaurant, brother's coffee store and 3rd-uncle-twice-removed's wool factory. Desperately tired and again feeling the onset of dehydration, as they patiently waited across the street, I asked the friendly young English-speaking publican behind the desk if I could trust them. His face said all I needed, but he elaborated, saying “We always recommend to take official city guides in Medina. The stories from the people who take others... they are never happy.” I had just showered and commenced an impromptu nap on my surprisingly spacious floor when he knocked on my door again – the boys had returned. Trudging down the stairs, I informed them I'd have to decline their offer. My excuse was in no small part true – I was just too tired.
I awoke some hours later to a cool night breeze, carrying voices through the billowing curtains. Leaving the light off and staying back from the sill, I peered through the bars. Below was my bike, where it I had left it, but around it stood the scooter crew, peering over it and talking amongst themselves. Suspicion immediately raced through my mind, but I felt I couldn't immediately assume it was nothing more than friendly curiosity - how many times had I stopped on the street to drool over a shiny bike? But then, how many times had I returned two hours later to re-examine it with my mates? I decided to go down and ask them, but in the time it took to descend the flight of stairs, they had vanished. Using my wire pack-lock, I secured the bike to a pole and went back upstairs to dress properly, only to be interrupted by yet more voices: this time a pack of small children who had turned my bike into their personal jungle-gym. They scattered when I approached, but reformed a timid ring once I kicked the motor to life. Chattering nervously in French, most shook their head when I beckoned for them to have a seat, but one who I'd seen earlier sitting upon the saddle making “Bruummm!” noises, jumped up in a flash. With a snow-white grin wide across his face, he pushed the horn a few times, then with the utter inhibition of any young boy, grabbed the throttle and promptly redlined it. Gently prising his fingers off, I made it clear his turn was up, and off he ran, the other children eagerly following him. I looked around, but their parents where nowhere to be seen, and I couldn't help but envy them: at twice their age I would have been confined to bed for hours by now, and here they were at 11pm, making the streets their own private soccer field. As late as it was, I could still here sounds of activity coming from the Medina, and so with a few directions and the curfew time from my friend at the desk, I set off into the night.
I was almost immediately lost. City planner apparently wasn't a popular profession in 700AD, and the alleyways were as crooked as the were narrow (which is to say, very). Hopping over bags of garbage and stray cats, I eventually took my chances at an empty restaurant with a kind-faced old man at the front door, who welcomed me into a slightly dingy interior with beaming smiles between his soft, clear French. $4 got me a three course meal and a coke, and I figured I had at least a few hours to find my way back to the toilet I may soon desperately need. But as midnight rolled past, I found myself embedded deeper still in the medina, becoming increasingly wary of the strangers in the shadows, squeezing down alleys almost too narrow even for me (at 70kg to 180cm, that's narrow
). I was lost, and in a place that looked like I probably shouldn't be lost . And yet strangely, I didn't care, and rather than try and retrace my steps, I pushed forwards, pausing occasionally for a photo, almost entranced by the ancient flagstones I was treading. I was just contemplating turning back, when I heard a voice behind me.