Chapter 8 - Challenge: accepted.
I stood silently at the balcony. The terrace dropped away sharply below me, seemingly as steep as the hillside that stretched away into the darkness on either side. Littered with lights and laughter, the whitewashed houses of Mijas clung to the steep slope, almost as if they were a part of it, their glowing eyes gazing down on the Spanish coastline. Before me, miles of darkness yawned, speckled with the glittering motes of Fuengirola, its streets bright against the dark of the Mediterranean beyond. The steep cobbled streets that wound their way among the terraces were crowed with people, filling the bars and cafes and plazas. It was a Friday night, happy hour – not that I noticed. Unwashed, dressed in a singlet and riding clothes still caked with Saharan dust, I was still elsewhere. My eyes searched south across the water, looking towards where I expected Tangier would be. Twelve hours ago I'd been in another country, another continent,, and while my body had moved to where I stood now, my mind was still not quite ready to join it.
Thwack, thwack, thwack.
The rubber soles of Dunlop volleys sent their applause echoing along the alleyway ahead of me. My late-night excursion into Fez's medina, while eventful, had left me moderately lost, and dangerously close to my hotel's curfew. I was back on a thoroughfare of some description (if you can call a four-foot wide alley a thoroughfare), going in the right direction, but still seeing nothing I recognized. An took an instinctive gamble on a feeling that I needed to head further right, and spying a familiar set of stairs I quickened my pace. Heading towards the walls of the old palace, I arrived outside the hotel to see the nightman sitting in a chair just outside the door, chatting with a young lady. With a knowing smile that said I wasn't the first guest to get lost in the maze of alleyways, he bade me goodnight and I went up to my room, thoroughly relieved I wasn't going to be spending a night with the alley-cats.
A rooftop view of Fez. The hostelier made a point of telling me not to take photos of the palace grounds. So naturally, you can see them in the middle left of the shot.
I awoke to the sound of voices in the street, mingling with the cool breeze and mid-morning sunlight streaming in through the window, and realized immediately I'd overslept – unsurprisingly, a flat phone wakes no man. Rummaging through my bags, I found the ferry timetable and did some rough math in my head, and realized I had 330 km of lumpy, windy, jalopy-riddled highway to cover and a border crossing to get through, and only 4 hours to do it.
A hurricane of chaos and clothing erupted, and within minutes, I was packed and out the door, a hasty thanks and the room key thrown in the general direction of the counter on the way past. I took a gamble and skipped filling up, and hit the road running. If I missed the afternoon ferry, not only would I have to spend the night in Tangier and waste a payed-for night of food and board, but I would also miss the first day of trail riding in Spain, wasting a day of rental on one bike while copping an extra day of charges on the other. Between slaloming my way around lopsided trucks and stray goats, I added up almost $600 worth of reasons not to miss my ferry. Morocco, however, seemed intent to have me as its guest for another night, with traffic slowing me down and oddities taunting me to stop.
Right of way, my ass!
I think I ran over one of their melons....
Unbeknownst to the men and elves of Middle-Earth, Gandalf in fact retired to live in the foothills near Tetouan.
By midday, my relentless pace forced me to refuel, and as I waited for the pump attendant to fill the tank, I decided to do a bit of refueling myself. Musing over mileage as I munched my last muesli bar, I was bought out of my reverie by the sound of tambourines and singing. Puzzled, I looked up, just in time to see 3 pickups drive past, each tray crammed full of women dressed in their garish robes. Singing, laughing and waving to passers-by, they were partying like it was nobodies business. Puzzled by this sight, I turned to the pump attendant, who simply shook his head and rolled his eyes in an unsaid statement that needed no translation: “Women...”
I didn't have time to dally and investigate this cultural oddity any further. No matter how I tweaked the numbers in my head, I wasn't going to make it in time. Not unless I rode faster - a lot faster.
Mitsubishi Party Wagon. The short one in the black and white scarf doesn't seem overly impressed .....
Despite what society might think about riders, I'm not usually a lawbreaker on the roads. My license back home has no points on it, and save for the occasional sly filter at the traffic lights, I stay in my allocated lane doing what the red-circled signs tell me to do. But ever since my near-death experience(s) - and subsequent rebirth - on the streets of Bangkok, that western reserve had been slipping away. Mile by mile, donkey by donkey, exception had become the norm. And so it was that when I crested an abrupt rise on the edge of a seemingly all-but-deserted town, one wheel just clearing the pavement, throttle pinned at 160kph, I did not expect the police checkpoint.
There was absolutely no question about it – I was done. Foreign and illiterate, I would be totally vulnerable – 'fined' down to my last dirham, and then probably arrested anyway. In the half-second it took to explore that hypothetical, I made my decision. The chief officer's mouth, or what I saw of it as I went past, appeared to be as wide open as my throttle, and the younger man behind him wasn't even bothering to bring the antique tripod mounted radar-gun to bear on me. I was past them and around the corner before I had time to look in my mirrors, and I didn't slow down. Did they have radios? Did they get my plates? Could, for the first time in history, a French vehicle chase down a German one? I had 80km to Tangier to find out.
I possibly risked getting in a LOT of trouble taking this photo, but I couldn't leave without a photo of a real-life Renault Armored Battlewagon.
I never thought I'd be so happy to see Tangier again.
I made good time (but terrible fuel economy) getting into Tangier. Tentatively overtaking a police Renault on the outskirts confirmed I was not one of Morroco's Most Wanted, and I sped quickly to the docks. Rushing into the ticket office I was relieved to find the vendor spoke English, and the ferry hadn't left. I made off down the road to the immigrations compound, and immediately fell for a tout in a fluro jacket, masquerading as an official and directing rich-looking traffic to one side. Being down to my last 20 dirham note, it was here I inadvertently discovered that the easiest way to get rid of unwanted helpers is to just pay them terribly. Thoroughly unimpressed, FauxFluro left to harass someone else, and I ducked off quickly to hand off my exit forms and get my passport stamped, hoping my bike would be safe for the few minutes I was away. But when I returned, I found another man hover over my bike. As I approached, he came up and asked me if I was sure I had everything. Fearing another tout con, I said thanked him and said I had everything I needed, then promptly ate my words as, from behind his back, he produced my GPS unit. It was then I recognized him – he was the ferry ticket man, who had walked all the way along the dock from his office, to find the flustered tourist who'd left this valuable trinket on his desk in their haste. Lost for words, I shook his hand and thanked him, trying to fish around in my pocket for some Euros for his trouble. But he simply shook his head and smiled, then disappeared back into the crowd, leaving me standing alone and bewildered, not dissimilar to my first passage through the immigrations carpark. My brief Moroccan experience, it seemed, had come full-circle.
The ferry ride back was rough. I didn't bother taking my luggage off the bike, instead sprawling into a chair in the main cabin, until the violent rocking made several people sick. Retreating to the roof, I took out my phone and swapped the battery. My troublesome TravelSIM had been completely unusable up until this point in time, but strangely enough no sooner than I'd turned it on, text messages started streaming in. As I read through each of them, I couldn't help but laugh – a sad laugh of exhaustion and irony. Three days ago, while I'd been riding solo across the desert at night, Lyndon, an experienced and competitive enduro racer with a bid to enter the Dakar Rally, had broken his foot riding home from work.