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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Morocco shock and our ride to the High Atlas

Our journey to Morocco started with a taxi ride to the Edinburgh airport. On arrival I hand over my visa card to the driver.
- No can do he says.
- We were told we could pay with credit card I replied.
We have no cash of course. That would make things too easy. So, I run to the bank machine and take out another chunk of money, run back, and pay the driver.

The flight went without a glitch. I really like Ryanair! At Marrakech airport we wait one hour and a half to clear customs. It's packed with people because three flights came in at the same time. The queues are disorganized and there is a minimal amount of customs officers working. When it's our turn, the officer is in such a bad mood that he doesn't even look at us or our passports. He aggressively bangs a few stamps on some random page and motions to get on our way. Fine by me. After we get our luggage it's time to hit a bank machine. When we find one it's not out of order, but it might as well be because it's not spitting out money like it should. Thank god I took out money in Edinburgh. By the time we come out of the airport it's dark and riding is not a good idea. Besides we don't know where we're going.

Our host gave us vague directions that we're supposed to give to a taxi driver. With a price negotiated, we give to the driver the vague directions to where we're supposed to be staying. The taxi ride takes us to a non touristic suburb. The area is dark and run down. We have no clue where we're going or if the guy will meet us. I have to admit I was a little worried. Turns out the guy is there like he said he would: Sigh of relief. We pile out of the taxi with all our stuff and right away I feel a bit of a tension towards the amount of stuff we have. More on that later. There's an American couple staying with him. All of them help us carry stuff in. Huge contrast to the Butters apartment in Edinburgh. Our host's place is very small and our stuff takes up a lot of space. Anyways, we are tired and it's not long before we head to bed.

In the morning, we head down to one of the local restaurants for breakfast. Our host and the American couple head of somewhere else for breakfast and he tells us that we would not like the food they're going to go eat. Strange, but whatever. Sitting down with the locals we wait for our food. Being in a non touristic area we get strange looks from the patrons. It won't be the last time. It doesn't take long before a street vendor singles us out. He throws socks, underwear, and a bunch of other junk on our table. At one point he even waves a bra in front of Michèle. I try to be a good sport. I grab one of the underwears and do a little dance. The whole restaurant laughs. I laugh too but it will only take a few days for this sort of behaviour to piss me off.

That done, it's time to put our bikes together and go for a ride to get a feel for the Moroccan traffic. We are surprised to feel much safer than in the UK. Even though they drive fast and aggressively, Moroccans are very aware of other types of vehicles on the road. We head back to our host's place, happy about the ride and that the bikes are in good condition. But the conservative nature of this country shows it's face. Not thinking twice about storing the bikes in his place, he gets upset as we bring them in.
- It's not allowed he tells us.
We have to take them downstairs and lock them in the garage. There is a guardian there who looks over the bikes and other vehicles. Night and day. I reluctantly lock them up and remove anything that isn't bolted down. Back upstairs, we try to dampen the situation. Our host explains that people in the building are quite conservative and that many of them don't like him. He tells us it's because he is unmarried and that he always has foreigners staying over. Some of them young pretty girls. He claims that many married men in the building are jealous of that. Well, we got a taste of the culture shock we were looking for.

Not feeling super welcome but still grateful for the hospitality, we head out the next day towards the town of Asni. The road is busy but we are glad to be back on our bikes. The sun is shining and it's hot! A shock to the system, we end up stopping in the shade every 3 kilometres. The Atlas mountains off in the distance are approaching slowly. As you pedal forward, the mountain range looks like a humungous tidal wave. With the palm trees in the foreground and the shining sun glistening off the snowy peaks in the background, I imagine myself Laurence of Arabia shouting "take no prisoners!". At one rest stop I look over to the bikes and notice that all the inner tube caps are missing. Somebody stole them the night before when they were locked up in the garage. No big deal really, but it puts Michèle in a bad mood. We were reluctant to lock them up in a garage but we were told that there wouldn't be any problems. Turns out there was. I'm just glad the bikes didn't get stolen.

We follow the road and slowly deepen our familiarity for this country. As a tourist you are categorized and labelled around here. One nuisance are kids between the age of 5 and 10. They find it fun to run beside you yelling "stylo monsieur stylo". I don't know which idiot started giving these kids pens but I'd like to have a few words with him. Pedalling a little harder is all it takes to out run them and a few hours later we get to Asni. There, a guy leads us through a chaotic souk to the town hostel. The cheapest and crappiest yet. Michèle comments: That first day of real cycling in Morocco wasn't sitting too well with me. The overwhelming heat, the annoying kids (always the young boys and never when an adult is around), and discovering that our valve caps were missing, were all making my mood deteriorate. Some of the little fawkers even threw rocks at me (they missed) as I was pedalling a bit behind Benoit. I haven't encountered rock-throwing kids since, although one day some men at a cafe threw rocks at the kids to stop them from chasing us! It was hard to stay cool that day: I was guzzling and guzzling water, still feeling thirsty. That night in the clammy room at the hostel, I dreamt that I was taking care of someone's houseboat and with it their two goldfish in a bowl. Note the water themes. The bowl tipped over spilling the fish with it. I was trying desperately to get the fish back into the water. When I woke the next morning, I thought, aha, that is what I feel like here, a fish out of water.

Despite a good days ride we are a bit mentally drained from all the preparations and the strange situation encountered in Marrakech. At one point I tell Michèle that we need a vacation from our vacation. So, the next day we decide to stop at a nice guest house for a few days to get our bearings. My main worry at this point is the Tizi n Test. A 30 km climb to a pass at 2100 metres. Lonely Planet describes it as treacherous. We've never done a climb that big and I'm afraid that Michèle's vertigo will prevent her from doing it. But at the guest house, we talk to a few locals who ease our worries about the climb. Feeling better it's time to relax with our first tajine. Something we will be sick of eating after about a week.

Michèle comments: A couple of days into our trip and I am noticing how much Benoit and I stick out like sore thumbs. It is 30+ degrees in the sun and all the men are in long pants, long sleeved shirts, sweaters and jackets. We saw a guy walking by wearing a down jacket with a fur-lined hood. At least the hood was down. We felt awkward wearing shorts. Going out to eat in a food stall or café, we would be the only couple in a room full of men. It would make my day to see a Moroccan woman sitting at a café sipping a cup of tea and watching the world go by. One night at the guest house, I dreamt that I was going into a women's washroom, except that in this one the ceilings were so ridiculously low that I had to bend way down to fit in. Speaking of trying to fit in, I went to the Saturday souk in Asni wearing my fleece jacket and black leggings under my shorts. I was sweltering hot! "It is winter," sniffed Mohamed at my comment at long sleeves and pants in this heat. "In the summer we wear shorts."

Time to hit the road again. For the first time during this trip, we meet up with cyclists travelling long term. Walter and Virginie are cycling down to Dakkar with their two year old son Elio. Right away we have a million things to talk about. One of them is the Tizi n Test. They're going to be doing it on a tandem with a two year old. OK, we're not so worried anymore. Funny how some people's worries are completely overlooked by others. For example, at one point in time we were thinking of doing the same trip as Walter and Virginie. However, we did not want to spend the money on malaria pills and more vaccines. When I ask them if they have all the right meds for their trip they wave it off as pharmaceutical hype. They have no vaccines and no malaria pills.

A few more kilometres and we're in Ijoukak where we stayed at Gite D'étape Chez El Mahjoub across a little river. Mahjoub is a really nice guy and his place is nicely set up. He is an avid mountain biker and he eases our worries about the Tizi n Test so that it becomes negligible. My next worry is that Michèle is not feeling so good and not eating. This is unfortunately the start of something that will bother us for several weeks to come. More on that later.

The big day has arrived. The start of the climb is at our feet and the Tizi n Test is high above our heads.

To be continued...


  1. Hey!
    It has been fun reading your blog! Your plans have changed a bit since I met you in Iceland.
    I am actually going to Morocco in mid December.Where are you headed?
    Maybe will meet again.



  2. Benoît: je t'imagine trop énervé par les sollicitations!! C'est vrai que c'est archi-chiant.


  3. Daniel hi! Good to hear from you. We will send you an email soon. That would be really cool to meet up.

  4. Salut Seb! Je dois ajouter que le plus on s'eloigne de Marrakech le moins on a des emmerdes avec les vendeurs. On est a Tafraoute et les gens sont vraiment sympas.

  5. Wow, Tafraoute, ça a l'air vraiment beau. J'espère que la tourista de M est passée. Dites bonjour aux chameaux pour moi!

  6. Viviane, Oui heureusement je vais bien! Merci.

  7. Para la familia de Javier
    Hemos recibido el mensaje de Fátima.
    Estamos muy triste perder a un amigo.
    Michele & Benoit