Tuesday, 1 September 2009

She Says - %$^*&*! Africa man!! (2 months on the road)

30 August-1 September
We were all set to go from Alison and Andy’s, but the day got late, and after Xander packed the bike he wasn’t feeling well. We had a late lunch, after which he felt better, but we decided heading down to the coastal port of Tarifa was not a good idea, as it take around 3 hours’ driving in a very hot part of day. If Xander was already feeling unwell, that might make it worse!

I have to admit part of me wanted to delay a little -I’ve no idea why, as I’ve been very excited about going to Morocco, but I kept having moments like in Michael Palin’s Sahara – “I always feel like this at the start of a journey, I know I have to go but can’t seem to do so” or something along those lines. Very strange, but I guess it has been very nice and comfortable at Alison and Andy’s, we felt very at home, and it’s hard to leave that bit of comfort and go back into the world of travel. They had previously offered an extra night’s stay, but had a friend arriving that day to stay for a week, so we had not wanted to stretch their hospitality. However, we changed our minds at the last minute and took them up on a final night. Once we made the decision, we were able to relax, knowing everything was already packed and we could get off to an early start and get ourselves down to Tarifa. Unknown to us, they were meeting friends for dinner, so we were able to go out for a pleasant evening of lovely Spanish nibbles in good company, and saw off Europe with a little style.

We got on the road the next day at 9am, and somewhere along the line decided not to stay the night in Tarifa, thinking if we could get to the ferry early enough, we would hit Morocco that day. Alison and Andy had already talked us out of going to Gibraltar for several reasons – it’s expensive to go to the top of the rock by cable car or a long hot walk, we didn’t want to lose too much time, and we could have got caught in bottleneck traffic in either direction. We were really only going for iconic status anyway, it’s a shame we missed it as we were really keen to add a Gibraltar sticker to panniers, but in the end we just wanted to get ourselves on that ferry! There were several ticket shops along the highway into Algeciras and Tarifa, so that made life quick and easy, and we soon found ourselves booked onto the 1pm ferry to Tanger!! Knowing that time was either 1 or 2 hours behind in Morocco, this left us comfortable in knowing we would get through customs and comfortably outside Tanger for the night. We had chosen the Tarifa-Tanger crossing as we had to buy Moroccan insurance for the bike, not only because our insurance was running out that day, but because our policy didn’t cover Morocco anyway. We had learned this is easily done at Tanger. I know Xander is writing all details of the border process, so I won’t repeat but I wasn’t really involved anyway! Suffice to say while he was running around, I was in charge of changing money and heard my first Moroccan Muslim call to prayer. While it was not as beautiful and haunting as those we heard in Tunisia nearly 3 years ago, it brought a huge grin to my face. We had crossed a continent and reached another on motorbike, all on our own!! We were in £%*&%^% Africa!!!!

Having already bought lunch, but not having time to eat before or during the 35 minute ferry crossing (on a Devil Cat for those Tassies who know them – at least the crossing was very gentle or it would have lived up to its other name for me!!), we travelled to the first nice looking spot outside Tanger. The reason for this is that it’s Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, and while Westerners are not expected to fast, it is considered rude to eat or drink in front of those who are fasting. Our stopping spot turned out to be a beach, where we got to see a cow being taken for a bath in the ocean Right from the start, the strangeness of Africa! Xander got to ceremoniously remove the compulsory-in-Europe sticker indicating the bike is from the UK – it has caused a bit of confusion for us so far, and while most people soon realise we’re Aussies from the two stickers on the bike, we want to make it clear we’re not British! Even though we were feeling fairly fresh, we pushed on only 50km from Tanger to Asilah, having read in our guide book that this was a tourist place on the beach, but had a nice medina (old walled city centre) and sounded better than the next city. We found today we certainly made the right choice, as Asilah was beautiful, small and quiet, while nearby Larache looked huge and unpleasant when we passed by. We found a hotel for more than we were hoping to pay, but they let us park inside the front of the building (heard that happens a lot, this was inside an old lounge area!), and some later price comparisons found we had a reasonable deal. The room was OK, if rather dirty around the edges with some dodgy plumbing, but it was clean where it mattered and the manager was very friendly. In fact, that is one thing that has stood out so far - just how friendly the people have been, asking if we need help, welcoming us to their country randomly, saying hello or waving or honking when they see us. We went for a walk to catch the city before sunset, to enjoy its prettiness and look for nice golden photos, and found a lovely view from the waterfront. We then joined everyone else in breaking the fast after the sun had set and the prayer call had been made, enjoying a simple but nice meal of chicken couscous and fish tagine, surrounded by dozens of cats including two we named Mr Mao and One-Eyed Jack. They are nice to cats in Arabic countries, very tolerant of their arrogant behaviour, but not to dogs -I’ve read it’s because the Prophet Mohammed said cats were OK but dogs were dirty.

We decided this morning to get ourselves down to Fes and start seeing the cities - as nice as it was in Asilah, there was not much more to it than what we saw last night. Fes was a good starting point, as there is a lot to see there and in neighbouring Meknes, and nearby is the ruined Roman city of Volubilis, which is high on our to-see list. We had also met a New Zealand couple on the ferry, who gave us their details if we would like to visit them, and they live between both cities. This helps us avoid backtracking when we head up to the capital Rabat, where we need to get our Mauritania and Mali visas. After that, we plan to mostly hit small towns and get down to the real exploring! On our way to Fes, we stopped at the Roman ruins of Lixus, just outside Larache. This free entry site is quite extensive, although it was difficult to see exactly how the city worked and what the different buildings were, even with our guide book. The amphitheatre was cool but small (we’ve seen a few now!) and the mosaic that was the only remaining one on the site had now been removed. I only hope it went to the museum with the others and was not stolen, as it had apparently been vandalised for some time. While it was cool to visit a site that was crumbling and not manicured, it felt sad that the site was not cared for and upheld as part of the country’s history. Also the site was covered in killer mozzies and midgies! We had swarms following us around, and the bug repellent only did so much – I left part of my arms untouched and have huge bites now!

We got our first taste of African off-roading when we decided to leave the highway for a cart track to eat lunch where people would not see us well. Big mistake! Two large pools of water led Xander to some solo crossings that he didn’t feel ready for, as he had to make his way around the pools on tiny tracks. He got through without falling, even on one really tight bit, and I was very proud of him. All the time while we were eating, people (mostly in trucks) were honking and waving at us - very strange! The big bike has certainly been attracting some attention towards us, and people seem to appreciate it. Both not feeling great with headaches, we decided to push on to Fes. After a relatively easy trip except for some slow trucks, bad drivers and badly repaired road edges, we reached the city around 3.30pm - good timing for finding ourselves somewhere to stay, but a bit late really for hitting a city. Fes is confusing, and we had many trips around, including squeezing down tiny alleys! Touts were everywhere, trying to get us to go with them, so you couldn’t slow down - they even chased us on scooters! We eventually decided to stay at one of the first hotels we saw and the only one we looked into. It was very newly refurbished, had a great central location and roof terrace overlooking the medina, the room was good and included breakfast. There was an official guide waiting at the hotel, he was very friendly, got some money knocked off the room rate, and showed us where we could park the bike securely for a fee. We’re finding it doesn’t hurt to talk to people and get a sense of what is on offer, even if you’re not interested in paying for anything, and people have mostly been friendly to help us on our way or OK if we say no. The hassle is not TOO bad, except when walking in medina and kids try to do anything like guide you or find a restaurant or hotel for you. We liked the official guide Ali, and met with him tonight to arrange a guided tour tomorrow. While not normally something that what we do, we felt having a guide was a good way to get an introduction to Moroccan culture, as well as the city. This is mainly because our Nepal trip 10 years ago and our Romanian wildlife/culture guide last year showed us more insight into how people live than you can find on your own. Already we have had sweet peppermint tea with Ali and he has told us so much, including teaching us some Arabic! He’s been really great and even insisted on buying our teas, which was most unexpected. While the half-day tour will cost more than we really want, I think it will be worth it and our month here will benefit from it. We enjoyed a very good meal of meat tagine and brochettes (meat kebab) plus salad and soup. For dessert, we’ve bought a selection of sweets that people gorge themselves on each evening to break the fast – so far it’s basically fried dough drowned in honey and so sweet we couldn’t eat them all!