By: Tom Grundy, West Midlands, England
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Nous faisons l' autostop au Maroc pour un organisation
benevole I ineloquently announced to a burly trucker with my
GCSE French spluttering back into life. All the truck drivers on
board fitted the stereotype neatly yet, despite their tattoo-ridden,
bearded, meaty, brink-of-violence appearance, they were all incredibly
friendly and sympathetic. Interrupting myself part way through the
next line of my inarticulate appeal, I realised my first victim
was blatantly British. He laughed and said he was going to Germany.
This was not good. Along with my gap year buddy Dave we were meant
to be hitch-hiking to Morocco for "Link" , an African
development charity, but found that most people on our 5-hour ferry
to Le Havre were headed East or twenty minutes down the road. We
pondered the progress of the 400 other sponsored hitchers (including
dozens from Leeds University) and began to plan a night on the streets
to await the next influx of passengers from Portsmouth.
Cue Jimmy, our saviour, who approached a flustered
Dave and I proposing a lift straight to Morocco. We couldn' t believe
our ears, or luck - cheerful Jimmy, in his 50s from Surrey, was
working on the set of the latest 20th Century Fox blockbuster in
the Sahara. The following two minutes would be crucial, as this
was the only opportunity for each party to judge the sanity of the
other. No-one fancied sharing a confined space with a fanatical
moron for four days. We also had to consider sacrificing the challenge,
romance and adventure (and potential for pillage, rape and murder)
associated with hitching down through France and Spain. It seemed
like fate and too irresistible to refuse, so we abandoned our specially
constructed multi-coloured "give-us-a-lift" banners and
hopped into Jim' s van.
Jimmy explained how truckers are slaves to their
tacographs which, connected to the speedometer, dictate the frequency
and length of stopovers and breaks. Having reached his "miles-per-day"
limit and with no funky, cheap hotels in sight, we pulled into a
quaint, dark village and asked if we can sleep with the scaffolding
in the back. The only thing worse than our ensuing uncomfortably
sleepless sub-zero experience was discovering, next morning, an
ample menagerie of hotels right behind the van. Kicking ourselves,
we pressed on with a few hours of driving and pulled into a service
station for brunch. Although my sausages appeared to contain all
manner of arteries, veins and other vague animal giblets, we all
felt ready to hit the toll roads again and hoped to arrive in Spain
by the end of the evening.
Since picking us up, our driver had been keen on
passionately expressing his opinion on every political issue under
the sun - ten minutes after meeting him, he shared his somewhat
skewed thoughts on immigration. At first, we felt obliged to nod,
laugh nervously and agree with Jimmy - the last thing we wanted
was to be thrown out for questioning the wisdom of our host. However,
as the trip unfolded and we got to know each other, we were eventually
telling him to “stop talking bloody crap ”as we debated
such hot topics as royalty, terrorism, NHS, God, poverty, homosexuality,
disability, racism and Celine Dion.
The intensity of the journey also gave David and
I the opportunity to perfect our skills at annoying one another.
Dave's 'old-man' style snoring, overly loud apple consumption and
his habit of placing all his rubbish in random pockets of my rucksack
soon began to grate. Then again, I'm sure he wasn't too impressed
with pigeon impressions and my new craze of " extreme blinking'
After a trouble-free border crossing, we pulled
into a clinically average roadside hotel. Over drinks, we occasionally
sensed a bigoted, homophobic, racist woman-hater burning inside
Jimmy but overall we actually concluded that family-man Jimmy was
actually quite liberal for his age. He also generously insisted
on using his float from Fox to pay for our meals. Knowing that a
major Hollywood studio was paying for my tortilla made it taste
all the better.
Aside from the awesome views of olive groves and
mountains, the main feature of our penultimate day on the road was
being forced to have a drink in one of the many Spanish roadside
brothels. Happily married with kids, Jimmy seemed to have an unhealthy
curiosity with such establishments yet insisted he'd never been
inside. I spent most of our " quick drink" panicking whilst
several ladies accosted and groped us. Somewhat traumatised, I eventually
went back to the van to selflessly ensure the tires were inflated
to an acceptable level.
Back on the road, we skirted past Madrid and stayed
in another bargain trucker hotel. By lunchtime the following day
we had navigated the siesta rush hour traffic of Malaga and were
ready to bid our emotional farewells to our chauffeur. During the
roughest ferry journey of my life, Dave began fraternising with
the first of many hitchers on board whilst I grabbed some random
Arabs for a crash course in Moroccan Arabic pronunciation. No master
of language, there are still some tricky phrases I find impossible
to utter without covering my unfortunate comrade in a gallon of
Warnings about the port town of Tangier being infested
with jostling con-men, swindlers, crooks and general scum were found
to be exaggerated. In fact, most warnings from back home about Morocco
seemed to rather inaccurate. The explicit poverty, filth and hassle
weren' t half as 'bad' as expected, the people were friendly, the
springtime weather was annoyingly rather British and I actually
felt quite safe walking the streets. In fact, the only thing
which probably annoyed me were disrespectful fellow tourists with
no sense of cultural sensitivity, even when in the most liberal
town of the most liberal Muslim country - Marrakech.
Having linked up with a (very) American guy named
Brian and about a dozen other hitchers, we assessed our transport
options. 'Petit taxis' (small Fiats), 'maxi-taxis' (saloons) or
'scabby horse and cart' were the main choices for short journeys,
whilst the surprisingly civilised train and coach services were
great for travelling between cities.
With us all checked into 'Hotel Ali' in Marrakech' s main medina,
we each went out to get lost in the winding alleyways of the 'red
city' . Everything was centred around the central square which came
to life at night with food vendors, entertainers, musicians, storytellers
and dancers. Small streets led off from the central medina to endless
rows of shops selling the best selection of bangles and jangles
I've ever seen. Calls to prayer, music, snake charmers and drumming
could be heard from every direction, and even without the necessary
haggling, everything was pretty affordable.
Feeling peckish we arranged to meet at stall 114,
run - apparently - by some cheerful locals called Abdul, Abdul,
Abdul and Abdulla. Over cow udder, salad and chips, we discussed
taking a three day tour through the Atlas Mountains to see some
of the sights and have a couple of days camel trekking in the Sahara.
We recruited an eccentrically indecipherable Irishman called Darragh,
therapist Brian from Arkansas and from Leeds, fellow ginger northerner
Liz, fluent-in-French Emily and action-man Tony to join us.
We left at 6am next morning and only the splendid
mountainous views compensated for the uncomfortably long journey.
Now suffering from the runs, Dave was unable to appreciate our first
stop - the awe-inspiring magnificence of Todra Gorge. With my camcorder
conveniently out of battery, I was only able to photograph about
a tenth of the huge formation at a time.
Settling down for the night at a very Agatha Christie-esque
spooky hotel, we watched Dave play the drums with some natives in
front of a log fire and wondered who would be first to be murdered.
Feeling moderately crusty after a cold shower, I
joined the others for the usual traditionally bland breakfast of
sweet coffee, bread and marmalade. Talk was of the Sahara, as we
were to spend an evening crossing the perimeter on camels before
camping down. The first thing that hits you heading towards the
desert is the fact that it just seems to start - very suddenly.
From a distance, the perfect red sand dunes looked just like a postcard
- it was as if there was a long billboard sitting on the horizon.
After clumsily boarding our camels, we christened our beasts (Humphrey,
Sally etc...) and spent most of the journey in reasonable discomfort
cracking one bad joke after another. (Insert your own camel/desert
As the scorching heat of the day rapidly gave way
to the awesomely peaceful and clear night sky, we settled into our
campsite and collectively felt the need to scale one of the local
dunes. Harder and more knackering than anticipated, the thin, golden
sand became very fine as one went higher up. As for getting back
down to the bottom, there was only one real option, and that was
roly-poly - something I later regretted, as I'm still finding bits
of Sahara in places you wouldn't believe. Sharing a traditional
dish of vegetable tagine (a kind of stew), we watched the shimmering
sky as satellites whizzed past in the eerily calm silence.
Awaking relatively sleepless at 5am, we all gathered
to watch the sunrise - my camera falling victim to the sand during
the best bit of the show. By lunchtime, we were driving through
a snowstorm back to Marrakech.
From here the group split up - Dave, Darragh and
I proceeded to the tacky, cultureless, package tourist hangout of
Agadir before moving on to the mystical medieval city of Fez. I
joined them via Casablanca, whose only worthwhile attraction was
the Hassan II Mosque, a modern multi-million dollar temple on par
with the Taj Mahal in its majesty.
I spent an additional week backpacking solo before
calling in on Gibraltar then flying home from Malaga on the not-so-prestigious
Knee-jerk foreign office warnings and the mere fact that it is a
Muslim country appear to deter backpackers and tourists from this
welcoming country, which offers an exceptional combination of European,
African, Arab and Berber influences as well as great weather. Morocco
is accessible, affordable, undeniably beautiful and certainly undeserving
of its seemingly poor reputation.
- We raised over £1250 for Link