November 21, 2015
Almost overnight, something changes for us in Morocco. Perhaps it’s the energy that envelops Meknes, perhaps it’s the massive injection of B12 back into our diets. Maybe, it’s just me letting go of trying to push through things and easing myself back into the headspace of allowing things to unfold as they may and taking each moment as it simply is in that instant. To be clear, it’s not the result of some spiritual enlightenment or the like, rather it’s the reward of being defeated – of failure. I fight it constantly yet sometimes it can be the greatest teacher I have and, here, it’s reminding me to slow down, to get healthy. Enjoy the journey. After all, who wants to spend all of this effort to merely enjoy it’s completion?
Meknes feels like a return to the roots of our journey and the roots of this truly beautiful country we’ve been riding. There’s a wonderful collision of old and new here, of sober tradition and youthful hope. The riad we have the privilege of staying in has been painstakingly redeveloped by it’s owners, Layla and Aziz, a husband and wife team. Even with two mishaps, getting lost and nearly burning out a clutch on our ride into town, we still manage to arrive early while our hosts are out running midday errands. We’re greeted by Fatma, a maid here, who seats us in the beautifully ornate lobby before offering us each a fruit drink. It’s obvious by her hands that she’s a hard worker but their roughness is tempered by an unusually light and beautiful smile. Fatma gives up laughter easily and, before long, we’re all sharing a good laugh while Nita and I struggle through pre-ordering dinner off the French- and Arabic-only menu. After finishing our drinks, we enjoy a moment by the window in our room letting the sounds, sights and smells of the city drift through the curtains.
Layla and Aziz have created an oasis in the city with the Riad Yacout. There’s a hint of contemporary design that winds it’s way through the building but everywhere there are details that point towards a strong understanding of the buildings history. The comforts of each space seem to echo features of the city – from the tiles that decorate the floors, to the intricate wrought-iron rails that line the courtyard – this place is truly as beautiful as it is peaceful. Each room is unique – there are no prefab plans at work here – and the effect is wonderful. Much like Meknes itself, one could have a different experience every day even if they were to follow the same paths and corridors.
That evening, we’re fed an incredible meal of tagines by Norden, a kind man who happily shares stories of the area with us and a plan to walk through the nearby market (or souq) the following day quickly takes shape. Across the square, doused in the orange light of the fading sun, swallows disappear into the walls while we watch night fall from the roof-top of this truly special place. The air has cooled but it’s still very warm and, with the window in our room open, we fall asleep to the sounds of the city.
The morning rush is still quiet when we wake up. The sound of beeping horns and engines still hasn’t made it’s way into the courtyard yet, perhaps a sign that the judicial buildings have yet to open. The only sounds we really hear at all are the birds beginning to stir and the call to prayer (or adhan) that wakes us from a deep sleep at about 4:30 in the morning. Directly across from us, a loudspeaker is mounted high on the wall and it’s regular song keeps us aware of the time throughout our stay. The sound of the adhan is something we’ve fallen in love with during our travels in North Africa and the muezzin here is especially good.
Breakfast is included in our rate and is served at a small table not far from the edge of the rooftop. It’s delivered by Fatma, the wonderful cleaning lady from the previous day, dressed from head to toe in a bright pink uniform. Once again, it’s not long before we’re chatting with her in a mix of French, terrible Arabic and equally terrible signing – something she finds quite entertaining and which seems to make us fast friends.
There’s still a chill in the air from the early morning and the light that’s draped across the wall from our window is stunning. Once again the swallows are busy, dropping from their nests in the wall, falling for a moment before darting skyward with terrific speed. Occasionally, two will meet in the sky above our heads and dance around one another briefly before breaking off to find more food. Only a few people can be seen strolling through the commons, as if taking a moment to brace themselves for the day ahead. From our rooftop perch the city feels remarkably calm and, far from the relative chaos that greeted us just the previous afternoon, we feel a certain peace now. Finally, it seems, we’re back in the moment of what this journey is.
Our days in Meknes are spent basking in it’s atmosphere and the people that call it home. There’s so much life being lived here – it’s like the roads that twist their way towards this city’s heart – there’s a density to the emotions and experiences that thicken the air. Even in our little courtyard within the medina life plays out on a grand scale. Near the courthouse families grieve and celebrate judicial decisions collectively while children play football in oblivious joy. Old men flank the parks edge laughing and arguing in what seems to be equal measure while women meet and watch, offering an occasional glance at a nearby man, a head-shake and smile – our only glimpse into their conversation.
Every morning here begins similarly – we meet briefly with “Willy” the guardian who’s watching our bikes for us while we stay in the medina. He’s a tiny man – perhaps a touch over five feet. Perhaps. His smile easily makes him seem larger and, as we leave the door of the riad, he’s already making his way toward us. Salaam is followed by a firm handshake before he quickly turns to lead us to the bikes. He expects us to check them daily while reaffirming that everything’s a-ok. He speaks no English, no French and, to be honest, we’re not entirely sure that he’s speaking Arabic. The other men seem to like him and we certainly do. We often end the daily ritual with a good laugh before heading into town and it’s a meeting that always seems to set our day off on the right foot.
Wandering the nearby markets becomes a daily pilgrimage. Getting lost in it’s side-streets and mixed into the surge that moves away from it’s centre provides a glimpse into daily life here. There are tourists; a few are European, fewer still American, but most are simply from other parts of Morocco. On our first day out Nita dresses for the weather – shorts that end just above the knee and a t-shirt. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that this is a mistake. It’s not men landing long gazes that’s the issue, but the drawn stares from other women that’s most disconcerting. We’re being unintentionally offensive which is really no better than being intentionally so. In most of our travels through North Africa we’ve done our best to be respectful, but this is truly a momentary lapse that brings about some perplexed faces.
After a quick change, we return to the markets and glide through the streets much more comfortably – for everyone involved!
We make our way towards the streets of the market through the Place el-Hedim, a large square that’s often filled with vendors selling homemade wares, beggars, animal rides, tour operators and is flanked by a string of restaurants which, according to our hosts at the Riad, are all of questionable quality. Walking through the courtyard is akin to being a contestant in one of those Japanese gauntlet gameshows; everything comes at you at once but somehow it all seems kind of fun. As they did in Chefchaouen, men from the restaurants try to lure us onto their patios with grins, shouts and wild gesturing. A younger hustler with a wide smile begins yelling “Ni hao! Ni hao!” at Nita and our smiles only seem to reinforce the behaviour. We take note that there are people in every culture who seem to think that other ethnicities all look the same. This realization makes us laugh much harder. I suggest Nita reply “Jambo” since it’s origins are about as close to Arabic as “Ni hao” is to Vietnamese. Of course the real kicker is he probably would have understood…
From the bright, wide open swath of the square, we quickly descend into the side-streets that form the markets. The narrow pathways seem to close in above us my like a lane through an ancient wood. Even with the mid-day sun the shops remain shaded and cool providing a wonderful respite from the gaining heat. Sometimes these streets lead into areas that are covered by tarps or tin, while other times the lead to wide, bright roads with colourful vendors lining both sides for what feels like miles. The market seems to be divided into areas; mens fashion, women’s fashion, food, electronics, home decor, shoes. It’s endless.
The shop-owners in the market are mostly low-pressure which has generally been our experience in Morocco – though we haven’t made it to Marrakech where the pressure to buy is legendary. Even stopping to gaze at their goods, many of the vendors simply smile while a few invite us in. Some are too involved in games, their phones or conversation with a nearby friend to be concerned with us – which is fine. We’re not here to shop really, the bikes make shopping for trinkets difficult. We love walking these streets and both of us sport what must be ridiculous smiles. Occasionally, the adhan drifts from a loudspeaker hung from nearby wall and it’s song warms our hearts. It’s a reminder that we’re far from home, wrapped in the blanket of a different culture. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but sometimes it’s exquisite.
The Adhan in the market, Meknes
Coloured fabrics belie the bland walls they cover but occasionally the road meanders into ceilinged rooms that are often elaborately tiled. It’s disorienting for a moment; with no notice we move from outdoors to indoors – and out again just as easily. In one particular rug store the owner begins to talk with us at length about our journey. He invites us upstairs for a cup of mint tea; it’s a sales tactic we experience often – especially in Kairouan. But this man is low pressure and his company is kind. While Nita peruses his stock, we talk more about the rich history of the area, his family and the stunning ancient door that’s found it’s resting place against a far wall. For generations it brought families, friends and customers through their shop. When the shop was destroyed, all that was saved was the door. Clearly not for sale, the door continues to bring him good fortune, inshallah.
By the time we’re done our tea, Nita’s found a small carpet to replace the one stolen from her bike in Toujane – hardly a heartbreaking loss since our stray puppy-friend in Douz had transferred a number of fleas and ticks to it before we left. Still, I miss that little guy – bugs and all.
To the east of Place el-Hedim is Bab Mansour, a massive and beautifully decorated gate built in 1732. Upon completion, the architect El-Mansour was asked by the sultan Moulay Ismail if he believed he could have done any better. Feeling compelled to say yes, Moulay Ismail had the architect executed. There’s a lesson in there somewhere if you deal with sultans daily! Now, Bab Mansour is home to an art gallery that features artist from near and far.
The walk back to the Riad provides the only real shock of our time in Meknes. The infrequent doorways along the road provide temporary shelter to the homeless, the drunk and the mentally ill. In the fading heat of the day, this section of road smells strongly of urine and what appears to be a man scratching himself turns out to be a vigorous session of public masturbation. A young man walking in the opposite direction notices and begins yelling at him while impersonating the mans exaggerated self-gratification. And so it is, part of life in Meknes.
Back at the Riad, our favourite evening pastime is watching the sun blaze bright orange in the sky before disappearing behind the hills to the west. It’s fiery hue lights the wall opposite us in the courtyard and the swallows emerge again for a furious evening feast. As the shadows begin to draw down the walls face, a quiet returns to the medina and its as if we’ve always been alone here. Only the evening adhan from the towering, emerald minaret across the way shakes our solitude. We both feel quite calm here.
Our one remaining day is filled with more wandering the streets of Meknes. A new road leads us to a pharmacy where we pick up some B12 tablets for Nita. Her hearts been fairly stable since increasing her intake of meat and dairy (primary sources of B12), but the constant ingestion of a neo paleo-diet is growing tiresome. We lunch next-door to Mr. “Ni-hao” which seems both vexing and hilarious to him all at once. We’re fortunate we do since a sudden windstorm blows over his umbrellas – something that normally wouldn’t be a problem. However, the umbrellas that line this strip of patios are homemade from canvas and rebar which, if I were to guess, weigh about two- to three-hundred pounds apiece. With three inches of exposed rebar protruding from under the canopy, the falling umbrellas are more akin to whirling blades of death than comfortable summer shelter!
In the hopes of avoiding another sudden squall, we quickly down our food and make for another untravelled street. After rounding a corner we see hundreds of people setting up temporary stalls along the road just beyond the medina. Families unload their wares by the bagful and soon the crush of goods and people spill onto the road. The police quickly move in and get the vendors to move back onto the sidewalk with little protest. There’s an excitement in the air; it’s almost celebratory. Ice cream stands pop up out of nowhere and the colourful stacks of cones reach limply into the sky like the tentacles of an upside-down octopus. Shoes and clothes are strewn about everywhere while careful displays of pots and pans are flanked by naked mannequins and heavy blankets. Everywhere we look people are smiling, sharing stories, meeting with family and, well, living. It reminds us of the fairs and markets we’ve seen around the world and reveals, again, that there are simple threads that unite us all.
In the evenings, as the shadows begin to grow long, we emerge from the darkening streets back onto Place el-Hedim where the sparsely populated obstacle course has been replaced by hordes of people enjoying themselves in the now-sprawling market. Besides the influx of sidewalk vendors, a large group of street-performers have also made their way here. Often surrounded by a circle of people, acrobats perform stunts while musicians and artists vie for the attention of the swelling crowds. The atmosphere is wonderful. Children run in all directions and the onlookers gaze with wide smiles, a few joining in on the songs while nudging neighbours into the chorus.
We finish our night with another wonderful meal from the folks at Riad Yacout which always begins with a salad of beets, corn, potatoes, palm hearts, and beans in a vinaigrette. Many of our meals in Morocco have been served with a variation on this theme and while the quality can be hit or miss, here it’s a definite hit. Nordan (who reminds us a lot of Anthony Bourdain in looks and swagger), delivers some small plates of traditional dishes and leaves us to savour the smells and flavours before we deliver them eagerly to our mouths. It’s wonderful.
Back in our room, a small knock at the door takes us by surprise. Everyday, Nita and Fatma have been exchanging gifts of smiles and heartfelt conversations and, on our last night here, Fatma wanted to bring a handful of gifts from the market for us to take on our journey. Just lovely. Sated and tired, we fall asleep to the quiet hum of the city outside our window.
Our last breakfast is the typical bounty of breads (including msemen and honey, a favourite), yoghurt, an egg, juice and strong coffee; it’s a perfect way to begin a travel day. Our home for the next few nights is Tangier and todays travels will take us back to the Atlantic for the first time in over eight months. We’re excited to get back on the road, almost forgetting for a moment the struggles of late. Hopping the bikes off of the sidewalk and parking them in front of the riad, we load them to a small audience before saying goodbye. It’s the only morning “Willie” hasn’t been around and a part of us is a little sad that we won’t get the chance to say farewell to him.
Leaving Meknes is much easier than arriving. A few turns (and a quick “Fake right, go left” manoeuver to dodge a little lady in a wheelchair) and we’re back on the road heading northwest. We decide to take a secondary road to avoid the crush of traffic in the heart Sidi Kacem and opt to skirt the northern edge of Sidi Slimane before taking another secondary road to the main highway to Tangier. It all makes sense on maps – as it often does. Far from the chaos we’re expecting, the city still seems a little sleepy and we slip from it’s loose grasp without batting so much as an eye.
Into the country the roads begin to narrow and soon we find ourselves on a pin-straight road that’s heavily trafficked by trucks. The road finally settles on a width that barely allows us to pass oncoming traffic without running onto the dirt that lines it. Slowing down is not in the repertoire of the truck drivers that frequent these roads and a number of times we find ourselves pulling to the side and stopping to let them pass. Add to the mix a few slow-moving tractors, roadside herds of sheep and the occasional work crew, and we have a pretty standard day on the roads!
Eventually some curves begin to meet us as we climb our way through the foothills that mark a western hint of the Rif Mountains. A yellow Mercedes van is struggling to make it up the hill so, with ample room, I pass expecting Nita to follow close behind. Rather, noticing me pass the yellow van moves to block Nita mid-way almost nudging her off the road. Anywhere else and I’d have images in my head of a madman angrily trying not to lose some imagined position. Here though he’s simply trying to stay on the limited tarmac while also trying to get a better look at my bike – unaware that another is trying to pass. I see him waving wildly at me through the window, smiling and resting his arm long enough to give me a thumbs-up. After about twenty minutes of trying to pass, Nita finally gets by.
Our road comes to an abrupt end and offers only a sharp left or a sharp right. Taking the left, we make our way down an even more narrow road that leads us to Sidi Slimane. This particular stretch is dominated equally by trucks and overloaded tractors that threaten to spill their load with every gust of the growing cross-wind. Again, we have to pass on the far shoulder – there simply isn’t enough room to pass on the tarmac, nor is there enough run-off to deal with the constant swerving of these heavily ladened haulers.
We can tell we’re getting closer to a city; there are more trike-taxi’s appearing on the road and almost every one brings a huge smile and wave from the driver. Each has been customized by it’s owner – some look like modern bikes, while some have been made to look like Harleys. Well, a Harley/Ranchero combination. All through Sidi Slimane we’re greeted by smiles and waves. The town is, if I’m to be honest, pretty nondescript but the folks that live here seem full of life. It’s one of the things that will stay with me always; western media may enjoy painting North Africa with a certain brush but, truly, the people we’ve met here have been so kind, so warm, so not what CNN or Fox or whoever would have us believe.
Leaving the friendly faces of Sidi Slimane behind, we begin heading north toward Tangier and spend a good portion of the journey mixing in with fruit trucks taking their haul to the city. We play a game of leap frog with a small Mitsubishi that’s carrying a full load of watermelons; when we slow down behind traffic he overtakes wildly regardless of oncoming traffic. Once we pass the slow movers we easily catch up with him and pass. Eventually we get held up in traffic and the process begins again. One particularly painful slow-mover is a dump-truck overfilled with turnips. Not only does it feel like we’re stuck behind him for an hour but the loose mesh holding in his precious cargo begins to fail sending turnips whizzing past our heads! It keeps us entertained for a good part of the trip before we finally get a decent stretch where we can put some distance between us.
The days riding is great fun and it strikes us how good it is to feel that way about it. The landscape – even in the hills – isn’t as breathtaking as it had been on the northern coast, but it is still great to be outside and to be, well, in it. Soon enough we begin seeing the signs for Tangier – not the capital, fyi (that’s Rabat, to the south). Also not Tangiers with an “S”, though the GPS would argue otherwise.
Riding through Tangier is surprisingly easy. Entering from the southwest, we manage to avoid the medina and the cities ample roads deliver us effortlessly to our hotel for the next few nights. Set on the beach, Husa Solazar is really a reward for having made it through Morocco and not having a heart explode, not being arrested, not being eaten by wild dogs and not getting dysentery. It’s not cheap, but it’s not ridiculous either.
The requirements for Tangier are simple; relax, recuperate and prepare for what will be a long push through Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland and Germany. We have a meeting with Touratech in Niedereschach and we’re already nearly a month late. We also have to monitor Nita’s heart. She’s decided to undergo an operation that will hopefully fix her Wolff-Parkinson-White once and for all. A few emails to her doctor at home have resulted in a date for the procedure: Mid-October, 2013. Whatever happens, we’ll be on a plane back to Canada at that point.
Tangier is kind to us. Much like Fès we hermit but do at least make it out of the hotel. There’s a wonderful beach which begs to be walked daily and we’re not far from the port from which we’ll be leaving North Africa. We walk it’s length and do a walkthrough of our exit from Morocco; the port here is calm and we can’t imagine it’ll be anything like what we went through in Melilla. Our walk back to the hotel takes us past the ancient medina, through some trinket stores and we both buy gifts for family at home – small things we can carry until October, and some that we’ll send by post.
Morocco hasn’t gone as planned, not even close. But it’s left a real impression on us and, on the bright-side, there’s plenty for us left to do here. One day. Our friends from Tunisia, Mudy and Lorena, have moved back here and a friend from Montréal plays in a club in Casablanca. All through North Africa people have taken us in – as friends, as patients, as strangers – and we’ve fallen in love with it here. There are many things that are broken and the political situation in the region always appears tenuous, but the people, they’re something special.
We’ll be back, inshallah.