November 21, 2015
The days of wishing for things like good weather are a distant memory. Leaving the wonderful town of Chefchaouen all we’re hoping for is a day without drama; a day of clear riding along Moroccos roads. A day of being pulled completely into the landscape and the people that make this country so wonderful. We get our wish with little argument and our love of this countries beauty simply continues to grow with every passing turn.
We’ve had a challenging run and, to be honest, we’re feeling weary but a day like today can somehow make it all seem worthwhile. There aren’t any complaints – life on the road is, by it’s nature, a collection of highs and lows, and neither of us would trade it for the world. Lately though, it’s been tough and both of us are probably spending too much time trying to figure out a cure for what’s ailing us. A little rest and relaxation somewhere might be all we need.
As the twisty roads of the Rif Mountains begin to lower their slender fingers toward the plains, Nita and I talk about staying still for a few days. Perhaps four. Four seems like a mini-vacation and it may give her heart and our minds enough time to recover. The thought creeps in that perhaps, with Tunisia in our pocket, we’ve approached Morocco with a little too much confidence. It’s possible, but really makes no difference. Crashes, the trots and a twitchy heart aside, this country is amazing.
Our remaining hours in the Rif see us passing farmers hauling their goods along the roadside atop donkeys and, sometimes, just their heads. The loads appear impossibly heavy yet, more often than not, it’s little old ladies who’ve doubled their height with bound branches. Ribbons of colourful stalls begin to spring up in small clearings that provide just enough space to display shirts and rugs all sporting intense hues.
Children walk in small groups towards school and stare with curious eyes until one eventually plucks up the courage to wave which invariably unleashes a flood happy greetings. If I’m to be honest, there’s very little in this world that compares with the excitement of a child! It makes us smile for miles and miles.
As our time in the cooler air of the mountains ends, the landscape begins to roll in undulating fields of gold and green. Heavily-loaded tractors and trucks begin to replace the steady stream of donkeys we see in the mountains and soon it feels as though we’re in a completely different country. Again. Moroccos landscape is truly surprising.
We make a sharp turn in Ouezzane (Wazan), heading east briefly before making our way further south toward Fès, our home for the next few days. After a few hours, our stomachs begin rumbling and we stop at a small street-side café in Jorf el Melha for some water, coffee and food of some description. As we park the bikes, a woman in pink stops in front of us and simply stares. We both smile but her face remains blank – we continue removing jackets, gloves, helmets and, as we move toward the café, she remains in place gazing at the bikes. Finally, settling into our corner on the street, she breaks her stare from them, looks over and, as if woken from a lucid dream, smiles a gentle smile. It’s a lovely moment.
Unfortunately, the café is all out of food and the water is from the tap which means we’ll not be risking it. So, in the beating hot sun of the afternoon, an espresso and warm water from our Kriega hydration packs it is. It’s actually fine since the food prep is being managed by a boy who honestly looks to be about seven. I ask him where the washrooms are and he waves me under the counter with the authority and mannerisms of a man in his sixties. Before travelling to places like North Africa, people seem quite concerned about types of toilet more than amenities. Often, we find the squat loos in pretty decent shape with everything we need to clean ourselves whereas modern washrooms seem to often be laid waste by a series of people with severe aim-issues. This toilet’s clean but lacks paper – a common condition here. Luckily, Nita’s always got some on hand thanks to some lessons early on…
Somewhat refreshed, we make our way back to the bikes and begin the last stretch of our journey towards Fès and continue to be surprised by the fields that line the roads here. Far from the barren desert dotted with occasional brush, this part of Morocco has plentiful fields of wheat, sunflowers and, of course, olive groves. Granted, we are north, but the beauty here is staggering.
Turning down a secondary road towards Fès, the rolling hills and their golden crops remind us of the entry into the foothills back home. In the distance, we can clearly see a vibrantly aqua-coloured lake and, as we get closer, it only becomes more and more brilliant. The only downside of this immaculately blue lake is that it fills both our heads with that Rhianna song leaving us unable to shake it until reaching the city. Still, it’s worth some good laughs! This country is a feast for our senses; our eyes are filled with wonder at every turn and our nostrils with the scent of heated tarmac, warm olives, and the dusty smell of wheat.
Soon, the countryside begins to transform into a major road that leads into the heart of Fès. As we approach our first set of traffic lights all day, a scooter pulls next to us and asks if we’re heading to old-town or new. We often have people on scooters pull-up and chat so we honestly don’t think much of it. As the light changes I yell “Old!” and pull away with a smile and a wave. At the next light we’re rejoined by our new friend.
“I know a man who has great hotel – the greatest hotel! You will be safe. Your bikes will be safe. Follow me.”
Tempting as it is to follow a stranger on bike to an unknown area of a city we’re completely ignorant of (actually, it probably would have been fun), we let him know we’re fine for accommodation. It takes about three more lights before he gives up. Scooter-based salesmen, it turns out, are quite popular in Fès. We make a left and head up a narrow back-street before joining a nicely paved road that takes us through Borj Nord – a park that lines the hills which flank Fès’ northern edge. The street ends at a booth that’s occupied by a security guard who waves us into our hotel for the next few nights. A well manicured lane delivers us to a hotel that’s a bitfancier than either of us expects – a nice surprise after the past few weeks.
Nita’s worked some internet booking magic for us here – we use our free nights from hotels.com and get some end-of-season rates that make our stay at Hotel Merinides affordable for a few days of rest and relaxation. We decide that Fés is the perfect place to stop – to see how Nita’s heart is doing and develop a new plan for Morocco. We unload the bikes, chat with the friendly staff about our journey, dodge a pushy tour operator and, finally, make our way out of the days heat and into the cool of our room. It’s absolute bliss.
A word to describe our time in Fès would be relaxing. Another could be lazy. But honestly, it’s exactly what we need. The views of the bustling medina below, golden sunsets, and oppressive heat are, by far, the highlights of our stay. What’s supposed to be a three night stay extends to four, and then six. With the luxury of silence as we refrain from moving, we discover that Nita’s ticker is misbehaving all the time – something that we’ve likely missed due to the noise and vibration from being on the bikes. Some research turns up a possible answer as to why: B12 deficiency can cause symptoms similar to Wolff-Parkinson-White with the addition of seizing in the hands and feet – something we witnessed in Almeria before our visit to emergency. It also explains why her condition is more persistent than it usually is.
Since Italy, our diet hasn’t been entirely normal and it seems to offer at least a glimmer of hope for our journey. Eating in the Hotel Merinides becomes a vegans nightmare – filled with dairy and protein to hopefully restore her B12 levels to normal. It’s all guesswork and fragile internet theories but it’s also all we have to work with and, over the days, her heart does seem to stabilize.
Hotel Merinides is a proper vacation unlike anything we’ve done during our time on the road. We barely move. The pool calls us daily and we spoil ourselves in the shade with the occasional fruity drink and plenty of reading. The temperatures have soared into the mid-thirties and the suns bright light is threateningly hot. Even the local motorcycle police gather in the shade of a nearby tree to keep themselves cool. We watch them eat their packed lunches and break up their day with a little tussle before eventually getting back on their bikes and heading down the dirt track.
Every night, the sounds of the Fès Sacred Music Festival drift into the room. Well I say drift but really it’s a sonic assault! The yearly festival draws thousands into the Medina to listen to artists from all over the world and, from our room, we can hear the performers whipping the crowds into a cheering frenzy until the early morning hours. It’s awesome!
The only real excitement we face during our stay comes in the form of a man in eighties who befriends us after helping him connect to the internet. A well-known journalist, educator and political advisor, he quickly has us playing a game of dodge’ em in the hotels corridors. The man (who’ll remain nameless) is obviously intelligent and well-versed in the history of northern Africa – a subject that we’re truly interested in. Unfortunately, all of our conversations are rather one-sided; more a presentation than a sharing of ideas. The enthusiasm of my inner history-geek wains after a number of two-hour conversations where Nita and I are literally unable to get a singleword in! Even our awkward body language and drooping eyelids are missed as possible hints of failing endurance.
Invited by the organizers of the Fès Sacred Music Festival, he complains endlessly about his treatment (“They made me pay for my airfare and are going to reimburse me! Ridiculous.”) and the inconvenience of being granted free access to the best seats in the venue (“Ugh, but you see, you’re stuck there for hours.”) He’s quite a treat. The most awkward moment comes at breakfast where he loudly derides the French while knowing that a French couple is sitting next to us – a performance which is followed up by some disparaging remarks about the Moroccans themselves – something that garners a roomful of glares from the staff. As Nita excuses herself for a second walk around the buffet, she whispers that she’s done – she can’t do it anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her get to this point – a point where she can’t give another moment of her time to someone. But I’m with her. Nita and I are certain that this is the last moment we’ll share with him.
It’s a real shame. There’s a lot in him that’s interesting but the blustery facade of intelligence, wealth and import muddle humanity with entitlement. We manage to mostly avoid him for the rest of our stay, only bumping into him occasionally in the lobby. One night our phone rings and our wayward friend is on the other end. Having never told him our last names or our room number, there’s a fair bit of surprise in my voice. Sensing the strangeness of the situation, he readily admits that he’s looked into us and got our number through the front desk. The conversation is awkward for us both and it’s the last time we see or hear from him.
As fancy as Hotel Merinides seemed when we first arrived, it’s turned out to be quite a comfortable place to stay. Nita and I don’t usually cope too well with pomp and circumstance but this place is friendly – genuinely friendly. We often have lovely chats with the staff and, after leaving a tip for the cleaning lady, we find her at our door one afternoon with some beautiful plates as a gift which is a lovely surprise.
While we feel mildly guilty for doing so little in Fès, we both know it’s exactly what we’ve needed. It’s been a wonderful time and Nita’s heart seems quieter than it has in a while. Now if we can just string together a few days of incident-free riding.
We decide that heading further south is fool-hardy. Moving deeper into the extremes of the Atlas and the Sahara while Nita’s heart is so temperamental makes no sense. We both feel a tinge of sadness about the decision but we also know it’s the right one to make. Besides, it gives us a great reason to revisit Morocco in the future.
With the bikes packed, we say our farewells to the staff and begin our days short journey to Meknes and it’s medina. The route seems simple enough; heading west from the hotel we make a left and a right. Then straight along the N6 until Meknes where navigation through it’s densely populated streets sees the return of excitement. Unfortunately we don’t have to wait for Meknes! Turn number one in Fès – 400m from the hotel. As I approach the roundabout, I notice a wide swath of water and, instinctively, head for an inside dry-line. As I exit the traffic circle I hear a surprised gasp over the headset and, as I look in the mirrors, I see Nita’s bike sliding through the intersection with her behind it. Miraculously, the intersection that was buzzing with cars and trucks only moments ago is now empty and both bike and rider slide to a stop free of harm.
I jump off of my bike and run towards her. She’s fine – she’s telling me she’s fine over the headsets. Two men are already attending to the bike and I thank them for their help. I tell Nita to shake it off by my bike while I gather up her motorcycle and ride it over. Looking at the ground, a closer inspection reveals the “Water” is, in fact, coolant and oil from a large truck whose engine recently let go. When we look at the video later, Nita’s tire is about two inches onto the slick when the front slides out from under her. She had no chance to save this one!
Back at the bikes Nita’s spirits are still high; the upside of the situation is that her heart is still normal – no tachycardia! Perhaps a B12 deficiency is the culprit after all. We inspect her bike and, with the exception of some new dents and scratches on her panniers, it all seems quite fine. A tightening loop on her jacket is slightly torn and she’s covered in oil and coolant, but she’s totally fine which is all that matters. With our heart-rates returning to normal, we make a right onto Abu Bakr Ibn Al-Arabi and begin heading west.
The road to Meknes is easy riding. Golden fields rush by before disappearing into spartan landscapes and small towns. The temperature is pushing into the early forties which is surprisingly bearable while we’re moving. Of course arriving at the edge of Meknes puts an end to that! As a city, Meknes is dense and the roads are incredibly congested. The GPS is better in Morocco than in Tunisia where road data is tantamount to a government secret, but in old towns and medina’s what’s actually a road isn’t always clear. Getting to the general area of the medina is fairly straightforward but the last 500m gets difficult quickly.
Turning off of the major throughway, we’re joined briefly by two young boys on a scooter and share some smiles and thumbs-up while riding with us for a little while. A stand-out feature of his bike is the long brake cable dangling unattached from the lever. Brakes, it seems, are optional. The road into the old town is almost at a stand-still and features a long, steep climb toward a Y-intersection. Our friends narrow scooter disappears up the street with us watching as they pitch and wobble their trusty little machine into the distance while we endlessly feather the clutch in the slow-moving line. Advantage, small bike.
The temperature is well into the forties now and the smell of burning clutches fills the air – ours included. If I’m to be honest, my bike doesn’t like stop and go traffic when it’s warm out and shows it’s displeasure by threatening to stall. At this particular moment – in heavy traffic, along a narrow one-way, on a steep hill – I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen. As we approach the intersection the GPS sends us down a narrow street to the left before recommending another steep climb into what looks like a market. It all feels wrong and we come to a stop.
A man in a hi-viz vest asks where we’re going and explains that we have to go back to the beginning of the one ways, back up the long hill and make a right regardless of what the GPS says. We both make twenty-point turns on the narrow street and, as we get ready to leave, notice our hi-viz man arguing with another safety-vested fellow. They’re arguing about how to get to Riad El Yacout, our hotel for the next few days. The new guy is aggressive and moves toward my bike with plenty of authority in his step. “Turn around. Go back up this street.” After a twenty point turn? No chance. We flick the bikes on, thank the first man and hit the gas.
We turn back onto the hill and slowly make our way through the traffic. About halfway to our right turn we come to a complete stop when suddenly I hear Nita half-laughing, half-shocked. “I think somebody hit me!” Turning around, we both see a young man looking up from the ground, eyes wide and head tucked awkwardly into the wheel-well of a neighbouring taxi! Apparently, he either didn’t see Nita or also enjoys riding his scooter without brakes – like our friends from earlier in the day.
All within eyeshot are three completely different reactions to the incident. A man on a nearby scooter begins to laugh while his companion on the back scrunches her face in a painful-looking ooooooooh. The cabbie who’s car has been hit stares out of his window with utter annoyance and the young man who’s crashed simply looks sheepish. “Are you alright?” asks Nita.
“Sorry! Sorry!” is the young mans reply as he quickly tries to pick himself up from the ground.
We smile at him; a benefit of the big bikes is that a knock like that is hardly felt. Advantage, big bikes. For a moment, Nita’s bike is the moose. Making sure he’s alright we begin making our way back up the hill and toward our hotel. The extended break has the bikes complaining again in the heat and it’s not helped by the pedestrians who simply walk in front of the bikes expecting us to stop. We’re used to it but with my bike threatening to stall once again, it ups the stress a little. With a small gap to reach the flats I hit the gas, past a smiling policeman when a man basically comes to a stop in front of me. Removing his hand from my face he safely makes it across the road but my bikes stalled and takes a few tries to get going again.
Once we crest the hill we can finally see the entrance to the medina. Unfortunately, there are no left turns on this busy stretch of road and the sidewalks are lined with loads of police. As we pass the entrance to our home all I can see is a long descent towards a bridge and the idea of repeating our rush-hour hill-climb for a third time inspires us to pull a u-turn across traffic and hop onto the sidewalk – where all of the policemen are hanging out.
It’s a move that definitely attracts their attention, but if we’ve learned anything from our travels it’s that asking directions when we’re being pulled over can (sometimes) magically make the authorities forget why they’re talking to us in the first place! As one officer begins heading our way, Nita flashes a warm grin, waves hello, and hops off her bike to approach him – something that catches the man a little off guard. When she starts asking how to get to the hotel, his stern expression turns to smile and suddenly we have a number of officers helping us find our way, full of smiles, hand-shakes and generally good-cheer. Phew.
We make a right into the medina through a beautifully tiled gate and, in its massive courtyard, are immediately met by a sea of men in hi-viz vests. There’s a courthouse at the far end of this medina and it’s a busy place to find a parking spot. The workers tell people where to park and collect a parking fee from the drivers as they leave. One man tries to wave us into a spot on the sidewalk next to a couple of other bikes but we’re still too far from the hotel for hauling all of our gear.
Nodding at the man in a fairly noncommittal way, I change my mind about parking there at the last minute and we run a lap around the entire courtyard. We find a spot in front of the hotel, pull in, and begin unpacking. A different hi-viz man quickly appears and asks us to move; we explain that we’re staying at the hotel and need to unpack the bikes which, after a few attempts, he seems to understand. We move everything inside, check-in and settle into our room before we notice that the man is still standing by our bikes. The receptionist, seeing the man waiting outside, explains that we’ll need to move the bikes but that they’ll be safe in the medina. When we reappear outside there’s a palpable sense of relief in the mans face. There’s very limited space to park here and every spot counts. Bikes park on the sidewalk, cars park on the roads. It’s how it works; it’s how the folks who are employed here can make the most money possible to feed their families. He also stresses that if the bikes remain here, they can’t be watched – the term night watchmen is to be taken literally; someone will stand watch all night long. It all makes sense to us now.
We hop our bikes onto the square and are directed to a spot by a tiny, tiny man with a giant smile. We agree on a price and shake hands. In a mix of Arabic, French and hand gestures he lets us know our bikes will be safe here. He’s our guardian. For the duration of our stay in Meknes “Willie” takes responsibility for our bikes as if they were his own and, looking into his face, we feel like they couldn’t be in better hands.