We took a late decision to travel from Algeciras, rather than swooping across from Tarifa to Tangiers on the catamaran. No particular reason; just a whim. We’ve travelled both routes before and there’s much to recommend either.
Sailing from Algeciras means we land in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, one of two tiny pieces of Spain on mainland Morocco and in the news recently as the place where the Russian fleet refuelled on entry to the Mediterranean.
A rough crossing on a day far better suited to surfing than sailing, but we’ve had worse, and then arrival in what has to be one of the most disorganised places on Earth.
Ceuta, like many border towns, is chaotic. Inside a corridor with wire sides and roof, like a sheep pen for humans, are the foot passengers. One line arriving, one departing. Those arriving have massive burdens. I saw a man staggering along with a fridge freezer on his back. Those who travel abroad bring back anything they can carry on the return journey. Old bikes, car tyres, bundles of clothes, mattresses; anything portable will have a value ‘back home.’
The cars on the quay where we boarded were stacked with bags and an even larger pile of belongings was strapped to the roof. Recycling, in its purest form. What the West throw away, the Moroccans cherish. They are a supremely resourceful people. There is no litter in Morocco as virtually nothing is ever thrown away, just passed further down the line for others to find useful.
A hundred yards away are the taxis. Hundreds of them. There are two types. The Grand Taxi is invariably a Mercedes saloon; old, battered and with a few hundred thousand miles behind it. They travel long distances and it’s customary to wait until they are full before departing. This may involve at least half a dozen passengers clambering aboard, but it’s also possible for a European couple to travel on their own by paying the driver for his missing ‘others.’ All Europeans are fabulously wealthy. Just ask any local.
The other option, for local journeys, are the Petit Taxis. Each area has a different colour, but apart from this they have little in common, apart from being twenty years old and look as if they’ve come from the nearest scrap yard. Peugeot 205, Fiat Uno and many more. All small. All elderly and all missing wing mirrors.
I’ve driven through the centre of Marrakech, several times. Imagine London, Paris and Rome, at rush hour, then add into the mix drivers who have no conception of road manners, etiquette or even road sense. With me so far? Now imagine every single driver wearing blinkers so they look neither right nor left, gesticulate wildly from an open window with one hand and keep the other hard down on the car horn. Somehow, it works. Minor collisions happen all the time, but are ignored. Every car may have started life with wing mirrors, but their life expectancy would be five minutes, at best so ours was the only vehicle to feature said appendages.
The modern obsession with the effects of ‘stress’ on our general health may have to be reassessed if medical experts took the daily life of a Moroccan taxi driver into account. Stress? We don't know the meaning of the word.
To get to the exit gates a mere hundred yards away from the point of embarkation we still had to satisfy the demands of the immigration ‘system.’
There are small booths, each with a hundred or so people milling around, where we have to show passports, driving licence and vehicle documents.
‘This time, I’m doing it myself,’ I announced. Marigold gave me one of her looks and remained in the car, all doors locked, while I attempted to join the rugby scrum of a queue at the nearest booth. Queuing is a very European idea and is widely ignored, even derided, here. Every man for himself is the only rule.
Inside the booth was a man for whom the word insouciance was invented. Working at the pace of an arthritic sloth he took hold of proffered papers, studied them for about three light years, licked his finger and entered the required details onto a computer. The machine would not have been out of place in a museum. If you remember those early days, square grey box, tiny green flickering screen you're on the right track then add in an operative whose keyboard skills are on a par with those of a reasonably well trained whippet you’ll realise it was going to be slow going.
A very tall man in snowy white robes approached me. ‘Good morning, my friend. I am Mohammed,’ he said. I’ve been here before, met many of these ‘guides’ and they’re invariably named Mohammed. It's the most popular name for a boy in any Moslem country by some distance.
‘Give me your papers,’ he demanded. I looked again at the mob of people in front of me and handed them over. Mohammed handed my precious documents to another robed man who promptly ran off clutching them and disappeared. I walked back to our car to wait.
Marigold's smirk was unbearable. ‘Back already?’
‘Mohammed,’ I said.
The first time we experienced this, it prompted major alarms. Handing passports, some money, driving licence and all the car’s documents to a complete stranger is a major concern. We had no reason to worry then and it was the same today. The second man, probably named Mohammed, tapped on the window five minutes later. They are highly skilled at ‘pushing in’ and somehow make their way to the desk in a matter of seconds. We had our exit documents, travel ‘visa’ and all made easy through a few euros paid to Mohammed and his extended family of Mohammeds.
We changed some euros into Dirhams; having the same thought as last time and the time before: each and every banknote looks as if it’s been repeatedly run over by a fleet of buses and then we were away from the port and about to, finally, enter Morocco itself.
Initially we follow the coast road, the telegraph poles all featuring huge nests made by storks. Or are they cranes? Big birds, long skinny trailing legs, so could be either I suppose. Ornithology is not one of my strengths. We stopped for a moment or two when we found a colony of seals in a rock pool. Family life; adults chilling out while the youngsters splashed around.
‘I always forget how beautiful it is here,’ I said. The fields are green, the sky is blue and the air is clear. Ten miles away from the coast and we’re in another world. I’m driving down a modern dual carriageway – not all the roads are of this standard, very few actually – but there are as many men on donkeys or bicycles as there are cars. There will be police or military checkpoints further down the road; in this country, the police and the army are both numerous and officious. In the main, they’ll wave us through. We’re obviously tourists and tourists get a free pass, most of the time.
We’ve found our place to spend the night and it’s both cheap and well-organised. Safe parking isn't a problem. The ‘Guardian’ has a uniform, of sorts, and is very efficient. He parks his square of cardboard in front of our car and settles down for the night. I don’t smoke, but I always carry cigarettes in the van for these occasions. A couple of cigarettes and a few coins assures our safety.
We walk to the nearby town for a meal and to search for Internet access. The Internet café is very smart inside, even though its next door neighbour features a barber shaving customers with a cutthroat Azores, outside in the street and there's a baby camel tied to a drainpipe while its owner gets spruced up. There’s also a small cafe where Marigold orders fresh orange juice. The young boy in charge loads a Heath Robinson contraption with a dozen oranges and bright, tangy juice comes out the other end. There’s enough for four tall glasses and it costs the equivalent of twenty pence.
We wait for the man who’s in charge of the computers to finish his prayers and he comes rushing over at last, hand outstretched.
‘English,’ he says. A statement, not a question.
‘Ah, Queen Elizabeth. Football. Beatles.’
We nod again.. Somehow, the Beatles still get a mention after all these years.I refrain from saying ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’
Most Moroccans speak what I’d call ‘not very good French’ or, less commonly, ‘even worse Spanish.’ This suits me very well as I am fluent both in ‘‘not very good French’ and ‘even worse Spanish.’
This connection’s good enough to post our blog and check for emails. We’ll be in hill country tomorrow and can't be sure of a reliable Internet service. Already, we’re reminded how much we love this country. Away from the area surrounding the ferry ports the people are delightful, the countryside is lovely and the sun is shining. Perfect.