We have had a fantastic day catching up with our Berber friends, not many people can say that, and have now arrived in Checheoun, ( no idea how to spell it), the blue town in the Rif Mountains. Almost every house is painted blue and they all look fabulous.
The last time we were here we were in our van, but the first time we came we stayed in a hotel I’ve never forgotten. It was very cheap, about £4 a night, and just about worth it. I remember going for a wee in the middle of the night and having to fetch G as there was an old man asleep on the bathroom floor. The toilets were very ‘North African’ – a smelly hole in the floor – with no toilet paper, just a plastic jug of water and a sponge on a stick. Trust me, you don't want to know about the sponge on the stick.
In the morning, covered in bites, we went up to the roof for breakfast. It was a flat roof with tables, chairs a lot of lettuce leaves and at least twenty tortoises. I’ve never forgotten it.
‘You’re not serious?’ G looked at me like I’d gone mad.
‘Yes, I do,’ I said, so we went off to find that hotel again. G remembers every place he’s ever been so we found it quite quickly, even though ten years had gone by. It was still scruffy and not as cheap as last time. G went and haggled over prices while I read the visitors’ book. It was hilarious. All different languages, but most of those in English said things like ‘what a dump.'
The man came and showed us to a room, after G had insisted for a long time, and it looked very clean. The wasn't an en suite, but the man said the bathroom next door was just for our use. Still a hole in the floor toilet, but it was clean and we had brought our own bog paper. The room cost had started at one price and G had agreed a price about a third of that so we said okay.
We went up to the roof and there were no tortoises at all, but the sunset over the mountains was fabulous.
I popped back to our room to change my shoes and there was somebody in ‘our’ bathroom. So much for only us using it. Hope they manage without the sponge on a stick because I picked it up, with lots of bog paper in my hand, and hid it behind the bath, out of sight.
We walked down the hill, past all the blue houses, and had a lamb tagine with couscous in the square which was fab. Last time we came here we both had stomach problems and we don't have gall bladders any more, so we had to eat mostly bananas on flat bread.
Lots of skinny cats in the square, cafes with just men in them sipping fig tea or mint tea. If you order mint tea, they pour tea into a small glass and then cram a huge bunch of mint on top. I quite like it. We both had a coffee after, very strong, and set off to walk back to the hotel.
Last time we were here in a car we carried on to Fez, which I didn't like much, apart from the dying pits which are incredible. It says in a leaflet I just read that Fez is largely unchanged in over 3000 years, but I just remember how many times we got lost in the bazaar and how many times we were pestered. After that we had gone on to Marrakech which was fab.
Loved the excitement of the main square, especially at night when it is mad, the water sellers, the man who takes teeth out with rusty pliers and keeps a mound of them to show how good he is and the dancers, jugglers and acrobats. I once screamed my head off trying to avoid a man carrying a monkey when I felt a hand on my arm and thought it was a monkey. It was an old woman, covered in henna tattoos, and she started making that scary noise with her tongue. G says it's called ululating, but not sure if I spelt it right. Anyway, she calmed down eventually. So did I.
We were talking about that trip and about going ‘off road’ in our little car. I asked G if he would write about it, so he did and this is what he’s done.
‘Just imagine what would happen if a lorry came round that bend just now.’
As I spoke, inevitably, a lorry came round the bend. A blind bend, filling the entire width of the road, no road markings and the ‘Badlands’ on either side of the road.
I turned sharp left. Sharp right would have worked just as well. The lorry thundered past and my car bottomed out on a surface resembling a lunar landscape. We sat and looked at each other, laughed that peculiar laughter which occurs only at times immediately following a narrow escape from death, and wondered what to do next.
The road from Fez to Marrakesh, the only road through the interior of Morocco is somewhat variable in quality. Unlike the swish coastal highway it varies between bad and very bad indeed. The road surface has holes deep enough to use as a fish pond and there are frequent ‘rally sections’ where the tarmac runs out and you find yourself doing inadvertent power-slides and four-wheel-drifts on loose gravel.
The other road users are mainly lorries who’ve already crossed the Sahara and think this is a motorway, Moroccans sitting aside skinny donkeys, and the occasional misguided travellers seeking out areas where tourists rarely go.
We’re headed for the High Atlas and then onwards into the desert. We’d recently visited a squatter camp, on the outskirts of Fez, an experience for which nothing could have prepared me. Utter squalor, children paddling in raw sewage, abysmal living conditions in shacks made from hammered-out and flattened oil drums and roofed with plastic sheeting – I’d seen Third World living conditions before; this had been Fourth World. They are what the locals call stateless people, illegal immigrants, and arrive from the African interior with nothing. A Berber friend told me, in all seriousness, ‘these people consider themselves the lucky ones as they have shelter over their heads.’
The best route to the High Atlas is from the great plains, far from the routes used by those few tourist buses who take their clients to see what they claim to be ‘The Real Morocco.’
Getting stuck on the surface of the moon hadn’t been part of the plan! The car started, to the accompaniment of a matched pair of sighs, and I managed to creep back onto the road surface. There had been some obvious damage: the exhaust trailing on the floor was an obvious clue, and the engine sounded like Concorde at take-off, but we were at least mobile. Naturally, there wasn’t another vehicle in sight, the last signal on our mobile phone had been received as we left Chefchaouen and the last proper settlement we’d passed had been two hours ago.
Hmm. Good question.
‘I’ll fix it, for now,’ I asserted, with a confidence verging on desperation.
I scrabbled under the car, hauled the exhaust back in place and secured it with a bent-over wire coat hanger. All I could do, for now.
‘Will that do it?’
‘No problem. It may be just a little noisy though.’
We set off, wincing at the racket, driving for miles through a landscape where no trees broke the monotony, not even a weed grew in the arid red earth and human beings were conspicuously absent. I stopped every ten minutes, giving our ears a rest, and as the car juddered to a halt on one of these mini-breaks, my wife pointed out a cloud of dust far away to the left. Closer examination revealed a dirt track leading into the interior, at right angles to the road.
On the assumption that the dust cloud was caused by vehicles and not a herd of lost wildebeest, we followed the dirt track for a mile or so until houses came into view. Single storey mud-walled houses, tiny windows and a single door, roofed with flat stones laid over interlaced beams and tightly packed clay. We’d seen identical houses before, in the Alpujarras. Berber settlements, in Spain.
There were a dozen or so vans, a few battered Mercedes cars, none of them less than thirty years old, and a gathering of people scattered around a dusty market square. A couple of cafes were doing brisk trade while the stallholders shouted out the virtues of their produce. Vegetables, a fly strewn butchery stand the contents of which would turn the most hardened carnivore into a vegetarian, and a vast range of livestock. Chickens and goats flapped and bleated, even threatening to drown out the bellow of our car. I switched off the engine and we climbed out.
Most Moroccans, even in the most isolated regions of this vast country, speak either French or Spanish – remnants of a Colonial past. It may not be good enough to pass as a native of either country, but it’s a fair match for my own linguistic talents. I enquired about a garage in the area and was directed to collection of low sheds at the edge of the village.
The sale of goats was brisk and we stopped to watch one of the buyers loading his purchases onto the roof of an elderly lorry. A makeshift corral had been precariously attached to the roof and the ‘catcher’ stood on the cab roof while another man threw a number of placid goats up to him. The system involved grasping the goats by the ankles and swinging them upwards to where the other man on the roof caught them. The goats appeared to be none the worse for this, accepting their flight through the air with complete equanimity. I counted seventeen goats in all as the lorry drove off, all swaying in unison on the roof along with their ‘catcher.’
Another buyer owned a Mercedes saloon into which he placed six hens, not confined in any way, and two goats, the latter in the open boot. Five men also squeezed in alongside the hens and off they went.
The workshop was just a shed. A big shed. Inside were three old British Land Rovers, each of them battered and missing various areas of the original bodywork. The mechanic came out, wiping his hand on his trousers in the manner of car mechanics everywhere in readiness for a handshake.
‘I’ve knocked my exhaust off,’ I explained.
‘I know. I heard you three kilometres away.’
I laughed, ruefully. ‘Can you repair it?’
‘Bien sur. Of course.’
He dragged a plastic chair from inside his ‘office’ and offered it to my wife. Dusty, oil spattered, one leg shorter than the others, it may have been the least appealing object she’d ever been offered.
‘Think I’ll pop along to the café,’ Marigold said, pleading a sudden thirst. A young girl, no more than five years of age, stood alongside her, apparently transfixed by my wife’s exotic ear-rings. The girl was holding a single egg, very carefully in both hands. Her lunch, perhaps? Her eyes were spectacularly large and expressive. I reached into my pocket, found the remains of a packet of sweets, and handed them to her. I can remember the expression on her face vividly, after so many years. Carefully transferring the precious egg to one hand she took the sweets with the other, whispered ‘merci’ and darted off.
The mechanic had been removing the vehicles from the shed, revealing a large patch of earth in the centre of which was an inspection pit. Not a fancy, timber-lined pit, but a simple hole, perhaps four feet deep, scraped out of the earth without any pretensions to regular shape. Just a round hole, like a child would dig in the sand at the seaside.
I drove, carefully, into the shed, my wheels either side of the hole. The noise in this confined space was appalling. With relief, I switched off the engine, clambered out and the repairs began. Summoned by a shrill whistle, a teenage boy, about fifteen years old, came running and stood receiving instructions. He squeezed himself between the car and the lip of the pit and vanished from sight.
A few minutes later, the boy re-emerged, dragging the middle and rear sections of my car exhaust behind him.
‘Ah,’ the mechanic said, sucking his teeth in the manner of mechanics everywhere.
‘A replacement?’ I wondered. There didn’t appear to be many spare parts around. A few tyres, almost bald, and that was about it.
‘We can repair. Welding.’
‘Hmm,’ I thought. This didn’t appear very likely either.
The same boy returned, dragging a cylinder larger than himself, sat on the floor and welded together the three separate pieces of the exhaust system. No gloves, no protective goggles, nothing! I watched awestruck as he defied every single Heath and Safety Directive and produced a work of art.
A quick trip back into the pit, a few curses and imprecations, and we were ready to roll once more. I started the engine – perfection! Virtual silence.
Payment was difficult. I’m pretty good at haggling and here it’s very much part of the process. Acceptance of the first price is an insult to a culture as old as time itself. My problem was the price quoted was absolutely minimal. It wouldn’t have bought a sandwich at a railway station kiosk back home. I paid the asking price, then added a tip for the boy equivalent to the original price, then rummaged in the boot and found a couple of tee-shirts for the mechanic and his youthful staff member.
I collected Marigoldgold from the café, where she’d been the only female and treated with great reverence, and we resumed our journey. After many more thousands of miles, in Morocco and Spain, I took my car to my usual garage, asked them to check the exhaust.
‘Perfect,’ they said. ‘It will last a lifetime.’
I can’t be sure of that as I sold the car two years later, but I’d like to think the repaired exhaust system is still doing its job without cause for complaint.