Friday, 5 January 2018

Mountains, Medinas and Mosaics...Road Tripping in Morocco

Well, it has taken me a while to get into gear and start writing this time round. Several reasons really, one being a lack of any real direction and the fact we've been moving around a fair bit these last few weeks, mostly with very poor wifi and data connections. We never have a definite plan when we set off, but this time, for some reason, our ideas were even more vague than usual. We were pretty sure we wanted to ride motorbikes somewhere warm, but the where and how were still blank right up until the time we left.

Our journey started in Rabat, Morocco at the start of December, mostly because flights there for just €9 each were too good to pass up, and for reasons that are largely irrelevant to anyone other than those involved, didn't get off to the smoothest of starts. I guess that's another of the reasons I've been struggling to start writing, the realisation that I wasn't at all sure where this trip was going to go, and to a certain extent that's still the case. However, somehow we find ourselves sat here in a slightly sketchy guesthouse in the hills just outside Kandy in Sri Lanka with two borrowed motorbikes, a little Indian made Bajaj and a Yamaha, each with their share of quirks, so let me tell you how we got here.

Landing in Rabat the first thing that hit us wasn’t the smell of exotic spices or the visual assault of brightly coloured carpets, it was the cold. For weeks, months even, we'd been longing to be somewhere warm. In the last few days before we left, stood out in the garage in freezing temperatures as Evan whittled down the possibilities as to the probable cause of my motorbike's ongoing and frustrating fault (eventually discovered to be a faulty pick-up coil in the ignition system after spending several hundred pounds this past summer on investigating other things) we grew increasingly keen to get moving. 

Arriving in Rabat, a surprisingly European-feeling city, you can imagine our disappointment to find it was only around 10 degrees during the warmest part of the day and we were soon scratching around in our bags to find the warmest clothes we had, which wasn't much given we'd planned for much warmer climes. Nevertheless, we spent a couple of days wandering through the streets of the city, visited the Kasbah and the enormous cemetery by the water and were surprised, having just watched the Banksy documentary ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ a couple of weeks earlier, to find that street artist ‘Space Invader’ had recently been in Rabat and that his distinctive tiled artwork popped up around every corner.

From Rabat we caught a train to Fes, a pleasant enough ride through the Moroccan countryside. I was unsure how I felt about returning to Fes, given that the last time I was there the hostel I stayed in had a constant surveillance policy and sent a highly irritating taxi driver/tout after us every time we left the place, culminating in him waking me up in my bed at 3am one morning to try and pressure me into going on a trip to the desert with him. I remembered it as an incredibly pushy place, somewhere that when talking to a local in Ourazazate one night they described it as 'the place where all the bad people live'. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find a mostly relaxed city, its medina a-buzz, but with only a handful of persistent hawkers and very few tourists, although being low season probably had a lot to do with that. It was not at all as I remembered it. We found a place to stay inside the medina, a beautiful riad not far off one of the two main lanes, so easy to find without having to rely on paying a local kid to guide us. 

We spent a couple of days wandering the medina streets, pausing often to watch the craftsmen at work in the souks. We visited the recently refurbished tanneries and gorged on tagines and brochettes and hot sandwiches from dingy, grubby little hole-in-the-wall style food kiosks, washed down with copious amounts of sweet, mint tea. One of the highlights of Morocco for me is that the food is consistently fresh, hot and tasty, but most importantly cheap. With very limited intensive farming in Morocco, many times we saw chicken farmers selling their live birds to restaurants, making you realise how bland and flavourless the mostly mass-produced meat we eat is.

Moving inland, temperatures during the day were pleasant, even bordering on warm at times, but the second the sun disappeared below the horizon the temperature dropped to unbearable levels given our meager wardrobe options and we found ourselves eating dinner quickly, standing under a hot shower until the water ran out and then curling up under as many blankets as we could muster by about 7pm. It made for long evenings and it made us a little tetchy.

Our only real plan in Morocco was to rendevouz with friends of Evan's family at Volubilis, a partly excavated Roman city near Meknes. A renowned specialist in Roman mosaic and a Professor of Classics respectively, Katherine and William were a delight to spend time with and after an enjoyable afternoon spent wandering amongst the Roman ruins, we decided to accept a kind invitation to join them on a road trip through the Atlas mountains to Errachidia and then on to Ourazazate before crossing the mountains back to Marrakech via the snaking Tizi N’Tichka pass. It was interesting to drive these roads again some six or so years after I last did, and to find that a lot of the roads have been not only resurfaced, but in some places completely reconstructed, complete with proper crash barriers. I guess improvements to safety have to be a good thing, but I did feel it took away a little from some of the views these roads used to offer was safety was a lesser consideration.

Upon arriving back in Marrakech our travelling companions very generously invited us to stay the night with them at the Dar Ayniwen, an upscale palmerie hotel on the outskirts of the city, the price of which for a night half-board would devour an entire month of our travel budget in one fell swoop. Our suite had a bathroom twice the size of most rooms we stay in, the centerpiece, a giant bathtub big enough for two. The adjacent bedroom was furnished with dark wood antique furniture including an enormous bed scattered with rose petals and tall French doors that led out out on to the pool terrace and landscaped gardens. It was interesting to see, a peek into a world I’ve only rarely experienced, but as nice as it was, I was ready to return to the familiarity of cheap and somewhat grubby the following night when we moved to a $20 room in the beautiful Riad Assalam in the medina.

Marrakech is a much pushier place than I recalled. Perhaps because on previous visits I was there in the company of locals and was largely left alone, but this time the calls of 'Taxi?' and having menus and sunglasses continuously thrust in our faces quickly made me irritable. One of the things I love about travelling is meeting and talking to people, but in Morocco it's very difficult to do this because literally 99% of the people you attempt to talk with will end up wanting money from you for something. In a very short period of time you find your barriers are well and truly up and even so much as a smile and a friendly ‘hello’ from a passerby triggers an automatic hand held up and a stony-faced 'no thank you'. It's sad and it's not how I want to come across, but it's almost impossible to find a happy medium in some countries. It therefore made a pleasant change to meet a small group of local university students in the Cyber Park one afternoon who stopped and chatted with us for a while as part of a college research project. The rest of our time in the city we spent wandering around the city streets, we visited a couple of palaces and tried our best to find food that didn't cost way more than it should. 

On our last night in Marrakech we had the misfortune of sharing our riad with a large group of obnoxiously self-obsessed, young Lithuanians. They spent the night working their way through bottles of Jaegermeister and as they did, their volume rose to antisocial levels as they shouted to each other between floors and banged doors until nearly 5am, when I presume the last of them passed out. At breakfast the following morning we sat awkwardly through their rude demands that the ever-patient staff at the riad do something about the wifi as it was not working to their expectations. Even the inclusive breakfast, easily enough food for four people, was met with their critical whines of ‘Is that all we get?!’

With our flight not leaving until 8pm, this left us with most of the day to wander around, so we packed up our things and headed in the general direction of the airport. We’d spent a lot more time than we would usually do over the previous week trying to decide where to go next. We really had been drawing a blank on this, to the point where several different continents were still in contention, but eventually we agreed that Sri Lanka seemed like a good option. It would be the start of the second kiting season when we arrived, it would be warm and there was the possibility of obtaining motorbikes without too much trouble if we decided we wanted to do so. The only problem was getting there. 

From Morocco we could fly to one of the European hubs fairly cheaply, but from there we needed to find a combination of flights to reach Colombo as direct flights only a week or so before Christmas were prohibitively expensive. After several hours of searching we put together a series of hops that fitted our modest budget – Marrakech to Madrid to Istanbul to Dubai to Colombo. Sixty hours of travel with a couple of long layovers where we figured we could sleep for a bit. It wouldn’t be that bad, right?

Our first flight to Madrid was uneventful. Arriving at Marrakech airport I was pleased to find that since my last visit, when painfully long queues and missed flights were the norm, the airport had been almost completely rebuilt, easily comparable to any other major modern European airport. Except, it appears, Madrid. With an overnight layover there and the cheapest hotel rooms near the airport coming in at around $70, we figured we’d be able to find a comfortable enough place to grab a few hours’ sleep in the departure lounge. How wrong we were. Cold, concrete floors, no seating of any kind and a stern-voiced tannoy announcement at full volume every twenty minutes or so all night that we should ‘Watch our luggage!’ made it impossible to sleep. I had looked at the guide to sleeping in airports and the reviews for Madrid were not unfair. When I did finally drift off for an hour an airport worker came around at 5am to advise that sleeping time was now over and we had to get up. 

Feeling more than a little groggy despite regular doses of McDonald’s coffee, we were not sorry to finally board our flight to Istanbul. Even getting to it though was not simple. Having spent the night in terminal 4, we had to take the shuttle bus to terminal 2 and along the way the bus managed to drive into the back of a car that was reversing illegally into its bus stop meaning we had to get out and walk the rest of the way.

We had discussed breaking our journey in Istanbul for a couple of days, but in hindsight our decision not to wasn’t a bad one. We were conscious that it was getting very close to Christmas and we both just wanted to get somewhere warm so we opted to stay in the airport for the seven hours we had before our next flight. It was a good job we did have that long, because upon arrival at the transit gate we were told we would not be able to use the connecting flights lane unless we were in possession of our boarding passes for our next flight already.

Just before passport control were a number of airline helpdesks, except of course one for FlyDubai, the subsidiary of Emirates we had booked with. Staff at the Pegasus desk, the airline we had just flown in with, told us that we would either have to check-in online (the free airport wifi of course wasn’t working and I had just received a helpful message to tell me that using roaming data on my UK phone would cost me an astounding £7.20 per MB) or pay up to $75 each for a visitor visa in order to get through passport control to gain access to the check-in desks upstairs where our boarding passes could be issued.

After a number of enquiries with anyone who would stop long enough to listen, it became clear that our options were limited. As well as the two of us, there were three American’s, another Canadian and a Nigerian all in the same situation. One of the American’s, a rather hot-headed young man, got angry and tried to fight with various border agents and airport police and eventually gave in and paid for the visa, as did his much more reasonable Canadian companion. The Nigerian man was polite but insistent, but this seemed to get him nowhere either. He had the added stress of having been told that the airline had lost all of his luggage. Clearly in the middle of a move, he had paid several hundred dollars for excess baggage and no-one had any idea where it was. To add insult to injury he was also being requested to pay additional baggage charges as the weight limit on his next flight was a bit less than his previous one had been. All this despite the fact that no-one could tell him where his luggage actually was!

The other two American girls took a similar view to us, that sitting it out was probably the way to go. They passed the time performing various acrobatics and doing yoga in the middle of the hallway leading to passport control, much to the bemusement of the airport security guys. We had been told that about an hour before the flight left a representative from FlyDubai would (probably) come down and we would be able to check in, but they never materialised. Eventually, some three hours later a Pegasus employee took pity on us all, collected up our passports, and took them up to the check-in desk for us and collected our boarding passes. Ironically, this coincided with the airport wifi finally kicking in and presenting us with electronic boarding passes. You honestly couldn’t make it up.

Once boarded the drama continued as the flight crew and security personnel verbally fought with two male passengers who for some reason had been requested to leave the flight. I have no idea what they had done or why they had to leave, but there were police waiting on the tarmac outside to escort them away. They clearly had no intention of leaving and after a debate that eventually involved the pilot coming out to talk to them and an impassioned plea from a passenger who was desperate not to miss his next flight to New Zealand, they slowly and begrudgingly gathered their possessions and left. The pilot announced that just one minute later and the flight would have been cancelled so a sigh of relief was breathed by all.

And so we arrived in Dubai, the playground of the wealthy in the desert of UAE. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, but I’m glad we chose to only stay for the twelve hours layover time we had. Dubai is SimCity. A huge, disheveled concrete jungle of futuristic-looking skyscrapers and malls, multi-lane highways and metro tracks. From the airport we jumped in an executive Lexus cab driven by an Arab lady dressed smartly in black and headed to the Dubai Mall. Expecting extravagance beyond anything we’d seen elsewhere, we were disappointed to find a very standard looking mall, not dissimilar to those we had visited in Malaysia. We wandered a while finding nothing much of interest before heading for the metro.

We rode the main line from end to end, pausing at the marina near to the famous Palm Islands and partaking in an extortionately priced coffee even by Costa standards, but the whole pace left us feeling a little flat. Dubai is a soulless place and not particularly attractive. It has an empty feel to it, a kind of monotony which is reinforced in things such as the droning announcements at every metro station that ‘the train to Rashidiya will depart from the Rashidiya platform’ as if people need that level of pointless instruction even to function. Even with money to burn, quite why anyone would want to go there as a vacation destination is beyond me. Again, we were happy to leave it behind, albeit on a plane that left two hours late with no explanation whatsoever.

Finally, more than sixty hours after we left Marrakech we finally touched down in Colombo, Sri Lanka at 3am on a balmy Sunday morning. To our surprise we found the airport and surrounding area packed full of people, buzzing with life. At passport control large brightly coloured posters declared that we were very welcome to Sri Lanka and having obtained our e-visa’s in advance, we found ourselves outside the airport, passports stamped and sim cards bought in about ten minutes flat. Given our airport experiences of the previous few days Sri Lanka was immediately a breath of fresh air. I knew straight away I was going to like it here and I wasn’t wrong.

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