I’m trying to keep my keyboard clean, but the keys are getting sticky and covered in sweat. It’s 41 degrees in Fez right now, 10 degrees above average for this time of year and that’s in the shade. A stark contrast to the cool air around the mountains of Chefchaouen I left a few days ago.
Cycling out of Chefchaouen, I began the three day cycle south to Fez through the Rif mountains. The adventure had already begun at the edge of the city when I stopped to take a photo and was bombarded with kids who had been playing football. They really wanted their photo taken and started raiding my bags for a pen. Something I’ve never understood, but everywhere in the countryside, kids ask for pens: shouting “stilo, un stilo”. Mental note, buy a multi-pack next time.
The first part of the cycle was downhill, thankfully, as I had already climbed a lot before Chefchaouen, totalling over 2000m elevation in one day (the same as crossing the Pyrenees). As a second language, French is more commonly spoken than Spanish now, making communication for me difficult. Asking a policeman for directions outside Bab Taza (there are police checkpoints outside every big-ish town), I realised how terrible my French was. I wonder if I should have paid attention in French class instead of making fart noises into the tape recorders. Probably.
After a couple of hours of hilly cycling it began to get dark, as I left in the evening because it was too hot to cycle during the day. I cycled until I couldn’t see the road any more, trying to make good use of the cooler temperatures. Eventually it became a little too dangerous. I overheard some people talking up a hill and outside a house, so I went up to ask if I could camp in their garden or just somewhere around. They couldn’t speak English or Spanish, but in broken French they asked me to come inside and offered to let me sleep there for the night. They helped me with my bike inside and sat me down, bringing me a bucket of warm water they had prepared especially for me to wash my face, hands and feet. Then everyone gathered round, about 6 men, to shake my hand and look at the strange and tired foreign boy.
Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the man’s name that so kindly took me in to his home. He lives here with 3 brothers, his father, his wife and his three-year-old son. He also has 4 sisters who live elsewhere. I never met his wife though, as she seemed to be kept hidden away in the bedroom.
The house was pretty plain, but big. There were no defining features of the main room except an Arabian style pattern around the skirting of the high ceiling, and an old CRT television in the corner. Oddly, a one metre satellite dish sat upturned and unused above the TV. No picutres. No clutter. Some scrappings of rubbish lay on the floor.
Unexpectedly, in between trying to explain my trip, I was brought a huge platter of bread, olives, olive oil (from their farm), honey (drools) crepes and cakes. I thought that it was for everyone to share, but it was just for me. Then came the tea in a huge golden teapot. The men gestured for me to eat as they sat and watched and asked me questions.
One man showed me the Quran, and read a little, before proceeding to kiss it on the cover. After some time one of the brothers showed me some hash they had made, breaking it apart and laying it on the table. The kid was walking around and talking, much to the amusement of the brothers, then picked up the marijuana, asking what it was before the brothers distracted him with something else. I would later learn this child is being brought up solely on the income of drug trade. I gave him some cakes I had bought earlier. The conversation drew to a close a little later, as I had exhausted my French vocabulary and was tired of drawing pictures to explain everything. My host laid down big soft blankets for me on the floor, and apart from the flies buzzing around, I slept very well.
I woke up at 7a.m which is pretty late considering the clocks went back an hour yesterday morning for Ramadan, which starts the following day. After breakfast with the brothers it was a tour of the farm where I realised the extent of the marijuana business here.
There are two things you are guaranteed to find in this part of Morocco: litter and marijuana. We walked up the hill where I could see the extent of the plantation. Well over 1km squared, reaching out into the hills in the distance, interspersed occasionally with olive trees. My host showed me around: four or five tennis-court-sized pools of water for irrigation; pipes lining the ground; a greenhouse of baby plants and bags of compost. I met some of the other brothers smiling and working on the field, moving the pipes whilst the whole process was explained to me. This is a business for them; they don’t smoke it. And suddenly it all made sense. They are just growing the most profitable crop they can (which is still not very profitable for them—the middle-men make a lot more) to try and earn as much as possible. I was a little bored, and gladly it seemed he was happy for me to go. We shook hands, exchanged gratitude and I cycled off up the dusty road.
It’s too hot for cycling now, but I push on anyway covered in sweat. Garbage lines the roads. I pass a landfill site, filled with tens of stray dogs and even more puppies scavenging for food. Every farm I pass has at least one field for growing marijuana. Through another small mountain village I was again invited into other’s homes, but I refused, choosing instead to melt in the sun. I stopped only to buy food, as the towns are far apart and there’s no way of knowing how long it will take to get to the next—especially because my map, the road signs and the people all disagree with each other, and the surface of the road is now full of potholes or just absent completely, making the downhill slow and extremely bumpy. My bike is now covered in a thin layer of dust and my hair is completely matted. I have to close my eyes every time a car or truck passes whilst I’m covered in a fresh coat. My day ended under some trees in an uneven field without any room to pitch my tent so I slept out. I didn’t even need a sleeping bag because of the heat. Roosters and dogs made noise all night and I was bitten several times by little flies and had my clothes invaded by tiny ants.
It’s the first day of Ramadan, and bright at 4a.m so I start cycling shortly after. The road surface has completely disappeared now, but there was a sign saying “Fez” that had been scored out with paint. I covered a good distance cycling in the morning, before I had to rest from the midday heat at a small intersection in the road, which had a shop and some other buildings. They still sell food despite the fast. I had to eat and drink something, so I tried to do it discreetly. It still didn’t stop one man gesturing “no” as he drove by. But this was an exception; most people understand.
From my spot under a canopy, which I had to sit at for hours before it was finally “cool” enough for me to move, I could see many things. For the first time I saw a man picking up litter in Morocco, giving a little spark of hope, only to then have it eradicated when he proceeded to throw it all on a small fire burning on the dry grass. I saw a lot more children working, possibly because of Ramadan, as nearly everybody else is inside and trying to keep cool and moving as little as possible. Some children not even ten years old working donkeys carrying water and supplies miles from the nearest towns to their farm houses. I even saw a small child hitch a lift from one of the truck drivers with a container of water. Later it would become apparent this was a little hub of exchange. People would bring food and supplies on trucks or in cars and then transfer them to donkeys where they would walk with children or sometimes adults in various directions. People would wait here for lifts to other towns. Two men turned up in a car—an old merc, like many around here—and pulled out three live sheep that were bundled in the boot, before one walked with them off into the distance. Animals have very little rights here.
I left to make the final 50km to Fez which was extremely difficult in the heat. The water in my bottles warmer than any shower I had had in Morocco and the metal parts of my brakes—which I had to pull a lot—were burning my hands. I drank over ten litres of water today, before I finally got to Fez. The highlight of the journey being the random guy I passed that offered to turn on the water pipe for me, so I could completely drench myself and get some temporary relief from the searing sun.
Too many Moroccan sweets. Anyway, until next time…cheerio!