December 18, 2007 GMT
Morocco, Atlantic Coast

10 to 17 December 2007

In the Spanish port city of Algeciras we took a 10th floor hotel room with a view over the busy port and across to Gibraltar. There are few things finer than a room overlooking a port. The constant movement of ships and the general hubbub and colour on the docks are always exciting. Waiting for our departure to a new country on a new continent they were doubly so.

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Our 10th floor hotel room was over budget, but the view of the port was worth it.

We checked all of the ferry companies until we found a vessel departing at 0800 the next morning, purchased tickets for ourselves and the Elephant and then wandered the city to see what mischief we could find. Alas, with the countdown to Christmas, the best we could find was a local choir singing Spanish Christmas carols in the plaza so we adjourned back to the pub to watch the port and check our paperwork.

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Spanish carollers singing up a storm in Algeciras

At 0700 on 10 December, we rode down to the docks, were waved through customs and immigration and rode onto our ship.

At 0800 we were underway and it was….

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Adios Spain, and three hours later…

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Ssalamu ‘lekum Tangier.

Not being entirely new to this part of the world, we hussled the Elephant into the melee around the Border Police post, paid a generous “tip” to get to the front of the queue and get the paperwork for the bike sorted, and rolled out onto the streets of Tangier in about 15 minutes. A quick stop for fuel and to change some money took only a few minutes more and we were off, romping the Elephant up the hill into the thick of the Tangier traffic.

As it is in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East where we have travelled, traffic here takes the form of a chaos in slow motion. Folks wander across the road without any regulation, cars and trucks drift across “lanes” and no one ever looks at their rear view mirrors. The unwritten rule is always: if I am in front, I have right of way.

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We have only seen three mid-capacity sports bikes in our first week. There are swarms of trusty mopeds that do the same duties that the Honda step-through did in SE Asia.

The bikes here are mostly tiny mopeds and the cars are small and low powered so it all has a surreal feel for us. There is nothing of the lethal intensity of our own traffic with many more vehicles and ballistic speeds. Best of all, it all happens with good humour and the traffic manages to flow despite the best efforts of everyone.

We bustled through Tangier and found the Atlantic coast road heading south for the little village of Asilah. Tangier can wait until we are on our way out of Morocco.

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Asilah locals ask all of the standard questions: how big, how heavy, how fast? To which the answers are: too big, too heavy and not bloody fast enough!

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Asilah is a very pretty town, full of tourists in the summer, but almost deserted when we visited.

An overnight in Asilah allowed us to get our bearings in the new country. We had a couple of good meals, a good night’s sleep and then headed south again to Rabat, the capital city. Our route took us along the rural roads and away from the freeway that links Tangier with the great cities of the south and interior. We crossed inland over the vast plains of the Ouerra River Valley.

This area is many times larger than the Darling Downs and the soil is so rich you could eat it with a spoon. The river and a tributary are dammed up-stream and there is an extensive irrigation system providing water to some substantial agricultural enterprises (although we noticed that some sections of it were in disrepair).

There were some big farms with good levels of mechanisation, but there were also small farmers ploughing a few acres with wooden framed ploughs and donkeys. In many cases we saw lucerne being mown by hand; hard work for sure, but not profitable work.

As we travel south over the next week we are struck again and again by the richness of the land, but for every commercial enterprise there is 10 times the area given over to small cropping. The economist in me has a few theories about the influence of French agricultural models here, but we need to talk to more people and get to the bottom of this!

Rabat is a modern city of about 1.8 million souls. As befits a capital it has wide boulevards with modern cafes, a cosmopolitan population and sophisticated feel. We spend three nights in Rabat and, while we visit the old Kasbah and the Medina, our main purpose is to get a feel for modern Morocco.

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The Kasbah in Rabat is mainly residential and has many beautifully kept streets.

Rabat is a place of contrasts with many new, often western, influences mixed with traditional Moroccan practice. The locals seem to blend the old with the new seamlessly; not afraid of the new, but always respectful of tradition.

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Always Jo’s favourite in any souk, the spice seller’s stall is a blaze of colour and wonderful aromas.

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Even in the modern city of Rabat, there is a good chance that your lamb tajine will be freshly butchered.

On our last day in Rabat we sought out the English language bookshop to replenish our reading supplies. The tiny shop was jam-packed with second-hand and new books and we thoroughly enjoyed searching through the stacks looking for books we would both read (we can only carry one or two books each at any time so we both need to read each one).

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The English language bookshop in Rabat is so packed with volumes that there is almost no room left for customers. As always, we were desperate for new reading material.

As we were about to leave, we struck up a conversation with another customer, a Moroccan named Khalid Ammani. Khalid is an English language teacher working at a number of schools. His English is excellent and, like all Moroccans, he is a great conversationalist. Khalid invited us for coffee and then to join him with his Intermediate English class at a nearby language institute that evening. Not having anything planned (the story of our current lives) we were pleased to accept.

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Jo, Kahlid Ammani and Mike.

Khalid’s class was an adult education group. There were two blokes and about a dozen women and they ranged in age from a 16 year old to several in their 30s. They were well educated and bright and, like adult education students everywhere, very clear about why they were studying.

We spent about 90 minutes talking about ourselves and our travels with the Elephant and asking them about Morocco. The word “codger” came up in discussion about our ages and it is such a great word to roll around the tongue, that I wrote it on the board and recommended it for used in polite company.

For us, the visit was a delight. We left reassured that if these young folk are the future of Morocco, there will be plenty of good things happening.

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The Intermediate English class. All bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to take on the world.

Through these first few days, Jo and I had been settling down to Moroccan tucker. After the difficulties of getting fed in Spain (you can’t have tapas for every meal; can you?), we were pleased to be back in a snacking culture like our own where the food is available anytime, tasty and affordable. With the cool winter weather we especially appreciated the tajines. Our Australian friends will have all been exposed to these in the past, but here in the home of the tajine, they reach a different level of wholesome tastiness.

One evening Jo curled up in bed and complained that she felt uncomfortably full. I pointed out that the fact that she eaten a tajine for lunch and another for dinner may have had something to do with her condition!!! Finally, we were eating too well. Morocco gets a gold star.

In Rabat we also saw our first example of Moroccan political dissent. While enjoying coffee with Khalid in a sidewalk café across from the National Parliament, a demonstration formed in the street and started marching up and down and chanting slogans. Our inquiries found that they were academics and educated professionals who were protesting for more government jobs.

Khalid explained that the government is required, under the constitution, to provide work for all and these well educated folk felt that more of their number should be on the government payroll. A life outside the public sector was considered too uncertain for such highly educated folk. I gave Khalid a short burst on the evils of the French economic model and the need to get the talented folk into the private sector where growth and jobs could be created and let it go at that. There are obviously many impediments to private sector growth that outsiders like us could only guess at. Perhaps we would learn more about those things later. In the meantime we drank our coffee and enjoyed the show.

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Packed up and ready to leave Rabat. Constantly packing and unpacking the bike is keeping us in good shape. In Rabat we had nine flights of stairs up to our room on which to get some codger exercise.

Casablanca was a three hour ride south on the back roads and a number of people had questioned the sanity of going there at all. With a population of 3.8 million it is a big city by any standards. It is a port and commercial centre with little of touristic interest and little interest in tourists.

With no GPS mapping and no paper maps of the cities (leave aside a page in LP), we ploughed straight into the centre of town and within an hour we had found a nice room in a quiet hotel, secure parking for the bike in the workshop of a local mechanic and had an omelette for lunch. A brisk walk around the city gave us the lay of the land and served as a reconnaissance for the way out of town on departure.

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The old French cathedral, the stain glass window long since boarded up, has been turned into a general purpose hall. There is some discussion about what should be done with it in the long run.

Casa (you can only use that if you have been there) has some elegant and still beautiful administrative buildings dating from the colonial period but not much else of interest. It is noisy, smelly and rushed. We suspect that people only come to Casa to make money.

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The High Court in Casablanca dates from 1925 and the French colonisation. It is still a beautiful and elegant building, understated and in perfect proportion.

Casablanca’s main monument is the Hassan II Mosque. There are no points in guessing which king built it at a cost of nearly $0.5 bil! It has in-slab heating, a glass section of the floor so that worshippers can see the crashing Atlantic Ocean below, and a retractable roof to open worshippers to the sky (yes Duncan, just like a football stadium).

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The Hassan II Mosque. Built by…

The day we went we avoided the mosque’s underground car park and swung into the neighbouring suburb to park. We found ourselves in a pretty tough part of town where the road was thick with diesel-engine oil from local truckies dumping the contents of their sumps into the drains. God is clearly hanging with rough company in Casa.

Our delight in Casablanca was to come across an exhibition on the Summer Olympics at a city school. During our conversation with Khalid’s English class I surprised some of the students because I knew that a Moroccan (I didn’t know Hicham el-Guerrouj’s name at the time) had won the 1500m/5000m double in Athens. Here I found large posters of Morocco’s numerous middle distance heroes and promptly had a photo taken beside Said Aouita a 5000m champion from Los Angeles (84).

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Sporting facilities are few and far between in Morocco but the country is football mad and every village kid dreams of playing in the big European leagues. Wherever there is a flat patch of dirt the boys have got a scratch game going. There doesn’t seem to be much for the girls, but traditional dancing is a common form of exercise.

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Mike and Said (Mike on the left)
There was only one Australian poster. It showed Cathy Freeman striding over the line in the Sydney 400m final. It was accompanied by some well thought out and appropriate words on the importance of the event to national reconciliation. We felt that this was a good thing for Moroccan school kids to learn about our homeland. If only reconciliation was as easy as winning gold medals…

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A Moroccan high school student considers a poster of Hicham, hero of Athens. The Moroccans we have met have been very proud of their country and its heritage.

After Casablanca we rolled south along the narrow coastal road waving back to the shepherd boys beside the road and stopping at El-Jadida and Oualidia. It was a lovely ride through this pleasant and fertile countryside. Along the road, forests of Australian eucalypts had been harvested for firewood. The brown topsoil runs right to the sea. In many cases, green pastures grow up to the edge of cliffs that drop into the surf below. Amazing!

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Industrial Morocco south of Casablanca.

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In the port of El-Jadida the fishing fleet tied up under the shadow of the 16th century Portuguese fort and we had whole grilled fish at a dockside café.

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A communal oven in the old Portuguese City in El-Jadida where local housewives bring their bread (or anything else) for baking at set rates.

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Jo in front of fishing boats at Oualidia. Same outfit different location!! Also note that Jo has taken to wearing a cap. Her hair is now longer than she has had it for many years and she has had no luck in finding a hairdresser. The helmet-hair gets worse.

We end our first week in Morocco enjoying the winter sun and watching the tide fill the Oualidia Lagoon. Our next stop will be Essaouira and our much anticipated Christmas with Mike and Sarah, but for now we are content to watch the tide roll in and think about grilled fish for dinner.

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Posted by Mike Hannan at December 18, 2007 05:49 PM GMT

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