Hi from purgatory I (Morocco, part 2)

Although misfortunes of fate seemingly could describe this entire trip, under this rubric I’ll narrow the focus to health issues and accidents.  Then I’ll discuss my other category, misfortune by people.

In Menkes, one of Morocco’s four imperial cities, I suffered a royal case of diarrhea (terrible incident #1).  Usually, when my system rejects something I’ve taken in, it corrects itself within a day or so.  In fact, during none of my previous travels can I remember having problems that lasted over 24 hours.  Not the case in Morocco.  For four days running, pardon the pun, I was in misery.  Consulting my guidebook, I picked up from the pharmacy an antibiotic called Ciproxine which, over the course of a 5-day treatment, put me right.  As well it should (US $40 for 10 pills).  This wonder drug fights eye, ear, urinary and respiratory infections to name but a few, can take on the whole Streptococci family, E. Coli, Legionella (is this Legionnaire’s Disease?; the small print is in French) and gonorrhea.

The matter of how I got sick poses no mystery.  I ate in Morocco.  Period.  I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t get sick, given the simple fact that food is prepared by Moroccans.  In this country, as in other parts of the Islamic world as well as India, people answering the call of nature do not apply toilet paper, instead employing their left hand, which they are supposed to thoroughly clean after using it for said purpose.  Some food handler did not follow the rules; fortunately, Ciproxine came to the rescue.

A near accident (terrible incident #2).  I experienced in Morocco a near fatality - my own.  Let me say that Moroccans on the whole are the sloppiest drivers I have ever encountered.  Many prefer to drive down the center of the highway, perhaps aware of their own inabilities to judge how close they are to hugging the road’s border.  Near the end of my trip, I was on a country road, riding on the white line at the edge.  An impatient truck-taxi — a tall goods vehicle converted to carry passengers and wares from village to village — passed me at the same time a large rig approached.  He brushed me and missed the oncoming vehicle by only inches.  If he had come any closer to me, well, I would not be sending this e-mail.  In 20,000 kilometers of touring over 25 years, I’ve never had this close a call.  I decided then and there that it would be my last cycling day in Morocco.

In all I had spent 3 weeks cycling about 1000 kms.  My route: ferry to Africa from Algeciras, Spain to Ceuta, which is still held by Spain, crossing the border, cycling to Tetouan (worth a miss), Chaouen (the nicest small city I encountered), Souk el Arba (you stay in a place like this only because there’s nowhere further you can reach before the sun sets), Kenitra, Rabat, Khemisset, Meknes, the Roman ruins at Volubilis (worth the entire trip), Fes (Morocco at its best and worse), Ifrane (a wretched ski resort in a country where there is no skiing of any note, and where I lost my reading glasses), Azrou (a nice little place where John fixed my bike and I had glasses made), Khenifra (the pits except for the fact that the pharmacy stocked Ciproxine) Zaouia Och-Cheik, and finally to Oued Zem, bus to Casablanca (worth a trip just for the planning and architecture), train to Tanger.  I cut the trip short by a week or two; there’s much more good cycling to do that I did not get to, but by the third week I had had my fill of Moroccans.

Shortly after my brush with death, I ended up in the town of Oued Zem, which is a rail terminus in a dry region noted for phosphates.  As I entered town, I tried to find the train station so I could get to Casablanca, on the way out of the country.  I went through an intersection, through a crowd of young boys and then up the street.  The boys followed, yelling as I had learned to expect; I ignored them.  I stopped at a cafe for directions.  Cafes, with their outdoor tables, are always full in Morocco.  It seems like most of the adult males in this country hang out at cafes for several hours every day, from lunchtime to bedtime.  As I was being given directions, the youths returned the spare tire that had apparently fallen off when I went through them.  They asked for money; I ignored them and headed off to the train station.  At the station, about a kilometer away, I saw that there would be no train for at least several hours.  As I was about to leave, the youths I had encountered a few minutes earlier materialized, having followed me across town to the station.  As I tried to leave, they blocked my way, grabbed my tent, mat and sleeping bag from the bike, as well as anything else grabable, including reaching into my pockets.  With my possessions scattering in various directions, I had no choice but to collect everything and retreat to the station.  For the next forty-five minutes, they proceeded to taunt me, throw things at me, steal things from the bike and out of my pockets.  I could not escape.  No sooner had I fended off one, another from another direction attacked.  I could hardly protect my bike.  They kept asking for money, as if my paying them would get them to leave.  Eventually a car pulled into the station, and the street urchins vanished, with none of my possessions of any value.  This was terrible incident #3.

At one point during my persecution, I managed to grab one of the urchins.  After shaking him soundly for a second, I released him.  I was so angry at the time, I am now, in hindsight, surprised that I did not smash his face into the wall, which I could have easily done.  At that point, if I had killed him, it would have taken me some time before I felt any guilt.

The youth of Morocco is a sad lot.  According to my guidebook, 30% do not attend school.  The urchins of Oued Zem who held me captive were aged 10-12, probably only semi-literate.  They have accomplished a major skill held by their fathers and male role models: they have learned how to hang out.  Some of these kids carried shoeshine boxes and one had some cigarettes, which he would peddle one by one at the cafes.  From my vantage point, they do not have much of a life to look forward to.  Although this incident, as I recount it, makes me quite angry, the overwhelming emotion I feel is sadness.

The Morocco I saw is more of a sorrow than even West Africa.  Some of the problems in the latter relate to political instability, tribal warfare, government corruption, health catastrophes, and a lack of natural resources.  Why is Morocco in such sad shape?  It has had a politically stable, benevolent kingdom for decades, operating as a quasi-democracy.  It rakes in a lot of tourist dollars.  It is rich in natural resources, with an abundance of irrigated agricultural land.  It exports labor, who must inevitably remit funds back home.  The country has a lot of Mercedes on its roads.  Indeed, the smell of Morocco, for me, is that of the 240D.  Diesel fumes pervade the countryside.  I don’t know why Morocco seems so poor.  Maybe it is not poor; just my perception is wrong.  I do know that the population I saw did not evidence much of a work ethnic.  There was a lot of agricultural underemployment: four shepherds are not needed to manage a dozen sheep!  I also found the same culture of dependency that I witnessed in West Africa.  Every day I cycled past dozens of people who wanted something for nothing: cadeaux (gifts), cigarettes, bom-boms, or just plain money.

I know that people are people, some good, some bad.  The human species does not differ all that much from society to society, from culture to culture.  But my experience in Morocco was alarming.  I met no one - not one single person — I wanted to pass time with, much less strike up a friendship with.  Everyone who approached me had a bottom line, a not-so-hidden agenda.  The most extraordinary requestor was a clerk in one of the hotels I stayed in.  He wanted to give me a photocopy of his membership card in the local football league, so that I could persuade 'my local football association,' whatever that might be, to send him a letter of invitation so he could get a visa, to enable him to come to Hong Kong.  I am sure that he expected me to foot all expenses that this venture might entail.  One of the pillars of Islam is charity, which of course comprises both giving and receiving.  It seems to me that Moroccans are quite interested in the latter.

Morocco may be a fine place to visit if you are in a tour group that gives protection against the hasslers and hustlers of the tourist culture and isolates you from the general population.  For me, a single bicyclist, it was sheer hell.


Cordoba, Andalucia, Spain

30 March 2001

Next:  I guess I will write something about Andalucia, but right now I am still trying to get rid of nightmares about Morocco.