('On-line' text of)

'VIA RISHIKESH
- A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970

by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006, 2015

 

Chapter 5

A CLOSE THING

The sun shines really brightly making it hard to open my eyes. I have had such a really comfortable night, quite the best in a long time. Rather than jump up, I decide to lie for a while enjoying the warmth bearing down on me. I rub at the sores on my face which are still very painful, but, as I stroke my chin I notice with a certain pleasure that I am starting something of a beard, and having never tried to grow one before I wonder if I should give it a go. Out of habit, my hands go to push my bushy hair into shape and I give a gasp as I remember how I have come to lose it.

‘Fascists!’ I mutter to myself.

Stirring, I lean on one arm and look around to survey the scene, Yolanda is still asleep, though I think I notice her stir briefly. Looking down at the ground, I notice that the softness I had felt last night turns out to be but straggly weeds on solid rock. It is hard to believe I have rested so well, sleeping as I have been on stone. I turn to look about me - immediately a feeling of panic seizes me and I let out a sort of choking sound, and then call over to my girlfriend:-

‘Yo- Yol- Yolanda!’

She opens her eyes, blinking and startled she looks at me.

‘Yolanda, sorry to wake you, but it’s important. Please do not move! You will not be in any danger if you don’t move. When you are ready, crawl over towards where I am lying, bringing your sleeping bag too.’

Without question she does as I say and then she looks about her.

‘Oh my God!’ she exclaims staring directly ahead in shock.

She realizes why I have raised the alarm, for approximately a foot from where we both lie, the hard rock floor comes to an abrupt end, and beyond it is only space. We both draw ourselves up and cautiously peer over the edge.

Far, far, far below at the foot of a sheer drop cliff lies the frothing sea.

With difficulty, I clear my throat; ‘Just as well we didn’t go any further last night eh?’ I offer. We stare at each other grimly.

‘It must be destiny that we were not meant to die,’ Yolanda solemnly declares.

I am now dragging myself to safety, and Yolanda soon follows. We are badly shaken by our near catastrophe and it is some while before we are self-composed enough to raise ourselves up, and having done so we set off in search of the road.

Gradually, I get enthusiastic for the new day, a day which will hopefully give us the chance to travel closer to Marrakech or maybe to visit Tangiers. For a very long time, ‘Taste of Tangiers’ by guitarist Davy Graham, was one of my favourite tunes; the images and emotions it engenders are transporting. Cheated of our lift to Marrakech, we still hope, by hook or by crook, to one or other of these exotic sounding places.

A lorry is heading towards us, making it’s way slowly towards where we are standing. The driver eyes us with evident curiosity and pulls his vehicle to a halt beside us. Throwing the door open on the passenger side of the cab, he beckons us over.

‘Where’s he going?’ I ask Yolanda, who then speaks to the driver in French.

Tet won,’ he answers enthusiastically.

‘Let’s get in,’ I suggest, ‘He seems like a nice enough bloke.’

After throwing our baggage into the cab, we clamber in. The driver whistles a cheery tune as he sets the lorry in motion and we set off down the road. I don’t think we have travelled this slowly since we left fCalais, it really makes a change and is quite relaxing. I listen but without undestanding to the conversation between my girlfriend and the driver, however, I get the impression they get on well enough. Through the dust caked windscreen I notice a signpost for Tetuan. ‘I do hope we’re going the right way for Tangiers’ I mention to Yolanda. She seemed to ask the driver my question for though he looks at her blankly he nods his head vigorously.

As the lorry negotiates the twists and turns of the road it lurches this way and that, seems the suspension is shot! I notice the driver craning his neck as if suddenly interested in something in particular by the orad. I try to look over the low wall but through the billowing dust clouds churn up from beneath the lorry I see nothing but scrubland. Then suddenly I see a huge mountain of melons stacked perhaps twenty foot high, an impressive sight. As it comes to a halt the lorry makes a horrible grinding noise, there is a huge lurch which throws us all forward, then all is silent.

‘Wow,’ I exclaim, ‘That was a bit heavy.’

The driver propels himself out of the cab, making his way into the adjacent field where a group of people is gathered. I notice that all the men here wear robes (similar to the ‘night-gowns’ that I had seen the previous night). Some of the men are seated whilst others of them lie, the hoods of their gowns tightly pulled over their heads; their faces completely covered. I have time to watch and think as our driver is gone for some few minutes before I catch sight of him again, returning to the lorry, accompanied by some of the men carrying green melons of immense size. I assume they are loading them onto the lorry, as I hear all sorts of thumping noises coming from the back. Then our driver gets back in the cab, and with a very dangerous looking knife he proceeds to slice a melon into pieces.

In the past I found I had no liking for this particular fruit, but as I notice Yolanda eagerly chomping a slice, and as I do not wish to appear ungrateful I take a bite of the deep red flesh, and then another and then more. In fact we gorge ourselves, cheerfully spitting the shiny black pips out of the window; I reflect that from small pips do tasty melons grow.

The driver having finished his business now revs the engine wildly and pulls back on to the road. As the vehicle heaves and lurches there is a constant need to hold on tight. Though it is less comfortable traveling in the lorry than it is than by car, it is much higher off the ground and there is more intake of fresh air too, cars are almost invariably stuffy, I find. Our driver proffers us a cigarette pack and we all light up, whereupon there is much coughing and spluttering - local cigarettes pack a mighty punch!

It is great to be on the road, never knowing where we will be at anytime or whom we might meet on the way. Sure, we have had a few hassles, but then perhaps that is all part of it, a necessary ingredient? Anyway, I feel to be in pretty good shape - the trip is definitely working out as far as I am concerned. The openness and unquestioning generosity of those that offer us lifts has done much for my faith in human nature. And it is clear that these people also value our company too. I am relieved to find the world revolves around deeper values than just money, an important discovery that!

A town is coming into view, whitewashed low dwellings line the way ahead, some with tiled roofs but mostly they are flat. Washing hangs out to dry. I catch sight as women and sometimes very small children too, who come out to stare back at us. The scene appears almost Biblical, as if caught in a timewarp. What is the date on the coins, fourteenth century? I haven’t worked that one out at all.

Our driver informs us that we are now approaching Tetuan and indicates for us to get out. With warm smiles all round, we climb out of the truck. Off we go in search of the town centre and I can’t help noticing the happy expressions on the faces that look towards us, a brightness that I have not noticed in others on our journey, outside of Morocco. It is the first real sign of the contentment I am seeking.

            Quite suddenly a group of young children surround us and block our way.

            Kiff. kiff, you want kiff?’ a boy offers, ‘Kiff? I get for you.’

            I glance at Yolanda. It is obvious she likes the children, for, though she shakes her head at them, she smiles into their sparkling eyes. This only encourages them! So, for my part, I wave my hand and tell them to go away.

            ‘My uncle he has much kiff,’ calls one child of no more than eight years old.

            But soon enough the kids get the message and buzz off. But no sooner than they disappear than they are replaced by others, and adults too, who brandish business cards which they thrust in our faces. It becomes appartent that alongwith the kiff they are also touting for accommodation. Once they realize I speak English they chant; ‘Good hotel, mister, cheap hotel, come here’. As they badger us they pull and tug at our clothes, really testing our patience.

Yolanda gives them a mouthful, but they don’t go far away, continuing their well rehearsed sales pitch. I feel no animosity towards them - they are too nice to get upset with – but I am concerned that they are overly interested in looking at our baggage.

We resume our walk through the city, and pause after I notice, amongst the many whitewashed walls we pass, a yellowed one with men milling about it. Though I dearly need a toilet I can’t quite bring myself to join in and use the wall as a urinal. Wherever we walk we find ourselves followed, so we quicken our pace and make our way away from the square, crossing street after street at speed until we eventually escape the badgering hordes.

‘They’re such hustlers aren’t they? Such a mischievous looking lot! They’d have your socks off without you feeling a thing,’ I suggest, Yolanda answers with a smile and a nod. She looks great, I haven’t seen her looking so happy in quite a while.

‘By the way you look all right without your make-up you know. All that money, why did you bother? You look great without it.’

She looks at me bashfully, obviously lapping up the compliment.

‘It’s all this sun and fresh air. Do I look different then?’

‘No?! Mmmmm... That’s why I said it! Oh, let’s go to that café shall we?’

It is a European styled affair, with a Coca-Cola sign dominating the front. Ordering the aforementioned drink, we recoil as we reckon the cost. We are being charged twice as much as in England, and even back there it’s over expensive! We settle down to enjoy our drinks and one at a time we disappear to use the loo, returning to relax awhile with our drinks in this air-conditioned haven. The clientele here are exclusively foreigners, and I sidle across to a fellow customer to enquire about the route to Tangiers.

Though dressed in jeans and T-shirt he nonetheless appears smart, a bit of a smoothie with shades, bracelet and wrist bag. He gets out a map, which together we inspect, and I quickly discover that going to Tangiers would effectively mean our having to double back.

I try to strike up a conversation with this guy but find it about as difficult as opening a can of beans with a penknife. I turn my attention back to Yolanda.

‘What a cretin!’ she remarks rather loudly.

‘I tend to agree,’ I confide quietly, ‘Let’s get going.’ On our way out, we notice more of his ilk posing at the tables outside.

We walk away and I realise, as I have on many occasions since we left England, that I am over-dressed and I curse our decision to bring the coats. Still, we don’t want to tempt providence by jettisoning them.

Apart from the melon, we have had nothing to eat in a long while so we are now in search of somewhere to buy some groceries, and when we find a suitable shop we order some basics, Yolanda enquires the cost.

Trente dirhams,’ the shopkeeper replies coolly.

Yolanda turns to me for support.

‘Give him five and see what happens,’ I suggest.

Accepting the note the shopkeeper now searches below the counter for a few moments before offering Yolanda several coins as change.

Once out of earshot we yak on and on about the situation back at the shop, chuffed that we have tuned into the situation correctly. Finding a shaded spot we settle down for a bite to eat, taking turns to cross the road to hitchhike when any car approaches.

We don’t have very long to wait before a car stops for us. The driver tries to engage us in conversation, but there is no point in yapping away to me in French, after all, what do I know? Yolanda gives a big yawn which she tries hard to stifle; the heat is unbearable. I open my window and get a flow of air, which helps just a bit. But I notice that Yolanda yawns repeatedly and her eyes start to hood over, so I lean over and give her a nudge. All the while the driver is talking to her; and she nods and grunts in response. Then I notice that, all too quickly, she is falling fast asleep. It won’t do for both of us to nod off in a complete stranger’s car, so I light a cigarette in an attempt to keep myself awake. But I too find my attention drifting and my eyes closing, I fight to stay awake.

The next thing I am aware of is Yolanda shaking my arm and telling me to get out the car. I am really still in a dream as I mumble my thanks to the driver. When we are outside again, we seem full of energy again, no yawns, back to normal in fact. Funny business!

Soon we are picked up by another car. Again the driver tries to engage us in conversation but again the both of us become sleepy again. I am the first to awaken. I struggle to sit up and make some sort of apology to the driver. As it happens, I can’t work out whether he is annoyed with us, or. Soon after Yolanda awakes our driver offers around some boiled sweets, and explains to us that here in Morocco there is a place, which is an equivalent of Lourdes (a place where ill people go in the hope of relief). Perhaps we look as though we need it!

Our driver turns out to be a really nice guy, and we tell him of our journey so far and particularly of our problems on entering Morocco. He sympathises with us. With obvious pride he informs us that he himself sometimes travels abroad and has recently returned from Paris where he has been on business.

His manner suddenly becomes serious, I wonder why the change in his mood? But it’s okay, just, as my interpreter explains, that he wants to know whether we would like to meet his family? We nod our heads, but still he looks very serious. He explains to Yolanda that his family is currently in the country and he is due to go there to meet them and to pick them up. He explains that it would be a good chance for us to see what rural life is like.

‘Great! Let’s go! Oui Monsieur, tres bien!’ I answer with enthusiasm.

He appears very pleased, and a little way on he takes us off the main road and onto the country lanes. Although the roads are generally in good repair, from time to time the car lurches where the surface has become split with fissures, seemingly on account of so much sunshine. The rivers have dried up too, the dry grey clay of the riverbeds display a mass of criss-cross fractures.

We drive alongside a massive vineyard where great bunches of dark grapes hang, ripening in the sun. Our driver, noticing my interest in the grapes, asks if we would like some. Armed with a sharp knife, he trundles off between the vines, severs a couple of bunches and then washes them under a conveniently placed tap. Swiftly he returns to the car and leans over the front seat, passing some of the grapes to us.

‘Gorgeous! Unbelievable!’ I exclaim in surprise.

The fruits are truly amazing; they have the taste of strawberries yet the form of a grape. Truly magnificent, perhaps this is a rare crossbreed grown specifically for a certain wine?

From here on, the pace of our journey becomes a little more sedate than we are used to, and fortunately we are now wide-awake (and bushy-tailed) and eager to arrive at our destination. It transpires that we have another few miles to go before the car comes to a halt. Then, from all directions come people, adults and children of varying sizes, all smiling and craning their necks eager to get a look at us, greeting our host with impassioned kisses and embraces, and receiving us with warmth and friendliness. Everyone appears so so sincere, which puts us instantly at our ease. Our driver now guides us between the primitive dwellings and outhouses where chickens cluck about our feet, and he points out that he wishes us to enter a doorway taking us into one of the low buildings.

It takes quite a while for my eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness, and when I do I perceive that Yolanda and I are on our own. It is not long before driver enters the little room; his attractive wife and another lady, both of middle age, accompany him. We are asked to remove our shoes, but do so reluctantly as I feel uneasy about exposing my socks or indeed, my feet. Smilingly, the ladies ask us if we will take tea, then disappear from view.

The room has little in the way of furnishings or furniture, just a little inlaid ornamented table, a pouf and some patterned cushions strewn around the dried mud floor. I notice the room is lit by a shaft of sunlight streaming through an aperture in the wall; I hesitate to call this a window, for it has no glass. Near this, an oil lantern hangs against the wall.

The ladies now return carrying a tray and proceed to pour a light green brew from out of a tall fluted metal pot, into glasses in which they have already placed a quantity of sugar. The ladies offer us simple cake too. Unlike our driver, who wears a suit, his family is dressed in traditional costume. The ladies wear long, loose fitting dresses that stretch way down to their ankles; their hair is tied up in scarves. They seem a happy lot here; as, barely a few moments go by without someone breaking into peels of laughter. As we all settle down to our refreshments, our driver explains to his family the little about us he knows about us, who we both are and where we both come from.

When he finishes conversing with the ladies, our driver asks if we might like to go out for a walk and meet the rest of his family. He also suggests that we dress up in Moroccan clothes, and it appears that only an affirmative answer would be acceptable. Once we have drained the last of the pot of delicious mint tea, our host leaves us with the ladies, who set about their self-appointed task of finding us suitable clothes.

They bring me a robe, which they tell me is called a djellaba. After unfolding it I slip the huge and ancient garment over my head, and am greeted by laughter, smiles and gestures of approval from the ladies.

Getting Yolanda Morrocanised is an entirely different matter. First the ladies strip down to her underwear then get her into a long flowing dress, to which they add pins, bracelets and jewellery. For her feet they bring her finely tooled sandals.

Yolanda’s appearance is transformed, though she now looks acutely embarrassed - perhaps has less to do with the dress than with having women stroking, touching and fussing over her, Anyway, with expressions of glee on their kindly faces, the ladies go off in search of our host and bring him back to judge their handiwork. He nods agreeably and suggests that we now go for the walk.

Yolanda’s kaftan dress proves a little too long for her so she hoists her skirts to prevent them dragging along the ground. I fight with the plastic tassel strips that hang in the doorway and we emerge to find it is still brilliantly sunny and hot. Yolanda's kaftan dress proves a little too long for her so she hoists her skirts to prevent them dragging along the ground. Perhaps the ladies anticipated this for they have laid on transport especially for her, positioning her on some blankets so she can sit sidesaddle on the ass. It is assumed that I am a rough tough cream puff of a man, so I am expected to walk. But I am glad of this, as it saddens me to see this piteous beast being used to taxi the able-bodied. We make our way gently and slowly across the tract of sands - it is so good not to be carrying our luggage for a while! We now veer round to a ravine where a group of people are gathered.

The ladies show off their handiwork to the others, which causes much merriment. I help Yolanda off the beast and am directed to tether the animal in the shade of a nearby tree before sitting ourselves down on matting brought for the purpose. We gaze at the river, at the children swimming there, up at the bank on the other side which is much higher, some hundred feet higher. Up the steep cliff figures climb, and having made it to the top, they proceed to hurl themselves off, and into the water far below. From there they swim a little way upstream and again scale the sheer clay bank. They jump in all earnest before diving and turning the occasional somersault. One little chap of only five or six eagerly matches the achievements of the older boys. Coming into view comes our host, a man of broad and muscular build who appears no stranger to this pastime. Time and time they all dive, swim and clamber back up, putting themselves though the process again and again. Will they never tire of their sport?

The sun sinks low and it seems that this signals the end of their play, our host rejoins us, rubs himself down with a large towel and slakes his thirst from a bottle of fruit juice. On goes the white shirt and suit but not the lace-up shoes, he contents himself walking barefoot. The scent of burning wood wafts on the cooling breeze. On our return to the village we find the inhabitants milling around purposefully, preparing the evening meal. Yolanda sits and contemplates the scene. The light of the day has all but disappeared, so lanterns are lighted and affixed around the general area. I sit and get so caught up with gazing at the fire, at the flames peeking out from underneath the cooking pot, that it takes me by surprise when our host and his wife attempt to catch my attention.

They pour water over my hands from the elongated spout of a pot they hold, then they give me a towel to dry my fingers with. Everyone around the fire has to perform this ritual and it is explained that we must all eat with our right hands.

'Khus-khus,' our hosts announce as they serve us with portions of chickpeas and vegetables.

I am glad to see no sheep's eyes staring back at us from the bowls. In fact the meal is exceedingly tasty and we do good justice to it. Our hosts seemed pleased.

And 'Kool, kooli,' the gathered circle of villagers shout. They exhort us to eat more; kool applies to men and kooli to women - both mean 'Eat!'. It is obvious that enjoying their food is taken as a compliment by these simple people. Our host's wife, in particular, keeps telling us to eat more. She reveals that a chicken has been killed especially for the meal.

'I don't think I can eat anymore,' I confide to Yolanda, she too looks upset. Needless to say we conceal our feelings from the villagers. That I was raised on a vegetarian diet renders me particularly sensitive to the issue of killing. Some people call themselves 'social drinkers', and until this moment I consider myself a social eater, when it came to eating fish and meat.

With appropriate gestures and some of my limited French I tell our hosts how good it feels to be with them. Yolanda also makes a short and embarrassed speech. From the reactions we get as we are led away from the gathering, we did the right thing in making our speeches, for they cheer us loudly. Back to the room where earlier we had taken tea, we perform a quick-change routine by the light of a hurricane lamp. I part with my djellaba regretfully but Yolanda looks relieved to be in her own clothes again.

Having become Europeans again, we are ready to accompany our host and his wife back to their home by car. Like perforations in a blanket held over a bright light, thousands upon thousands of shining points of light shine above our heads, a canopy of stars in a Moroccan sky.

There is barely enough room for us in the car, joined as we are by our host's sister-in-law. His young son is to stay on awhile with the folks in the village - lucky lad. Amidst much shouting and waving we made our departure. On account of the moonless sky, there is little to see other than that which the headlamps light upon, the hedgerows, the trees and the occasional signpost. The ladies chatter on non-stop. We do our best to remain sociable but I for one am feeling a little done in, and a trifle over-exposed.

The car draws into a built up area, and I wonder if we are close to our destination. On a steep incline the car comes to a halt and the ladies pile out. We follow them across the narrow street into an alleyway and into the house. We are led to an inner room, lined with ottomans strewn over with cushions. We are encouraged to make ourselves comfortable, and soon we are sampling mint tea, cake, pomegranates and white melon which are wheeled in on a tea trolley. A television crackles into life and the chatting subsides as everyone stares at the contraption. The picture flickers and is off again, thankfully. Our host asks something of me, I am confused until I understand he is pointing at the wall behind me. Two wires dangle there.

'A bit dangerous' I muse as I hook the wires together, 'Somebody could get shocktrecuted!' I mutter.

The picture rolls back onto the screen, settling only after some minutes. I ache to be back where we have just come from, back in the country, back to basics, wonderful.

It is a film in French film that I understand very little of, after which it is decided to turn in for the night. Checking first that we are happy to sleep in this room, rugs and blankets are pulled out of low cupboards and ottoman boxes. Our hosts go to their own rooms, leaving us to use the bathroom (a luxury to us) and get ourselves ready for sleep. Left alone we fall to chatting about our day over a last cigarette and turn off the light. I climb into my sleeping bag and try to get myself comfortable, but the carpet and blankets itch and I wonder if I will ever get to sleep.

 

Go to Chapter 6

 

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