('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

 

Chapter 6

A SPELL OF FAIRY TALE

We awake naturally and find the air humming with activity from the outside world. The room is still dark, the heavily curtained windows are located high. Opening one of the double doors, I make my way past an area where people are engaged in making flat breads. They are evidently servants; for they have that look in their eyes that says they are not free. When I locate the bathroom I find too the sound of birdsong filling my head. I open the window and the sunshine purges every last vestige of gloom from my being and floods the bathroom with radiant light. After brushing my teeth and washing myself I feel fresh and eager for the new day. Returning back up the corridor, I smile an easy greeting at the cowering figures in the kitchen. As I re-enter the room we had slept in, I notice the curtains are open, the lady of the house is there too.

'Bonjour Madam. Comment ca va?' I greet her.

Answering gaily, she enquires if we have slept well. After assuring her we have, we help fold the blankets and stow them in their rightful places. As we busy ourselves tidying the room we are interrupted by the arrival of the trolley service. Coffee, croissants, fresh bread and fruit are all invitingly arrayed for breakfast.

When we are again left alone I take the opportunity to take a closer look at our environment. The walls are adorned with velvet hangings with images of lions and camels, pictures of mysterious looking locations with palm trees and exotically architectured buildings. These velvet pictures hang with fussy fringes, clamour for my attention, vivid colours printed deep into the fabric, I have never seen their like before. They are executed in an unusual, almost childish, style without any great attempt at realism. Lacking shadow they have a very flat appearance though this did not detract from their charm one iota. My attention turns to the tiny bookshelf where I survey a radio, a clock, a calendar, a framed photograph of their son and a few small toys. I find aslo a few magazines paperbacks and a dictionary, all of which are in French. Yolanda explains that Morocco had formerly been a French colony. 'Now how did she know that?' I wonder.

Our hostess returns in the jee nick of time for I am starting to get bored. She asks us whether we would like to visit the Souk, the local market in Sidi Kacem and immediately we are on our feet ready to go. She leads us briskly through a small courtyard, into the street and turns to the right. I notice the streets are not dissimilar to those in France, pleasant enough but a little too modern for my taste. As we penetrate further into town, there is a marked change of style. Traversing quaint alleyways we peek into the comparatively primitive dwellings and shops. Now this is more like it! The buildings here are clean and simple, like the people. I halt at the sight of many cross-legged crop-headed small children in a room eagerly reciting their lessons in front of their teacher. Chanting words written on their wood framed slate boards; they really look a happy bunch.

'The Koran,' our host informs us.

'That's like the Arab Bible,' Yolanda explains to me, 'Arabs pray to Allah.'

The tailors, carpenters and other tradesmen are all garbed in the nightgown style djellabas and wear semispherical skullcaps of embroidered cloth on their heads. Many of them sport moustaches and beards, and grin generously but toothlessly as they lean out to greet us. We stop to watch them at their labours, noticing not a glimpse or sound of a modern machine, we might very well have been taking a walk back in time, in the Middle Ages.

Our guide and her sister wear long kaftans (coverall gowns which conceal the contours of their bodies) and they wear funny headgear similar to that which nuns wear, but of an attractive light blue colour. With a sparkle in her eye, our host explains to us that until a young woman married young men must not see her face uncovered, so her unmarried younger sister has to wear a veil on the lower part of her face whilst in public. Since the veil is of such thin gauze it conceals absolutely nothing. It would seem that worn in this way it is less of an encumbrance than a lure, a token of her status to prospective suitors.

Entering a large cobbled area stacked with merchandise it is evident we have arrived at the souk. The stalls are arrayed with richly coloured fabrics, garments, other finery and goods. Elsewhere are displayed hand-made sandals, shoes and other leather goods, whilst neighbouring stalls offer fruits, vegetables and sweetmeats. Lurking around in the market is an exceptionally tall, strung around his shoulder is a cord fastened to a bulging leather sack, in his hand he clasps a small metal cup. Our guide confirms my suspicion that this man really is selling water. The idea at first seems preposterous and on reflection, just as preposterous! Clearly he is not a tourist attraction for there are no other tourists. This selling water business is for real.

As we move about the stalls our guide keeps encouraging us to buy something for ourselves. On our meagre budget, whatever we buy will have to be justifiable. But the ladies seen to know just where to take us.

The stall they lead me to is heaped with djellabas, patterned, striped and plain. Eagerly, I drink in my choices and soon decide on a plain off-white garment with broad silvery stripes down it, the seams are joined with a chord striped with white and silver. Loose fitting it is a much tighter better fit than the one I had worn yesterday in the village in the countryside. Having tried it on, I am loathe to take it off again. Slipping my hands through the side slits, I can reach the pockets of my jeans, perfect. Surprisingly, though it is made of wool it is light and cool to wear.

Now it is time for Yolanda to buy something for herself. She mentions that she would really like to get a straw hat. That too is easy to find as there are many to choose from. She picks up a sombrero, a wide brimmed hat of natural colour patterned in pastel green and pink. Our purchases have not been so costly, about three dirhams for the hat and seventeen for the djellaba. We continue our stroll around the souk; where the ladies look for clothing fabrics and buy fruit and vegetables, placing their goods in a capacious straw basket. Leaving the relative cool of the indoor market we set off for home. The sun is now burning so fiercely that we do not linger on our way. As we near our house I suddenly remember that we have finished our cigarettes, so excusing myself I slip into a local tobacconist and purchase a packet of 'Casa Sports' and a box of wax matches. Rejoining the group we re-enter the darkened interior of our hosts well-kept home. Left alone for a few minutes I remove all my western clothes other than my underwear and don the djellaba, I have 'gone native' and intend to stay this way at least for the remainder of my stay in Morocco.

Our host has returned home, (I get the impression he owns a garage closeby). The rest of the day is mainly spent between idle chatting and responding to the repeated visits of the trolley, laden with cooked dishes delicacies and fruits. Indeed so many times did I hear the cry of 'Kool, kooli', that I become affeared that I will soon be unable to stand. It is certainly quite a change from the frugal existence we have become used to on the road, but I don't want to overdo it and overdulge.

I ask questions about Morocco, its culture, history and its cities. We ask our host about the use of kiff in his country, telling him of our experience in Tetuan, evidence of the plentiful availability of the drug. His expression clouds.

'Yes, some smoke it,' he admits, 'But they're mad.' That's how Yolanda's translates his words anyway. I ask him why he thinks they are mad. 'They don't want reality, just dreams,' he states.

We ask of Casablanca and Marrakesh and then of Algeria. He is emphatic that Algeria is just like Morocco, no difference at all. In the light of this information we toy with the idea of moving straight on, without further travelling around Morocco.

Suddenly, our host raises the topic of weapons.

'Rien,' Yolanda answers emphatically.

The family reacts with astonishment urgently seeking to convince us of the need to arm ourselves. I show them the penknife I carry in the rucksack but they are anything but reassured. For some minutes we vainly try to change the subject.

Since the discussions have brought the subject of our travels into prominence; I seize the moment to ask where we can hitch from locally. Our host obligingly draws a sketchmap indicating our proximity to the rest of town. Pressing him further, he tells us of a nearby street where we might obtain a life but recommends us to travel at night, for this is apparently the custom in Morocco. After our experience of falling asleep in the intense heat I could see the sense in this idea. We decide to undertake the fifty odd kilometres to Meknes, then on to Fes and through into Algeria.

Not wishing to be a burden on our hosts, and as we are already over-satiated by the constant stream of food, we resolve to leave this very night. Cautiously appraising our hosts of this decision, we impress upon them how much we have enjoyed our stay but remind them of our intent to reach India pointing out that we still have far to go. Our hostess makes a promise to keep in contact, telling Yolanda that she will make a white kaftan for her when when we marry.

There are further visitations from the trolley before the sun sets and the time comes for us to leave our kind hosts. As we make our last farewells outside the house, they present us with food for the journey. I feel highly emotional about leaving them for they have made us feel special. But also I look forward to there being just the two of us again, on the road.

The few electric lights strung aloft in the streets afford little assistance in making our way through the town; it puzzles me how any of the many traders can see what they are doing. On the pavement, bands of people wait, keenly watching the passing, all of them attempting to hitch a ride. The waiting Moroccans do not seem to take any particular notice of us, perhaps in the half-light we don't even look like foreigners to them. Shorthaired, heavily tanned and still bearing the marks of my encounter with the killer ants in faraway Spain, I am also afforded additional anonymity by the hooded gown I wear. I am discovering there are hidden bonuses to wearing a djellaba. By billowing it one can cause an updraught of cool air and by wrapping it tightly one becomes much warmer. The hood, apart from being a shield to excessive sunshine, acts as a filter when the air is dusty. And if one wanted to have a nap, it could be pulled down over one's face.

The sound of a radio swirls about us, the noise of street life mixes easily with the dramatic sound of the music. When some large trucks come bouncing and swaggering along the road, churning up clouds of choking dust, our fellow hopefuls raise their arms and rush forward the moment each comes into view. With a volley of shouted exchanges, men climb onto the trucks as others throw their curious bundles on too. Hoping that in time our turn will come, we stare passively at the goings on about us. As the number of those standing by the roadside lessens so do the number of vehicles coming past. When the next truck comes bucking it's way along the rutted road; I stand at the vanguard of the remaining hikers with Yolanda close behind me. As a truck draws up we open the cab door and drag our luggage inside. Others just as eager and possibly more experienced forced their way past us. With the heat the dust and the clamour, it is hard to handle the situation. Strangely, the driver seems completely unmoved by the pandemonium and commotion.

We soon discover that there are now too many people inside the cab. The most obvious solution is for us to get out, but we are not in genteel and tidy England now. This is Morocco, so we all stay put but it is difficult to endure the discomfort. We are crushed in very tightly against one another and my hip-bones bash and grind against those sitting either side of me. The truck jerks and bounces mightilly serving to create even greater havoc and discomfort. I am tempted to give up on such an absurd situation but mostly everyone is laughing and because of their good naturedness I feel like seeing it through. As we sit there smoking our cigarettes the comradely warmth lessens the discomfort and makes the uneven road feel a little smoother. In spite of the obvious drawbacks, the lift is a good one, the truck is going all the way to the border with Algeria, we have a long night ahead of us.

Suddenly the truck comes to an abrupt halt and the headlights are extinguished, which throws us all into a darkened silence. No explanation for the stop is asked for and none is offered. We just gaze out of the besmeared and dust encrusted window looking out for a reason for the delay. No roadworks or toll station are in sight, there is no apparent reason whatsoever. We sit in silence for several minutes at which time the driver lets out a great 'whoop' and sets the truck rolling onward once more.

As we speed along through the dark night I notice that hanging in the sky without visible means of support neon signs burn with a curious haze surrounding them. With no discernible moon the few lights along the roadside gain disproportionate importance. The brilliance of their colour is both repelling but also quite fascinating.

Again our driver steers his vehicle off the road and silences the engine. I look at him enquiringly. he gestures to the road ahead.

To Yolanda I whisper, 'There's something fishy going on.'

'Why have we stopped?' she asks.

'I reckon there's a police check up ahead, what else could it be?'

'I haven't seen any police,' Yolanda responds.

I keep my eyes peeled as a truck approaches and stare at the row of lights studded across the roof. Up until now I have assumed that these lights were merely decorations. In a moment of inspiration I begin to wonder if the blue, red, orange, green, yellow and white lamps might contain a coded message. As the next truck approaches I notice our driver's mood changes, he becomes very animated and gestures to it enthusiastically to the grinning driver of the other vehicle who drives by us at a snail's pace. Then, without further delay, we swerve back onto the main road.

As the truck passes through the large city of Meknes we see very little, only indistinct silhouettes of clusters of buildings embellished with the sparkle of tiny lights. It seems we have taken a route that bypasses the main city and we soon we stop again; in time an appropriately lit truck rolls by and we galvanise into action. I become convinced that my surmise concerning the cab lights is correct.

Once more we are shaken off the seat by the suddenness of the braking. 'Here we go again,' I announce. 'Now what are they up to?' I ask as other occupants of the cab get out carrying two lengths of rope.

In French Yolanda asks the driver what is going on and he explains that it is now so hot that they are going to try and tie the cab doors permanently open. An odd and potentially dangerous idea but as I am sweating from head to toe, one that meets with my approval. The men struggle for some time before successfully securing the doors open. The measures do little to lower the raging heat inside the cabin but we grin and brave it. But I worry that now with nothing between us and the tarmac below, danger lurks with every jolt and twist.

Long ago I developed a passion for collecting experiences. As a child, on long car journeys, I would be issued with an 'I-Spy' booklet to record those unusual sights of the journey, with a view to placing a tick by everything listed. This was a pretty tall order since some of the stuff in these booklets was pretty obscure. Unusual signs, cars, old-fashioned pillar-boxes, watermills, Oast houses and rare birds, to name but a few of the sought after views. Old habits die hard and the mental I-Spy book I mark these days is the product of an incalculable collection of disconnected images that I have accumulated. IPyramids, caravan trains, Foreign Legionnaires, the cast of 'Z-Cars', are just a few of the I-Spy's left for me to tick.

Approaching the town of Fes I wonder if this could be the home of those curious flat-topped comical red hats with tassels the Tommy Cooper wears one as his trademark. My father had been given one too, by a friend, I look forward to seeing someone wearing one here.

As with most towns approached in the night-time Fes emanates a perceptible glow visible from some distance. Drawing closer, I become spellbound at the spectacle that awaits us, for here is confirmation that those illustrations in the fairy-tale books tells no lies about the magical splendour that lies within the walled towns of Arabia. A concentration of buildings rich in variety and shape, scored with alleys and stairways hung with lights, where people move seemingly oblivious of the late hour of the day. The truck brakes and many of our fellow passengers descend from the cab clutching their belongings and disappear into the night.

With space now to stretch and readjust our squashed limbs, for a few minutes we gaze at the comings and goings at the city gate. From where we sit we can see the gateway inset in the fortified inner wall of the old city. I convince myself I can recognise our former fellow sufferers passing through the gateway and soon becoming absorbed by the crowds. Transfixed, my senses drink in the fabulous vista of the mediaeval city before me. It has been worth all the journeying so far for this brief enchanting sight. All too soon, our driver again settles down to his tasks and sets the over-worked engine in motion once more. I pay one last longing look at the city, and am repaid by seeing a man striding near the gate, wearing the venerable Fez hat!

Straining up the hill we pull away from the city and continue again on our way and do not stop again until it is time to refuel the tank. Here our driver brews up some mint tea for us all and offers some food around. For our part, we contribute the bag of food we were given back in Sidi Kacem. The short break from the monotony of endless travelling does us all a power of good.

Hour after hour we just kept moving and I find myself becoming strangely ill at ease with myself and depressed. I am not at all sure why I am speeding across North Africa, why I am not fast asleep back home. Desperately, I try to convince myself that I am indeed back in London and that this is all just a dream.

I fight to wake myself up, and as I do I notice there is little to see other than the beams of the headlights picking out the tufts of scrubland either side of the road and small insects impacting on the windscreen. I really don't want to travel anymore and I cry within myself for release and this condition only starts to lift later as the first signs of the new day brighten up the sky.

'How are you?' I ask my girlfriend quietly.

Yolanda looks at me gloomily.

'Alright I suppose,' she murmurs unconvincingly.

What a joyless couple we seem to be right now. Of no use to ourselves or to each other. What a big mistake we have made in coming on this journey, how futile and baseless were our immature hopes and dreams. The harsh reality of life on the road overwhelms me. I reckon we could turn back but even this thought brings little consolation. We are so far away from England now. Besides what can we hope for on our return?

'Fuck it, I hate travelling,' I suddenly announce. Yolanda looks at me contemptuously.

Though the sun has not yet arisen, the sky is becoming brighter at every moment. The strong light in my eyes makes me squint; it is all too much. A town lies up ahead; I stare at it with a total absence of interest. Ramshackle, untidy and unfriendly, the sight deepens my dark mood, again I close my eyes.

I don't think I have been asleep for more than a few moments when I feel a tug at my sleeve. To say I am rudely awakened is only partially accurate, for I have slipped into a sexual reverie that I feel disinclined to return from. My whole body is in a state of arousal; all I want right now is sex.

The truck has now stopped and the driver and his friend are outside standing in the street, leaning against the bonnet, talking.

'We're here,' Yolanda nudges me.

'I don't want to move,' I moan. I am not yet fully awake. I force myself to get up, a painful process as I have become fairly welded to the seat. My clothes are sodden with sweat and I still have 'trouble' with my manhood. Lowering ourselves to the ground, we stand staring blankly, resembling victims of hypnotism we sway and stumble. I try to attract our drivers attention but in vain. He too seems a bit 'spaced out'.

'Which way is the border?' I enquire.

Yolanda co-operates by repeating the remark in the lingua franca and gets a look of curiosity for her trouble. Not to be put off she moves closer near to him, speaks her line again, this time a good deal louder. Slowly and without any evident emotion he offers direction, which amount to a bit of pointing and a certain amount of muttering.

Involuntarily I start rendering a version of the Beatles 'Hard Days Night' in the style of Peter Sellers as it has indeed been a hard day's night and I should have been sleeping like a log.

I take in the images about us - snarling mongrel dogs, lumps of concrete, barbed wire and a rank odour emanating from God knows where, or what.

'What a bringdown!' I murmur.

'Oh shut up,' Yolanda rebukes.

'Shut up yourself,' I retort mechanically.

Are we going the right way? I doubt it, but don't really care. No one else seems to be about at this time of day for the place is desolate. We trudge on wearily.

As the sun peeps over the horizon I cringe.

'Sorry about back then Yolanda,' I mutter.

'It's all right, don't worry,' she reassures, 'How much further is it to the border?'

''I think it's that building up ahead. It appears that we have been going the right direction after all.'

Two very tired and dispirited travellers have their passports stamped by a sleepy eyed official.

As we leave Morocco, I feel a bolt of agony hit me as recollections of the sweetness of our time in Sidi Kacem tug at me. Gone now is the grey mood that I've been nursing. Steadfastly and confidently, eagerly inhaling the fresh air of dawn, I stride over to the borderpost on the Algerian side.

 

 

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