('On-line' text of)
- 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
SNAKES AND LADDERS
It is daybreak and sleepily I take in our new location. Closeby appears to be a plantation of some kind, and behind the fence some tomato plants are growing. I take the chance to pick some ripe fruits for our breakfast.
Once we are fully awake we lower ourselves on to the hard shoulder of the motorway and made our way to the next crossroads to position ourselves for the new day’s hitching. After several hours we are still unsuccessful, so despondently we start off on foot, trudging up the highway and through the next town. As we do so I marvel at our apparent indefatigability, our strength of purpose and determination to forge on no matter what. Only once so far have we been tempted to turn back, and that was only due to the intolerable heat. Since then we have been so terribly sore from sunburn and have been constantly peeling. But we learnt a lesson and now we resist the temptation to make any more excursions to the beach.
We keep on walking, occasionally stopping to show our thumbs to approaching motorists. In grim determination we continue marching on, just having just a short rest from time to time.
Coming up to a roadside bar we think to venture inside and are immediately befriended by a crowd of fellow Britishers. These holidaymakers demonstrate to us how they think Spain ought to be enjoyed - through an alcoholic haze! The barman appears to be friendly too; pressing free drinks on us, which unfortunately appear to be alcoholic, so, when he’s not looking, we pass them on to the revellers and make our exit without further ado.
We notice that on the other side of the road there are some fruits growing on the trees, so I cross over to make a recce. Oranges they definitely are, seemingly the remnants of a recent crop so I glean them and am delighted at the taste hot and slightly over-ripe juice of the blood oranges. With some fruits clasped against my chest I depart from the grove and share them with Yolanda as we sit on the kerbside; having both lost the energy to walk any further.
‘At last,’ I cry out as a car pulls up.
The driver appears happy too - he is wreathed in smiles. He seems different to the other drivers we have met so far in Spain, much more open and friendly. His car is quite small. On this occasion I sit in the front with the driver who immediately points to the car record player and offers to put on some music. From the pile of singles on the floor he selects a record and inserts the disc in the slot of the player. The record crackles and pops, then comes a fanfare, a multitude of violins that hop and bound through a strange and beautiful melody. I listen entranced as incredibly rich patterns are woven by a variety of wind instruments, which come floating in and out of my awareness.
‘Brilliant! Amazing! Spanish?’ I ask.
‘Maroc,’ he answers me.
‘Moroccan,’ Yolanda intervenes, ‘He’s Moroccan,’ she explains.
I decide there and then that I am going to like Morocco! I can’t wait to get there. This music that is playing is very stoned music and I wonder if our driver has been ‘indulging’. Anyway, our driver turns out to be a very chatty fellow, though unfortunately, much of what he says is lost on me as he speaks only in French.
He has some fruit, which he shares with us - we’re a merry throng, driving along. We coast along for what seems like hours before arriving at a large town, the city of Malaga in fact. Along the seafront is an unending line of palm trees. I look for coconuts but cannot see even one.
‘This man has to go and do some business in town,’ Yolanda says, having taken to playing the interpreter role again; ‘If things go well he will be driving on further down the coast, to somewhere called Algeciras. From there he will be going to Morocco.’
I look at him enthusiastically; he beams back to me,
‘He comes from Marrakech, and he wants to know whether we would we like to go there with him?’ Yolanda continues.
‘Marrakech’! Just the sound of the name sends tingles through me, it sounds so exotic. Hadn’t there once been a children’s television programme of that name with Patrick Allen and Sam Kydd?
“We’re all going on the Marrakesh Express, all aboard that train,” I begin singing, words from the first release from the heavily hyped ‘supergroup’ of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
It appears our driver has some business to attend to in Malaga, so we agree to meet him later at the Plaza Aduana, the main square. With time on our hands we go in search of some food and we also indulge ourselves in a little sight seeing.
Nosing through the windows of cafés and restaurants I am surprised to find they are catering mostly for the tourist market, selling typically English fare like steak and chips, mixed grill, egg chips and bacon - we might as well have been back in London. We set off in search of fresh food and come across an indoor market, an immense place with imposingly high ceilings and an overall impression of coolness, providing a contrast to the scorching heat outside, some temporary respite. There we buy provisions of fruit, bread and cheese.
Having done rough justice to our backlog of hunger, we place the remainder of the food in our rucksack and continue our walk around the city of Malaga. Here there are stately columns, eye catchingly high buildings and a cathedral that all jostle for attention. To think that some people actually get off on the solemn and solitary occupation of sightseeing leaves me quite perplexed.
Life here seems to move on at a pedestrian pace and we have rather a lot of time to kill. Inevitably we arrive extremely early for our rendez-vous with our Moroccan friend and have a long, long time to wait for him. I can hardly contain my relief when he re-appears. I greet him earnestly.
‘Oui, nous allons a Marrakech,’ he exclaims grinning widely. He really is a good ambassador for his country.
We are soon back in the car and heading further down the coast, towards the port Algeciras. Our driver slips record after record into the throat of the car record player. I find the Moroccan music extremely interesting, enticing, with messages of freedom and excitement that pierce my alert senses. . Between tucking into the food supplies and drawing on our cigarettes, we while away the time, continuing to enjoy the music. Onwards we travel, and the bright sunlight gradually gives way to night. Yolanda and myself are excited that we are really on our way to Morocco, especially since we have a sure lift all the way to Marrakech. We don’t mind losing yet another night’s sleep.
It is still dark when we arrive at our destination, so we stay seated in the car and watch the first powerful rays of sunshine thrusting themselves upon the morning sky. Then, opening the car doors, we wander off along the quayside gazing over the waters of the Mediterranean. Finding the local public conveniences we freshen up and make ourselves ready for the new day. A little later, when the facility for changing money opens, we change a little more of our precious currency to buy ourselves tickets for the boat trip to Tangiers.
We return to the car and our friend then goes off to buy his ticket and also to freshen himself up.
It is quite a while before he breezes back again. He has changed, is now dressed in a different set of clothes and has evidently been shaving his face and trimming his moustache too. As we all seem to be ready, our driver restarts the car and drives th short distance to the dock, to join the queue of vehicles waiting to go onboard the ferry. I am really excited now; it feels like a really momentous occasion.
The queue of vehicles moves very slowly down the ramp, in fits and starts it advances, and we draw ever closer to the vast hold of the boat. Down the ramp we descend and then it is our turn to drive onboard. All at once the light of the sun is behind us and there is only a string of naked light bulbs to illuminate the hold - I struggle hard to see about me. In single file the cars move forward past a figure seated at a desk some yards further to the left. An official pokes his head in at the driver’s window of our car whereupon our Morrocan friend hands over his passport. Naturally, we do likewise, and the passports are taken to the man sitting at the desk. I turn to chat with Yolanda but moments later our friendly driver interrupts us. He points to the seated official who appears to be trying to gain my attention, motioning for me to come over to see him. I assume he means for me to collect the passports so I set out to do just that. He remains impassive, gazing steadily at me for a several long moments and then he gets up from his chair.
‘Nice suit ..? he asks me, pointing to his clothes. ‘Yes? Nice? Good shoes, Yes? Yes!’
‘Uh? Excuse me? ‘ I enquire.
‘N-i-i-ce hair? Yes?’ he says, preening himself. I start to feel uneasy.
‘When you come to my country, you wear nice suit, nice hair, Yes?’ he continues.
I stare at him, trying to conceal my feelings about him.He hands me back the passports and I return to the car, closing the door behind me.
‘What a jumped up little shit,’ I murmur to my girlfriend.
‘What did he say?’ Yolanda asks me.
A shout interrupts us and I see the first official, the one I had first handed the passports to, gesturing at me again. It seems he wants me to get out of the car again but I don’t move. My senses are becoming swamped with anger and frustration. Our driver looks at me uneasily and points to the official. The car door is opened and I grudgingly get out. The customs man now treats me to another display theatrics, but the words he utters are totally incomprehensible to me. I look beseechingly at our driver who shrugs.
The official points his finger to the ramp - we are clearly being thrown off the boat. As I do not wish to cause any hardship to our driver I decide curb my tongue and instead pull our baggage out of the car. We thank our driver for having given us the lift. He looks back at us sadly. I take another look at Mister Suit who grins at me, a smug look on his face.
‘When you come to Morocco you come nice, look like me,’ he shouts
‘You’ve got Problems!’ I counter, hardly appreciating the irony of my remark.
‘What a cretin,’ Yolanda murmurs, ‘Who does he think he is?’
‘A suit?’ I offer.
I had almost forgotten how thoroughly unpleasant officials can be. I recall the gendarme on the autoroute, and the Customs officials on entering Spain, and now this, being refused entry to Morocco.
What did it say in my passport; ‘To afford the bearer without let or hindrance...’
‘Balls,’ I said.
‘Cretinous shit!’ Yolanda fumes.
Although there isn’t anything we can do about the situation we have found ourselves in, it doesn’t stop us talking about it. For the next half-hour keep up an ongoing volley of insults directed towards the power-mad conceited official.
Eventually we run out of fuming and Yolanda asks; ‘How are we going to get to Morocco now?’
‘First, let’s go and see if we can get the money back on these tickets,’ I suggest.
Surprisingly, we get our money back without any difficulty. We hang around the quayside simply because we have nowhere else to go. On a board there is a map displayed - I give serious consideration to our position and whilst doing so I realize there is more than one route we can take. For a start we could return to France and from there make our way through Italy and the rest of Europe. Another idea would be to simply board a boat to Algeria. The latter would be the more expensive route but one that would ensure we do not miss out on North Africa altogether.
Whilst poring over the map we are soon joined by a few other foreigners, who we tell of our predicament.
‘They’re in the pay of the Yanks,’ comes the confident reply.
‘What?!!’ I gasp.
‘Yeah, a ploy to keep Heads out of the place. America bribed them to keep out all longhairs.’
‘To hell with them! They’re not going to keep me out, Fascist bastards!’ I snort indignantly.
‘Yeah,’ he nods, ‘But how you gonna get in then? Go to Algeria and come back over the border into Morocco, that’s how it’s usually done.’
Seems travelling might be likened to the game of snakes and ladders? Fortunately, after looking at the map again, I get another idea of how to get to Morocco.
‘So where exactly is Ceuta?’ I ask our new friends.
‘Oh it’s a part of Spain,’ comes the reply.
‘But it’s over the water? A part of Morocco really?’
‘So there’s nothing to stop us going there, no passport checks or anything?’
‘I suppose not, but you’re better to go travel to Tangiers.’
I check at the ticket booth and find that a ticket to Ceuta is much cheaper than one for Tangiers, which is a pretty persuasive argument for going to Ceuta. Pleased at having found a cheap answer to our problem, I ask Yolanda her opinion.
‘Shall we try it then?’
We are in agreement and have no trouble booking the tickets for the ferry to Ceuta. We have to wait several hours for the boat to leave and I lean on a fence near the ticket kiosk and watch as a group of people wash themselves - their brightly coloured clothes and cleaning unusual looking brass cooking pots, suggest they are visitors too, probably Moroccans. Cheerfully they all splash about in the water right outside the public conveniences, amidst a sea of bubbles about their ankles.
Eventually we grow restless and so decide to go in search of the ferryboat. Thankfully it has already arrived, and so for a while we watch the comings and goings of the crew.
Yolanda and I are the first passengers to climb aboard - we take a good look around then sit down on one of the many long wooden well-constructed benches arrayed over the vast deck. Feeling sapped of humour and a little tired from enduring recent events I keep my own company - Yolanda likewise has little to say for herself. We no longer mention the incident with the customs man since having given vent to our feelings there is little more to say for we are just pawns caught up in a game beyond our control.
To my surprise the weather takes a turn for the worse, becoming overcast and giving the impression of impending rain.
I sense a growing feeling of vacuousness, an uneasy reminder of how my mood had been sometimes back in London just prior to our departure. I determine not to let the mood take hold but I realise I am powerless to do anything much about it. I am also sensing a feeling of apathy from Yolanda too; so perhaps the trip isn’t working after all. Perhaps it is my fault? Maybe I have let her down, let myself down? Perhaps the Moroccan official was right after all?
I had been getting quite carefree of late, but now, where has that feeling gone? Confused and devoid of joi de vivre I have little of a positive value to give out to anyone.
Gradually, more and passengers come to sit on the benches on deck, I surmise that we must soon be leaving. I am right as, after a few perfunctory shouts and brief flurry of activity amongst members of the crew, we cast adrift and float very slowly away from the quayside. I sense my spirits lift a fraction.
The craft comes to a halt. More shouts and machinery sprang into action and then the boat begins to move again. We are on the move! Getting up some speed, we cut through the choppy waters at the rate of knots (whatever a knot is?). I look about me hoping to amuse or distract myself rather than just to stare out to sea. So I admire the funnels and survey all the various sorts of deck fittings.
I notice there are some Japanese people sitting closeby us, they have unsmiling expressionless faces as they talk amongst themselves. I survey their expensive looking luggage and ask myself why is it that Americans and Japanese tourists seem always to carry cameras around their necks. The craze has certainly not taken off with the British. The blank expressions on the Japanese tourists puzzles me, they seem sort of unnatural. What has brought these people all this way from Japan to travel on this dull boat ride? But perhaps they are really enjoying the trip; I have no way of knowing. One of them asks Yolanda a question that she can’t understand. We discover that they cannot speak English and in their turn, they soon discover that we know not a word of Japanese. A total impasse. But for some reason this does not stop them from wanting to talk. One of them has an idea; he slips off his seat and undoes his luggage, then excitedly takes out a small bag. Opening it he pours the contents out into my hands. They are coins of different shapes and sizes with even strange symbols and markings. I nod appreciatively and hand them on to Yolanda, whereupon she in turn passes them back to the excited little chap. Grinning from ear to ear and showing the many gaps in his teeth he presents first myself and then my girlfriend with little coins with holes in them, momentoes of our meeting. After thanking him we sit there trying to make out the letters on the coins. He repacks his money and then produces some postage stamps. We look at those too but for us they have only limited interest and soon the ‘conversation’ lulls. In the spirit of sharing I offer them some of our food and they open theirs, offering us to share. I find myself gradually warming to them, realising that they, like ourselves, are just lonely travellers, a long way from their homeland.
Happilly, I notice we are now fast approaching land.
We all get up and lean out over the railings to watch the landing, whereupon the boat came to a dead halt. Suddenly the crew, who during the trip have not revealed themselves, are here, there and everywhere as the boat manoeuvres and after much time slips by we come to rest. The crew, all muscular and sailorlike men, line themselves along the gangway, all they very much the part. I hold out our passports ready for any awaiting officials, waiting to present them to the Customs officials, but there are now as we are still in Spain!
We tag along with the other passengers and venture into the town of Ceuta, where, seemingly, most of the shopkeepers wear colourful clothes and even straw hats with coloured ribbons attached, there is an atmosphere similar to that of a fun-fair. This appears to be a full-time round-the-clock fun city (the idea has a certain appeal). But where are the revellers? Most surely not us lot!
Passing through a square, marked as the ‘Plaza de Africa’, we continue past an imposing Cathedral, along the flagstone alleyways and across more squares. As we pass by the cafés, restaurants, gift stalls and the like, my attention comes to rest on a barber’s shop; I stop as an idea stirs in my head. As I linger outside the shop Yolanda eyes me suspiciously.
After catching the attention of the barber, I stride in and without hesitation chuck my baggage to the floor before collapsing in the chair. He picks up scissors and with a somewhat evil glint in his eye begins hacking at my hair, carelessly lopping off large clumps.
Though the haircut is causing me a deal of pain, I bear it in silence with knitted brow and gritted teeth. He deploys none of the niceties associated with hairdressers generally - no careful trimming, no attention to microscopic rogue hairs that have escaped attention. Without so much as a squirt of spray of smelly stuff, which usually punctuates the end of this kind of job, he finishes his work within three short minutes. Looking in the mirror to survey the damage I lean over and help myself to a brush to try to coax the remaining hair into reasonable shape. Standing ankle deep in brown curls I give the barber a withering look, but he appears decidedly un-withered by my scowl and greedily demands the sum of fifty pesetas from me.
Yolanda looks at me, very annoyed.
I figure that’s all I need, but I keep my silence and press on, just hoping we are going the right way, and attempting to catch sight of our fellow passengers.
‘Why did you do it?’ Yolanda demands.
Should I give the two-hour answer or something more concise? I decide on the latter.
‘Oh balls, we want to get into Morocco don’t we?’
Since we have now become separated from the rest of the ship’s passengers, I am now guided through Ceuta by nothing but intuition and a measure of guesswork. As it happens, we come to a bus station where I spot some young hippie-looking Europeans and I wander over to chat with them. Apparently, they have just come Morocco and have only good to say about it.
I eye their leather shoulderbags, having beautiful colourful stitchwork, which they tell us they got these in Marrakech.
‘How did you get here?’ one of them asks.
‘Huh, that’s a story! Actually we had a lift that was going all the way to Marrakech but we couldn’t get past the customs when we got on the boat in Algeciras.’
We are soon regaling them with a full account of all our recent misfortunes.
‘Paid by the Americans,’ comes the response.
I marvel at the Jungle Telegraph system that seems to keep all but me informed.
‘Well they owe me fifty pesetas then, the Fascists!’ I say for the second time that day. ‘But how did you get in to Morrocco then?’ I ask.
‘Oh you gotta fly in. It’s alright that way, they want your bread you see, it’s as simple as that.’
‘Too late for that now, I’ve had my hair cut now.’
‘Good luck! You shouldn’t have any problem, you’re fine!’
We shuffle away from the bus station, as it seems we don’t need a bus since the border seems reasonably close by, but we must get a move on as darkness is closing in on us fast. As we draw closer to the border post I figure I should to spend the last of our pesetas on biscuits and fruit.We approach the Moroccan customs building with a sense of trepidation, nervously stopping near to where a uniformed official stands. Smiling, he takes our passports and slowly and deliberately peruses them, intermittently looking over at us. He catches my eye and makes a motion with his head - the message is clear enough, he wishes to see if I am concealing my hair behind me. I give him a whirl, whereupon he looks back at me, a look of surprise written large on his face, but he nods approvingly and sets about stamping our passports.
No that isn't it…
….here it is!
I think it best to resist the urge to express my delight at getting through the border and instead set about changing some money; getting a fiver’s worth of dirhams.
Ten days out of London and here we are in Morocco - not bad!
Light of step we make our way down the narrow road ahead, curious where it will take us. From out of the shadowy gloom of the moonless night figures appear, having an amusing appearance as they seem to be dressed in nightgowns. The figures quickly disappear again, raising a question as to why they are flitting about. It all seems a bit odd.
Amongst a cluster of some low buildings we locate a café; and there is no doubt that having gained entry to Morroco, celebratory drinks are in order. The owner of the café appears in the doorway, a well-built middle-aged man sporting a vast moustache. I order two cups of tea and we then go to sit ourselves outside. I am pleased to note that Yolanda now seems much more relaxed, in fact she looks positively radiant. She surprises me by thanking me “for what you did back in Ceuta”.
The genial proprietor appears with our drinks, clear glasses with chrome surrounds and handles, containing a green liquid, a potion containing a clump of vegetation.
I nudge Yolanda. ‘Maybe it’s marijuana?’ I suggest under my breath.
‘Maybe it is!’ she replies full of curiosity.
Before we have a chance to sample the beverage we are joined by a new arrival, somebody who is obviously a policeman as he is positively bristling with tokens of his office. He seems to be a friend of the proprietor - I get the drift; this is a put-up job. The owner gives us the marijuana, and then friendly Mister Plod joins us in order to inform us; ‘I’ve got you two, now come along quietly!’
Nervously I sip my drink and almost choke laughing. ‘It’s mint, mint tea, wow!’
The policeman smiles but obviously doesn’t know why we are falling about laughing. When we have recover from our fit of laughter we proceed to drink our over-sweet mint drinks and both light up cigarettes. It is nice to sit for a while, as we seem to have been on the move most of the time since getting off the boat. We enjoy a rest.
At length the policeman gets up and we wave him a cheery farewell. Before paying for our drinks I study a five-dirham note; noticing that the face printed on it looks remarkably like the officious customs man back in Algeciras. The friendly proprietor brings me the change, a handful of interesting pretty coins. Some have stars struck on them, others have relief designs reminiscent of art nouveau; all the coins have dates on from between 1370-1390!
It is getting late and therefore high time we looked for lodgings - I worry that we should have considered this need earlier, back in Ceuta. As we search we come across nothing at all promising, and before long find ourselves soon on the outside of town. I reason it is dangerous for us to start hitchhiking in darkness, so we decide instead to find somewhere just to roll out our sleeping bags.
Veering off the road we walk for some minutes with only the faintest light to guide us, the stones beneath our feet scrunching noisily. The darkness has now become total; so complete is the blackout that we cannot see each other now. Repeatedly I stoop down to touch the ground, hoping to find somewhere comfortable enough to spend the night. We carry on like this until I find a spot that feels a little less stony, whereupon I call to Yolanda. Getting no response I call again. Her voice returns from some way off. I keep calling out to her in order that she get a fix on where I am, and before long I hear a scuffling sound and then, of a sudden, Yolanda bumps into me!‘We can’t keep walking on like this all night. I think we ought to stop here,’ I say decisively. ‘It’s the best place I can find so far.’ So after unrolling our sleeping bags we settle down and murmur our last thoughts of the day before wishing each other a good night’s sleep.
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