Zagan the motorhome’s safe in port, parked under eucalyptus trees shedding their bark onto tough-bladed grass at the Diamant Vert campsite about 6km south of Fes (N33.987852, W5.019011). It costs 120 Dh a night (about €12) for a motorhome, two people and electricity. The last time we were here in Fes we used the other campsite, Camping International, which was OK but not a patch on this place. Even the showers here are hot, although fellow Brits Fran and David, staying here too, reported the staff only swapped to new gas bottles the day we arrived and they’d had 4 days of cold showers. David had also used the guarded parking next to the medina and reported it to be a great place, busy with cars, lorries and coaches but in easy walking distance to the old town, and relatively easy to drive to around the larger roads which surround the city.
The call to prayer’s echoing in the distance. It’s a haunting sound, and seems to carry me off into scenes from The English Patient, a film I find beautifully nostalgic. I love being here in Morocco, and yet I find it bloody awkward too. My sense of right and wrong, of fairness, of affluence versus poverty, of giving way at roundabouts and generally of who the hell I think I am gets flung in the air and I find myself running about trying to catch the pieces and check they’re really mine. This is why I travel. This feels real.
We’ve done a couple of stints on the roads to bring us south from Asilah to Fes, stopping at the campsite attached to a roadside hotel on the way, Hotel Rif (N34.772705, W5.544475 – 70 Dh including electricity and hot showers). We’ve travelled separately to avoid trying to keep up with each other on roads where overtaking is often needed to keep moving at any pace, but can be difficult and best done unforced. Both of us are using maps.me to help navigate, and for both of us the app tried to take us on a piste road to shortcut between the N1 and the R408. Ju and I took a look at the rapidly-narrowing strip of tarmac as we passed it on the main road and (avoiding the actual words used), mutually agreed to ‘stuff that for a game of soldiers’, and took the longer route. Phil and Jules, who were some way behind us, went for it. 8 miles of it. In most stretches they could only get 2 wheels on the tarmac (well, 3 since they’ve 4 wheels on the rear axle), with deep drop-offs to the dirt on either side. Zagan would have grounded out for sure but they’ve far more clearance than us, ah, if only we had a Mercedes like them. Through villages, football matches, past folks working the fields waving hello and edging out the way of a suicidal oncoming lorry, they got both a stressful and rewarding experience wrapped up in one. That is, for me, Morocco in a nutshell.
Tracks have been made south in a hurry to enable us to enter the Fes 10 km (6 miles) run tomorrow, although through an act of one-upmanship, Phil and I have found we’ve ‘Semi Marathon’ written on our race numbers, so we men are doing the 21 km (13 miles) version in the morning. Shit! We walked in from the campsite this morning through the new town, past bewildering sights. A lady using a sickle to collect what look like weeds, with a backdrop of luxurious apartments, all glass and chrome in the sunlight. A business-on-a-bike shoe repair outfit outside a closed shop. At one point Phil offered to help a stranded tuk-tuk (I don’t know the actual word for his machine), and was gifted an orange from the thankful rider, which Phil later passed on to a lady lying on the floor with two children, apparently penniless. She gifted back a broad smile.
On the way back through the city we aimed for a street-side food seller, a simple place selling chicken and some kind of brains with noodles. A fixer chap, who I’ll refer to as Del Boy since I never asked his name, attached himself to us, emerging from nowhere. In a flurry he worked out we were English, switched to English, failed to sell us a tour of the city, and ushered us into the food stall which we were just about to use anyway. My hackles went up when I realised what was happening: the classic Moroccan hustle where you get hustled before you’ve even realised you’re being hustled. I went to ask the stall owner the price of the food: vingt-cinq he said, pointing at the chicken, which Del Boy translated as 35. “Eh? Il a dit vingt-cinq” I flicked back at Del Boy, pointing out that vingt-cinq is 25, not bloody 35. At this point I flicked on my own defences and told the guy to do us a favour and leave us alone to enjoy our meal. To his credit he backed off, standing to one side until we’d finished eating so he could have another go at selling us a tour guide for 100 Dh (too cheap, the official English-speaking guide we’ve booked is costing us 250 Dh a couple, and the cheapest official one I’ve heard of is 200 Dh a couple, so he is, IMHO, likely not to be registered as a guide). Anyway, we paid up 35 Dh each (£3.20 ish) and left, fending him off again.
On the way home Phil and I talked this through. Was the guy just giving us a service, translating into English (which we didn’t need), was he just doing his job selling the services of his tour guide? Was it fair he should add a little onto the price, after all we could easily afford it? These are the kinds of questions my inner-voice asks me every day I’m in this country.
I don’t really get upset with these guys. I don’t mind the conflict, not here, although I avoid it like the plague back home. It seems here to be quite natural to argue with someone, shake hands and wish each other a good day. On the way into Fes guys on mopeds wait for motorhomes and pull alongside side, ushering us to their chosen campsite where they’ll get a kick back. Our guy wanted us to go to Camping International, but we’d already decided to come here. We were stopped at a roundabout when he appeared. I opened the window and we chatted, loudly, in French. He told me he could lead us to a campsite. I told him we didn’t need him (we didn’t). He told us International is a good campsite and he worked for them. I told him we’d already chosen a campsite. He repeated he worked for International. I told him I understood, but I still didn’t need him. The traffic was building up by this point, he told me he was glad to have met me. I told him to have a bonne journée, shook his hand, and we went our separate ways. It feels weird: you can shout and wave at each other for a good while, then sudden calm, no bad feeling, hands are shaken and it’s as though nothing happened. You almost have to go through this process to be left in peace sometimes.
So, anyway, we’re booked in for the races tomorrow. It cost £9 each to enter (same price for 10 km and 21 km races), which includes a free day-glo T shirt. Our race numbers have electronic tags on ’em, so we should get a good idea how long it took us to get round. I’m nervous, having not run a half marathon for about 20 years, but what the hell, we’ll get a good look round Fes. I’m also thankful to Phil and Jules for being with us and making us do this thing: without them we’d have bummed around Morocco and would never have found ourselves distance running in Africa.
A few more photos from the past couple of days: