Traveller's World

One of the books I am working on is about my travels over more years than I care to mention!

I was listening to the radio this morning (24 March 2007) and listened to a talk about pedaloes. About a cricketer who recently went on a pedalo in the Caribbean at night, and about a chap who crossed the Atlantic in a pedalo (yes, crossed the Atlantic in a pedalo!). I can't (quite!) match either of those exploits but I have been on a pedalo in one of the largest lakes in Austria, and in the Black Sea.

I have written about many of my travels, and decided to create this page to give some of the pieces an on-line airing. To start with, as tonight British summer time starts, a snippet about "Time".

Spring forward, fall back. That is the right way round, isn't it! It is Saturday 26 March 2005. The clocks go forward to 4 in the morning (2 a.m. in England, there is a two hour time difference). I am travelling to Piraeus on a ferry that arrives at about 9.30 this evening. My journey will not (as far as I know - perhaps I should get to the harbour an hour early, just in case!) be affected. Ferries travelling overnight will be affected by the change of hour. Some of the regular timings that people have become used to will be changed, just for the one night.

This time I am not flying back to England until Monday. One year I was catching a plane from Athens to London early in the morning. The morning when the clocks change at 4 a.m. I had not then realised that the clocks in Greece are changed at 4 a.m., not 2 a.m. Obvious when you think about it, for synchronisation, but until then I had not had occasion to think about it. All I was concerned about was the change in time when I woke up, not the actual time of the change in the middle of the night. I asked the chap on the desk at my hotel to book me a taxi to the airport. Leaving at 4 a.m. should give me plenty of time, I thought. A slightly pained expression crept over the chap's face. "4.15 a.m., that would be plenty early enough, do you agree?" I saw his point. Booking a taxi for 4 a.m. would have been a bit tricky. Which 4 a.m.!?

Other times I have got back to Piraeus too late to make it worth while getting a hotel, and have snoozed at the airport. Snooze. 3.30 a.m. Snooze 3.45 a.m. Snooze 3.55 a.m. Snooze. 3.05 am. A long night!

In the late 1970s I went to Morocco. Morocco was less of a tourist destination thirty years ago! I flew to Agadir (not that long after the Agadir earthquake) and travelled around by public transport to Tinerhir in the south, and up to Meknes and Fez, to Rabat, Marrakesh and back to Rabat. I travelled alone and with nothing pre-booked, and looking back was quite brave! As I am writing this (still 24 March 2007) there is another programme on the radio, now about African, including Moroccan, music!

A Moroccan Bus Journey by Susan Watkin

I spent the following day in Agadir, a modern town built after the earthquake of 1960. The town provided a gentle introduction to Morocco. On a patch of waste ground I saw a ramshackle old bus and remarked that it must be many years since that bus had been driven around the streets of Agadir.

At nine thirty the next day I boarded that bus, or its older sibling, destined not for the tame streets of Agadir but for the untamed heights of the Atlas mountains. It seemed rather like heading up Snowdon in a baby Fiat. The prospects seemed ominous even before I boarded the bus. The front panel was missing, exposing the engine. A sign near the door proclaimed that the bus was 'First class. Second category.' What on earth was second class like? Inside the wooden floor boards were broken and I could see down to the road below. The seats were so close together that I could feel the knees of my rear neighbour through the back of the seat. The bus was virtually full. Luggage of varying shapes and sizes (from a hen to a motor bike) was placed on the roof and held in place by a net. The horn sounded. Even more passengers leapt on board. And we were off. More passengers were picked up en route.

Soon we stopped at a small town, Inezgane. Many passengers got off and walked around. Even more got on. Children selling sweets walked up and down the aisles. And a beggar who appeared to be reciting chunks of the Koran. Followed by a water seller with very grubby mugs. I was glad of my supply of bottle Sidi Harazem, the local mineral water, as it was essential to drink a lot in that heat. The horn sounded. The signal for all the passengers to scramble aboard and the itinerant vendors to get down. The net was thrown back over the roof. We were ready to go again. A non-French speaking man tried to take the seat next to me. I indicated that the seat was already taken. The newcomer looked disbelieving. Then my erstwhile neighbour emerged through the throng of standing passengers.

At this stage of the journey the scenery was flattish. We were in a valley between the Anti Atlas and the High Atlas. It was only in this area that I saw the prickly pear cactus being used as a hedging plant. After about three hours we reached the attractive walled town of Taroudant. The bus rushed down the narrow streets to the bus stop area. Half an hour stop. I was beginning to see why the journey was so long in time and relatively short in distance.

At last on our way again. Soon we were on a single track road with a verge of rubble on either side. When another vehicle approached, the smaller of the two would swerve onto the verge without reducing speed. There was little other motorised traffic. Many donkeys and mules were being ridden along the verges. I felt that at last I was really off the beaten track. My illusions were shattered when I saw a double decker bus, London Transport style, approaching. I tried to convince myself that I was seeing a mirage. But no, the bus was real enough. Run by a British tour company and full of European looking travellers. If a double decker bus could do the route no doubt the old single decker I was on could get through.

I was following the route on a map. I had been unable to find a map in England as the Michelin map was out of print. After some difficulty, I had bought a map produced by a Moroccan tyre company in Agadir. The map caused much amusement to the other passengers. I was apprehensive about a section of the road littered with double arrows and shown as unsurfaced.

Another stop. This time at Aoulouz. We pulled into the village square. As I found in many other villages, the square was surrounded by arcaded buildings containing small open fronted shops. I was surprised to see a donkey leaning out of one of the windows. I looked again. It was a donkey's head on a butcher's counter. I saw two donkeys' heads on display in this village. I later asked several Moroccans if they ate donkey meat. They insisted that they did not and did not believe what I had seen in this village. A mystery. I went into a shop and asked for a tea, mint tea, the Moroccan national beverage. In a larger establishment, the tea would have been served in a pot. Here the tea, mint and sugar were placed with boiling water in a tumbler. I held out my hand for the glass. To my horror the server took a sip out of the glass, pronounced himself satisfied, then handed it to me. Hardly our idea of hygiene!

Back on the bus. It was still very hot and I was glad of the curtains provided to shield off the worst of the sun. An unchanging landscape of sand and small stones. Occasionally the bus would stop to let a passenger on or off. The passengers walked off into the desert, not a dwelling in sight. I wondered how many miles they would have to walk before reaching home.

I must have fallen asleep. I was woken by the sound of breaking glass and the bus screeching to a halt. The windscreen had shattered. And there is a lot of glass in the windscreen of a bus. The driver was covered with blood and his nose seemed somewhat smaller than before. The driver was being attended to by the conductor. No one else had been hurt. I was lucky to have been sitting half way down the bus but I was still covered with small fragments of glass. The driver soon carried on. We were in the middle of nowhere. Literally. Can you think of a worse place to have a shattered windscreen than the middle of a desert? After half an hour we arrived at the village of Taznakht. The driver and the conductor disappeared into what was presumably a doctor's
house. By this time there were only a dozen or so passengers left on the bus. We did not venture too far from the bus as we did not know if and when the bus would move on. Would the driver continue the 80 or so miles to Ouarzazate? Without a windscreen, badly injured and at night? And over the most tricky stretch of the road. Nobody else seemed concerned. But I did not want to stay in Taznakht until the next bus arrived a week later.

The driver emerged after about two hours. In clean clothes and with a plaster across his nose. We drove round the village and pulled up outside a cafe for half an hour. I was beginning to feel peckish and wished I had known about this place a couple of hours earlier. I ventured inside. There was no electricity and the cafe was lit by paraffin. I asked for a sandwich. There was no bread. All they had was 'meat'. After the sight of the donkey head earlier in the day, I decided to stay away from meat in these out of the way places. And I stayed hungry.

The driver put on his djellabah and turban and drove away into the night. A pity it was so dark as the road hairpinned up and down the mountains. There was a surprising amount of traffic on this stretch of the road. The unsurfaced road was not as bad as I had feared. The two hours wait had broken the ice amongst the passengers and everyone chatted merrily. The Moroccans were particularly interested in English lifestyles. Before long we hit the main road from Marrakech and then Ouarzazate. Exhausted I booked into a hotel near the bus station.

I had to decide whether to travel 1300 miles around Morocco by bus as I had originally intended, or whether to stay in the vicinity of Marrakech. I chose to continue, and am now glad that I did not let one mishap put me off my planned trip.

And a few days later


I was travelling around Morocco by public transport and had reached the barren area between the Atlas mountains and the Sahara. The towns through which I was travelling were linked by just one bus a day.

On this particular day I wanted to travel from a small town (Tinerhir) south-eastwards to another small town (Erfoud). The bus did not leave Tinerhir until 2 p.m. and only went north-eastwards to yet another small town (Er Rachidia). And I would have had to wait there until the following afternoon for the next bus to Erfoud.

"Try a taxi," someone at the hotel had suggested. "There are plenty. They are cheap. And you will reach Erfoud today."

I did not want to waste precious time so I went down to the taxi rank. I should explain that in Morocco, as in many other African and Asian countries, there are communal taxis running between towns. The fare is split between the passengers, who gather on an ad hoc basis.

I joined the group of would be passengers for Er Rachidia. I soon discovered that two of their number were also heading for Erfoud. The driver arrived. Seven people squashed into the five seater car and off we went.

I learnt that the two other passengers for Erfoud were getting out of the taxi at a small village, Goulmima, and then looking there for transport to Erfoud. By this means they would travel only half the distance of the route via Er Rachidia. They tried to persuade me to join them. Hitch-hiking Moroccan style did not appeal to me. But this is how Moroccans travel, they insisted. Passengers pay for the journey they make. And think of the time you will save. This was an appeal to my European sensibilities. For no Moroccan seems in the least concerned about time.

I told myself that this would not be hitching as we understand it in England. No public transport or taxis, therefore lorry drivers took paying passengers. And two others, apparently previously unknown to each other, would be with me. Therefore I should be safe. Thus I allayed my fears.

I got out of the taxi at Goulmima with my new found companions and walked round the corner to the Erfoud road. And there was a lorry waiting. Not going to Erfoud, but to a village near Erfoud from where there was a regular taxi service to Erfoud.

I got into the driver's cab with one of the other passengers from the taxi. Numerous others clambered into the open area at the back. I was soon to learn that one of them (Ahmed), a large turban clad character, owner the vehicle. A chunk of fat with a little meat attached was thrust through the window by a kid with grubby hands. The driver pushed the meat into an even grubbier plastic carrier bag. I cringed. What sort of meat was that? Camel? Donkey?

All aboard and we set off. As usual in these parts a single track road with a half track width of rubble on either side. On meeting an approaching vehicle the lorry driver veered right towards the rubble and the other driver did the same. Neither of them would bother to reduce speed. In some places the road had been washed away (which seemed ironic in midsummer when the wadis were so dry) and the driver made a detour into the desert.

The driver produced a hard boiled egg. And started to shell it. Egg shelling is a two handed operation. We were travelling at about 60 mph. My hand involuntarily crept up to the steering wheel. Then I took the egg and shelled it for the driver.

A tap on the back window. The driver announced in broken French that Ahmed invited us to his house for something to eat. We drove off the road into a village. The other passengers had dematerialised. They probably lived in this village. Just me, the two passengers from the taxi, the driver and Ahmed our host.

I had already been into a couple of Berber houses and I was eager to see more. All the houses in these parts are built of sun dried mud. Houses bend into walls into streets.

I was pounced on in the street by a bundle of children. Ahmed's offspring. One of them took the pile of fat off the driver. I suddenly began to feel less hungry.

I went through a door into a courtyard, and entered a room with one side open to the courtyard, and was invited to sit on a large rug. On the left a door led into the house proper. The names of the family were difficult to understand. I always have that difficulty with words when I cannot visualise the spelling.

A tray of dates was brought in and placed on a low table - really a tray with legs. The dates were fresh and sticky. I had been put off the dates I had seen in the souks (markets) by the swarms of flies congregating over them. The dates on this tray were coated with a layer of house flies. Here I felt that it would be impolite to refuse the dates, so I tried to choose dates from the underside of the tray where I hoped that the flies had not yet trodden. Was I imagining it or were my fellow guests employing the same tactic?

Then the tea making ceremony began. The Moroccan national drink is mint tea, a very refreshing drink. I had already noticed that the Berbers take tea making very seriously. The honour went to the lorry driver. He was presented with a charcoal stove, a kettle of water, a teapot, a box containing tea and loaf sugar, and a large bunch of fresh mint. But first of all he washed his hands in a bowl of water. No soap! (There were no mains services of any sort in the village). When the kettle boiled the process began. The pot was warmed; the tea made with green china tea; pieces of sugar were broken off the loaf and added to the pot; mint was stuffed into the pot; the pot was placed back on the stove, presumably to let the flavour of the mint percolate; the brew was mixed by pouring some into a glass and then back into the pot; then the tea was tasted; more sugar was added if necessary; then the tea was served in small glasses. The resulting brew is yellowish in colour with specks of green leaf floating around. On one occasion I found a small caterpillar in my tea. Very dead! The tradition is to drink three glasses of teas. It is considered an insult to one's host to drink less.

The glasses were cleared off the table and an enormous bowl was brought in. The bowl contained a yellow coloured stew, with vegetables, and the fat I had met earlier in the day. My appetite vanished. Bread - a large flat loaf of barley bread - was also served. A tricky problem of etiquette. I could not refuse to eat as this would be an insult to my hosts. And I could not explain that to me the lump of fat looked repulsive.

I compromised by dipping bread into the liquid as the others were doing. But I avoided picking up pieces of fat. I noticed that only the males were sitting around the table with me. Presumably I was an honorary male! Probably the mother and girls would eat in the kitchen later. The liquid had a pleasant peppery taste.

A mug of water was handed round. Usually I only drank bottled mineral water, but the stew was so hot that I gladly drank the local water. As the guest I was offered the largest and most repulsive looking lump of fat. I refused, saying that I was not very hungry and did not much like meat anyway. I do hope they were not too offended. This was followed by another tea ceremony, Ahmed this time doing the honours.

The mother and her two elder daughters (aged about 10 and 12) took me into another room and wrapped a shawl around my head, Berber style, much to their, and my, amusement. They then showed me around the house. The only piece of furniture I saw was one large sideboard - against which leant a motorbike. The walls were lined with mattresses and blankets. Seats during the day and beds at night. And the kitchen! At one side of the room was a circular oven arising from the floor, fashioned out of mud. Beside this was an open fire for cooking over. At the other side of the room was a flock of sheep. One way of keeping meat fresh in that heat without a fridge!

We went back to the others. A baby, which had previously been asleep on the floor, had woken. The baby was handed to me. I had already noticed that Berber babes do not wear that most essential item of clothing, the nappy. Other babes I had held a strategic distance from me, much to the puzzlement of the doting mothers. I did only have one pair of jeans with me. This babe came equipped with a cloth, which I sat her on. Then I noticed that this same cloth had been wrapped around my head a few minutes earlier. So that was what the smell was!

The two elder girls were eager to communicate with me, but we had a language problem. From what I could gather, Berber is a spoken and not a written language, and therefore I could find no dictionary or phrase book. My two fellow passengers who spoke French seemed reluctant to translate for me. Aisha, the second youngest girl, pointed at my watch and smiled. I noticed that none of the family wore watches. I had read somewhere that it was inadvisable to admire anything that one's host was wearing. If one did the host would feel obliged to give the item in question to the admirer. I wondered if the same applied in reverse. I wanted to keep my watch so I shook my head. Aisha again pointed at my watch, smiled, and said something. I asked a fellow passenger to translate what she was saying. She was asking me the time! There were so many things I would have liked to have asked the girls about their lives, and from their eager expressions I could see that they were just as curious about me. But we sat silently smiling at each other. The language barrier was insurmountable.

It was time to go. The lorry was now loaded with a cow and calf, and I was pleased to be travelling in the front seat again. We rattled along the road, gathering and losing passengers en route. On one occasion someone jumped out to help a passenger who had fallen off a lorry travelling in the opposite direction. No serious damage was done.

Then we stopped at the Moroccan equivalent of a motorway service station, the water hole. For I was now in a veritable desert, on the brink of the Sahara. Some boys were there filling pots with water and strapping the pots onto a donkey. A lanky legged foal clung closely to the mother donkey. I realised how much I took running water for granted at home.

Back into the lorry and we soon reached our destination. I paid Ahmed about 75p for the trip and promised to send him copies of the photographs I had taken of his family.

Down the road I found a taxi going to Erfoud. The car was fully loaded and a group of children appeared outside. Dozens of them surrounded the car. I wondered why the driver did not shout them away as he was obviously ready to start. Then the children gave us a push start. The battery was flat.

Fifteen minutes later I reached my destination for the day. And it was only 5 p.m.