Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Day two, aka All Codeined Up

Yes indeed, it sucks getting up when it’s below freezing and there’s no heat. Our room has a fireplace, but the fire went out long ago. Sigh. I huddle under the blankets for a while, waiting for the magic Berber elves to come restart the fire, but somehow that doesn’t happen. Damn. I eventually get up, and start swigging down more cough syrup – sure, this stuff is basically pure alcohol, but combined with freezing cold, steep descents, and ice on the road, what can possibly go wrong?


So it’s fun being in the van with Muhammed #2, because he speaks no English and I speak no French, much less Arabic. I’ve so far managed to expand my vocabulary greatly though, beyond just “oui”, to also include “magnifique!” while gesturing out the window. As a basis for conversation, this isn’t too bad. I blurt this out at regular intervals as I watch my compatriots careen down the same steep hill we climbed yesterday, some crazy-ass 23% grade with the loveliest of hairpin turns. No way in hell I’m heading down that, not with my poor-circulation hands and feet that don’t function at this temperature. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more hills for me to recklessly careen down in the days to come (note: slight bit of foreshadowing here).

We catch up with the group at our usual tea stop, and they’re not speaking to me. They’re not speaking to anyone, because they’re basically frozen solid. Am I suddenly looking like the smart person here or what?
Now that it’s warmed up though, I’m more than happy to start riding again. As I’m biking along and checking out the incredible scenery, I have an epiphany:

“I’m in fucking Morocco! Riding my bike!”

Okay, so I never said it was an especially enlightening epiphany.

A little later, I come across more Children of the Corn. The problem here is that the kids are either super-sweet or demonic, and you don’t know which they are until they’re darting in front of you on a steep descent, trying to send you swerving and flying off a cliff. Or like these kids – one of whom high-fives me as I go by, while his asshole friend throws a big stick at my spokes. And here of course I face the same dilemma that anyone else in my shoes would face: do I keep going, or do I stop and beat the ever-loving crap out of this bad seed? Lucky for punk kid, I was on an uphill, so I keep going.

We finally get to our accommodations for the night, a gite, that we have been warned is “basic.” That's evident, as Stacey and I wind up in the cavernous room at the end of the hall with what Sayeed calls a “Turkish” toilet, aka a hole in the floor. Now, I’ve stayed in some pretty rustic places before – the place in Tibet that had had a water leak so our room had wet moldy carpeting comes to mind – so that doesn’t bother me. The abject lack of heat does; I sense that’ll get ugly later on.

But hey, we have wifi! Sweet!

Note to gite management: perhaps next time when you’re presented with a package deal, go with heat (or space heaters, or something) over wifi. Trust me on this.

But hey, at least we’re all in this together! Our whole group, freezing our asses off in barren rooms with no toilets. A bonding experience, to be sure.

Later that evening at dinner

We’re all bundled up and huddled together for warmth in the room where we’ll have dinner, when Muhammed #3 comes in and starts a fire for us. Whee! So what that the sparks almost set Biljana’s coat on fire? It’s cold!

This, however, is when we learn that just like in Animal Farm, all the animals may not be quite created equal after all. Or something like that. Because the following conversation ensues:

Biljana: Oh, and it’s so nice to have a toilet paper holder for a change!
Sharon: Wait, you have toilet paper? Ours barely flushes with the scraps we have.
Jane: Wait, you have a toilet that flushes?
Me and Stacey: Wait, you have a toilet??
David: Wait, and are you guys not getting the mints on your pillows too, with the turndown service?
Stacey: Wait, you’re getting mints?

David at that point declares me an honorary Canadian, because I get his sarcasm and Stacey doesn’t, but the fact remains that somehow we wound up with the ONLY room without an actual toilet. What the hell! Hmph, they’re probably all hiding space heaters in their rooms too. Oh, the humanity.

That night, there is no 6 feet of comforters nor is there a hot water bottle, and so it was about as cold as you’d imagine. No wait, you can’t imagine how cold it was, unless you too have recently been trying (and failing) to sleep bundled up in all your clothes in a room that’s below freezing, where the wind is whistling through the window that doesn’t quite close properly. I spend the night not moving, because to do so will invite the rustling of the very cold sheets, and not going to the bathroom, because the thought of getting up is unbearable. I lay awake with this thought tumbling through my head: that when I get back to Portland, I am going to CRANK UP the heat, and just bask in the glory of a warm house. Kone and I won’t even have to wear socks or hats to bed, no sirree. My last words to Stacey before we hunker down even further under the covers to try to get some elusive sleep – “As god is my witness, I’ll never be cold again…”

Is that a mumbled “goodnight, Scarlett” I hear?

Near death misses: 1, from almost freezing to death

Monday, January 21, 2013

Day One, continued....

I hack and wheeze my way into the next town, where our group is already hanging out having tea. On the way, I’m almost crushed by a car that darts out from a road on the right – I shriek, and the hijab-wearing girls across the street giggle. I have a feeling that seeing people get flattened is kind of a regular occurrence around here. Then as we’re in the hustle and bustle of town, an old woman walks into the street right in front of me, not even looking up to see if anyone is coming. I shriek again, and swerve to the left, into the path of  a guy on a motor scooter, who isn’t even phased. Even though we’re so close as to rub elbows. I get a cheeky “bonjour!” from him, as I watch what’s left of my heart jump out of my chest and go off to look for some whiskey.

And this is just day one.

After tea, my racking cough has made our fearless guides decide that I should seek out some Moroccan cough medicine, which apparently has codeine in it, so of course I’m game. We head to the Pharmacia, and while Alf from our group has to engage in charades to explain what toiletries he needs, the guy has obviously listened to my cough as I’m waiting and so when it’s my turn, he just plunks down a bottle of cough syrup on front of me. I look at the label. Ethyl alcohol…..eucalyptus…..ah, there it is, codeine! Score!

Of course, later at lunch after I take a healthy swig (I’ve decided a swig is the correct dosage, since I don’t exactly have a measuring spoon), I discover that this crap is like drinking turpentine. Or doing a shot, of something. Not something good. Sharon takes a whiff and notes that “they didn’t exactly try to make it palatable for their customers, did they?” Umm yeah. Still, it seems to knock my lungs senseless for a while, so that’s a plus. While some may wonder at the wisdom of chugging random medicines bought in foreign countries, I figure, what the hell, I’ve already had cancer, how bad can this shit be? Any worse than dosing up my chest with radiation for 7 weeks, causing lung damage in the meantime? I think not. Bottoms up!

I also really like the people in our group, except for one thing: I can’t remember their names. I blame the bike crash/brain injury – that’s always a good excuse. For example, there’s Biryani – except I know that’s not her name, that’s an Indian food dish, but that’s the closest I can remember. Her and her husband Walter are totally awesome, living the life I want in the UK countryside, and here I am trying to sneak surreptitious glances at the tag on her rental bike, to figure out her name. Class act, I so am.

I won’t even comment on David and his rubber chicken that he’s tucking into his back pocket on all our rides – except that it’s pretty damn funny when he gives the chicken to a child to ooh and aah over….then sends that same child into paroxysms of heartbreak when they realize he’s taking the chicken back. Those poor kids may never be the same.

Our stop for that night is in the town of Imlil, and the town can only be reached by foot. Yes, there’s no road into the town. Going down the craggy hillside with my bike, I’m even slower than the donkey that’s carrying all of our luggage. Way slower. As I watch people clambering up and down this mountain with ease, I think of how ridiculous and easy our lives in the States are, that we don’t get in any kind of decent shape just doing our daily activities, like these people do, but we have to go cycling or running or to the gym. Any one of these people could I’m sure easily handle an Ironman race tomorrow, they’re that fit. I feel like there’s some deep yet profound realization here, but at that moment, I’m coming across the first in a long line of Children of the Corn, so I toss those profound thoughts by the wayside. Because what the hell, these kids are rude! And mean!
First they start yelling at me, saying god knows what, and then they start throwing things! The balls they’re playing with, for one. Now, here’s where the rubber meets the road, because while Stacey later in our trip meets up with the demonic Redrum children who try to take her bike, and remains all nice to them, I brook no such shenanigans. No no no no no! They do NOT call me Miss Curmudgeonly for nothing! “Hey!” I snarl. “Do that again and I’ll beat the crap out of you! I’m bigger and meaner than you!”

I have no idea if they understand me, but they get the intent, because they scatter like leaves to the wind. Hmph.

Our establishment that night, well, I’m not sure I can come up with the right adjectives to describe its wonderfulness. It’s a dark stone building that has little outbuildings, and everything is decorated like something out of Berber casting call. Plush colorful pillows, throws, candles, artwork – it’s truly incredible. The fact that there’s no heat here either, ech, it’s almost an afterthought. Especially since they load us up with about 4 feet worth of comforters, AND a hot water bottle tucked into our beds in the evening! This comes in handy when we come back from our first experience with a hamman, which is basically a steam room, where a half-naked woman then comes in and scrubs you down and throws buckets of hot water on you.

I highly recommend this to anyone traveling in Morocco.

That night, even though it’s below freezing, I’m snug as a bug in a rug, as they say, under my 6 feet of comforters. How the hell I’ll get up in the morning and get ready for cycling, I have no idea. Will worry about that tomorrow.

Near death misses: 3

Friday, January 18, 2013

Starting Out - Day One

After a frigid night in the Hotel Akabar, our group piles into a van to take us a ways away from Marrakesh, thank god. Cool city, but the cycling – well, let’s just say I’m sure the Saddle Skedaddle people have decided it throws a damper on things when you have a bunch of your cyclists being mowed down in the street on Day One. So off we go, our group of 13, all of whom seem very nice unlike some of the snotty arrogant people on our AlpCycles trip (cough Penny cough). And then there are our guides: Sayeed, Khaled, Muhammed, Muhammed, Muhammed, and Muhammed.

Basically if we go with the name Muhammed, there’s a high chance of getting it right.

After we stop and as we’re getting our bikes ready, we’re followed  by 2 cute little urchins, and I feel compelled to give them something. But what? A Slim Jim? A quarter? Aha! I settle on a banana and the grapes my mom stuffed in my bag way back in Chicago about 4 weeks prior (or at least it seems that way). Note to self: next time going to foreign country, pack fun little things to give to the local kids. (This is what I tell myself on Day One – note that this is before the Children of the Corn started showing up.)

I also make friends with a little goat, who does a amazing vertical leap of about 10 feet to join us, and then after I scritch his little head for a while, decides I’m his bestie for life.

We then set out, and while I’m getting my sea legs, so to speak, I realize one minor detail that’s slightly inconvenient: I can’t breathe. I mean I KNEW this before, thanks to the bronchitis that’s happily settled into my lungs, but it becomes more obvious as I’m trying to cycle. Especially since – and pay heed here, as this isn’t in the guide books – Morocco is all uphill. Yes, it’s true – like the whole country was built on an Indian burial ground or something. Because there we are at a steady 5% grade for HOURS. No downhills, just up! I kid you not.
Lucky for me, I have the company of 2 of our guides at the back – Khaled and one of the Muhammeds. This means that when I stop for pictures, I get the benefit of Khaled’s wisdom, and thus I learn about the formation of the mountains here. In a nutshell, the Anti-Atlas mountains came along first, then there were, umm, glaciers and stuff, and floods, and then poof, the Atlas mountains appeared.

At least that’s how I understood it.
(to be continued)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hell is other people. In the Madrid airport.

So the trip started out fairly smoothly.  My flight wasn’t canceled, we got to the airport with plenty of time, and the Iberia airline people only charged me $75 for my bike instead of the theoretical $100 it was supposed to cost. Which I guess makes up for the fact that the Alaska Airlines people on the Portland-Chicago leg overcharged me by $20. Grr.


That is, all was rosy until I got to my layover in Madrid. Where I get off the plane, and see three signs: exit, baggage, gates. Okay, so follow my logic here: I go to “gates,” because I have a connecting flight. Crazy, right?

Apparently so, because for the next hour, I wind up taking the tram back and forth between terminals, while also going through passport control and security check a couple of times for good measure. And clearly I’ve gotten spoiled by the smiley niceness that is Portlandia, because everyone here is downright surly.
Me, asking a gate agent with info on connecting flights which is the gate to Marrakesh: Do you know which gate is for Marrakesh?
Gate agent from hell, pausing to deliver this with just the right amount of disdain: No.

Everyone else also has the same look of self-righteous disgust. What happened to my Portland people smiling at everything and everyone?? I start to dream of being back home, where it’s all sunshiney (I mean rainy) and rainbows and unicorns and food trucks and such. Even when I get on the plane, it’s more of the same – the Spanish woman sitting next to me glaring at me every time I cough. I’m tempted to cough in her general direction just to annoy her. Hmph. A friend has suggested I wear a mask, ala Michael Jackson, but the only Jackson look I can do is the one glove thing, which I don’t think will have the same effect.

Then I get to Marrakesh, where I wind up with passport control woman from hell. First she wants to see my boarding passes, as she doesn’t seem to believe that I came from Chicago. Then she wants my entire itinerary and all the hotels I’ll be staying at. I get through that, and finally get my bike box…..which has been opened by the TSA and not closed properly. Lovely. And since I didn’t sleep on the planes, now I’m REALLY surly, and counting down the days until I can get back to my beloved Portland to hang out with The Kone. Morocco, bah. Whose crazy idea was this anyway?

That evening

After napping for a few hours, Stacey and I decide to head to the main square for some sightseeing. It’s a gorgeous night, balmy, as we amble along Mohammed Ave. Suddenly, I stop and grab Stacey’s arm:

Me: Hey Stacey, just look at that building! It must have been modeled after the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas! It looks exactly like it!

Stacey’s face gets all twisty and scrunched – a seizure of some sort, perhaps? – so I hustle us along until there we are, at the market square. Now it’s like something out of Disneyworld!

We wander through the crowds, checking out the pigeon handlers, the ball throwers, and above all else, the amazing booths loaded with hundreds of kinds of dates (note: all my friends are likely to get dates as souvenirs), all sorts of fruit, and of course tchochke central. We stop and have what we think is mint tea, though it’s actually ginger tea strong enough to take the tar off one’s tongue. At one point the tea cart guy sprinkles some kind of white powder into our glasses, and we wonder what the powder is. Cocaine, I wonder? Rather, some kind of minty substance.  And while Stacey wonders how they clean the tea glasses, I don’t have the heart to tell her that they seem to just be dunking them in a bucket of hot water. “Oh, I’m sure they have some kind of complex mechanism for washing the glasses to standard, absolutely!”

Sometimes you just need to MSU.

After a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice for the equivalent of .50, and then a lovely dinner of tagine and couscous, which sets us back a whole $12, we wander back to the hotel for a fitful night’s sleep, given that it cools off quite a bit at night and there’s no heat in the room. En route, we dodge cars and scooters aplenty, as unlike in Portland, there is NO stopping for pedestrians here. None. Zero. Zilch.

Needless to say, Morocco is amazing.

Today's near death misses: 2, from foolishly thinking that pedestrians ever have the right of way