Riding a River of Blood to a Rainbow
Our West Coast editor is motoring across Morocco on a Harley. Here’s his latest dispatch from Fes.
Outside of Chefchaouen the road goes to pieces. Some of the chaos is construction. Some neglect. All is hell on a big Harley-Davidson. The long draped ribbon of asphalt and holes is tight and treacherous, and the clouds stick to the earth adding a polished shine. The road glows under soft light. Perfect conditions for hiding diesel spills. And in the moments when I’m not gathering the Harley after long, frightening slides, it is absolutely beautiful.
It looks for all the world like Central California. Or Tuscany. Oaks. Olea. Abdul Latif’s little olive farm springs up alongside, then a ruin that probably has a couple hundred years on Christ.
We push south, rolling down the back of the Rif mountains toward Ouezzane, where we stop and I indulge my newfound tea habit. "If you’re too poor for Mecca, three times to Ouezzane. Same thing,” a gentleman tells me, as we watch kids dare each other closer to the motorcycles. It’s a holy city. Feels like a happy one, too. Donkey carts laden with construction supplies, handcarts buried in fruit, giant trucks and mopeds—all ply the same tight section of road made tighter by our presence. Everyone gets along.
Out of Ouezzane for the long haul to Maria Be Mohammed, where we’ll stop for lunch and gas. It’s apparent we’re chasing a thunderstorm. Overhead it’s beautiful, clear and bright. All around are signs of receding floodwaters. Mud washes across roads. Streams rage with light brown water. The storm pounded Maria Be Mohammed too, and while the rest of the gang settles for a meal, I poke my way through town to the giant souk.
The market stretches across a giant open square. It’s just across a road, but to get there I have to make across a bizarre stream of stinking, red water, running in torrents down the tarmac and tellingly avoided by the locals. I find the headwaters of the ghastly spectacle to be a manhole cover. The sewers are overwhelmed. A laughing teenager beckons me around and mimes a throat slitting. Ah, an upstream slaughterhouse then. The whole west side of the souk smells of fresh produce and the bloody effluent water churned to mud. Weirdly familiar and animal. Like someone shit in a Whole Foods.
Ascending the hill of the souk is wonderful. Sellers of similar wares find each other. Shoe stands stretch across the southwestern edge, poultry across the east. Vegetable salesman gather on the high ground in the middle of the market. It’s busy and fantastic, even in ankle-deep mud.
I extricate myself, brave the bloody river again, and make for Fes.
The roads are worse.
My relationship with the Harley has become apologetic. Clearly the big machine isn’t made for the pounding it’s getting. For the slow-speed negotiation of rough ground, the brake-checks over fresh potholes. For the on-line pavement heaves. We hit our low point after stopping for photos, when I’m catching up to the group and little unsure of where I am, hauling the mail. The bump is invisible. We jump the living bejesus out of it. My legs are stretched to their max, feet barely touching the floorboards... somehow I stay on. Somehow we land, smoothly. Somehow the beast doesn’t even bat an eye.
We hit the old city, finally, and the Harley parade pulls into town just in time to duck a hail storm.
It’s incredible, Fes. A cultural and intellectual center, huge and old and modern and familiar all at once. Home to universities and a tannery in the center of the old town that dates back to the 8th century. My first good look at the city is shared with a beer on a balcony. Clouds part and stretch a rainbow across its dense low chaos. It’s a million-dollar view from a $150 a night hotel.
I’ll spend the evening walking through old town. Walking through the famous “Blue Gate,” the Bab Boujloud, and into a tiny pool hall where hashish is spread around liberally. I get spirited down dark alleys by unofficial tour guides; under donkey guards, these big beams set at eye level, past mosques and tanneries, just to meet cousins of cousins and maybe buy slippers on the way to the next thing. The next morning we’ll roll out for the Sahara, and I’ll do it with a little regret. My time in Fes wasn’t enough. Not even close.