KM585: Beach towns of Morocco's southern shore


"At supper that night, holiday talk held undisputed sway. Mr. Pritchard spoke of 'Scotland," Miss Isaacs clamoured of Betts-y-Coed, Mr. Judson displayed a proprietary interest in the Norfolk Broads. 'I?' said Hoopdriver when the question came to him. 'Why, cycling, of course.' 'You're never going to ride that dreadful machine of yours, day after day?' said Miss Howe of the Costume Department. 'I am,' said Hoopdriver as calmly as possible, pulling at the insufficient moustache. 'I'm going for a Cycling Tour. Along the South Coast.'" — HG Wells, The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll


Sunday, February 14

Morning. I woke to the sound of the  Atlantic crashing against the rocks of southern Morocco. More Nutella, more waves spraying salty mist into salty air. A sunrise.

A long climb up from the beach, and another back up to town. The streets were quiet when I passed through not too long ago. Roberto and his neighbors must all still be asleep.

The hills have been a bit steeper than yesterday, but still it's lovely, this ride along the coast.

Mostly it's pristine, but occasionally I've come across sprawling construction projects in their various stages of destruction. Some are nearly built and some are simply flat foundations, but all advertise their renderings and aspirations along the road's edge: resorts, tourist complexes, Spaniards laughing over cocktails at the soon-to-come bar, a French woman in a fluffy white robe and cucumber slices on her eyes at the soon-to-come spa. Apparently a fresh coat of paint for poor Aglou Plage won't do: the soon-to-come tourists of the soon-to-come South Moroccan Coast demand finer luxuries.

I read somewhere that this is the grand Moroccan bet, its great hope for a prosperous future: if you build it, they will come. From here to Essaouira and southward and northward still, the Moroccans have ventured to commercialize the coastline and conjure, from fallow land, a half-dozen "cities of tourism," a place where you can come, meet no Moroccans, journey nowhere Moroccans actually live, and still come to appreciate your time in "Morocco".

Afternoon. Fortunately, for now at least, there's still ample, undisturbed coast to be enjoyed for those of us who can enjoy rock and sand and water without the additional accoutrements of shopping mall and billiards room and infinity pool. Beyond this sad destruction, the ride from Mirleft to Sidi Ifni, where the coastal road more or less ends (veering inward toward the Sahara and later into the typically off-limits and occupied Western Sahara), was as lovely as yesterday's, if not a little more work in the saddle.

About that saddle. Hundreds of kilometers of true touring has convinced me that, well, incidentally I need a new saddle with a proper cut-out, but more importantly that I need a shortened stem, that my reach to the handlebars is a touch too long and this poor fit (not poor enough to be felt at home, alas, but here on the road all too evident) is forcing me to compensate in one of two painful ways:

The first near-term remedy is to drop the saddle and angle it backwards. This shifts my weight far off the handlebars, which is good, but leaves it almost entirely on the saddle, which is not good, for it quickens exhaustion and is generally plain uncomfortable for long riding. It also has the unfortunate consequence of causing that absolute numbness in the groin, mentioned earlier.

The other near-term remedy is precisely the inverse: raise the saddle and tilt it forward, making for a more aggressive and comfortable riding position with less exertion required, but with the not-so-good consequence of throwing a fair bit of weight onto my arms, and more precisely my hands, and more precisely the ulnar nerve of my left (and to a lesser degree, my right) palm.

The ulnar nerve, stretching all the way down the arm and responsible for both sense (of the littlest finger and its closest neighbor) and motion (of all the digits) doesn't deal so well with weight. With excessive force (not just weight, but constant vibration), it can get pinched, and that pinch, though painless, leads to a loss of sensation, numbness, or tingling in the littlest finger, and an arthritis-like inability to control the fingers with the dexterity one ought.

My ulnar nerve is pinched. I've developed what's technically called ulnar neuropathy, but commonly known as handlebar palsy. It's less than desirable.

The trouble is, a pinched nerve can take weeks to fully recover after the fated pinch. Were I to toss Yoshi to the winds today and give up cycling for the next month, I might just then be regaining my finer motor skills. But continuing to cycle, it's hard to say whether I've alleviated the pressure since the symptoms started a week ago, and prevented anything from getting worse, or whether I'm compounding the inflammation of the nerve each and every day.

Such are my woes. Of course, I shan't stop cycling, but I will try to take it light each day, and be careful about the whole business of it.

Anyway, I'm in Sidi Ifni, end of the road, evidently educating myself about ulnar neuropathy. I'm staying in a rather nice hotel at a rather steep twenty-five dirhams per night, staffed by a rather unfriendly receptionist who did not seem to care whether I stayed or went, and maybe even looked upon Yoshi with a touch of contempt. I think I'll explore the town on foot.

Evening. What a strange place! Honestly, this may be the strangest town to which I've ever been (and I say that having been to quite a lot of towns). I just can't make heads or tails of it.

It's the rare Spanish post-colonial in a land of French post-colonials, but the Spanish never really cared much for Morocco, so their contribution to the place is just a small section of the town, already small in itself, an odd collection of a Spanish-looking public square and an administrative building and a hospital and perhaps what used to be a bank. What makes the collection so odd is that it's painted, like so much of the town, in faded blue and white ... everything is blue and white, that particular hue of blue and white so aged by thirty or seventy or one hundred years of sunshine and salty air and neglect. It has the feel of an abandoned amusement park, I think.

The very layout of the town is odd to me, too. There's the Spanish quarter, linked by a thin road east to the rest of the taller buildings (still mostly blue and white), and that part of town wraps south alongside a hill further east, while the Spanish side, by way of the hospital, continues south on a single street right along the beach. But this isn't a boardwalk street: the sand is some two hundred feet below, and it's as though the ocean weren't even there, for nothing up on this street looks upon it or references it or makes a path down toward it at all.

Weirder still, there's this thin western edge and this thin northern edge and this slightly fatter but still pretty thin eastern edge, but then right in the middle of it all, occupying what's surely greater than the acreage of the rest of Sidi Ifni combined, is a massive rocky clearing that my map calls the Sidi Ifni Airport.

Except, I don't actually believe it's an airport. Or at least, I'm doubtful. I'm uncertain whether it's an airport that once was (which must be the case, for why else would the town have been built around it in this way?), or that still is (which seems improbable, as the ground is all dirt and rocks and gravel and there are people walking across it and cars driving through it), or that one day hopes to be (also unlikely, for how could this much room have been made for it, and why here?). Moreover, there's ample land north of Sidi Ifni and ample land south of Sidi Ifni, room for the entire town to glom together on either end, instead of squeezing in around the giant rectangle like an inelegant frame.

So maybe it was an airport, once, but now it's northwestern corner seems to have been commandeered for a souk, but just a tiny bit, just enough to make it dangerous to land a plane there. And there are dozens of openings along the border for those looking to cut from the east side of town to the west side of town to do so without walking around the long perimeter. I partake in this, and it's efficient, and it forces the question of why, exactly, this space is still sitting unused.

A strange layout, a Spanish air, a neglected beach, faded everything, and then general stillness; stillness is the last thing that strikes me. Like Aglou Plage, there are no engines running, at least not in the quarter through which I walk after a stop for lunch (tajines!). A small group of kids play football in the empty street, and a few women walk home from the market, but otherwise the roads are empty of life and the yards and porches empty, too, and I wonder, where are the people?

This was true in the mountains as well, and I can't recall whether I recorded it then. In the Anti-Atlas, I would cycle through entire villages lacking any signs of life. Some, surely, were crumbling and likely deserted, but others appeared well-kept, orderly ... and yet, inexplicably empty. No voices, no open windows, no one tilling any fields I could see, and this, on a Tuesday afternoon or a Thursday morning! I can't really say where the Moroccans have gone, though it's a mystery I hope I'll discover an answer to before my time here is through.

Before the walk, after the walk, like most time spent out of the saddle, I read. I'm averaging perhaps a book per day, a medley of classic authors and cycling adventures and, in a gem like HG Wells's The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (read today) or Mark Twain's "Taming the Bicycle" (in Tafraout), a little of both. Speaking of which, I've another to finish just now before bed.

Cycled today: 32 kilometers

Monday, February 15

Morning. After a few days exploring coves and camping on the beach, Yoshi was a mess. She had salt and sand in her cassette, clogging her rim brakes, and all over stuck to the frame and threatening to tear apart her shiny blue paint. There can be nothing worse for a bicycle's overall well-being than a trip the shore. So earlier I squeezed her into the bathroom, grabbed the showerhead, and tenderly hosed her down, after drying her off and regreasing her drivetrain. She looks shiny and clean, for now.

Afternoon. It was cool outside this morning, so blustery in fact that I took breakfast and tea inside. Afterwards, I hustled across the street to the pharmacy to purchase some more rubbing alcohol for my stove (still no luck with the real stuff), balked at the 150-dirham price for a bottle, bought it anyway, went back to my room, changed my mind, and returned the bottle for my money back. The return north along the coast, which I departed on today, promises occasional stops to eat and sundry stores at which I could pick up nuts, snacks, or more Nutella, so the added weight and cost of alcohol, plus the quinoa and tea leaves I'd lugged over three mountain passes and hardly used, no longer seemed worth it. I left the quinoa and leaves there, too, for whomever could make use of them.

And then I left Sidi Ifni. I reflected on staying another night, but thought instead I might set out for Aglou Plage and try an evening there, so intriguing it was the first time around. This was the point of turn-around, of homeward-bound progress, and from here to Aglou I'd have the rare delight of cycling a familiar road.

Yet there was one thing very, very unfamiliar about it. I'd fail to reckon that this blustery morning in Sidi Ifni would (quite obviously) spell a blustery morning on the bike, and the road this time around wasn't calm and pleasant as it'd been upon my arrival, but roaring with a cruel headwind that aimed to push me back to the town I'd just left.

I thought those winds might die down outside of town, on more level ground, but they did no such thing. If anything they intensified, they kicked up sand and pushed Yoshi to and fro; they nearly threw us into a ditch two or three or ten times and followed with the insult of having me actually need to pedal downhill, and strenuously at that. It was a gravity-defying, biting, unrelenting sort of gust, and it was ruining my lovely cycle back up the coast.

Even off the bike it was terrible. I rode out on a rough, gravel road to the cliff's edge where two enormous stone arches straddled the water. I dismounted and considered hiking down to the shore underneath the arch, but sand was being thrown everywhere and Yoshi was trembling where she lay and I was more likely to be blown clean off the cliff than make it safely down its face.

Knowing there wasn't much for another ten kilometers, I pedaled furiously and stayed wary of drivers who evidently didn't realize how unpredictable a windswept bicycle can be, and two grueling hours after leaving Sidi Ifni, I pulled into a campground I'd passed on the way south. Like the rest, it was a caravan park, this one with an attached restaurant, so I've sought shelter in its sturdy walls, and a little sustenance while at it.

Later. Still windy. There are flagpoles outside and the French, Spanish, Moroccan, and EU flags are all standing tall.

Even later. I suppose I'll be calling it a night here, a pathetic twenty kilometers cycled today at best. There's no use suffering through a windy ride like this.

I've been watching the campers come and go, and I'm struck by the uniformity of the Moroccan tourist in these parts (the first parts, beyond Marrakesh, in which I've really seen them). As much as one can generalize, I generalize liberally here. The visitors to the Moroccan coast are nearly universally French. Overwhelmingly, they are an elderly French couple (I'm the only person in the compound without grey hair), similar in appearance to each other, either both stout or both sinewy, but never mismatched in that way. They are cordial, but not overly friendly. Call them Claude and Claudette: this Claude and his Claudette never travel by car, but only campervan (I'm the only person in the compound without a campervan). The campervan is always white and is always driven by Claude, never Claudette. There are never two Claudes, never two Claudettes, or never a lone Claude or lone Claudette. They are straight, they are cisgendered, and they always have the appearance of being long-married ... no honeymooners here. There's nothing wrong with any of it, of course; it's just odd in its absoluteness, is all. I feel like an oddity here, like a young hooligan up to mischief in a retirement village.

Anyway, I'm with the Claude and Claudettes and I guess I'm staying here for the evening. I set up my tent and weighed it down with cinderblocks (the ground is paved, of course, so no stakes), using a few of the campervans to break the wind. I sure do hope all is calm tomorrow.

Cycled today: 20 kilometers


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