I’m writing this on the balcony of a small apartment in Agadir, southern Morocco. I have geraniums around me and palm trees in front of me and, just inside, there’s a cool, breezy apartment – with a bath! And a fridge!
This expensive resort town wouldn’t have been our first choice for a week off the bikes if we’d been thinking rationally but, when we looked around the apartment, the presence of the bath confused us. The fridge, the table and chairs, and the balcony threw us into full bewilderment and, before we knew it, we’d decided that a couple of days of rest and tender loving care would do wonders for our limbs, our gears and our sound recording databases before we headed into the Sahara. Or maybe five days, seeing as the apartment was relatively cheap. Could we get a good deal if we stayed a week?
We could, so here we are in an apartment that is – by pleasing chance – exactly one thousand kilometres away from the port of Tangiers, where we arrived in Africa a bit under four weeks ago.Over those one thousand kilometres, we’ve seen a fair few changes. It’s getting warmer as we head south, in all senses of the word. People are friendlier and more relaxed although there are fewer of them; while the Amazigh (Berber) population is increasing here, the overall population is visibly sparser, cities are less crammed, beaches are emptier and the trucks relentlessly hauling gas and oil in the north have pretty much disappeared from the road.
And, since crossing the foothills of the High Atlas mountain range – a barrier between Morocco’s populated north and west and its desert in the south and east – we’ve felt that we’re really approaching the Sahara. We’re a long way from the submerged floodplains of the far north; fields are smaller here and farming is mostly subsistence. Lushness has given way to a semi-arid landscape; stumpy thorn trees rise out of the sand and rocks, and boundary fences – which were leafy hedges in the north – are now dry stone walls.
One of the most striking things about our few weeks in Morocco so far has been seeing how much, and how quickly, the country is changing. Everywhere along the roadside are construction sites – buildings are being erected so fast that there’s a national shortage of concrete.
While the rest of the world may be going to hell in a handcart, Morocco, some people have told us, is booming. (Although things may not be quite as rosy as they seem; many Moroccans are returning from Europe now unemployed, and the prices of some foodstuffs have almost doubled in a month.)
Socially too, it’s all change. Everywhere, you see examples of tradition meeting modernity: old women with traditional tattoos on their chins and foreheads walking alongside their jeans-wearing grand-daughters; a woman in a burkah and a woman in a miniskirt queuing next to one another; some stretches of smooth tarmac roads used predominantly by horses and carts; tractors and donkeys pulling ploughs side by side.
Urban women we’ve met say that women are one of the main forces for this modernisation (have a listen to this interview we recorded near Rabat if you’re interested in the subject); women now enjoy prominent positions in government and some protection from Mudawana, a code introduced to give them more rights. And, under a modernising king, girls are getting more education, which is compulsory in Morocco – although this is still largely theoretical for rural girls.So it’s been an interesting month for us, and an interesting time to travel here. As we head south, we’re expecting more dramatic changes. Western Sahara is around 5 or 600 kilometres away and, between here and there, we’re expecting the landscape to become ever more arid, nomads to take the place of farmers and tourists in campervans to be replaced by overlanders in 4x4s.
We’re looking forward to it. But, in the meantime, we’re just going to enjoy poring over maps among the geraniums on the balcony, eating at a table with of cool breeze blowing and keeping the fridge well stocked with beer from the bottle shop just across the road. (Didn’t I mention the bottle shop? It had nothing at all to do with our decision to stay here for a while…)