MOROCCO BLUESPhotos and Words by Carlos Blanchard
Guitars, drums, the clapping hands…. It's like the blues, sounds like it at least, feel like it too. Those are my first thoughts the moment the driver turns on his radio and puts the volume high. “What is this?” I ask him. “It's Tuareg music,” he answers. The conversation does not go for too long since his English is quite broken, and I start trying to remember the name of a musician I once heard that played exactly that kind of music. The name does not come to me though and I lose myself in the surrounding rhythms. I was unable to communicate with the driver with the language barrier comes, but the music builds a bridge.
While the driver moves with the wave of sounds that fill our car, I dig myself deeper and deeper in the soft seat, trying to digest the number of different sounds that the radio is throwing at us. It's overwhelming! I'm just hoping that the drive to our hotel today is really long! I want to enjoy this moment, probably the only one each day in which we are more or less relaxed, where we have some time to think about our day, what we see and what we do here. I think the music is the greatest way to dress up all the thoughts that come to my head, right here, right now, in Morocco. Its roots are close to the feelings of the people here. They talk about their fears and hopes. It goes back generations, and its traditions grow in value every time. Its meaning, I will never really understand, but it is captivating.
We landed in this place just a few days ago, but this feels again like one of those times in which the hours, the minutes and seconds passing seem to be getting a different meaning, going on a different speed or direction. I don't really know, but it has felt like this since our arrival. The warm welcome provided by the local agency set things on the right track. We jumped straight into Djemaa el Fna Square which gave us an overview of what we will see in the next days. This square has been the way it is for generations, a pure meeting point for the local people, the storytellers, the snake charmers, acrobats, dancers, medicine men and all kind of entertainers, all spreading their words and sounds into the warm air. While the day starts to fall, leaving slowly place to the night, the square gets more and more packed. Small circles of people packed closely together, excited simply about the words the storyteller is throwing at them, anxious to listen, and jealous when someone unknown gets too close or takes a photo of them.
The next morning, the hot air from the previous night still refuses to leave the city and give place for new fresh air. The start of a new day that will probably end up the same way. But not for us, it's time to move and start on our exciting adventure. Leaving behind us most of the musical sounds from the night, the storytellers and snake dancers, the tourist attractions and markets, we face quickly the real surroundings we came here to see and ride. The Atlas Mountains surface relatively fast once you are out of the city, heading east, and our excitement grows as we approach steeper terrain. The wave of questions and doubts inside the car contrasts with the fresh wind coming through the car windows. My thoughts swirl around and around, and even though we try to ask some things to our driver, answers are coming short. Luckily music takes over and lets us enjoy the landscapes while listening to the Tuaregs or Berbers.
Sometimes, the feeling of not knowing where you are going can be confusing, and I think we all feel a bit like that. It's hard to imagine how things are going to be, the canvas of the week is for now completely white in our head. We expect to create it from the pictures we've seen of the different landscapes, trying to remember the variety of colours and smells. We can't wait to get on our bikes and start painting our memories through this vast and unique terrain. Inside the car, we have gained some altitude and the paved roads were left behind a while ago. We try to communicate with our driver once again in order to get a closer idea of where we are heading. “5 minutes” he will answer. “Over that mountain” could be another answer.
Either way, we are far from the city when we arrive. The unloading ritual gets underway with the usual excitement from the group. As it is our first day, it is hard to focus on setting up our bikes with the surrounding landscapes. We are, for now, up in what looks like a plateau, calm and lonely. This place does not seem to see many people besides the locals. Stocking up on water and food is vital before every day, since it will be many hours until we see the cars again. And most importantly in this kind of trip and terrain, you have to try to be prepared for everything.
Riding in this place can take away your breath. The perfect balance in between all of this different terrain, the huge layers or different stones, linked only by the endless lines of trails. Old animals tracks, paths that connect villages and entire valleys to the outside world. All put together to create an amazing, but tricky, network, for us mountain bikers to enjoy. Not only the landscapes but the colours, the stone looks like it has been painted at times in tones you didn’t even think existed. Bigger forces have carved this area for thousands of years, and although the trails we ride are as old as the locals can remember, we are just looking at the founding earth and ground of it all.
This emptiness and calmness are at times in contrast with the excitement surrounding the villages we pass by or approach. “Run kids run!” is shouted every time we enter a village. It is then followed by a loud screaming group of excited kids that will run and appear out of every corner to our encounter. We will not be hard to spot with our bright clothes and loud passing bikes, but the huge joy kids will welcome us was a different thing. At times, screaming and showing their excitement from the other side of the valley, other times, jumping on our bikes and riding them as long as they can or end up crashing.
Touching base for lunch in some of these remote villages was our daily meal ritual. We knew our local guide Hisham had a plan for each day, where we will go and where we will stop. Always being welcomed by the local families high up in the mountains, and bars if we stopped further down the valleys. But a pure flavour surrounded every room we entered in each of those houses. The families, giving us their space and food. Opening their arms to the travellers and giving refuge from the hard midday sun. Fresh inside these thick white walls, we felt good while enjoying local couscous and warm tea. Sometimes we will needed to carry on to the trail exiting the village, old paths made by the locals and its animals, with many crossings. It's easy to get lost in this areas, especially in the lower ones. Other times, the daily midday stop would bring us to an arduous hike to a high mountain pass helped out by a group of local farmers and their donkeys.
Every day, we chased the last light in the high parts of the trails, but also tried to enjoy a calm moment for ourselves. We ended up with a long run down the already shadowed flatter part of the Atlas Mountains. There, our beloved drivers will welcome us, happy to see us again, and would be just as euphoric as we were. We would try to explain and share with them our excitement from the day. Their broken English didn’t seem to be a problem since, for some reason, they knew what we were talking about and how we felt. They just laughed while loading the bikes in the cars. And we would end up once again happy and relaxed as we can be, arriving at our next destination, a mix of jungle looking places usually in the middle of nowhere, mountain huts located in higher villages, cozy and nice luxurious hotels… all with its typical Moroccan hospitality, with many different little houses, rooms, balconies, all hidden in between big trees of different kinds with fruits, hanging like they are waiting to be eaten. All spreading their flavours on to the slowly closing air of the evening.
The solitude some of the people here live in is impressive. We have driven our cars for long hours into deep valleys. Pedalled and hiked to cross mountains passes, but with the high expectation of a reward coming on the other side: the joy of riding down in this amazing terrain. But we might forget sometimes that people live here, grow up here, coexist with each other, with the harsh environment and push through the difficult living conditions. We are just passengers, fast and colorful on board our expensive machines. We should not forget where we are, who these people are and what they do. What we mean to them we can only try to guess. Probably we look to them mostly like we are from another world. But we will have to make a bigger effort to try to think and realise that these people can mean to us, can teach us. And I don't know if we all did that either in our quiet moments during our trip, or back in our heated comfortable places. Some of us might just be thinking already about our next adventure. Focused only in pushing forward in the hunger for exploration or personal progression. Maybe just stressed due to the tight work schedules, who knows. Others might try to take as much for themselves from the people and places they get to know and see, in a spiritual sense of course. Here in Morocco, there has been people that came to push the limits, as our local guide Hisham told us one day; “You see that mountain over there? “ he asked while pointing far away from the plateau we were pedalling through, “ Fabien Barel did some lines there while filming for the NWD series”. Others might come to do the total opposite, escape from the outside world in luxurious hotels in the middle of the Atlas Mountains, or even get together with local people to live and experience life from their side of things.
Us, we are just like small grains of sand that pass by. That never stand still due to the constant winds. Winds from our modern world. A world that is simply getting too complicated. A world that I think we are learning to not to appreciate. The new generations grow up fully immersed in other values, more or less necessary, but most of the times far away from the reality. The reality of, for example, the people hidden away from this world in the middle of the Atlas Mountains, enjoying the life they got given, with its traditions grounded in their blood for generations. They also push the limits. You will only need to see where and how they live, what the are able to grow, and the human beings that they have become, learning from their predecessors, and teaching it forward.
These are the things we came here to see, and to learn to appreciate. We, small particles of sand in the wind, might as well try to touch down from time to time, in order to not forget this person we get to meet, these places we get to see. That way, we will not only be able to get together again and come back to such adventures. But we will make this our world, a much better place to be in.
Morocco Blues it is, and Bombino is the name of the artist I was trying to remember….Riders Daniel Schaefer (Specialized) and Julia Hofmann (Rocky Mountain)