Casablanca, Morocco * October 8, 2008
I had installed a 14-tooth front sprocket on the Suzuki enduro for better low-end torque on the dirt and mud and sand roads of Africa. It turns out that the potent little punch the 14-tooth sprocket delivers in second and third gears is useful as well in the crazed traffic of a large Moroccan city.
The traffic is thick and fast and reckless and rude. Horns honk, vehicles dart, and a blast of black smoke from a bus or truck can leave your face soiled with soot. Drivers vie for the slightest advantage, the risk of a dented fender or a broken pedestrian foot be damned. Little scooters and mopeds whine along the right side, then buzz into traffic at will. Pedestrians walk, trot, run and sprint from one side to the other. Stop signs and red lights may or may not be obeyed.
Yet there’s a rhythm to the thing. There’s an order in the chaos. It’s as if the traffic is an organism unto itself, each of its constituents flowing with an inexplicable grace. Accidents do happen, but the near-flawless fluidity with which the traffic flows is quite arresting, when you stop and watch it – or insert yourself into it, on a heavily loaded adventure motorbike.
It’s not unlike a dance in which the principal objective is for the dancers to come close, but never touch one another. The tarantella, I call it.
I have two styles of urban riding in foreign cities. In modest traffic, I ride defensively. I see little advantage in tearing around a stopped car to gain 30 seconds on my destination, while a pedestrian or a chicken decides whether or not to cross the road. It’s all about risk and reward. The reward is nominal, if not negligible. The risk of smacking, or getting smacked, increases exponentially with speed.
Geoff is the opposite. He rides hard and fast in modest traffic, be it on the outskirts of a large city or in the middle of a medium-sized one.
But in heavy urban traffic, riding aggressively pays off. Hesitation or indecision can invite disaster. You have to participate in the dance. You have to do the tarantella. Pump the horn and flash the high beams and signal your intentions with your left hand.
All your senses are on full. Sight, sound, intuition. Hit the throttle and accelerate hard, because traffic, like nature, abhors a vacuum. That’s where the punchy 14-tooth sprocket, along with the rejetted carburetor and cut airbox on my Suzuki, pays dividends. Keep your right hand and foot poised over the brakes, because you will inevitably need them in a hurry.
The mad rush hour traffic of Casablanca challenged me to recall the urban riding skills I had cultivated in large South American cities. As we approached Casablanca from the north, darkness fell and traffic thickened as it funneled toward the city center. Ahead of me, Geoff weaved through the obstacle course, standing tall on his Yamaha XT’s pegs.
He wears a Zune MP3 player while riding and dances along to the beat in heavy urban traffic. His head bobs and weaves and his shoulders dip and his hips gyrate. He’s a regular comic spectacle, a reject from TV’s Dancing with the Stars reality show. I’ve had to train myself to not watch him, his histrionics can be so distracting. According to Geoff, there’s a method to his madness.
“It’s good exercise. My arms, my shoulders, my ass get stiff, and dancing looses them up,” he told me. “And it’s partly about safety, mate. People see me and slow down to watch. I saw one lady take out her cell phone and shoot pictures of me.”
We parked in front of the Hyatt in downtown Casablanca to take a break from the white-knuckle urban riding and find our location on the Lonely Planet map. The GPS is useful only for its compass in foreign cities; the Garmin WorldMap supplies no street-level detail. The Hyatt was probably $200 or $300 USD a night. Our destination was a side street hotel in the Lonely Planet guide for one-tenth the price, but to get there we’d have to make all the right turns through a maze of streets in the dwindling light, with no visible street signs.
“Pretty crazy riding,” I said. “Back in South America, I had the misunderstanding there was a Latin dance called the tarantella in which the objective was for the partners to come close but never touch each other. Turned out that was wrong, in the tarantella the dancers do touch, but I love that name for riding this sort of traffic. It’s like a dance. The tarantella.”
Geoff nodded in appreciation. He inhaled sharply, as if of his own adrenaline. “I love riding these cities,” he said. “Freaking love it.”
We watched the traffic dance. A bearded man with a turban for a helmet buzzed past on a rusted old moped. Little red taxis squirted like grapefruit seeds into roundabouts. Pedestrians slowed to eye the uncommon sight of two large adventure motorbikes parked at the curb. I watched one jaywalker progress across the street, stopping, hopping across one lane, then another, then another, as if in a video game.
“Ready, dude?” Geoff said. We geared up for our final assault on the hotel destination.
It was fruitless. We had counted the number of blocks on the Lonely Planet map and turned as planned, but no hotel was in sight. We pulled over once again, this time in a
darkened neighborhood. I trotted across the street to check a street name sign. When I returned, Geoff was talking with a cab driver who had spotted the bikes and pulled over.
“Sunshine here says he’ll take us to the hotel for 20 dirham,” Geoff said, jerking a thumb at the guy. That’s about $2 USD, and well worth it to me. Except, according to the cab driver, the hotel we had in mind had no parking garage. But he knew one that did.
Hotel Volubilis was about 10 blocks away, on a zigzag course that we would have been hard-pressed to find ourselves on the motorbikes, in traffic, in the dark, without the benefit of street signs. In front, a solicitous young bellhop named Nahib in a long maroon robe and sequined red fez welcomed us with jaunty cheer. We stood about and relaxed, unpacking and relishing the day’s adventures, while men from the hotel and the neighborhood came by to look.
I’m an American. He’s English. We’re riding to Cape Town, South Africa. The bike is a 650cc Suzuki. It cost $5400 USD brand new. Time and again we answer the same questions, and with a bit of practice I can say it all in French.
We shared a room for about $45 USD, pricier than we like, but a lesser evil that an aggravating and treacherous snipe hunt for a suitable hotel through the darkened streets of Casablanca.
I turned 47 years old in Casablanca. I must be getting old, because I’d forgotten how old I was. A week earlier, I had told Geoff I was 47. Bah, I was only 46. They say the memory is the first thing to go. Birthday dinner consisted of a tasty rotisserie chicken at a cheap outdoor café and a few beers at a bar broadcasting African wildlife programs on its flat screen TVs, not the bar, I regret to report, that Humphrey Bogart had made famous.
Sipping a beer, I got to thinking about Geoff having been pissed on by a cow and fell into a hilarious laughing fit, which he abided with good humor for a while until he said, “All right, for fuck’s sake!”
The next afternoon, we took a cab to the Hassan II Mosque. It’s the third largest mosque in the world and can accommodate up to 100,000 worshippers. It was built in the 1980s and 1990s and has a retractable roof and incredibly ornate tiling.
We walked back through Casablanca. A German rider was to meet us that evening. His name is Migo. He’s a software programmer. Migo and I had written back and forth for months about riding from Morocco to Cape Town after getting in touch via Horizons Unlimited.
Geoff and I returned to Hotel Volubilis by 5:30 p.m. and there was a big KTM 950 Adventure parked out front. Migo had arrived, and, I noted with great amusement, he wore virtually the same black and tan Hein Gericke riding suit as Geoff.
“You two ladies should really consult each other before you show up in the same dress to the same dinner party,” I said.