Archive for April, 2011

Lunch at the top of the world

April 3, 2011

For anyone who has been expecting more regular updates, please accept my apologies. The lack of computer access and weariness at the end of each day has meant that I’ve only been able to put fingers to keyboard a couple of times. But lots of notes have been taken, and the story of both the ride and Education For All will unfold over time. For those who so generously donated, what I’ve seen has shown me that you can all feel proud that you have contributed to the future of some delightful young girls, who would have had little chance of a decent education if not for people like yourselves.

Meanwhile, on with the show……

Lunch at the top of the world.

Aching bones, gurgling stomach, not feeling I can do it, but the moment we get into the saddle for a rapid descent of a couple of kilometers, the aches and pains ease and the chill wakes me up. I’m usually one of the first off, not because I need to be in the lead but because I know that some time soon everyone will pass me, and that’s okay.

We begin the climb to Asni, where we are going to make a quick visit to one of the houses that Education for All have built. In the slow nine km climb the distance markers seem to get further and further apart. I don’t mind being tail-end-Charlie, I’m used to cycling alone and I simply put my head down and carry on, the legs rotating the best they can. Not looking at the steep rise up to the next bend, I adopt the ostrich effect, look no more than a few metres ahead and it will pass. At the times when I feel myself really flagging and the wheels are simply going round in a lethargic fashion, I get into the lowest gear I can, get my legs straight and peddle ferociously. A rapid couple of minutes of doing this seems to get the energy back and the legs moving rhythmically again. And I’m not averse to getting off and pushing either. A gentle stroll for a couple of hundred metres works wonders.

Mike told us at the beginning that cars and lorries have little respect for bikes so in stretches where the road washes away at the sides its best to hold the middle where the surface is good. Sound advice, until you hear the deep guttural roar of a heavily laden truck grinding up behind you. I ‘hold the road’ as long as I can and try to judge when the truck is virtually on top of me before I drop to the rough surface at the side. Instead of a truck, a huge Volvo road builder slowly crawls alongside me, so big that it takes almost thirty second to pass, an eternity when you are on a rough mountain road with a rock strewn drop at your side.

We’re all looking forward to meeting the girls who live at Dar Asni, but as luck would have it, the teachers at their schools are on strike and the girls have all gone home. Apparently this isn’t an unusual event and highlights one of the anomalies of the Moroccan way of educational life for girls. Many boys will cycle to school and take lunch with them. Sometimes a single class will be held in the morning and then another in the afternoon. Boys will simply stay at the school, but it’s considered unsafe for girls to do that, so they are expected to return home. Often they’ve walked considerable distances and on occasions when time-tableing is particularly erratic they will miss a day’s schooling completely. For the girls at the EDA houses they simply walk across the road, as the three houses are all built within a couple of minutes walk of the schools.

We chat for a while with the house mother Latifa, and volunteers Emma Clayton, Jenny Hitchcock and Angela Cooper. Even though we finished a large breakfast only half an hour ago we take a glass of mint tea with sweet biscuits so as not to offend Moroccan hospitality – and they are an extremely hospitable race.

We begin the seventeen km climb up to Kasbah du Toubkal, the Berber Hospitality Centre whose five percent surcharge on client’s bills funds a series of projects in the village of Imlil, as well as substantial amount of the costs of running EFA. They don’t call it a hotel as it’s based on traditional Berber design, way of life and hospitality. I’ll find out what the difference is in a few days time, because I’m spending the weekend there.

I’m taking a ride in the pick–up for the first few kilometers of this stage so I can get ahead of the group to take photos. So far most of the team photos I’ve taken have been long shots or Lycra clad bums and cycling shirts with the Education For All logo emblazoned on the back, as I’ve yet to get myself far enough in front to take approaching shots. It also gives me a chance to look at the countryside, which I wouldn’t get with my head bent over the handlebars.

The  blaring of car horns as we climb what passes for the road leaving Asni gives a fair indication of the number of vehicles behind us, with Ahmed blocking their path as he shepherds the riders until they clear the town through a series of steep, tight bends.  

The bends gradually even out, revealing a patchwork of tiny fields, brilliant green with the early growth of corn, and small cherry orchards, a mixture of fluffy white and deep pink blossom. Sparkling water gurgles over rocks at the side of a narrow stream, which can turn into a raging torrent when the snows melt, as happened in 1995, when Imlil was devastated, as floods  washed away forty parked cars and a large part of the ancient village of Taouririt, the oldest in the valley, leaving only five houses hanging on to an eroded mound.

It’s gas re-fill day, and at various points along the roadside blue metal gas bottles stand, sometimes guarded by a small boy sat in the shade, waiting for the wagon to come along and exchange their empty bottles for full ones. Forget, and you could be cooking over an open fire for a week. Many of the tiniest villages high up in the mountains are little more than stone and adobe shacks, and it surprises me to see so many parabolic dishes to receive television signals. I’m told that some of these houses won’t even have a tap in the house for running water, with the wife or children having to make regular visits to a stream to collect water.

We pass Richard Branson’s much lauded Kasbah Tamarot, and I’m surprised to see that it’s sat right by the side of the road. Given the amount of land around I would have assumed it would have had acres of gardens. (We stop on our way down for tea, and I’ve got to admit that the interior is pretty chi-chi.)

On my bike again, I’m aware that at my casual pace the rest of the team are going to have plenty of time to enjoy their orange juice when they arrive at Imlil. But I’m enjoying the ride, slowly turning the peddles at a comfortable speed and taking a walk now and then to savour the view.

When I finally arrive at Imlil, the village below the Kasbah, I see a group of about thirty young boys having a hectic game of football on a scrubby pitch. The goals are marked out by a series of stones piled on top of each other, painted white. I’ve seen this everywhere over the last few days, a small stone on top of a bigger one marking road works, pavements, gate entrances and fields, and almost always with a blob of white paint on the top that runs trickling down the sides.

The legs are aching and the idea of sitting on something that doesn’t burn the buttocks is a joy. But the climb isn’t over yet! Our lunch is waiting for us five hundred metres higher, on a knee crunching walk that Mike McHugo describes, in his typically understated way, as a ‘walk that gains altitude’.

After an exhausting ride and a tiring climb up to the Kasbah, all I feel like is a stretch out on a firm Moroccan sofa before I eat, but a delight is in store. The Kasbah has its own hammam, the traditional steam bath, and we all pile in, throw off our sweaty cycling gear and languor in the steamy heat before scrubbing ourselves down and heading off to the roof terrace for lunch.We eat a tajine on top of the world – or at least that’s how it seems. Above us is Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, still covered in snow.

As much as I’d love to have spent the rest of the day soaking up the sun, it’s back down the rocky road to Imlil to pick up the bikes, and an incredibly exhilarating whiz down the mountain.

To learn more about Education For All, the reason I’m doing this bike ride, go to Education For All Morocco. If you would like to make a donation you can make it on-line by going here Derek Workman, or paying cash into my Spanish bank account ES45 2090 2802 4301 0016 8891 (ignore ES45 if you are in Spain), and I will hand it over direct to the charity.

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