Across the Sahara Desert on Kinetic Honda scooter. Chapter 5

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The Ride begins. Through Morocc0=EL Maroc !  

Finally the day arrived. We started our adventure. We had two KiHo scoots: 0ne was ’86 model, and the other was ’90 model, backed up by a Mercedes Benz Glendwagon GD240, 4x4 Jeep, courtesy Mr. Abhay Firodia of Bajaj Tempo Ltd.


At 10:00 a.m. on a very cold December morning, 19.December 1991, we started riding from Honda showroom at Casablanca headed for Algiers. It was bloody cold. Ice had formed on the scooter seat and panels as well as on the roof and hood of the Jeep. For an Indian like me who grew up and lived in the tropics, this was hell. I had no idea it would be so cold. Riding a scooter in this biting cold was torture. The tar road going east from Casablanca towards Algiers along the Mediterranean coast was of good quality. Traffic was thin and speed was possible, but the faster we drove the scooter, the colder we felt due to the freezing cold wind hitting us. Even though we were wearing gloves, our hands were freezing.

The first stop we made after leaving Casablanca was at FEZ, 305 km away. FEZ is the oldest town in Morocco. As we were entering FEZ, a couple of el-kiddos on mobikes latched on to us, yelling “Medina, Medina”. We thought they were inviting us for prayers. Later we found out that medina is the name of the city’s old quarter where the old bazaar is located. We dumped our luggage at an el-cheapo hotel in town and went to the medina with the kiddos.

The medina is a mind boggling maze of dingy decrepit buildings built over a thousand years ago, and looked it. The only vehicles allowed inside were mules and donkeys. It is something like our own Bhul-Bhullaiya of Lucknow, and we couldn’t have found our way out without the kidd0 guides. The shopkeepers were damn aggressive, and prices, to us Indians, were sky high. A leather Jacket we enquired about was selling at 1400 Moroccan Dirhams. At about four Indian Rupees to the Moroccan Dirham, that comes to Rs.5600/-. I could easily get the same thing in Agra or Kanpur for less than half that price. We also found 50 cc Hero Majestic type mopeds selling there for five times the Indian price.

We left FEZ early next morning, and after a brief halt for a two-bit, faltu lunch en route, arrived late at night at Oujda, the border town from where one crosses into Algeria. Oujda is 360 km from FEZ. We checked into Hotel Terminus, just outside Oujda railway station.

One of the KiHos was giving trouble, and it took us the whole of the next day, 21.Dec.1991, to set it right. The problem was with the reed valve and we had no spare reed. Our hunt round Oujda town for a reed yielded us a local mechanic who fabricated a makeshift reed out of FRP, and the scoot was mobile again.

We rushed to the border, hoping to cross it the same day, but by the time we got there the dept. that handled CARNETs (CARNET=Passport of Vehicle) had closed shop so we could not cross into Algeria. It was back to Oujda again and cool our heels for two days, because the border is closed on weekends: 21.Dec. was a Saturday, 22 was Sunday, and we could cross the border only on Monday 23.Dec.1991.

It took us the whole of Monday 23.December to cross the border, a distance of mere 50 meters: THE JOB IS NEVER DONE TiLL THE PAPERWORK IS COMPLETE! While the border formalities exiting from Morocco are comparatively organized (it took us from 09:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. to exit Morocco), the situation at the Algerian side was utter confusion, bordering on panic. The officials would close any counter at their whim (gone for prayer) leaving waiting passengers in a state of suspended animation. Pushing and shoving at counters was the rule. There was no queue jumping because there was no concept of queue. The Algerians are as bad as us. Yelling, screaming and abusing were common and the day wasn’t complete without a couple of fist fights – between passengers as well as between passengers and officials.

Relations between Morocco and Algeria were something like the Hindustan-Pakistan syndrome, the fact of both being islamik countries notwithstanding!

I found the common Algerian to be much more friendly and humble than the common Moroccan, probably because the Algerians had suffered for 30 years under so-called “socialism”, same like we suffered for 45 years from popat nehru to his dotter indira to his grandson rajiv, till Paisa Vasool Narsimha Rao happened in 1991. It also has to do with money. The Algerians were as poor as us, while the Moroccans were four times richer.

We made pretty slow progress. To mitigate our cold ride somewhat, we rode the scooters behind the Jeep, keeping as close to the Jeep as possible so that it would shield us from the cold wind. Making halts at RABAT, MEKNES, FES, TAZA and OUJDA, we reached TLEMCEN the Algerian border on the fourth day.

CROSSiNG THE BORDER: Getting across the border was a disaster. While getting out of Morocco was easy and simple, getting into Algeria was a torture. We had to fill in some forms in which we had to write our PROFESSiON. I wrote my profession as Teacher (which I was). I cannot remember what the others wrote, but I do remember that two of us wrote profession as JOURNALiST, since two of our team were salaried employees of Car&Bike magazine. I had been doing ROAD TESTs for the magazine for five years before that, but I was working on a “per-word” or “per-article” basis, not on a monthly salary basis. I was also teaching MBA students at IMDR, the oldest MBA institute in Pune. So I wrote my “profession” as teacher.

Journalists were a problem with the Algerian authorities. Journalists were an absolute no-no in Algeria, probably bkoz nosey journalists would report back in their home country about the horrible goings on in Algeria. So these two, our team leader, and the French speaking interpreter, were refused entry into Algeria at the land crossing border. Whattodo? Our fallback was Mr. Sambomatsu, but how to contact him? There were no mobile cellphones in those days, remember? It took us a whole day (much bribery and corruption - more than India) to cross the border. Four of us, along with our scooters and Jeep crossed into Algeria. The two who wrote profession as “Journalist” were sent back into Morocco. What happened to them and what they did we came to know only when we reached Algiers. They had taken a train back to Casablanca from Oujda and flew into Algiers on Christmas day 1991. In the profession column they wrote “student”, and got into Algeria without a hitch.

The four of us who were allowed into Algeria, finished the formalities and, riding two KiHos and one jeep, entered Algeria before dark on 23.December 1991, and headed for Marnia, 20 km away. We had thought we’d eat, check into a hotel and crash for the night. But during dinner the devil got into us and we decided to ride on to 0ran, 200 km away.

Excellent roads (the like of which did not exist in India at that time) and sparse traffic enabled us to hit 0ran around 21:00 pm, a minor checkpoint hassle on the way being solved by two packets of Marlboro cigarettes.

0ran town was already asleep and finding a hotel with a secure parking place was proving to be a problem. So we decided to bash-on-regardless and head for Algiers, the capital of Algeria, 500 km away.

The ride from 0ran to Algiers was the coldest and freezingest ride of my life, and we were totally unprepared for it. The temperature was zero or less than zero since we saw ice layers formed on car bonnets next morning. On one scoot, me and another rider took turns, each riding one hour at a time covering 65 km, while the other rested in the Jeep which was with us. The other scoot was ridden throughout (500 km) alone by a third rider to Algiers. Consequently he froze, and lay asleep for two days continuously after we hit Algiers around noon on Tuesday 24 December 1991.

All this time the four of us had no inkling as to what had happened to the two who were refused entry into Algeria. Yet Mr. Sambomatsu knew exactly where to catch us on the road before entering Algiers, and he did. And the two of our group who were refused entry at the border were with him, having reached before us. What they had done was, they had gone back to Rabat and taken a flight from Rabat to Algiers, this time not making the mistake of writing their profession as journalist.

Next day, Christmas 1991, we did some shopping (food only) in Algiers and some photography in a public park on a hilltop and generally relaxed. Tomorrow morning the clock would start ticking for us. So far we had been in very civilized places and travelled on excellent roads, and as we struck due south from Algiers, civilization would gradually thin out and human habitation would become sparser and sparser.

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