Morocco: Bottomless Pits–Dispatch 2

There’s nothing worse on a long road trip than getting sick. I’m talking about the ailments that overcome you with such enthusiasm that you are incapacitated with misery. None of these ailments are fatal, but they’re damned inconvenient, often in the most uncomfortable of ways.

My intense desire to avoid food poisoning and other gastrointestinal ailments when in out-of-the-way places begins on a sorry night in 2000, in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, near the village of Zaouia Ahanasel. As is frequently the case in such situations, the cause of my illness was unexceptional. Only in looking back during my long bouts of reverie in the outhouse do I figure out where I made the fatal mistake.

That particular day, having recently escaped a sandstorm at the edge of the Sahara, we get an early start, stopping finally in the major crossroads city of Kasha Tadla, to refuel the car and ourselves. Our plan is to head onto a little-used road taking us to the cliffs of Cathedral Rock and then on into the mountains, eventually veering eastward again to reach Marrakech the next day. Not having planned to rough it, we have neither sleeping bags nor food with us. So we agree that a hefty lunch is required before hitting the back roads, as much to carry us through the long hours to come as to give us a table on which to peruse our map.

We’re not fussy eaters (well, OK, there have been moment of insanity at the breakfast buffet) and we especially like Moroccan food. Without drama, we pick out one of the many restaurants lining the street across from our car park, establish a beachhead at a stained plastic table on the deck, and order lunch. Bernard chooses lamb chops, I ask for lamb meatballs. While waiting for our meal, I seek out the bathroom. It’s next to the kitchen, where a splintery plank door screens an unlit hole in the ground, made sophisticated only by the raised platforms on which to place my feet. The amenities do not include running water. Wondering only briefly whether it’s available for washing dishes on the other side of the wall, I return to our table just as our food arrives, steaming and savory, from that very same kitchen.

Big mistake and hard lesson learned, which I now share with you so you can memorize it. It starts with the mantra all mothers pound into their children as soon as they’re old enough to walk: Wash your hands with soap before eating. I’ll add to that something I’ve learned on my own: When in strange places, eat only what you recognize. Never, ever order food made of mystery ingredients.

Would that we could have hindsight available to us instantly. But no, I dig in, enjoy my lunch immensely, and think nothing more about it. All is well as we drive high into the arid mountains, heading, unbeknownst to us, to a road that had been severely eroded by floods the year before. Initially we make reasonable time, reaching Cathedral Rock with plenty of daylight.

On we press, bumping along an increasingly rocky, potholed road, squeezing past large trucks on narrow hairpin turns. The going is slow but not particularly hair-raising, until we reach a narrow gorge, now made all the narrower by those floods. With a cliff on Bernard’s side and a sheer drop into the river on mine, we slow to the pace of a baby learning to creep. The road bed is undercut and crumbling. I lose control of my eyes, which sneak glances out the window to help my brain assess how much it will hurt if the road gives way beneath us. Soon we have no recourse but to abandon the track altogether and take to the riverbed. Though it’s unfortunate for the farmers, it’s quite fortunate for us that it’s a drought year, for the riverbed is relatively dry. Our progress improves significantly as Bernard slaloms around boulders, sloshes through rivulets, and glides across sandbars without once getting stuck.

On this, my first driving trip, I am smacked in the face by the unpredictable nature of going away from the beaten track. And I don’t do well. At first, I’m flooded with relief that I’ve avoided the unpleasantness of sitting in the car while it toppled off the road. This lasts about two minutes. Another few minutes pass as I relish the new adventure of finding our way through the riverbed. Do the math and you can see I allow myself all of five minutes of good feelings before beginning to worry that we are progressing at so slow a pace we’ll still be in the damned riverbed, so recently my savior, at nightfall. None of this pleases me. I now want nothing more than to get out of that riverbed, back on anything that’ll allow us to drive straight and at consistent speed.

It is early evening when we reach our shelter for the night, a gîte d’etape housed in a century-old granary. I’ve just completed my first twelve-hour day of driving. If only I’d had a crystal ball to tell me this was a training run for the Peking to Paris (hot link to Peking to Paris page), I would have made more effort to hide the fact that I’m frazzled and exhausted. Luckily for Bernard, the hearty welcome we receive from our host goes a long way toward improving my mood. We’re his first guests in months and he’s so delighted to see us that I can’t stay grumpy for long. In courteous fashion, he offers us his best accommodation, a large white-washed room facing out onto his goat pen, bare of any furniture except a low, minuscule engraved wood table. A few religious icons are displayed on the wall. When we explain that we have no sleeping bags, he pillages his own bedroom, returning with generous armfuls of cotton quilts and their resident fleas.

It is at midnight that my lunch decides to make a second appearance. Not keen at the prospect of picking my way in darkness down a flight of stairs to the outhouse, I scrounge about for a handy receptacle. In the barren room, the only solid, bowl-like thing I can find are the plastic bags that cover my shoes. That’s when we realize that, in addition to sleeping bags and food, a flashlight would have been handy. Ever the gentleman and hoping to help me upchuck with a modicum of neatness, Bernard strikes a match and lights the room’s only candle, which casts lurid shadows onto the pallid walls.

I’ve never felt at ease throwing up in view of others. To me, there’s something intensely private about the whole miserable affair. It isn’t long before I pull on shorts and a T-shirt, and stagger forth to make my way to the privy. Pale moonlight casts ghoulish shadows in the courtyard, one silvery ray illuminating a glistening strip of steep stone steps leading to the long-drop hole. If I thought the day was tough, I’m doomed now to spend most of the night in much more unpleasant surroundings. I find myself kneeling, like a penitent at the altar, in front of a rough board with a black hole cut in the center. The stench of feces fills my nostrils, and even though it is two in the morning, flies buzz around my head. Opening my mouth, I stick my index finger into the back of my throat to make myself retch. It works, the poisoned contents of my stomach burning my throat on their way into the soiled pit below.

The next morning I try to feel brighter about the world by gloating to myself how fortunate I am to have spent the night elsewhere. Bernard is covered in flea bites while I have nary an itch. This perks me up a bit, but mostly I just feel limp and drained. Bernard pours me into the car, lovingly reclining the seat and handing me a bottle of warm Fanta scrounged from the granary kitchen.

“Feeling better now, cherie?”


Already mindful of my pleasure wandering the streets of anywhere, he tries to distract me by handing me a freebie. “Let’s go see the town of Zaouia. Change your mind for a bit.” It’s an easy thing for him to offer, given the likelihood that in my present state I’d take him up on it, but still, I recognize the gesture and I’m touched.

“Mmphw,” I say, shaking my head for emphasis since I’m not willing to open my mouth.

Taking both of those for the sickly “no” I mean them to be, Bernard resigns himself to the post of ambulance driver and we head back to civilization. The hills we drive through are rocky and barren, with only an occasional hummock of tufted grass rising five inches off the ground. I’m still far from recovered, and adding to my underlying anxiety about how far we are from civilization is the persistent concern of not knowing when I’ll next need a toilet. The best course seems to be to formulate a plan, to know exactly what I’ll do should dire circumstances demand it. Briefly I consider making use of the low stone enclosures built by Berber goatherds. But that seems unbearably rude. Head lolling against the headrest, eyes closed, I try to bargain my way to intestinal magic, sternly warning my innards to cooperate a bit longer. Those sprigs of grass aren’t nearly enough to protect me from view if I have to squat unexpectedly.

Years later, on the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, I’ve learned my lesson. Knowing we are going to be in places where running water isn’t even an option, I stuff a 6 x 14-inch plastic bin to the brim with packets of antibacterial wipes. Several times a day, before handing Bernard a snack, I use one to wipe my fingers and another to wipe his, since he can’t take both hands off the wheel at the same time to do so himself. I distribute wipe packets for each of us to stow in a pants pocket for use after out-of-the-way pit stops or after once more inspecting the catastrophe that’s called our rear suspension.

Midway through the trip, the alcohol impregnating the wipes has so desiccated my fingertips the skin feels like sandpaper. Still, there’s no doubt in my mind it’s worth it. Call me obsessive, but neither one of us has any intestinal problem the whole trip. And yes, I do gloat, again only to myself, on hearing of all the intestinal ailments to which our fellow travelers are succumbing.

Which is why from the confines of my sick bed in Kochi (Cochin) near the southern tip of India, I berate myself: “You idiot! What ever happened to that lesson you supposedly learned in Morocco?!” Thinking about it dispassionately once I am well again, I realize it was an insidious combination of factors that brought me down. First and foremost, I was felled by hubris. I knew myself to be so much more accomplished, what with two major road trips and the minor Morocco trip under my belt, that I grew careless. Second, the white tablecloth in the fine Delhi restaurant where we had lunch before flying to Kochi beguiled me into thinking the kitchen was trustworthy. Third, I forgot the rule about eating only those meats that have a recognizable shape. I had ordered kheema mattar, a wonderful curry dish with minced lamb or beef.

This time, the djinn of food poisoning waits only a few hours before taking up residence. From that point till thirty-six hours later, I alternate between bed and bathroom, evacuating through any orifice willing to take the job. And providing the hotel chamber maids ample opportunity to earn an extravagant tip. Still, I’m thankful to have learned a new lesson: when it’s me against the arch-fiend of food poisoning, find a good hotel and book two nights in the same spot.

If you’d like to know more details about this trek, or have questions about what skill level would enjoy such an experience, post to me below.

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