Morrocco Musings

Third-World touring with the Mild Ones

Squinting through a brilliant sunset, sheep and mangy dogs blocked the dusty street ahead. Hmmm, this wasn't on the map. Feeling a bit befuddled, I stopped for directions to my tour group's next rendez vous point. Before the gun toting stranger would point me in the right direction, an interrogation commenced. But it was over after his first question.

"Oh, you're an American? We welcome you to Morocco."

This proved typical of Morocco's authorities, and the entire populous, for that matter. Friendly. Inquisitive. Welcoming. Accommodating. Morocco also has a dizzying variety of terrain that makes for splendid motorcycling. This ancient land on the northwest tip of Africa is home to 13,000-foot-high sandstone and granite peaks in the High Atlas Mountains, the famously barren Sahara Desert and fertile, green valleys strewn throughout all strung together with great, well- maintained and well-marked roads. The purpose of my visit was not to interview Morocco's constabulary, but to crisscross the countryside for 10 days with a flock of 50-somethings, report their observations and bring back a visually stimulating representation of this fabulous land. Now, this was not just any flock of Joe Schmoes. Most were high-powered American business leaders brought together by venture capitalist Bert Denton and shepherded by his friend Burt Richmond, who, as luck has it, just happens to own Lotus Tours.

Here are their thoughts.

Moroccans are quite fascinating and have a very pro-Western attitude. The people were charming, warm and absolutely great to deal with, but bargaining for everything got a little tedious after a while. Today, the taxi into town was five times as much as the taxi back from town.

It is also interesting that the people who, according to them, have the oldest university in the world--dating back to the 1700s--haven't advanced more in terms of their culture or technology. In the market today we saw people earning their living by sharpening knives. We saw people baking bread. Apparently, people make their own bread then they bring it to a communal oven. It costs something like 4c to have it baked.

The group dynamic of our party was fascinating. Everybody seemed to get along, which is nice, yet not always the case. We all have a little different approach on life, but I thought everybody contributed and laughed.

For me, these trips are cultural experiences. We are so sheltered in the United States and don't see how people live on the other side of the world. For survival, it seems, Moroccans spend 80 or 90 percent of their time trying to produce food. You know, we spend maybe 10 percent of our time putting food on the table and eating it. For Moroccans, there's not a lot of time for leisure, not a lot of time for pleasure. Unfortunately, begging is almost a methodology of survival, the one thing that they have available to them.

What struck me was the proliferation of communication. To sit in the Sahara Desert, switch on a cell phone and have it work was pretty astounding. You're out there with the camels, the sand dunes and instant communication to anywhere in the world is a millisecond away. So, in this country--I think, culturally--in another 25 years you won't recognize it.

In the business world, you're thinking of thousands of things every day. One of the pleasures of going on something like this is that when you're riding a motorcycle properly, you shouldn't be thinking about a whole lot else. When I take a break from the world, it's just me, the bike and the environment, moving along safely within my limits. If you're doing that, you get into a real positive rhythm, which makes you much more in touch with yourself and the world. There is something refreshing about saying, "I'm going to take the next turn, gonna have a perfect line and I am going to watch what's going on." It's a very tranquil experience for me.

Moroccans have taken some very positive aspects of the European culture and combined them successfully with their own. The people were really receptive to having people from outside their culture come through. Seeing that sandstorm in the desert and witnessing the change of the environment from the absolutely crystal-clear blue skies to a gray sky and then a sandstorm was amazing to me. Morocco is a beautiful place.

I think the amount of respect that I've been getting from the guys is nice. This is just the way I wanted it. I figured that they might be a little apprehensive because I was a woman and they didn't know me.

Denton's wife hired me to train him. And the first time I met him--like any good trainer will do--I went to take his measurements, body fat and stuff and found out that he was extremely ticklish. I ended up chasing him around the living room. He had his shirt off and was laughing like a hyena. And then his wife walked in on this nonsense and said, "What's going on in here?" We all just burst out laughing.

These trips started because I love Thailand and I wanted to go sailing there but couldn't because of the pirates.

I planned to go rafting there, but then I saw Apocalypse Now, so I decided on motorcycling. The first year we did Nepal and Thailand. That was in 1985. We had a group of only five people. Then, it got more grand and elaborate; it was so big at one point that we shipped our bikes over in a sea-going container. When Burt started doing Lotus Tours as a vocation rather than an avocation, I gave him free reign.

It was scary to invite a woman, never mind a black, American woman on a trip that most guys think is a male-bonding experience. She's the first woman who's ever gone on one of these excursions. D.J.'s got a wonderful spirit, she's out there giving 110 percent, a lovely human being with great chemistry. She did a decent job of being one of the guys and added a lot.

Morocco is a fabulous, exotic place. And it's only eight hours away from John F. Kennedy International Airport. It's a neat blend of French decadence and 11th century Islam. It's just unbelievable: You have these local girls in mini skirts, high-heels and lots of makeup, then, right across the street, you have women in traditional purdah.

In 1992, I was reading a Forbes magazine article about these Zell's Angels guys in Chicago, so I picked up the phone and called Burt Richmond. Since then, I've been on quite a few of these Denton trips. The more esoteric the tours are, the more desirable they are to me. I've been to Austria, Spain, the South of France and, now, Morocco by motorcycle. I'm planning to go to Russia this summer. Years ago, I even did a bicycle tour of Switzerland.

I don't generally read motorcycle magazines anymore. Don't get me wrong. I love bikes. When I was in my 20s and 30s I read them, but I couldn't afford these trips. Now that I can, I don't read the magazines. What attracts my eye to stories about motorcycling are photographs that show a serpentine rope of bikes coming down the road. Anybody who likes motorcycles would read that article.

What possessed me to come to Morocco? I was looking for adventure, something to get away from the animal hospital. I went on the Internet, looked around, found this and it looked interesting--very different from anything I had done before. Oh, the roads are just dynamite. I have done more curves and mountains on this trip than I have in my entire life of motorcycling for 40 years. I live in Ohio. It's just flat and has few curves. On this trip, I realized that I need to learn how to ride much better to handle these roads. And the politeness of the drivers here...oh my gosh! No matter where you went in the entire country, people would make way for you. They would just pull to the side of the road and wave you by. The people's attitude toward us was just amazing.

Gilbert has invited me to go on several of these trips, but I always declined because I never had any interest in going to what I would consider a Third-World country. I was concerned about the accommodations, the food, the travel, the language, whatever. This time, I decided, OK, this was close enough to Spain, so I could get back to Europe pretty easily. I have been comfortable the whole time. The hotels have been excellent. I haven't felt threatened in any way. It's been a great experience.

You know, what stands out in my mind more than anything is the way that the vendors go about doing business--whether it's a vendor on the streets or in the shops. You know, they are the most persistent, but in a very polite way. They are going to do whatever they can to convince you to buy something, to do something and I have never seen that anywhere else.

Morocco is a diverse landscape of surprisingly twisty and well-paved roads that would challenge even Alpine-experienced motorcyclists. This Lotus Tour covered a vast array of scenery--from a freak sand storm in the Great Erg Desert (see page 86) to the dizzying Tizin Tichka Pass (above), which swoops its way to 7414 feet. Morocco is also a Third-World country that comfortably mixes contrasting ways of life.
The Hotel Kasbar Asmaa, in Zagora, demonstrates modernism
The old-world rug shop in Fez straddles middle ground
The burro-mounted gentleman outside Fez' medina displays a sense of tradition.
The burro-mounted gentleman outside Fez' medina displays a sense of tradition.
A group of locals serenaded us at lunch in Merzouga. Our guide for the day, Hassan (in blue, at right) owns the joint. D.J. Jones, a former rock 'n' roll lead singer and part-time percussionist (at left in back) got her groove on with the boys.
Kasbah Ait Benhaddou is a well-preserved village of mud huts that features such modern conveniences as electricity and satellite dishes.