Wednesday, 23 June 2010

France. Ah! France!

The nicest things happen to me when I’m travelling. I meet interesting people, see sights at their best and even things that go wrong turn out for the best. (Breaking my leg in Pakistan led to the experience of living with a Pakistani family and working at an English language school in Islamabad. Both turned out to be hilarious as the family were puppeteers and actors of satire; and the school led to amusing happenings such as being given a class of consular officials from Azerbaijan on my, and their, first day).

I was waiting at the Tangier ferry port to go to Sete in the south of France when a group of French people arrived with several Landrovers to embark on the same three-day voyage. One of them was Liz from Ireland who had married a Frenchman. Together they own and run the truly luxurious hotel barge “Emma” on the Canal du Midi. As a result of meeting Liz and Rene, I was invited to stay the night.

You know those people you see setting the tables and putting out the deck chairs on posh boats and outdoor restaurants on the Continent? Well that was me! I left them three weeks later, having helped to paint the boat and do skivvy-type catering work whilst a group of American ‘personal chefs’ were cruised and pampered along the Canal. Apart from enjoying the best Cordon Bleu meals and (I’ll never buy cheap plonk again) really good wine, I was having yet another ‘time of my life’.

Onward and northward bound, I left the Languedoc. Ever since the puncture episode in Morocco, I had noticed a problem with the steering on the Enfield. One day, I left a hotel and took a sharp left turn onto the road and fell off. This lack of steering precision became steadily worse and I knew exactly what it was. A good friend had suggested getting a new steering head bearing before the trip and so I'd asked my favourite mechanic to replace it. He didn’t, saying that it was not necessary. On the same day, I took the bike for its annual MOT and the tester passed it but warned me about the bearing. I couldn’t detect anything amiss at the time but I did now. It was like steering jelly. (I'd also asked the mechanic to change all the cables. He said that wasn’t necessary either, and my clutch cable snapped at the top of a mountain miles from anywhere.) An internet search showed an Enfield dealer/mechanic in Lyon so I made my way there. Parts having to be sent for from Paris meant staying locally for a few days and I was well looked after by the owner of the business and his girlfriend. The journey to their home was the scariest I have ever had in my life. They are sidecar racers and I was in the sidecar, millimetres from the road surface, staring up the exhaust pipe of the car in front, in sheer terror going at a million kms an hour for over an hour. He dodged through Lyon’s inner city dual carriageway system suddenly overtaking, weaving in and out of the traffic and didn’t hear my cries of, “I’m a grandmother, slow down, pleeeeeese!”

All went well after I left Lyon except for a sudden return to winter and some wrong turnings. I’m sure Nantes is a lovely city but I never want to see it again having gone over that enormously high bridge umpteen times already.

A week or so staying with my friend Catherine, another long-term motorcycle traveller, was fun in Brittany, involving canoeing and learning to tango. Then an unplanned stop in Morlaix on my way to the ferry at Roscoff where I stayed with friendly Sarah and enjoyed being shown the area, eating Breton crepes and drinking cider! Meanwhile Spring in the UK had started and I had a new home to move into. So after a typical farewell from France, a short strike by the ferry staff delaying me and some other two-wheeled travellers long enough to get rather merry on someone’s stash of wine, we set off for Plymouth and home. It’s going to be strange living somewhere at last that I can call ‘home’. Oh, and I now have a new favourite mechanic!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Sahara at Sixty

No, I don't mean mph!
I'd finished the last of the sherry from Spain, it was coming up to my birthday and I wanted to celebrate with something stronger than orange juice, delicious as it is. The Romans were making wine in Morocco centuries ago and desite being an Islamic country, the tradition carries on. Wine is available even if it is a little difficult to find. However, a very well-stocked supermarket in Marrakech had a good choice in addition to European cheese (and I'm not talking just "The Laughing Cow" here!)
So, armed with a bottle of red and some Brie, I set off for what I thought would be a tacky, touristy camel ride in the Sahara desert, but which turned out to be absolutely magical.
It was the lullaby-singing of the Moroccan woman who was carrying her baby on the camel in front of me as dusk fell on the dunes that did it. And the moon was full and the camels were plodding rhythmically as their keepers cooed at them soothingly. This 'just for a lark' tour became something else as the silence transformed into serenity. My wine went down a treat with freshly cooked campfire taggine. And the stars!... well, they were as bright as they could be from all up there on this clear night. The family I was with in the bedouin tent sang "Happy Birthday" to me in the morning as we slowly and majestically rode the five kilometres back to Merzouga, our starting point the previous evening.

From the desert, which doesn't creep up on the surrounding landscape so much as plonk itself with a definite "I'm here", I went to Sidi Ifni on the Atlantic coast where I played about in the surf on a body board and slept in an unusual but strangely homely dormitory-tent construction on top of a hotel roof ("I made it myself" said the hotel owner proudly.)
Deciding that it was possible that Spring might be starting in the South of France as it was now nearly April, I made my way north, still negotiating flooded roads and plenty of lovely mud. I wasn't concentrating on the road on the last day and fell off the bike arriving at the Tangier ferry port with both me and the bike looking total wrecks. However, it's an ill wind etc. and perhaps because of the sorry state we were in, a party of French Landrover enthusiasts just back from frollicking around Morocco noticed us and so another adventure began even before we landed in France!