Half an hour of walking on this sunny afternoon has taken us right through the concentric rings of wealth distribution in Asilah. From the hundred heavenly blues of its chic Medina, out through the tourist and commercial town with its pavement cafés and leather shops, to this half-built, half-demolished street on the outskirts.
Here the shop floor is just that, DVDs and household items laid out on sheets in the dust. Across the road, drooping vegetables and herbs are piled high on flimsy trestles. Set back in a dirt courtyard, a display of bathroom taps branches from a set of red wooden stools. Not much window-shopping as we wait for our taxi to arrive.
Whose idea was it to visit the villages outside Asilah? Nigel and Zoe's, I guess; they are the property-hunting friends who have kindly brought us with them to this Atlantic coastal town just south of Tangiers. But a clever person uses your ideas to promote theirs, and Tessa's idea is that Zoe has no more business buying here than Dot from East Enders. Showing Zoe a 'real' village may help her see this too. But like the canny estate agent she is, Tessa keeps a serene smile between her idea and the clients´. And even the arrival of the taxi doesn't wipe it off.
The 'country taxi' is the zombie cousin of Morocco's typical 'grand taxis', usually a wallowy old Merc or Peugeot that swallows up to six passengers at a time. Country taxis are the older ones willing to bump along the unmade village tracks, having I suppose very little left to lose.
Suspending disbelief, we all clamber in. Nigel is in front with Choaki, Tessa's Moroccan business partner. Silent, one eye slightly askew, Choaki is a reincarnated tomb guardian in a woolly cap, straight out of central casting.
The car lurches away from the kerb, but Fred still has most of his body and his camera outside. A shouted chorus of 'stop!' allows us just enough time to gather him in. A moment later, we stop again for petrol, which the driver cannot buy until we have paid him the agreed €24. We're not sure if we have bought the car or the ride. Zoe muses on the strong possibility of a breakdown (the car's I think). "Control yourself," Tessa tells her, "you're hysterical." Sinking down in the seat between them, I bark my shin on the exposed plastic molding of the passenger seat.
As we turn off the asphalt road and head for the village, the car comes to a sighing halt. Sweat trickles down the driver's face, more eloquent than tears. We all clamber out and start walking. The ochre dirt track is knotted like a labourer's arm. Chickens start in all directions as we approach.
Several houses are set in bare earth yards, some painted, others mud raised out of mud, with corrugated metal roofs slipping over them like skewed tablecloths. One yard is home to a family of goats and kids the size of springer spaniels. From the pistachio-green-and-cream minaret, with its megaphones where church bells would be, you can surely see the sea.
Back to the taxi, now pointing downhill along the track. The driver disappears under the car to remove the rock which is holding it in place. I notice that Choaki is holding the brake pedal down until the driver can get in and take over. When he does, we move off and start coasting down the track, too fast. Can you get him to go slower - Choaki, Chalky, Chucky? It doesn't matter what we think he's called, he answers to nothing. Zoe's tired voice breaks the silence: "Nigel, take control." Slow down, shouts Nigel, slapping the dash for emphasis. The engine starts.
At the junction with the main road, Zoe says she wants to go back to Asilah. The driver turns and heads in the opposite direction. Zoe insists. We all insist. Tessa says a few words in Arabic. The driver stops in the middle of the road and starts a long snaking reverse towards a deepish ditch. A thick shiny line of oil marks our path - a rock must have holed the sump.
It's the last straw. We all get out. Nigel walks up to the driver and demands his money back, his voice as tight as a fist. We start walking back to town, five kilometres distant. Moments later, the driver passes us in the taxi, waving. Moments after that, we pass the driver, who has now abandoned the taxi and is also walking back to town. After half an hour, Nigel flags down a small 4x4. All four of us get in, literally on top of each other, and are driven back to the centre of Asilah. The driver won't accept a single dirham, hand on heart, he was delighted to help.
We drop into wicker seats at the corner bar and order cold beers. The story gets funnier with each retelling. I keep seeing the driver, his dream of a day's pay trickling away, beads of sweat running into the frayed collar of his blue shirt. He never looked at us once.
For more images of Asilah, click on Fred's Flickr site. And if you want to see any of the photos here in more detail, click on the image to enlarge it. There's another post about Asilah after this one - with some of the more charming things we discovered.