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Morocco: the Hitchhiker's Guide

This Easter, Amy Milka joined the annual student migration to Africa. She remembers the OAPs, squaddies and French fascist who helped her to blag her way across the continent.

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This Easter, Amy Milka joined the annual student migration to Africa. She remembers the OAPs, squaddies and French fascist who helped her to blag her way across the continent.

Things I have gained from the hitch to Morocco: a newfound appreciation for toilet roll, confidence in my ability to botch communications in a mixture of pidgin Spanish and frantic hand gestures and an inexplicable urge to quit university and become a truck driver.
This Easter, whilst many nestled in the nourishing cocoon of suburbia, a motley crew from York joined students from across the country in the hitch to Morocco. A journey of around 1600 miles, crossing time zones and borders and smashing language barriers with a mixture of big smiles and non-threatening movements, the goal was to raise £300,000 for the charity Link Community Development. With every participant raising at least £300, it is one of the biggest fundraising events in the country. And, although the glow of charity work adds a sense of legitimacy, any excuse for a holiday, right?

Our journey began at the beginning of the M1, where my hitch partner Matthew and I tumbled from the safety of his Dad's estate car, along with an assortment of backpacks and luminous outdoor clothing. There is much to be said for fresh-faced enthusiasm and at first we were relatively lucky, securing a lift to Nottingham within a few minutes. From there, we began to discover that hitchhiking is not as easy as just sticking out your thumb.

Any hitcher will tell you that it is a journey of amazing highs and incredible lows, all of which are forgotten as soon as your next ride pulls up. Several hours spent cluttering up a grass verge in a service station becomes a pleasant lunch stop once you're on the move again. Similarly, the last hitch, which you pounced upon when it arrived, becomes the worst lift ever if the driver drops you off in the wrong place.

We left Nottingham in a 60-foot lorry headed for Poole, a five-hour journey away. Upon arriving at an industrial estate in the aptly named Blandford our fortunes suddenly changed. Hiking through deepest suburbia to the main road, we discovered that the area was solely populated by OAPs. One of these, however, took pity on us, and took us two miles in a cab filled with bouncing toddlers and Labradors, nearly causing a pile-up by dropping us off directly on a roundabout. We reached Portsmouth by nightfall, after being rescued by two squaddies, who squashed us into the back of an Audi TT, and taking a sneaky rail journey. At the ferry port, exhausted, we met a bunch of fresh-faced York students who had enjoyed a leisurely train ride from their southerly homes, and were so excited to see how this hitching lark would go.

Perhaps our first day's experience had given us an edge, as we overtook them coming off the ferry and blagged a friendly lorry driver and a nine-hour hitch to Lyon. By early evening, Yves and I were best friends, and whilst Matthew snoozed contentedly on the bunk, I learnt about his family members, his taste in dubious French folk music and why he was voting Le Pen.
The next morning, the toll road and a couple of lucky hitches took us south, and by 11am we were in Valence, fishing for that perfect lift to Spain. We caught a white van man completely off guard as he hacked apart a baguette and a hunk of ham. The young Spaniard, affectionately nicknamed 'Sandy', as we were unable to pronounce his name, took us all the way to Barcelona, combining breathtaking speed with texting, eating and singing at the wheel. He dropped us off in a prime location, a service station teeming with HGVs. Unfortunately, our extremely limited Spanish didn't stretch to reading the 'under construction' sign next to the symbol for a hotel.

A frustrating issue which haunts the hitcher from an early stage is how to get back onto the motorway. If you end up, as we did, in a dodgy suburb with no main slip road, the sight of the motorway speeding past a hundred yards away is enough to induce tears of hysteria. Coupled with the disappearance of service stations in southern Spain, and the fact that lorries don't move on a Sunday, this is notoriously the most difficult part of the hitch. As the week wore on and the distance covered in a day dwindled, we grew desperate. A hitch from a Moroccan couple with a shattered windscreen and a collection of incessant Arabic music left us in a provincial maze of roadworks and a second hitch, hours later, got us into slightly hot water. The driver took us back to his house and gave us his keys whilst he parked, resulting in his keys dangling in the door and us shuffling off as fast as people carrying three stone on their backs could go. Round the corner in a cafe, we gave up on hitching to Algeciras and a sympathetic local drove us to the station. As we boarded the bus in Malaga, a sheepish group from Warwick appeared, escaping the hitching hellhole of Spain. As the bus filled up with hitchers, we began to realise that we hadn't done too badly after all.

Everyone comes back with a few stories to tell, and I managed to get mild ammonia poisoning from one service station's overzealous toilet cleaners, resulting in a lot of stress, mainly induced by Matthew's insistence that he couldn't smell burning. And, when the adventure was over and the holiday began, our first night in Morocco was interrupted by a drunken man getting into our hotel room at 1am. He left when we started screaming like little girls and we departed too early to ask the owner how it had happened.

Other hitchers had similarly colourful experiences. One group from Leeds counted the police amongst their hitches; another had walked 10km cross-country in the dark. Our friends from Warwick had hitched a lift with a possibly-illegal coach load of Romanian immigrants, whose driver listened to non-stop accordion music and honked the horn if any passengers fell asleep.
So, after 15 hitches, too much junk food and not nearly enough showers, our holiday began. Our first night in Fes, a local took us out to a shisha bar where we spent the night in style for £1 each. The next morning our guide took us to a carpet cooperative where the trio from Warwick were hassled into spending £400 on a small rug.

Marrakech, too, was a great experience. Although it is the main tourist centre (the shop keepers will assure you their goods are "Primark prices"), it is a unique city, centring on the large Place Djema el Fnaa which comes alive at night with open air food joints and street performers. The best way to enjoy the sights without finding a snake round your neck and a monkey on your shoulder is to retire to a rooftop cafe and watch the world go by, sipping an addictive the a la menthe and ordering the local specialty, tagine, a kind of casserole served in a conical pot.

Unfortunately, Matthew and I only left 12 days for the whole trip, which left us short of time when we actually arrived in Morocco. However, despite the ups and downs of an inevitably difficult journey, we have both come away with some great memories and, though lacking a tan, I think it is one of the most worthwhile experiences university has to offer.

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