#04 – A dive into Morocco’s culture
While reading a book on my e-reader, a car stops near my tent and horns. Would it be for me, or not? It horns again, so I get out of the tent. A police car. A man steps outside his car and walks towards me. “Passport please”, asks the man in the impressive uniform. Some photos of the passport, some phonecalls and the appearance of three other men later I am commanded to clear up my tent and follow the police car. “It’s not safe here, so I will bring you to the city hall where you and your bike will be safe”. It was all a little bit suspicious, but there was no absolutely noharm or evil act in his worries, he just wanted me to be safe.
Arrival in Tanger
On the 11th of April 2019 I set foot on Moroccan soil, and for the very first time I breathe African air. The officials at the border didn’t seem to bother me as a cycler so much and wished me a “Bon voyage”.
I was very excited. For many other cyclers, Morocco has been a great and unique experience and I couldn’t wait to witness this promise.
The hostel I was heading for, was located in the middle of the old center of Tanger, located at the Gibraltar Strait in the North of Morocco. Thanks to the help of Armand, a young local guy, I found the hostel.
After settling in the room it was time to absorb the Moroccan culture. Armand was waiting for me and even brought me to a restaurant. I thanked him, and told him I’d rather explore the city in a slower pace.
I wandered around, got amazed by the tremendous amount of small shops, selling more or less the same items. The sound of hectic, the colours of spices and fruit and the variation of generations spread across the city was something I fell in love with right from the beginning.
Dive into the unknown
Somewhat hopeless I started my bike ride through the country of mountain ranges and deserts. I didn’t do any research about where to go and about good cycle routes. Stupid. So I just took a road towards South, which seemed to be not too busy.
With a little hesitation I pass the first few small villages, often consisiting out of a few houses and unpaved roads. The farmers smile when I pass by, the kids look curious but stay silent, some of the woman avoid eye contact. Later I learn that many Moroccan people are shy.
I stop in a small village quite early. “Is there a place to camp here?” I ask a man, who appeared to only speak Arabic. He brings me to the city hall and asks another man to help me. “No problem, just follow me”, the other man replies. I folliw him to his house, just 1 km down the road. I pitch up my tent and go into town to drink a Moroccan tea. Little did I know about the amount of sugar they add.
All seemed fine and easy going. I felt safe and comfortable. The police that guided me away that evening, put another light on that vision.
The land of many people
But nothing happened and the next morning I was riding my bike upon the hills.
More than a hundred eyes stare to me when I enter a local market in, for me at least, the middle of absolutely nowhere. About 20 donkeys are parked in front of the market. Both my curiosity and the fact that I was running out of food, attracted me to the traders place.
“You like chicken?”, two of the many eyes asked me. “Come, my friend. Very good chicken”, he added in his fruitful attempt to convince me. I entered the almost empty room of the restaurant. A few plastic chairs and tables, one cooking system and a small kitchen filled the area. I could park my bike inside, which was now occupying a big blank spot. The owner served a delicious soup instead of chicken, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.
I continued the day with a much lower pace than I did in Europe. The need of getting to a certain place is not the case anymore, and since the weather and the hills will determine the amount of kilometers I can make in a day, it was difficult to estimate when and where I would spend the night.
Even in the remote places, there were people everywhere in the mountains. There was always at least one Shepherd, who was guiding his cattle, that could be seen.
Just beside a river I stumbled upon a hidden piece of grass. I gently explored the area if someone would be able to see me. No one. And I was quite amazed by the beauty of the spot, that would provide a sleeping spot, fresh water from the river and enough dry wood to make a fire.
The Blue City
The next morning I continued going towards South, till I stumbled upon a T-crossing. I had to go left or right and it would make a huge difference in my route. My original plan was to go right. But after a second opinion I changed my mind. Left would lead me towards Chefchaouen, the blue city, and it seemed to be reachable in one day.
And I also needed internet. I bought a Moroccan sim card, but didn’t think about buying some credit, which left me cut off from the world since I left Tanger. And in a trip like this, I really feel the urge of the distraction internet can give me, if it wasn’t for the keeping friends and family updated about my trip.
In Chefchaouen I wandered around and tried to dissolve in the mix of tourists and local life.
Police checks & being chased
Now armored with 5 GB of internet I was ready to go down South again.
I find a tree near the road that provides me from enough shadow to rest. The heat is becoming more intense. Back on the road again I stumbled upon a police check. “What is your proffesion”, a man with a big mustache asked me. Somewhat confused by the matter of the question I answer “I’m an engineer”. “So, you are an engineer”. He then paused for a few seconds and looked towards the police car which was parked beside the road. “You want have food?”, he suddenly asked me, pointing towards the car where four other man were standing around a clay plate, filled with a chicken tajine.
Wow. I suspected to get an unwanted police escort, but instead I was invited for a lunch near the road. They also gave me a bottle of water and a refreshing cola. My prejudice and my suspicious distrust about the police just made a 180 degree turn to respect and trust. It’s absolutely breathtaking how these officials presented themselves as pure warm hearted persons.
Late in the afternoon I headed for a spot to camp in the wild. I took a small gravel road to get away from crowded places. A grey car with two men suddenly tell me that the road I want to take is “not accessible”. Suspecting that these men are from the hotel of the previous village, I ignore their warning and trust my navigation, which tells me the road is actual accessible.
It’s getting late, so I need to make some progress and I leave the two men. Then, they start to follow me in the same pace as I was moving with. Sometimes they were behind me, sometimes in front of me. Having them following me, would be problematic in order to set up camp. I needed to make a plan B, but how?
My chain was getting loose, and the many small steep hills caused the chain to fall of the gear every now and then. I pass a bunch of kids and they start to throw rocks to me, perhaps because I was holding a camera. I became desperate, but I had to continue. Once my chain got off again, the grey car passed me and went around the next corner and got out of sight. This might me the chance for me to get rid of them. A young man comes to me and tries to help me with my bike.
Not being able to properly communicate with him, I place my hands next to my head in order to ask if there is a place to sleep. “My house”, he answers, while waving his hands to make clear that I should follow him. We disappear out of sight from the main road and soon entered a big blue gate. I’m safe and I feel very lucky to have met Abderezzak, the guy who just invited me in. I couldn’t thank him enough.
Half an hour later, however, the two men from the grey car and three other men stand inside the gate. They want to see my passport and they said they are from security. Why couldn’t they tell me this earlier? Why would they tell me the road is not accessible? They freaked me out, but they were just trying to keep me safe. Many photos of my passport and a few phonecalls later, the men disappeared and never returned.
Abderezzak and his family were amazing. They offered me a shower, food and a bed. It was interesting to see how life inside a Moroccan house is led. The men and the woman have dinner separate. Everyone eat with their hands, braking of pieces of bread and dip it in the tajine, olive oil or the scrambled eggs. The youngest kid does do everything to comfort me. When I’m out of bread, he gives new bread. When I haven’t eaten eggs for a while, he shuffles that plate a bit closer towards me. And when the meat is served, he makes sure that I get the biggest piece. I’m not sure how to react on all this. Is it polite to accept everything he offers, or should I thank him and push it back. I try both. They seemed to be fine with anything.
More Moroccan hospitality
Enriched with a new perspective of Morocco I continued strolling towards south. The hills combined with the heat made it necessary to stop regularly. The fast pace I used to have in Europe has now being reduced by 30 to 50 percent. I think there is a process I need to undertake.
On the one hand I would like to make much progress, but on the other hand I would like to take it slow to enjoy the surrounding more. There is a part in me that wants to be as efficient as possible. Wasting time should be avoided. But why? Why can’t I just take my time, to listen to a story of a passing man, or to watch people walking by, or to take a big detour to visit some more outstanding nature. It’s not in my system, but I feel the urge to make a change in it.
In the afternoon I entered a small city. Obvious, all eyes were pointed towards me as I passed the main street. They all seemed to want to greet me, but I simply can’t greet them all back, so I keep my eyes fixed forward and pretend to be deaf. I find a cafe to drink a Moroccan tea. A man with a white hat comes to sit next to me. He asks me what I want to drink and a few minutes later a tea appears on my table. We start a Google Translate conversation.
The man is called Aziz, and he also invites me to his house. However, it is 15 km away from the cafe. I tell him that it is too far to cycle at this moment, so I will continue. He insists on coming to his house and that we can put the bike on a taxi. The driver firmly attached a net around the bike and we were on our way.
In the middle of a big road we stopped. We took off the bike and Aziz guided me along a gravel road. We passed all houses, and kept walking. Finally we arrive at a farm, where he and his family lives. Aziz owns a separate building on the land. The outside walls are painted white, with a pattern of red sweeps.
I’m intrigued by the simple life the family seems to have at this farm. The several generations need each other and therefore life together. The older take care of the youngest, while the middle generation are the best fit to shift physical work on the land. They produce most things themselves, and in case something is missing, they trade it. The rooms are filled with carpets, one table and one television.
The next morning Aziz provides me a delicious breakfast. The bread is bakes in their own clay oven and the milk comes from their own cows. He shows me around on the farm and makes me meet some other family members. I shake hands with the women, where upon they give a kiss on it, which was somehow flattering.
When Aziz and I say goodbye, I start to feel guilty. He has done so much good for me, and I believe that it was his true intention to do so. But he now expects something back from me too. He wants me to help him come to the EU. And as much as I would like to help him, I don’t know how. I’ve never done something like this, and besides, I might be on the road for another six years. And Aziz is not the only one I’m going to meet who wants this help from me. But I realized this all just as soon as I was back on the road. It did make me feel a little bit sick.
I took a big detour in the to see some beautiful tracks. When I passed a small local school, the kids became crazy and their teacher gave me a free tour around. It motivated me to see so many happy kids. I hope that on one day they will life their dream too.
When I continued I realized I still need to dry my tent. I found a spot under some olive trees to do so and in the mean while I enjoyed some lunch. As good as I thought I was hidden, so easy someone appeared to find me. The guy came to me and asked me if everything was okay. I convinced him that it was and he walked away. About five minutes later he came back with tea and fruit. Once more I was shown the great Moroccan hospitality.
I was heading for the big city Fez. I would stay at a Couchsurfer and met him when I arrived. Because there was family in his house, I couldn’t enter his place. But I could park the bike inside and he brought me to a hamam nearby. A hamam, I’d never heard of it before, but wow, what a great experience. An old man first cracked my spine and stretched some muscles, then scrubbed of a layer of skin and last but not least he soaped me in from head to toe. I felt reborn.
Afterward we went to a cafe to watch football, together with some of his friends. After the match the good atmosphere suddenly changed. I couldn’t stay at his place and had to stay at a friends place, who would charge 20 euros. I didn’t agree with this, since this is not what Couchsurfing stands for. Eventually I could stay there for free, but he was a bit pushy in leaving my bike at his place.
My bike is my everything and I always want to be able to take it and go without any problems, which was not the case here, so I insisted on taking it with me. “Ok, no problem”, he finally said and we drove to the friends house. We went outside the city and it took longer than he told me. And altough he might have been honest with me, my trust in the situation was gone. I told him I am going to look for a hostel tonight. Half an hour later I arrived at a hostel in the medina of Fez.
In the hostel I came in touch with some other travellers and it was very pleasant. After being alone all the time, it was a relieve to have some good old fancy chat about all kind of things.
I wandered around in the city for some time and I worked on my laptop. In total I spent three nights at this hostel. And from here on, I will start cycling trough the three Atlas Ranges more in the South.
Morocco did really surprise me in a good way. I have to get used to their habits and their strange behavior, but I believe without a doubt that the people here are super hospitable. They treated me like family.