The Big Trip #4

Week 7: Welcome to Morocco!

Route: Tangier – Chefchaouene – Ouezzane – Meknes

180 kilometers

We arrived in Tangier and spent a couple hours cycling in circles through the middle of the city, searching for an ATM that would take our debit cards. I quickly realized I would need to give Bob a few lessons in how to say “no” to the hustlers who would start their act by telling us, “Welcome to Morocco!” The con men wouldn’t listen to me when I said “no” because I was just the woman, and since Bob hadn’t really dealt with harassment before, he wasn’t saying “no” like he meant it. I gave him a lesson in being rude, ignoring people, not smiling, and being firm. That wouldn’t stop the harassment, of course, but it would help reduce it a bit.

In the city, young women wearing jeans and t-shirts walked arm-in-arm with women wearing robe-like dresses and scarves over their hair. Crowds of men lounged in cafes, drinking in mint tea and staring unabashedly at the women who passed by. After we got money and purchased some food, we rode out of the city and headed east along the coast.

It was warm, the sun was shining, and wildflowers were blooming in the green fields. The Berber women tending goats on the sides of the road looked at me with curiosity as we rode by, and as soon as I smiled at them or waved hello, I got huge smiles and enthusiastic waves in return.

The first night, the campground that was listed on our map was closed, so we spend the night in an unofficial hotel, and paid twice the going rate since we didn’t know how things worked yet. The next day, we were amazed at the enthusiastic response we got from nearly every car who passed us. Drivers would give us the thumbs-up sign or wave hello, sometimes leaning out of their vehicles so they could wave with their entire upper bodies. One man stopped his car in the middle of the road to chat with us. “Good holiday in Morocco! Very good holiday!” he said again and again.

We had been warned about the drug dealers, children and dogs in Morocco, and we started having problems once we got near Tetouan. Packs of children would chase us, begging for “Un stylo! Un cadeaux! Un bonbon!” Although they threatened us with rocks and sticks, nothing bad ever actually happened. The drug dealers were more a nuisance than anything. “You want some drugs? Hashish? Drugs?” they’d call out as we rode by.

Our second night we stayed at a campground in Martil, which was really a gravel lot that was being used as a graveyard for rusty construction equipment and walled off from the beach. We were exhausted from the day’s ride and tried to go out to dinner, but I didn’t feel comfortable eating in a cafe filled with men who stared at me relentlessly. I tried to hide behind my long skirt, long shirt, hat and sunglasses, but I still felt uncomfortable. We finally found a soup kitchen where a women inside was feeding her baby, and got something to eat there.

At four a.m., the roosters started crowing. Then the call to prayer was broadcast on loudspeakers, and the neighborhood dogs all joined in to wail along with the singing. I tried not to laugh out of respect for the culture. Bob tried not to laugh because he was tired and angry. We both ended up laughing because the combined noise was just so awful.

The route to Chefchaouene was hilly, but green and beautiful. The campground was set on a steep hill above town, and I felt like an actor in a bad “Just say no” movie from my middle school days. Men would stand in the trees, half hidden by the shadows and call out, “Pssssssst! Pssssssssssst! You want drugs? Is good, no?” We’d always reply, “no.” The town was small, the walls and buildings painted pale shades of blue and white. Tiny kittens crawled on
mounds of vegetables in the souks. We bought mint and made Moroccan tea every night.

The ride to Ouezzane was the hardest we’d done yet. The threats from the children got worse. When we needed to stop to eat food, we had about five minutes of rest before packs of children would materialize from the empty countryside and surround us. I felt like eyes were always on me, because even though I couldn’t see anyone in the bushes on the side of the road, I’d know someone was there watching because the bleat of a goat or a donkey’s bray would give them away.

We rode past women carrying impossibly large loads of sticks or grass while men rested in the shade. I nodded at the men, and smiled and waved at all the women and girls that we passed.

In the towns we rode through, the men stared at us with open hostility. One man laughed and mocked the way I screamed “no” at his dogs, trying to prevent them from attacking me.

In Ouezzane, I stayed with the bikes while Bob went to find a hotel. I was quickly surrounded by men and children. A man who was selling goods nearby would come over and angrily chase away the group when it got too large. I tried to catch his eye to smile and nod a thank you, but out of respect he wouldn’t look at me. It was the first time someone had done something kind for me here without wanting a single thing, not even a thank you, in return.

We were exhausted from the constant ups and downs we dealt with every day while riding our bikes. We were learning the hard way not to trust anyone, to ask about prices in advance and always count our change carefully. We decided to take a bus the rest of the way to Meknes, and to spend a few days being tourists in the city.

Week 8: Getting lost in the Medinas

Route: Meknes – Fes – Marrakesh – Ouarzazate

233 kilometers

We spent a week wandering in the Medinas, the old sections, and the market souks in Meknes, Fes and Marrakesh. With no signs, street names or maps easily available, we gave up on trying to see the “sights” and simply wandered around, looking at everything. At the Meknes campground, we met up with an older Spanish couple we saw at the campground in Chefchaouene, and spent a few days admiring their VW van and getting information from them about Morocco.

Our stay in Marrakesh didn’t start out very well. We arrived in the train station late at night after an long day of travel, and a group of men tried to charge us a large “special fee” for our bicycles, even though they were stored in our train compartment. They had no official identification, so we weren’t about to give them money.

At one point, one of the men tried to grab my bike from me. I’m only 5′ 7″, and I’m not very imposing, but I am pretty strong. The man wasn’t expecting me to jerk my bike back, and he definitely wasn’t expecting me to peel his fingers off my handlebars. I won that battle, but the station was closing, and since the three Moroccan men outnumbered Bob and I, we ended up paying the “special fee.”

We were tired of being taken advantage of because we were foreigners, but the time we spent in Marrakesh made up for the bad things we had been experiencing. We spent a few days exploring Marrakesh, and decided this was definitely our favorite city in Morocco. The main square, the Djemaa el Fna, was an exciting place at night, filled with story tellers, teachers, performers, musicians, and smoking grills.

At the end of the week, we took a bus over the pass in the High Atlas mountains, and started riding again from Ourzazate.

Next up: Cycling the Route des Kasbahs.

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