I’ve been in Morocco for seven weeks now. Or better yet, surprisingly only seven weeks, because it feels like I’ve been on African soil for countless months now.
A lot of exciting things have happened in the last few weeks. Or even more precise – in total probably more than in the whole 11 months I was in Europe.
But now one after another.
On the 14th of November – a sunny morning – I arrived in Melilla by ferry, the Spanish enclave in northern Morocco. I hesitated to cross the border for a little longer, trying to tune into this new continent with a cup of tea. But I didn’t really succeed. I was simply too nervous and had a lot of respect for what was ahead of me.
But in the afternoon, I finally pushed my bike through hundreds of traders and commuters and got a new stamp in my passport. I was allowed to stay 90 days, the border official wished me a happy “Bon Voyage”.
As always at border crossings, I began studying the people very closely. What kind of clothes do they wear? How do they behave. Do they smile or are they of a serious nature? Are there women on the street? Gathering, taking stock of first impressions.
On the first day in a new country I always try to find a safe place for the night. In Muslim countries I usually do this for a few days in a row. I want to be able to estimate what may await me before I take any risk such as camping somewhere where it might end up being dangerous. I also stayed on the main road, disliking the traffic all the while.
Shortly before nightfall and in pouring rain I reached the next fairly big town. Normally I try to arrive in areas where I still feel insecure in daylight to have enough time to find something suitable for the night. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out.
In a bakery I asked where I could find accommodation. From there a gentleman accompanied me on foot for quite a while to the only hotel there was. But that was supposedly fully booked.
On the way to the police station, because that was my first thought, I met a well-dressed man who, as it turned out, worked for the police. He made numerous phone calls and shortly afterwards three more men surrounded me and tried to find a solution for me for the night.
My passport was copied in a copy shop and a lady was found with whom I could stay the night. But then Abdi suddenly stood next to me, inviting me to his home in fluent German. Abdi lived in Germany for decades. The police also copied his identity card and he had to leave his telephone number with them.
I found it all a bit strange and was puzzled about the intensity of regulation – but at that time I didn’t know what else was coming my way.
Abdi and his family’s care for me, was nothing short of heartwarming – even offering their own bed. Surprisingly, the next morning the police called him and asked if everything was okay with me.
I rode south on smaller roads. The landscape became increasingly impressive. Barren and hilly. The people were all super friendly and greeted me warmly. When I had a short break, a car drove up, a guy in jogging pants jumped out and asked where I was from and where I was going. He claimed to be a policeman.
Repeatedly as I rode on I was approached in Spanish and invited for tea, happy for these numerous, friendly encounters.
Up here in the Rif mountains, Spanish is spoken as a second language instead of French. Many Moroccans work or have families in Spain.
Of course, there are a lot of Moroccans who don’t speak any foreign language and then everything is about sign language, because I don’t speak Berber or Arabic. But body and sign language often work surprisingly well. Especially since people have plenty of time and try hard because they want to understand you.
There were no hotels along my route so I knocked at a gate in the evening to find shelter for the night, because I didn’t want to camp alone. A Berber woman with tattoos on her face opened the door for me and welcomed me warmly.
I was allowed to stay overnight inside the house. I was fed delicious food and found out in the course of the evening that other cyclists had already spent the night there about a month before.
What a coincidence. It’s funny that we asked for shelter at the same house. The lady even said: “If you know any more cyclists, send them to us. Everyone is welcome”. We said goodbye with a warm hug.
In the course of the day I noticed an old Mercedes following me. It kept its distance from me, but it was obvious, I was being followed. Annoyed with this intrusion I provoked the whole thing, after rounding curves I would sit down at the edge of the road and wait.
Each time the Mercedes caught up it stopped suddenly its two occupants would pretend there was some sort of problem with the car. Once when I surprised them in this way, they even tried reversing down the road to hide behind a wall.
It was so ridiculous and unbelievable thinking they imagined I was so stupid not to know what they were up to.
Later on another car stopped right next to me. “Your passport please”. Whereupon I said: “What is all this about? There are already policemen behind me, aren’t there? Maybe you could explain all this to me, it’s getting on my nerves. I don’t need babysitters.”
“For your own safety” was the answer. “What are you talking about? I have only met extremely friendly people here; do you really want to tell me Morocco is dangerous?
“No Morocco is very safe” he said. “Oh, if it’s safe, why am I followed and asked for my passport on the open road?”
“For your safety”.
“Well, if that’s the only reason, then I wish you a nice day. And please don’t follow me any further. This is a free country.”
“Stop, your passport. “No, I already had my ID copied by the police in Driouch. You all know me now and know who I am, so please leave me alone.” And I rode on.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get rid of the Mercedes. And when it was evening, I rode zig-zag around a small village to shake them off and knocked on a blue painted door.
A radiant woman in her mid-20s opened the door for me and soon afterwards I was part of the family. It’s amazing how quickly you can get in touch with people here. How much they make you feel that you are important to them. That they like you, admire you, love you. There is so much warmth and joy in these houses. Simply overwhelming.
I was in the house about 30 minutes when the police showed up. The two guys who had been chasing me all day were standing outside the door. They wanted to look after me and find out how I was doing and see my passport.
All this was beginning to make me feel a little like a criminal. You are taken into a house and less than 30 minutes later the police are standing in front of the door and are asking for me. In Germany, that wouldn’t be particularly trust inspiring, but here it wasn’t a problem at all.
The family laughed, persuaded me to show the passport and the men drove off again.
The next day they called the family and inquired about me. But the family was not to tell me they had called under any circumstances.
My kindhearted hosts asked me to stay another night. It was raining and so I was happy to, I also felt very comfortable. My host’s sister who lived nearby, invited us to a couscous dinner. We women gossiped in the kitchen and the men sat in the next room.
They cook for hours. Especially with the pressure cooker. In the end, the vegetables are so soft that you could suck them through a straw. In spite of everything it is really very tasty.
Everyone eats together from the same plate. Tearing and folding your flat bread, you dip it in the sauce using it to grasp pieces of vegetables. The meat is always the last to be distributed, eaten in the same manner without the use of knives or forks.
Interestingly, the atmosphere is never hectic or greedy at the dinner table. No one appears to feel short changed, even among the siblings there’s no fighting. As a guest I get the biggest piece of meat. Although there is often only a quarter chicken for everyone. Here the hospitality is such that the best pieces are pushed my way whereupon I plead “no” or simply push them back to the middle of the platter with a smile.
Bread satiates and is cheap, therefore there is bread with every meal.
Usually when I’m invited during the day, there’s bread as well as tea. Self-pressed olive oil is served for bread dipping and is really absolutely delicious. They all bake their bread themselves. The olives are fresh from their own trees.
When, I visited the neighbors they welcomed me with homemade pastries and as if it was the most normal thing, I slipped under a warm blanket – in which the old mother of the house sat snuggled up in front of the TV.
Of course, there was sweet-as-pastries tea, like everywhere else. The old woman pressed me hard to say goodbye. We had not spoken a word to each other and yet we had taken each other to heart.
The tea is not only incredibly sweet, but also extremely strong. Green tea from China. It is boiled up umpteen times and causes tachycardia and sleepless nights for me. Surprisingly, even the children drink it at 11 at night.
Dinner takes place around 10 PM. Bedtime is often at midnight.
I reached the unimpressive city of Taza. The weather was still wet and cold and really no fun to be outside.
On the map I picked out a road along the Middle Atlas, which was marked as scenic and set off. I didn’t get far before another Mercedes was following me.
This time I immediately confronted the policeman. “I know you have the job of guarding me, but please introduce yourself to me so I know who’s with me. It’s just much friendlier than trying to hide from me. Please let the other policemen know as well”.
That worked out very well for a few days. Because the police escort continued. Most of the policemen were also very friendly. Some did not even know why they should accompany me.
A theory that I followed was that hashish is cultivated in many places in the Rif mountains and in earlier years some tourists had problems with the traders. However, I was already out of the Rif Mountains. So that didn’t make sense anymore. Another explanation was that Morocco can’t afford crimes against tourist, because Morocco benefits a lot from tourism.
Why I was escorted still remains a mystery to me, fact was anyhow that I did not get rid of the police.
I no-longer needed to knock on doors to find shelter, as every day or evening I was waved in, invited to stay with family after family.
The landscape was great. The people on the streets laughed and were friendly with me. It was wonderful.
Then I came into a valley from where the next day my route would lead up to the Tizi-bou-Zabel pass at 2400m.
The evening before one of the policemen wanted me to stay overnight at the police station, but I didn’t like him. He was too pushy and so I rode on. I decided to camp, not realizing this meant the two policemen making up my escort would have to spend a miserable night sleeping in their car not far from my tent.
Surprised to see them there in the morning, I expressed sympathy for them and felt a bit guilty.
The next day was hard. The climb was forever long and also cold and windy and the scenery wasn’t even so impressive. At the end of the day I landed at a police station at about 2000 m and was celebrated like a hero by the officers.
“German women are strong. Moroccan women fat,” they said to me, beaming with joy.
I dried my sweaty clothes on the stove and late in the evening I was given tajine the traditional Moroccan dish in a clay pot to eat. I lay down to sleep on the mattress in the next room and after breakfast rode on together with my police protection. It was crazy cold. The wind was brutal and the first snow residues appeared at the roadside.
Partly I had to push, so that the wind did not sweep me off the road. The policemen came sometimes closer and asked if I did not want to load my bike into the car. Of course, I didn’t want that. At one point I was able to warm myself up with tea and a tiny heater in another police station.
The fog became so thick, I thought I must be nearing the summit and finally I was on top of the pass at 2400m where the fog gave way to sunshine. At the summit there was once again a change of escort.
Considering that I want to travel in an environmentally friendly way, having a constantly rotating auto escort was becoming really annoying. My police protection was just getting to be too much, I couldn’t even have a pee by the roadside without an audience.
Along the way a shepherd invited me, my escort was nowhere to be seen and I actually thought I was free for a while but it wasn’t long before the phone of my host rang. Once again, they knew where I was. But as always, the family just made fun of the policemen not seeming to care about this intrusion.
Also, here the bed was offered to me and also here I got more food than I wanted to eat. I was asked to stay another night, which I appreciated.
In a big kettle they heat up water with firewood, sauna like and paradise on earth for me. Just great when you can warm up for a bit.
The houses are all cold. You can see your breath in front of you. In the evening the people all sit together and warm themselves at the fire.
Sometimes I sleep with the women and children in one room. Sometimes I am allowed to sleep alone. Often, they can’t believe that my sleeping bag is warm enough, because it looks super light and not very voluminous compared to their blankets.
This night, unasked, I was wrapped in several heavy blankets shortly before the lights were turned off. A short time later I put them aside, content with my bag. An old lady unfortunately went to the toilet at least three times in the night and turned on the light every time, discovering that I had “lost” my blankets she promptly covered me again with the super heavy layers.
What I unfortunately found negative in some invitations were the request for help.
Can you get us a visa for Europe? Can you marry my husband so that he gets a German passport and we can then go to Europe together? If you are back in Germany and your financial situation is better, can you send us money? Will you take me with you to Germany?
But I never had the impression that they only invited me to get something in return. No, the invitations were always warmhearted and sincere.
Many Moroccans want to go to Europe, believing it to be a paradise. I explain to them again and again that Europe is richer, but that it is also a continent where you have to work hard. In addition, a good education is needed and it is not enough to just drink tea all day long. People in Europe have no time. You can’t just say hello to your neighbor and then stay half a day and chat. Often you don’t even know your neighbor.
Money alone does not make you happy. You are strangers there and you will always be treated like foreigners.
But as always, such things are difficult to explain. As humans we are always looking for breaks in the fence, seeing the grass as greener on the far side and finding it hard to appreciate the familiar.
While I often miss the feelings of friendliness and togetherness in Europe and find it so often here and enjoy it so much, this is for Moroccans completely self-evident and not worth mentioning.
And on the other hand, for me, the wealth and the luxury that we have at home is of course very pleasant and I am fully aware of how much I benefit from it, but this luxury can only be obtained with numerous side effects, costs.
But of course, what makes us different is that I have the privilege of choice, where I want to go, but unfortunately, they don’t have that. And of course, they know that very well. Thus, my explanations are completely out of place here.
When you travel a lot, you start questioning a lot of things. But I can’t expect that from someone who only sees pictures on television. And for sure, I wouldn’t want to trade with them, because the freedom that my German passport gives me is absolutely priceless.
Staying with another family I met a man who spoke English amazingly well. Something I would not have expected here in these remote mountains.
He asked me the question what Germany would have become if Hitler had not existed. I found the question very interesting and we philosophized a little about it. We also talked about Trump, who is of course extremely unpopular here in Morocco. When we came to global warming, I was then directed to read the Koran. “There you will find an answer to everything”, he said.
“If you want to get rid of the police, then ride over there to the gravel road, it will take you to Missour. The road is very bad, they can’t get through with their Mercedes.”
So, I had my free time for a few hours. Along this rough road I was invited for tea several times, given lunch and accompanied part of the way from the village, so that I wouldn’t miss a junction along the road.
They are really incredibly nice and helpful people. Surely, they are also glad that someone interesting is a guest in their home. Because a woman alone with the bicycle, coming from Germany, isn’t an everyday happening here.
I was hardly back on the bitumen before the police were back breathing down my neck. To find a solution I communicated online with other male cyclists who had the same problems a few weeks before me.
Finally, in a bigger town, I went to the police station and spoke to the governor, who told me that they would not escort me from then on. He gave me his word and his phone number. If I had trouble, I could call him anytime.
I was now in the desert. The Middle Atlas was behind me. It was clearly warmer now at this lower elevation. Finally, the sun came out. During the day it was really cozy and warm.
Read about my beloved desert in my upcoming blog article. Stay tuned.