Regatear. To haggle. One of the big words I learned in Sevilla. “Desde el ferry, Charlie, start haggling even at the ferry to Ceuta,” advised my friend Alberto.
I’ve never been good at haggling – in Mexico I figured even if I was getting ripped off, it was still cheap, so I never worked up the guts to talk anyone down. But now, with a long stretch of Africa ahead of me, and a much more highly developed thriftiness than ever before, I figured it was time to learn.
At the docks in Algeceiras, I wanted to get an idea of how much a ticket cost, mas o menos, to be better prepared to haggle. A couple of gate guards, instead of just telling me a ballpark price, tried to sell me tickets…. a passerby inside the fence spoke only Turkish…. and then a happy-looking old German guy with some Spanglish was happy to help. He said the ticket was around 30 euros, and offered to show me where to go, saying, “I haf nothing better to do.” He ushered me through the various buildings, past all the duplicate ticket booths (all selling tickets for the same boat anyway), and opened all the doors for me and my bike. He was effusively nice, though he really didn’t have any useful or reliable information. I did all the haggling: “Do you have any special rates for ciclistas mondiales?” I was enthusastic about it and tried everywhere to offer a lower price, but all I could get were a couple offers of 24 instead of the standard 25, and the bike never pays. I chose one and chatted with my German pal. He said he used to be a sailor, and that I would like Egypt. I flashed my Wisconsin ID and paid my euros, and was given a ticket. He escorted me to the line of cars waiting to board as my mind wrestled with what I was about to do. A motor vehicle – cue the horror-flick soundtrack. I had a schedule this time, no time to search for a wind-powered sailboat; and the travel insurance I need for the Algerian visa application contains a clause stipulating that “nothing is covered” unless I have a ticket on a “common carrier.” Yes, I had my reasons, but it nevertheless felt sickly and wrong to be queueing with cars to get on a huge gas-guzzling ferry boat…. And then, I was knocked back in surprise – my German pal asked, “Now do you haf ein Euro for me please?” I had expected something like this after entering Morocco, but I wasn’t even in Morocco yet, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it to come from a white-haired German guy! But I guess this was it, the infamous Moroccan hustle…. Something must be in the air down there, floating across the Straits even here to Spain. In my shock, I gave him the one euro I had saved at the terminal. And as I boarded the ship, with a creepy foreboding starting to tincture the exhilerating uncertainty of this adventure, I wondered: would I be able to trust anyone at all in Morocco?
The Rock of Gibraltar came and went, and in short order the blasting twin engines of the Euro Fast Ferry brought me across the straits. I had hoped to be a bit more sentimental as I left Europe – I wanted to think about the people, the changes, the perspective – but I spent that fourty minute ferry ride wondering how I would get food to eat, whether I could drink the tap water, and where I would sleep.
The town of Ceuta(a little remnant of Spanish colonialism – once Spain gets Gibraltar back from the British, Morocco can have it back) was calm. There were the same Spanish street signs that I had become accustomed to, and things were still written in Castellano, but it felt a little different somehow; the sound of Arabic in the streets started my heart beating faster. Vaguely I wondered: wasn’t there something I needed to do before crossing into Morocco for good? I wanted an Arabic dictionary, but that was way too much project to even consider trying right now… and oh yeah, a decent map was also on my list… but no. After half-heartedly asking for a libreria, and finding only a closed-for-siesta news stand, I realized I was really still in Europe, and that this was not the experience my soul was reaching for today. I turned back toward the Marruecos sign, one hundred percent ready – at least inwardly, on the pilgrimage side of this adventure – for the real Africa.
At about four p.m. or so I was in the border zone. Traffic was jammed for at least a kilometer, and there were crowds of Moroccan people standing against worn-down crumbling stone walls and rocks as I pedalled past. Some were walking toward the border checkpoint with their loads, but most just seemed to be waiting, with bags and bags, and bags, and shopping carts full of bags, and cartloads and huge parcels of… what? Diapers? Blankets? Cases of beverages? Doubtless some sort of cheap Spanish merchandise to be re-sold on the other side… Up to a point it seemed like total chaos, with little pedestrian walkways through broken walls around the traffic gauntlets, but then I came upon the quintessential roofed-over border checkpoint. Just like any other border… except there were people everywhere, among the idling cars, yelling back and forth on the sidelines, and none of them was wearing a uniform. A man in a navy suit yelling Arabic into a walkie-talkie took a moment to request my passport, then direct me to what was apparently an office, in a derelict string of holes-in-the-wall off to one side. He also got across that I should leave my bike where it was… had to be done, so I jogged over there. A Moroccan fellow behind a fenced-over window, also not in uniform, handed me a French form to complete. I filled it out on the rough wood of an unused donkey cart, with one eye on my rig, and noticed a skinny little tramp of a kitty-cat shading himself under the cart. I took the time to offer him some cat treats from my personal stash, but then I realized someone had already fed him a whole fish. So the strays are taken care of — Meow-velous!
I handed in the form for a stamp, but the guy directed me to the neighboring hole-in-the-wall office. Subconsciously denying the chance that there might be some sort of problem, I said “Bonjour” and began waiting happily, one eye on the bike and one eye on the cat. A good-natured man in plain clothes offered me a piece of chocolate as he was finishing his conversation, but he wouldn’t put it in my dirty bike glove, and I didn’t want to bother washing my hands, so he just popped it into my mouth for me. A little more intimate than I expected to be with my border-check official, but hey… the chocolate was minty.
We chatted in French; I was honest. Turns out he was the one who fed the fish to the cat – good sign. He called over another not-so-official-looking official to confer, who just said “Americain? Bienvenue en Maroc!” and left again. I got the stamp for free, which I think is worth three months in-country, and also a bottle of water, a hand-drawn map, and, after some joking about how long it would take me to get there, some (never-going-to-be-used) hotel recommendations in Tetuan.
Down the gauntlet a bit, another Moroccan official – this time in uniform – asked me if I had any armas – “Pistolas, bombas? Uhh, no… A bit farther, another cop checked my stamp… then I pushed through a sturdy looking gate, and I was on the other side.
A plaza of broken concrete and gravel dirt between the sea and the cliff. A mound of dying grass in the center, boasting an enormous crimson flag, tattered by the wind. And, of course, crowds of people. People everywhere, women in hijab scarves, dirty guys directing shady looks and sharp whistles my way, everyone taking notice of the foreigner on the bike. I considered trying a “Welcome to Morocco” self-timed photo, but no – too sketchy.
A broad boulevard began shortly and it was just me and the traffic – and not a few other bikes. Ah, finally, a country where people ride bikes not because it’s trendy or good sport, but because it’s reliable, affordable, and way faster than walking. Probably plenty of work for a mechanic around here….
The border crossing had been a big step, but I wanted to finish this momentous day with a glass of this Moroccan tea I’d been hearing about. At a tourist stop in Fnideq, just a few kilometers down the road, I asked for water – something everyone seems very happy to give – but I was sketched out about my bike so I didn’t stay for a tea.
I passed a foresty looking park area and had a snoop for a campsite, but there were too many guys hanging around. I talked with a pair of fellas, saw them sniffing the “Moroccan cocaine” (green snuff tobacco) from the back of their thumbs, and learned how to say “thank you” in Arabic.
I wasn’t planning on making it to Tetuan, but nevertheless I found myself in the outskirts at sundown. I passed a grand boardwalk packed with Moroccan women and children, dressed up and pushing strollers, even a group of little girls all on bikes, enjoying the perfect weather and Saturday sunset. Not a single man. I continued around, on a side road I hoped would lead to a more wild area for camping, but it just went uphill into more village suburb. I started to realize the 65 km estimate was pretty high, and I was pretty much already in Tetuan. Places to camp were limited to a sprawling construction site, and twilight had set in – time to take some action.
But before I started navigating the mudpuddles to a flat spot to camp, without asking, in the outskirts of a drug city, on my first day in the country – I was going to drink a damn tea! I pulled around and went back to a cafe I had just passed.
And that’s where I found the Moroccan men. Football Saturday, and all the fellas were crowded into the cafe(their bar-equivalent) drinking tea and coffee, smoking joints and sipsi pipes, and playing an old Spanish version of parcheezee… completely separated from the women and kids down on the boardwalk.
I threw a greeting glance at all the faces turning to look at me, and drew up to the bar. There was a nod from a young fella over his three-piece carved wooden pipe, a smile from a guy rolling a spliff, and a bartender with a happy “un poco” de espanol. I gave ’em slow Spanish and explained that I’d heard about Moroccan tea, that this was my first day here, and that I’d like to try it. “Very sweet?” they asked; “Muy dulce, si!“
The conversation went fast – “You want to smoke?” “I only speak enough Spanish to sell hashish to the Spaniards that come.” And I found myself asking if there was a place to camp around here. Hotel? No, never hotel. Afuera, dormir afuera? Sleep outside? The tea was served with pride – Salud! – Sweet, tall, and full of fresh powerful mint, and sweet! so sweet… As I cradled the hot glass gratefully, the guy rolling the joint gave up describing the huge mountain park around the corner, Cabo Negro, and instead told me his family has a big house, and I can sleep there. !
I wouldn’t say I was surprised – Muslim hospitality is legendary – but I was a bit overcome for a moment. The legends were true!
I accepted his offer after an appropriate length of stunned hesitation, but just to be sure I reiterated that I didn’t have any money to pay him. “No, no, no dinero, todo tranquilo, amigo, tranquilo.” My new friend’s name was Bilal. Excelente!
It was extremely obvious how worried I was about my bike sitting outside(I had parked it within view of the bar, and he told me not to worry, but every two seconds I was checking on it) so after a couple joints, we walked it to his house to stash it. I was introduced to his older brother, who spoke very good Castellano. Right away I could tell he thought I was just some Spanish gidi his little brother had picked up, here to score hash and abuse their hospitality, but I played it cool and explained myself, and soon he was just as excited to have me as a guest as Bilal was.
We had planned to go back to the cafe(and the soccer game) right away, but after some discussion in Arabic they had me sit down for tea, in a gorgeously appointed sitting room with bright patterned sofa seats all around. I caught a glimpse of their mother through the kitchen door, and before long they put a big tagine down in front of me, a classic Moroccan conical pottery thing filled with a delectable mix of potatoes, veggies, spices, and fish, and served with bread. Just bread… no plate, no fork… just bread. Nobody bothered to explain how to eat it, so I just copied Bilal, mashing up the food with a chunk of bread and scooping it into my mouth – with my right hand. Already knew that custom.
The food was amazing and very welcomed in my stomach. Then Bilal asked if I wanted to shower. Nice! I sure do! He showed me the “shower,” which was a depressed drain area in the floor of the bathroom with a stool, a bucket, and a faucet for hot water. And I got the sense that this was pretty high class, somehow… no need to boil water in a kettle, I guess. Again, he didn’t explain anything to me, but I figured it out. Taking a shit was a bit more complicated; there was of course no toilet paper, just another little bucket. I had used a bidet before, but squatting there on the floor, it was a bit tricky to keep the water from leaking down my legs and dripping onto my pant cuffs. But I managed. With my left hand.
Now cleaned and changed out of my filthy bike-touring rags, with the bike safe at home, we returned to the football match. A kid named Muhammed Ali – the one who nodded at me earlier – had brought me a delicious cake thing from his house to enjoy with my coffee, and we all settled in to get to know each other. The soccer – Spanish league – took on a peripheral priority, because once I asked how to properly pronounce “salam o-aleikum,” it began: the language lessons were ON. No standard Arabic dictionary of course, and I knew the Moroccan dialect was its own thing, and probably only partially useful in, say, Algeria or Libya, but it just progressed naturally. I would, after all, be spending a decent amount of time here, and my new buddies were really excited about teaching me. My photocopied map quickly became filled with practice notes, on both sides. I learned how to write “thank you” and “peace,” and they wrote a dubious example of the alphabet for me, but it was confusing enough without trying to learn the script. Since the alphabets are completely different between Arabic and any Latin-based language, they learn a sort of intermediary language for phoenetic utility – and in school, I think this bridge-writing is based on French pronunciation… but we’re learning here in Spanish… and I can’t help but think in English… so yeah – confusing. It really hit home for me when I was watching Bilal try to find Tetuan on the map, which doesn’t have much written in Arabic. I remember with the embellished clarity of hashish smoke; his pen hovering over every Romanized letter, his mind pronouncing each syllable deliberately, the cogs turning until the sounds formed Arabic words in his head. And I don’t think a lot of people look at maps very often, either(knowing I was looking for a good map of Morocco, his brother offered me a huge atlas of “nearly the whole world, I think!” which turned out to be just Spain). It was humbling yet exciting – learning the language, while actually traveling in the country – it just amplifies the color of the whole experience. It doesn’t matter if I’ll have to unlearn everything in Algeria; it doesn’t matter if I’ll never use the language again, it doesn’t matter if I forget – while I’m here, on the ground, with the people, language practice is truly a key that opens doors.
I went to bed that night, on a comfy sofa in the guest room, feeling a long way from where I had woke up that morning, alone in a muddy field of Spanish wildflowers. And I had found people I could trust, much more easily than I could’ve hoped – faith in humanity, confirmed once again!
And I was in Morocco now, for real – AFRICA HAS BEGUN!