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The hospitality of rural Morocco continued to impress as I slowly cycled south. So much so, I began to wonder if I would need my tent(or my cooking pots, or my spice kit, or my campstove, or my sleeping mat, or any of the self-sufficient gear I schlepp everywhere) at all in this country – or would it be like this in all Islamic countries? Is this a Moroccan thing, or a Muslim thing? I was welcomed to the country numerous times with “American? Ah, then this is your country!”
I was invited to stay, and eat, with such frequency, that I fear I actually started expecting it. Of course I still did have the tent, and everything else, and I wasn’t walking into cafes thinking I was entitled to a free place to sleep, but I began factoring it into my day-to-day plans. I found I could cycle all the way past dusk, to full-on nightfall, as long as I ended up in a village with a cafe where I could meet some people. Accept an offered seat, maybe order a drink or share a smoke, start a conversation, and that was that. It so happened that I only camped once in my first seven days – and that night it was just because I wanted to be alone for once; when you’re a foreign guest in someone’s home, they don’t necessarily want any money(and certainly never asked for any) but they do want to socialize the whole time. Pretty good for the Arabic practice, but tough to find a moment alone, to take a journal entry, for instance. Usually one member of the family would even sleep in the guest room with me(the guest room seems to be a crucial room in every muslim home) – in case I needed anything during the night, I suppose.
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The food was wonderful – can’t get more authentic, really. Dinner was different tagine and cous-cous and hrera and lentils and fluffy whole-wheat bread(the rough-wheat bread for the men, the fine white for the women) with that sweet Moroccan tea; for breakfast it was usually a dry cornmeal bread or a flaky fried wheat bread, with olive or argon oil, fresh-churned farm butter, and milked-down coffee with plenty of sugar. It was delicious – but it was a little weird that I rarely ever saw the women that cooked it. The meals were always just me, and the men; even the younger boys weren’t allowed to eat with us, though they could hang out beforehand. I saw daughters sometimes; they would bring the bucket for washing up. But the wives, the mothers – it was like they were being protected from me. It was a full three weeks before I had a conversation with a Moroccan female! Now that’s just messed up if you ask me – but I guess Allah works in mysterious ways.
Generally the people were poor, simple folk – and generally the homes were dank. Once I was staying in a crusty shack, next to some other shacks, all surrounding a central “courtyard” that’s best described as some sort of sty – not a pig sty, there are no pigs in Morocco, but it was ankle-deep in smelly mud. I remember sitting there, after a meal of fried tomatoes mixed with colorant synth�tique that the guy thought was saffron(couldn’t read), staring numbly at the stained wall, wondering, “Is this culture shock?” But I think that it was just a bit too dirty, even for me – right before the light turned off I saw a big rodent hole in the cobwebby corner next to my head, and I swear something was crawling in my beard before I forced myself to sleep….
No, perhaps unfortunately, not too many intellectuals offered to put me up for the night. But I did meet one poet who wrote in Spanish about how badly he wanted to emmigrate to Spain; a Marxist who whispered to me in French; a parcour fanatic who did flips in the street; a beekeeper who had never heard of Colony Collapse Disorder; a soldier whose nephew had three unmarried daughters to choose from(“You want to marry a Moroccan?”); a multi-lingual farmer with two humongous chunks of blonde hashish that made my eyes bulge out of their sockets; a rapper that I couldn’t understand but that could definitely flow(see sample below); and the one Moroccan roadie I ever saw, who was out training for a bike tour to Mecca. And I got to hold numerous adorable babies!
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The community connection in Morocco puts Europe and the States to shame – everyone is so welcoming, so open in comparison. This mix of trust and generosity should be more prevalent in the West. If you ask me, the hotel industry shouldn’t even exist – there is obviously already enough space for everyone, traveling or not.
And they like to live the slow life in Morocco, just like me. I was just like a duck in a puddle. I learned how to say “speed kills” in Arabic, SOR3A TAKTUL, which met with universal, instant comprehension – and approval – assuming I pronounced it properly(or showed my practice writings). “Little by little” is also a popular phrase. I certainly wasn’t motivated to hurry; and already I was planning on catching a train from Fes to Marrakech to meet my mom on time(major family compromise), so I think I made an average of 40 kilometers per day. Nice and easy, that’s right; but there were also some issues with my bike that helped delay me….

The roads are not in the best of shape down here. In addition to huge flooded sections, the erosion had left huge swaths of concrete sagging and cracked, and sharing the road with cars was always interesting when there are potholes covering three quarters of the driveable track. Coming down a hill once, I misjudged the color of one patch in the road, and too late I realized it was a wicked, sharp-edged pothole. I reacted in time to lift the front end over it, and even tried to use my momentum to bunny-hop the rear end a little bit(yeah right) but ended up slamming the rear wheel down directly into it at high speed. Yikes! I slowed down into diagnosing mode. Everything seemed okay – no weird noises, no super-chicanery; amazingly I hadn’t even pinch flatted. But then I tried the brake, and realized the rim was horribly, irreparably dented. Emergency? That depends on how many mountain descents I’ve got ahead of me…. Thankfully my mom hadn’t left Madison yet – I called her that afternoon so she could bring the spare rim I had in the basement, and continued with the rear brake disconnected.

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Then one night, as I was sleeping peacefully in a guestroom in Mokrisset, I was awoken by a huge BANG from my bike! “Yep that sounded like my tire… I’ll check it in the morning.” Next day at the cafe, before a very inquisitive audience of Moroccan fellas, I discovered the bead covering on one of my nice new(only 500 miles) Continental touring tires had frayed and failed – and there were two other spots about to fail. What the FUCK! These were supposed to be Conti’s best! And no, it wasn’t improper installation or brakepad wear. One of the guys took my inner tube to his tire shop and vulcanized a rugged patch over the huge hole(which worked – he brought it back still wet from the bucket-test), while I set to an emergency repair on the tire, involving a double layer of duct tape and my sewing kit. It bulged, but it held until the next town, where I actually found a bike shop, and the proprietor actually had 700c tires. I haggled a Continental Contact down to 40 dirham($6), and was about to install it myself, but he wouldn’t hear of it – he got right in there with all the gutter-mud and replaced it with his bare hands, no charge. I offered him a tire lever, but I swear, he didn’t know how to use it! He also gave me a free inner tube(“Kenda, the best from China” – said with a serious face), brought me home for lunch, and took me to meet his brother at his barber shop, where I figured it was time to get a real Arabic beard trim. He wanted me to stay longer, but I carried on – I’d never make it anywhere if I stayed as long as my new friends wanted me to!
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Not thirty kilometers later, my pedal casing slid off the spindle and clattered to the ground; platform, toe clip, and all. Greeeaaat…. I walked back to a roadside cafe, and, again in front of a very interested audience, dismantled the pedal to see if I could fix it. But the bearings were screwed. I pedalled to the next town – over not a few monster hills – on just the spindle. In town, some gentlemen with French helped me find a shop that sold bike parts, but it was closed. “Why don’t you stay with me for tonight, and tomorrow you can visit the shop?” Of course, thank you generous people of Morocco!


-Halid Azare Uila, El Haj, Morocco

I have no idea what it means, but it flows!

An assortment of travel shots from Northern Morocco:
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