Tangier, Morocco - Polarsteps

Morocco, Day 1: We wake up early in our bare-bones pensión in Algeciras, where someone was playing Spanish guitar down the hall last night. We pack up and collect our bikes from the courtyard; the owner is bleary-eyed and there to unlock the door for us-- he constitutes the entirety of the place's 24-hour reception, and as we're packing up I see him folding the blanket on a little day-bed around the corner in the lobby, where he definitely slept last night. He speaks no English and has been very patient with my Spanish. We're on a narrow, winding street; it's still dark and men in long robes are funneling into the mosque next door. This city feels like our shifting-point into North Africa, before we've even crossed the water. In a moment of confusion at the ferry terminal, a man tries to hustle us by becoming our guide and it sort of works on me until Kini grits their teeth and says, "Sara, he's guiding us," and we tell him no thank you and shake him off. On the other side Kini has a bike thing to fix, so we linger in a seating area by the ferry dock. We didn't have time to get our Euros changed last night, and discover that the change place inside the terminal is closed for the weekend, as are the banks we look up down the road. We'd planned to head directly south instead of west into Tangier, but we can't leave the coast without dirhams in our pockets; they don't really take card payments here, and we're aiming for paid camping tonight. We adjust our whole route in five minutes and decide to head to Tangier, a plan we still keep when we find several open money-changing booths just after the border controls; we've lost some time to fixing the bike and the ferry being late, and there's a campground in the city that's a sure thing, whereas the situation to the south is a bit more questionable. We already got our passports stamped into Morocco on the ferrry and handed in our police forms, so when we get to a line of booths marked 'Vehicles with Moroccan registration,' 'Vehicles without Moroccan registration,' and 'Bus,' we make the wrong call and go to the 'Bus' booth. As we're approaching it, a man tries to run the border and police chase him down. No one is at the 'Bus' booth, and no one seems concerned about us, so we bike, and then several border guards are in our rear-view mirrors, clapping and shouting for us to come back. They scold us for accidentally trying to run the border, and sternly question us about what's in our bags. A drone? No (true). Fruits and vegetables? No (a lie; I'm smuggling limes and carrots from a Spanish grocery store). When we get tired from cycling, where will we sleep? Campgrounds and auberges, strictly (like half-true, probably). They let us go, and we're off into, immediately, another world. People mill around at the sides of the roads and they greet us enthusiastically in French, Spanish, English and Arabic. Kids are especially excited and some of them ride their bikes next to us for a while. People in cars and on motorcycles say hello, herders with sheep and donkeys say hello, Berber women in long robes and big hats, harvesting plants next the the road say hello. The 45km of coastline is mountainous, and we're doing long, hard, sweaty climbs with sweeping views from the top-- down to the turquoise-blue sea on our right, glittering in the sun, and big valleys and more mountains to our left, with villages scattered across the mountainsides, each one nestled around a mosque with a rectangular minaret, the tallest thing in town. At one point we pull over to catch our breath and drink some water, and a motorcyclist stops next to us and mimes that Kini's lost a vest off their bike, and that someone else is bringing it from up the road. So we wait and a car stops in the road, and a smiling man hands it through his window. We've already caught that a hand on the heart is a common gesture here; we use it liberally, today and every day after. I'm worried about making it by sundown-- it's a climb-heavy 45km, winter sunlight hours, we started sometime around 1pm, and Kini's chain breaks on a hill along the way and needs repair. But in the late-day light we're coming into the city, and it's so good. There's a massive concrete strip running along the waterfront into town, lined with palm trees, and people are walking and biking, kids are playing soccer, families are out, and we weave easily along it. We see camels; in the middle of the city, a man is offering rides on them along the water. We get on the road, and then pull over to watch a wedding procession; a band of children are playing the music. We ride the busy road all the way to the turn-off to our campground. The drivers are perfect with us; they see us, they give us space, they aren't impatient. The whole day, the couple of times someone cuts it too close or speeds by us erratically, their license plates are European. (In the following days, this holds. Kini's been referring to the 'divine chaos' of Moroccan roads; there are few rules, but when you find the flow in the traffic, it works. Driving requires full engagement here-- even on the highway there are people, donkeys, stray dogs, slow motor-carts, and bicycles, so everyone behind the wheel has their eyes wide open; we can feel the difference from our home country where people can drive without mentally being on the road, and look right through the things in front of them. We feel safer on the roads here than we ever did in Ontario, and I haven't yet felt anything close to the stress of cycling into Truro, Nova Scotia, or into Halifax.) We walk our bikes up literally the steepest hill we've ever taken them on; if we'd stumbled we would have tumbled back down to the bottom. The campground guard is a sweet, bearded man; he explains that the campground proper is reserved for a party, but we can tent in the parking lot, which is already full of campers and vans. We're placed next to Cedric and Elisabeth, a young German couple who are also just starting their bike ride in Morocco; they did the same stretch from the ferry in Tanger Med today. Our camp spot looks out over the city, and there's a comfortable background murmur of traffic and dogs; after we cook and eat our noodles in the dark, it's a sound we fall asleep to easily. The next morning, and every morning that follows, we wake up to the imams doing the call to prayer over loudspeakers-- in a city, it starts at one mosque and then spreads to the others and for a few minutes it's everywhere in stereo sound, across the whole landscape. On day 2 we stay in Tangier and walk out into the old medina. We have mint tea and lunch on a street corner. We walk into a shop and buy bright-red garam masala, curry powder, cumin, royal tea, and donkey milk soap. The shopkeeper speaks excellent English and wants to chat a bit about covid; he appreciates us wearing masks into his store and knows people are still getting sick, but he also wants to know what we've heard about vaccines-- he got his shot but now people are saying all these alarming things about it, and he's feeling unsure. Reminders that this has been a global experience; there's no place we'll go that won't be in a state of post-pandemic, whatever varying things that means for them. We walk around the old walls of the kasbah, the tunnel-like winding streets of the medina, and through a packed market where we buy vegetables from elderly women, several kinds of olives from giant vats, a big, round loaf of fresh bread, eggs, and fresh, crumbly, unaged white cheese. We walk one of the main streets, where Kini has memories of being intensely overwhelmed and set-upon by vendor after vendor when they visited a decade ago, and they'd warned me about how it might be, but we're fine; we're two people, and no one persists past one "Laa shukran," an Arabic "No, thank you." I get what I think was probably a marriage proposal (the first and not the last); looking over the old walls, a man sidles up and says hello, and we don't have a common language but we get as far as communicating that we're all doing well and we're loving the city. We go to say goodbye and he gives Kini a firm handshake, then shakes my hand but holds on and asks something while moving it up to his lips, and I tell him "Laa shukran," but he plants a light kiss on it, then very earnestly asks me something; Kini helps me extract myself and we say goodbye and go. We spend the evening with Elisabeth and Cedric and share our dinners together. They're lovely, and we'll hopefully meet again down the road; they're essentially doing our loop of Morocco in reverse. We have good chats in the morning with some of the van families in the campground, and feel the shift from the Spanish and Portuguese campgrounds-- full of wealthy vacationers who often starerd but sometimes wouldn't even return a hello-- to other people who are on their own adventures, taking their kids out of school for a while to travel around and see some of the world, and who relate more to what we're up to. -Sara
  1. derailed
  2. 🚲 Bike Jaunt 🚲
  3. Tangier