Souk El Arbaa, Morocco - Polarsteps
We're a short ride from Souk El Arbaa. Turning towards it, away from the coast, takes us immediately off the tourist circuit, which is also why the rest stop was one of few sleeping options for us the previous night. We come into town and it's a chaotic clash of market stalls and streets filled with people, vehicles and carts.
We stop to get a SIM card (we've been using eSIMs since we left Canada, but learned from other travellers that a physical card is many times cheaper in Morocco)-- with a little difficulty, I get it done in French. We have tea at a cafe for a while to settle into town, leaning our bikes on a planter next to our patio table.
We're on our way to Mrs Tamou's house. Rafael, a Spanish Warmshowers member who used to live in Larache, has compiled a list of contacts in the surrounding area who are happy to host touring cyclists; they live in humble houses in traditional neighbourhoods and tend to go over the top with hosting, so he's set a small price that guests are to offer, whether the hosts accept or refuse it. His other contacts have phone numbers, but Mrs Tamou doesn't-- he's just provided GPS coordinates to her house-- so we wrote to him a couple of days ago to check about just showing up, and he assured us that she's used to that.
Heading to her end of town we're intensely out of place and garnering a lot of attention, and when we turn into her neighbourhood a field of kids stop their soccer game to shout, "Who are you?"
We arrive at the edge of a dense maze of dwellings with walled gardens and tight alleyways, and instead of diving in to find the GPS pin, we just ask someone about finding Mrs Tamou and her husband Jameida; we're passed off to a couple of people and end up with a neighbour who knows Rafael and knows about the situation with the cyclists; his mother is close friends with Mrs Tamou. He speaks a bit of Spanish and I speak a bit less; we get through, and he leads us into the maze and through her gate.
She's a sweet, tiny grandmother, and she's happy to have us for the night; she leads us in and has us put the bikes in the room behind her kitchen. She heats up a huge kettle of water on the stove for us to bathe with, and shows us pictures on her phone of the handful of other cyclists who have stayed with her. She only speaks Arabic and a few words of Spanish, so we almost entirely get by with gestures, but she's able to tell us a bit about her family-- her six kids and her grandkids are dispersed in various places; her one son, whom we meet, has a developmental disability and lives at home in her care.
We have a really good, warm bucket-shower. She makes us tea and eggs with olive oil, spices, and bread. We spend some time on her rooftop patio, where laundry flaps all around us, we notice a rookery of fancy pigeons on a neighbouring rooftop, and while we're up there the call to prayer sounds at several mosques all around.
When it gets cooler we settle in the living room, which is spacious and lined all around the edge with comfy couches, likely enough to hold most of her family. We talk with her a bit, and she asks if we have boyfriends or husbands; I say yes, back in Canada, which is my new story when someone asks. Kini says no for themself, and Mrs Tamou responds positively, then lifts one of her breasts and imitates a baby rabidly suckling at it, then shakes her head. We later learn, too, that her connection to Rafael is that he was formerly married to her daughter-- and isn't anymore, but remains on close terms with the family; she's also holding complicated truths and non-traditional situations in her life.
She works on dinner and leaves us settled on the couch in a nest of blankets; her son eventually comes in and turns the TV on, first to the news, where they're showing Moroccan villages and roads buried in snow (oh no), and then to an Arabic soap opera. Mrs Tamou's husband comes home and greets us, then settles on the floor where Mrs Tamou and her son wrap blankets around him; he watches TV and eventually falls asleep there.
A massive storm comes in, confusing at first because we haven't seen a drop of rain here and every day has been blindingly bright. The thunder shakes the house and the rain is pounding on the roof and flowing in rivers into the little courtyard.
Dinner is at 11pm, long past our usual bedtime; she's made an incredible chicken-and-vegetable tagine and has baked fresh loaves of bread. This is an easing-out-of-vegetarianism that we both knew was eventually coming, and it's the easiest possible first eating-meat-made-by-a-host situation; the chicken has been slow-cooked in spices and she's done it exquisitely-- everything is delicious and we thank her effusively.
She sets up some long couches in a cozy back room for us. Before bed we offer her some money, a bit upward of Rafael's requested contribution-- she accepts it gratefully, and we're relieved that she does; we'd been hatching a plan to hide it under plates an in furniture if she didn't.
We sleep in quiet and darkness, safe this time not in floodlights and hired security around our tent, but tucked away softly in a back room in a neighbourhood.
🚲 Bike Jaunt 🚲
Souk El Arbaa