Rabat, Morocco - Polarsteps
Day 10 we're doing 40km to Rabat, the capital. Getting out of Kenitra is hectic; we'd only seen the old souk and mistakenly thought that's most of what there was, but the rest of town is a big, shiny, modern city with large blocks of tall buildings and upscale businesses, and it stretches for a long time.
We're about halfway to Rabat when Mohamed comes into our lives. A car pulls over in front of us and a smiling 32-year-old gets out. He hands us a large bottle of milk and we talk in French for a bit; he's also done a bit of bike touring in Morocco, and he's interested in what we're up to. We exchange numbers and he tells us to call if we need help with anything, and we all take off-- but then, further up the road, at a gas station with a restaurant and cafe, he's pulled over aain and waves us over and asks if we want something to eat-- and we have time and the vibe is good, so we stop. The counter outside the restaurant contains a display of, exclusively, giant legs of beef, so we decide to disclose that we're vegetarian this time and suggest that we could just have coffee instead. We park ourselves at a cafe table and he disappears inside, and instead of coffee what comes out are avocado smoothies and every vegetarian thing the cafe has-- crepes with soft cheese and honey, coffee cake, bread.
We stay for an hour or so; we eat and I translate the conversation for Kini. Mohamed is a geomatic engineer, and his family is Berber, from the mountain village of Ifrane; he fills us in a bit on the dynamic between the Berber and Arab populations of Morocco. He has relatives in Canada, something we're learning is not uncommon here; he's considered going there himself, but his family is everything for him. He commutes to Rabat every day so that he can keep living in Kenitra with his parents, in the house that he bought and renovated for them.
We head into the national capital, joining the intensifying traffic, riding through the old city walls of Salé, then absolutely miss the bike-and-motorbike bridge over the river and end up on the car-and-truck bridge instead. We do okay, and make it to the edge of the old medina, then walk in. Our hostel is up a tiled staircase in the middle of everything; we take it in tandem running our saddlebags up the stairs, then the bikes.
The medina is so good; we wander it into the evening, when it's well-lit and bustling. It goes on and on, with alleys of shops snaking in every direction, selling everything from shoes to soccer jerseys to jewelry to pastries, juice, leatherwork, art, spices, incense, fruit, fish and vegetables. There's an olive stand that we visit three more times while we're there, with an array of varieties covered in different spices, sauces, chili peppers and citrus peels. Somewhere tucked in near our hostel is a mosque; the call to prayer is loud in the morning.
We spend a full day wandering the city-- it's big and modern outside the medina, with streetcars and upscale cafes and embassies. We walk to Hassan Tower, the 12th-century minaret of an incomplete mosque, and at the other end of the same square, the mausoleum of Mohammed V, guarded by dressed-up guards on horseback. We do a long walk to Chellah, an ancient trade site that became a walled necropolis in the 13th century, then turn back to hit the old kasbah, overlooking the ocean, at the end of the day.
We'd gotten a message from Mohamed first thing in the morning asking how we were doing, and in our flow of getting out the door, we'd left his message on 'read' for the day. I write back in the evening, saying we've had a full day in Rabat and are getting ready to move on tomorrow. He's a little despairing in his response; he had some of the day free and could have shown us around, and he's told his family about us and they're pressuring him to get us back to Kenitra to stay with them.
We leave that for a bit and ultimately decide to give Rabat another day; there's a big contemporary art gallery we wanted to visit that's only closed on Tuesdays, the one day we'd planned in town, and it's feeling rush-y to leave the city so quickly.
We write back to Mohamed and invite him to the gallery with us, and instead he invites us to dinner with his family back in Kenitra; he can pick us up on his way home from work and drop us back at our hostel.
We decide to say yes to the evening with a family, and we've read the vibe with Mohamed as nothing but completely earnest; still, we pack a getting-in-the-car-of-a-man-we-just-met bag, with our little arsenal of bike trip weapons (mostly hot sauce in squirt bottles, a fishing knife, Kini's dog-whapping stick) and our tent and a blanket-- we already know where the campground is in Kenitra, and if things go really sideways we can get there and spend the night.
No one gets hot-sauced in the eyes. On our way to meet Mohamed he forwards a voice message from his mom, excitedly practicing saying, "You are very welcome in my house" in English. On the drive to Kenitra, he's lined up a series of YouTube videos to take us on a musical journey through the regions of Morocco. He's very concerned with making sure we leave with good things to say about our travels here; he loves his country and is acutely aware of some of the ways it's perceived in the outside world. Something that we can sometimes feel underpinning the incredible hospitality culture here is the strong desire to counteract those negative outside perceptions, like we're an opportunity for people to work on repairing that image (an image that, two weeks into comfortably travelling in this country, we're definitely not holding of Morocco).
We're greeted by Mohamed's mother, his sister Sarah (I share a name with a lots of Moroccan women, and it's a point of surprise and delight to people. I pronounce it not-the-anglophone way while we're here), his brother, his brother's wife, and their 3-year-old daughter, who's energetic and excitedly waving a phone around-- we're the people from the photos she saw the other day.
We have a warm, unforgettable evening with this family. They're insistent on giving us everything, and we're hard-pressed to give anything back (we got them a little gift of dates, figs, and olives at the market and can just barely get them to accept them; we later try to offer gas money-- emphatically rejected-- and to get their mailing address so we can send some post from down the road, but they won't give it to us for fear that we'll send gifts).
We have tea, play teddy bears with the 3-year-old niece, and eat the dinnertime-for-us meal of an array of breads, crepes, and buns with fresh olive oil, different spreads, dried fruit and nuts. At some point during this, Mohamed's mom decides she wants to do something special for us-- because dinner isn't enough-- and calls around and finds a friend who can come to the house and do henna this evening. The friend comes in smiling and giving kisses, and we go through the process-- mixing the henna paste with hot water and lemon, the slow decorating of both sides of our hands and then letting the paste dry, then wrapping our hands in paper towels and bags to set the colour. At this point Mohamed's mom also wraps fuzzy blankets around us on the couch, and they also skype in an uncle in New Jersey (he asks Kini in English how they are and from their blanket cocoon they answer, "Good! I've got bags on my hands!")
Mohamed's eager to show us his world, and he plays us some videos from Ifrane, his hometown in the mountains-- it's small enough that the people interviewed in documentaries about it are his relatives. We see photos from his sister's wedding, the usual context for the henna.
We eat dinner sometime after midnight, a big communal dish of noodles with a spiced walnut topping, raisins, and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. We're given a cozy side-room to sleep in with a pile of warm blankets, but on our way to bed Mohamed's mom gets excited about showing us blankets she's woven from sheep's wool, as well as the wool-carding process; she promises if we come back she'll show us how to use her loom. She shows us a cushion cover she wove, and then on the spot decides she wants to give it to us as a gift. Mohamed is translating her Arabic to French, and I tell him it's beautiful but we can't possibly accept it; he can't imagine why, and I try to explain about the bikes and space and extra weight, but he shows me how it rolls up to an okay size and they both absolutely won't let us not take it. So we relent, and then his sister-in-law runs upstairs saying she wants to give us something too, and comes back with a second woven cushion cover, equally beautiful and hefty. We do add these to our loads; we'll send some mail home eventually, but it's going to be a while. Every mountain pass we complete in Morocco is going to be with the addition of these wooly cushion covers. I end up in a similar struggle a couple of weeks later, on the uphill into the High Atlas, when a man tries to give me a fist-sized rock that, broken in half, reveals a bright pink geode, and I assure him that it's very nice but I have mountains to climb and there's too much in my bags, and he tries to make an argument for how light it actually is; I draw the line at actual rocks, and stay firm and don't take it.
We don't get to bed until around 2am, and just sleep a few hours before getting up to leave; Mohamed's promised to drop us back at our hostel with enough time for us to get packed up and leave Rabat. When we get to his car, though, it has a flat, and it takes close to an hour for him to call around to some neighbours and assemble what he needs to fix it. On the way into town he asks if we're alright with him listening to a bit of the Qur'an, part of his routine on his morning drive, and the rhythmic chanting meshes with the hazy sunrise as we get close to the city.
We're really, really wiped and the hostel is cheap, so we book one more night and spend most of it in bed. Mohamed and his family check up on us almost every day after this, and we don't want them to feel badly about the visit setting us back a day, so for a couple of days we white-lie our way through updates on our whereabouts, before we're able to catch up to where we've said we are. This remains one of our really lovely Morocco friendships that technology is able to extend beyond the time we spend in the same place-- and as we continue through the country, this family remains part of the growing net of people caring for us here.
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