Touama, Morocco - Polarsteps
We left Marrakech the same way we came in, with a campground stopover on the edge of town, with the camper van tourists. There's a bike trip archetype that we've met over and over, usually in a transitional moment where we're about to start something new, called Man Who Has Reasons Why We Can't Do It (on our first bike trip, he periodically showed up to inform us that Mexico Is Really Far, There Are Hills In California, and The Desert Is Hot And You Would Need Lots Of Water. Across Canada, he let us know that There Are Mountains, The Prairies Are Windy, and Ontario Is Big, all sudden and shocking pieces of news presented in such a way as to deter us from trying to go forward. He is never, ever someone who has travelled by bike himself). He showed up, appropriately, just before we started climbing into the High Atlas, a sixty-something French man touring in a motorhome, who needed to let us know that The Road Goes Up, and that It Can Rain, and that both of these were reasons why we probably didn't want to do what we were about to do.
The day we left the campground and properly left Marrakech, the cycling was deeply enjoyable; we took quiet roads with big, new, paved shoulders through small villages-- back to people smiling and waving hello-- and in the deserty landscape we started hitting the lower mountains, dotted with little mud buildings the same colour as the earth.
Nearing one town there were a lot of kids on bikes on the road, and they made it a game to chase us, pass us, and then slow down so that we had to leap-frog them before doing it again. In the middle of town I had a kid-on-a-bike-induced fall off my bike; without getting into the details of what was a pretty scary moment, the important bits are that 1. The kid was unharmed, 2. I was unharmed, 3. No bicycles were damaged, and 4. Immediately, I was surrounded by about twelve people ready to help with absolutely anything-- somehow, instantly, there was a pickup truck that would have been set to haul us and our bikes to the hospital, water was offered, I pushed my bike onto the sidewalk with a several-person escort around me, someone who'd seen everything took the kid aside and gently but firmly taught him where he'd been reckless, and no one would leave until they knew we had everything we needed. One person said, "I'm sorry for Morocco," this awareness we keep seeing of all the ways this entire country can be perceived from the outside. A month in, having cycled most of the length of the country, the sole truly scary thing that's happened is this moment where a child on a bike had bad road skills, and then everyone was there to help.
We started climbing in earnest, and camping that night was asking permission at a restaurant in a village on the way into the mountains; the family that runs it set us up in back, in a covered porch area bordering their olive farm. At one point, when it was dark and we'd crawled into the tent to sleep, we heard footsteps near the tent and ventured a "Hello?" and two young voices, one of them the owner's nephew who had set us up, said, "Goodnight!" with some giggling, and then they left. Kini poked their head out a while later and saw that, in the corner of the porch and next to our tent, they'd placed a pile of blankets with a tiny, sleeping puppy-- one of its hind legs was in a bandage and it had been covered with a pink antiseptic cream.
We had breakfast with the puppy in the morning (it had some cheese bites and limped around the porch area after us as we packed up), and then bought coffees and snacks at the restaurant before leaving. We were cutting our climb into the High Atlas into shorter distances to pace ourselves and take the elevation gain a bit at a time, knowing this section would be culminating at the Tizi n'Tichka pass at 2200m. The mountain views were starting to get good, and we were climbing significantly. There were some sections of road under construction, but drivers were gentle (and encouraging; every steep climb was accompanied by horn beeps, thumbs up, and cheering from car windows). We hit a lookout and sat for a while, and then an elderly man emerged from the bushes on the cliffside with a basket of stones and jewelry and sat a ways down from us. Kini went over and offered him some cookies, and he took one, then he came over and shared a little jam jar of mint tea from his thermos. As we were picking up our bikes to leave, he said in French that he wanted to give us a gift to welcome us to Morocco, and he handed us two necklaces strung with leather pendants and seashells.
We ended our day at a very cheap hotel in Toufliht, one of the blip-on-the-map villages along the main road, built into the mountainside. We had to go into the restaurant-bar to ask about a room; we're getting better at getting through this initial moment where we walk into a space and a group of men all turn to look at us, and watch and listen as we ask for what we're looking for. This was the first drinking space we'd been in in Morocco (they're rare, not part of the general culture, and I think maybe somewhat difficult to license); there was alcohol at the bar and the group of men staring from a cloud of cigarette smoke in the middle of the room were wasted. The kid helping the owner took us to our room, initially down a dark flight of stairs, and we were sure we were going to be in a dank, windowless basement for the night, but then a door opened up onto a lower deck below the restaurant, with a big view down and into the mountains. Our room was run-down but big and had its own bathroom and shower with hot water, an unexpected treat considering how low the price was. We avoided the scene upstairs and cooked our own dinner on our camp stove on the patio, and spent a comfortable night.
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