The safest place in Morocco

 

“Que no te pasa nada.” These are the words of an old woman as we stop along the side of the road to buy a couple pieces of fruit or a vegetable. This is a blessing she is giving to us, that no bad thing may happen to us as we travel. She has only seen us for a moment when she sais this. An old woman in typical spanish clothing. “Grathias”‘. Perhaps she is a mystic and does not even know it. This is a small village in central Spain. We have now arrived in Africa and the blessing she has given us follows us as we make our first days together on this new continent.

 

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Donkey Olive 210We have entered another world! A world of color. A world of sound. A world of smell. A world of magic.

 

Tanger…

 

Madness… Movement…

 

We have entered a world of chaos. But it is a chaos that somehow makes sense to me. Perhaps it is my french blood. This feels in a certain way, like home to me.

 

Our first night in Africa. A campground so that we can set our bearings before heading out.

 

“Combien ca cout?” “How much does it cost?” I ask the manager who is quietly sipping tea on a swinging bench in this desolated yet quiet, almost completely empty and somehow lovely place. He pulls out a calculator and starts clicking… and clicking… and clicking… for what seems like minutes, much longer than one would expect is needed to calculate the cost for two simple tired world travelers and obviously somewhere a small tent.

 

He names a price which is at least double what other campgrounds in Morocco cost and sais “Two people, one tent, two bikes (not on his price list) and then he sais “and?” with a questioning look on his face as he examines our bikes, as if he is just waiting for me to pull something else out of our few bags for which he can charge us. Perhaps the elephant that we don’t have in Chantal’s back pannier. A little negotiation brings the price slightly down. “A shower too?” Almost the full price of camping anywhere else. “Non merci!”

 

Donkey
I Love Donkeys

 

Of Rocks and Boys
These are only our first days in northern Africa. And yet it has not taken us long to discover the boys of Morocco.

 

I first heard of them when I bicycled and walked the circumference of the Iberic Peninsula of Spain and Portugal a few years ago. In Lisbon, I met a Brazilian geologist who lived in the Yukon Territories of Canada. She had been bicycling in Morocco alone, but was in Portugal recovering from a broken arm. Boys in Morocco had jumped on her bicycle, knocking her off, breaking her arm.

 

We are now escorted out of what for us is the capital of Morocco, Tanger, by two young boys who follow us on their bike for many kilometers.

 

But soon we discover that the boys of Morocco , who almost seem to run in packs, chase us, throw rocks at us, pull the flags off our bikes. We have developed our own techniques for dealing with these boys, who often yell at us in mean negative ways. A sprint here, a dodge to the left there. Sometimes we have had to come too a screeching halt for a boy who seemeed to find it a fun game to step out in front of us purposefully as we speed down a hill.

 

And some of these boys have grown at least physically, into men. The frustration, fatigue and almost depression is hard to deal with on a rock dodging day when I receive a lecture from a “man”, a gas station attendant, that my half-liter bottle gas bottle is a liter bottle. Showing him the print which says “590 mililiters”, he angrily guarantees me that it is a one liter bottle and charges me for two full half liters to barely fill to the half liter mark once. The next gas station attendant asks me to pay him full price, telling me I should be thankful he filled the bottle for me, even though he purposefuly spilled gas at least five or six times filling the bottle. I gladly would have filled it myself. The question from him in response to my argument is “how much did your bicycle cost”. It seems he has the right to purposfuly cheat me because he finds that I have a nice bicycle. I refrained from asking him the price of his pants or even his house. Another man in a market pushing me hard, trying to give me extra speed, for “fun”.

 

The hundreds of smiles from beautiful colorful children along the side of the road, more than melts away these challenging aspect of northern Moroccan culture. A little boy and a little girl, no more than seven or eight years old, tending their sheep on a rocky hillside in the Riff Mountians. Leaning on their shepard sticks, looking at us with wide eyes as we huff and puff up the mountain, rugged rocks, hills and mountains all around.

 

A stop in a village for lunch. I ask a man to whom I had smiled a moment ago, “may we sit in front of this closed restaurant to eat our lunch?” It was -3 centigrade last night, -30 the night before. It is freezing out and I am fighting off a cold. “Yes yes, no problem. But please, come have lunch in my home”. Warmth, welcome, children, an invitation to spend the night.

 

It is so, and with all the other moments and people we meet that I discover that every kilometer has it’s story. Every bend and curve we ride, every hill and mountain and meter has a thousand stories, told and untold.

 

Birds Rule

 

There is a begining to this story. But it is in the Netherlands, with some birds. Some geese actually, that live on the bend of the Geul river between Berg-en-Terblijt and Valkenburg in southern Holland. Many days, often enough anyhow, as we prepared for this trip, we bicycled right by those geese on the bend of the river on the way to Maastricht 15 kilometers away. The thing is, the geese live on one side of the road by the river. This is a quiet place with willow trees.

 

In the mornings, the geese would always quietly walk (in single file) to the other side of the road. There is a pond or another part of the river there. I suppose this was some sort of wake up routine. It seemed a sort of meditative walk to the morning bath. Crossing the road, they would take a step, wait for thirty seconds, sometimes a minute and then take another step. The breeze blowing through the trees, the river gurgling. And in this way they would slowly make it across the road.

 

Now the thing is that this always seemed to happen at rush hour. All the local residents of the surrounding villages would zoom by in a rush, honking their horns at the geese crossing the road and of course always disturbing the morning procession.

 

The drivers of course ignored the morning sunshine, the quiet gurgling river, the breeze, the stillness. They just zoomed on by, probably angry at having to slow down a few seconds for some stupid geese.

 

On my bike, sometimes in a rush, sometimes not, I would watch this scene which happened day after day, and wonder at it. I ask myself, where is the intelligence in this?

 

My friend Emil and I have a saying, that only the two of us understand. “Birds Rule!” It reminds me as well of what a rather well known man from a long long time ago once said something about trusting like little birds. They would not need to worry, all things would come to them that they need.

 

And so it is that together, Chantal and I have become like little birds. During our travels together, we have learned to trust that things will somehow always turn out ok and that we will always have a safe place to sleep at night.

 

I first started learning that when I was cycling in Cyprus on my way to Israel. How long ago was that? I am afraid because darkness falls, late and I still have not found a place to pitch my tent. I am in a tourist area, along the coast and it takes me until midnight to find a campground. Cyprus… I remember crossing the U.N. controlled green zone to the Northern Turkish controlled occupied territory. I was almost shot there by the Turkish military on the beach in the ghost city of Famagusta. A story in itself. An place abandoned a quarter century ago and now left in ruins, overlooking the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Back home to the hostel at night. The police are looking for me. In shock I wonder why! A curious tourist for a day, strange encounters, very lucky to be alive. Back in the safety of the South.

 

But since those first scary moments, I have learned to trust that the right place always comes at the right time. Even in freezing fall weather, cycling across Europe to reach Holland, I would only stop at dusk often enough in the freezing cold and always find a place to sleep.

 

There is some sort of safety, perhaps unrecognized, in being in Europe.

 

Now however, we have crossed over the path of the Rafaello. We have crossed the Straights of Gibralter. We have come to a new land… To a new continent…

 

We have taken courage in our hands, and set out. Home, wherever that may have been in the past, is nowhere close-by anymore. Some far away place we could escape to if the going gets rough.

 

Now, home is us. The tent we sleep in, our ability to move forward. It is most certainly daunting now, to look ahead into the unknown. But so we do. And once again we set out to discover if trust, good sense and the constant “sixth sense radar” we now have will be enough.

 

A little magic and a place to sleep

 

A few weeks ago we arrived into a village, a long morning climb into the Spanish hills and mountains. After a good solid two hour break, enjoying watching old men gathering together on the city square, we move on into the mountains. Before stepping onto the bikes, Chantal sais to me as we look into the high mountains completely surrounding us: “There is no way we are going to get out of here without climbing!” I look at Chantal with a smile, seeing all the mountains around and say, stretching my hand out as if acrosss a flat horizon, “all you have to do is imagine it flat Chantal.”

 

We ride on. Amazingly, the next seven kilometers are downhill and our first climb is but a small hill before the passes we know will come later.

 

That was Spain…

 

We are now in Africa…

 

I’m not trying that kind of magic here in the Riff and Atlas mountains of Morrocco. I suppose the mountains would be boring if they were all too flat.

 

These moments, as well as a thousand others, make it fun to be alive.

 

Our first night of free camping seems to me to be a test. Will this “bikiing across Africa” thing work? The landscape so different! The people so different! Some welcoming… The cultural gap so large that some people are not comfortable with us around.

 

And yet, by the desired time, we have found a farm where we can pitch our tent before the early night quickly falls.

 

The second night.

 

Also just as much a challenge.

 

The edge has been reached.

 

I say to myself as well as to Chantal, “we have to find a place NOW!”

 

The forests of the Rif mountains around, beautiful. But everywhere much to open to camp wild. Just then, a small dirt road to the left. Two hundred meters pushing the bikes up to a clearing with an official looking building in the forest.

 

It is the Forest Service Headquarters for this area of 40,000 square hectares. Introductions. Some small talk and Morocan history. We are welcome to pitch for the night.

 

The third night.

 

We have now gone beyond all of our boundaries. It will be dark in 15 to 20 minutes. The gendarmerie in a small village has turned us down as well as a woman who’s orchard along the river seems perfect.

 

We move on.

 

As if the universe itself would like to talk to us tonight with a smile… To teach us a lesson… Children surrounding us, a young man brining me a glasss of cool water which I discreetly do not drink. Achmed sais to us, “please, come sleep in my house.”

 

Instead of one night, we end up spending two nights with Achmed and his family.

 

I suppose that if the road just above his home were dirt instead of paved, and the trucks and cars were not driving at crazy speeds by Achmed’s home, this could be two or even three or four hundred years ago. A dirt courtyard, rooms with dirt floors covered with carpets. Beautiful hand made paintings, drawn by Achmed’s daughter. Hand made bread. Hand milled olive oil. An experience never to forget.

 

Although Achmed invites me to join him at the Mosque for Friday afternoon prayers and to join him and his donkey to harvest their olives high in the mountains. These things do not end up happening. Just as well, we have a nice day staying with this family.

 

This is where we first hear of the wolves and mountain-lions that are in these Rif mountains we are cycling through and sleeping in. These wild animals are in the Atlas mountains as well. We are headed that way on the way to the desert.

 

A message subtely spoken by the universe. Trust , you little birds… It will be alright.

 

From now on I suppose, the trust has been established. Even in Africa, we will be ok, we will find a place to sleep.

 

The Safest Place In Morocco

 

Yesterday evening I said to Chantal, I would really like to meet the King Of Morocco. And when we are in Tibet & India, it would be wonderful if we could meet the Dalai Lama. I remember the stories of a world traveler from long ago who during his adventures met the king of Saudi Arabia.

 

We are pulling into a small village to pitch camp behind a welcoming cafe. The thing is, I really would like to meet the King and the Dalai Lama.

 

It never occured to me that within 24 hours we would be sleeping in the King’s back yard.

 

Fes, our first “destination” in Morocco.

 

It is just a little too dark and a little too late. An abandoned house and a run down farm. Chantal is not feeling so well anyhow. It must have the goat-head couscous and too much olive oil. Time to stop. “May we picth our tent here?” A routine that has become familiar to us and every evening reveals new friends, new surprises.

 

This evening it turns out this farm is revealing more surprises than friends. Within moments, the screeching wheels of of a large police vehicle shock us as it pulls to halt just a few meters from us in the quiet farmyard.

 

Three gendarmes, all too serious and rather unpleasant, jump out and agressively come in our direction. “Nationality?” the chief demands! “Are you sleeping here?”

 

To make a short story even shorter we are warned of the dangers of this particullaar farm and these farm workers. Sensing the necesity to move on, “vous avez toujour raison monsieur!”, my response to the officer. “You are always right, sir.”

 

Somehow, Chantal, the social bird in our family, soon is talking with one of thee men we thought was a seasonal farm worker. “Did you call the gendarmerie?”, she asks.

 

“We are the gendarmerie madam”, he sais.

 

Apologizing profusely, he explains to us that the King of Morocco is sleeping in Fes tonight and the backyard of his palace is only a few hundred meters in that direction past the farm. Not only this, but it turns out that every single one of these rough, “migrant worker”‘ looking men are undercover personal security agents for the King of Morocco himself.

 

The gendarme’s claim a few moments ago that this place is especially dangerous is simply not at all true. We have just chosen the safest place in Morocco to pitch our tent, “The King’s own back yard.”

 

I suppose that it must have been in my hurry to take down our partially pitched tent and surprise at the absolute wonderful uniqueness of our siutation, our haste to get moving again, that I did not realize until after we left and were biking in the dark, that this would have been my best oportunitty to meet the King of Morocco. I simply forgot to mention it to his body guard.

 

Biking past litteraly hundreds of royal guards and police. Biking past magestic palaces, lit in beauty in the dark. We can sense the power of the magic of the kingdom that was born in this very place. A kingdom which has lived hundreds of years, born out of the rocks, mountains and deserts around us. Faught wars and survived in one way or another, to be the place we discover tonight.

 

Another 20 kilometers in the dark on horrible busy highway-like roads into Fes, breaking our own promise to ourselves never to bike after dark in Africa.

 

This time though, we can really say “The King Obliges!”

 

Another World

 

We have entered another world…

 

We have entered a world of color, a world of sound… We have entered a world of magic and smiles. A world of beauty and culture. A very tough and yet tender world. We have entered a world of magic. The drumer here plays to another rythm.

 

We have entered a world of culture so different from our own. A world of trees… A world of rocks.. of mountains… Of villages on top of a hill… desolate… rocky… dry… green… red… magestic… big… donkeys… chickens… color… shepards…

 

Slowly we make our way across northern Morocco… Through Tanger, Tetouan, Chefchaouen, Ouzzane, Sidi Kacem.

 

Kilometer after kilometer, tree after tree… rock after rock… village after village… encounter after encounter…

 

Last night, the King’s backyard, tonight behind the home of a welcoming family of a young friend owning a cafe…

 

Tea on a burning hot wood fire with the the firemen of Ifrane. The smell of smoke and Sheba Tea. Trust has been established. We no longer need to worry. We are like little birds and we always have a place to sleep.

 

We have moved beyond the first few kilometers on this continent, the tentative first steps of being focused on establishing security for ourselves. The universe is almost as if laughing with us. “We are secure!”

 

We have moved from those first tentative steps in Africa to pure adventure, conversation, open homes, philosophical cultural discussions. The discovery of our planet.

 

When I open my ears in the rough country side, I hear the breeze, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, to the sound of silence…

 

A house lost up the hillside above me… Chantal somewhere behind… The rough barren hot countryside around…

 

A womans’ voice rises quietly above the afternoon stillness. Singing… To a rythm that pull at the strings within my heart. In spite of tiredness from climbing the hills, this still voice which seems almost to emanate from the hills themselves brings out movement and dance, the purity of celebrating being alive. The shakels of represssive culture simply melt away in a moment which lasts only a few breaths.

 

These brief moments make the roughness of biking melt away inn apreciation of life itself.

 

A Precious Moment

 

His holiness The Dalai Lama said that if one meditates on the transient nature of our existence, we begin to appreciate the preciousness of every moment of our existence.

 

Perhaps I can find myself saying, that part of the purpose of our journey is to discover the preciousness of our existence on this planet.

 

I can find myself saying, I have glimpsed moments… Moments experiencing the beauty of being alive, the beauty of our existence on this planet…

 

Perhaps it comes in the smile of a small child, breaking out in crazy applause at the absolute excitement of seeing us ride by. Perhaps it comes when I experience the tenderness of a young shy Berber child and her brother, both shaking my hand as we stop along the side of the road to say hello.

 

Honestly, I suppose there are a thousand such moments.

 

Perhaps I discover it this morning I wake up at the first light of dawn, in a country side so big, so majestic, so beautiful, it is hard to find words to describe. The snow covered peaks of the High Atlas Mountains run from one end of forever to the other. This place is so grandiose and large it seems the whole country of Holland could fit here and still leave room for the rest of Africa next to it. A deep orange outllines the meeting point of earth and sky and melts into a deep dark blue and then the black of the sky above, stars still shining overhead. The great hillside we are on drops away and away and away and away… Almost as if this particular place on earth, from under a tree right behind the mud and wood built home of a welcoming Berber family, had some magic to it, bringing all the open space of the planet into this one lonesome magestic place. The view extends for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer after kilometer. I could almost imagine that we are waking in the great rift valley this morning.

 

Slowly, ever so slowly, the orange deepens further, and the stars begin to fade.

 

“Clickety cklickety click. Some early morning workers heading off to the fields somewhere in the distance behind me, donkey hooves clicking on the barren rock covered ground. If I look carefuly I can see them moving down the rock road some ways away in the darkness of the early morning dawn.

 

Another moment, another day… I look down a hillside and see a mother walking her two young colorfuly dressed children on a donkey, one behind the other sitting on the donkey’s back. I wish I could take a photo, but it is only possible with my heart.

 

A precious moment…

 

An stop point in the late afternoon brings us to the dirt trash pile behind the home of another ever so welcoming family. She sweeps away orange peels and egg shells to reveal a safe place to pitch for the night. We have not finished pitching before a small round ground level table is brought out to us with Moroccan Sheba tea. “Communicating in broken french”, he asks “would you like Couscous or Tagine”.

 

It is dark now, the only light coming from the three candles upon the table before us. Mohamed’s wife, dressed in the most colorful typical atire, brings Tagine to us. Kneeling down, with a smile full of warmth and love. In this moment, the trash pile we are camped upon has become a palace full of beauty and charm such as no king or emporer has ever had. The candles flicker, the stars shine, our hearts are warm. An wonderful and absolutely beautiful moment.

 

This is, for us, the discovery of the preciousness of every moment of our existence upon this planet.

 

Rrrkktchtt… Rrkktcht… Rrrrrkchhtt… I turn my head curiously in our corner spot of the internet cafe in the Medina of Fes. Checking email. Rrrkktchtt… Rrrkktchtt… It sounds like a music festival is starting in the street.

 

Louder. It is coming closer. Rrrkktcht… Then a large donkey passes the door of the internet cafe, laden with surely a hundred or more crates of glass coca-cola bottles.

 

With each step the donkey takes… Rrkkkchtt… Rrrrrkchhtt… The donkey passes and the music festival fades.

 

We have now passed through the mountains and reached the Atlanic coast. Ahead of us lies the Sahara Desert and Africa beyond…

3 Reactions to: “The safest place in Morocco”


  1. 1 Marian Febvre

    Hi dear Antoine,
    I always love hearing your voice in your writings. Thank you for sharing of yourself, your thougts, your impressions. It becomes a bit of our ‘virtual travel around the world’…This planet/’Mother Earth’ truly seems to be becoming your home…A F R I C A…is truly a remarkable, amazing part of this planet. We wish you all well on this next part of your journey. LOTS OF LOVE to both of you on this Christmas Eve beginning your trek across the Sahara.
    M & P

  2. 2 sabine

    Dear Antoine and Chantal
    You are always in our thoughts.
    I know that the questions about M,ia and your travel plans are difficult, and I respect the balance you strike between trusting “little birds” and intelligent travelers. I know you will find a solution, and my faith goes with you! Love You!!
    Sabine

  3. 3 sudharsan

    the morocco is the safty place to live

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