From Algeciras in Spain to Ceuta to Morocco on a bicycle.
Morocco. Didn’t know what to expect really. I wasn’t nervous nor excited when I left the hotel in Algeciras to catch the boat in the morning. It was a kind of numb feeling. But I was glad to leave Algeciras, a sort of non-place, a sort of horrible place, if you know what I mean. I cycled to the ferry terminal and waited a little bored for a couple of hours until I got on the boat. Travelling with Balearea, for 35 Euros with the bike. Whilst waiting in the queue to get on the boat, a man came up to me begging for money and offering fresh mint leaves. I would have given him something, but I couldn’t because I had just spent the rest of my Euros. He gave me some mint anyway (something I later discovered goes down a treat in Morocco). Later, speaking in Spanish, the man warned me about his own experiences in Morocco. He told me that kids hide razor blades in between their fingers and then slap you on the face if you don’t give them money. I hoped it wasn’t true.
The ferry was only about 10% capacity, so it was nice and quiet with a choice of seats on board. I wandered around the decks taking photos.
Slowly the mountains of northern Morocco, in a thin layer of warm mist, grew bigger and bigger over the next hour and a half until I was docked at Ceuta (a Spanish territory in Morocco), the sun now hiding behind the clouds, and hot. I cycled around in circles looking for stove gas in various shops. I figured this would be the last chance to get some before leaving “Europe”. They did have some in Decathlon, but it was sold out, so that’s that then. Cold food for a while.
Ceuta was pretty interesting, with it’s Spanish feel, yet with a mix of Spanish and Moroccan people. You don’t have to look far to find swarms of police here. But I never planned to stay long. In fact, as usual my plan was a pretty unplanned one, and I wanted to just cross the border, find out what the refugee situation was like and then wild camp somewhere in Morocco. But only one of those things actually happened.
And like the fish, there were rows of cars waiting idly. A mix of new cars from Spain and Ceuta, and old Mercs and banged up vans from Morocco lined up in 2 rows stretching back for almost 1km from the border. I thought the drivers would be fussy about me cycling past them all, but they didn’t seem to mind that I was completely skipping the queue. One Moroccan guy so kindly got out his car to tell another driver to move over and let me past. Well this is it. Passing through the Spanish side of the border was uneventful, it was pretty much going through a high security prison. Everything was organized, huge rusty fences topped with barbed wire loom over, behind one a woman complaining in a holding area and being restrained by the police. The guards with their machine guns watched me cycle past as I entered the Moroccan controlled side, not even a passport check. And then the fun began. Fun or just plain craziness, whichever way you want to look at it. There were people everywhere. It was chaos. Moroccan men just loitering and smoking, sitting on the curbs. Where are all the guards and police? I couldn’t spot them, apart from two in the distance before the last checkpoint, smoking and chatting to some other people in their cars and motorbikes. No big guns, no organization. Old Moroccan men were coming up to me to try and give me papers, but I was warned not to take anything from them, as they would ask for money. One of the random Moroccans that was walking around shouted a fat, old guard over for me that looked a little bored and disappointed that he needed to give me a form. He got into the booth and gave me a slip of paper. Before long I had another guy standing over me telling me what to put in each box; useless, considering the form was translated in English, Spanish and Moroccan. I didn’t need his help filling it out, but he wanted money. I didn’t have any. Then he tried to sell me some hash. Some poor guy trying to sell me hash right next to the border guard in the no-man’s land between two countries. I got my entry stamp on my passport and cycled off into Morocco. My 21st country, but my first outside Europe.
Around the fences and all along the dry, boring road until the first town, were hundreds of Moroccan and Arabian people, walking with bags above their heads or with old cardboard boxes. The road was wide, and the traffic wasn’t heavy, but there were some crazy drivers. And immediately I realised something; something which hasn’t really happened to me before. In Europe, regardless of where I am, I’m just some guy on a bike cycling somewhere. Here, I’m some plain-as-day, not-from-here, white foreigner cycling a strange-looking and possibly expensive bike somewhere. And I have a shitload of hair. I look different. That came as a shock. I can’t blend in here. And it took me several days to embrace that fact. Several days to get used to the people staring.
Tired, and a little confused, I decided it was best not to wild camp, especially with so many people wandering around the hills surrounding the coastal road. I needed to get to a city, get to a hotel and feel safe. But it was late, even with the clocks an hour behind Spanish time, and I had only two hours to reach a city before it got dark. So I cycled and cycled and cycled. Many people were shouting and beeping their horns as they past, in a positive way I think. The lines of people continue for miles on the side of the road, just walking between cities, they can’t afford the alternatives, or moreover they would rather have the money. Many people stand with their arms out, trying to get a lift from a helpful driver. And it’s rare to see a car that’s not full. I pass a man on a small donkey, both look overworked. Two men wind up a pretty girl walking the other way, only her face showing, but she, quite refreshingly, shouts back as they snigger. A man starts cycling behind me for over 10km as he sits in my slipstream. I turn around a few times, he’s happy and smiling. I asked him if this is the way to Tétouan, and he nods.
After a couple of hours on a mainly flat and smooth road, I reached the city Tétouan. I was relieved a little to see that not everyone was covered from head to toe. Some of the younger girls were wearing t-shirts, and guys with shorts. I didn’t feel so awkward any more. But trying to fit in was impossible. I searched out a hotel by using wifi in a café near the edge of town and memorised the turns on the map, taking me right into the busy central district and old town. Markets selling pretty much everything lined a few streets. Some with stalls, many just selling from the floor: old clothes, old and new shoes, watches, sunglasses, and stands selling freshly squeezed orange juice. People everywhere. Shouting and chanting.
I walked my bike through crowds of people up a steep cobbled road in the wrong direction but a friendly man redirected me to the hotel along another street; there’s no way I would have found it otherwise; it’s a maze in here: with narrow cobbled streets and few signs. I was grateful for his help. I get in the hotel and sit down, and given a very warm welcome: mint tea, sweets and pastries.
Finally I can relax a little. But this man that took me to the hotel, is taking me for a ride and I don’t know it yet. I barely have time to gather my thoughts or energy, but he tells me of a cooperative market that’s only here today, and they will be closing up in half an hour, so I should go and see it. They only come once a month from the mountain and bring many hand made goods. So I put my stuff in the room and it’s off for a walk into the Medina (city centre). It’s dark now, and we begin walking into the maze of tiny streets, and eventually I have no idea where I am or what direction I’m facing. Every few metres the atmosphere changes as we slowly walk through the busy channelled crowds. We pass many things, nice smells, bad smells; live chickens sitting in their own shit; fish in buckets on the floor. We arrive to the cooperative and go inside. A large square room. He tells me he’ll wait downstairs as I’m introduced to another man speaking broken English. “Come, come,” he says and takes me up a tight, dark stairway into a dark room. I can’t see a thing. What the hell is this?
He disappears for a moment. I’m left standing in the middle of the room. Pitch black… Silence… And then …dink. The light slowly warms up to reveal a huge room full of colourful carpets. While I’m still a little confused, he offers me a seat in the corner and then proceeds to lay down several rugs in front of me on the floor. “And this one is hand woven…blah, blah, blah…and feel this one…lovely…”
“So which one do you want?”
Hang on a second. I’m on a bicycle tour. What the fuck am I supposed to do with a fucking rug? Carpet the inside of my tent?
After a lot of explaining, arguing and refusing, I finally managed to pass this guy off. Only to be passed over to two others who try to sell me jewellery and then herbs and spices. The place was massive, and I was the only one there. I’d seen enough. We walk back through the Medina a different way, past several different smelly obstacles to the hotel and then the guy asks me for money. Ten Euros he says. I almost laughed. Ten Euros for a terrible tour and where I was basically forced to buy things I don’t need. I don’t think so. I gave him a fiver, because he did help me find the hotel, thanked him, and left.
Back at the hotel I meet some other cycle tourers who tell me of their own visits to the carpet store. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. And I was glad to talk to others about my experiences. An island of familiarity in a sea of culture shock. I ate dinner with everyone. And rested. Preparing myself for the craziness of tomorrow.