10: Morocco, Hospitality and Police Escorts

After first arriving in Morocco while Heidi was sick we were both tired and resting in Nador was very needed. It is so close to Spain but a whole world apart. The city felt very alive, people were busy at markets, there were cafes everywhere and although it was quite a shift from what we were used to we had several days to get better and get ready to explore more into Morocco. We did some shopping for our next few days of groceries and while I blended in decently Heidi with her red hair stuck out allot. We quickly learned that everything was much cheaper at the street venders as opposed to the little grocery type stores and that we would have to get used to haggling to get the price down to a reasonable level since most things seemed up for debate as to how much we would pay for them.

After we packed up our bags and got back on our bikes we headed out of the city. We had a rough direction we wanted to follow but also wanted to get to quieter country roads to avoid the busy highways moving goods around from the coastal cities. After looking at some options we needed to stay near the highway for about 60 kms to get to a country road that would take us in the direction we wanted to go. While at first it was stressful with busy roads and traffic we quickly found that there was a dirt road parallel to the highway which was great riding and with our bomber touring bikes it was nearly as fast as staying on the pavement and quite comfortable.

When we finally turned off of the main road the day was already drawing to a close and we were not sure where we were going to spend the night. As we were at a curve in the road some guys in a building near the road waved us down. They wanted to hear about where we were going and our trip and they quickly invited us to camp in the place they were renting for a few days! This was our first taste of Moroccan hospitality and their respect for guests and travelers. We were so happy to meet them after a long day of noisy road riding and we spent the evening relaxing, eating tons of food and getting to know them a bit. Many of them were from the Netherlands but were visiting old friends from Morocco in a kind of reunion for the first time in years.

It was so kind of them to allow us to camp there and it was a perfect situation other than a cat jumping on my tent and ripping up the rain fly in multiple spots. After a quick tent fix with some gear tape, I had been coveting, we quickly fell asleep while our hosts continued to enjoy their reunion with old friends.

The next day started out very well. The road was much more quiet and we had some gradual climbing to get up from sea level towards the various mountains of central Morocco. Part way through the day I noticed some issues with my rear shifter and allot of noise coming from it while pedaling. This was very concerning and we decided to end our day a little bit early to avoid damaging my bike and to figure out what was happening. We were hoping to camp but being on the edge of a moderately sized town there were houses all over the country and no good places to sneak way for the night, the Spanish countryside seemed more empty by far.

We decided to roll up to a house to ask permission to camp on their land. The house had only two women in it and Heidi tried to communicate with them using google translate to decent effect since they only spoke Arabic. They quickly invited us in and a brother of one of the women came over from another house to host us and allow us to stay! They cooked us food, let us sleep inside and he even helped me with fixing my bike! It was a great experience on only our second day and we were definitely feeling welcome at the warm welcome and the hospitality we kept receiving. We spent the evening chatting in our broken french and showing many pictures since that can tell a story better than my terrible French pronunciations.

The next day we enjoyed a nice breakfast with our hosts and then we continued on our way. This day was even more quiet than before when it came to traffic and we enjoyed the riding. Many people said hello and several people stopped to talk to us, give us advice and invite us for food, which we politely declined to be able to keep covering ground. We eventually ended up in a town that we grabbed groceries in and had a fun time chatting with the group of dudes hanging out in front of the local store.

Upon heading out of the town we were planning on taking a side road towards the south that looked nice and quiet on our maps. At the intersection there was a police checkpoint and they requested for us to stop and give them our information. We stopped, told them about our planned route and they quickly stopped us from going down the road we had planned on. I kept trying to ask them why we couldn’t go that way, the people in the area we had met had been so nice and the police didn’t give us straight answer…. They said the area was completely safe on second and then another officer said there were dangerous people, no problems here but no you are not allowed to go down that road. We were confused and a little annoyed since the only other option added 40 kilometers to our planned route and took us towards what would most likely be busier roads. After a while we just stopped asking why we couldn’t go that route and cycled off the way they were recommending.

We were a bit miffed and it was getting late and we needed a place to camp but there were homes everywhere once more and no good spots to pull over. After a couple kilometers we pulled over to look at a dirt road and that is where we noticed that we had a tail. There was a car that was following us at a distance and stopping at a place they could see a ways and observe us on our route. Luckily we had been warned by other cyclists who had gone through the area recently that everyone who cycle toured through this area had gotten a police escort otherwise this would have been very freaky especially with the late time of day. We continued on annoyed at our tail and stopping at other spots to consider camping but not knowing how the police would react. Would they stop us? force us to keep going, I didn’t really know what they wanted.

Eventually getting annoyed by how they stayed at a distance and acted like we didn’t know we were being tailed I turned my bike around and just approached them directly. Coming up to them I asked what was going on. They were immediately very friendly and after a chat about how we were looking for a place to stay they recommended we cycle to the next decently sized town with a hotel. With the sun setting and that being another 30 km there was no way we were going to do that… Eventually they drove us towards a tiny village and asked a woman in the area for permission for us to camp on her property. They insisted we camp right in front of some security cameras but we compromised on a small hill near the home.

At this point several other community members showed up and one, who spoke english and was visiting town, offered to bring us some tajine. We readily accepted and we set up camp and readily enjoyed the food he brought and took him up on an offer to grab breakfast with him the next morning on our way out of town. That night we had a surprise wake up at 2 in the morning when a man with a flashlight came to our tent. We were nervous he was going to kick us off the land but he had been informed by the authorities that we were going to be there and was just offering us blankets and tea, we said no thank you and then got back to sleep after the surprise wake up.

The next day we enjoyed our breakfast and had a good time chatting about our trip and our journey to that point. The food was great but towards the end of the meal he got a phone call from the police. They were asking him if we had left yet and where we were going that day…. Oh great it sounds like this police escort was going to stick and we were not going to be able to shake it off…

At this point I had done lots of research on bike touring in Morocco and no where had I read that you might get a police escort until you got towards the Western Sahara region in the south west. The fact that they had relatively recently started tailing people was annoying but it also was a bit spooky. I couldn’t help but think why would they suddenly start tailing people touring through these areas? What had changed? was the area actually not safe despite what they said or was something else going on? With these thoughts running through our heads we continued on.

The police stopped us and informed us we needed to go to a town called Taza and the police there would take over keeping an eye on us for our “security” and so we didn’t have a choice as to where else to go. We arrived in Taza and quickly decided to take a rest as Heidi was still feeling a little sick and we would have some serious climbing over the next couple days so we needed to be fresh for the mountain climbing. We passed some police escorts on the way into the town and although they didn’t stop us they got right on the radios and were obviously informing those ahead that we were heading into town. We got an air bnb for two nights with an awesome host and his family. He spoke fluent english and had the cool job of teaching peace corps volunteers about Moroccan culture and languages and we greatly enjoyed our time resting there and wandering a bit around Taza.

The second we arrived at his place the police came by and requested to know our planned departure date, where we were planning on going and such. He stated that this had never happened with air bnb guests but that we didn’t have anything to worry about. He said he was used to talking to the police officers about the peace corp volunteers in the area so it wasn’t too strange. This made us feel a bit strange not for the prying as much as how we felt like it was putting strange pressure on our hosts. We had already noticed several times that the police popping up quickly made some local people tense and this was quickly becoming a good way to ruin our chances of chatting with people on the sides of the road and having good interactions with people.

After our stay in Taza we began cycling up into the mountains and within 30 minutes of leaving town we noticed another car tailing us… We stopped at a cafe and he would stop and just wait there in the car for us. He gave us a smile and a thumbs up when we awkwardly stared at him, so at least he was being friendly about this too. It made us uncomfortable though because all the people at the cafe saw we were being tailed by the police too and yet again it was just making our interactions with everyone a bit odd.

The ride itself was beautiful and we loved the views as we continued up into the mountains. While the police officer was nice he started getting impatient with us and hurrying us along when we stopped for breathers as we were climbing and he became very insistent to know where we were going for the night. This was getting really annoying and we hated this pressure to pay to stay somewhere instead of wild camping as we had done mostly for the last five months. This was still making me nervous as to why they felt the need to follow us so I kept asking him why he was following us and yet again he said “its for your security. The people here are very nice it is a very safe place” Such contradictory answers and I wanted to tell him if it was so safe he just should leave us alone…

Eventually we got to a small town right as the sun was setting and we got permission to camp next to a small convenience store as it was closing. It was a decent spot and out of the wind and the policeman after confirming we were going to camp there finally left us alone after rushing us for the last hour and impatiently waving is along while we tried to relax and just go our own pace. One man offered for us to camp at his house and I wish we had.

Right as we started setting up camp two other police officers showed up…. They insisted we not camp there and keep biking to the town they were stationed at 20 km away. Yet again it was already dark and we didn’t want to do that. They were nice and we debated about it for a while and when they told us their orders were to spend the night in the car next to us if we decided to stay there we grudgingly decided to go with them to the police station to camp to save them that.

They then commandeered a school bus and had it drive our bikes and things to the police station I’m sure that was rather annoying for the bus driver… The police station was in an exposed spot with lots of wind and after arguing about permission to camp within the walls to avoid the wind they let us. They made us camp in a little spot and we got terrible sleep as it smelled like someone had emptied a tuna can there and the police made noise in their station all night long…

The next day, after bad sleep and annoyed at having given up a good wind protected camping spot for a windy and stinky camping spot, just to save the police a night in the car, we got ready for a big climb higher into the middle Atlas mountains.

This day was going to be a big climb of about 1100 meters in 25 km. The escort quickly begain again and the officer kept insisting we should just get a ride to the top and that we wouldn’t enjoy the road…. The road was great, decent grades, no traffic and lovely views, we insisted we were going to keep going and that was that. They eventually gave us a bit more space and waited further along so we didn’t have to always have them on our butt the entire time. Out in these mountains we were noticing shephards everywhere. It was interesting how we could stop and if you sat there long enough you could see multiple people all over the place in what looked like a desolate landscape. This was nice to have chats with people but we observed it would be super hard to camp somewhere with out someone noticing on top of us having a police escort.

When we finally made it to the top of the pass we noticed a beautiful spot to camp right at the top. We stubbornly decided to not budge and camp in this spot, we had already compromised the night before so tonight we were going to camp where we wanted. A local shepherd came by to see what we were up to and he was extremely nice, his daughter and mother came by as well and we were loving the interaction despite the language barrier and then the police showed up.

It immediately got awkward with the shepherd as the police had what seemed like a heated discussion with him in arabic while we sat their setting up our camp. I tried many different ways to explain to the officers that we wanted to camp there, it was beautiful, this is why we came to their country for opportunities to camp in places like this, etc. They were annoyed with us but eventually let us camp there. During this the shephards family obviously seemed a bit uncomfortable with the police there and they wandered off leaving just us, the single shepherd and the police.

After more heated Arabic between the officers and the shepherd the officers informed us that they were having the shepherd bring us tea at 9:00 at night. I really didn’t want this as it was entirely unnecessary and inconvenient for this guy to wander around this rocky hillside at night just to bring us tea. I told the man he didn’t have to but he seemed to accept what the cops were having him do so despite me saying it was not necessary he did bring us tea to our remote camp spot. We chatted with him as much as we could and gave him a photo as a thank you which seemed to make him happy and then he wandered off back into the night.

The next morning we woke up and although I had thought the police had left us alone I noticed that they had just driven around the corner and slept in the car there. I felt a little bad about making them spend the night there, but after the tuna fish camp spot not too bad.

We biked off with a good amount of up and down before the true top of the pass and the police followed us again at a distance. After stopping in the last small town before the pass to grab lunch stuff and make friends with the guys inevitably hanging out in front of the shop we made our way up towards where the road followed a canyon for 30 km till the top.

There were shepherds everywhere again and we enjoyed saying hello and they all waved or said hello in return. As we cycled past a spot where women were getting water one of them began angrily yelling at us and waving at us to leave the area. We had no idea what was going on and we didn’ t stop or anything we just tried to smile and wave as we went past and she angrily yelled at us and waved her arms. This seemed odd and honestly have no idea what she was saying.

We stopped after a while for lunch right on the side of the road in a flat spot to sit and hang out. Heidi decided to wander about a little and I sat near our things while I had our little solar panel out to charge up my phone. As I was sitting there a shepherd appeared out of nowhere and I smiled and waved and said hello in Arabic and French. He didn’t respond at all and just walked up to our little pile of things and started pointing at stuff. I thought he was curious about what we had and I showed him my backpack, he immediately gestured at himself inferring that I give him the backpack. I smiled and said no in Arabic, not even sure if he spoke Arabic or a local dialect instead. He then grabbed Heidi’s backpack and began pulling things out, luckily the first thing he pulled out was a ziploc baggy with just some smashed muffin crumbs, which seemed to disappoint him and he put the pack back down. I was immediately feeling a bit uncomfortable as he wasn’t trying to communicate and just claiming everything he saw as his in a rather unfriendly manner. I called out to Heidi telling her we needed to get going as I smiled in his direction, reassured he didn’t understand what I was saying. He then walked up to me and took my sunglasses right off of my face and put them onto his face and pointed at himself claiming them as his. I nervously laughed disarmingly and carefully took them off of his face. I was starting to wish the police escort would suddenly show up. Heidi arrived and we quickly and politely packed up and I tried one last time to be kind and shake his hand as a goodbye. He took my hand and then wouldn’t let it go while just intensely glaring at me. This made me very uncomfortable and I really had to yank my hand away to get away from him and we slowly cycled off up the hill while he stood there staring at us.

This was not a good place to emotionally be in. We saw shepherds everywhere and assumed they would be more or less friendly and kind but after this we started getting nervous every time we saw someone. Sure it was just one guy but after the woman had yelled at us earlier we were feeling more and more agitated and uncomfortable in this remote mountain valley.

We finally came to the turn off to get to the top of the pass and we noticed right away that it had not been plowed of snow. The road had been clear to this point but the last steep 5 km to the top of the pass was deep snow on a road dug into the shady north side of the mountains. After the bad interaction with the shepherd and the women we were feeling very uncomfortable and wanted to get out of that area quickly. For once we wanted the police to be there but the best we could do was push our bikes along extremely slowly through the snow and nervously look about wondering if the next shepherd we met would be the nice kind or the other kind…

Finally after a struggle fest of over an hour we got to the top of the pass and happily saw that the other side, facing south was melted clear and we could ride our bikes down. On the other side we quickly ran into another police escort which we more willingly accepted after the interaction with the shepherd. We knew it was just one guy and that everyone else had been nice, but after one interaction like that it can easily throw you off balance and make you nervous of others. Plus with the constant police escort we couldn’t help but wonder yet again, why? Is there something we need to know, is there something going on in the area? But yet again our questions of why they followed us was for our “security” and that it was also a very safe area with no problems and nice people.

As the sun was setting we found ourselves on the edge of a small town and we said hello to a local man on the side of the road. He was very friendly but yet again the police showed up and immediately asked us where we were staying for the night. We said we wanted to ask permission to camp, they yet again insisted we keep going another 25 km to the next town with a hotel even though it was already dark…. After we insisted we didn’t want to go to the town with the hotel we awkwardly asked the local man for permission to camp near his home with the police right there. He was very kind but we could tell he was uncomfortable with the police presence and this made us feel like a huge burden. Yet again we felt like we couldn’t accept hospitality as it was offered, it was forced on us by the police making us uncomfortable and feeling like a burden on local people.

It was still a lovely stay with the family but we felt like they really went out of their way to make us feel welcome and feed us even though it seemed apparent they didn’t have a ton of food to offer or share. We gave them some dates we had been carrying and the next day left them with a thank you card, but we both agreed we would have been much more comfortable camping near someones home instead of being forced to stay in their home and be a burden on these kind hard working people who shared most everything they had.

In the morning we packed up and cycled the short 25 km to the town the policeman had wanted us to cycle to. There were two large climbs to get there and this made us laugh knowing it would have taken us over two hours to do this ride in the dark if we had done what the police wanted us to do. Heidi began to have stomach problems and after the stress from the last two days we decided to stop in the town and get a hotel.

Morocco was an amazing place with beautiful scenery and kind people but with the Police it was beginning to wear on us. We knew others had said that they had gotten rid of the escort soon after leaving the region we were in so we went to bed in the hotel hoping that within the next two days we would be able to also get rid of this police escort. We wanted to enjoy this country we had looked forwards to so much with out feeling like a burden on the local people and having a constant shadow following us everywhere we went. Only time would tell.

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