11: Morocco, A sad event and a change of plans

We had just struggled over a snowy winter pass and were getting worn down by constant police escorts and the stress and a lack of very needed personal moments which a constant police escort entails. Waking up in our cheap hotel room in Imouzzer Marmoucha, we decided to head out of town towards the High Atlas mountains. We had finished with the Middle Atlas and had a large high plateau to cross between the two mountain ranges.

Our first hour out of town was downhill and easy and we quickly noticed our new police escort as they passed us in a vehicle. We recognized the driver as one of the officers outside of the police station in Imouzzer Marmoucha and we grudgingly waved as they went by.

It was an easy ride and beautiful, open countryside in the foothills of the Middle Atlas. We noticed a car ahead of us blaring something with a megaphone and it appeared to be waiting for us as well. We had no idea what they were saying and they didn’t try and talk with us, but it seemed like an odd thing to observe going through small quiet towns in the countryside.

We passed the police car as they waited for us at an intersection to see which direction we were going and we cycled off with them disappearing behind us. We weren’t sure if they were going to keep following us and were hoping maybe they would leave us alone since we were getting near the area other people had been able to shake their police escort tails as well. We assumed maybe there was something going on in the region we had been cycling in for over a week and maybe by leaving it they would leave us be.

As the day progressed a different unmarked vehicle pulled up next to us. They rolled down their window and asked in French if the police were behind us, we looked at each other and answered yes, the car thanked us and drove off. We were not sure what that was about. We then stopped at a gas station to fill up our cooking fuel bottles and again noticed the same officer from Immouzer Marmoucha there waiting for us. We said hello and he seemed nice but didn’t engage us much in conversation or anything. We cycled off and he stayed at the gas station.

As we cycled out of sight of the town and into the country we noticed a scooter following us. It was moving very slowly and was staying a distance back. We assumed this must be another police escort of sorts, and while I stopped for a bathroom break we awkwardly stood there waiting for it to catch up to us to see if they would say hello or if we could ask them if they were the police. It didn’t stop and just rolled past us very slowly without the driver saying anything. This all felt just weird and it was beginning to make us paranoid. Why did they need so many different vehicles to follow two cyclists moving at 15 km an hour on a country road?

Eventually the man on a scooter came back around and approached us. He spoke some English and seemed relatively nice. He asked where we were going and said we would enjoy that route. He informed us at next town we would meet the police there, they would get our information, and we could keep going.

With that knowledge we continued on and he seemed to head back in the direction we had come from. We turned onto a quiet dirt road and loved it. It was the first time in the last two weeks we felt like we were back on our own, there was no police tail, no cars, just a few shepherds again that were all being friendly and waving as we cycled by.

Eventually we arrived in the town the scooter guy had mentioned but we didn’t see any police at all. We werent going to go through the town looking for these officers who were supposed to take our information and we decided if they wanted to get our info they could find us.

We stopped at a market, got some food and on the edge of town stopped at a house to ask if anyone would allow us to fill up our water bottles. As we were doing this another car rolled past and they waved at us to keep going, as if they were being impatient with us. They didn’t say anything and stopped a few blocks away and appeared to be waiting for us. Are these the police we were told to expect?

We got the water, thanked the family and then rode over to the car that was waiting for us. We said hello and asked if they were the police. They looked offended and one spit angrily on the ground and said no and then they got back in the car and shut the doors and just sat there watching us while smoking…. Ok well now we felt super uncomfortable and had no idea what was going on, who these people were or why THEY were now following us…

We cycled away wondering if they were police taking their plain clothes role too seriously but still feeling super uncomfortable. We noticed the car following us that claimed to not be the police and we slowly made our way up a hill as they tailed us at a distance.

We were super agitated and stressing out not knowing what to do. We were entering a long stretch of road with nothing along it for 30 km and we only had 30 more minutes of sun left. We had been planning on camping somewhere in the desert off the road but now we had this mystery car following us at a distance and we hadn’t run into any police in a long while.

We started riding down the road with extremely long stretches without any bends in it. Hardly any cars went by and we kept looking off into the distance nervously looking to see if that mystery car was still following us. At a bend in the long road I used my telephoto lens to take a photo and zoom in on the road behind us to see if the car was still there tailing us at the extreme of our vision, and yes it was still there.

This was really making us nervous and it was getting dark with nowhere to go to even ask permission to camp or any spot in a very flat desert to sneak off to for the night. Eventually we were lucky and got to a point in the road where we quickly followed a dry stream bed off the side of the road to go into the desert before the mystery car showed up to observe us turning off the road.

We were tired and nervous and after pushing our bikes through some grueling desert tracks we got to a spot where we could camp hidden from the road behind a small hill. I was now pissed. These police officers that were wanting to follow us for our security were just plain freaking us out now. Many had been respectful and nice but these last guys, if they were police officers, weren’t doing anything to reassure us.

As Heidi cooked dinner I walked to a hill to get cell reception to angrily message one of the police officers from the Middle Atlas, whose contact info I had received a week before. I got a hold of him and sent him a long chain of angry messages explaining how we didn’t feel safe like this, and their lack of communication and being followed by plainsclothes was super annoying an just making us paranoid and stressed out. I said in the next large town we were going to the police station and requesting they stop following us right away and if there was anything wrong in the area to just be honest with us and not put on this whole charade to say we were totally safe but then tail the crap out of us for days. These police escorts were just getting worse and more stressful.

He responded by saying something bad had happened….

I was surprised to read this and quickly asked him what was going on. This is how I first heard about the two women who just a day earlier had been murdered in the High Atlas west of where we were at, also camping in a remote spot. Wow, not a good way to find out about this kind of thing, we had been tailed by a mystery car and sneaked away from it to camp in the middle of nowhere in the desert and then we get a message from the police saying someone had been murdered doing exactly what we were doing….

After telling Heidi we nervously sat in our tent in the desert in the dark feeling very conflicted and very stressed. Ok, so we hate these police escorts but apparently they might have a point to following all the bike tourists in the area. We talked for a long time and agreed that sometimes people get murdered, it is sad but it sounds like an isolated event. Who knows, maybe the women got mixed up in something bad, we were not sure. There was as yet, no reason to assume they were targeting foreigners camping. That being said I had a lot of trouble falling asleep that night, imagining the sound of footsteps crunching on the desert ground as someone stalked towards our tent in the middle of the night.

The next morning we made our way back to the road and after only a few kilometers another car pulled up next to us. This man was very nice, said hello, asked where we had spent the night and informed us that he was with the police and just checking in on us. We were tired and after hearing the news of the day before we were much more empathetic to the police insisting on following us. This still didn’t excuse the car from the previous day that didn’t talk to us or anything, who knows maybe that car wasn’t even the police….

We made our way towards the town of Zaida and decided that after the stress and drama of the last couple days and the tragic news, to just get a hotel room and relax a bit before weighing our options for where to go next. We stayed at a hotel with an extremely nice man running the front desk and had a pleasant time chatting with him in a mix of Spanish and French. We talked about the sad murder of the two women and we all agreed that it was a safe area and there are bad people in every country. These things happen and Heidi and I were ok with continuing on, trying to view this situation realistically.

With Christmas only a few days away we also made plans to find a nice place to stay and relax during that time to stave off the homesickness we were both feeling. We were feeling very lonely and isolated watching friends and family across the planet get together to relax, eat food and enjoy each others company while we were struggling with incessant police escorts and the emotional ups and downs of the last few days trying to find a way to enjoy Morocco and the amazing people we were meeting despite the police and the sad news.

We decided that since we were to keep going that we would just stay at hostels and hotels and only camp after having gotten permission near homes. The next day we headed out of Zaida towards the High Atlas town of Tounfit to enter the quiet small roads of the mountains from there.

We passed through the town of Boumia and noticed a very large gathering going on of many farmers from the area. Being the end of the fall there were people from all over the countryside selling livestock and goods before prepping for the rest of the winter. As we left Boumia we loved the beautiful view of the Atlas Mountains as we approached them along a long stretch of road where we could see for many kilometers in every direction. Their snowy tops were beautiful with the contrast of the arid landscape surrounding them.

We were both excited to continue on into the mountains, all be it still emotionally off balance. As we ate lunch off the side of the road we observed our new police escort in the distance sitting at a high point probably watching us with binoculars. After the news of the murders I didn’t think we would be able to get rid of the police escort and even if it was an isolated event I didn’t know if I wanted the police to leave now. I was feeling very conflicted.

As we arrived in Tounfit we noticed a procession of people around a home and we were informed later that someone in the community had passed away. With this sad observation we made our way to the only cheap hotel/cafe in the town and I went inside to haggle down the price while Heidi watched our things.

After I was able to barter down the price by 50% the man running the hotel/cafe took my passport information down as he was required to do. When he found out we were from the U.S. he told another man by the bar and I could tell immediately that they were not extremely excited about this fact. I tried to smile and in broken French explain that I hated what our government represented abroad and that not everyone in the U.S. supports the actions our government takes. This didn’t defuse anything and the friend of the owner just walked away after giving me a withering look. This was not the first time that the fact that we were from the U.S. made people either excited to talk with us or quick to create some distance from us and stop interacting with us…. I understand deep down why this is and we had even a couple times before said we were Canadian to avoid a long drawn out explanation with difficult language barriers of how we hate Trump, do not support our government, etc…

After this awkward interaction and a bit of palpable tension we got our things put away and spent the evening by ourselves cooking on the balcony of the hotel overlooking the streets and trying to stay positive, thinking about the beautiful mountains we would be cycling past soon.

The next morning as Heidi was in the bathroom I decided to look for a news update on the murders, curious to see if there was a motive yet. The first thing I read was that after the initial arrests of the first four people involved now nine other people all over Morocco had been arrested and some of these people had connections with extremist groups and they were targeting tourists in remote areas.

Suddenly a switch went off in my head. All of this struggle to justify continuing on, putting up with the stress, telling ourselves that this was just a sad event and that it wouldn’t impact us all went out the window. I didn’t want to be alarmist but I just was not comfortable anymore, far from it, after awkward explanations of how I was from the U.S., after the police escorts, after finding out two people were targeted in our area for being foreigners and in a remote area, I just couldn’t continue. Not with someone I cared about, not at this time of year when I was already struggling with homesickness. Maybe if I was alone I could justify putting myself through the stress of continuing but not when I was with someone I cared about. Even if the likelihood of something happening was so slim. I already got stressed enough watching cars in my mirror buzz past Heidi within a few inches, and i’m sure she felt the same way every time I was buzzed in the same way. Now I had this on my plate and it was too much.

When Heidi arrived back in the room I told her the news, we both got extremely stressed and emotional because we both felt utterly uncomfortable where we were all of a sudden. So far from home and watching things around us just get more and more stressful. I don’t care what other cycle tourists would do in that situation, or anyone for that matter, for us that was just the last straw and this wasn’t worth it anymore. We weren’t out there to prove anything to anyone, we were there to have a powerful life experience seeing other cultures and other parts of the world in a constructive sense, not make ourselves miserable.

We have no control over these events. The tragedy is how it will impact the local people who have no association with these extremists. By making Heidi and I uncomfortable, feel isolated and scared these extremist people had won in that sense. These people do not represent Morocco at all, they feed off of strife, conflict and desperation and so seek to create it however they can. I hate how this will impact the image of Morocco but for us in that moment we just wanted to be home, with family and to collect our thoughts before starting again. I had been cycling for five months, Heidi for nearly four. It would take a bit out of our budget but we had left wiggle room in there so this we would consider as just another part of our trip.

We agreed to cycle back to Zaida and find a bus to take us to Marrakech and fly home. If we did it fast enough we could even get home by Christmas day which seemed like a very nice way to see family. We already were thinking of where in Africa to fly to next, we both want to see and experience so much more but for now this was the right move, before we got burnt out. On top of this it would be awesome to actually have a chance to do a few winter sports and seeing Utah and Central Oregon in the winter time is one of my favorite parts of the year. We are so privileged to be able to make these choices and we were fully embracing our freedom to do what we can with no jobs tying us down, and now we wanted to be with family.

Back in Zaida we stopped by the police station to ask them about the bus schedule and whether or not we could take bikes. We went back to spend one more night at the same hotel we had stayed at before and had a pleasant evening chatting with our fantastic hosts.

The next day he even helped us get onto the bus and as we left Zaida we gathered ourselves for what would inevitably be a stressful next couple days of running around, prepping our bikes for the flights and dealing with multiple layovers. There was a plain clothes police officer put on the bus to watch us and they even had us moved to the front of the bus where we could be more easily seen. We let them put us where they wanted to on the bus and went through the 8 hour bus ride excited to have a break from this treatment.

Heidi luckily had the contact information of a woman in Marrakech. She was amazing and met us at the bus station, helped us smash our bikes into the back of her tiny car and helped us over the next day in getting what we needed for our flight while showing us around Marrakech in the little free time we had! Her family was lovely and we spent the last two days in morocco feasting, enjoying good conversations and relishing in what made this country so amazing, the every day people.

Yet again Moroccan hospitality was amazing. This person who we had never met was going out of her way to help us and show us a bit more of her culture and world and we both felt conflicted leaving in that moment, but that was exactly why we needed to leave in that moment as well. We would leave with a need to come back, to see more, to continue! Plus it was the first time we didn’t have a police escort in over two weeks so we had to be honest with ourselves in that.

For work she helped gather and restore art pieces for a beautiful museum in a large garden. We got a quick tour and we loved exploring and seeing a completely different side of Morocco from what we had seen over the last several weeks. We helped pick citrus fruit and enjoyed being shown around one of the Souks of Marrakech as well.

On our final day our wonderful host took us to the airport and sent us on our way after a strong hug. We quickly went through security and began our two day journey home for the holidays.

We both know we will be back. In time i’m sure the situation will change, the police escorts will lessen again for people traveling the way we do and perhaps we can see the country in the way we would like to see it. Not spending a couple of months with a police escort through the entire country constantly having someone over our shoulder in both respectful and disrespectful ways. Ultimately we are guests anywhere in the world we go, although our experiences were not ideal at least we felt everyone had our best interests in mind even if we disagreed with their methods. Morocco, while ultimately making us take a break from our trip, was also the most memorable with the most amazing hospitality and friendly people we had met so far on our entire trip. I can’t wait till we can visit again under different circumstances.

Now we have a month to spend enjoying family, friends, home comforts and to plan out the next leg of our trip. Most likely flying to Uganda to jump into East Africa and continue from there!

Happy Holidays to everyone and lots of love.

2 thoughts on “11: Morocco, A sad event and a change of plans

  1. I’ve truly enjoyed following your journey thus far. I know that homesick feeling, as well as that spooked feeling, and I think y’all are making a wise decision. I also appreciate how much you’ve engaged the local cultures everywhere youve been, as that’s what I’ve found to be my favorite part when traveling abroad. Thanks for sharing your journey, it’s been fun to watch!

    Like

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