Of all the gin joints in all the world, we find ourselves here. Casablanca.
Approximately. We're not really in Casablanca, but the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport, which is about thirty kilometers south and east from Casablanca proper in a dusty little place called Nouaceur.
We won't be going to Casablanca. For all its Humphrey Bogart-inspired old-timey allure, modern Casablanca is roundly summarized as an expensive, gritty, industrial port town with little in the way of pleasant ambience or Moroccan culture. There are nicer gin joints to be found.
And so our plan is to detour around it. We have been suddenly transported to the other side of Africa, the opposite end of a continent, but our direction is still the same: vaguely north. After almost three weeks off the bikes, we are excited to get moving. To see the Atlantic, to see Morocco. To roam medinas and eat copious amounts of vegetable tajine. To cycle.
But first, we need to assemble our bicycles.
Flying with a bicycle isn't actually that difficult. It takes us about an hour to properly disassemble and pack our bikes and gear into two large cardboard containers, and perhaps even less time to put them back together. It requires just a few items (a multi-tool featuring three or four hex keys, a pump to reinflate the tires, and for us, a special little instrument to lock in our wheels) and about four square meters of floor space, preferably flat. That's it. Bikes are simple machines. Almost anyone can take one apart or put one back together.
And yet, flying with a bicycle is a nerve-wracking experience. It feels like a lot of work, and there's the potential for a whole lot to go wrong. Bikes can go missing. Airlines can charge hefty fees for oversized or overweight luggage. They can get bumped and banged and tossed around in the chaos of being loaded and unloaded onto conveyor belts. Some cardboard can get snagged on a sharp edge somewhere, get torn from the box, and start spilling its entrails—bike lights, clothing, tent—out the back of one of those cute little trucks hauling cargo to and from airplane underbellies.
And so we worry. We take apart our bicycles and pad them with bubble wrap and sleeping bags and empty water bottles and whatever else we have that's soft and light. We encase them in cardboard and seal the boxes shut with an excessive amount of packaging tape. We take them to the airport, way back in Dar es Salaam, and smile politely at the woman behind the EgyptAir check-in counter. We panic silently when she asks us to heave our far-too-heavy boxes up onto the scale and wince as they weigh in between eight and eighteen kilograms over our allowance. We cast concerned glances to each other out of the corners of our eyes as a small gathering of employees behind the counter discusses what to do with our enormous boxes in a language we don't understand.
We breathe sighs of relief when the woman in the EgyptAir uniform turns back toward us, flashes us a bright smile, hands us our boarding passes, and tells us to have a nice flight without also asking us to pay one million dollars in luggage overage fees. Lauren begins to ask what gate we're at and, before this employee is given any time to rethink her silent gift to us, I pull Lauren away and put some immediate distance between us and our boxed bikes.
We board the plane, fly to Egypt, see some pyramids and take another plane to Morocco. At 30,000 feet above the Sahara, we trust our bicycles are somewhere beneath us. Safe, accounted for, enjoying their own transcontinental journey at 29,980 above the Sahara. They probably are. But still. We worry.
We worry and we disembark in Nouaceur. We walk to the luggage carousels with pits in our stomachs perhaps too big for the occasion. We do that thing all humans seem to do when awaiting checked luggage: we cram in with the crowd at the very start of the conveyor belt, right at those black car-washy rubbery strips that sit between Us and Our Things, and we crane our necks and squint our eyes to ensure we have sight of our items the very second they show up, so as not to have to wait a few more seconds for them to drift a few more meters downstream.
We wait and we worry, and we wait more and we worry more. The crowd dissipates and the revolving river of luggage begins to dry up. We confirm with the airport workers milling about, for a third time, that our big bike boxes will indeed be making their entrance through this skinny little doorway with the flappy things dangling down and not some other oversized baggage portal. They, for the third time, assure us the boxes will come.
And then, there they are. They pop out one after the other and the first box immediately catches onto a corner wall of the belt. It stops like a tree branch moored in a narrow brook and all manner of items begin piling up behind it: the other box, little suitcases, other oversized baggage. I hop up onto the carousel and rush to deconstruct the burgeoning dam.
We haul our boxes onto stable ground, wheel them to a quiet corner of the airport, and slice through the layers of packaging tape holding them shut. With trepidation, we peer inside.
They look just fine.
Forty minutes later, our bicycles are ready to roll. We have reattached the pedals, the wheels, the racks, the handlebars, the saddles, the baskets, and of course the panniers. We dispose of our bike boxes and pump up our tires and wheel them into the crisp air of a wintry Moroccan afternoon. We glance at our map, chart a route to the coast that will avoid both the highways and the city, and then we ride.
We cut across farms and fields and bump our way along old dirt paths. We pass through a town here or a busy intersection there, but our first dozen kilometers on the outskirts of Casablanca are pleasant and quiet and rejuvenating. It feels wonderful to be pedaling again. It's a delight to return to Morocco.
Right: this isn't my first time here (Lauren's either). Two years ago, when I first came to realize that traveling long distances by bicycle (for enjoyment) was a thing people did and a thing I could do too, I flew to Marrakesh (incidentally, via Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport) to try out this strange, novel method of vacationing for myself. I spent a month pedaling solo: south, then west, then north, then east. A big, beautiful loop around Morocco's southern wonders. I crossed mountain ranges and camped in the desert and read books on empty beaches and ate fantastic tajine in colorful old medinas. And it was, indeed, enjoyable. Very much so. It was one of the most terrific, rewarding, care-free months of my life.
And thus it is good to be back. New bike, different route, plus of course, this time, an amazing partner to share it all with. But still Morocco feels familiar: the enchanting hymn raining down from the minarets. The delicious smell of stewed couscous wafting over from roadside stands. Those colors, everywhere.
We pedal and I savor the sensations, lost in the old memories suddenly made fresh. Then the evening call to prayer beckons me back to reality. Oh, right. It is twilight. It will be dark soon and we have nowhere to sleep.
The road has grown busy and the settlements alongside are deeply clustered. There is little empty space and certainly nothing hidden. Wild camping won't be an option.
Some years ago, finding myself and my partner in a foreign country on the brink of dusk with limited funds, limited language, and traveling at a very limited speed (that of a heavy bicycle) would be a cause for concern. Fear, anxiety, panic, something. But travel, broadly, and this journey, specifically, have taught me, if nothing else, that the world isn't all so scary. We have been on the road for almost half a year and many of those nights—maybe most of those nights—we have not known where we'd be resting our heads twenty minutes before the sky turned to ink. And yet it has worked out. Not some times. Not most times. Every single time. Some nights we have found ourselves pitching a tent in dense, prickly brush, and some nights we have found ourselves, well before the stars have woken, eating roasted ground nuts around a small fire with some new friend we've only just met. We never know what to expect, but we expect we will find ourselves somewhere safe. We always have.
And we always do. Two hours later, four hours after landing in Morocco, we are camped on the front patio of a restaurant. Its owner has kindly let us pitch there for the night. We've eaten well and enjoyed our first few glasses of sweet Moroccan tea, minty and steaming, a shot of liquid warmth for the cold twelve hours ahead. To help us through the cold, the proprietor—before leaving for the evening—has left a tall stack of thick wool blankets outside our tent. We sleep warm and safe. We sleep well.
So, Lauren speaks Arabic. I knew this, abstractly. I knew she studied it in college and spoke it well once, but she'd always told me she'd forgotten all of it, most of it. Not speaking any Arabic myself, I took her word for it.
But she lies. Or maybe she's just modest. She'll insist I don't share any of this, but I shall anyway. Lauren's Arabic is very impressive.
I'm not the only one who thinks so. In the morning, as we pack up our tent, a friendly Moroccan man asks us where we're headed. He speaks French (which we don't), and very little English (which we do), and of course Arabic. As far as tourists go, he's presumably used to English-speaking monoglots (like me, give or take un poco español)—or at least folks who don't speak Arabic—so he's visibly and emphatically pleased when Lauren starts conversing in salaams and shukrans and plenty of words I cannot follow.
They talk for a half-hour. He buys us breakfast. Mint tea. I sit there dumbly, smiling when I think it's appropriate to smile based on the tenor of the conversation, and Lauren does a great job sharing the ins and outs of our trip and our lives: where we've been, where we'd headed, where we're from, and bunches more that go right over my head. The sun rises and the day warms.
Our journey resumes. We catch sight of the Atlantic, our first time since leaving Cape Town, and we follow it north past the condominiums and mega-complexes of Morocco's northern coast. The skies are blue, the weather exceptional, the terrain flat, the roads smooth like butter. Civilization is everywhere—gas stations, grocery stores—and I quickly come to understand that carrying six or eight liters of water at a time is no longer necessary. I down-size to a negligible two, which down in the dry distances of southern Africa would be recklessly little. Here, it's more than enough.
Things are easy. Easy, for now, is good. We ride and we break for lunch. Lunch is cheap. Lunch is delicious. Cheap is good. Delicious is good.
On our way to Rabat, Morocco's capital, we stop at a service station and borrow a wrench from a mechanic to tighten Lauren's wobbly kickstand. A guy on a big fancy bike pulls in behind us. He's from Greece. He's traveling by bicycle, like us. Across countries, like us. He flew into Nouaceur yesterday, like us. He's headed south though, to Senegal, through Western Sahara and Mauritania. But before he gets moving, he needs to sort out his Mauritanian visa in Rabat. North. So we agree to head over together.
Rabat is a marvelous, low-key capital. It has a sleepy old walled medina with pretty doors and skinny alleys and plenty of souks. It feels unique among Moroccan cities in that its merchants don't really seem all too interested in selling things. In Marrakesh, in Fes, in Meknes and Chefchaouen and Tangier, they'll call to you as you walk by and shout to please-come-have-a-look and promise a good price and insist that whatever they're selling is one-of-a-kind and authentic and no-wait-please-come-back.
But in Rabat they don't appear to care. You poke your head into a little shop, maybe no bigger than a bus shelter, and maybe even take a step in to have a look at this or that. And the shopowner will maybe glance up from his newspaper and maybe smile and maybe offer a muffled salaam before returning to whatever he's reading. An unspoken hey if you want anything just ask but until then I'll be reading my paper. And this makes the whole place appealingly relaxed and remarkably stress-free.
We walk around. We stay a few nights. We find a spot that makes great sandwiches for very cheap and we eat a lot of those sandwiches. We chat with Labis, our new Greek friend, and meet up at night to drink thick syrupy tea in a dim attic of a teahouse, air dense with the smell of tobacco and hookah and cannabis. We sleep in well past the morning call to prayer and eat more sandwiches.
Labis sorts out his visa. Though he's ultimately headed south, and us north, we're all journeying a little east first. Inland. He's sticking around one more day to collect his paperwork. We take off, planning to see him a few days from now in Meknes.
The skies become less blue and the weather less exceptional and the terrain less flat and the roads less smooth. We climb up a steep pass and careen down the other side of the escarpment. We once again confront the inconvenient, untimely retreat of a hastily setting sun.
The land along the roadside is fairly empty yet cultivated. A few farmers mill about in the distance. Lauren, chock-full of useful Arabic, approaches one to ask if we might camp on a patch of grass. They discuss for a few minutes while I pick at the fraying ends of my handlebar tape. Lauren and the man walk together back to the bikes.
It's not his land, as it turns out, but he's happy to escort us over to the landholder. The three of us trot a few hundred meters along the shoulder to a small cement house.
A father and his son are packing up their car, about to pull off. The man from the field and the man at the car discuss in quick Arabic who we are (Americans) and what we're looking for (just a little patch of dirt). The father's face lights up immediately, and he and his son introduce themselves and shake our hands.
Of course they have space, they say. They lead us past the gate and across the field to a chicken coop of sorts. Not wooden and confining, not like that. Just a little patch of dirt, maybe three meters by three meters, with four sections of fencing and a low-hanging roof. Oh, and no chickens. No chicken droppings, either. If it is indeed a chicken coop, the chickens have yet to roost.
The roof will provide shelter from the rain, if rain comes, the little boy explains. The clouds above look like they haven't yet made up their mind whether to empty their contents onto our tent this evening, like maybe they're still considering it, so the overhead cover is certainly welcome. We thank our three generous benefactors with wide smiles and effusive shukrans.
The father says he and his son are headed back to Rabat, where they live, for the evening. He instructs his son to bring something from inside, and the boy rushes into the house and returns with a pair of reclining lawn chairs, one at a time. Then blankets. Pillows, maybe, if I recall. We explain we have it all covered, or at least try to, but they insist.
And then, just as we're about situated, a thought occurs to the father. On second thought, you might as well just sleep in the house. He discusses with the man from the field. He gives us the key. He waves goodbye, and him and his son take off for Rabat.
The farmhand makes sure we're okay before he leaves too. He hands us a stack of blankets and tells us to make ourselves comfortable on the couches. And, in true and typical Moroccan fashion, he insists on brewing us a pot of Moroccan tea, loaded up with mint and sugar and served in small, etched glasses.
We drink the tea in slow, savoring sips. Like the people of Morocco, it is strong. And sweet. And warm. A rich, lingering warmth that envelops the body and permeates to the bone.
And then, we sleep.