It is raining. We are damp.
It is pouring. We are soaked.
It is morning. The morning after the evening in which we were kindly given a house to sleep in when all we were looking for was a little bit of grass. We slept well, we packed our things, and we set off for Meknes.
And then came the rain.
Lots of rain.
And now we are wet.
We have rain gear, thankfully. Good impermeable layers. Rain pants, rain coats. Waterproof socks (which are really the greatest thing) and "waterproof" overshoes (which are really not). Our rain coats have hoods, to keep our heads dry.
Oh, and we also have gloves. "Waterproof" gloves. I almost forgot to mention them because they do not work. The rest of the stuff, it's pretty decent. It keeps you dry, dry-ish. Inevitably some water will find its way in through the openings where arms and legs and necks go. Plus sweat, trapped inside with little room to escape. But the gloves, the ones that promise to keep water out, they don't work. They absorb the water and transfer it to your skin. We have not used them this entire trip (we had very little rain in southern Africa) and so we are only discovering their severe shortcomings right now.
Cold hands, cold feet, cold everything. We don't make it very far before finding an open cafe and collapsing into it. We leave our bikes outside in the downpour and spend half the day sitting around, drinking tea, and drying our clothes on the back of our adjacent chairs as inconspicuously as possible.
Eventually we trudge on. The rain lightens a little and we make slow, soggy progress up into the hills. Little sun breaks through the dense layer of storm clouds, and soon (having passed most of the day indoors) the world around us grows dark.
We're halfway through a long climb, olive groves on one side of the road and a steep precipice on the other. We choose the side with the olive trees, not the cliff, and push our bikes off the asphalt—
—and right into the mud. It squelches underfoot, red and tacky, gripping to our overshoes and our rain pants and every last bit of our bicycles. Like dough a little short on the flour. We heave them forward and the clay clings to our tires and hitches a ride to our forks and seat stays, where it accumulates in a disgusting clump of sticks and stones and muck and hay.
We pitch our tent carefully. We do our damnedest to set it up and climb inside without tracking mud everywhere, but this is of course impossible and the floor and walls and fly are soon covered in it. Everything is wet, and everything is cold. Night falls. It gets wetter, and colder, and of course nothing dries. We wake up filthy and damp.
We return to the roadside. We take sticks and poke at the mud clusters that have consumed the lower half of our bikes, tangles of twigs thick as birds' nests. We clear away enough so that our wheels will turn, and remove whatever grime has set in around our brake rotors, and then we continue up the hill, probably carrying an additional two or three kilos of recently acquired earth with us.
But it's sunny, this new day. It's sunny and warm, and soon we're pulling into Meknes, one of Morocco's (many) former capitals. Like the other imperial cities of Morocco's past, it features a winding medina and big imposing walls, along with cheap lodging and cheap food. And so we roam the medina. We marvel at the walls. And after dropping our things at a very grimy but very cheap guesthouse, we eat tons of delicious, inexpensive food.
We stay in Meknes for two days. We see Labis, fresh from Rabat with his Mauritanian go-ahead. On the second day Lauren and I leave our bikes at the guesthouse and pile into a small taxi sedan with too many other passengers and too few seatbelts. We ride thirty kilometers into the countryside, climb many hundreds of meters of elevation, and congratulate ourselves for having the good sense not to have biked here on our day off.
We disembark in a quiet valley. We're a few kilometers from Volubilis, the remnants of an old Roman city built some few thousand years ago. We walk down a silent road, enter the complex, and enjoy a long morning walking about the ruins.
We return to Meknes. This time on a bus, which is no less crowded than the group taxi, but just as fast and a tad cheaper. We eat and wander the streets at night. Later we sleep, and later still we wake and pack our things.
We continue to Fes. It's just a day's ride, and as soon as we arrive we find a simple hotel at the edge of its labyrinthine, world-famous medina. We negotiate a good deal for a three-night stay. We stay three nights.
We get lost in the vibrant, sensational souks of Fes. We look at etched lamps and beautiful tapestries and pointy slippers. We explain, when someone tries to sell us an enormous rug or a human-sized statue, that we are traveling by bicycle and these things will not fit on our bicycles. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not.
As has become our custom in Moroccan cities, we find one place we like that serves outrageously good food at outrageously low prices, and we become this establishment's best customers during our short stay in the city. Morocco is the first place we've been on this journey where meager comforts can be stuffed nicely into our meager budget of roughly twenty dollars per day. Where we can actually sleep in a bed and go to a restaurant (neither one fancy, but hey) and still have a few spare dollars at the end of the day for bread, fresh-squeezed juice, and a second or third helping of Moroccan tea.
So, we enjoy. We eat plenty of vegetarian tajine and all kinds of good little pastries and these sandwiches we've found, which we like so much that the night before leaving Fes we order a few extra to take with us on the road.
We see Labis in Fes, once again. It's always a treat to travel a little while with a fellow cyclist, but ultimately every bike traveler is headed her own way. For Labis, that's south; for us, north. This will be the last time we'll meet him in Morocco, maybe ever, and so we share one last meal together before saying our goodbyes.
And then. Clothing (semi-)dry, sandwiches packed away, bicycles carried down the steep, winding steps of our little hotel and pushed to the base of one of Fes's grand, triumphant gates, we ride for the mountains.
Compared to the peaks and passes of the Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges in southern Morocco, these northern mountains are not so imposing. But they are not nothing, either. We spend several long days pedaling in our lowest gears up big, grueling hills. We follow curving roads along serpentine ridges, spill into verdant valleys and sprawling fields. We gain altitude, lose it, collect it right back. After an easy, lazy month, our legs are working hard.
Though it's difficult cycling, we're loving it. Riding up hills always requires most of our lung capacity, but the views take away whatever breath remains. It's gorgeous, here, in nature.
The coast was easy, sure. Flat and littered with conveniences, but consequently quite busy. Loud. Fast-paced and industrialized and pretty unsightly in spots. But here—out here, up here—it's serene. Tranquil. Silent. A car every now and then, maybe, but otherwise it's the sound of nothing but our toil: deep breaths, clicking gears, thick rubber rolling on pebbled road. Fresh air. Clean landscapes. Few people.
In fact, we've underestimated just how few people we'd find. From Casablanca to Fes, we needn't travel far to find a little shop selling bread, a tap offering water, or a basic tavern stewing up heaps of tajine (locating vegetarian tajine was a little trickier, but rarely impossible). Yet here, in the mountains, we are growing hungry. It has been an arduous day of cycling. We certainly have enough food with us to keep ourselves fed, but it's mostly pretzels and cold, dry bread (the sandwiches from Fes have long since been eaten). We're craving a warm meal, even just a hot tea on a firm chair, but the valley behind and ahead shows few signs of life.
I'm not complaining about this lack of civilization—it is all quite beautiful—it's just, you know, sometimes you want some couscous served to you in a clay pot that has sat atop a smoldering fire for half the day, and traveling by bicycle doesn't really lend itself to carrying clay pots and smoldering fires in one's panniers.
Anyway, our map promises us a small settlement a few more kilometers north. The sun is plummeting toward the horizon and we've yet to replace our bike lights that got stolen in Malawi, but the road is empty and a little trace of twilight lingers. We pedal on.
The map doesn't let us down. The town is small but lively (it's not the one pictured above; that's Meknes), with a single restaurant—really just a cafe—serving a few dozen local men sipping tea on the patio.
We ask if they might be stewing up some tajine in the back. We also, naturally, ask if they might be okay with us camping not too far from here. The friendly man managing the cafe gives us the bad news and then the good news: no, we don't really have any tajine, but yes, you're welcome to camp here.
It's not the ideal outcome. Camping outside of town would be easy; it's the hot dinner we really wanted. But by now it's dark and we're tired, so we gratefully accept the space and the evening's menu of cold bread and dry pretzels.
But one of the man's relatives, seated nearby, has overheard our conversation. He proposes a new plan of good news and better news. If we want, there's a cement building, a roomy garage of sorts, just twenty meters away. We're welcome to set up our tent inside and spend the night. And, while we're pitching our tent and drying out our (still wet) clothes, he can run back to his house, right behind the restaurant, and have his mother whip us up some of that vegetarian tajine we asked for.
We truly don't want to be a bother, but he insists on both counts. He ushers us over to the empty restaurant-adjacent building, unlocks the doors, and guides us inside. He leaves us to unpack our things while he puts our order in over at his mother's kitchen, and we get to work draping our clothing over our bikes and tent poles. He comes back to sweep the dust off the floor, which we plead really isn't necessary, but he'll have none of it. He wants us to be comfortable. He sweeps, he leaves. Ten minutes later, he returns.
This won't work, he's decided. He and his family don't want us in their garage. They'd really prefer we didn't sleep here. In fact, he's suddenly insistent.
No, no, not the garage. You'll be so much more comfortable in our house, just over this way. We have a room ready for you, a bed and blankets to keep you warm, and my mother and sisters are already preparing dinner. Please, come with me.
And so we follow.