The police officer never showed up at my hotel, but my taxi driver took me to Tafoukt and I could see right away that it wasn’t a tourists hotel, but a stopover for locals passing through the bus station right beside it. When I signed in, I was the only person in weeks who wrote in roman letters, all the previous guests writing right to left in Arabic. I worried about getting a tourist price for a room, but the quote of 30 dirham (less than 3 euros) seemed about as cheap as it could get. The rooms more closely resembled prison cells than hotel rooms, with cement walls, small barred windows higher than eye level, and a bare bed equipped with something that kind of resembled a pillow.
I didn’t care to spend too much time there, so left my bag and wandered out to the busy street scene. I found a couple of snake charmers who had a hard time controlling their snakes, so after one almost escaped into the audience, I carried on. I was only walking alone for 5 minutes before the hotel guy who checked me in found me, and insisted on escorting me through the town. Everything that I stopped to look at he asked the price and asked me if he could buy it for me. I said no over and over, but was also trying to buy a few things, but he would not let me pay, so in the end he bought me two bangles, 30 minutes of internet café time, a bowl of snails (to eat), a coca cola, and a dinner of tangine. This was two or three times more than the price I paid to stay at his hotel, so I expected a large bill when I checked out, but instead he baught me a coffee and croissant for breakfast, escorted me to the grandtaxis, waited for it to fill, and made sure I paid the right price.
I got kind of stuck in a small city called Abaynou after sunset because the hotel I planned to stay at was fully booked. I wanted to bathe in the natural thermal baths in the town but they too were closed only for Moroccan families. I stood at the entrance of the hotel with the guard wondering outloud what to do, and a jolly French man emerged from a truck parked a few metres away. He stole the attention of the guard and they started talking about some lost guy he was waiting for and that this guy was on his way, on his way, coming any minute. The truck was pulling a horse trailer and I figured out that the guy was lost on a horse, and the French man was waiting for them to drive them home. I asked the French man if he had more horses, and where he was headed once he found the lost guy. He had a farm with 20 horses about 1 hr away, on the coast, which was also a hotel, and I immediately invited myself to it. He said fine, so long as he helped me find the lost horse and rider, and about 1 hr later they appeared out of the dark and we loaded the sweaty horse into the trailer.
We arrived almost 2 hours later at Ranch les 2 Gazelles, and in the total dark I could just hear and smell the horses surrounding the grounds. I was given the key to my room and then dined with the staff and planned my next day. Me and the lost rider would take 2 horses and try to find the right trail he never found, and it would take 5 hours through the mountains, 32km, through the heat of the day. We had the most extraordinary scenery, riding through remote rural villages and passing donkeys loaded with this and that, and enjoyed the satisfying feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, but in the end we found the trail and survived with the help of 2 fresh water wells on the way to keep our horses from exhaustion. The next day we took two crazies to the beach and galloped them over the dunes and through the wake of the waves, and it was almost impossible to leave after that, not only because I had found paradise, but because hitchhiking from this random farm took a few hours.
I got picked up by a younger Frenchman and his Guinean friends, who were probably more uncomfortable with picking me up than I had been to hitchhike. They were more than safe, and started worrying about leaving me in the next town, so wouldn’t let me out of sight until I had found the right bus to my next destination.
I was going next to Casablanca, where I found a couchsurf host that didn’t seem to be interested in a girlfriend or marriage, and he turned out to be wonderful. He was Moroccan but lived in Paris, smoked like a Parisian, and was incredibly intelligent. We had the most interesting conversations that lasted for hours, days even, about music, economics, poverty, prostitution, existential philosophy, and love. I was supposed to leave after 2 days, but I dragged him with me to my next 3 stops: Rabat, Asilah, and Tanger. It helped that he spoke Arabic, and beside him, people also started to assume I was Moroccan, so my last week of travel in his care seemed mindless after the struggle of backpacking around solo in southern Morocco.
I made many other friends, through horses and camels and surfing, and in Taghazout I met all of the above. Abrahim and his 3 yr old mare waited with his dad and two camels to sell some tourist a photo or a ride, and in the end I was sitting on his camel wrapped in his head scarf having pictures taken of me by his phone… it’s a strange sensation when you become the tourist attraction and people who live of the tourist dollar refuse your money.
Morocco has been one of the only countries where people have been more concerned about my money than me, not trying to rip me off but actually trying to save me money or pay for me. It was hard to appreciate, since it creates a strange sense of suspicion. But, over and over people proved to be giving their best hospitality without expecting anything in return other than your friendship and a promise to return one day for more hospitality. So now I owe a lot of people a lot of visits, and my favourite Moroccan in Casablanca still has my Berber hat I need to return for.
Even if you’re not religious, everyone has heard of the Holy Land, including especially Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Everyone also knows about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, although one or the other may not be recognized by some, and it seems impossible to have an opinion on the matter without being considered anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. The most confusing thing is to have both Israeli and Arabic friends, despite what religion they practice or if they even identify as Jewish or Muslim, since the Holy Land is also filled with Christians and atheists. Then there are also Arabic Jews, like the Yemeni’s who have a huge presence in Israel, and the Christians are divided between Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholics from all over Europe, North America and the Middle East. The land is considered holy by all these groups, but slight differences in beliefs and customs still make some hate eachother with a vengeance I’d never thought religious groups could tolerate.
Despite the tensions and daily threat of terrorism, I still felt uneasy with the extreme Israeli security. I was questioned and searched both on my way in and out of Israel with utmost scrutiny, as if I had already been targeted as guilty of something dangerous but neither of us knew what. Traveling by public bus and walking around the pedestrian streets, I crossed paths with visibly armed civilians and 18 year old female soldiers carrying M16’s, yet Palestinians were stopped, searched, and detained if they even had so much as a kitchen knife on their person. I was never sure if people could see I was a tourist, or if they suspected I’d be Israeli or Palestinian, but so much artillery out in the open never made me feel safer. The Israeli police and soldiers, who are everywhere, especially in Palestine, would sometimes have their guns pointed on my from barricaded roof tops where I saw nothing but deep down the barrel of a rifle. It was always unclear who was protecting or who was suspecting.
Jerusalem is primarily in Israel, although East Jerusalem has a Palestinian town that you can only enter through a checkpoint. A part of touristy old Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, is a shrine that Muslims control, but still you have to enter through an Israeli check point and I couldn’t enter because it was the wrong time of day. I could visit the 19m high West Wall, the only part of the Temple Mount complex left standing and thus considered the most holy place in Judaism.
I was also allowed to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Bethlehem, the burial place of Abraham who both the Jews and Muslims consider a fore-father. The building around it is split in half between a Mosque and a Synagogue, and both entrances are controlled by Israeli’s, similar to the whole city of Hebron which the tomb is located. Its a city of 11,000 Arabs surrounding a fortified settlement of 500 jews protected by 1,600 Israeli soldiers. Still the Israeli’s control where the Palestinians can walk, open shops, worship, or run businesses, and the old town of Hebron and Shuhada street, once bustling market places, are ghost towns today.
Only in Tel Aviv was the city free of checkpoints, but instead there were random searches by security guards to enter any public spaces like bus stations or markets. Besides that, the city felt like a bustling neighbourhood in Manhattan, or a Mediterranean sea-side town filled with artsy cafes and high-fashion shops. It was amazing to me it was the same country as Jerusalem, a city plagued with constant terrorist attacks and an uneasy feeling of racism and religious strife. It was even more hard to believe that Palestine doesn’t exist to many, in a place where there were clear boundaries and lines drawn between them and the others, even as extreme as an 8m wall being built around the West Bank. Its not even possible to enter the Gaza strip, making it seem more of an intentional prison than a part of Israel. But who am I to judge, when much of the world still doesn’t understand, so I certainly couldn’t wrap my head around any of it, although something about it all seems very very wrong.
I’ve been in Morocco for a week now, but every day it feels like I’m getting further and further away from home. The lone road south to the Sahara has felt like a never ending journey, and knowing that I have to turn right back around and come back north once I get there makes me not really want to get there. I started in Marrakech, a city that I imaged to be something like Cairo or other great Arabic cities, but was pleasantly surprised by how small, inviting and colourful it was.
I spent my first day wandering into town alone and was met by a Senegalese man named Adams. He was tall, thin, and dark as night, but I welcomed the male company to guide me through the maze of souks we ended up hopelessly lost in. He helped me bargain for the right prices and towered over me like a guard from unwanted harassment, and visited two palaces with me also for his first time. We sat on the sidewalk for some fried bacalou and eggplant that Adams argued should have cost 50 euro cents, not 60, but I didn’t care – it was delicious and cheap and the toothless woman who served us provided endless entertainment every time she tried to speak the Berber neither of us could understand.
The medina, the walled- old town, was a labyrinth of narrow walk ways, sometimes covered, sometimes barely wide enough for a donkey and his carriage to pass, and always required you to move out of the way for motorcycles zooming past. The buildings rose up on each side of you, in shades of pink or beige, totally sealed and shut from outsiders. But once you entered a building, it always opened up to a sunny courtyard, the source of their light and fresh air, proving they weren’t as dark or secret as they seemed.
As I traveled south, through Agadir and onto Guelmim, I took grand taxis between towns. The grand taxis aren’t any bigger than the petite taxis, but their routes are longer, a hundred or more kilometers, and they don’t leave unless they have 6 paying passengers – two in the front seat beside the driver, and 4 in the back. It’s always a struggle to strategically plan which seat you take and beside who you sit, since you have to choose if its more comfortable to be squashed against the hard door and have window access or be sandwiched between two people who may be hard or very soft (which usually means too big). I always got suckered into being squashed between the women if there were two, and their many layers of flowing cloth always spilled over me and their chatter across me kept me both comforted and stuck. I once got unlucky and sat beside a man who insisted on pivoting to face me with his arm around me and his stinky breath breathing down my neck asking me incessant questions. After 20 minutes of this I asked the taxi driver to stop and he thought I wanted to get out there and then in the middle of a mountain pass, and I started to explain I just wanted to change seats but the two women already knew what was wrong and had started shifting for me to get sandwiched between them. They held my arm and smiled knowingly, and then yelled at the man and the taxi driver for the rest of 1 hour drive.
In another grand taxi, I thought the woman wanted to take me home with her, but she just wanted me to get out of the car to hold my hands for a moment, muttered some words, nodded her head and bowed many times – Im still not sure what the gesture meant but it was nice. In the last grand taxi I took, the 300km long haul to La Ayoune, I shared the backseat with 3 very large Saharan women, which meant I was only left with half an ass cheek on the seat and could only lean back if I lay on one of their breasts. Thankfully we stopped halfway for a lunch break and I was summoned by one woman to walk down to the beach with her to share her lunch. We ate bread and tangine and oranges, and sat in silence taking in the sight and serenity of the polluted beach around us. She showed me the henna on her ankles and arms, and jingled the bangles on my arm in an approving way. When we returned to the grand taxi, the other woman took turns walking up beside me and just standing close in a protective motherly way, and they also jingled my bangles. One sprayed me with 10 or more sprays of perfume, all over my neck and arms, which may have meant I stank or it was just a normal thing to do after we’d eaten.
All of these run ins would have been so much better understood if I could speak Arabic or Berber, but I still enjoyed the game of experiencing one another without a common language. My Arabic has still increased from 3 words to about 20 words, all of which have some in handy at one point or another for me to need to learn them. The administrative language is French which meant I could always talk with police men, which turned out to be useful for the many road checks we got stopped by. The more comfortable and cheaper bus refused to take me the last 300km to La Ayoune because of the road blocks, since foreigners always warranted unwanted attention by police officers.
The last police check was just outside La Ayone, and the police officer asked some basic questions and walked away with my passport (which is always cause for cold sweat). He returned and let me grab the passport, but wouldn’t let go unless I told him what hotel I was staying at. The greasy smile by which he asked me this made me sure it wasn’t part of the routine police check, but I still felt I had to answer him. I couldn’t lie either because I didn’t know the name of any other hotel or if there even was more than a handful of them, so I told him ‘Tafoukt’ (which means sun in Berber) and he said ‘Of course, I should have guessed, since you have no sun in Iceland now’ and winked. (to be continued and pictures added later…)