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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Africa, welcome to

Man reading Quran in Marocco
'Marruecos?' I could read the question from the lips of the driver. I nodded to confirm and a second later I was sitting in a truck with the driver from Seville. I spent five hours asking around in one of the car parks hidden between hangars in the port of Algeciras, without any luck. And I found a lift in a few minutes just in front of the last gate before the boarding area, only with my thumb up. Surprised, not the first time. On the ferry all the truck drivers had a free dinner so I had one as well. With a full stomach and the first stamp in my passport I arrived in Tanger Med, a new port forty kilometres from the city of Tanger, when it was already dark. I found out that there was a free bus to the city, but I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to end up there late without any place to sleep. I decided to walk up the road to find some hidden spot. I was afraid that gendarmerie would stop me from walking in the dark, but it looked like they didn't care.

In the morning I started to hitch at the beginning of the motorway, next to another gendarmerie checkpoint. They were checking cars once in a while and I soon found out why. They noticed kids hidden under one of the trucks heading towards the port. A cop slapped a boy and shouted at them like crazy. These kids were dreaming about Europe, like many people in Africa. Europe I could see from the road, just on the other side of the strait.

Hitching was easy, it took me only two lifts to get to Rabat. The landscape most of the time was much greener than I expected. Atlantic influence. In the afternoon I ended up in the outskirts of the capital of Morocco. Brand new tram for just three dirhams brought me to the heart of the city where I met Momo, a couchsurfer who lived in the medina, the old town surrounded by walls. Entering medina was like diving into a different world. Very narrow streets were packed with people selling all the things you can imagine. A shoe seller next to a carpet seller, food stall next to a lamp seller, motorbike workshop and sunglasses. Smell of chilli mixing with rotten oranges floating down the gutter. And then cumin, one of my favourite spice, almost not used in European cuisines mixing with a smell of barbecue. All that accompanied with Arabic music from many CD stalls, shouting of kids running around and mumbling of beggars. When we finally arrived in a flat Momo was renting, the whole world was spinning around me. I was on a carousel of my first Moroccan experience.

Momo's place was freshly renovated old apartment with a kind of patio inside the building. Momo himself was a tour guide with a head covered with short dreadlocks. He was working all around the country mostly with Italian tourists. There was also Valerie staying in the flat, a girl from England visiting Morocco again. The next day Momo showed me a little bit around. It was Friday, the day of the most important prayers in the Muslim religion, so the streets were half empty. Friday however was not a day off, people just worked less hours and on Saturday and Sunday they had a proper weekend. Friday was also a family day, when people gathered together after mosque for couscous, traditional Moroccan meal. We also cooked a big dinner, not couscous though, as we had guests coming over, two immigrants from Ivory Coast, who just started their first job. They were fixing shoes in one of hundreds of stalls of the old town. Momo was helping them to settle in the new country, Morocco meant better life for them.

In the morning, after breakfast on the roof of Momo's house I went to the beginning of the motorway to Casablanca. I was planning to go straight to Agadir, but it was more than five hundred kilometres away from Rabat. It could be hard to make it in one day, so I decided to stop in Marrakech for a day or two. I was hitching with a sign to avoid taxis and buses stopping and offering me lifts, obviously not for free. Just in a few minutes I was surrounded by curious kids asking me many questions in fluent French, which was the second language of Morocco. The remnants of the colonial times.

After half an hour I had a lift with Tawfik and Mohammed, two technicians working for telecommunications company. Their job involved lots of moving around, sometimes as far as Burkina Faso. When I heard that name I realised I'm in a completely different sphere of connections. Tawfik was really surprised that I hitched all the way from Poland and when I told him about my further plans, I could spot some kind of disbelief in his eyes. I think it sounded surreal for many people, sometimes even for me. They dropped me off near Mohammedia at a service station which looked very European, but with one big difference, there was a mosque behind a restaurant. I first thought Morocco would be more like Turkey, where religion was separated from the state. But no, in Morocco religion was touching every aspect of life and the idea of atheism was completely not understood.

Woman in scarf in the street of Rabat, Morocco
At the station there was one old man who was showing drivers if it was safe to drive out from a car park. He expected some small change for his service. It was his way of begging and I could later see many people doing that. I spent a few hours hitching there without any success. After it got dark two gendarmes came to me and told that it was dangerous to hitch by night. I wasn't really going to do this, but it was getting dark early, earlier than in Spain, as they used Greenwich time in Morocco. Around 8 pm I decided to find a place to sleep in a pine forest that surrounded the station. It looked different than coniferous forests in the north. The trees had a shape of a shallow wine glass, all the green part was on a flat top as the sun was getting closer to zenith and the rays sometimes were nearly vertical. I was a bit scared to sleep close to the station, my backpack full of dirty clothes still had some value for people who had nothing and had to beg. I walked a mile or two away to feel more safe and quickly fell asleep.

Early morning I saw the beggar from the car park again. I wondered how many hours he was spending there every day. When he saw me hitching again, he took out bread from his bag and offered me. It really touched me. I just couldn't take it, even though I was a bit hungry, it just didn't feel right. I had a lift in twenty minutes with a mid-age woman dressed very traditionally, which surprised me as she was driving alone. After all women could be independent here if they wanted. Her name was Saida which meant happy. All the names in Arabic world had meanings, something we basically lost in many parts of Europe. Saida was going for a funeral of her aunt in Berrechid and when we arrived there she asked me to join her. I refused her invitation, I still remembered how embarrassed I felt when I ended up once by accident at an orthodox funeral in Ukraine. It's such a sad and very private thing.

Berrechid was an industrial town with no tourists at all, so many people welcomed me and wanted to shake my hand. I started to walk towards the motorway junction. The landscape was pretty flat around and green crops were growing till the horizon. I could hear skylarks in the sky and for a moment I felt like being in Poland in a springtime. Once I noticed palm trees my mind was back to where I really was. Fucking hell, I thought, I'm in Morocco. I felt Said. Before I reached the motorway a car stopped next to me. Two guys were asking me something. All I could understand was Marrakech, so I started to repeat: Autostop à Marrakech! A few seconds later I was sitting in their car, having a lift straight to my next destination. After some basic chat in French I found out they were working for agriculture company in Casa. They stopped to ask me for directions as they didn't know the way. Lucky me, again.

After around hundred kilometres of monotonous green fields we passed the first hills and entered plateau which was much drier. Crops were much smaller and fiery red soil could be seen in between the blades of grass. Villages we were passing were made of sundried bricks and sometimes covered with red clay. I felt I was getting closer and closer to Sahara. I was dreaming about her for so long and she was so close. Every little while we could see old drilling rigs searching for new water sources. After reaching the top of another chain of hills we had the city of Marrakech at our feet and misty view of snow-covered High Atlas behind. It was like a postcard made in Photoshop.

In the centre of the modern part of the city I met Azedine, a tall skinny guy with dreadlocks till his neck. He was my next host from CS. We took a grand taxi to Massira, a dormitory district of Marrakech, where he lived with his mother. I sat on a back seat of an old Mercedes with Azedine and two other people. In the front there was a driver and two more passengers. It was packed to the maximum. It operated on selected route, there was no meter and it costed just 4 dirhams, no matter how far you were going. Cheap and effective.

Azedine lived in a humble, three room flat in one of many red painted blocks of Massira. There were also his aunt and cousin staying over for a few days. In the evening I met Federico, Italian couchsurfer who was crushing at Azedine's as well. He didn't look very Italian with his long blond hair, long beard and bright djellaba on, a traditional long robe worn by both men and women, with long sleeves and spiky hood. He studied Arabic language and culture for three years and decided to discover the world by hitching around. It was also his first time in Morocco.

The next morning, after breakfast made of bread, olive oil, jam and mint tea, me and Fede went to discover the medina of Marrakech. It was different than the one in Rabat. First of all it was massive, you could wander around for days. In its centre there was a square called Jemaa el Fnaa, the busiest city square in Africa. There were Berbers playing drums and dancing, guys hypnotising cobras with their flutes, juwelry sellers and stalls offering fresh orange juice, with oranges carefully piled up. Walking along the souqs or stalls wasn't easy, because we both looked European, even though Fede had his djellaba on. Many vendors were offering their goods, false guides were following us trying to show us around. My dreadlocks were also attracting attention. I could hear: 'Hey rasta how are you? Hashish? Very good, best Moroccan stuff!' Or sometimes just: 'Shishi? Shishi?' I tried to understand some of these guys. A European meant for them a person with money, and when you have one of thousands similarly looking souqs, the only way to advertise yourself is by direct contact with people. But it was annoying.

When we left the most tourist part we were shocked by the view of blacksmiths working in almost medieval conditions. For both of us Morocco was a cultural shock. And I thought I knew a bit about that culture, as I lived once with a Tunisian guy in Dublin. How wrong I was. We noticed that people reused nearly everything in here. It was much more sustainable than Europe. Probably it was like that of a necessity not a choice, probably people in Morocco were dreaming about comfortable western lifestyle, where you don't fix things, you just buy new ones. But was our way really better?

It was good to have Fede around. Even though he studied standard Arabic not Darija, Moroccan dialect, which was way different, it was still easier for him to communicate than for me. Names and prices were nearly ever displayed, so if I wanted to buy some food I didn't even know where to start from. So Fede introduced me to simple meals locals ate. We had lubia, warm beans in olive oil and bread and later we went for harira, a thick soup with veggies and pasta, sometimes served with dried dates.

I spent a few more days in Marrakech wandering around with Azedine, his cousin Yussif, Fede and two more couchsurfers, Ivana and Boyana who came from Zagreb. It was a great time, it felt like we knew each other for years, like visiting old friends. In the same time I was discovering so many new things about Morocco, Italy, Balkans. When I found out that Fede was going in the same direction we decided to hitch together through High Atlas.

On Thursday morning we took a local bus to Tahnaout and from there we had a quick lift to Moulay Brahim. Once we ended up there, we were approached by a man, who quickly offered us his hospitality. When Fede was talking to him in Arabic I was observing one man trying to scare off a stray dog. Suddenly another guy got out from a pickup, took his rifle and shot the dog. At first I couldn't believe what I just saw, but a minute later it felt strangely natural, it felt this was the way they dealt with dogs overpopulation. After tea with the man we refused offered hospitality. It was just too quick and that's why we didn't trust him, specially Fede, as he was invited once by someone and asked for money the next morning. Unfortunately there are people who only see profit in you.

Tajine - a popular dish in Moroccan cuisine
Tajine - one of popular dishes
We climbed up the village, where we had a fantastic view of Toubkal, the highest mount of Atlas. It's snowy peak was covered by heavy clouds, which were getting darker and darker. In the afternoon it started to rain and continued the whole evening. We were sitting inside a small restaurant when we met Mokhtar, a young local man, who heard us speaking English and soon joined our table. His name meant the chosen one. He studied French law in Casablanca and later worked in a hotel in Marrakech. But after a few years of city life he decided to come back to his home town to help his brother running a small restaurant. Family was still very important here. We asked Mokhtar if it was safe to camp outside. He didn't like this idea and told us that his friend could host us for free in his guest house. All we needed was authorisation by local police. We didn't really understand why, but after we gave policemen our details, we were able to crash for a night in a small room with mattresses and blankets. Great example of Moroccan hospitality. Mokhtar showed us around and took to some kind of youth club with video games, snooker and table football. We played with the kids a few rounds and it was amazing experience, full of joy and laugh. Football was definitely the most known game in the world. It sometimes divided people, but that time it was uniting us. Suddenly joy changed into sadness. Message spread around the village that one of the boys died at his home. Everyone was shocked. Death is so close to life, but in every day life we prefer to not remember about it.

The next day, after breakfast we were standing on the road, enjoying the sun again.
'In the morning I love to imagine what will happen to me today', said Fede, 'and than in the evening compare it with the reality. You would never imagine what happened to us yesterday.'
That was true and I loved it as well, when you travel everything is so unpredictable. After two lifts, one of which was with a Moroccan who lived in Italy, so Fede was very happy, we ended up in a village which was not marked on our maps. The sun was hiding from time to time behind clouds. We could sense some kind of laziness in the air, maybe because we knew it was Friday. Standing on the crossroad we met a local guy who was walking with a blond woman. She was American and we first thought she was a tourist with a guide, but we soon found out she lived there for ten years. Somehow we started to talk about anarchist movements and when I mentioned Noam Chomsky she said: 'I know him very well, we met many times in Boston.' Me and Fede looked at each other, both thinking: 'Wow, what a random situation.'

The next driver brought us in his truck to a mine field, higher up in the mountains. There was almost nothing around, so we started to walk to get to a village and have some lunch. After food we were hitching in front of a shop and a minute later a blond guy on a bicycle stopped next to us.
'Are you Polish?', he asked.
'Yeah I am.' I answered surprised.
'I saw your Campus backpack.'
I started to laugh. I didn't expect anyone could recognise my nationality by the brand of my backpack. We switched to Polish, and I found out he was cycling around Morocco for a while. He stopped to get some water. I told him about my travel and in the same time Fede found a lift. It was a truck full of bags with hay. The driver told us to hop on the top. Wow, what a lift! I wished a good luck to the Polish lad and climbed up the truck. The wind was blowing in our hair, little drops of rain were piercing the skin on our face, it was actually bit chilly, but we were shouting loud excited as kids. It was definitely the best hitching experience I ever had. We were passing villages which smelled with fruit trees in blossom. The locals were looking curiously at us. When we stopped in Ijjoukak the driver asked us for a small change. Fede wasn't happy but I didn't mind.

In the village we met a group of English people, who were going to Tizi 'n Test, a mountain pass more than two thousand metres above sea level. They were all into paragliding and the pass was a perfect spot for that. They didn't have a space in their van, but they were waiting for another girl who was driving alone, so soon after we were sitting in her old van driven up the pass. Dark navy sky was stained with red shapes as sun was about to set for the night. We were going higher and higher the winding road and at some point we could see snow on the windscreen. When we reached the pass, the sky on the other side was clear. The stars seemed so close, I could nearly touch them. There was a hotel in which most of the group was staying. It was possible to camp outside the hotel for free and after dinner cooked of leftover pasta, rice and olives, we lied down in a small tent Federico travelled with, rolled up with all the clothes we had. The temperature dropped well below zero that night, but we survived.

When we unzipped the tent in the morning we were amazed by the view of the Oued Sous valley below, and Anti-Atlas behind it. They were the last barrier before the endless sands and rocks of Sahara. We walked down to the nearest restaurant for breakfast, where we met Belgian couple who offered us a lift. They were running a hotel in Taroudant, a town on the way to Agadir. The valley was full of argan trees with goats climbing on them to eat the leaves and fruits. On one of the junction I gave a goodbye hug to Fede, as he was heading east towards Zagora. We both wished each other meeting again in some other part of the world. The Belgians invited me for a lunch to their hotel. It was in a renovated riad, with beautiful garden and a small swimming pool just in the centre of the medina. They bought it three years ago, and the business was very successful. After lunch I found a lift in a few minutes straight to Agadir.

From the centre of the city I was picked up by Aziz, a tall lad with afro on his head and flip flops on his feet. He had an old Volkswagen van from 1974. Beautiful. There was a surfing board in the back, as he was crazy about it. I felt like being in some old surfer movie. He was also working in a surf shop, fixing boards, as Agadir was one of the best surfing areas in the world.

The first thing I wanted to discover in Agadir was obviously the marina. It was time to go back to bateaustop as they called it in French. There were not many boats in the marina, but access to the pontoons was possible as the locks on gates didn't work. I managed to speak with Hughes and Caroline, a couple from Paris, who were going soon to Cape Verde. They were not sure if they would stop in the Canaries, because it was pretty late, but if they would I could go with them. They were going to send me an email in two, three days. It sounded promising, but I was trying to not get excited so I wouldn't feel disappointed. Time was passing and I was enjoying the sun, the beach and beautiful food Aziz mother was cooking. One evening she cooked couscous especially for me even though it wasn't Friday and she hadn't even met me. Aziz family was very traditional and as a stranger I couldn't see her without proper clothes, which she didn't wear at home. Some cultural differences could be hard to understand.

After two days I received an email from Hughes. It started with the words: 'About the lift to Cape Verde it would be okay for us...' Have I hitched my first boat? Straight to Cape Verde? I was wondering, reading the email again and again. I felt I could fly.