Humbled on the road – by Ewelina Lucy (Road Less Traveled)
Our first story from Morocco is a story of unconditional kindness and meeting the kind of people who you can only meet when you are hitch-hiking. Read this great warming tale sent by our third contributor Ewelina Lucy, a brave hitch-hiker who is not afraid to hit the road on her own.
This day had many surprising moments in store for us.
First, we get a new hitchhiking mate. In the first town on our way, Tinjedad, an American guy with a guitar, Stevie, joins us. He’s hitchhiked in Morocco for a week so far, is usually camping, today his destination is the same as ours – Merzouga. He’s the first hitchhiker we’ve met here so sharing our impressions about hitchhiking in this country is obvious. Certainly we’ll continue our way together. We’re wondering how the fact that it’s more of us will impact the number of cars that stop. In Europe hitchhiking as a couple is sometimes difficult, never mind being a group of three. Here one person more doesn’t change too much – less than five minutes and another car is ours.
When later we get out of the car in a village called Mellaab, a man from a car in front of us asks us in French “do you need a ride?” This has never happened to us that without showing we are hitchhikers, the initiative comes from a driver. Amazing, we think. They’re three men who speak little French, but most of the time they keep to themselves and chat in Arabic or Berber.
It seems to be an ordinary ride. But when we get out of the car by their house in a small village Touroug, they ask us if we’d like to come for a tea. There are some small kids playing football in front of the house, so we consider these people and their family safe. Moreover, it’s still very early and we’ve never been invited by total strangers in Morocco, so why not?
Our drivers, who are cousins, introduce us to their relatives (quite big tribe), among them the mother of one of them, who is over 100 years old and remembers the French occupation. They’re proud Berbers and try to teach us some words in their native language.
I show them my postcards from different places in Europe and United States that I took to share with local people. I point these places on the map, say a little more if they fancy particular view. They look at them with keen and glowing interest so they must be enjoying this exchange. Still, I have mixed feelings. Part of me thinks it’s sharing our culture, small part of me thinks this rule we play by in Europe doesn’t apply here and this simple gesture of kindness might not be so kind after all. The laws on visa requirements for Moroccan citizens are very strict. Obtaining a visa is linked with much bureaucracy and costs pretty penny. There are only 63 countries that grant visa-free entry to Moroccan citizens. In Europe it’s only Turkey and Kosovo. Moroccans don’t have it easy with neighboring countries either: Mauretania requires a visa and the border with Algeria is closed, so a short trip becomes very expensive if you want to fly. I’m in my early twenties and I have traveled all over Europe and not only. They’re elderly people and they’ve never gone out of Morocco. What we’re doing is like showing off our wealth and the fact that we’re holders of EU passports who face no challenges of traveling in foreign countries.
The tea arrives, sweet as usual, accompanied by popcorn and nuts. But it’s not the end. It seems that we came home just for the lunch, the big meal in Moroccan households – after a while a young girl who can be maybe 15 years old brings freshly baked bread, olive oil and scrambled eggs. They stuff us with delicious food and awash with tea. The table is never empty – when one meal is finished, another one arrives, when they see we’re almost running out of tea, they pour some more. When we feel we don’t have an inch of room left in our stomachs, the girl brings tajine and the feast starts again. It’s difficult to wriggle our way out; our solicitous hosts don’t even want to hear we’re full. “La, la, safi, no, no, partage, on partage, do you want? Safi, safi.” They make the celebration last as long as possible. We get fruits for the desert and struggle to push pieces of apples and bananas down our throats.
Guido says: “Somehow it reminds me my area but this is even much more than my area. People in my area are very helpful, if they invite you to eat, they will push you to eat more, more, more. But you know, I don’t think they’ll invite people from the street.” I say: “I don’t think you’d experience it in Poland either. There’s a Christmas tradition to leave one plate empty for a stranger or for a person you don’t expect to arrive. But I don’t think people would be so open-minded to invite a stranger just from the street if such person knocked the door.” In Europe intimate relations take time to nurture. In Morocco building connections with anybody, at any time seems to be something congenital.
That’s not the end of surprises. When we’re done with eating and wonder how to politely say we have to go, the cousins invite us to stay at their home for the night. Even if we didn’t have any host for tonight, we couldn’t accept the invitation, they’ve already granted us too much love and care. We turn down the offer but the wife of one of the cousins insists on showing us the rooms. We go upstairs and we gasp: some rooms are decorated in typically Moroccan style, with mattresses on the floor, some are more European, with high bed, canopy and countless cushions. This place looks much richer than some places we’ve been to but we still can’t take advantage of these people anymore.
When we’re ready to go, the girl who served the food at lunch gives me a bracelet. We still have some sweets left, so we distribute them between kids, I offer them magnets from places I’ve visited; places they maybe will never be able to see. We give a thank you card to our hosts, leave our addresses and invitations to visit us, inshallah. We have their address too. But they don’t let us go so easily.
“We’ll take you to the end of the village.”
“Shukran, shukran. You’ve already done too much. We can walk.”
“We’ll take you to the end of the village.”
But they don’t stop just at the end of the village. They drive further and further. Any requests to stop, safi, safi, safi, are futile. We just have to say thank you and accept the favor.
We ride in silence. Sobs well up. Random acts of kindness bring tears to our eyes. These people were genuinely kind, unlike some people we met on our way their kindness came from their hearts and not from their wallets (“my friend, come for tea!… maybe you’d like to have a look at my shop?”), they gave without expecting anything in return and no requests for a favor were in the offing. We were invited for tea but eventually binged on good food. We were invited to stay at home as long as we like. And now they’re driving us so far! In our countries we quite often see examples of hostility towards foreigners and immigrants. Now we would tell anybody who says they don’t like Moroccans, Romanians, Turkish etc. to go to their countries and see how they welcome you not like a stranger but like a long-lost family member. What can we do to reciprocate their generosity? There are some ideas. I hope one day we all get a chance to pay back.
The cousins drive us all the way to Erfoud, the closest big town. 54 km they’ll have to drive back as well. Moroccan hospitality is always incredible, but these people went above and beyond in so many ways.
We’re at the Gate of Sahara, as Erfoud is also known. We’ve dwelt among Berber people for many days; here Arabs are the majority, but once we reach Hassi Labied, we’ll find ourselves among Berbers again.
My phone rings. It’s a text message and I can’t believe my eyes when I read it. It’s from Ellen and Kai; they’re sending their belated birthday wishes and hope to see us soon. They arrived at Mohammed’s (also our host’s) house in Hassi Labied today and just came back from the dunes.
This country is so small. Only a few days have passed and our paths cross again. I’d rather surprise them on the spot but the hilarity of the situation makes it even more difficult to refrain from answering them with the information that we’ll see each other in less than three hours.
There are some things that slow us down on the last leg of our route. First in Rissani, where our drivers (quite shy guys, but shared some Berber music with us) drop us off on right in the heart of the bustle we have to ignore countless men who, attracted by our backpacks, offer us hotels or try to sell Sahara tours. In the hitchhiking spot after a while some teenage boys approach us and start talking. They’re kind, don’t want to take us to the desert, but there’s one drawback: they effectively deter the cars we want to stop, since chatting with them it looks as if we were together. We have to walk further to disappear from their eyesight.
On the top of that, police, who so far let us go hassle-free, now gives us some hard time. For the first time ever they stop our drivers and ask everyone for documentation. A long discussion in Arabic follows, we have no idea what they’re talking about but we know we are in trouble. Finally the police tell us the drivers aren’t allowed to give a ride to tourists.
They don’t give any clarification but we can guess the reasons for saying so. Faux guides are a notorious problem in Morocco, especially on popular touristic routes, like this one from Rissani to Merzouga. Since specific training to become a licensed guide is very expensive, there’s a number of unauthorized guides who illegally make a living on tourists. Our drivers were mistaken for such guides who took us for money. Long explanations in French follow: “they were very kind and we don’t want them to have any problems because of us.” We even search for photos that could back up the fact that we are hitchhikers – here’s a family that invited us, here we’re waiting for a ride, here we’re with our drivers. By the way, do we look like somebody who would pay? Our travels are written on our skin and our clothes; they’ re covered thick with grease and dust. We’re not dressed in brand-new clothes but clothes you don’t want to be too nice because they’ll get dirty anyway. And we’re so poor that we have to bear the discomforts of hitchhiking instead of exploring Morocco with our own rented car.
Finally, after long explanations, they let us go. We lost a lot of time and it’s getting darked and darker. Our drivers drop us off along the main road from where we still have a couple of kilometers to go. We follow the main track, led rather by intuition than precise indications how to reach our host’s house. The Germans say to look for a school when we reach the village. The sand dunes of Erg Chebbi pop into view on the horizon. Soon we can also see the village lights. And there are also people who know our host! One of them takes us there so we don’t have to helplessly wander in pitch dark. We made it! With a huge delay, but every moment of this amazing day was absolutely worth it.
written by: Ewelina Lucy
visit her blog at: Road Less Traveled