IT’S day break over the port city of Tangier and with it comes the first prayer call.
The ancient twisting paths of the medina are bathed in a pre light gloom but the roosters have begun to crow and soon the hammans (bathing houses) will fire up, billowing a choking smoke across the city that clings to your clothes with more gusto than a night before inside smoking bans.
Vendors slowly set up their wares along crumbling streets, some selling little more than a few bananas, others selling huge sacks of bright red spices, earthy lentils and dates.
Hot on their heels are the endless hawkers and “guides” who cling to the glaringly obvious tourists, often following them for hundreds of metres before bullying them into a 20 dirham fee (two euros) for their unwanted directions.
And I’m one of them.
Just 24 hours earlier I arrived, fresh off the boat from Tarifa Spain, a relaxed, beachy town full of windsurfers, divers and soul searching travellers seeking a slice of the good life.
It was there, at the Moroccan-themed Melting Pot Hostel, we found several other bike tourers (the most we’d encountered in months) and in particular Freddie and Birte from Germany and Frank from France – who were all headed in the same direction as us.
The Germans had been on the road for well over a year, meandering through Spain and Portugal with their guitar and good vibes, while free spirited Frank had set out from France just a couple of months ago with a couple of non waterproof panniers, a homemade camp stove and a sleeping bag that was a couple of sizes too small.
We were a motley crew of travellers pushing our peddles through unknown lands for different reasons but with vast and overwhelming Africa lying at our doorstep we each had one overwhelming thing in common, the need to stick together.
The following afternoon we rolled the few hundred metres to the ferry port and forked out 40 euros for the 35 minute ride across the choppy strait of Gibraltar.
My stomach was performing backflips, my nerves felt stretched to a wire and for the first time in months I felt equally thrilled and terrified at what lay ahead.
As is always the case the getting there part was the simplest. Immigration was a bored looking Arab behind a faded desk on the boat who wordlessly gestured for my passport, flicked it to the back page and issued a three month stamp (no questions asked or baggage searches).
After a slightly tumultuous ride (Birte looked green by the end) we rolled our bikes off the boat and entered the chaos of the country’s biggest port city.
Our hostel (The Melting Pot – sister to its Tarifa counterpart) was perched in a tiny, dirty alley in the city’s maze like medina. A surprisingly modern road (which wrapped around the outskirts) delivered us to the narrow entrance and within seconds we were surrounded.
“Where do you go? We have nice room, 100 dirhams!!”
The roughly dressed swarm of men and boys surrounded what was obviously fresh prey off the boat and despite the endless warnings we’d read from travellers entering the country via the port we were instantly overwhelmed.
A “guide” who’d gathered we were destined for the Melting Pot led us through the maze and delivered us to the hostel before demanding a few euros in payment.
The hostel itself seemed to attract a motley crew of stray cats and stray people who milled around on the dusty stone steps outside but despite appearances it looked like nirvana.
Inside hobbit-sized doors opened to cramped, dimly lit rooms where exhausted-looking backpackers took long respites from the insanity of the city.
A winding staircase hobbled past four floors to the terrace which was arguably the hostel’s finest and only positive point.
The smoke from nearby hammans wafted over lounge chairs while the view soaked up the medina and its nearby white mosque.
The five of us had impressively managed to roll our loaded bicycles into the hostel’s minuscule lobby area (much to the alarm of the receptionist) and after forking out what would be the most exorbitant price we’d pay in weeks for Moroccan accommodation he dropped the mother of all bombshells.
“There’s no room here for your bikes I’m afraid, you’re going to have to take them all to a nearby public parking lot.”
He might as well have told us the only storage available was on the moon and we gaped openly at this outrageous suggestion.
For a bicycle tourer the idea of parting with your beast of burden in an unknown city with a dodgy reputation is appalling, but for a tired bicycle tourist who has just run the gauntlet of the hectic medina it’s a crime only punishable by death.
To add insult to injury the now extremely apologetic receptionist said we’d have to pay up to three euros a day each to park our bikes in what was proving a bloody expensive stay in an average port city.
With a resigned air we rolled our bikes back down the cobble stones to the far more upmarket Continental Hotel where the receptionist had agreed to accompany us in a bid to negotiate with the security guard.
We forked out 120 dirhams (12 euros) for the five bikes and walked away with the feeling we’d been financially raped (for not the first time).
Later that night we consoled ourselves with an enormous couscous (with vegetables and chicken) before collapsing from sheer exhaustion into our dorm beds.
The following morning the fantastic five cyclists caught up at breakfast to talk logistics.
Freddie and Birte had formed the bright idea of taking a bus down to the southern city of Agadir and cycling back up in a bid to escape the cold still consuming the north of the country while Frank had planned to hug the western coast by peddle power and then make his way back to the north via the mountainous and desert specked centre.
We’d picked a route that lay somewhere in the middle – cycling inland to Chefchouen and Fez before tackling the mountains and desert down to Agadir and catching a bus back along the coast to the north.
But our newfound friends had thrown a spanner into the works.
Doing it the other way round meant we’d dive headfirst into the country’s glorious warm weather while having the added benefit of company. It had been months since we’d cycled with others and in an unknown country the allure was stronger than ever.
For Frank it was tougher. The fit and charming 22 year old was used to pushing out big kilometres per day and while he was far too polite to admit it, I’m sure the thought of travelling at grandma pace over a considerably lower daily distance was akin to torture. After toying with the temptation of big miles versus company he gave in (around the same time as us) and we decided to keep the dream team alive.
The new plan was for us all to take the night bus to Agadir and then jump back on the bikes the following morning and peddle north.
With almost two days to kill Birte and Freddie joined us for a tour around Tangier and for hours we weaved through markets, dodged dodgy pedlars and lapped up what felt like the real city before striking back for the medina.
It was here we encountered what was to be the first and most important Moroccan test.
An alternative looking 60 year old had pounced on Birte, Freddie and Scott and was putting on the local charm, saying how groovy it was to meet “cool looking travellers” and spewing out stories of his wild youth partying with rock gods and working on ships. He said his name was Richard (the first big lie) and that he was just an easy going local who loved to meet fellow free spirited travellers.
With my plain brown pony tail and generic hiking clothes I’m the epitome of uncool so while “Richard” wooed the cool kids I sat back with a sceptically raised eyebrow and watched. Ten years in journalism has turned me into a hardened cynic and while I was struggling to loosen up and go with the flow something about this eccentric senior smelled like a rat.
He insisted on accompanying us to a well known cafe with a view of the ocean and on the walk up I pulled Scott aside and aired my suspicions.
“Stop being so nasty!” Scott said after I told him Richard seemed like a right old crook.
“I bet he’s just being nice, so loosen up!” he reiterated.
I bit my tongue and dawdled behind the others, silently resenting this overenthusiastic local who seemed a little too fond of his own rather stretched sounding stories.
We took a mint tea with a spectacular view and within minutes Richard began insisting that we come to his house to see what a real Moroccan home looked like and to meet his family.
He said travellers from all over had come to his abode for tea and tagine and began persistently pushing the idea down our throats.
It was at this point that suspicion began to grow for the too friendly Richard and when we paid the tab and exited the cafe I mentioned the fact I was tired and that we’d all like to go back to our hostel and shower before coming to his house.
Richard got upset.
He said he’d spent a lot of the day with us and would now like for us to see his house, giving off the pained expression of someone who has been gravely offended.
He kept gesturing that it was just around the corner and we reluctantly followed with me dragging the chain in what was now anger boiling on outrage.
It was painfully clear Richard was a right old fraud but Scott, Birte and Freddie had much better manners than me and decided to indulge him.
After 40 minutes of winding through old streets we reached his house and were whisked up to a small but lavishly decked living room where his humble wife served tea before retiring to an unseen part of the house.
Richard, who sensed my immense dislike, began to stress how cynical people were in this day and age and said it was all about being human and being kind to one another.
For a moment I had my doubts. But then he pulled out the bag of drugs. He passed a piece of foul smelling “hash” around the circle and when we turned up our noses he mumbled something about going to the garden to water his plants. It was so strange that we felt stuck to the luridly coloured lounge and while the thought of simply leaving ran through our heads that ingrained need to be polite won over.
He returned half an hour later with a new bag of “first grade” Moroccan hash but by this point we’d anticipated just that and had agreed that I would loudly complain of a stomach upset before making our escape.
It took another 40 minutes in which time Richard (as expected) complained that we had drunk his tea and that we “owed him” before reiterating that we were all cool people (except for me, apparently, who he left out of the gesture).
We backed out of the house quickly and beelined down the now dark streets with Birte, Scott and I in the lead and poor Freddie left to shake off Richard.
In the end the eternally polite Freddie gave Richard some money and we escaped back to the hostel with four of us feeling extremely stupid for being so blatantly tricked and one of us (ahem) feeling very smug.
We woke up late the next morning and dawdled around the hostel before taking in a last mint tea and heading to the Continental Hotel to collect our bikes.
The Melting Pot receptionist had previously admitted we’d paid far too much for our bicycle parking and warned we shouldn’t pay another cent but apparently the beefy security guard with the walrus moustache had different ideas. He insisted we pay another 120 dirhams and when we tried to argue the point (to no avail) I did the worst thing you can do in Islamic culture: I lost it.
In just two days I had become sick and tired of being treated like a walking, talking ATM while being blatantly ripped off and I began insulting the middle aged man with every English curse word I could muster. I called him a con, an a#$hole, a scam artist and a greedy bugger and when he thrust up his fingers to count the nights our bikes had been stashed in a back corner of his empty carpark I screeched: “Get your fingers out of my face.”
At the time I felt justified but later on I felt awful. We were forced to pay the money regardless of my epic tantrum and the man was clearly disgusted at my behaviour.
I felt like just another self righteous tourist with anger management issues and deep down I knew raising your voice and losing face gets you absolutely no where in “anything goes” Morocco.
Later that night we stashed five bikes and a considerable amount of luggage onto the overnight bus (something even the most flexible western carriers would balk at) and trundled the 12 hours south to Agadir.