…We’re Going on an Adventure

Morocco

by | Apr 19, 2019

Morocco

April 5 – 19, 2019

I’ve been here before. Not here specifically, but here, in a similar precarious situation, with my two like minded world exploring friends, in a place that is not in any guide book or at the end of a bus route. We have traveled through 5 countries together now, and we trust each other implicitly. Somewhere deep in the Atlas Mountains, we knew what to do and we knew what had to be done. There is some contention however on who got us into this situation but at this point it is irrelevant. We were all in it, together.

The Atlas Mountain range runs east – west, stretching nearly 1,600 miles through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and forms a pseudo demarcation between Europe and Africa. It was day 5 of all-day grinding climbs, criss-crossing the Atlas Mountains. I was shattered.  Shortly after 1 pm, we had again climbed our way back into the clouds, (if there were any), following a road barely on the map, when it abruptly ended in a remote village. It was not unlike any of the other villages that we had passed through, with a pink mosque splashing color on otherwise camouflaged, nearly invisible earth toned structures. Buildings constructed of mud and stone walls, capped by wood and earth roofs, lined the narrow dusty paths disguised as roads passing in between. This was the Morocco that I can seen in photographs and yearned to experience for myself. Here, it is a simple life, and with all the modern development and progress in the world, I was reminded that I was in Africa and this was still a place that time had seem to have forgotten about. If you squint your eyes for a moment, you might think you’re in the Middle East with the culture and landscape. Make no mistake however, Morocco is an African country with still a rich French influence. Before the trip I was doing my best to learn as much Arabic as possible but it turns out many people speak French. No matter where we are in the country, there is no forgetting that this is an Islamic culture. Each morning, I am awoken by the call to prayer over the loud speaker, and each town or village has one, regardless of its size. I assume that it happens sometime before 5 a.m. because it is dark when I am jolted from my sleep, but I have never had the mental awareness to actually look at a watch.

In this village, inquisitive young boys, initially shy, gather around, watch us eat, and watch me soak my head under the spigot of water to cool myself from the spring heat.  In the distance, other more shy and conservative adult women clad in traditional head scarves and hijab, peer at us from behind corners and above rooftops. It was clear that not many, if any of the people in this village had ever seen foreigners like us. (In fact, I was later told by a man that his kids had never seen westerners in real life which explained the inquisitive stares.)

“On the map, this path (as Ivo points up a shattered scree field of shale) goes over that pass and connects to a road on the other side. I just don’t know about water?” Ivo told me as we shared a hunk of left over bread from the morning. The water was indeed a concern given the brown, arid, barren landscape. He pointed at the water spigot that we were filling our bottles with to the group of 5 young boys, the oldest maybe 7 years, making a drinking motion and indicating up the mountain. “Yes, up there?” Ivo inquired. The boys in their dusty and tattered clothes nodded their heads in unison affirmatively with shy giggles. Without water along the way, we would have to reluctantly turn back. But now… “Everyone needs a friend who will call you up and say…” Brigitte said to me, and I finished her statement, “Get dressed fucker, we’re going on an adventure.” I had sent this quote to them on more than one occasion as our unofficial anthem. The 3 of us laughed in agreement. Unsure of where exactly our next water would be, we topped off every container we had,  We were going up.

Three hours into the war, potential camp sites were looking questionable. We were effectively following a mule path, carved into the side of this moonscape, sporadically littered with scrub oak and shale, without any discernible flat spot for camping. As the sun began to hide behind the peaks, and the wind start to whip up, the jubilant optimism slowly regressed into something just north of regret. Each switchback brought either a gentle caress on the backside or a crisp slap across the face.

There is definitely a point when there’s no going back – when that pain of going back far exceeds the pain of going forward, even if the destination is unknown – and we had reached that point. We pushed deeper into the canyon, painfully slogging our bikes up hill without any foreseeable end, step-by-step over shale scree for 4 hours.  I just wanted to PEDAL.  “This is fucking stupid,” I quietly said to myself once, but began repeating it in my mind louder and more resoundingly with each more despairing step that I lurched. I’m sure the Swiss felt similar frustration although none of us ever uttered a word. “I just wish there were more people up here,” I said sarcastically. “Ha, ha.  The American always talks,” chided Ivo. “It’s just my way. When the shit gets ugly, you can’t lose your humor,” I replied with a chuckle.

We were running out of calories and also out of daylight. Preparing to continue on with headlamps, around a bend, we saw a herd of grazing sheep flanking a primitive stone structure, and through the whistling of the evening wind, we heard a trickle. There was a pipe coming out of the hillside spewing water. This would be our campsite. The Swiss used the stone walled structure for their site and I set up my tent on the goat path, perched on the side of the hill, which was just wide enough for my tent. With a belly full of pasta, we licked our bowls and our wounds and drifted off to sleep with the distant sounds of goats and the wind whipping against my tent

The next morning we woke with the ambition of cresting the ridge and getting down from this exercise in futility as fast as possible. By noon, we came over the saddle. “I think we have to turn around,” said Ivo having reached the summit about 2 minutes prior to me, serious despair evident in his tone.  I chuckled. “No, I’m serious. I’m afraid of heights.” I peered over the ridge and saw what he was talking about. The 3 foot wide path going down the back side was etched into the side of the mountain, in some places exposing you to a near 300 foot sheer drop off onto a bed of shale. I laid my bike down and walked the trail to get a feel for it. This was still far less painful than turning back.

 

Unfortunately this part of the trail was the best we would see for the next 5 hours as the trail completely dissolved and we slid down nearly 3000 vertical feet over a bomb scene of loose shale. Every step kicked off a mini rockslide.   “This is fucking stupid,” the voices banished from yesterday slowly crept back into my brain. My heart started to race. My breath became short. I’m trapped and there’s nothing I can do – and I just want OUT. I have always had an anxiety inducing fear of feeling trapped and here I was, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, miles from anyone and anywhere. “Breathe. Let it go. This was a self-inflicted wound. I chose this.  This is my lesson in ownership. There’s nobody to blame.” I repeated these thoughts in my head several times and shortly thereafter brought resolution and I was able to find enjoyment (sorta) in the situation which by then was simply reduced to an annoyance. “Look where you are!” I told myself. “You’ll miss this when its gone,” as I marveled over this complete alien landscape.

Five hours of rock sliding our way down hill, we joined a single track that paralleled the river, which eventually joined the main road, and led us to a hotel with a soft bed and warm shower – the first bath in 4 days.  This is what I came for.  This is why I do this.   (but I’m pretty sure it was my Swiss friend’s idea for this stupid route).

Last year, I came back from traveling after nearly 16 months on a bike. I was excited for a job opportunity in the mountains of Steamboat Springs, a place I had grown very fond of over the years. It was another CEO position, running a healthcare company – something that seemed well within my wheelhouse. The closer that I got to the job, the less I wanted it. It seems my desire for another high profile position was created and fed by my insecure ego. I wanted to feel important again, not like just like the drifter that I now saw myself as, or worse, how I felt others saw me as.  However, the closer that I got to that offer, the more I knew that part of me was slowly dying. I was already rehearsing my speech declining their offer and was relieved when that offer went to an internal candidate instead. Sometimes not getting what you want is the gift. The 16 months of traveling, living simpler, perhaps even fuller, had changed me. I was different now, and there was no going back.

One thing that has been unmistakable in my brief experience in Morocco has been the kindness and curiosity of the Moroccan Islamic culture. In America we hear about Muslims and we are taught to fear them.   However my experiences in Morocco have been those of anything but fear.  Everyone whom I have met has been kind, thoughtful, and uncompromisingly generous, and this has been my experience with people that I have met around the world.  Children run out of homes to greet us and run along side our bikes. “Bon Jour!” they call out, giggling along the way. Instinctively I reply “Salaam!” Men wear traditional attire with full length camel hair robes and a pointed hood. They come to shake our hands whenever we stop.  Even the women, who wear at a minimum a head scarf and many times a full chador and are culturally shy, smile with curiosity.

This kindness was prominently displayed when we passed through just another one of those remote, no named villages as it was getting dark. We were all tired from the prior day’s efforts and the village appeared deserted. “Let’s ask someone if we can stay somewhere,” I suggested.  A young man, who appeared at most 16 years old, came out of his house.  He had a clean face (because he likely hadn’t started shaving yet), and spoke not only French but also very passable English. Mohammed informed us that he was studying at the university and his dream was to go to Germany. He had slick hair, stood maybe 5’4” and weighed about 120lbs. He had a warm smile, with white teeth, not yet ruined by the (deliciously) insanely sugary mint tea that is so popular in Morocco. “Would you like to stay with us tonight?” he offered before guiding us up some broken concrete steps to a long sitting room with couches lining the walls. “You can stay here with my family and have food with us.”

There is a river nearby as he described, and they share it, along with other resources with the next neighboring village, roughly 2 miles away. By river, it is at most a modest trickle of a stream but provides sustainability in an otherwise inhospitable environment.    Although there is no running water, Mohammed excused himself for a minute and returned with a bucket of warm water to wash the obvious effects of the day’s ride from our faces.  In addition, he brought fresh bread, mint tea, honey, and walnuts. “Very expensive,” he says as I reached for a walnut but recoiled instinctively not wanting to indulge in something so valuable from a family with so little. “No, please take,” Mohammed encouraged.

We learned that the entire village is a single family and everyone came out to meet us. “Would you like dinner tonight?” Mohammed inquired. After a tour of the village, including the school, we sat patiently in the family’s home, watching television until 10 pm. We desperately wanted to go to sleep and forego dinner but didn’t want to appear rude or ungrateful for their hospitality and generosity. Mohammed’s uncle sat down and informed us that he had worked all day on road construction, apparently for free. The government supplies the bull dozer and shovels, but the men pay for the gasoline and provide the labor. The mentality is: if you want a road to connect your remote village, you must build it.

Shortly after 11pm and a very special tagine, we were off to sleep. The next morning I woke to find Mohammed eagerly waiting by our bedroom door with another warm pot of water to wash my face with. “Do you need toilet?” Mohammed asked politely. I was barely coherent, wiping the prior night’s sleep from my eyes. Ok, maybe this is a bit too nice.

Traveling the world by bike through a country as varied as Morocco is exhilarating. There are devastating and crippling lows where I struggle to just simply turn one more pedal to ecstatic highs where I feel as if I’m not pedaling at all. Food is basic but nutritious. Tagine is the main dish. It consists of carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, and usually chicken, cooked on a clay plate with a clay cone cover, over open coals for several hours.  It’s delicious and its everywhere, even in the most remote villages. It reminds me of growing up in Michigan.  Sweet mint tea is a staple as well.  Each tiny cup has a full cube of sugar. It is considered an art form and part of the ritual to hold the pot as far above the glass as possible when pouring.  Running water is typically scarce, but somehow there are cell phone towers on the most remote peaks, effectively connecting the entire country. Just when I think I won’t see another person for days, I come around a corner and see a tiny village camouflaged into the hillside.

This trip was 12 days and felt fast in comparison to other trips, which made me appreciate the experience even more. I’m no longer living on a bike but these opportunities have definitely inspired a new way to live. Moments are brief and precious and thus feel even more valuable.  I further crave experiences and relationships over stuff and I’m constantly reminded to not take anything for granted because there’s no guarantee of another.

So what’s the point of all this chest pumping, self aggrandizing suffering on these trips? Quite simply, it reminds me that I’m alive, and that I want more. My greed for these experiences is insatiable and with each one, I gleam a new perspective through the lenses of the people that I am fortunate to experience a small sliver of their world with.  Am I miserable on a shitty hike a bike for 6 hours? Sure, but it’s still an experience and as much as I may hate it in the moment, these moments are gifts.  It makes the good stuff that much better.  I keep reminding myself: “Slow down.  You’ll miss it when it’s over” because it really does happen that fast.  Of course, this is just a bike ride. But for me, its about the life lessons. Each day we are presented with choices. Curve balls get thrown at us constantly. What decisions will we make? How will we carry ourselves in the face of adversity, when things don’t go our way?

I read a quote recently that resonated with me. It drives me every day and I shared it with about 150 7th and 8th grade students that I gave a presentation to in Colorado recently.

“Each day you are given 86,400 seconds from the time bank. Everyone is given the same. There are no exceptions. The time bank won’t tell you how to spend it. Time poorly spent will not be replaced with more time. Time doesn’t do refunds. Time is your biggest gift. It is more valuable that money. You can always make more money, but you cannot make more time. Your time is limited. One day you will go to the time bank and it won’t have any more time. And it will be at that exact moment that you know the answer this question:

‘Did I use my time well?’”

Someone recently said to me, you’re so lucky to be able to do this, to travel. In many ways, yes, I am, completely, and I know it.  In another way, it’s about choices, and how we choose to live our lives. Yes, I was extremely lucky to be raised by a father who provided food, clothing, shelter, and a strong moral compass, making sure I went to school and graduated.  A loving and strict man who would have literally kicked my ass with any lesser result. In that regard, I’m luckier than so many kids who didn’t have that head start. Recently, a beautiful friend got diagnosed with breast cancer, at 32. She is one of the happiest humans I know and it is inspiring to watch her from afar, her strength and her spirit. You get 1 crack at this thing so live your best life, without apologies or embarrassment. Choose relationships and experiences over stuff, because at the end of the day, when things don’t go your way, everyone needs a friend who will call you up and say, “Get dressed fucker, we’re going on an adventure.”

DSCF4044DSCF4050DSCF4059

DSCF4064

Mohammed and his friend

DSCF4075

Our homestay family

DSCF4090

DSCF4106

Camping on the goat path

DSCF4127

Coming over the pass.  A true “no fall zone”

DSCF4132DSCF4142DSCF4145DSCF4148

DSCF4157

Room for 1 more?

DSCF4162

DSCF4173

Instead of going over a pass, we followed a river through a slot canyon

DSCF4178

DSCF4186

The road we’re descending

DSCF4194

Just filling up with water

DSCF4197

A little help from the village boys pushing our bikes of the hill

DSCF4199

No more help pushing

DSCF4210DSCF4215

DSCF4236

The tea ritual.  It’s all in the pour

IMG_8543

Tagine!

IMG_8544

Tagine!

IMG_8602

IMG_8635

Villages camouflaged into the hillside

IMG_8680

IMG_8729

Come back in the summer they told us.  This is the wrong season.

IMG_8737

Just a little more help

IMG_8738IMG_8746IMG_8767IMG_8770

IMG_8782

“Yes, very difficult road.  But is possible”

IMG_8789IMG_8801IMG_8804IMG_8805

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get the Book

The World Spins By is an intimate journey of loss, curiosity, and love—recounted one pedal stroke at a time along Jerry’s two-year bicycle journey back to himself. 

1 Comment

  1. Simply beautiful J, and I like the addition of connections over stuff!