By Waleed Shaalan.
I must have a dominant drd4 gene, the wanderlust gene. It must have been my nomadic ancestry. It is one that gives me this feeling that I have no place I call home, everywhere is home. I am a horizon chaser. Since I was 4 years old I have hazy memories of leaving our house in Ann Arbor, Michigan on my three-wheeler and going out to explore the world. Since then I have toured many countries on my motorbike and one of my recent trips was in Morocco. A place where I was constantly warned has magic. After a few thousand kilometers on the bike I learnt that there is magic, but a different kind of magic.
The magic of the melting snowcaps of the Atlas starting their journey with a drip and ending with a roar down the majestic water falls quenching the red thirsty earth to bear luscious fruit. The magic of the blue town of Chefchaouen as it blends with the Azul sky. The magic of the waves of the Atlantic smashing away gently and chiseling the rocky beaches; I witnessed all kinds of magic, none of which involved the wicked witchcraft that most Arab visitors fearfully speak of.
I started from Marrakech, rented a BMW GS 1200 from my friend Reda, and I decided to take his advice and leave the GPS behind, with a pink highlighter and an old-fashioned map we planned the route. I wanted to get lost and find my way, to stop and talk to people. I live most of my life facing the screen of my computer and smart phone, do I want to drive staring at the GPS? What happened to adventure to surprise and discovery? I left it behind.
I found driving in Morocco to be very safe, but then again I am from Cairo so my standards are skewed. What was actually very impressive is the railway system, the train stations were top notch although I did not take the train I heard a lot of positive feedback from most people I met along the way.
For me, traveling by bike is the best way to experience a country, being exposed to the elements, feeling the climate and topography without being confined in a car. The flexibility and mobility is great. Engaging more of your senses in an experience makes it more pleasurable and sometimes more painful! I learnt that when I reached the peak of the Atlas and temperatures were -3 Cº. My eyeballs felt frozen. Nonetheless, I’ll leave you with these magical tidbits from my Moroccan experience.
Chefchaouen, the magical blue town
I am fascinated by color and perception. People find insects generally disgusting except when it comes to color. Butterflies, Ladybugs are perceived positively. They are insects with color. Color alone makes a peacock not a turkey. This was so evident in Chefchaouen, I arrived there after three days of riding from the Atlas from Marrakech and for some reason I could not figure out the reason they decided to paint the town blue in the 1930s. Adorned in every shade of blue, it was magical. The quality of the light and space were incredible. When I would look up the paint would stop at a certain line, I guess at the height of the ladder used to paint any given structure. Then you would see the architecture from above, and you would think you are looking down at any town. It’s the color that really makes the place.
After crossing the high Atlas I had a free window of time and that was before the shadows cast on the road caused the water to freeze. I made it to the beginning of the world’s greatest desert: The Sahara. Merzouga, a small town with a few Adobe Casbahs, is where I decided to stay for the night. I asked Mohamed the owner of a small Casbah if he has any rooms. He hospitably offered me a camel ride into the desert and camping under the stars. I asked him if he offered dinner, and he said yes. I asked about lunch, he said, “I serve lunch but I don’t want to serve you.” Shocked, I asked him why he refused the lunch request. He replied, “I already took enough of your business; I want you to walk to town and eat somewhere else, share the wealth.” I was speechless for a moment. I realized I come from a culture of greed where more is never enough. I was deeply touched by this generosity I found on the edge of the scarcest place on earth.
I walked into town and asked a man I found sitting in a shop about a good place to eat, and he directed me toward a place called Aishas. I enjoyed an amazing roof top meal and on my way out the host asked me if I wanted to buy anything from his shop. I said, ”Yes I want to buy, but not from you. From the man who led me to you so that we can all share the wealth” and I smiled and walked back.
I bought my Touareg head gear to get ready for a sunset sail on the sea of sand.
Making local history: The Water Fall
Driving back from the desert on my way to cross the Atlas I saw a small sign for a waterfall. I got an early start and thought that I could afford a little detour. I went off road for 15 Km and finally reached this place in the middle of nowhere. I hiked down and began to hear the sound of water. There was a small tent with an older man who welcomingly waved me, greeting me with many languages. He offered me tea and there was a stream of freezing water coming from the falls with another hot spring from the belly of the earth. He took his kettle and filled it with hot water from the spring and we sat and had a chat.
When he learned of my Egyptian nationality, he shockingly said, “EGYPT? I have been living here for over 30 years and I have never seen anyone from Egypt!”
I hiked up the falls and enjoyed the lukewarm mix of water coming from the snowy peaks touching the sky and the warm spring coming from beneath the earth. It was magical.
Monsieur, s’il vous plait!
“Water, water!” they said. After they drank, one of them said, “Money. Give us money.” When I asked them why, a woman who was a part of the group of people pointed out that I was rich and I drove a bike. I said, “No, you are rich and you don’t know it. You work under the deep blue sky, walking the open green fields, breathing clean oxygen, listening to the sound of the wind and the birds and drinking pure icy water. Look at your smiles; do you know how rich you are?”
I live in a box, move in a box, work in a box, and walk on a machine with wires connected to my ears listening to sounds we make and looking at a screen. I am poor and money won’t make you or me rich.
It was Christmas during this particular visit to Morocco, and I was walking alone in a forest of palm trees. As I watched the light dance with the wind, a young boy came out of nowhere and offered me a gift; I arrogantly turned him down thinking he was a vendor trying to sell me something. He said, “Mr., no money it’s a gift, Merry Xmas.” I was touched. We were two Muslims celebrating Christmas under the shade of the palm trees. It’s about giving. I had nothing to offer so I gave him money. He still refused. I told him that this was also a gift, Merry Christmas.
To keep up with Waleed Shaalan’s travels, you can follow him on Instagram @WaleedSha3lan.