Rolling with the Culture in Morocco

As we crested the last hill in Spain and began our descent into Tarifa to catch the ferry to Tangier, Doug asked me how I was feeling about finally going to Morocco. I had to admit, I was a little anxious about being in our first Muslim country. I read many cycling blogs and travel blogs in our waning days in Spain about what to expect as a western woman in Morocco. The information varied quite a bit depending on how old the information was, the location, and whether the woman was alone or with a man. I had no concerns for my safety, but was more curious about bike attire and what to expect from the locals as I walked and cycled through towns. Would I have to endure endless cat-calls or wonder if I would be slapped on the rear end as I rode through traffic or was all this worrying for naught? The next several days answered all these questions and more.

Kristin and Abdrazak's wife and daughters (we're not sure how many were his).
Kristin and the family of a local man who not only showed us a safe place to camp in a nearby field, but brought us tea and dinner. He then returned in the morning to invite us to his house for breakfast.

For clothing, I wanted to respect the culture without going overboard, so I dressed relatively conservatively both on and off the bike. Off the bike was easy. I wore long pants, long sleeved shirts, and no headscarf, as most of the information I read said that western women stood out more with a headscarf than without. However, I found much less information on cycling attire. We would be heading into 70 and 80 degree weather and just the thought of those tights that I wore during frigid, snowy days in Montana nearly gave me heat stroke (especially since I’d have to wear something baggy over the tights for modesty). I knew I could buy a lightweight pair of pants, but was hoping to avoid adding more to my load. I decided to wear the lightweight, loose-fitting, capri cycling pants and my cycling socks pulled up instead of pushed down as I normally wore them. This left only four or so inches of calf exposed. I thought this was reasonable. My cycling jerseys and arm warmers served to cover my arms and while I was a bit warm in the sun, I was glad to have them on in the shade and during our longer descents.

The Tangier medina, viewed from the rooftop terrace of where we stayed. Also apparently the scene of a great chase scene in "The Bourne Ultimatum"
The Tangier medina, viewed from the rooftop terrace of where we stayed. Also apparently the scene of a great chase scene in “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

So what happened? The short story is mostly respect and friendly faces. No cat-calls, no slapping, no strange looks… OK, well some of those, but that had more to do with people thinking we were a bit crazy to be cycling up these mountains on our fully loaded bicycles. We’d seen that look from many people throughout our trip. For the long story, keep reading.

Walking around Tangier and Fes I was always with Doug; however, this was out of convenience, not because of concern for personal safety. I’m sure it helped that Doug is six feet tall with broad shoulders, but I am confident that I could have walked alone without any problems. However, given my poor sense of direction, going wandering about as I did in Paris would have me pulling out a map far too often. I would end up having to fend off the very friendly locals offering to help me find where I was going and then needing to offer a tip after delivering me to my destination. As a side note, these folks were far more persistent in the medinas of Fes than those in Tangier. This could be because we saw many more independent travelers in Fes. In Tangier, we mostly saw herds of tour groups from cruise ships, not very many individuals for these helpers to target. Also, Doug and I try to look like we know where we are going (Note: Doug usually does and I just try to mimic that) and walk pretty quickly. So, we are rarely bothered in the cities, but while cycling on rural roads, we did encounter a few groups of older teenage boys whose intent we weren’t sure about. They were often sitting on walls or guard rails and shouting to us in Arabic and we have no idea whether it was friendly, encouraging, or negative. That said, this activity is certainly not unique to Morocco. Boys will be boys and this can probably be seen in every country all over the globe. On the other hand, for every one group of questionable teens there were nearly a hundred drivers who honked and gave us a thumbs-up or a fist pump as they drove by. Many other men, of all ages, would smile and say, “Bonjour, madame” as I rode by, often far behind Doug (though he assures me he’s always watching in his mirror). This started in Tangier and continued on our 190-mile ride to Fes. This encouragement gave us a little extra strength to keep us pedaling up the mountains.

Women in the Tangier medina, near the kasbah. The women in Tangier were, for the most part, far more conservatively dressed than those in Fes.
Women in the Tangier medina, near the kasbah. The women in Tangier were, for the most part, far more conservatively dressed than those in Fes.

After spending a week in Tangier, a few days in Fes, and cycling through many small towns in between, we observed that as we traveled south, women’s dress was less strict and interactions between men and women in public were more common. In Tangier, nearly every non-western woman was wearing a headscarf. Men did not acknowledge women as they walked past and they never touched in public. We had an interesting example of this one night while we were sitting on bar stools having dinner at a small food stand. A gentleman seated in the corner accidentally brushed my arm as he was leaving. I barely felt it but moved a bit to give him room to get out. He apologized profusely to me and more so to Doug. In the US, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it; however, in Tangier it is very inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public, especially someone’s wife. No harm done, but in hindsight, we realized that we were making an already cramped eating situation for this gentleman worse, not better, as we intended when seating the smaller of us on the stool closest to him. Lesson learned.

Women headed to the olive groves. They use the long sticks to beat the olives off the trees. While some have tarps to collect the olives, many rely on the back-breaking process of picking them up individually.
Women headed to the olive groves. They use the long sticks to beat the olives off the trees. While some have tarps to collect the olives, many rely on the back-breaking process of picking them up individually.

As we traveled south and in Fes, we saw a few local women without headscarves, though still the vast majority were wearing them. We also gradually started seeing interactions between men and women in public. In the very rural areas, we passed miles and miles of olive groves and this is harvest season. Most of the pickers were women and children, but a few of the men that weren’t already busy plowing and replanting fields were helping pick olives. Then, in a small town about 30 miles outside Fes, we met a gentleman who let us stay in his farm field for the night. He brought us dinner, stayed to talk with us while we ate, and upon saying goodbye, gave me the traditional greeting of kisses on the cheeks. That caught me completely off guard. And in Fes, we were eating at a food stand similar to the one in Tangier and watched three teenage girls, none wearing a headscarf, flirting with the twenty something gentleman making the sandwiches. This scene could have taken place anywhere and made Doug reminisce about his summers in college working the cheesesteak stand on Point Pleasant boardwalk in New Jersey and the flirtatious, bikini-clad teenagers waiting for sandwiches. It was hard to believe we were less than 180 miles south of Tangier.

So, in summary, my fears were unfounded and I have been pleasantly surprised around every switchback… and there were many.

Kristin drew a lot of attention and excitement from the women coming back from the market.
Kristin drew a lot of attention and excitement from the women coming back from the market as we weaved between their donkey caravans.
Descending into the next valley after another night camped hidden in the trees, off the side of the road.
Descending into the next valley after another night camped hidden in the trees, off the side of the road.

 

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9 Comments
  1. I really enjoyed Kristin’s “thoughts” on how to handle being a woman and the different problems it may cause. Doug gave me a book to read about a young couple who traveled the world by bike, it was many, many years ago that they took their trip, but the young woman had to deal with a lot worse conditions and problems with dealing with her clothing and just being a woman in general. I was worried but didn’t want to say anything. I hoped things had improved over the years and I’m glad it went well. Kristin, write some more if you can. I enjoyed hearing from you. I still worry about the two of you but not as much as before. I still can’t believe everywhere you have been and everything you have done. Hugs, Mom

  2. Kristin,
    Doug and I have been following the blog posts from the amazing trip you and (your) Doug are taking. I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading your take on being a woman bicycling through a Muslim country. So interesting! These are all the things I would be watching for and wondering about. So glad your experience is turning out better than you anticipated. Also, just wanted you to know we made good use of your china on Thanksgiving. 11 place settings and 11 guests at the table. 🙂

  3. Great writing Kristin! I learned so much! It is amazing how different the customs are in relatively close proximity but same religion. Enjoy the crossing back to Europe!

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We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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