I’d been in Morocco for over a month and hadn’t hitched one single time, despite the fact that in the months leading up to my arrival in Northern Africa, hitch-hiking had been my preferred mode of transport throughout the European continent.
I’ll admit I was a bit uneasy about the prospect in such an unfamiliar region. Overwhelmingly Muslim, and on the borders of the Great Sahara Desert, far from the touches of civilization I had grown comfortable with. I had started to think I might make it through Africa without bothering to hitch once, but in the preceding days, I’d felt that familiar itch growing within me.
I was starting to get antsy, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I found myself out by the side of the highway with my thumb up. Why not today?
I was in Tan Tan, a small desert hamlet near the coast. My destination, which, as usual, I’d chosen at the very last minute, was a similar modest desert settlement called Tarfaya, a little over two hundred kilometers southwest along the coast. The relatively short distance brought me confidence; surely I’d be able to make it there in a day, only a few hours if I was lucky.
After a relatively easy walk to the edge of town, I approached a large roundabout where there was also an active police checkpoint (very common in Morocco, especially near the disputed Western Sahara region, which I was coincidentally headed straight towards). The cops were stopping many of the drivers, even searching several cars, but surprisingly they showed no interest in me and I walked right past their hut, then took my place amidst the dozens of Moroccans who were also trying to hitch.
Trying to act like I’d been there before, I confidently claimed my spot, placed my bags down, and stuck out my thumb.
It felt exhilarating to be hitch-hiking again, here in the Sahara Desert! Dust was heavy in the air; I was already coated with a palpable layer of it upon arrival, but I’d already gotten used to the sensation. Having been bred in the Mojave Desert myself, even the taste of dirt, or the grains blowing into my nostrils did little to soften the enthusiasm I felt, the adrenaline pumping within me. ‘Why didn’t I start this earlier?’, I found myself wondering.
I hadn’t even gotten a ride yet and already felt more alive than I had on any bus or train journey I’d previously taken in the country.
Despite the company, I was the only Westerner around, a fact I correctly figured would be beneficial. After only about twenty minutes, a clunky old minivan bypassed several local hitchers in front of me, and came to a creaking halt at my very spot. The vehicle’s sliding door slid open, to reveal an impossibly cramped interior. Seemingly every inch of space was occupied either by its’ occupants, or their abundance of junk and luggage. It seemed they were moving house or something. The occupants themselves, four large black men with stern looks on their faces, looked less than inviting, but they dutifully reorganized some of their belongings to create just enough space for me to maneuver inside, my backpack resting on my lap.
The door slid shut and we were off, southwest down the coast. Pure, sandy desert on the left side, the endless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean on the right. Within one minute, there was once again no sign of civilization.
Often, drivers pick up hitch-hikers because they’re bored and want conversation or companionship.
However, these chaps were stone quiet. My legs were already growing numb by the weight of my backpack bouncing on them, and the atmosphere was becoming uncomfortable. Here I was squeezed in like a sardine, into a junker of a van occupied by some very tough-looking black dudes, taking off into the remote nothingness of the Sahara Desert. Gulp.
To break the ice, I asked the driver where they were going. I was somewhat surprised to find he spoke quite good English, a rarity in the region. His answer was evasive, he gruffly pointed on down the road (d-uh!), and said, “We’re going down there.”. Then, silence.
Awhile later, I tried again, asking the gentlemen where they’re from. When they replied they were from Mali, I fought to control an urgent sense of dread. Mali was at the time, and still is today, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, a country that all Westerners, especially Americans, are strongly advised to stay the fuck out of. As the ride progressed, the four guys opened up the tiniest bit, revealing they are all Mali nationals returning from a sojourn in Europe, via Morocco and Western Sahara. Finally, the dreaded question was asked; “Where are you from?”
I have met countless Americans on my travels who, bizarrely, are proud to boast that they lie about their nationality. Some do so because they are ashamed to be Americans, others because they are simply afraid of the ramifications. I have always held my head high with the conviction that I never lie about my own nationality. Except for this one occasion. Uneasy with my predicament and lost in the moment, I figured it was best to fib about it this one time, as I sat in an old van surrounded by some very tough-looking dudes from Mali, headed into the Sahara Desert.
So I told them I was from Argentina.
I know passable Spanish and have been mistaken for an Argentinian before, and I figured I could pull off the false identification if I were so tested. But I was sorely mistaken.
Seriously, not even a full minute after my false revaluation, we approached a tiny police checkpoint, smack dab in the middle of the desert. The Moroccan soldiers manning the post waved for the driver to stop his vehicle, and he complied. The soldier looked all of us over; myself and the Mali men, then began interrogating the driver, asking his purpose in the country, where he’d been and where he was headed. The driver respectfully complied, but his answers didn’t seem to satisfy the Moroccan soldier, who demanded to see all our passports at once.
The men from Mali immediately produced theirs, as if they had been waiting for the signal all along. I clearly saw all the passports, with ‘Mali’ written on them. I sat there, hoping the conflict was just between the Moroccan and Malians, hoping that as the only white man in the odd conglomeration, I’d be ignored. But the soldier glared at me and demanded I produce mine as well. My heart stopped as I rummaged around for the passport. When I found it, I purposely turned it around so the back page was visible. I had to pass it all the way through the van, first to the fellow in the seat next to mine.
Sure enough, he immediately turned the passport around, clearly revealing the ‘United States of America’ emblem on its’ cover. He looked it over, handed it to the driver, who also scanned it and then dutifully handed it over to the Moroccan soldier.
God only knows what the soldier thought about our little grouping, four Malians and an American, passing through the desert together.
My heart was pounding now. Not only did these guys know I was an American, they knew I’d lied about it. Everyone was oddly quiet as we waited the soldier to do what he had to do with our passports, then hand them back over. I was trying to silently calm my growing hysteria, weighing my almost nonexistent options. I could abruptly jump out of the van right at the checkpoint, thank the Malian gentlemen, and have them drive off without me. But what if that made them even angrier than my lie presumably did? Or, I could take my chances and continue on with them, if the soldier let them continue, that is.
The soldier soon returned, handed back the passports, and waved us through. Frozen in indecision, I hadn’t made any decision on what to do as we drove off into the desert. Almost immediately, that tiny guard post disappeared, the only signs of civilization as far as the eye could see were my friends from Mali inside this vehicle.
We got stopped at five more checkpoints that day, in a two hundred kilometer stretch. At one of them, we were all ordered to get out of the car, brought into the tiny port-o-potty-sized hut one-by-one, and interrogated. Although the black men were in there longer than me, all I was asked was my occupation, which I replied, ‘teacher’. At another checkpoint, we were again summoned from the van, and the Moroccan guard began ordering the men to give him money. At one point, when he momentarily disappeared around the corner, all the Malian men instantaneously pulled the money from their pockets, and hyper-quickly hid it deep inside the abundance of luggage in their vehicle. I was impressed by their street-smarts when the Moroccan soldier soon returned with a few of his buddies, all of whom shook down the Malian men, searching for any signs of cash. Their extortion attempts had failed, and they finally let us pass without further incident.
Amazingly, as I dumbly stood by watching with high interest, I was never asked for any money at all, either by my hitching buddies or the soldiers.
The men from Mali never brought up my lie, or the fact I was an American. They obviously didn’t care about neither my nationality or my lie. Though they were quiet and gruff, I greatly appreciated their taking me across that 200-km stretch of desert, and for not abducting me or killing me. As we finally approached the outskirts of Tarfaya, the highway curved several kilometers before town. The men from Mali stopped at the turn-off; I’d have to either hitch again or walk the rest of the way.
As I exited their rusty old vehicle, I thanked the men profusely. The driver then turned to me and asked with a scowl,
“Don’t you want to pay us anything?”
“No sir, that’s why I was hitching”
, I thought to myself. But I awkwardly took out fifteen dirhams from my pockets, the only currency I had other than some 200 dirham notes I didn’t want them to see, and offered this meager sum.
The driver took the money, which amounts to about $1.50 US, then looked at it incredulously as I stood on, eager to be on my way. He then began to laugh, loudly and heartily. His companions joined him. They handed me back the money, apparently it was an insultingly low offer, they’d rather take nothing than such a low portion. And finally, the men drove towards the horizon. Dumbfounded, I watched the van until it disappeared over a distant hill. Then I turned and began making the journey into the center of Tarfaya.
I had mixed feelings as I walked. I was embarrassed that I’d stereotyped the men just because they had been from Mali. At the same time, I felt extremely fortunate they had spared me their wrath. Feelings of joy also were high; it was fun in retrospect to have been part of such an action-filled hitch on such a short, desolate stretch of earth.
Did that adventure deter me from trying to hitch further in Africa? On the contrary!
I began hitching with more frequency than I’d done since I’d left Europe; through most of the Western Sahara and even Mauritania. Good times ahead, the joys of hitching will bring!!
Attachment: Morocco