The hooker

1 comment
English, Iran, Morocco, Oman, Turkey

[Blog post for bikepacking.com]

I turned off onto a side road up toward the pass, hoping I’d reach it before dark. The golden hour was settling in, and the surrounding mountains were draped in an intoxicating red. Despite being blinded by an abundance of natural beauty, my views of the mountain pass remained.

I spent six weeks pedaling around Morocco’s biggest playground, the Atlas Mountains. I was in my mid-twenties then, and I’d decided to undertake first bike ride outside of Europe. I was a rookie when it came to cycling amidst other cultures.

I was in search of a camp spot. To my right, an incredibly steep hill. On my left there was an abyss, and a view way down into the village far below. Cycling to the village was not an option, neither was camping. A bit further on there was a roadside restaurant and a sign of life. One life, to be precise. That life was Ahmed, a young, unmarried man who ran his small business alone. Or, at least, that was what he told me.

I asked if I could pitch my tent somewhere, or if I could sleep on the roof terrace, as is customary in Morocco. “Yes, of course, you can sleep on the roof terrace. Feel free to go upstairs, in the meantime, I’ll store your bike in the garage, safely, under lock and key,” he said. Under lock and key? Why? We’re here in the middle of nowhere. Will a lost vole take off on my bike?

A bit later, he introduced me to his neighbour, a man who lived on a pint-sized piece of land that was about to fall into the abyss. His house was the size of his room. The room, the size of his bed. The neighbour was ‘Le gardien,’ the guardian of the lower village. The only other living soul on the road, and also the cook at Ahmed’s restaurant.

It was Ramadan, a time when people don’t eat from sunrise till sunset. When the sun finally disappeared on the horizon, I was invited to dine with them. It was twenty past five in the evening, time for ‘breakfast.’ Two hours later, ‘lunch’ was served.

Between the two meals, my luggage must have grown some feet, as it suddenly showed up in the corridor. I was surprised to see it there, and asked Ahmed how this came about. He said, “Oh, you don’t have to sleep on the roof terrace. There’s too much night noise. There are lots of passing trucks. You can sleep here in the hallway, here on the sofa.”
How could that happen? I hadn’t seen one living soul on my entire ride uphill, and certainly not a truck. I said that this wasn’t necessary at all, that I would love to enjoy the view of the million star hotel, that the roof terrace was perfect. He insisted. I did not want to be rude and accepted his proposal, but it felt awkward.

We got to talking between the two meals. Like all the other men I’d crossed paths with here, he asked me if I was married, what I thought of marriage, and if I had any unpleasant experiences with men. “Give me your phone number and you can call me in case of any emergencies,” he said. We exchanged numbers. He checked whether I gave the right one by calling me right then. He said that he didn’t want to marry, that he was single and that he was running the restaurant all alone. He sought more rapprochement. He rubbed my back, then he wanted to check my feet because of the blisters I mentioned. It didn’t feel comfortable, so I tried to my distance.

After tajine and bread, it was time for bed. Le gardien headed home to his cottage and I went to my sofa. To my surprise, I noticed that my luggage had disappeared from the corridor. “Oh, you don’t have to sleep on the sofa, that’s not comfortable. You can sleep in my room, in the twin bed. I’ll sleep in another bed at the foot of yours,” Ahmed said. “No Ahmed, that’s really not necessary,” I told him. “The sofa is fine. I’m used to sleeping in a tent, I really don’t need a bed.” He kept insisting. Where’s the line between hospitality and false intentions? Where’s the line between assuming and being rude? I didn’t know his culture. I was inexperienced.

I crawled into the big bed, armed with my sleeping bag, pocket knife, cell phone, and with all my clothes on. Ahmed blew out the candle next to me, wished me good night, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. No, I did not ask for that. I zipped the sleeping bag up firmly to the top. Suddenly, I felt something at my feet. Before I even had time to realize what was happening, Ahmed lay on top of me and tried to kiss me. I was bewildered, nailed to the bed, and the only thing I could sheepishly stammer was, “No Ahmed, no!” Above all expectations, he went back to his bed. A minute later, I could feel the pocket of my pants trembling. It was my cell phone, someone was calling. I pulled out my phone and could see that the number belonged to Ahmed. The man who was lying there at the foot of my bed was the one who was calling me. I pretended not to notice and cautiously took off to dreamland.

Suddenly, I woke up to the sound of three men talking outside. I recognised two voices, Ahmed and Le gardien. They were talking to a truck driver. I heard the truck’s large engine idling in the background. What if these three men come in? What if these men have bad intentions? I can’t leave, my bike is locked inside. What if…? I had countless dark scenarios racing through my head. I was alone, in the middle of nowhere,  with nobody to hear me cry. Nobody to help. I heard a door slam and the sound of the trucker driving away. One man down!

The bedroom door opened and I firmly held my pocket knife. Could I even use it if needed? Ahmed entered, alone. He passed by my bed, checked if I was asleep, and then looked for his bed, the single one. Whew! Once again my trousers vibrated. Yes, it was the man at my feet who called. Why?

That night my eyes kept straining in the dark. I counted seconds, minutes, hours. I jumped straight towards the door and my panniers at the crack of dawn. I kindly turned down the breakfast that Ahmed offered several times. And as soon as my bike was back in my possession, I raced up the mountain. If Strava had existed then, I definitely would have been Queen of the Mountain.

A carpet seller applauded when I arrived at the mountain pass. He was surprised to see a cycling female early bird. “Have I had any trouble with men?” he asked. “Uh, well, there was something, but nothing really happened. So everything is fine,” I told him. After some guessing on his part, I told the story, but didn’t mention places or names. The vendor resolutely replied, “Is it Ahmed, Ahmed from the roadside restaurant?” Ahmed turned out to be married, have two children, and to run the business with his father. He also told me how I was seen in his country, “A woman alone on a bike is a hooker on wheels.”

Years later, these words were dusted off. In April 2016, I closed my front door and jumped on my bike for a ride from Belgium to Taiwan, cycling 30,000 kilometres to raise 30,000 euros for WWF and UNICEF Belgium. I left my flat land behind, seeking salvation in the mountains. Pedaling by way of Germany to the Carpathians in Eastern Europe, I ended up in beautiful Turkey. There, I got to hear that dusty statement again, words that transported me back to Morocco, to Ahmed.

I continued my journey through the Caucasus onwards to Iran, where I went to extremely great lengths to blend in. Dressing completely in black, I didn’t leave even a tiny piece of meat to inspect. I was in disguise, my identity unknown from the outside, blending in amongst the others. I was not a hooker, but a mole on wheels. With a hijab, an ankle-length dress, and an equally long, loose pair of trousers in other words,  the ‘ideal’ cycling outfit I explored the country. My mole suit (or was it my bike?) turned out to be the ultimate invitation for men to wait for me, to make indisputable proposals, to pursue, grope, and to even go much further than I could have expected. Yes, there too I was told, “A woman alone on the bike is a hooker on wheels.”

I cycled further, further away from my unpleasant experiences in Iran. A boat brought me to Oman. I threw my mole suit overboard. I was on my bike for almost a year, and it was sometime in the early spring of 2017.

My wheel constantly slipped in the sand, as did my feet. I pushed my bike towards a photogenic acacia. Underneath the tree, I pictured my pitched tent making for a beautiful photo. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple, as my tent wasn’t free-standing, I didn’t have any sand pegs, and the local scorpions had probably built their homes among the surrounding stones I’d need to use to stand my tent up. I found myself in what turned out to be the harbinger of Sharqiya Sands, the desert of Oman.

A jeep pulled up while I was struggling with my tent. A man with dark sunglasses and a long white dress stepped out. In contrast to my outfit, there were no sand or sweat stains on his snow-white dishdasha. His name was Mohammed. “Are you alone? You can’t camp here, it’s too dangerous. Come to my house. You can stay with me,” he said “No, no, thank you. Really, it’s not necessary, I’m fine,” I replied.

Memories of Iran were still fresh in my mind and in my body. I had to regain my trust in men, to leave my insecurity behind. I did my best, but was very cautious. Mohammed drove away with the words, “I will send my wife.”

Somewhat later an equally immaculate jeep arrived, stuffed with not one but four women and a beautiful little ‘prince’ dressed in a snow-white dishdasha. When the enthusiastic group heard that I wasn’t going to sleep in their house, they showed me a shelter nearby, a place they wanted me to stay, my refuge for the night. It was a tiny house with a desert sand floor and walls and a roof made from dried palm leaves. Cosy!

The women went to pray down the way from where I was staying. They simply kneeled down in the sand to do so, and once they’d finished they disappeared just as a heavy sandstorm arrived. It settled over my tiny house for the next two hours. I thought about how lucky I was that Mohammed had approached me and offered me shelter. The floor in the house changed shape and my bike and I changed colour. Everything disappeared under a layer of superfine, orange-red sand that found its way through the leafy walls of ‘my’ house.

Armed with my camera, I walked towards the dromedaries the next morning. It was still early and the shadows were soft, just like the look in the eyes of the camels, as they call those humpy, splendid specimens. Love at first sight! “Good morning Mohammed,” I good-naturedly said as I walked toward the crib that he was filling with dried grasses. He noticed my love for these magical beasts. “I’ll show you the desert, where I have a lot more camels. I will take you to Al Wasil, the desert village where I live. You can stay overnight.” Did I hear that right? Wow!

A short while later I was sitting next to Mohammed in his jeep, my bike in the back of the car, curious and excited about what awaited me. We stopped at a hippodrome, where dromedaries ran by, training at full speed for a race. We drove on. Out of the blue, the black gravel plains quickly gave way to orange-red sand dunes. There it was, the desert, Sharqiya Sands. Breath-ta-king!

Before long, the jeep ride started to feel more like a rollercoaster as we drove up and down the endless sand dunes. I loved it! Mohammed answered my non-stop laughing by taking me up to ever-higher dunes. We made loops and detours. He wanted to please me, that was clear. How sweet! We found the camels and he led me over to a sunbathing, squatted species. I had to sit on the hump. With the two-meter-high dromedary on a leash and me towering above, Mohammed took us for a walk. “While descending lean backwards and hold tight,” he wisely said after a 15-minute walk. Whoops! In a hurl, I flew forward and almost landed at his feet. No, I did not kiss them.

We drove on, deeper into the desert. Suddenly, we were on Mohammed’s property.. On the loose sand stood an empty but nicely decorated Bedouin home a bigger version of where I’d slept the previous night. This one with a raised terrace covered with cushions. I could already picture myself sinking into them while staring up at the stars. My inner romantic appeared there in that idyllic spot in the middle of the desert. “This is your house, you can stay here as long as you want,” Mohammed proudly said. “We live a bit further, in a stone house. This is our home from when we were still nomadic, but the changing weather conditions together with the arrival of the children forced us to have a more solid home. We use it as a cottage, but now it is your home.”

I could hardly believe what I just heard. This fairy tale was almost too good to be true. A little later he brought some food and I gradually became acquainted with the whole family. One by one, they wanted to see the strange bird that was cycling all the way from Europe. I became friends with little Saïd, a fan of my bike, my cap, and my helmet. He was a cute little fellow with eyelashes that even the dromedaries were surely jealous of, with deeply dark eyes that could melt every woman’s heart. Yes, also mine! I met Bader, Mohammed’s brother, who was dealing with some financial hardships. I wanted to help him realize his dream of renting out the Bedouin house to tourists, so I shot some photos and created a website for the job of his dreams. I fed the goats and learned about the animals of the desert. I sat with them around the campfire and was stuffed with tons of tasty food every day. I didn’t complain about the extra kilos I now had to carry. Oh no, I’d arrived in heaven!

Mohammed made me forget. Mohammed gave confidence. Mohammed provided me with unforgettable hospitality and memories that I’ll carry with me and cherish forever.

“A woman alone on a bike is a hooker on wheels.” Those words aren’t mine, but they’re out there and have been said to me multiple times. I don’t mean to scare you by sharing these experiences. And I don’t want you strong gals who want to explore the world by bike to be put off. I hate to say it, but our vulnerability is an inherent part of being a woman. This world was made for both men and women, so we can’t be afraid. We can’t hide, we have to stand up and enjoy life.

I want to remind you of how great it is out there! How intense and beautiful encounters can be. How enriching it is to absorb other cultures. How wonderful it is to feel small and be blown away by all the beauty that surrounds you. How delightful it is to camp in the middle of nowhere, where you’ll find nothing and everything at the same time. A world of freedom, a sea of purity, a landscape filled with dozens of unknown, beautiful sounds, and because of all that an overwhelming connection with nature. I just want to say to all you girls planning an adventure: go play outside and put the pedal to the metal. You’ll meet so many more Mohammeds than Ahmeds!

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One thought on “The hooker”

  1. One of the finest blog posts I read in a long time, thanks! It’s nice to know that there are Mohammeds out there and not just Ahmeds, and it’s good to indulge in the thought that there are more of the former than of the latter, for it’s true, but… I wonder how much damage can a single Ahmed do.
    Fabrizio

    Like

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