Morocco

Day 1

We arrived in Malaga around 2pm. No lost luggage, no hassles, just a long overnight flight to Paris and a quick morning flight to the south of Spain. There was a taxi waiting for us that took us to our accommodations.  La Calera is a collection of apartments cut into a hill overlooking an olive grove. We settled in and went down the hill to collect our bikes. Mark, an Englishman who moved to Spain 11 years ago is our contact here. He runs La Calera and has a quiver of BMW and Triumph motorcycles he rents out. He’s good natured and knowledgable and gave us a quick run down on the bikes. We’ve got BMW 700 dual sports fully equipped with panniers and two bar mounted gps’s. Considering the bikes we’ve ridden in other countries we won’t exactly be roughing it. The combination of jet lag and none of us having driven a motorcycle in a few months made for an interesting start. At least no one dumped a bike on the way to the gas station. I think Mark was a little nervous but it’s too late for him to change his mind.

“Us” is myself, Matt Pouliot, who was on the Peru trip we did, Adam Clarke, who I’ve traveled with to Tanzania, Japan, Germany, Vietnam, and countless skate trips over the years, and my dad Richard, who gave me the traveling bug when I was a kid.

We headed back to La Calera and had a couple beers and looked at a map. I had a general idea where it seemed like we should go, and Mark have us a few tips to make the trip more enjoyable.

Around 5:30 everyone was starving so we took a short walk into the town of Teba, where we realized we were in Spain and no restaurants would be open until around 8pm. We wandered around, had a couple beers and a couple coffees, and killed time while we waited. The bars all have olives and a cured ham leg on display and we snacked on some of that. This area is one of the largest suppliers of olives in the world, and those weren’t bad.

We finally sat down for a meal at Restaurant San Francisco around 8pm. Chicken, squid bodies, and prawn on skewers, lamb chops and white fish, all served with potatoes sautéed in a generous portion of olive oil. Delicious.

We made the mistake of having Matt pick out some wine and went back to La Calera to relax on the patio. It was about 60 degrees but warm enough for us. We choked down the wine and went to sleep.

We awoke early to the sound of rain on the steel roof outside. I think my dad and Adam are having some kind of contest to see who gets up the earliest, I’ll keep you updated on that. I took a cold shower and got out just in time for the water to heat up and for Matt to have a pleasant, leisurely wash. The rain will keep us from getting the early start we wanted, but we should still make our goal of getting to Chefchaouen tonight. Next stop should be the ferry terminal in Algeciras, where we’ll board a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and onto the continent of Africa, landing in the Moroccan city of Tangier.

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Day 2

We left La Calera and headed about 45k toward the coast. The ride was perfect, misty and curvy through the Andalusian foot hills. It gave us a chance to settle into the bikes in a rural environment. Much better than the normal situation where we jump on bikes in a city center and barrel out of town in traffic. Good relaxing start. We stopped in Ronda for breakfast and got another chance to try out our Spanish, which mostly involved being offered milk, turning it down, and then asking for milk. Same with eggs. We wound up with ham egg and cheese sandwiches and headed for the coast.

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We hit the ferry terminal and after some nonsense, a run through a construction site, some hand on the knife tenseness for no reason, we weaved our way to the ferry. Wait wait wait. We just missed the 1pm and had to wait for the 2:30pm. The ferry was insane. They drove eighteen wheelers in there and turned them around INSIDE. Rock of Gibraltar to the left. Where’s Todd? This was his idea. We arrived with no issue. As we were driving away from the port I thought “that’s the easiest time I’ve ever had getting into a country.” Then we came around a corner and got stopped. We weren’t IN the country yet. Lots of good noise at the border. Sort of like bad noise but everyone was really friendly. Some paperwork annoyance but we got through unscathed – and combined with the late start and waiting for the ferry – 5 hours behind schedule. Gateway to Africa – check.

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I know these countries by the smell. It’s in the air, like burning tires and garbage and dust, but more complex than just that. It’s a vibe in the air that anything can happen. Garbage in the road, livestock, a kid with a lasso standing in the middle of the highway. When I say anything I mean anything. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve only felt that way in Africa. When we left Spain our boy Mark said “for the love of God, whatever you do, don’t drive at night in Morocco.”  No hassle for me – but we’re two hours from Chefchaouen and gotta be somewhere. We decided to do 50k to Tetouan. So we drove at night and it was a bad idea. Two people wound up dumping their bikes (luckily Adam caught one) and it wasn’t enjoyable. Traffic sucked, too many people, no lights. Bad all around. But I’m writing this so we’re good. Maybe when I was 20 something it wouldn’t have bothered me but I’ve got too much to go home to. We made it to Tetouan and I sighed with relief but the adventure was just beginning. I won’t to into it, I’m tired, but picture one of those chase scenes through middle eastern markets in movies but starring Matt Pouliot in a grandpa motorbike suit and Adam Clarke with a gold sparkle helmet followed by my dad and I (dressed normal). We got to a square, stopped, and picked up a guy in a robe who rode on Adams bike to a parking garage and then walked us to a hotel after falling off the bike twice. Legend! We walked a ways down an alley and into a hotel/restaurant that would make Anthony Bourdain cry tears of joy. Now we’re enjoying tagine and red wine. Good one boys!

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Day 3

Tetuan had one more surprise left over from arriving at night: the beautiful mountain ranges surrounding the city. We slept in until 7:30 and woke up with the city. We had breakfast, crepes and a few types of bread (thankfully Adam is off the gluten free diet) and went for a walk in the medina. Getting lost in a medina is an awesome experience. Around every corner and twist there’s a new surprise. Vendors selling fish, bread, leather goods, the occasional lumber or leather shop, all tucked neatly into stalls of various sizes with white washed walls. Tough to explain. Word is that Tetuon is one of the less spoiled places tourist wise, and after getting to Fez, I’m glad we got to experience it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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After my father accused me of trying to kill him (death by medina stair climbing) we found our way back to the room and then the bikes. We met a guy who “lived in the 212 and the 218 for ten years, and had many black friends – who walk like chickens but made great friends.” He put his hand over his heart when he said that, which I guess makes it sincere, and maybe less offensive. Funny how we ran into the same three guys in the morning we met the night before. We’re locals! And out.

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We headed for Chefchaouen and had an amazing ride through the mountains. Last nights shadowy figures became today’s smiling and waving Moroccans. We got to Chef for lunch (my nickname, not anyone else’s, it would have been shorter typing the whole name than this explanation) and had some garbage pizza and paninis. Not authentic but fine. We stopped to take some photos of the city on the way out and a bunch of pre teens accosted us. One even tried to rev my bike! These must be the Muslim Extremists people at home warned us about! Either that or these were the only people with access to Fox News so they knew we are at war. Sorry not trying to get political but seriously Moroccan people are some of the nicest I’ve encountered in the world.

We pounded it out to Fez and arrived as the sun dropped into the mountains behind us. Our Moroccan friends again became shadowy figures on the side of the road, who at any point could step out and cause a wreck. Speaking of wreck, I want to go on record: if Matt dies while dangerously trying to overtake a vehicle we tried to warn him. That’s all I’ll say about that. We got separated coming in during the night – because bad things happen when you drive motorcycles in Morocco at night. Saved by a homie again. Not tomorrow!

We met another homie in Fez who got us a good hotel and brought us to an amazing place for dinner. Homies everywhere in Morocco. I had lamb with bone marrow and an awesome salad. Matt and Adam had couscous and my dad ordered the same thing as last night. Great food. And I don’t mean to brag or anything, but we’ve managed to get beer and wine two nights in a row in a Muslim country. We also were offered schnapps and got some cloudy fire water.

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Let me also mention that my dad is 69 years old and so far has handled this trip like a champ. I’m not surprised, but I hope I’m that badass when I’m his age. That will be 32 more years of adventure. Not even mentioning that he hasn’t ridden a motorbike more than a couple miles in the last 30 years.

Tomorrow we head for Erfoud. Which is ambitious I think considering our performance so far. With any luck we’ll be riding camels in the Sahara the day after, but let’s not get too far ahead.

Today was good. We’ve got a couple beers, a good place to sleep, American style toilets (versus the long drop kind) and no one fell over today.

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Day 4

We’re struggling to get used to the 9am breakfasts. Things just happen a little later here, but we’ve got miles to do before dark, and waiting around two or three hours in the morning for breakfast isn’t working. Today breakfast was at 8am so we waited for it, but we didn’t get food until 8:45. Late start. We drove 15k before we were out of Fez and by 11:30 we’d barely done 100k. Today is our big push day, with the goal of making it from Fez to Erfoud before dark. Probably not going to happen.

The drive through Ifrane was awesome. Big swooping turns and lots of gradual ups and downs. Considering the good food, fantastically maintained roads, friendly people, and reasonable prices it’s no wonder people refer to this as the best motorcycle ride in the world.

It’s funny thinking how much has changed since the first time we did a trip like this. We showed up in Peru without goggles, helmets, gloves, or jackets, and having never ridden motorcycles before. The first day we hit a tree before we got out of the parking lot. It’s a wonder we survived. The roads were dirt and mud and we were on terrible bikes that broke down every day. Here we are now on amazing roads with lots more motorcycle experience, padded jackets and awesome bikes with heated grips. No wonder this seems easier.

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We stopped in Timhdite and had our first taste of mint tea. Not bad Bub. Remembering last night when we followed our boy through the dark alleys of the medina to meet a guy named Mohammad with knife scars on his face like the Joker to talk about camel rides in the desert. Weird. Smoking is allowed in cafes here but it seems like maybe women aren’t. We also haven’t seen any women driving. Most wear head scarves and it’s rare to see a man and woman together.

We stopped in Midelt for lunch. The real Morocco! No tourists here! Still everyone smiles, “welcome to Morocco” and lots of people speak pretty good English even in the middle of the country. Chicken tagine for me. My dad (otherwise known as Ali Baba) and Matt split a chicken. I don’t know what Adam had because I was buying rugs. According to the guide book I got a good deal, but my wife will be the final word on that. We’ll see where they end up…

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We bombed it for Erfoud. Our second and third 100ks were easier and faster. Basically wind around and up a hill, down the other side, and full speed through a valley to the next hill/mountain. Repeat. As we headed further south the sun set to our right and brilliantly lit up the rusty reddish tan valley walls to our left.  The landscape started to feel like you’d imagine Mars would be. So cool. We cruised into Erfoud at the buzzer, just as the sun sank out of site. We’re tired and sore but have a nice hotel with wifi, a bar, a pool, and a restaurant. We’ll probably go dark tomorrow because I don’t think the tents in the Sahara have wifi. Happy New Year!

Day 5

For New Years I celebrated with 11 hours of sleep. Adam celebrated with food poisoning.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve had 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep, and I don’t mind that I went to bed at 10 on New Years Eve to get it. Anyone who has had a teething one year old knows how special sleep is. Sorry I couldn’t share it with you Jen, give Javi a hug and kiss for me! I miss you two.

Food poisoning was bound to happen. It’s a reality here. Let me paint the picture: Toilets are primarily holes in the floor with a bucket and a water faucet near by. They don’t flush and there’s no toilet paper. That’s why it’s rude to eat with your left hand – that’s the um, cleaning hand. So that’s kinda gross, but what’s really gross is the money. You’ve got all these people walking around all day with a pretty gross hand, and they’re handling money – and so are you. We treat money like a dead rat, touch it as little as possible and wash your hands like mad when you’re done. I’m not typically a clean freak, and I’ll eat anything locals do, and prefer buying it as street food, but I’ve got that anti bacterial hand stuff in my pocket and I’m using it every single time I shake hands or touch money. Adam has too, so who knows how he got sick. Good news is he was upright by 10am and we were ready for our 3pm date with some camels. That didn’t sound right but you get the picture. Side note, camels are horrible beasts. Google image search “camel mouth” and they will instantly be your least favorite animal. They aren’t horses with two humps, they’re a whole different thing.

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We left the hotel at 11:15. That was tough on the crew, but Matt is kind of a resort traveler, so it takes him 45 minutes or more to pack every morning. My dad was so ready to roll that he got a little heavy on the throttle pulling out of the hotel and slid out on some loose gravel. I was ahead and I looked back to see a pannier in the middle of the road and a cloud of dust. Obviously thats a scary site. By the time I got back to the yard sale the bike was up and there were 10 or 11 kids brushing my dad off. We put the panniers back on – luckily no damage to the bike or Ali Baba – and got on the road. We stopped in Rissani for coffee. My dads a little more banged up than we thought. He rolled his ankle and is limping around but not complaining. At least we aren’t hiking? Such a bummer. It could’ve happened to anyone, and I know because I’ve crashed motorcycles in at least 3 different countries. Matt also has a life threatening injury. A boulder fell on him, horribly disfiguring his arm. I uploaded a photo of it already, it may not be suitable for all audiences. Kind of looks like a bug bite. For the record he’s not really complaining much either.

We got back on the road and headed to Merzouga. Not much to see here, just sand and rocks and ruins. Adam couldn’t stay on the road and had to do some off roading. I’m not sure what was more dangerous, him driving a fully freighted BMW in the desert of me trying to take pictures of it while driving and laughing.

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We arrived a couple hours early for our camel ride and had a nice meal of chicken and salad and fruit. If you’re in the Sahara check out Quiet Merzouga. Nice outfit. They’d been tracking our progress on Facebook and knew we’d get there early. They’d also done their research! Pretty crazy to be way out here in the desert and Ahmed is checking our Facebook statuses and knows all about our trip.

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We headed to the camels around 3:30 and rode them an hour into the desert. My dad says these are the best camels he’s ever seen and was impressed by their grooming and lack of smelliness. The rest of us don’t have much camel experience but they seemed good. There will be approximately 1,000 photos so you’ll know everything you need to. The guide spoke three languages plus a little English. I’m always reminded what stooges Americans are when I travel. Thankfully the rest of the world doesn’t just expect everyone to learn their language… Everywhere I’ve ever been in the world I’m the only one that only speaks one language. Then again maybe it’s just me and everyone else payed more attention in Spanish class and can properly conjugate their verbs, whatever that means.

We got to the camel parking lot, which is easily identified because it is completely covered in camel dung. When camels sit down, they drop into their front knees first, then drop their hind legs. Kind of like a bucking bronco. Everyone handled it and no one fell off during this process. But Matt, never one to disappoint, managed to fall when he was getting off the camel – face first into the camel shit parking lot. Incredible comedy!

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We climbed (my dad crawled – trooper) to the top of a dune to watch the sunset. It’s like a metaphor for his life, take the hard route, injured, but just don’t give up and eventually you get to the top of the dune.

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The sunset wasn’t life changing, but really cool. We settled into the camp, lots of other tourists, some with ski poles (?) here. Not bad accommodations for the middle of the desert. Plumbing, water, beds, nice. Not much to do except make friends, and we aren’t much for that so we mostly just sat in our tents and talked amongst ourselves until dinner. There were a couple Americans explaining decency laws to each other in some weird baby talk, so there’s that. Dinner was chicken tagine, followed by drums around the fire. It gets cold in the desert at night, colder than you’d think, but the tents have thick blankets so it was a comfortable night.

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Day 6 AKA the most frightened I’ve ever been in second gear.

We got up for the sunrise over Algeria. Not bad. My dad is still able to walk, so at least whatever is wrong with his ankle didn’t get worse overnight. We opted for the suv ride back to home base to pick up the bikes.

We made great time out of Merzouga, lots of long flat stretches. First bike malfunction: the hard case on the back of my dads bike fell off on a rough patch of road. We put it back on and kept moving, but the thing fell off again a few miles later. We bungeed it on and pushed to Tinerhir, where a police officer directed us to a mechanic. The police are super nice here, always with a smile and a “you are welcome in Morocco.” We’ve seen loads of them because there are lots of road blocks. They smile and wave us through. We’ve probably been through 40 of them and haven’t been stopped once. Tinerhir is a dusty mining town (Hussein told me silver) and one of a few cities in this are where there are Jewish Berbers.

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While the mechanics fixed up my dads bike Adam and Matt back tracked a few miles to Todra Gorge. You’ll have to ask them about that. I was on a city tour with my new homie Hussein, trying to find an open pharmacy to get some aspirin for my dad. Got it and got back to the mechanic five minutes before the boys returned, and we had lunch. One chicken tagine for Matt, omelette for Adam and my dad, and I had couscous with vegetables – which was awesome. Also Matt dumped his bike and I was quick enough to get the photo.

Back on the road for Boumalne du Dades. We made good time again and arrived at the bottom of the Dades Gorge around 4:30. You can read all about it on dangerousroads.org, and it didn’t disappoint. On the way up I found myself in a corner with a van and a car in each lane heading right for me. Luckily I was going super slow and was able to get off the road and let the passing van by. Not super close, but close enough for me. It’s a 25k or so twisty ride up the the scariest mile or so I’ve ever ridden. Switch backs and long drops with 10 in guard rails and oncoming traffic. In retrospect it was fun but I was scared the whole time, in second gear. We made it to the top and we posed for Matts selfie stick (except for my dad, who turned around five turns from the top thinking he was way behind). We turned around and headed back down and by 6pm we were tucked into a hotel, fighting with wifi and ordering black market beer delivery from a Berber. We’re only about 300k from Marrakesh and we have a couple days to do it, so pressures off.

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Day 7 and 8

We left Boumalne du Dades first thing in the morning. The plan was to try and get as close to Marrakesh as possible. We have some time, but Ouarzazate seemed too close and Marrakesh seemed to far for one day. Only around 300 kilometers but we hear it’s a windy mountain road.

We made great time and by 10:30 Ouarzazate was behind us and we were getting into the mountains shortly after. The High Atlas is the mountain range that’s between the two cities, and it’s no joke. Thankfully the Moroccans are fantastic at maintaining their roads. Everywhere seems like new pavement or they’re in the process of straightening or improving the road. There aren’t as many roads, basically a main road from city to city and most everything else is dirt except for the larger cities. With no interest in anything between the start of the day and Marrakesh, we just kept pushing. The mountains were treacherous, but fun riding. The scariest part was really the Moroccan custom of driving in the middle of the road and passing on blind corners. The lanes seem more of a suggestion, and no one seems too bent out of shape when someone is on the wrong side of the road or taking up two lanes. On some of the corners in the mountains buses are too big to make it around the corners without being in both lanes. It all works, but you need to be ready for oncoming traffic, and going fast on corners on a motorcycle makes that difficult. At one point we followed a dump truck for close to an hour because there wasn’t a straight enough road to get around it, even at 20 miles an hour on motorcycles.

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We arrived in Marrakesh at 4:30 and found a coffee shop with wifi. No luck there, so we found a hotel in the guide book and figured we’d give it a shot. Part way there we encountered a road block, and rather than turn around like the gps told him to, Matt made the best decision of his life and followed the walking directions – straight into the medina. What followed was one of the best parts of the trip. We basically traffic jammed it through the busy souqs, through the medina, and out the other side, laughing the whole time. It was one of those moments that you know will never be repeated, so unique that you have the opportunity to recognize you’re making an awesome memory as you’re making it. Tough to explain, but Matts got the GoPro video. We came out the other side and Matts next trick was driving across the median. Not bad. We got lost but not much and made it to the hotel at sunset. There were two others near by so we did the normal trick of everyone going to check out a different hotel and then meeting back up to compare notes. We wound up at the Hotel Hicham, with a bar, a pool, wifi, hot water, and parking across the street. The parking situation is interesting. There’s a section of the sidewalk that a couple guys hang out at and guard scooters. For 10 dirham a day ($1) and 10 dirham a night they have a guard there 24/7. Pretty good deal. Adam and I drove the bikes a little way the wrong way up the one way street to get to a curb cut so we didn’t have to jump the curb. Part way we saw a police officer standing in the road. Adam turned around but I figured I was already guilty and I’d play dumb. He waved me down and told me I needed to put on my helmet. I just kept it moving on the one way, no problem.

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We checked in, dropped our bags and took showers. We went to the bar for a drink, but really there’s only beer to drink. Since it’s a Muslim country there isn’t much alcohol, and where there is people don’t really know what to do with it. No problem, we can have a beer.

We went to Restaurant Loft down the street. Great menu and reasonable prices. The place was booked for the night, but since it was only 7:30 we were seated on the condition we’d be out by 9:00. No problem. We had bone marrow as an appetizer and it was the best I’ve had. Big serving, but since it’s so rich we couldn’t finish it. Matt wasn’t into it and neither was Adam, so we sent back as much as you’d normally get in an order. I had duck for dinner, which was excellent. A big improvement over tagine for lunch and tagine for dinner. We went back to the hotel and shared a bottle of wine at the pool and called it a day. We now have two days to travel 1.4 miles to drop off the bikes.

The next morning we woke and booked a city tour. Matt decided to take a bike to the coast on a solo mission, but no one else was really interested in another 6 hours on the bikes. We went to a bakery down the street for breakfast and Abdulla picked us up around 9:45. Not much of a tour. One driver, one guide, and they mostly talked amongst themselves in Arabic while we drove around. They wanted to take us to the Atlas Mountains, not interested, did that yesterday. They wanted to take us on a camel ride, not interested, did that a few days ago. Eventually we wound up at a tannery – which I’ll never forget. When we got to the spot a guy handed us mint leaves to breathe through so we wouldn’t throw up from the smell. Pretty intense to see piles of dead lamb skins. I don’t have the full process, but basically it’s a system of big concrete holes, each with a different purpose. One gets the fur off, another gets the fat off, a third dyes the leather. One was apparently pigeon shit, but I can’t be certain. That’s what they said it was and it sure smelled like it. This is unhealthy, difficult work, and these guys weren’t slacking. Dirtiest Jobs has nothing on these guys. Throwing around animal skins into smelly pools of who knows what is intense. Everywhere there’s fur and unidentifiable puddles of smell.

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From there we went shopping a little. Light shops, antiques, rugs, all ornate. You could fill a container with the stuff you want to buy. No magnets here, all good stuff. We had fish for lunch, not bad, and headed to the hotel for a rest before checking out Jemaa el Fna.

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Jemaa el Fna is a huge square with street performers, snake charmers, women doing henna, juice stalls, and street food. The stalls are numbered and each one has a guy or two standing outside trying to rope you in. Really intense so you better have a sense of humor. The guide book said if you feel like you’re going to punch someone get out of there. I laughed when I read it but after I went I can see what they were talking about. One of the main foods is sheep head and it looked awesome. One place even had the brains sitting out for sale. Lunch didn’t sit well with me, so I left this one for another night. The square was definitely a “must do” Morocco experience. Unforgettable.

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We headed back to the hotel and then to dinner at an Italian place. Why not? We’ve had enough tagine for this trip. Tomorrow we switch hotels and drop off the bikes, then we’ve got a rest day and we’re done.

I sort of wish we’d gone a few more miles. Maybe ended in Casablanca. Then again, I usually regret not being able to spend enough time anywhere on these trips. At least we’ve got a few days to check out a city before we head home.

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