After enduring three hours of rejection, I wished I’d heeded the advice of a motorcyclist an hour earlier — “Take the bus. No one is going to pick you up.” I wasn’t hitchhiking through Morocco as a poor university student trying to save every penny. Instead, I was a 52-year-old, international-school teacher hoping to prove a point to himself — we don’t need to fear life as we age.
Now, I wasn’t so sure. Morning had already given way to afternoon, and I was still a half-day’s journey from my destination of Merzouga in the Sahara Desert. The steady flow of traffic dwindled to a trickle. I felt tired. I felt lonely. I felt foolish, knowing the only bus had long since departed.
In my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I’d been a fan of independent, adventure travel. I preferred to utilize public transportation, rolling into a new town without reservations or even a detailed plan, ready to dive into the local culture. My ultimate rush involved placing my fate into the hands of strangers through hitchhiking, but since moving to Zimbabwe in 2016, my preferred travel mode was all-inclusive vacations via air-conditioned 4 X 4s.
I convinced myself I had few other options because of the continent’s lack of infrastructure; however, deep down, I dreaded the unknown. Riding in unmaintained buses on pothole-filled roads seemed risky. Could I find hotels showing up unannounced? Was Africa the best place to navigate solo? It certainly had absolutely nothing to do with middle age, or did it?
The older I get the more apparent it becomes that all accidents can’t be avoided. Sometimes bad things do happen to good people. Sometimes evil prevails. It’s been reassuring for me in midlife to embrace organized tours to steer clear of potential unpleasantries, in the name of comfort and convenience.
When I decided to visit Morocco, I again looked into tours and probably would have ended up on one if not for an argument with my then-girlfriend, who accused me of only being willing to explore Africa along well-worn, predictable paths. As a veteran backpacker, I knew she was wrong. I had to convince her, or convince myself, that I hadn’t changed, that I wasn’t afraid to resume my wandering ways.
A month later, for the first time in years, I was standing by the side of the road, sheepishly holding a crudely written placard with the word “Imlil,” a village in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains about two hours outside Marrakech.
Despite the potential hazards, I’ll admit part of the attraction of hitchhiking is not knowing who or what is waiting on the other side of the door. But rather than dwelling on what might go wrong, I tried to keep in mind the slim likelihood of becoming a crime victim.
For decades, I’d hitchhiked around the world without incident, drawing inspiration from the words of Albert Einstein who once said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” I’m convinced of the former, which gave me the confidence to stick out my thumb in Africa. Hitchhiking is an exercise in trust, both for the hitchhiker and driver, and a terrific way to open the door to magical possibilities.
Within minutes of debuting my Imlil sign, a car stopped. It was too easy.
“No good,” said the driver, pointing to the opposite road I’d taken at the fork.
Once I was back on the correct route, another car stopped.
“I’ll take you to Imlil,” said the motorist.”100 dirhams,” the equivalent of about $10. I rejected the taxi driver’s offer. Hitchhiking isn’t always about saving money. It’s about the experience. I wanted that experience. He returned, insisting I wouldn’t find a ride.
However, less than an hour later, a car full of four men allowed me to squeeze in with them.
“American?” asked the front-seat passenger.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Trump,” he chuckled.
Any remaining angst evaporated. The men took me halfway, where I managed to find another ride the remainder of the way to the village. I was reliving the glory days of my youth.
My good fortune lasted two more days.
Now, it appeared my hitchhiking luck had vanished, just short of the Sahara. With the afternoon waning, the threat of getting stranded after dark loomed like a hungry vulture patiently awaiting the demise of its prey. I’d have to admit defeat, find a hotel, and take the next day’s bus.
As a young man, I never entertained such negative thoughts because I believed the universe always provided. Eventually, the right person would pick me up, but perhaps times had changed in this troubled, unpredictable world.
I had essentially given up hope when a car pulled over next to me. Two German women heading to the desert offered me a lift covering the entire 100+-mile journey. The universe had come through yet again.
During my three weeks in Morocco, I faced additional adversity — language barriers, hours of walking, being dropped off in the middle of nowhere — but managed to hitchhike 600 miles, relying on the generosity of 23 benefactors.
Near the end of my trip, while waiting for a hitch to Fez, a 20-something-year-old stopped, saying he doubted someone would pick me up that late in the day. He volunteered to take me to the bus station, promising to bring me back to my spot if there were no buses. I was too exhausted to argue.
When we arrived at the station, he went up to the counter and learned an overnight bus would be leaving in a couple of hours. Before I could take out my money, he paid the fare. I objected, telling him that was completely unnecessary because I had plenty of cash, but he refused to accept it. I had to ask why. His face grew serious, and in his limited English he replied, “humanity.”
Nope, we needn’t fear life as we age, even while hitchhiking alone across Africa.