On November 9th, two Peace Corps Volunteers and I set out on a HIV/AIDS education motivated 300 km bike ride, from Errachidia to Ouarzazate. Overall, we were able to educate 238 men, women and children about HIV/AIDS. We could not have done it with out the support and help of all the wonderful hosts, (Moroccan and American) and counterparts along the way.
“BIKE-4-SIDA” was created in order to spread awareness and educate several small communities throughout the country about the prevalence of the virus in Morocco. HIV/AIDS can be viewed as a “taboo” subject in Morocco, due to its relationship to the subject of sex. Sexual matters are generally kept private and people usually turn a cold shoulder to the matters of cheating, injecting drugs and prostitution. As of 2009, there were 26,000 known cases of HIV/AIDS in Morocco, according to UNAIDS. Although new infections have been rising each year, the number is most likely significantly higher due to fear and stigma of being tested or diagnosed, lack of knowledge about transmission, testing, access to medication and counseling, and lack of testing centers. To my knowledge, there are testing centers in most larger cities, but some people are afraid or do not know where they can go to get tested. There are two large and well-known organizations that provide free testing and services throughout Morocco, OPALS and ALCS.
Our ride included 7 days of actual biking and 2 days of rest, conducting education sessions in six localities. Living on “volunteer” wages, we attempted to make the trip as affordable as possible, relying on the kindness and generosity of other volunteers, my dear host family, and hard-boiled egg sandwiches. We packed our bikes with the finest bungee cords and plastic bags that our meager wages could provide. (Pictures to follow—I’m pretty sure we looked like a trio of biking homeless youth)…
Our first day we woke up early, ready for the 50 km ride when the sky broke and Errachidia became a lake. The streets were flooded and the weather turned cold. We kept our spirits up, however, and waited for the rain to subside. Around the twelve o’clock prayer we realized that we wouldn’t only be biking in miserable and dangerous conditions but we would also be biking against an early sunset. We were forced to swallow our pride, gathered our bikes, and spent our first day on the road in a taxi. Our first stop was in Goulmima where we were fortunate enough to stay with a previous Peace Corps Doctor in a beautiful American-style home. Our session on HIV/AIDS took place at the local Dar Chebab (youth center) and about 40 young men and women attended.
The next day, we packed our bikes and headed west towards Tinjdad. The ride was short, about 20 km, only a preview of what was to come. The third day we biked to Tingrir, about 50 km. The ride was going well until about 11 AM when we took a break and suddenly violent winds came at us from the north, indicating it had snowed in the Atlas. It was hard to stand up straight let alone bike against and each kilometer felt doubled. I had been filling ill most of the day and biking in winds that bent trees in half and forced locals to bundle up pushed me to my limits. When we arrived in a small village about 17 km from Tingrir, I suffered an asthma attack and threw in the towel. We had an HIV/AIDS session in a few hours and I was worried we wouldn’t make it in time. Shivering and exhausted, another biker and myself piled into the back of a transit and made our way to town. Our education session took place at the Dar Chebab, and lucky for us was conducted entirely in English, because the students were nearly fluent. We were able to do several activities and answer a lot of questions. It made me realize how effective I would feel working in an English-speaking country, but I guess learning a foreign language has it’s benefits as well—although it’s hard to remember them sometimes.
The next day was another tough, but extremely rewarding day, a 50 km ride from Tingrir to Boulmalane Dades. Biking through the extremely Arizonaeqsue desert landscape can get rather dull. But just about 7 km from our destination, the beaming buildings of Boulmalane center appeared on the horizon and I’ve never felt better. As an added bonus, there is an enormous (luckily for us, descending) hill into the center. When we arrived we were greeted by smiling PCV’s and treated to a wonderful and fattening dinner—zucchini bread and curry. With sore muscles we retreated to the hammam for a leisurely bath. Our time was cut short when the owner announced we had to leave because it was time for her dinner but I left feeling like a new person nevertheless. The next day we did several activities and an educational session at the Dar Taliba (girl’s dormitory). The girls were extremely friendly and actively participated in our discussions.
After making it half way, we had just three more days of biking to go, about 90 km. We set off for Kl’aa Megouna, a short and windy ride, about 20 km. There we stayed in a small village about 7km from the center, where most residents speak a Berber dialect. I was able to have a conversation solely from hand gestures with one woman, (or at least I think I did). I generally felt entirely helpless, similar to the beginning of my service but this feeling also renewed my interest in learning a language again; Tamazigh. Our session was done completely by a Berber-speaking volunteer and had over 60 female attendees. We did a lot of explaining with pictures, since many of the women were thought to be illiterate. I would say it generally went well, despite some mildly awkward moments, which may have been avoided with the help of host country nationals. Nevertheless, I think it was effective to get women talking about protection and getting tested.
Our last days of the ride were a bit daunting, with about 90 km still to go. Without a volunteer in Skoura, the next closest town, we biked about 7km off road through an oasis in order to stay with my wonderful first host family in Morocco. Unfortunately there are no signs to this village, I had to rely on a general memory of “ take a right on the first dirt road, past the first kasbah, over a river bed, through some fields, left at the water tower, through another river bed and left at the next set of fields…” We were doing fine until the last part and luckily a friendly group of children playing soccer pointed us in the right direction. The village is beautiful and my host family are some of the kindest, most inviting people I have ever met. We were welcomed with open arms, fed a large tagine and offered showers and beds. My host mom gave each guest over three blankets, although one would have sufficed.
Throughout the night and into the morning the winds picked up again and were roaring against the windows and walls of the house. My host mom advised us not to bike so we decided to test out our fate once again and we biked back 7km to Skoura, just in case we needed to rely on a taxi. Going the other way would leave us with nothing until Ouarzazate, about 40 km. On our way the winds batted against our bodies, pushing me off the road several times. I began to get nervous, mostly because of the overwhelming amount of traffic between Skoura and OZ and the last thing I wanted to do was spend our last day of the trek in the hospital because of a bad decision. When we got to Skoura the winds seemed to calm down a bit and we procrastinated by eating a large lunch of hard-boiled egg and vache-qui-rit sandwiches, fruit, nuts and chocolate.
When the time came I was exhausted and my muscles hurt but I knew we had to bike the last day. Our education session was not scheduled until the next day so we stubbornly set out on our bikes for the last 40 km. The wind had died down a bit, but there was heavy traffic and several steep inclines. Exhausted, hungry, and covered in dust and sweat, we finally arrived near dusk. I felt accomplished and did not regret our decision. Coincidentally, we arrived just a day before my birthday and I have to say it wasn’t a bad way to spend the last moments of my 25th year.
Once in Ouarzazate, we were able to relax and had a casual discussion at a local women’s association called “Oxygen”. The audience seemed educated and generally informed about HIV/AIDS so the session was rather short and I was happy they understood my lesson conducted entirely in Arabic.
On the bus ride back my bike was underneath and I sat comfortably in a reclined seat. Watching the landscape rush by, at 6 times the speed I had seen on my bike, I had a lot of time to think. I thought about all of the wonderful people I was able to meet and talk with, the stares and high-fives from children in villages along the way, the wonderful hospitality of other volunteers, and the beautiful scenery that is uniquely appreciated by bike. I glanced around at the tourists sitting beside me, speaking in French and German and could only think, “you don’t know this terrain like I do.”
When I returned to my site and told people where I had been their reaction was generally “you’re crazy!”, which doesn’t change much because I think they have always thought I am crazy. Overall, it was a wonderfully rewarding trip and I would do it again, minus the extra 20 pounds strapped to my bike, torrential down pour and 30 mph winds.
*SIDA is the French acronym for AIDS, (Syndrome Immuno Deficiènce Acquise)