A World Between Countries and Spies Like… Us?

November 5, 2013

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

The events of the previous day don’t simply fade into a shrug. In all honesty, continuing the journey to Morocco seems incredibly foolhardy. Yet something in both of us is pushing to work through our fears and fulfill this part of a lifelong dream. It’s an inner dialogue that doesn’t stop – even when I walk to the ticketing office to get our tickets changed. I’m armed with medical documents from Nita’s visit to Hospital Torrecárdenas in case they refuse the change but, as we’ve learned, people are generally good and the woman changes the ticket with a stroke of a pen and a broad smile.

I take the ease of the change as a sign. We’re meant to go to Morocco. Nita, while tired from fighting with her heart, has an extraordinary conviction to feel her wheels riding on Moroccan soil. She’s small but mighty.

We head to the ferry terminal in the fading light and prepare to settle into a fairly nervous wait. We’re both smiling but somewhere deep in our stomachs we know that Nita’s heart is fragile and we’re taking a hell of a risk. In retrospect we may even look at this decision as stupid, but things would have to go fairly sideways for that to happen.

Compared to the dockside wait in Palermo for our journey to Tunisia, this affair is fairly subdued. We’re basically the only bikes here and the crowd is made up of mostly Spaniards making their way to Melilla and Moroccans heading home with goods to sell. There are some heavily overloaded cars and vans here but, mostly, the loading is reasonable. So far the experience is almost tame compared to our last North African ferry.

The time slips by and soon we’re being loaded into the belly of the boat. The process is the same as any other; find a spot, have straps thrown in your general direction, tie-down the bikes and wander aimlessly while trying to find the stairs to the upper decks. This ship is older and definitely feels more “Steam-liner” than modern ferry. The doors are the heavy, water-tight deals you expect to find on a submarine and the seats have all seen better days. On the plus side, cabins are cheap so we have a room to rest our weary heads while we sleep on the six hour journey back to Africa.

We grab a drink while we wait for everyone to board and really feel for people without a bed. The amenities are sparse on this ship and so is deck-space. We’ve slept on the deck of most of our ferries but this boat represents an uncomfortable night for even the most enthusiastic traveller. As the boat begins to manoeuvre out of the dock, we retreat to our berth and slip into a restless sleep.

We wake up the next morning with land in sight. Melilla is an Spanish exclave in Africa, much like Ceuta which means we’ll be able to disembark the ship without passport control. Of course that also means that, at some point, we’ll have to cross into Morocco through a local border. Originally, we’d chosen this option to get a truer experience of what internal border crossings entail. Consider it research for the future. Ferry entries are typically easier as they only deal with ferry traffic whereas the border between Melilla and Beni Ansar is a busy crossing processing thousands of locals and visitors daily.

After a relatively simple exit from the ferry we stop outside of the dock at at a small café for a bite to eat along a beautiful road which is also sporting a wonderful view of the African side of the Mediterranean. The sun is warm, the light is heavenly and we settle into the feeling of this continent again. A couple of Spanish men at a nearby table strike-up a conversation with us about our bikes and their light natures have us quickly relaxing into the day. Another man strolling by our bikes tells me again and again how lucky I am to have a wife who rides before asking Nita if she has a sister who’s available. The comment and his visible desperation for a travelling partner gets a huge laugh from everyone sitting outside.

With a stomach nicely filled for what will likely be a couple of hours of chaos, we hop on the bikes and make the short journey to the border. Our confidence in dealing with the process is high and although we’ve never been through a Moroccan border before, we feel like we’ve gained plenty of experience from the ones we’ve already crossed. Only a few kilometres from the port, the traffic builds and the familiar feeling of madness on the roads begins to return, leaving the quiet of Melilla feeling like it’s a world away.

Rounding a corner, we take sharp right and see groups of men waving us to the side of the road. It’s hard to discern fixers from scammers at borders and every interaction is a combination of feather-display, conversation and intuition. At first glance, this group clearly falls into the “Deal with them later if we have to” category. Riding past them, we’re met with a sign for a u-turn and sure enough we’re forced to stop right by them. Frantic Fixers: 1, Us: 0.

By now we know the drill. They’ll not mention a fee. They will have forms of some description that they’ll fill out on our behalf. They’ll ask for our passports. The scammers may dash as soon as we hand them over, the fixers won’t. All we have for trust is a few moments of conversation and there’s little else to go on. I hold the passports while he writes. Soon, the forms are filled out and the moment for fee negotiation begins. We’ve gone from previously dreading this moment to now deriving a twisted pleasure from it.

It’s a group of four men and that’s already a disadvantage. The more men there are, the more they’ll push for a payment for all of them even if only one or two do all the work (and by all the work, I mean fill out a single form). The leader starts at a very optimistic €50! That gets a hearty laugh from both of us and we counter with a simple “No.” By the time he’s at €15 I offer him the forms back – €5 is a fair price for saving us time. He holds the forms in his hand and we start our engines. Putting on his best face, he accepts our payment and returns the forms. It’s a fair deal for both of us. Frantic Fixers: 1, Us: 1! The game ends in a draw.

With forms in hand we still have about a kilometre of cars ahead of us but we’re alright with the idea of waiting. The temperature is great and a little more time between us and the increasing chaos seems like a nice idea. Before we get too settled-in, the fixers offer us a runner, a young man who’ll cut us through the traffic to the border. This kid we like immediately. His smile is wide, he’s not pushy and his mohawk is the bomb!

I talk with him for a moment and soon he’s waving us behind him through any gap on the road. Unlike drivers at home, the locals simply move to allow us through, while some even smile! We’re amazed. In Calgary, we’d have cars intentionally blocking the road and probably more than a few fingers thrown our way. Though to be honest, the locals here are probably glad to have a couple of tourists out of their way. When we get to a spot that’s impassable, he talks to the drivers and they create a space large enough for us to cut behind them where we can hop the curb and ride the sidewalk to the exit of the Spanish border. Without even having to stop, the border guard waves us through and suddenly we’re in the mix of crazy that is no-mans land. Our runner has saved us at least an hour in line.

Once through, we’re immediately greeted by another wave of fixers. Showing them our forms they quickly tell us that they’re useless as the serial stamp on them is out-dated. Smelling a scam, we let them know that we’ll just try them anyways – something that changes the demeanour of the conversation. From pushy salesmen, they shift towards being actually helpful. A guard waves us to a spot where we can park our bikes while we attend to the labyrinth of paper-running that needs to happen. As usual, Nita runs the passports, vehicle import and customs papers while I wait with the bikes.

While Nita’s at the Moroccan end of border with our fixers, I watch a policeman admire our bikes in my side mirror. His wry smile slowly turns into a look of confusion before finally settling into a frown. He’s spotted our GoPros and asks me to get off my bike. He’s a tall man who resembles Saddam Hussein and is sporting an olive-green onesie covered in military paraphernalia. In our slow saunter to the border through Melilla I’d forgotten a cardinal rule of overlanding: no cameras at the border. Damn. He tells me in French it’s forbidden and that I need to show him the footage – which is problematic on the GoPros since they don’t have a screen. Hoping to avoid unpacking my bike and revealing our stash of laptops, I explain that we haven’t been filming and that there’s no screen to show him. With that, he tells me he’s going to confiscate the camera’s which, surprisingly, I refuse to allow.

We go back and forth a few times. He insists that the cameras are now his and I insist that he can forget it. It’s a strange tactic from me – I’m well aware that at a border we have almost no influence, but something about this man screams bully and something deep inside me wants to make him work harder for our gear that he now considers a “Gift.” I continue to smile, remain calm and speak respectfully without giving an inch. With the conversation going no-where, he abruptly announces that I’m being detained; I’ll walk to the police station with him and there I’ll be interrogated. He waits a moment, perhaps giving me time to consider the threat and release the cameras into his care.

It’s during this pregnant pause that Nita returns to the bikes. Seeing me embroiled in a tense conversation with the guard, I fill her in on what’s been happening since she left. While we talk, the guard begins combing through Nita’s gear and spots her GoPro which he also quickly confiscates. With two cameras now in his hot little hands, Nita and I both try to explain that they contain no footage – but it’s no use. As he begins the march toward the Moroccan border, Nita rushes to tell me that the border control officer has kept my passport and asked to speak to me directly. Apparently he has an issue with my name – or, more truthfully, with my Libyan roots – as he seems to have become agitated after finding out that my father was from the nearby country. Consumed with the thought of losing my passport at this border, I insist that the guard help me retrieve my documentation before any visit to the station. The stern tone in my voice even takes me by surprise but the prospect of a police station visit compounded with a missing passport is all too much to take.

Now equally agitated, my unfriendly host snaps at me to speak in French only – a funny request since the word for “Passport” is essentially the same in both languages. With my best inspector Clouseau, I ask in French. Surprisingly, he does detour to help me retrieve my passport. However, the man in the booth is extremely unhappy and begins arguing with the guard before we simply walk away, leaving him yelling at us through the glass to an audience of puzzled locals. This border is turning out to be far more exciting than we expected!

At the station, the guard talks briefly with an officer who speaks perfect English and I try to explain that we’ve not been filming – a fact that he could care less about. With a stage-quality look of disgust, he stares me in the eye, reiterates that filming at the border is absolutely forbidden and waves me aside. With the amount of money moving from fixers to the various officials we can see why cameras are frowned upon here.

Inside the dimly lit station, I’m taken into an office with three desks resembling a set from Hill Street Blues and young plain-clothed police officer. My escort explains to him that I’ve been filming at the border before leaving the room with a look of both anger and disappointment. For a moment the young man inspects the cameras before turning his attention to me. “They look like spy cameras.” Surprised, I laugh a little and assure him they’re not – that they’re simply cameras which we use to film our journey.

Seemingly unconvinced, he tells me to wait outside the office while he discusses the situation with an older man who’s just arrived. Before I reach the door, he tells me to stop and asks me what I do. I tell him I’m a writer which, in retrospect, may have been the wrong thing to say. There’s a palpable fear of journalism here – even though I’m not a journalist nor am I interested in becoming one. It begins a heated conversation that gets quieter as I make my way to the hall and a waiting chair where I sit next to an Ethiopian woman who’s being interrogated by a different set of officers.

The eldest of the men visits me at my chair and asks where I plan to go. I’m nervous now and stumble; “Around –  um… Agadir, Fès, Marrakech.” Displeased with my answer he returns to the office and another round of shouting begins.

After about twenty minutes the youngest emerges from the office. “We think you’re a spy. We think you’re a spy and these are definitely spy cameras.” It’s an accusation that leaves me speechless. The look of surprise on my face seems slightly satisfying to the man. I verify what my mind is having trouble processing. “A spy? Really?” It’s a moment that seems to hang in the air for a long while. Maybe I should have just let the man in the green onesie take the cameras after-all. It’s such a bizarre moment that a small smile breaks on my face. “Well, I’m not a spy. So what do we do now?” It’s all I can muster.

He disappears back into the room and this time the conversation turns to a gentle roar. The young man is playing the role of good cop in this strange border-town drama and before long he re-emerges from the room to continue questioning my intentions. He asks again to see the footage and I repeat my story of the cameras not having a screen. With a coy smile, the officer suggests that I obviously have something to watch them on and, rather boldly, I ask him if he really wants me to unpack my entire bike to show him that I’m telling the truth. Somewhat stunned by the response he replies “No” before returning to the room.

After what sounds like a substantial disagreement on what should happen next, the young officer emerges from the room with both of our cameras. “Are you certain there’s nothing on these cameras?”

“On my mothers life, there’s nothing.”

Swearing on my mothers good health seems to assuage any fears of espionage; what self-respecting person – spy or not – would do such a thing? He smiles the first warm smile I’ve seen and hands me the cameras.

He still has my passport and takes me into the office with the other man to grab them.

“What do you write about?”

“Travel.” He hands me my passport.


“Eventually. For now, on the web. Blogs.”

The older man walks out scowling and obviously agitated.

“Will you write about this?” It feels like a trap.

“I’m not sure yet.”

With the cameras and passport in hand I turn and leave quickly before any more conversation can be had.

Outside the chaos continues, barely noticing my absence. Only Nita and the fixers have missed me.

There’s been plenty of action outside too. While I was inside, Nita’s watched a scooter loaded with goods successfully make a run for the border. The original rider was detained for questioning and left the engine running. When the guards back was turned, another man jumped aboard before smashing through the line at the gate into Moroccan territory – all while being chased by police. This place is madness! Happy to be reunited with Nita, and after a few more stamps on another form, we’re handed two pieces of paper we’re meant to hold on to during our stay in Morocco. One final guard followed by one final policeman and we’re back on African streets after a long and exciting visit to the border.

As we pass through the gates and onto the typically hectic North African streets in Beni Ansar, we both breathe a sigh of relief. After a couple of turns, we pull to side of the road to take count of our latest experience on the road. Over the headset, Nita comments how the mayhem and chaos of the border is less shocking than it had been in Tunisia – but that other aspects of this crossing were far more stressful than our previous experiences. She tells me how difficult and cold the border guard was – how he tried to over and over to get her to admit to being a photo-journalist. We also crossed into Tunisia with about fifteen other bikes which, while creating some drama, also created enough of a challenge to the guards that they just pushed us through. Perhaps most stressful for Nita is having to manage the paperwork alone while I stay with the bikes – something we’ll have to figure out in the future.  Even if our two small cameras hadn’t been discovered, the whole border crossing still would have been somewhat drama-filled – but it’s all part of the adventure.

With the tension finally releasing from our shoulders, we both laugh; we’re aware that this border crossing is a good story in the making and, of course, it won’t be the last to come from Morocco. We’re about to discover that this is a country that’s full of surprises.


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I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.


  1. Comment by Jan Thain

    Jan Thain November 5, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Even though we spoke of this incident at the border, reading it really brings it home! It’s interesting how we think we may behave in a situation that feels threatening at the time, but by going with your “gut” feeling and intuitive nature of the people around you – you both got thru ok! (Speaking as a Mum, that makes me very happy!!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish November 5, 2013 at 7:38 pm

      It’s one of those strange moments where the stuff coming out of your mouth is not entirely how it was formed in your head but exactly what’s needed at that time :)

  2. Comment by George F

    George F November 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Wow, that’s why I don’t think I would go into any African country, I would rather visit eastern Europe. Glad you guys got through safe.

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish November 5, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      We definitely don’t want to discourage travel to Africa – past it’s borders the people were something else. Just wonderful. Borders are strange, militarized and paranoid places that don’t really reflect the nature of the country as a whole.

      You almost have to put up with a bitter peel before getting to the lovely fruit!

  3. Comment by Nabeela

    Nabeela November 5, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    Okay so I was literally on the edge of my seat reading this! I’ve had colleagues and friends detained and accused of espionage in random places in Africa, mostly because of the stamps/visas in the passports.

    Glad you’re both safe!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish November 5, 2013 at 10:42 pm

      Hi Beela – great to hear from you! We’re glad you enjoyed it. That was quite a day. Not the welcome to Morocco we’d imagined but it all worked out in the end and we came out fairly unscathed from that particular episode – though not all of them… more on that later!

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