Hooker On Wheels

Words and Photos by Trien Pauwels.

Trien Pauwels shares some of the high points and intercultural challenges of a solo trip across the world as a woman, framed by two starkly contrasting experiences in Morocco and Oman. Plus, she offers some personal advice for other women who are considering a long trip by bicycle…

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Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

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 gaze remained fixed on the mountain pass ahead.

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 my 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, and 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 rooftop 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?

  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

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 until 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 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 didn’t 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 keep my distance.

Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

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. 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 again. 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 drifted off to dreamland.

Later, 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!

  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

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 once more. 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. The man 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.

  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

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!

Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

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.

Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

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.

Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels
  • Hooker on Wheels, by Trien Pauwels

“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!

Trien Pauwels

About Trien Pauwels

Trien Pauwels walked out of her front door on April 1st, 2016. She had quit her job as a graphic designer, said goodbye to family and friends, and started pedalling from her hometown of Ghent, Belgium, towards Taiwan. Her initial plan was to cycle 30,000 kilometres to raise 30,000 Euros for UNICEF Belgium and WWF. She’s now on her way back home, overland, raising more money and pedalling more miles while searching for dirt. You can follow her at trientrapt.com and on Instagram @trientrapt.

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22 Comments
  • Teamdarb

    Bravo! This has been my favorite read on this site- along with the one which the family did not know what a condom was. So many people tell adventure tales from the aspect of dreams. This tale reminds me of the women I have met in travel alone of which I have had to set straight that not everyone views them as such sex toys. The other side of the coin, due to social changes, is the increased potential to soloing males as well to be “advanced” in the same manner more openly versus years previous.

    Enjoy where you are, and mean it when you say “No”.

  • Swell Koerper

    What a great read! Hands down, the picture with the four kids on your bike is one of the most optimistic and heartwarming photographs I`ve seen in a very long time. This article gives a nearly intimate impression on how the time you spent Mohammed and his family must have felt for you. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
    Cheers, Thomas

  • Mark Troup

    Never be afraid, but always be cautious. It’s good advice for any new endeavor in life.

  • Ben

    Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate your openness. I’m a white male who usually travels with my wife whenever we explore new places so I don’t have to face many of the challenges that you faced as a solo female traveler. I appreciate your courage and grit!

  • dennisvictor

    What a wonderful story. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  • Wendy Ellis

    What a beautiful story, both visual and written. Traveling as a solo women is different in both good and bad ways – being a solo female traveler in some countries give you access to the female side of the culture that men can never experience.

    I spent 3 weeks biking solo around morocco in December 2016 and am lucky to say i experienced significantly less sexual harassment than in the western countries where I have lived. In fact, i was protected more than I felt necessary – with even a policeman being sent to sleep in his car next to my tent to make sure nothing bad happened to me. I never did manage to convince the men that a woman can enjoy, be capable of and should do a solo bike tour!

    I like that you balanced this story with two kinds of experiences, and would like to echo your words to all the female travelers planning their next solo trips – go play! it is a beautiful world filled with so many beautiful people and we shouldn’t limit our potential experiences by a very small risk that you manage every day in your normal lives.

  • OH

    American/ European “knowledge” about the Arab culture comes mainly from Disney films. The reality is much less romantic. That Mohamed who displayed such nice hospitability is “allowed” to take her as a second (or third, or fourth…) woman, and that was likely his intention. In the Bedouin culture, a woman has the legal rights of a goat, and his first woman absolutly has no say about the women guests he brings home.

    After travelling several times in these countries, one would expect the writer to understand the way women viewed in the Arab/ Muslim world – a possession to be catched.

  • gringo

    “Disney romance“?? speak for yourself!
    While travel in the Middle East or North Africa is certainly not easy for a green westerner, it’s certainly much better than you are alluding to and I am happy to say that the most open, welcoming and interested strangers that I have ever met, anywhere on the planet, were in Oman.
    Your comment does nothing but expose your ignorance.
    As for me, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are on my short list and I can’t wait to get back to Oman.

    Peace.

  • Ben Hoffman

    OH clearly missed the point of the article. Obviously there are persons living in the “Arab/Muslim world” who do not subscribe to the ideals of liberal feminism that OH is trying to promote. However these same ideas are blatantly Eurocentric, and fail to account for true feminism, which is feminsm less cultural imperialism. The vast majority of individuals who criticize the Islamic faith for not standing for women’s rights are the same individuals who would support invading a country in order to promote “democratic ideals”. It is unreasonable to expect the “Arab/Muslim world” to adopt liberal values, when liberal values to them means the long arm of United States hegemony. The equality of women does not come from condescending and borderline racist comments on a bikepacking forum. Nor does it come from making a monolith of of the “Arab/Muslim world” which I would point out emphatically as not being the same thing.

  • Janneke

    Well done Trien is all I say. You rock, as a cyslist and a writer <3

  • trien trapt

    That’s sweet -blush-, thank you Janneke <3

  • trien trapt

    Hi Wendy, I am very glad to read you liked the story, thank you. Things might have changed -a lot- since my visit (18 years ago) and yours. I have the impression (with all the security you are talking about) that now in Morocco it’s more like being in Iran, where the government is taking action by escorting to let groping not happen, this because of too many complaints (although traveling there as a solo female I completely discourage – in my experience, that’s the only country I tell girls not to go cycling alone). It’s true what you say about having advantages as a woman as well. I remember my first trips where people wanted to protect me and taking care of me, how they were surprised to see me, a girl, pedalling alone. I forgot to mention this as well. Good that you did. Thank you. Enjoy the road!

  • trien trapt

    With pleasure Dennis (or Victor ;))
    Glad you liked it!

  • trien trapt

    Lovely to read you liked it, Thomas. And yes, those kids were the most adorable kiddos out there.
    Indeed, it was an overwhelming, heartwarming experience. A hospitality that we, in Belgium (and I guess in many countries in the West), don’t know.

  • trien trapt

    Thank you so much, Ben. I also travelled in some previous trips with a companion and I can tell the difference is huge. One of the nice things about travelling alone is the certainty of encountering more local people which make a country even more unique and unforgettable. Enjoy the road!

  • trien trapt

    Yes, indeed Mark, being out there teaches you a lot ;)

  • trien trapt

    Wow, so sweet, thank you. Indeed, lately, I also heard stories about males being harassed. That’s really too bad. I also can’t understand why people are doing these things. Hope one day there will be a change…

  • trien trapt

    I forgot to mention an apparently important sentence in my writing. When I asked Mohamed why he was so hospitable, he said that in his (Bedouin) culture it is more than normal that they invite a passerby into their house. They actually have to do this. Because they know the stranger they meet had a tough time in the desert, walked for days (or like I cycled for days). That’s why they are offering so much food. He added that strangers can always stay as long as they want, as long as they are revitalised and find the strength again to continue their journey. That’s part of their Bedouin culture.

  • Thanks Trien for sharing this. Love the photos and the writing. You’re an inspiration!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Alex Cooper

    Great article! As a white male, it’s hard to appreciate the challenges women face when trying to do the same thing. I met one woman on my trip who had been traveling alone for months and her tales of regular harassment were appalling.

  • Thanks, this was a really valuable contribution Trien! I’ve spent the past hour looking at your IG account, some outstanding photography, you have a good eye =)

  • Big Hank

    … okay; sure. Enjoy your trip across Saudi… Lawrence Olivier enjoyed his initial “Cultural encounter?”