First impressions of a place are always memorable, sometimes though when you are travelling you also have that moment, I’m sure you know what it feels like – nothing seems right all of a sudden, everything is foreign, threatening and heavy with intent and your instincts tell you that you are not universally aligned with this yet, that you have made a mistake, that you really should not be here. Arriving in Morocco during Ramadan was one of those for me.
Our plane got in from Paris late afternoon and my first Moroccan experience was getting into an argument with the taxi driver. Trying to bring down his rates to what I thought was an acceptable level, 12 months of travelling at least automatically trains you this way. After some heated discussion I was taken over to a faded official looking sign and shown the standard tariffs and made to realize I was undershooting the mark considerably, it was a 30km drive into town. I was gearing myself up a little too much for the infamous Moroccan rip-off I guess, but it set the scene appropriately enough. By the time we reached downtown Casablanca it was 6pm, the taxi driver had been driving way to fast, desperate to get us to our destination so that he could get home to his family to break his fast when the sunset. Can’t say I blame him really, if I hadn’t had anything to eat, drink or smoke all day I would be equally as daring I suspect. As he dropped us off though, he started in with that now familiar drama of pretending not to have any change, (even though I had seen him pull out the right note and hurriedly return it quickly to his pocket). What followed was a feeble show at an attempt to get change from a corner store and then the ‘I need to eat – its Ramadan’, just give it too me because you are a foreigner and must be rich, guilt routine. After our drama at the get-go this was a game I didn’t care to lose, me being a man of principles and all. So I started wandering to a couple of corner stores requesting change until eventually I just bought some water to get it all done. The driver by this time was yelling at me and playing furious. I finally got him his cash and he departed with a tire spin and a whole torrent of abuse in Arabic. Not an auspicious start really.
After that, we roamed a few blocks in downtown Casablanca looking for a hotel. Everything was closed, no shops were open anywhere, dust and rubbish flowed in the streets, young dodgy looking locals and rapid dogs cast nervy, threatening sidelong glances our way and all the hotel owners seemed disinterested to put it mildly. We eventually checked into a relatively clean looking cheapie and since things were now dark outside figured it was safe to go find something to eat. The earlier picture hadn’t changed though and if anything seemed worse, a few coffee shops were open with a scattering of men inside ominously smoking and drinking tea; more young, dangerous looking guys were about and it took us 30 or 40 minutes to find somewhere resembling a restaurant to eat at, there was not another foreigner in sight. As we sat down to order, I had that sinking feeling that I had made a big mistake. Morocco is a dodgy place at the best of times and travelling in Ramadan was obviously not going to work. Nothing of the vibrant, exciting colours and highs of the Morocco experience was going to be accessible. The place was going to be a grumpy, dangerous mortuary of entertainment. The last place in the world you would want to meet your parents for a week of shared travel.
Mom and dad had happened to be in Europe for a few months and since we were both in the same continent and hadn’t seen each other for a few years now, (long before we stated travelling), we had worked out a way to spend a week travelling together. I had sent them some options of places to go, but been pleasantly surprised and excited when they choose Morocco, by far the edgiest of the bunch. Mum, had been a little reticent later on once she had worked out Ramadan was on, but I had confidently reassured her that it would be great – it was the one side of the Muslim world we had yet to really experience in our travels. Now however that all seemed to be a remote pipe dream and extremely ambitious thinking. We were the seasoned travelers in charge of navigation, entertainment, planning, security and the rest. I couldn’t wait to see them, but was anxious to ensure they had a great time and experience and everything went smoothly.
Dinner was naturally a pretty sombre affair as I contemplated all this, an average meal not really helping to boost expectations either. As we walked outside though, (by this time about 9pm or so) the place was dramatically transformed. Suddenly the streets were heaving with people, unsavoury characters magically turned into extended families; cars and motorbikes woven into an intoxicating union of total congestion, while lights of all colours lit up the city in every direction. Stores were open everywhere and every sidewalk cluttered with spot market sellers, even the street cleaners were in operation cleaning up the days mess. The large centre square and fort walls of the old medina, previously abandoned now was a throng of markets and customers, touting all manner of touristy wares, vegetables and mobile phones. But it was the sound itself that left the biggest impression. Noticeably absent before, the place hummed with an energy and positivity that was both infectious and celebratory.
As we wandered the streets catching the mood, all the previous anxiety and tension eased away. The party seemed to continue all night and by morning I couldn’t wait for mom and dad to get here – it was different sure and was going to have it moments, but still going to be a lot of fun! We were just going to have to align ourselves a little differently with this strange new schedule and outlook, but that is what real experiences require anyway!