A Series of Unfortunate Events, Morocco
Whilst living in Spain during what would become a four-year gap year (or gap yah), me and a buddy figured it was only a short fifty mile hop, skip and a jump to Tangier. So why not?
We ambitiously planned a two-week road trip, grabbing a rental car on the first day. We’d initially – with that youthful zeal that comes with total inexperience - hoped to coast through central Morocco, hitting main cities like Fes and Marrakesh, then touring down to West Sahara and following the coast back up through Casablanca, ending up back in Tangier in time for the 16.00 ferry home.
We picked up the car; a big ol four-wheel drive, two litre which was way bigger than anything we’d driven in before – and set off into the sunlit city. After enduring the first fewhours panic of driving around a city we didn’t know, on the wrong side of the road, with a Sat Nav that thought we were still in Gibraltar, we calmed down a little and enjoyed the views. Morocco is fantastically split into vast dusty desert, then suddenly lush green forest. Absolutely not what we were expecting, and totally magical.
The experience was pretty weird for both of us. Two painfully young English kids driving round in this massive four by four drew many raised eyebrows and odd looks. As a woman, there’s also the added nuance of cultural norms to consider. Women are expected to dress modestly, which at eighteen was something I had never really bothered with before.
The first few days went by beautifully. We travelled south through Chefchaouen, the blue city; which was predictably blue. We drove through Fes, which memorably had a bird shit factory they used to tan leather – they took us to see the hugevats of crap and tried to explain how useful ammonia was while we stared, transfixed in horror.
When writing stuff like this it’s always tempting to frame it as some wild, windswept, fantastical experience – which is what I’ve been doing so far. Nostalgia is a seductive liar. I guess part of it is that it’s embarrassing to say that you were worried, or that didn’t enjoy something you spent money on, or even just really wanting to be that interesting, brave, venturesome person – because really, that’s all people who travel want you to think of them. At least a little.
But it would be total bullshit to leave out the huge chunks of fear and anxiety and stress that come with travelling, at least for me. And out of every trip I’ve done this one was easily the most nerve racking and stress inducing.
Not because of the people, who were lovely and helpful, more because of the total foreignness and complete difference in culture. I’d never been off continent before and this was my first real taste of a properly foreign country. It felt like another world. It felt like a much less safe, more precarious world. Part of it is the distance from “home,” and the sea that now separates you from Home. Part of it is the knowledge that if you screw up, you will be the only one capable of getting yourself out of it.
We travelled further south and grew more uneasy, in that way that stress and fear builds and builds as you have more time to think about what you’re doing. The roads got worse and the phone signals got worse.
So we decided to head back up North to spend more time bumming around in beach towns, plus we’ll head back two days earlier. The next morning, we would head up to Rabat and after that, to Tangier. Good little travellers we are, webooked a hostel in advance of getting to Rabat, then set off on our merry way.
The next 48 hours would be intensely stressful and nauseating. We arrive in Rabat at eight at night – it’s dark, and the roads are rammed. The street our hostel is on doesn’t seem to exist. Excellent. Another hour of one-way streets and kamikaze tuk tuks, and we find the place.
They don’t have a record of our booking, and they have no rooms for tonight. Perfect. We park the mammoth vehicle and continue our search for literally anywhere to stay on foot. Every hotel and hostel we come to is sold out – evidently October is an incredibly lucrative time for the tourist industry in Northern Morocco.
Increasingly desperate and filled to the brim with that manic energy to do something, while not really knowing what to do – we sit on the edge of a pavement on the side of the road. The city is humming with people and light and music. There are cars whizzing everywhere, people shouting across the roads to each other, horns honking endlessly. It’s all a bit much. Then my phone dies.
At this point, thankfully, a kindly stranger approaches us and in stilted English asks us what’s up. We explain our situation and he makes a few calls. Great news! His buddy loans out his spare room sometimes, and it’s free tonight! But we have to pay him now over PayPal, we think it’s a little odd, but whatever. In retrospect, this is possibly the stupidest thing I have ever done.
But it’s the first bit of good news we’ve heard in a while, and we jump at it. We arrive at the place and the room is just an empty bare room with a mattress and a few blankets on the floor, but we’re so relieved at this point we just fall right into it. We bask in the relief that you get after navigating a shady situation, and even manage to laugh at the hole-in-the-ground toilet that is so beloved in Africa.
The next day – our last day – we start to pack up our things, rising early to make our ferry at four. It is 8am, and Tangier is 250km away, about a three-hour drive. Easy. We try to leave the room, but the guy corners us and asks for payment.
“But you already paid!” I hear you cry. Yes, we had. The owner of the room/mattress is insisting we pay him in cash. Again. We try to explain, and show him our PayPal transaction, but he’s not having any of it.
It boils down to the fact that he was a huge dude, and we were two small kids; we paid him. This is problematic as we now have very little currency. But no bother, there’s only one day left and only 250km to go.
We’re travelling North, almost carefree, and we start to run out of petrol. No problem. There’s plenty of gas stations around, but unfortunately none that take card. Predictably, we do not have enough cash. The only remaining option is so continue driving and hope we eventually find a petrol station that takes card. Tensions rising now, but nothing too onerous.
As we get closer to Tangier, we go through more and more toll booths. These are big, seven-lane long beasts with guards and massive fences.
This normally wouldn’t be an issue, except – you guessed it – they do not take card. None of the fuel stations we’ve passed have an ATM either. This is a problem that is totally our own fault. What we should have done is taken way more paper money out back in Rabat, but it’s far too late for that and any reason or logic is being drowned out by the frantic repeating of “It’s going to be okay” going round and round our heads.
We approach the last toll booth before Tangier, the toll is 8 dirhams (about 65p). We have 3 dirhams. Obviously, he doesn’t let us thorough. We have GBP on us – a whopping £3.50, almost six times the amount of the actual booth – but he doesn’t want it. We have Euros on us, not good enough. We turn around and pull on to the side of the road. Flummoxed.
Our fuel gauge has been on empty for about 20 miles. We have no money. All the stopping at different fuel stations means our ferry is now four hours away. We are still 60km away from the ferry port.
We pull back up to the booth, begging. We explain about the ferry, and his eyes light up. “Ferry?” We nod. “Passport?” We nod, concern mounting. He says if we give him our passports, then he will wait with them while we cross into Tangier and find a cash point.
I’m not sure if any of you have ever left your passport with a stranger. It is wholly unnerving. As you might expect, we didn’t totally trust this man. There was nothing to stop him taking our passports, then later claiming he’d never had them. He could lose them. There are a few different scenarios that mean we wouldn’t be able to leave Morocco. It is also mandatory to have ID on your persons in Morocco, at all times. But there is nothing else we could do.
We hand over my passport, then he asks for both. We would probably have given him the car at this point in desperation to get out of there.
The car is starting to move in a bit of weird way, jolting a bit too much. Then, like a star over Bethlehem, we see the yellow Shell sign. Juddering into the fuel station we blessedly spot an ATM. We take out far too much cash that we will never be able to exchange back, in celebration of the fact that we can.
About three hours to go now till the ferry leaves, and thankfully Morocco – like Spain – is one of those disorganized countries that doesn’t really give a toss if you arrive two hours or ten minutes before take-off.
Hurtling back along the NI Highway, we retrieve our passports (after a nervous 25 minutes of running around the toll booths, over the road into an office, back to the booths, and once more for luck into the office). We head out again North, not daring to break the speed limit despite everyone else doing so, because getting pulled over and relieved of our newfound cash would be just too poetic.
We drop the rental car back off at the garage, minutes agonizingly ticking away as the sales guy inspects the car over. And get on the bus to Tanger Med, because it would be far too easy if the Tangier Port was actually in Tangier.
We make it to the port, passport clutched tightly in our hands, with 45 minutes to spare. We speed walk in that awkwardly British way to the check in point, and to our utter dismay, there is no record that we changed our booking. The cherry on top of this perfect fiasco.
The guard we’re talking to speaks no English at all, the only way he explains our booking issue is by pointing at our ticket and re-writing the old date on it. But have no fear! Whilst my friend had foolishly spent his GCSE years studying German (ridiculous), I had spent mine learning French.
What commences over the next fifteen minutes was the most shambolic ramblings of half French, half pleading and miraculously, he lets us on.
Thus, we set off back to the relative safety of mainland Europe. And I have never, ever been back to Africa.