A combination of scorching summer temperatures and the topsy-turvy life imposed by Ramadan made my time in Morocco far tougher than I had anticipated. It was a strange time to be a tourist: many shops were shut and the lack of food and water had everyone on edge. It felt like things could blow at any moment.
We left our couchsurfing host’s house after a meagre two hours of sticky shuteye, arriving at the bus stop just before seven. While we waited two men manhandled a gaunt cow into the back of a dirty van, its protests ignored as the door slammed on its time in Beni Ahmed. Then our bus door slammed too and the day’s shuttle began: bus to Bab-something, then a combined taxi to Dad-something – my final goal the Imperial capital of Fez. The longer Arabic names just wouldn’t stick and the small towns blurred into a nondescript conglomerate of syllables, dusty streets and closed shopfronts. I never stayed long enough for it to matter.
Mohammad (our previous host) had assured us that buses from Dad-something to Fez came “all the minutes, yes, many buses”. Despite this there was an absent rumble of traffic and the two young lads at the crossroads swore the bus didn’t arrive until one. So we squished into a combined taxi to Ouzzeane, four deep on the sticky leather seats.
Midway through the drive one of our fellow sardines said something, and the driver took offence. Ignoring our considerable downhill momentum, he slammed on the brakes and the car locked up, skidding to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. The driver jumped out, and, with a diatribe of furious Arabic, attempted to throw the offending party upon the mercy of the open road.
We sat awkwardly as their argument raged. The woman in the front tried to intervene and was pushed aggressively away while I tried to figure out just what the fuck was going on. Eventually a compromise was reached, with the driver saying something along the lines of “give me some-fucking-money or get the-fuck-out of my cab”. A 20-dirham note was produced and things calmed down.
It wasn’t until we were all out of the car that I was brave enough to ask the young kids what had happened. It turned out to be as mundane as a disagreement over the music, with Ramadan fingered as the culprit for making people grumpy. Some tradition then. For all the solidarity and rumination it had facilitated in the village it seemed to have tempers set on edge here, and this was something that only got worse as the day wore on.
The driver was still pissed and, in some self-defeating show of anger, tried to throw the offending MP3 player out the window. He missed and it bounced back into his lap before a second attempt proved fruitful and it shattered on the pavement. It would have been hilarious were it not so tense and we drove off in subdued silence. At the next town the offender got out and that was that, for him.
It was Ramadan for nearly the entirety of my time in Morocco and the exigencies of its demands undoubtedly had an effect on the place. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and sees Muslims worldwide forgo food and water during daylight hours as they seek to become closer to God. The symbolic abstinence of the fasting is matched by increased prayer and charity, and, in the right context, serves as a medium for reflection and penance.
It certainly precipitated reflection from me. It was my first foray into the Muslim world and the usual feeling of being an outsider was magnified by more than appearance. I was an infidel, an intruder, interrupting the most sacred of months and afraid of seeming disrespectful.
So, as was my chameleonic way, I adapted: barely eating or drinking, scared of invoking anti-Westerner wrath or rubbing it in their faces – stealing a mouthful of bread or a swig of water when I thought no-one was looking. These were largely my own neuroses and most of the Muslims I spoke to thought I was crazy for even attempting the arduous fasting. This was one of the realisations I gained – that my sensitivity to the thoughts of others could be a double-edged sword. As well as enabling rich understanding it could also fuel anxieties of my own making, leaving me to deal with any fallout.
Given this sensitivity it was perhaps a peculiar choice to nominate Morocco as the place where I would first begin hitch hiking. It started innocuously enough. I was chatting with the kids from the taxi while we waited for the bus to Fez, slow to remember all those years of French but communicating, just. The bus wasn’t due for a few hours, and they said they were going to go check out another bus station.
It is easy to see how loose this sounds now: two teenagers, and young ones at that, claiming that there was another bus station in the seemingly small town. It didn’t quite add up and if I’d been more switched on I might have had a better idea of just how unprepared they were. But I had no plans, guidebook or phone – their local knowledge was there to be piggybacked so I tagged along, oblivious to the cracks in their logic.
On the road out of town it became apparent that there was no other bus station, or no other bus station near us. One of the kids fessed up: they had no money and were going to hitch. I was committed at this stage. Well, sort of. Would they mind if I hitched with them? I had nothing to lose. You know, nothing besides my laptop, passport, wads of cash etc.
It wasn’t long until our first ride – a white ute – and we were off, one of the kids snoozing in the tray while we squished together in the cab. So far, so good.
But our luck wasn’t to hold. The driver dropped us at a small hub a third of the way and, angry at the kids’ refusal to pay his demanded fare, sped off leaving us to skirt the roadside in the beating heat. The concept of paying for a ride you have got through hitching sits strangely but wasn’t uncommon during the rest of my time. Guess what they say is true: everything does have its price – in Morocco at least.
The combination of the heat and dehydration soon took its toll on my young accomplices and they began to rave, fantasising about ice cream and baths of coke, delirious from the heat. Truck after truck sped by and I could see that we were on borrowed time.
One of the allowed exceptions to fasting covers those travelling. I offered my meagre supply of water, suggesting that it would be ok here for them to drink, but they were unsure and opted instead to waste most of the water in an impromptu shower that I put an end to just in time.
The sun was relentless and I was starting to fade too, growing sick of their stupidity and my own foolishness for following them into this farce. So when a taxi finally stopped and offered a fare I was all in, ready to get the fuck out of the desert and hell’s arid heat. The kids had no money, and indicated that I should just go, but I couldn’t stomach the thought. I can’t remember what the taxi cost, but it wasn’t enough that I was going to leave those two idiots to cook like the carrion they were.
“Get in. I’ll pay. Oui oui, vraiment – allez-y”
So we arrived, dehydrated and drenched in sweat, my arms leaving sopping marks where they had rested on my shorts. I ditched the hapless youngsters and paced through the souk, oblivious to the hawkers, shooting daggers at anyone who approached. There were days you could tolerate shit, but Ramadan had left its mark on me and today wasn’t one of them.
Later on, after I had rehydrated and refuelled in the sanctuary of my shitty hotel, I ventured out to find an Internet café. It was 7.30pm and traffic outside the souk’s gates was backed up. People were out of their cars, honking and yelling, hangry and jonesing for food. Finally, I understood how they felt. Ramadan is a tough month for everyone, and even tougher for those lacking the faith that sustains in lieu of more tangible fuel.
I got ten minutes in at the Internet café before it shut for iftar. It wasn’t going to open again for another hour and I schlepped back to the hotel to wait. For once, I wished I had something I could believe in.