Flying into Casablanca on a midnight flight from London I knew I was in for an adventure.
While waiting in the cue to go through Customs a middle-aged man found himself next to me asking questions and being very friendly. After a few minutes it started to seem strange to see this guy so awake and so friendly, almost a little hyper. Then came the request, as we were about 30 second away from walking through an inspection point of Customs he asks me if I could help carry one of his bags. Just as I was about to say “sure, no problem” I realised something wasn’t right. A feeling of dread came over me as I started to sweat. I noticed he wasn’t overloaded and struggling with his luggage, and being a local he could say anything he wanted to customs if questioned about the contents and ownership of the bag, and I would never know what was really said. So after a brief hesitation I said ” No I’m sorry”. I quickly moved ahead and went through Customs alone. I got an inspector who asked what I have in my bag, I replied ” cloths, camera, microphone”, he attempted to smile and then waved me on. As I walked away I looked back at the guy who wanted my help with his luggage, it was now spread out over a large table with 2 guys going through it. I don’t know what happened in the end but I was glad to get out of there.
Ten minutes later I’m in a taxi heading to downtown Casablanca with a taxi driver who refuses to turn on his headlights other than a quick flash as he’s approaching another vehicle. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he wasn’t overtaking trucks and speeding on the dark stretch of road between the airport and the dim lit outer suburbs of Casablanca.
Next I get to the hotel I pre booked out of London for the first night, unremarkably they tell me they don’t have a room for me, but they can find one if I pay more money. As this has happened to be before, once in Egypt, seeing you have already paid for your room, the night staff try to get you to pay more for a supposed upgrade, they pocket the money, you get a room. It would probably have been cheaper to pay what they were asking for but I was in no mood to reward these guys…….So my answer was “No Thanks”.
The area still looked reasonably busy for 2am and I was now wide awake after my airport and taxi experience. I was happy to see what might be around the corner, you never know until you look and within 10 minute I found a great place to eat and a cheap hotel.
The next day I decided to explore the old market / Medina area of Casablanca. It’s a maze of narrow alley and streets with traders selling everything you can imagine. After a few hours here taking picture, sampling food and getting acclimatised to being in Morocco, I decide to head out of the market place and into the main city.It’s just then that a guy in his early 20′s approaches me to buy Hash. Now, if someone were inclined to want what he was selling, you definitely wouldn’t want to buy it from him….. He had trouble written all over him ! It even smelt like a potential setup. I knew my “No Thanks” approach wasn’t going to work here……this guy wouldn’t let up, he just followed me everywhere. Even when I found my way out of the market he followed me into town getting almost argumentative that I wouldn’t buy some of his herb. I even offer him a few dollars to get lost. It Didn’t work. Sadly in the end I ended up getting us to a very public area and yelling at him to stop trying to sell me drugs. He got a few words of abuse from a few of the locals and I managed to get away.
It must have been 5 minute later I get some guy come up to me asking where I’m from. At this point I’m a little angry. He senses my anger and asks what’s wrong, as I explain what just happened he starts to laugh…….this helped me get over it pretty quick. I ask him his name, he replied “Simoh”. We continue to chat and end up having a coffee at a place nearby called Western House. Simoh spoke English reasonably well and after coffee and a short guided tour of the local area we organised to meet the following day.
The next day I was shown the local Medina from a locals perspective. Great food, lots of interesting shops, sights and situations, some of which I probably shouldn’t mention in this blog. During the next few days we traveled in and around Casablanca, but It was now time for me to head south to Marrakesh as planned………and then a surprise, Simoh unexpectedly offered to come with me, he had friends in Marrakesh he would love to see. I was quite surprised and also a bit suspicious of his intensions, in my mind I was running through a number of scenarios of what could happen if we were traveling together, like being robbed while asleep etc, I wanted to trust this guy, I felt he was a good man. I also knew that if we were to travel together, it was going to cost me…..money. After an honest conversation where I outline some of my concerns, trying not to offend him with my insecurities, we agreed to travel together with Simoh as my unofficial translator, guide and general “Fixer”.
Later that night I explained to Simoh how I would like to meet some musicians and if possible record some short performances, explaining a little about my Gavri world music project. Within an hour we were at a small, smoky and darkly lit nightclub where a few of his friends were playing a show. I was introduced to the band during a break and warmly welcomed by all five members of the group. The next song they played was rather loudly dedicated to “Robare. Robare, from Astrali” It was a great way to spend my last night in Casablanca, a lot of fun and an interesting sight watching the locals party..........
The following morning we set off to Marrakesh via train, a 10 hour trip if I recall correctly. While at the train station I realised how helpful my travel companion was going to be, there were no signs in English or people who spoke English, and in the following days this scenario was repeated many times. Even when we checked into a cheap hotel and were given the shittiest room in the place, a few sharp words from Simoh got us upgraded to the best room in the place, for no extra cost.
The following days in Marrakesh were spent exploring the souks (markets), feasting on the nightly food stalls in the market square, recording some of the street musicians and hiking in the Lower Atlas Mountains, a few hours to the east. This almost turn into a big problem, after a day of hiking it was getting dark and we needed to get ourselves to the main road to get a lift out of the mountains and back to Marrakesh, approx 100km away. As we found out later, we managed to get the last share taxi out of the mountains that night. By the time I got back to our hotel that night I was feeling delirious, I couldn’t keep track of time and my energy was gone, and it seemed to be getting worse. I realised I was experiencing dehydration and a bit of heat stroke. Thankfully I had Simoh looking after me, he managed to get me a few litres of the best orange juice I had ever tasted and a small feast of Moroccan food from the nearby markets.
It was in the following days that I got to know Simoh a little better, his love for his extended family, and his personal struggle and story of being in Morocco. Only a year earlier he was happily living in Sweden, where he met a girlfriend and found a job working in a hospital. After a year or so, when he decided to visit his family in Morocco, on entry at the airport his passport was stamped with what was effectively a no exit visa. No exit from Morocco.
One night while playing back some street recordings I had done that day, we started talking about the political state of his country and the lack of human rights and freedom of speech, with his permission and somewhat his request, I managed to make a quick recording in French & English. This recording is featured on the track “Revolution”, from the forthcoming 2nd Gavri album, due for release mid 2012, yes I know, it's been a long time coming....
We continued our journey west to the coastal town of Essaouira. It was a comforting feeling seeing the ocean and a welcome relief from the dry desert air. It’s long deserted beaches and relaxed feel was a nice change to the craziness of Marrakesh. Essaourira was also a place where some of Simho friends lived. We were soon invited for a home cooked meal and a night hanging out and exchanging stories.
A few days later it’s was time to head back to Casablanca to get my flight back to London. We caught a bus leaving Essaouira in the morning and traveling via Safi and El Jadida. I’m glad Simho suggested we pay the bus drives assistant a small fee to put our bags at the bottom of the luggage pile, as most of the luggage is on the roof of the bus. It was only a few hours into our bone jarring bus ride that we had to pull over to collect some luggage that had fallen from the roof. We made it into Casablanca late into the afternoon, which was a relief as the trip was quite a ugly experience.
Sadly I had to leave Morocco the next day, just as I was getting comfortable dealing with the day to day experiences of traveling in Morocco, admittedly my unfair advantage was having Simho with me. I got to say, he was a huge help, a friend and a great travel companion. We keep in contact and hope to meet up again one day in the future.