Something shifts when we step on a ferry to cross to somewhere else. We’re aware of the obvious physical process of waving tickets, showing passports, the actual transportation of the body across water from one shore to another. We might feel excitement, anticipation – perhaps even apprehension – but something else is happening too; there’s a reason that the mythological journey to the underworld involves a ferryman and a river. There is something symbolic about ‘crossing over’, leaving the known world behind and entering another realm.
As the hills of northern Morocco drew closer, the butterflies in my gut beat their wings more furiously. Squatting there on the horizon was Africa, a whole new and alien continent. I silently asked myself how we would manage here. During the time we were planning this trip, it was Morocco we spoke of most. There are places that are held in the imagination as glowing jewels of exoticism and adventure and it was my own wild dreams of Morocco that kept me awake at night. It’s hard to know how one particular country comes to represent such specific and ludicrously romantic notions but in the case of this corner of Northern Africa I blame the movie-makers and novelists. Sand dunes and dense blue skies; narrow-alleyed medinas smelling of spice and sweat; stalls piled high with dates, shoes and jewellery; and kasbahs built from red earth clinging to the sides of towering mountains. These at least were a few of the images that floated before me as our ferry crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, our destination becoming more of a reality and less of an idea with each passing minute. I wondered again how we would cope.
I didn’t consider myself a particularly anxious person before I had children. I suspect that this is largely to do with the inescapable fact that I spent more of my time drunk before I became a mother. Alcohol is wonderful for softening the edges of fear; artificially emboldening the timid and making reckless idiots out of those who don’t need much encouragement to start with. It’s hardly a great insight either that getting older makes us all a little more cautious and I have certainly become increasingly aware of my own mortality as I have settled into middle age. Whatever the reasons, the responsibilty of caring for other human beings that are almost entirely dependant on me for their well-being does occasionally make me more nervous than I find comfortable. As the ferry bobbed ever closer to Morocco I found myself worrying about how the choices we had made bringing us here would affect my children. What if they got sick? What if it was difficult to feed them well enough? What if we broke down miles from anywhere? And why on earth were we doing this anyway?
We were ready for chaos as we drove off the ferry but were greeted with calm and ease. It’s probably the difference between alighting at the new Tangers-Med rather than the old port at Tangiers. We were through the various controls with the minimum of fuss and on the road in no time at all. We’d made it! We’d driven to Morocco and now were driving in it! Rob and I chattered triumphantly to each other as if we never really thought we’d get this far. Even the constant bickering from the back of the van couldn’t dampen our spirits this time! Then the sun began to set and my familiar unease started to surface. Generally speaking, the challenges of travel are best met in the daylight, as night falls I find all things become more difficult. Especially difficult would be searching for campsites in a whole new town in a whole new country with a van full of very tired and hungry people. And so it was.
It was fully dark by the time we drove into Assilah to try and find somewhere to park for the night. We crawled around the town and down to the front, bewildered by the number of people who seemed to be out strolling just for the fun of it. The thought of having to stop and attempt to aquire the assistance of a local with my laughingly meagre collection of French words was starting to bring on the anxious sweats when we spied the ever comforting sight of a cluster of motorhomes parked up near the harbour.
As we drove gratefully towards them we were quickly surrounded by a host of ‘helpful’ local men, all seemingly competing to get us parked up and paid up. Although we hadn’t intended to stay the night on a scrap of wasteland wedged between the town and the ocean, it seemed easier to succumb than to argue and find our way to another place at an already late hour. It’s safe to say we were more than a little ‘green’ having just arrived from Europe and this must have been obvious to our new hosts. In order to be able to pay the guardien we needed dirham, so an affable chap named Bash accompanied Rob to the nearest cash machine, leaving me alone in the van with the boys to make dinner. There were knocks at the window asking me for beer and money, a slightly staggering and vaguely (in my mind!) sinister man made me open the window to tell me that I shouldn’t trust the other man who’d just gone with Rob to the bank. As I pictured Rob being mugged and tried to stop myself screeching at the boys that ‘NO! You CANNOT go and play outside!!’ I felt annoyed at the tears that kept coming to my eyes and the rising terror that I couldn’t seem to quell. Within minutes however, Rob was back and apart from a few more knocks and a couple of brief conversations, (‘no we don’t want to buy any hash, merci’, ‘yes the coral necklace is beautiful but we’re just having our dinner, merci’) all was quiet.
The next morning just before dawn, the call to prayer was broadcast to the town. Each mosque’s Imam called out across the morning; one deep, droning bass rumble layered with another high pitched wail and then another sweet and melodious, and another and another, the voices rolled and tumbled over each other, a wash of sound. Awaking, I lay and listened to this otherworldly alarm call; all my fear of the night before was gone and in its place was awe. This is what we seek when we travel, this dance between fear and wonder, vulnerability and surrender. It is right at the very edges of what we think we can manage that we find that ineffable ‘something wonderful’. As some wise soul has already remarked – it is only outside of our comfort zone that the magic happens.