Getting uncomfortable and experiencing culture shock- lessons learned!
This post is about travel anxiety, comfort zones, and culture shock. And all the lessons I’ve learned in the last couple of days.
We arrived in Morocco just a few days ago and to be honest, I was pretty overwhelmed. We had decided to start our Morocco trip in Casablanca and spend a few days at the beach. When we first booked this, we honestly hadn’t done much (or really any) research. The day before we flew to Paris, KC’s airline stated in an email that they would need to see proof of departure from France. He called me in a panic because we hadn’t booked anything yet, wanting to stay flexible.
Because of our visas, we knew we needed to get out of the Schengen area after about 70 days so we could come back to the area to celebrate my friend’s birthday.
[If you don’t know what the Schengen area is, it's the majority of Europe where Americans can travel visa-free for 90 days. I don’t know much else about how it works, all I know is that the majority of the Schengen area is the majority of Europe, and I’m allowed to be there for a total of 90 days out of 180 days.]
So. When KC called me, I looked at the map and said “Let’s book a flight to Morocco and then go back to France right before my friend’s birthday.” We partly chose Casablanca because of the famous American movie, and also because we wanted to lay on a beach. We booked an Airbnb for a total of 9 days in Casablanca, again without doing a hint of research.
While in France, I mentioned our plans to a few new friends and they all gave the same theme of reaction: “Why Casablanca?” “9 days? What are you going to do for 9 days??” or, when I met a Moroccan, they were even more blunt and said “Casablanca is not good.”
I quickly became more and more anxious about our plans and convinced KC that we should shorten our trip and head to Marrakech earlier. A few days before we left Paris, I finally sat down to create a bucket list for Casablanca, my first research step is always Atlas Obscura. To my surprise and dismay, there were just two things to do in Casablanca listed on the site. For comparison, I built a list of over 30 “cool and unusual” things to do in Paris from Atlas Obscura.
So I got even more worried. I found another site and ironically, of a list of about 7 things to do, 4 of those things were to leave Casablanca for the day and head to popular beaches North or South of the city.
I told KC this and we agreed to try not to have any expectations and to just go with the flow. We can make the most out of anything we find ourselves in. And maybe have a good laugh at ourselves.
Well, our first evening in Casablanca was a little rocky. We got through the customs fine and after trying to order a car through their car app, called Careem, we gave up after not being able to find the driver and instead got a taxi. It cost us about $30 to get to our Airbnb which was not a bad price given that the Casablanca Airport is 45 minutes outside of the city. We usually opt for public transportation but that would have taken us 3 hours!
Arriving at the Airbnb was where the rockiness came. First Google Maps showed us the incorrect place of our apartment building, but luckily our host had sent us a photo of the outside of the building and the taxi driver knew exactly where it was. I messaged our host on Whatsapp telling her that we were here and she called me, spoke a language I didn’t know and hung up. A second later I got a text that said “2 minutes”.
We waited inside the lobby of what I thought was our building, but I was hoping it was not, given that there was a large pit of sand in the middle where a bunch of cigarette butts were put out.
Suddenly a man on a cellphone appeared in the doorway and started speaking Arabic at us. We both looked like deers caught in headlights and then he said “Madam Naida” which I knew was our Airbnb host’s name, so I said “Oui” (because Morocco is both a French-speaking and Arabic-speaking country.) He waved for us to follow him and led us out of that building and around the corner.
And it was about here that I thought, “why are we so quick to follow this man? This is where we get our things stolen and our kidneys removed.” But, we continued on. He led us to a door behind the building and went in. We followed.
Luckily, this stranger was actually leading us to our Airbnb. It would have been nice to know from our host that this was the check-in process, but I’m glad we made it in okay. KC on the other hand only found out that I had no idea who this strange man was two days after we checked in, I think if we had gotten robbed he wouldn’t be so happy with me. But we’re alive with all of our stuff!
That evening, we went on a little walk to explore our neighborhood. And I think this is when the culture shock started to hit. Our Airbnb is right across the street from a large boardwalk that looks out over the ocean as well as the second largest mosque in Africa. Walking the boardwalk was really fun, we saw vendors selling grilled corn, escargot, sweet popcorn, and toys for kids. It was a beautiful evening stroll as we made our way to dinner.
We ate at an okay restaurant where I had a traditional Moroccan dish of Pastilla. It’s essentially a pie of fine pastry dough with layers of chicken and sweet almonds inside. It was good but very large for one person, and sweeter than I prefer my dinners. Which isn’t surprising since it’s covered in powdered sugar and cinnamon.
As I tried to settle in and get my bearings, here are some things that contributed to a general state of grumpiness and overall discomfort by 11am the next day:
Unfortunately, away from the boardwalk, it wasn’t so beautiful. Sidewalks were heavily damaged with large potholes, stray dogs and cats ran around everywhere, and garbage lined the streets. (If we had done any sort of research before we arrived, we would have been expecting this. I mean, Morocco is a developing country, so duh, we should have expected this.)
The description of our Airbnb stated that we were only 15 minutes away from the beach. But I couldn’t figure out on maps where the heck this beach was because everything said the closest beach was a 30 to 40 minute walk.
The Airbnb was a pet-friendly apartment, which I didn’t notice when I booked, so it, unfortunately, reeked of cat pee in certain areas.
Sleeping was terrible, even though we had a nice terrace overlooking the ocean, the street below us was so loud and people were honking and yelling very late into the night. But shutting the window made the air sticky, stale, and humid.
I woke up that morning with a mission. I needed bottled water because the tap water isn’t safe to drink and they only left one large bottle in the apartment for us, and I was also desperate to find a fan for my bedroom. I found a grocery store on Google maps and headed that way.
Even though I dressed modestly in a T-shirt and long pants, I still got stares from the men who were walking around at 8am. By the time I made the 8-minute walk to the place Google told me to go, my anxiety was through the roof. And lo and behold, there was no store where it said there was.
By the time I made it back to our cat-pee-smelling apartment, I was almost in tears. How could we have made such a horrible travel faux pas? These next three days were going to be rough.
KC woke up and I spent five minutes complaining about everything and he did a great job at listening. I usually don’t take on the role of a downer, but this morning I was just in my feelings and not ready to look on the bright side of anything.
Now after spending a couple of days in Casablanca, I can confidently say that I’ve learned a couple of lessons, and I’m happy to report that the city grew on me.
Here are some of the lessons I Learned:
Chill the fuck out. Going anywhere new is going to take time to get used to. It will be difficult to get used to the cultural norms and way of life in a new place/city. Let yourself feel these things but don’t give into the feeling of wanting to run away.
Laugh at the small stuff. Ok, so the beach was a 20-minute taxi ride away and not a 15-minute walk. Being angry at this small stuff isn’t going to help anything. Learn to laugh at yourself and your expectations when they turn out to be wrong.
Check your implicit bias. Did I need to be worried about getting mugged at 8am in the broad daylight on a busy street? In a city that Google told me the crime rate was low? No, probably not. But because of my implicit, and let’s face it, explicit, bias which equated dirty to criminal, I felt unsafe for no other reason than that.
There will be an adjustment period. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable and out of balance. You might even feel out of control and irritable because of it. It took me a full 24 hours before I felt like I got my bearings.
Overall I was very glad to have this experience and especially with KC by my side. He was there when I needed an outlet to be complain-y and grumpy. And that is my final lesson in all of this, if you’re traveling solo have someone you can text or call and vent to. But make sure they are there to listen and not to enable your fears and discomfort (*disclaimer: unless you are truly concerned about your safety and your gut is telling you to leave. Always listen to your gut!). In my case, it was discomfort and I had to push through.
In the end, I feel more capable and ready for coming challenges and adventures. I know that this trip wasn’t anything compared to what I have planned and I’m excited to take these lessons with me as I continue to travel.
And if you’re ever in Casablanca, try to book as close to the Plage Aïn Diab as possible, and of course, do your research.