Driving in Casablanca: Darwin’s Playground

Audrey says that Brian was born to drive in Casablanca. Brian agrees…while noting explicitly that driving in Casablanca is not for the faint of heart. To set the tone of this post, watch this brief “tutorial” on driving in Morocco – https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0frwti04ItQ – then read further.

Prior to completing our first week here, we got wheels. In this first year here, we are leasing a 2001 Honda CRV from a local expat with a reputation for providing good and reliable vehicles to other expats. It is a great deal, as buying and insuring a vehicle here – new or used – is quite a challenge, for all kinds of reasons. During our first days, we spent a fair bit of time as passengers in other vehicles on Casablanca’s roads and experienced enough to find the video in the above link hilariously true to life. One of our first observations was that Casablanca must have a terrible problem with post nasal drip, because seemingly at every intersection we stopped we had kids walking between cars selling boxes of tissues for a 10 Dirham coin (Moroccan currency equal to about $1 USD). Putting our post-graduate degrees to work, we subsequently wondered about the direction of supply and demand causation between these street corner agents of the Moroccan tissue syndicate and the box of tissues found on the dashboard of every taxi in Casablanca.

Emboldened by the accumulation of experiential roadway knowledge, Brian felt sufficiently prepared to get behind the wheel of our CRV and chauffeur the family to a celebratory dinner downtown. God bless GPS, because one thing jumps out immediately upon trying to navigate here: there are no street signs. Nope, none.

Perhaps this derives from historically being largely an oral culture instead of a written one. In most places we have lived, directions might sound like, “Take Boulevard de la Grande Ceinture and stay on it when it becomes Boulevard Sidi Abderrahmane, then turn left on Rue d’Ifrane and continue until you arrive at O’Self in the CIL.” But directions here sound more like we encountered when we lived in Louisiana, with landmarks taking precedence over streets. So the Moroccan version of those same directions would be, “Take the tram road past where it bends, then turn left when you reach the CIL Mosque and keep going until you see O’Self.” That works for people – even expats – with roots here. But newcomers, with no idea where the tram starts or which mosque is the CIL Mosque, need GPS…

…Except that GPS does not always take you where you want to go. For example, when Brian used his phone’s GPS to find Monsieur Bricolage (the closest Casablanca comes to a Home Depot) on a quest to buy a gas grill, it took him on a wild goose chase through neighborhoods and open air markets with carts and donkeys and produce stands clogging narrow streets, then told him he had reached his destination when he was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Quickly, he tried Google Maps and shot a kilometer or two further up the road to find Monsieur Bricolage waiting for him. Lest Google start feeling superior, Google Maps has misdirected us plenty as well, such as when we planned to attend an art exhibit and ended up on a street corner by a construction site instead of at Ville des Arts. The challenge comes – in addition to no street signs – from the lack of any street numbers in addresses. Addresses may give a business or building name and a street name (yes, the streets have names, just no signs to tell what they are), and GPS usually does a miraculous job finding your destination with just that information. But more than rarely you may find yourself on the correct street without knowing if you have gone too far down it or not far enough along.

But none of that GPS stuff is why Audrey says Brian was born to drive here.

Driving in Morocco is not just a matter of getting used to kph instead of mph. Driving here is an exhausting, all-senses-on-high-alert, full-contact sport. Take the first lesson of driving here: No matter how many lanes exist on a road, a turn can be made to either the left or right from any lane. As you approach an intersection in the left lane with plans to go straight through it, be wary because the drivers in the middle and right lane may swerve suddenly in front of you as they make left turns from your right side.

Not to be trite, but this, of course, implies that lanes matter.

They do not.

This is particularly true around traffic circles (aka, roundabouts), which typically are a death challenge every time you enter one because it is always unclear who has the right of way and from which lanes people may come to turn or to go straight. Daytime is better for entering traffic circles, because you can try reading the faces of oncoming drivers to gauge how committed to playing chicken they are; at night, all you have is their headlights and a prayer. Even on straight roads, though, we have seen a three-lane road swell to eight “lanes” of cars packed side by side, with vehicles on the far right trying to turn left and vehicles on the far left trying to turn right, and a taxi stopping to pick up passengers in the middle of it all. As a consequence, yes, traffic can slow to a standstill. At such times you can hop out of your car and buy a helping of snail soup from one of the three or four dozen women lined up roadside with their snail soup stands. People behind you will honk, but that is okay.

People honk their horns all the time. They do so not in aggravation, but to make their presence known in a sort of roadway existentialism: “I honk, therefore I am…so get back in your own lane before you dent my fender, or before I dent yours.” While honking wins the “favorite Moroccan pastime while driving” award, the “Moroccan Wave” comes in a close second to it. Rather than honking, drivers may use the Moroccan Wave out the driver’s window – a wave of the hand that might swoop out with intentional warning, might wave quickly then disappear, or might shake emphatically to declare gesticularly that someone intends to change lanes/pull out/turn/etc. in front of you. The appropriate response to the Moroccan Wave varies from waving back, to making a nasty face, to honking, to gunning the engine in a sudden game of chicken.

Fortunately, the right-of-way code minimizes the frequency of games of chicken. Put simply, the bigger and faster vehicle has the right of way. The driver of a teeny vehicle crammed with a family of six does not challenge a large truck ignoring lanes as it prepares to turn right by getting into the left lane. What happens if one vehicle is bigger and another is faster? See previous “game of chicken” as the slick Mercedes with tinted windows tries to weave between others to get ahead of the bigger Dacia van.

The exception to this code is scooters. Scooters are the top of the roadway food chain. For our purpose here, a scooter is anything from a mo-ped (most common) to a motorcycle (rarely seen on the city roads, though Casablanca has a Harley dealer). Scooters are the über-gnats of the Casablanca roadway: ubiquitous and entitled. You may pass them as they putt-putt along, only to have them swarm you from all sides when they catch up to you at a stoplight and they weave between cars to move to the front of the line. To protect scooter drivers, legally they always have the right of way. Yet, as history again and again proves Lord Acton’s claim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, scooters take full advantage of their superior status. Some scooter drivers even look for “safe” accidents they can create to make a quick buck. Generally, though, those are not the scooters with dad, mom, and a couple kids pressed between them as they enjoy good family time riding on one scooter.

A few other things to beware while driving here:

  • buses (usually packed so full of passengers that the doors cannot close fully, so people may hang out the door close enough to adjust your driver side mirror as you travel next to a bus)
  • red petit taxis (three passenger maximum, and they stop to pick up more people until the three person limit is reached)
  • white grand taxis (an old Mercedes sedan with two passengers sharing the front passenger seat and four passengers crammed into the three-seat back; also stopping to pick up more people until it reaches the six person limit in four passenger seats)
  • pedestrians popping out from anywhere and eschewing crosswalks while expecting traffic to yield to their jaywalking across the street or arterial or highway
  • taxi drivers – or others…one day we saw an entire car of four guys – pulled most of the way off the road and positioned by the back right tire in a ¾ turn away from traffic while relieving themselves
  • three-wheeled flatbed carts laden with fruits, vegetables, prickly pear cactus fruits, melons, machinery, recyclables, people, you name it
  • sheep, cows, turkeys, goats, donkeys, dogs, cats, or other animals eschewing crosswalks and expecting traffic to yield to their jaywalking across the street or arterial or highway
  • donkeys pulling carts laden with fruits, vegetables, prickly pear cactus fruits, melons, machinery, recyclables, people, you name it
  • people walking individually or en masse along the side of the road, or even in the road
  • people pushing carts laden with fruits, vegetables, prickly pear cactus fruits, melons, machinery, recyclables, people, you name it
  • And, last but not least…wrong way traffic (especially brightly-colored three-wheeled truck taxis cramming as many as a dozen people into what is basically a small box open at the back, with a guy on top smiling as he waves oncoming vehicles away with glee)

After reading this, one might wonder what role law enforcement plays on the roads. Have no doubt that they exist prominently. They stand on corners, in intersections, on roadsides, and at guard posts in their blue uniforms with stiff white plastic sleeve protectors on their forearms. Driving along a road, you may see suddenly a police checkpoint channeling people through with strategically-placed panels of high metal spikes laid on the road. Or you may pass a radar team of at least three officers operating one radar gun placed on a tripod, making you wonder if someone could zoom past them and be gone before they packed up their gear and rushed after the speeder in their radar team truck. If you get pulled over for some reason, any fines must be paid on the spot, so it may be a good idea to keep extra Dirham in the car.

Fortunately for us, Brian honed his Darwinian driving skills in Washington, DC, which has proved a good preparation for driving in Casablanca. Audrey has been brave in the passenger seat, but has yet to give driving here a whirl. That is coming soon, though, and then we will have a competition to see who can go longest without putting a dent in the CRV’s body or a getting pulled over for a ticket. Inshallah.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

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