Sunday, August 30, 2015

Morocco Travelogue Part 1: Casablanca and Essaouira

On August 3, a miracle happened. Obviously, I’m talking about being upgraded to business class. I’m still not quite sure what happened, but suddenly I had three boarding passes and lounge waivers to the airport lounges in Istanbul and Lisbon and I wasn't about to ask any questions. Having never been in business class before, I can affirm that it’s awesome.


By the time I actually arrived in Casablanca, I was full of champagne and smoked salmon and grilled swordship and (swoon) several cheese plates, and I’d caught up on a bunch of American movies that came out in the past year, and was free of the usual aches and cramps of going without leg room for an extended period of time. 
            I arrived in the Casablanca airport, was handed a free SIM card by some telecom company, which I gladly accepted, and bought a ticket to Casa port train station. By chance, I sat next to a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco who had gone to St. Mary’s College, right across from Notre Dame, and we talked the whole train ride about the differences between Peace Corps Rwanda and Morocco, and life back in South Bend. Eventually our train pulled into Casa Port, where I said goodbye to the Peace Corps Volunteer, met my friend Daniel, and took a taxi to his apartment near the beautiful Hassan II mosque.  

           
Day 2: Casablanca and Essaouira
            The next morning, we went to the bus station to buy tickets to Essaouira in the south, but found that they were fully booked until 3 pm. Daniel and I decided to drop our stuff at his apartment and explore Casablanca in the time we had to burn.


            Everyone that I had talked to about Casablanca told me to spend as little time there as possible (perhaps except Daniel, who optimistically maintained that it had some awesome spots). I would probably agree with them—there are much cooler places to explore in Morocco. But since it was my first day, I had nothing to compare it to and therefore fully enjoyed myself as we strolled through the medina.
            
We explored the twisting alleyways of the medina, which were lined with every type of produce vendor. Daniel and I bought some fresh figs. I think it was my first time eating a fresh fig (my previous exposure to them was limited to Fig Newtons packed in my grade school lunchbox), and they were delicious. 

We also took advantage of the incredibly cheap fresh-squeezed orange juice, just 5 cents for a glass. The orange juice vendors would usually have a pile of the bright orange fruits spilling over their table and a small metal squeezer for extracting the juice. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted orange juice that good, or gotten that much Vitamin C in just one week in my entire life.
            In most of my interactions in Morocco, conversations were in French since I don’t speak Arabic and most Moroccans I encountered didn’t speak English. I think tourists that only speak English would have a much more difficult time. I definitely had French envy of my friend Daniel, who had an infinitely better accent and didn’t make nearly as many grammar mistakes as I do. Even though I frequently speak French in Rwanda, it’s not a place to perfect your French, and I usually prefer to speak in Kinyarwanda anyways. For example, I have one Field Director who usually just speaks to me in infinitives (“Yesterday I to go to the field.”), but we both understand each other so it works out all right. Not so in Morocco.

            
Much like in Rwanda, with President Kagame’s steely gaze peering from portraits in every school and office and health center, King Mohammed VI’s picture was everywhere in Morocco, as was the Moroccan flag. 

The pictures of him ranged from elegant murals to cheesy Photoshop jobs where his head was clearly pasted on someone else’s body, possibly due his increasing age and girth.


            After we’d had enough of the medina, we went back to Daniel’s apartment to get our bags and headed to the bus station. Our coach bus to Essaouira was surprisingly nice (at least in comparison to the buses I usually take in Rwanda), with comfortable seats and air-conditioning. And I didn’t notice anyone throwing up into their purse, which is also a departure from my usual Rwandan bus ride.
            We stopped a few times on the way to Essaouira. Daniel and I were both incredulous when we stopped literally in the middle of nowhere, and five or six people boarded the bus. It seemed to be some sort of bus stop, but there was no sign or station or anything that would have marked it as such. And yet, all of these people knew to gather there, and the bus driver somehow knew to pick them up there. I still can’t figure it out.  
Our next stop was at a small gas station with a restaurant with clay tajines stacked in rows outside and a horrifying women’s restroom inside (I say this after three years of latrine-using experience in Rwanda. I expect neither a flush toilet nor toilet paper. But I do expect people to not miss by a very wide margin). Based on the restroom, I was a little nervous about eating at the restaurant, but the food we scarfed down in 15 minutes was pretty satisfying: some tasty harissa chickpea soup, traditional Moroccan flatbread, and some hot mint tea we both tried not to burn our tongues on as we drank.
            The sun was sinking low on the horizon as we got back on the bus, illuminating the flat fields and small villages we past in swaths of tangerine light, and I felt a tinge of homesickness for Nebraska, as I sometimes do when I find places that even momentarily remind me how far I am from home. I immersed myself in my book and later fell asleep. Daniel nudged me awake a few hours later when we’d arrived at Essaouira. A taxi took us to the gates of the walled medina, and then gave us instructions about how to find our hostel, Dar al Pascha, in the maze. We finally arrived around midnight, and promptly fell asleep.


Day 3: Essaouira
            The next day, we set out to explore the medina of Essaouira. 


It was a cloudy, slightly windy day, perfect for lazily wandering around the ramparts and winding passageways of the town. 


We passed a building with stars of David engraved in the doorway, and decided to go inside. 


Daniel explained to me that there was a large Jewish population in Morocco for several centuries, and the star that is at the center of the Moroccan flag was formerly the Star of David. 

            
Inside was an old synagogue being restored by two men, both balding and with grey hair, who eagerly told us the story of the building in French. When Daniel told them that he was part of a Jewish community in Casablanca, the man seemed to perk up and asked which family. Daniel explained that we were American, that he was doing a legal internship for the summer in Casablanca for three months, and that his mother was Jewish. I asked the man how many Jewish families were still in Essaouira, and he laughed wistfully, “No families. Just the two of us.” Although the man seemed like he could have talked to us for the whole day, we eventually thanked him for his stories and headed back out into the medina. 

Daniel with an archway with Stars of David
It wasn’t the only time we’d see the Stars of David around Morocco—they were engraved on stone passageways and even on some of the metal hamsa decorations we saw, shaped like a hand and meant to protect against the evil eye.

       We walked past the ramparts of the city, 

past vendors with carts full of fresh produce, 

Cactus-fruit! 

past seafood restaurants with the day’s catch displayed out front, 

little shops bursting with brightly colored scarves and flowing dresses, 


and jaunty little orange stands with the peels hanging off like tentacles of an octopus. 

As we made our way to the harbor, the pleasant smell of sea salt, and the less-pleasant smell of rotting fish filled my nostrils. 


Hundreds of bright blue boats filled the crowded harbor, and fisherman bartered over the multitude of different fish strewn on little carts and boxes that lined the road. 


We saw the beaches that lined the coast just south of the town, but the water didn’t look very appealing to swim in, so we decided to stick to dry land.



            Daniel I stopped to get something to eat at a beautiful little rooftop cafĂ©. It was so windy that I had to take off my hat for safekeeping. 


From the rooftop, you could see the street bustling with people down below, and the quiet rooftops and serene balconies filled with plants and flowers in the other direction. 


We ordered a veggie pizza, which ended up being a bit of a strange concoction of carrots and green beans on flatbread, and I ordered a coffee, which ended up being hot milk and a packet of instant Nescafe (which made me careful to always specify during the remainder of the trip).


            We found a little pastry store that had interesting looking fig pastries displayed in a glass case, and a wall of framed photographs inside. We bought one of the pastries, which ended up being very delicious (note to self: pastry-buying is never a mistake). 


After having our fill of wandering through the medina, we made our way back to the hostel to take advantage of the copious fresh mint and Reunion Island rum Daniel had brought, in the form of mojitos. 

We took the drinks up to the rooftop of our hostel, where we could see the ocean in the distance and could peek in on the lives of other rooftop dwellers all around. There was a father playing with his two children on lounge chairs in front of us, rusty satellite dishes littering rooftops around the city, and lines of laundry flailing in the strong gusts of wind that made my hair stand on end like a wild woman.


            When my hair was tangled beyond belief and Daniel and I finished our mojitos, we went downstairs to the lobby of the hostel where other travelers were playing pool and watching tv. We chatted with a French girl, Camilla, and her boyfriend Mohammed, whose family was from Morocco, and we decided to go out to dinner with them. The restaurant was fairly dim inside, with ornate cushions lining the walls and some Berber musicians playing music in the corner. The Moroccan woman running the restaurant placed some bread and fresh olives on our table, which I quickly grew to expect and love at the beginning of every meal in the country. We listened to the Berber music and stuffed ourselves with piping hot tajine.
When we’d had enough food and music, we wandered out onto the glowing streets of the medina, which were just as busy as in the daytime. Pyramids of olives of every sort, preserved lemons and pickled vegetables were illuminated by the streetlight and tempted me from their stalls, noisy Moroccan teenagers with gelled hair travelled in small packs, and a rather forlorn looking man sold brightly colored balloons to children. I was surprised to find that one of the most popular vendors was selling snails in a hot broth. Moroccans crowded around to slurp cups of the stuff, and snail shells littered the small cart. I saw the same thing in city after city in Morocco, but was never curious enough to try it (I prefer my escargot with heavy amounts of butter and garlic).
Camilla wanted to buy a Moroccan dress, and I wanted a couple of beautiful striped cotton scarf-blankets, so Mohammed bargained for us with the shop owner. After fifteen or twenty minutes of heated bargaining, the dress and the scarf-blanket-towels were ours, and we headed back along the dim, twisting streets to our hostel.

Day 4: Essaouira
            The next day, Daniel and I got a bit of a late start and unsatisfied with our hostel’s breakfast of bread and jam, we wandered out in the medina in search of something a bit more delicious and satiating. We found a place that advertised “the best burger in North Africa” on a chalkboard outside, and curiosity got the best of us. I ordered a nous-nous, a sort of Moroccan cappuccino with delicious layers of steamed milk and espresso, a far cry from the previous day’s Nescafe disaster. 


Daniel tried the burger, which he said was good (but, not having eaten ever single burger in North Africa he cannot confirm or deny the restaurant’s claims), and I ordered a veggie burger, which despite having no claims attached to it, was quite tasty.


            After lunch, Daniel and I decided to rent bicycles to explore some of the coast south of Essaouira. 



We biked along the sandy beaches, full of beachgoers despite the cloudy weather, and eventually arrived at a town whose claim to fame that Jimi Hendrix had perhaps visited it. Despite the very dubious nature of his visit, a local economy seemed to have sprung around the claim, with a couple of restaurants and hotels bearing his namesake. 


I imagined what that city council meeting must have looked like:

Councilman #1: “Alright guys, we need a claim to fame to lure dumb tourists to what would otherwise be an unremarkable village on sandy hill in Morocco. Let’s say that someone famous visited. I propose Barack Obama.”
Councilman #2: “Are you serious right now? Obviously he’ll be able to confirm or deny whether he’s actually been here or not. We have to go for someone dead.”
Councilman #3: “Right. How about Amy Winehouse?”
Councilman #2: “Too recent.”
Councilman #3: “Jim Morrison! Janis Joplin! Kurt Cobain! Jimi Hendrix!”
All councilmen in unison: “JIMI HENDRIX! That’s it!”
Councilman #1: “Referendum passed. Meeting adjourned. “

            We rode around for a couple more hours, passing a shallow river lined with scrubby-looking trees, rows of palm trees, and camels and kite surfers on the beach. 


We returned the bikes and meandered into a cave-like bookstore, which smelled of musty pages like only an old bookstore can.

 I thumbed through pages of photography books featuring old photos of Berbers and villages in Morocco, and Daniel bought an Agatha Christie novel in French.


            Daniel had some to do back at the hostel, so I went off to explore some more. 


I bought a Moroccan rug from a place that looked like a Cave of Wonders. 


And I wandered to the walls of the medina, where children played on rows of old cannons and the grey waves crashed against the sea wall as seagulls flew overhead. The city had charm in spades.



            I met Daniel at the hostel and brought him back to the same place, where he informed me that Game of Thrones had been filmed there (not having watched a single episode, I was completely oblivious to this fact). 



There wasn’t a sunset because it was so cloudy, so we decided to get dinner. After wandering around looking for a restaurant, we sat down at a vegetarian Moroccan restaurant. I devoured the olives the waiter brought since Daniel wasn’t a big fan, and a Dutch girl from our hostel later joined us. I ate more tajine while the three of us talked about our travels and couchsurfing experiences and what life was like in the Netherlands. After we'd finished our meals, we again wandered the lamp-lit streets for a bit on our way back to the hostel. I decided that being full of tajine, with sun-kissed skin from a bike ride to a village Jimi Hendrix might have visited wasn't a bad way to end a day. 

The inside of our hostel, and the blanket/towel/scarf I bought around my neck