Casablanca airport fountain
After meeting up with my friend Matt in JFK airport, we flew on Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca as a layover before our final destination of Dakar. We really enjoyed Air Maroc because it was comfortable and there were the perks you used to get on U.S. airlines. During our 8+ hour flight, we were fed two really good meals and had unlimited access to the drink cart. Matt, who is virtually vegan, decided that he would drop that and eat the fish offered on the flight. Since it is practically unheard of to turn down meat in Africa when it's available, he decided it was time to start preparing for the food he'd be eating for the next two months (he'd be there 3 weeks longer than me).
Fountain streaming from high ceiling at airport
As we approached Casablanca in Morocco, it was still dark but almost sunrise there. When we landed, we looked at eachother excitedly and exclaimed, "We're in Africa!" I had a 'female moment' and teared up a little; fortunately, Matt is a doll and was very understanding of my moments throughout our journey together. It was pretty monumental for me to be there because I had saved up for this for 3-4 years and been planning several months prior. Here we were, touching down on the continent of Africa....pretty amazing for a woman who'd never even been out of the U.S.
Everything was now a brand new experience for me; walking across a tarmac (always had connecting indoor terminals before) and boarding a bus, the smell of the land, realizing I was now the foreigner in the country and sticking out like a sore thumb, a palpable feeling that 'the rules' were very different here, the way everyone was dressed so exotically to me and even going through a customs line for the first time was such an adventure.
Casablanca airport clock on ceiling
Speaking of the customs line, our first comedic moment happened there. One thing we learned immediately was that lines are not orderly in other countries and basically you get in where you can or be left behind indefinitely. I made my way through the line, went through quickly with no problems and turned around to wait for Matt. When Matt reached the counter of the Customs Officer, he had a slight delay because on his card he had declared his occupation as an 'artist'. Apparently, customs are somewhat suspicious of people declaring this. To add to that, his passport photo gave more cause for suspicion. After a few minutes, he got through and explained to me what had just happened. When I asked to see his passport photo, I understood why he'd had an issue and I fell out laughing! If you've ever seen the mug shot of Nick Nolte when he was arrested for drunk driving, that is pretty close to what Matt's passport photo looks like! Blond hair in dire need of a cut all askew, full beard and looking like a drug kingpin even though he's the farthest thing from that as possible.
Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco
He told me he'd also had trouble when traveling through South America because of that photo. They all thought he was there to smuggle drugs somewhere and got hassled frequently by authorities. I suggested he might want to get a new picture taken some day to avoid all the hassle and we laughed some more.
I took a couple photos of the airport's interesting fountain that went from very high ceiling to the ground and the giant ceiling clock with the huge, hanging, pointed cone in the center of it. After clearing customs, since we had a 12-hour layover, we decided to tour Casablanca a bit. We went to the information desk and asked the man at the counter about finding a taxi or a guide to show us around. After a few minutes, a man arrived and the info counter man let us know he was his friend and would be our guide.
Some of the architecture
Being absolutely new to how this would work and having a huge suspicious streak, we discussed for several minutes how this would work and tried to agree on terms for payment and time spent. We learned our guide's name was Hassan and he taught us a few basic words in Arabic. The first word I wanted to know was how to say 'thank you'. I feel that's one of the most important words in any language that you can learn. It always pays to be courteous and grateful. He told me that 'thank you' is 'shokran' and I immediately told him 'shokran' for teaching me. What we had determined is that we'd pay for Hassan's train ticket (along with ours) to ride from the airport - which has a train that goes directly into Casablanca and beyond - and take care of taxi fares and Hassan would show us around for our agreed upon price of around $40 (I think.
Looking into an archway at pigeons on a chandelier
..can't remember now...could have even been less) for a good portion of the afternoon. We purchased our tickets, changed a bit of our money so we could have something to spend in Casablanca, and then went for tea in the airport since it was a while before our train would depart. While we sat, Hassan taught us a little more Arabic and we began to get comfortable with him. I'm always overly cautious when entering these situations because I don't want to be taken for too much money and I don't want to get into a dangerous situation. By the time we boarded the train, we both were feeling quite comfortable with Hassan.
We boarded what seemed like a train from the days of the Orient Express where Hassan had to push a button for the door to open and he helped me board the steep step and hoisted my carry-on up to the car's floor.
One of the entrances
We found seats and I rode backwards, watching the landscape whiz by as I tried to take it all in. As we departed from the airport (where the train begins and ends), the landscape was mostly flat and very green at that time. After about 10 minutes, I had my first major shock that literally took my breath away. As we rolled along, the first major sign of human life was a 'shanty town' with tarps as roofs and anything one could possibly scavenge to create walls and other structures. This was when it REALLY hit me, this was REAL. Prior to this, I'd only seen such things on TV and here it was now, in harsh reality that people do really live like this. It was like someone had hit me in the chest and I was struggling to take a breath.
Looking out onto the vast mosque courtyard
Here was this beautiful, green countryside and people living there in slipshod structures in total poverty. It was also interesting to observe the difference in how animals are treated vs. the pampering they get in the U.S. Instead of dogs wearing little sweaters, I saw a woman chuck rocks at two strays who were scavenging around for something to eat, apparently on her property where she didn't want them. It was funny to see but a little hard being a soft American unaccustomed to such treatment of animals. Immediately, a new mantra came to mind. "This place is no joke." This would continue to be my mantra through the remainder of my trip to Africa.
During the 40 minute ride to the city, we saw the countryside with its mix of poverty and wealth.
Normally the west coast is the Pacific for me
One place was a huge compound surrounded by walls that with its architectural stylings, looked like a sultan could live there. The train passed over highways under construction that were wide, graded dirt lanes at the time but would one day be an asphalt speedway. Alongside those roads were older paths where we saw men driving donkey carts on them, headed to whatever daily business they had. What amazed me was how the rural and urban blended seamlessly in daily life without the bat of an eye. Imagine a large city where suddenly you see livestock roaming the streets...while it wasn't quite like that, it was close enough to take me by surprise. As we neared the city, we saw more highrise apartments and other modern structures and Matt spent his time observing the flora in the region.
One of many neglected street animals
He'd point at something as we passed and tell me what plant it was. The closer we got to our stop, the more apparent it became that I was having a little bit of a stomach problem. By the time we reached the stop, I eagerly stepped down out of the train and tried to be patient as Matt pointed out some wild mustard near the tracks.
With a desperate look in my face, I asked Hassan where the bathroom was and he pointed across the tracks to a building alongside them. I bolted over to the building a bit confused because there was no men or women designation, just one room with a wall separating the stalls. Now, I know this may be too much information to share with the general public, but I'm going to share as much as possible while remaining modest so that it can be understood.
The most popular past time - we call it soccer
If you've never been to certain countries before, you will not know until you get there that not everyone goes about their bathroom business the same way. In much of Africa, the toilet consists of a hole, sometimes porcelain and sometimes not, in the ground. There is also no toilet paper. So this is where the 'left-hander' (as dubbed by my dear friend Matt) comes in to play. This is why you always shake and eat with your right hand. Doing anything with your left hand is considered extremely offensive (not to mention, unsanitary). Anyway, now I've found myself faced with my very first left-hander situation and was prepared with hand sanitizer but not everything before you need the sanitizer. I noticed that there was no kettle (as I'd read there might be in a bathroom like this) but fortunately, there was a water spiggot an arm's reach away on the wall in my stall.
Local teams practicing
So, with clean (right) hand, I turn on the spiggot and proceed to try and clean myself up with the left hand. I know, many luxury travelers would recoil at the thought but when it has to be done, it HAS to be done! Although I was brand new at this, I managed to do a fine job of sanitizing (if you will) both myself and the 'porcelain hole bowl' and was feeling pretty proud of myself when I hear Hassan's voice on the other side of the door asking me if everything is okay. A little panicked at the intrusion, I told him everything was fine and I'd be out in a minute. I guess they were wondering since the water spiggot had been running a minute or so in my efforts to make sure everything was presentable. The next humorous moment of this day came when I came out of the restroom and Hassan's eyes widened a bit at the spectacle of me.
Fountain at Place Mohamed V
Matt laughed almost immediately but Hassan wasn't sure if it would be proper to do so although after a minute, even he giggled some. You see, in my efforts to get everything squeaky clean, there was a lot of splashing going on and with my pants at my ankles (sorry for too much information folks!), the bottom half of them were subject to much of the splashing (clean water I swear!) and my pants were soaked almost up to my knees when I surfaced from the bathroom. Matt looked and said, "That's awesome!" and he appeared to be truly proud of me at that moment for just going for it! Later he confessed he was a bit jealous that I got to do a left-hander first and he was proud that I wasn't shy about it...he's weird like that!
After having a good laugh at my expense, we walked out to the road by the station and Hassan flagged us down a taxi.
Rows upon rows of palms in this section of the park
We drove through the city to an unknown destination through roundabouts and our first taste of hair-raising traffic. Our driver squeezed by other cars mere millimeters away and it seemed that we were always one wrong move away from a major accident. We observed a family of 3 on a moped and found that amusing...something you could never get away with in the U.S.! Other times we swerved past donkey carts or around a car swerving around another car. You definitely get your money's worth here if you're looking for an adrenaline rush! At some undetermined location, Hassan stopped the driver and we got out. My carry-on bag was pretty heavy with equipment such as a camcorder, audio recorder and all the media to go with.
Casablanca park we walked through
It was going to be difficult trekking through the city with this so we followed Hassan to a small hotel in some back alley that if I'd had to find it on my own, would have never located it again. He told me he was good friends with the hotel owner and that they'd keep my bag behind the counter for me while we went sight-seeing. Though I was feeling more comfortable with Hassan, I was still highly suspicious of the situation and feared that we'd return and something valuable would be missing from my bag. Turned out to be an unfounded suspicion but I can't help the way I am. (I've since purchased a rolling carry-on suitcase so I can always take it with me and wheel it along to prevent back strain.) Reluctantly, I left my bag and prayed the men there would be honest.
Beautiful tree lined walkway in the park
We walked along the streets and Hassan pointed out various landmarks and other notable buildings of the city such as the courthouse. We passed cafes with men seated out front having tea or coffee and peered into stores without electricity hawking all varieties of wares. Neither Matt nor I had done much research on Casablanca but I had read about a large park that interested me. I told Hassan of this interest and he agreed we would see it, but first, we were going to the mosque. Personally, religious structures hold little appeal but since he was the tour guide, I figured we'd oblige him and continued on the long walk to the seaside. One thing I noticed was that you didn't see women sitting out in front of cafes.
You also did not see men and women socializing unless they were family. These I gathered to be some of the cultural and social taboos that strict Muslims would not break. Soon we could see the top of the very tall tower of the Hassan II Mosque and as we got closer, realized what an enormous building this really was. The courtyard is a huge expanse and could accommodate thousands of people if necessary. It's a relatively new structure since it was built beginning in 1986 so while it lacks the mystique of an older building, it's still highly regarded by many locals (just don't start a discussion on the taxes they still pay for its construction). We walked closer and I took the obligatory and often-seen pictures of the mosque's architecture.
View from the cafe we sat in front of sipping tea
It appeared to be closed for tours so we didn't go in but that was okay by me. The one thing that became very apparent though was that this was a Muslim nation and it must be respected as such. Throughout North and West Africa (and beyond?), it dominates all facets of life. After our brief tour, we continued along the water's edge and watched men fish from the shore with their deep sea-sized poles resting against the sea wall. Another realization I had was that this was the first time in my life where being on a West Coast, I wasn't looking at the Pacific Ocean. Finding that unique in its own right, I took a picture of the Atlantic Ocean's west coast.
Still unsure of exactly what we wanted to see, we headed back 'inland' and took in a few more local sights, such as the large soccer (futbol or football) field with several teams practicing that day. Since I still worried intensely about my belongings (I know, it's just stuff....but it's MY stuff and I don't want to pay to replace it!), I insisted we go back and get the bag since I couldn't fully relax and enjoy the sights with this extreme anxiety hanging over me. We took another short taxi ride and were back at the back alley hotel. Hassan gave his friend a quick explanation, I thanked them as I took my bag and we were off. Just around the corner, I did a check to make sure everything was there and it was. Of course a sense of guilt and shame washed over me but you can never be too careful in a foreign country with different laws. How would I explain to a police officer had something happened? Was there anything they could have done and would they even care? With bag in hand, we walked and Hassan insisted on carrying it for me and I was wracked with more guilt because it was heavy and I didn't want him to feel obligated to be my 'caddy'. (This is when I decided on a carry-on with wheels!)
After walking a little while, we came to the Parc de la Ligue Arabe which is the largest park in Casablanca and has many attractions, most of which we didn't have time to see. The park is French-influenced in its design and there are restaurants, cafes and even an amusement park within. It spans several city blocks and the city streets intersect throughout the park. We walked the streets along the park until realizing that we were getting hungry. It had been a while since we ate and we were ready to experience some traditional Moroccan food.
One more short taxi ride and we were in the neighborhood where one of Hassan's favorite restaurants was. We didn't catch the name but the food was delicious! We had large salads that held a variety of tasty foods such as a Moroccan-style tuna salad, a boiled egg with a mayo sauce dip, different legumes and more items than I can recall. It was truly satisfying and when the 'frites' (french fries) came with the roast chicken, after a few bites of frites, I couldn't eat any more and since I hadn't touched the chicken, they graciously took it back for no charge. It was too bad I couldn't eat it because it looked and smelled divine! We left the restaurant and left a generous tip which we could tell, made them very happy.
Our final stop since we were running out of time as agreed with Hassan, was a nice cafe where we ordered some tea and sat outside in front (I was breaking taboos cause I can...I'm American! Please note sarcastic humor...). Our tea came and it was a very strong brew with a ton of sugar. It was so sweet we couldn't believe they actually provided extra sugar packets. Hassan let us know he had to run an errand and that we could hang out there until he returned. He said he'd be back in about a half hour and we didn't have a problem with that. From there, he'd send us off on our way back to the airport. Before he left to run his errand, we paid him the agreed rate and tipped him some, then my compassion got the better of me and I gave him an extra US $20. He appeared very happy with this and quickly headed off to his destination after gratefully thanking us. As we waited, we watched the people and cars go by and enjoyed just hanging out without any worry. As long as we made it back to the airport by 4:00 p.m. or so, we'd have plenty of time before our 7:00 flight.
Matt and I sat watching the activity until a young boy, probably around the age of 6 or 7, approached our table. He had a box of 'chiclets' and it seemed we might have a little salesman in our midst. However, he made no attempt to sell anything but it was clear he was eyeballing our sugar packets on the table. The boy pointed sheepishly at one and Matt understood right there what he wanted and handed his packet over to the boy. Finally catching on myself, I then handed my packet over to the boy and we were met with the hugest, partially-toothless grin imaginable! That grin with the missing teeth made it immensely worth handing over a couple measely packets of sugar. He then scurried off as happy as if he'd sold his entire box of gum! I still laugh at the mental picture of that scene!
A while later, Hassan returned and found us a taxi to take us to the train station. It was in front of the cafe where we said our goodbyes, shared our contact info and parted ways with a very happy tour guide. The taxi dropped us off at the station, Matt purchased our return tickets to the airport and after waiting a while on the platform, we boarded for the ride back to the airport. I noticed another small boy playing with a plastic gun that looked very realistic. Yet another indication that I was in a different country...we no longer allow our kids to have toys that look like real weapons but there, it doesn't phase them. The ride back was filled with more countryside and more observations about the disparity between rich and poor. I should've taken pictures but perhaps another time.
Once we reached the airport, we found a pair of seats and managed a short nap until our flight in a couple hours. Soon, we were in the air headed to Dakar.