Subtour 1: Right around Casablanca 0172 Phosphate Capital (Mor 021—revisit)

Khouribga Travel Blog

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Discreetly taken photo of a flatbed horsecart

Episode 01: Mining Towns

 *For Previous Morocco adventures, go to Blog 2008A, Entry 0109

 Waking up in another Continent

 I open my eyes and everything looks very, very different since the last time I was in Dream Mode.  Last time I was strolling through a shabby but peaceful one street coal town in Central Pennsylvania... then following a black trail into a lush forest where I sat on a log to strum a few songs before heading back to my car.  This time I’m on a sweltering bus packed with people, passing through a desolate, dry wasteland, hearing shouts and insults as the ticket seller tries to get a tightwad passenger to pay the full fare.  Around me is a mix of people in modern dress and other men dressed in ancient robes and women veiled from head to two.

  The cheerful North African folk rythmns blend with the shouts of the passengers.

 Where am I?  How did I get here?  It takes me a little while to sort it all out in my mind.  My heart beats faster as the thrill of it all sinks in:  I’m not on some short little trip to an exotic country with a return ticket back to my quiet, suburban life in the USA.  No, I live here now.  This is Morocco.  This is my new home.

 Memories of the Move

 Memories of the excitement, the uncertainties and the struggles of making that big move to whole new continent—with family in tow—suddenly flood back.  I remember selling or giving away practically all my earthly possessions, paying off all my bills, and loading my family and luggage into a rented SUV and heading to JFK international airport.

Noamane and his son
  As a matter of fact in order to make more room for family belongings, I even sold my travel guitar which I had bought in China back in 2005 (for 20 dollars—just what I bought it for).   I also had to part with some other treasures: my keyboard, computer, amplifier and mike stand… it seems that I won’t be recording music or doing coffeehouse gigs anymore for a while.

 At the airport, we met up with a Moroccan family heading home for a visit.  They kindly offered to take a couple of our bags so we wouldn’t have to pay overweight charges.  I was a bit taken aback—that kind of trust is rare in any society…I sure wouldn’t make that kind of offer to a stranger! But we decided to accept and gratefully continued on our way…

 I remember reaching the airport and heading to Casablanca.

"The People of Rchida" is a music video of a few places in my "Morocco 08" blog (mainly Rchida, Morocco)
  This country felt  a bit different now that we were coming to make this our home instead of just for a visit.  Along the way there was  a protest going on by the side of the road with people shouting and waving placards… A bit further down, a completely different protest going on…

 Protests like this were almost unheard of years ago—the riot police would have arrived within minutes to disperse the crowd… Now it seems the government is allowing people to have a voice… But what is that going to lead to?

 The taxi driver explains… Morocco hasn’t been immune to the global crisis.  Prices have gone up on basic staples. Housing costs have soared.  People who had already been barely making before now are in big trouble.

 It suddenly hits me… We’re a long, long ways from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania… And I’ve burned all my bridges behind me.

 We stay in Hotel Central—a popular backpacker hotel in the Old Medina.  It’s clean and our room has a balcony overlooking a little plaza and gets a nice breeze. But just outside the door are smoky alleys where long bearded fellows sell  20 cent sardine sandwiches and gnarly looking fellows cram into dingy teashops. Yep, this is the same old medina where I stayed last February.  A place where fights can break out at any moment and bottles and rocks start to fly… A place where the police are never seen… But as I learned last February, folks here respect outsiders. As long as you stay clear when a fight is going on, you should be OK.  It’s much more likely that people will harass you or rob you in the medinas of Fes, Marrakech or Tanger than in the Old Medina of Casablanca.

 Besides, this is the beginning of a Life of Adventure isn’t it?

 Finding a Place to Live

 I remember heading out on my first challenge: finding an apartment to rent.  Years ago, when I was just looking for a cheap, 40 dollar a month room, it was a simple matter of walking down the street and asking passerbys if they knew of someone who had a room to rent. Usually I’d find a place within minutes and paid no more than a dollar tip to whoever helped me…

 But now I was looking to rent full sized apartment. I had money to spend, and people knew it--that made me fair game…

 I was about to enter the dark underworld of the Moroccan real estate business…

 I knew basically the area where I wanted to live, so I just walked up and down the streets asking people.  Many of these apartment buildings have a “Aases” security guard/maintenance man… a couple of these guys offered to help me out for a 400 euro “tip”—which I found a bit disconcerting…

 No luck… I was  told that this is the summer time and a lot of Moroccans living abroad are eager to rent apartments for the summer, thus driving the prices up… And then you’ve got Saudi tourists, loaded with cash, looking for apartments as well to do you-know-what… So it seemed that any of these “simsars” (apartment finders) prowling the street were convinced that they could make a lot of money really fast…

 Next day I figured I’d go to an actual rental agency—figuring, if the guys has an actual office, he’s going to be honest right? 

 The guy just ended up giving us a tour of the worst dumps in the area insisting that they were “all there was available” for what I was willing to pay…

 The guy told me he actually had a green card and had worked in the USA… “but I can make a lot more money here in Morocco” this really waved a red flag…

Suddenly it became painfully clear the cruel reality of how the economy works here in Morocco:  a few people are getting very, very rich by exploiting the others who just get poorer and poorer…

I’m not saying that all rich people in Morocco get rich this way, but it clearly happens way too frequently. 

SUVs—something you’d never see here a years ago, are the new status symbol here… Yes, there is money to be made in Morocco, but how it is made is another question…

I paid an unavoidable “tip” to my dirty real estate agent, and got away as fast as I could…

Next day, I figured I had no choice but to deal with the unofficial street “simsars”… I found one and made it very clear how much I could pay and how much of a commission I would give him…

He seemed like decent chap,  but soon he was joined by a friend and then a third… then, when we’d go to an apartment, the “aases” insisted he’d need his cut too…

My simsar explained how this worked: “since we hardly ever make any money, whenever we do earn a commission we’ve got to share it with all our friends…”

It’s starting to feel like I’m going to have to pay everybody in Casablanca in order to rent an apartment…

Finally, when I was about to give up for the day, I saw one last fellow who I assumed was an “aases” in front of an apartment building.  It turned out he was the friend of an apartment owner who was about to leave to Spain and really wanted to rent her apartment out.  It was a furnished apartment—which I really couldn’t afford, but I was  so relieved to be able to able to escape the clutches of the simsars that I accepted it anyways…

And so began my adventures in Casablanca… A very rough couple of days.   A brutal crash course in doing business here in Morocco… But I learned a lot of good lessons and made it through… And I was still just as determined to make this new life in Morocco work…

Can Every Day be an Adventure?

Now that I remember how I came here to Morocco, now the question is why I came here.  This question seems to be a little more complicated.

It seems that over the last year, as I slipped back and forth between the two worlds, the Real Life and Adventure Life, it seems at some point an idea popped into my head: 

What if I could live an Adventure Life ALL the time?

It seems that that’s what got the ball rolling, as I started looking into different options for permanently breaking out of the redundant routine and moving to a place where adventure could be had every day and every day could be unforgettable.  Then the opportunity to work in Casablanca opened up and I jumped for it—and manage to talk my wife into it.  I figured with all the exciting things to discover in Morocco, I could slip into Adventure Life every day from now on.

But just a couple of days after arrival, reality started to sink in.  As soon as we moved into a new place, and I started my new job I realized that, no, every day was not unforgettable.  In fact, every day quickly became just as much a routine as it had been in the United States.  Sure I was enjoying my social life, my job and my daily routine more than I did in the USA, but that didn’t mean I was having adventures on a daily basis.   My experiment had failed.

The more I thought about it, the more it became clear why:  it’s simple, I am simply not capable of creating lasting memories every single day.  In fact, I don’t think it’s even healthy to try.  Life needs to have some monotony and soothing repetitiveness to it, because during the periods of lull, you’re able to absorb and truly appreciate the adventures you’ve had.   And another thing, I need those monotonous forgettable phases to work on long term projects, like recording music, writing, building relationships etc—these things, although not very memorable, are important.

So I quickly had to give up on the idea that I was going to do something memorable every single day of my life in Morocco.  But I’m still glad I moved here—as I find it refreshingly different from my life in Pennsylvania, with new challenges, a new career, a new atmosphere and a new feel to life.  And not to mention, lots and lots of towns that are right within my reach to go tour when I finally do switch to Adventure Mode… and if my experience last February is any indication, these towns should be a lot more fun than the typical Pennsylvania towns I’ve been doing for the last year.

And so, 12 days after arriving in Morocco, I was ready to roll… I’d gotten settled in and I’d bought a another cheap “travel guitar” for 300 dirhams (28 Euros).

So I headed out to the main bus terminal to hop on whatever bus was heading out next.

“Khouribga! Khouribga!” I heard the call.  So Khouribga it would be…

Memories of Khouribga

As I ride the bus across the brown, rolling hills east of Casablanca towards Khouribga, memories come back of my visit here back in May of 2000.  During my 6 month stint in Agadir, Morocco, I took a 2 day trip here to Khouribga to visit a good friend, Sivi, an Angolan student who like me was an aspiring songwriter/musician.  See, back at that time I still hadn’t the idea of going to a new place just to discover something… I always felt I had to have another “reason” to go there.  So when I had a hard time getting ahold of Sivi, my first thought was to just get on a bus and head on back to Agadir.

Fortunately, we were able to get in touch, and Sivi took me to his university and showed me around town again.  Then I spent the rest of the evening wandering up and down “the strip”—a dingy street that people in Khouribga walk up and down in the evening… pretty much the only thing there is to do in Khouribga on a hot, summer evening.  There, when pausing for a yoghurt in a little shop, an older fellow, a Moroccan emigrant to Italy struck up a conversation with me and told me about how many men from this town have gone to Italy in search for a better life—but they always remember their hometown.

I started to get the feeling that “discovering” a city like Khouribga was a worthwhile experience in itself...

 Back to the Present

 I've learned a few more things about Khouribga over the years:  Morocco is one of the biggest phosphate exporters and Khouribga is one of the main mining areas.  A Moroccan joke goes,  "how do you know is someones from Khouribga?  They have brown teeth!"   Apparently, there's a lot of phosphate in the water, and it tends to stay on peoples’ teeth.

I will hasten to say that I did see a lot of Khouribgans WITHOUT brown teeth...

Finally my bus arrives at the station and I head out to discover my 172nd town and FIRST town since moving to Morocco.

My first destination is to visit the sprawling "souk el hedd" (Sunday market) that I saw on my ride into town.  I know I’m heading in the right direction because I pass endless flatbed horsecarts carrying ladies home from market--apparently a major form of transportation in Khouribga.  I do manage to take a very discreet picture of one of these...

Highlights of the souk el hedd includ the picturesque butcher section (though not as varied as, say, China) the "scrap" section where you can buy a screw, a twisted piece of plastic or a widowed shoe, the mountains and mountains of beautiful watermelons  and the huge piles of used clothes brought down from Italy by Khouribgan emigrants.

Next I tour through the middle class rather boring neighborhoods of large, three to four story freshly painted homes and wide boulevards.  I suspect many of these homes belong to families of Khouribgans who have emigrated to Italy...

...Then back into town--take my clip next to a couple of decorative railroad cars that symbolize Khouribga's phosphate industry... Find a little plaza to  parkbench at--unfortunately I end up with a couple of glue sniffers as an audience--and that kind of drives away any potential respectable audience--so I cut that session short...

...Then through a neighborhood of large French-style villas with gardens--actually built by the French back when they ran the phosphate mines... Then a little French-style park...

I decide on a new rule of thumb for parkbenching in Morocco: if the first session doesn't go too well, try at least once more--I'd hate to give up on Khouribga so quickly...

So I pull out my guitar there in the  park... sure enough, soon a respectable schoolteacher stopped by--we had a great conversation as he tells me of his adventures teaching in a village high in the mountains above Marrakesh.  He says that he and his wife even climbed Mount Toubkal--the highest peak in the Atlas.  That’s quite interesting to hear about--as not very many Moroccan women that I know of are into mountain climbing... Afterwards he invites me to his place for tea and msimin.  I figure it would be nice to start out my new Morocco tour by accepting this gesture of friendship.

In the end, it’s a quite satisfying experience here in Khouribga and a good start to my journey.  But I feel the urge to continue on and explore yet another town.


postaltiburon says:
Incredible! I really does seem like Morocco has a special place in your heart.
Posted on: Feb 02, 2009
sylviandavid says:
sounds fun.... Do you couch surf or get hotel/hostel
Posted on: Jan 11, 2009
knp says:
i hope you havent got a chunky butt from all the parkbenching!! hahaha
Posted on: Sep 09, 2008
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Discreetly taken photo of a flatbe…
Discreetly taken photo of a flatb…
Noamane and his son
Noamane and his son
"The People of Rchida" is a music…
Khouribga
photo by: nathanphil