I’m not just here to give you completely useless information about China, no. Every so often, I do get out and go to other countries. Today, I’m in Morocco. Yes, just like that. I’m sneaky that way.
Ladies and gents, I give you the most useless guide to Casablanca, ever.
Some people might think that taking four days and four long flights to reach Casablanca from Vancouver via Shanghai (and Seoul and Paris, if we count the stopovers) might be a slightly inconvenient route to take.
I would agree. I had to drop off a few things at the flat along the way though, which is why I took two fifteen hour fragmented journeys (with an sleepless overnight stay in my own little bed in Shanghai) instead of one twelve hour one. Couldn’t very well carry 2 fitted bedsheets, smart-casual shoes for work, two jars of organic bouillon, a loaf pan and a jar of bacon marmalade with me to Morocco.
After spending the past few years travelling exclusively on the dodgiest airlines that Asia has to offer (Hello, China Eastern! Yoohoo, Yangon Airways!), it was a marvellous shock to be handed the wine list upon take off on Air France en route to Paris, and then informed by the flight attendant with the most carefully groomed beard I’ve ever seen (a man, yes, in case you were wondering) that we would be served bottomless Champagne as an aperitif, followed by wine (a decent one from Languedoc), followed by a nice digestif of cognac.
Oh, and the Camembert. Did I mention the open bar on Camembert? The crusty baguettes? The little baton of very good dark chocolate in a little plastic wrapper, hidden amongst the cutlery?
Almost made the 15 hours of already jet lagged stupor manageable.
We arrived in Casablanca well past our bedtime, which was, for me, three days earlier. By the time we arrived at our hotel, our taxi driver had already stopped several times, leaning across the front passenger seat, to shout and gesticulate at other drivers who had cut him off.
It reminded me of being back in Turkey.
We stayed at the Hotel Maamoura on Ibnou Batouta street, which totally made me think of the Ibn Batouta shopping mall in Dubai. The hotel looked nothing like the mall, by the way. About 6 years ago I bought my first MacBook there, in the Persian section of the mall. I quite liked the vaulted blue-tiled ceilings and lush fountains.
Our hotel had no vaulted tiled ceilings, but it did have one of those arched doorways between the bed and the sofa area, and the shower did offer up a reasonable trickle. I was pleased. Given that I hadn’t slept in 4 days, even the train station floor in Sevilla would have sufficed (I can vouch for this, having camped out there in August of 1997 when young, poor and irrationally disregarding of my own safety). The bed, I might add, was fabulous. Wide and firm, but not like those giant bricks we have to sleep on in China.
Breakfast was included, and I must say it was so nice to be back in the land of bread, pain au chocolat, croissants, cheese, olives and coffee. For the past several years we have been spending all our holidays in Asia and I swear, if I have one more white bread and runny fried egg breakfast with 3 in 1 Nescafe, I’m going to cry. Burma nearly left me with a lifelong aversion to eggs and toast. For 28 days straight we ate runny eggs on wonderbread.
Our breakfast companions for the two days we stayed there were primarily the following: African businessmen sitting alone, already in suit and tie, perfect posture; Arab women in bright, flowy Moroccan robes with heads covered, leaning across the table, deep in conversation; French backpackers taking their croissants for granted.
Given our exhaustion and my two-fold jet lag (If I flew Vancouver to Shanghai and had 15 hours of jet lag for one night, then flew back in time to Morocco which was only about 8 hours of jet lag from Vancouver, how many hours is my internal clock fucked up by? Seriously.) we were a bit indulgent in our food choices, heading to the magnificently touristy Rick’s Cafe (of Humphrey Bogart fame) for a little white-tablecloth-and-potted-palms elegant calm. The piano was there, and the old wooden bar. It was all quite pretty.
The menu was, of course, photocopied and ours to take home as a souvenir. I didn’t. I had the goat cheese, fig, and arugula salad. Doug had the Obama chili con carne (served over couscous), which he ordered because it sounded too surreal to pass up. They had beer on the menu. I note this now because, a week later, we haven’t seen alcohol on any menus since we left Casablanca.
On the plus side, this means we also have yet to come across any asshole drunken backpacker dudes wearing beer logo singlets.
For dinner, still painfully jet lagged, we went to a lovely place not far from where we were staying, which had had very good reviews. After the Obamacentric lunch of chili and arugula-laden salad, we were determined to have at least a proper tagine of some sort. We showed up at 7:30pm to the leafy, walled restaurant to find a closed gate and a starched-shirted staff member telling us they didn’t open until 8.
Practically Spanish in its skewed circadian rhythms.
We returned at 8:01 and the same fellow greeted us, asked us if we had a reservation, then blandly informed us that the restaurant was full, sorry, bye bye.
A moment later, his face exploded into guffaws and the Moroccan version of exclaiming ‘You’ve been Punk’d! HAHA!’
He’d remembered us from the closed gate at 7:30.
Then he gave me a menu and calmly informed Doug that he wasn’t allowed to eat.
Luckily, they had wine.
We had one full day in Casablanca, which was, I’ll admit, pretty much exactly enough. We walked the walking tour in the Lonely Planet, which got us terribly lost as street signs are rare and roads head off at all sorts of angles, making North and South essentially unknowable without a compass.
We didn’t have a compass.
Luckily, for the first time in YEARS, I was actually in a country where I spoke the language at a comfortably fluent level so I could stop, ask for directions, and actually understand the detailed response. Sure, people gave us all sorts of conflicting, contradictory directions, but still, I UNDERSTOOD. And I could ask follow up questions!
It was very gratifying to feel less stupid than usual.
In the area around our hotel, there were some nifty old art deco buildings. Nothing extraordinary but still a pleasant enough walk. Traffic much easier to manoever around than, say, in Cairo but less so than in Istanbul. Unlike Shanghai, cars do seem to stop at most lights. Also unlike Shanghai, the sidewalks seem to be reserved for pedestrians. How nice.
We also went to the Hasan II mosque, which is either the 3rd or 7th largest mosque in the world, depending on who you ask. It’s quite large though it was so misty that much of it was invisible. The entire seaside backdrop was also rendered invisible, and they could have hidden an alien spaceship in the area behind the mosque and no one would have been the wiser. The minaret could have been thirty storeys high and no one from Guinness could have been able to verify its record breaking height. In spite of its insubstantial, intangible, ephemeral nature, what was visible was quite lovely.
We walked a lot and took taxis. In theory, taxi drivers must use the meter. If you ask politely, they may or may not remember that this is the case. In reality, some did and some didn’t. When they do, it’s quite cheap (like, 6-10 dirhams), and when they don’t, it’s still cheap but about twice as much (like, 20 dirhams haggled down to 15).
Not every driver knows where he’s going.
The one we flagged down after lunch to go back to our hotel got so lost that we were dropped off nowhere near where we should have been and we ended up walking several more hours (asking many, many people who, in the spirit of Walt Whitman, contradicted themselves because they were, I presume, multitudes) in several vey wrong directions trying to find our way back. We weren’t even on the map any more.
We now know certain bits of Casablanca very well. I have safely scratched it off my list of places I’d like to live, even though it was well worth a brief, intense visit. After 6 years in crazy big cities in Turkey and 3.5 years in Shanghai, I’m ready for either a super modern mega city with moving sidewalks, hover cars, telepathic taxis and teleportation pods on every corner, or a small, very walkable and thoroughly adorable village. Like Cicely, Alaska (think, Northern Exposure circa 1992) mixed with Yangon with a hint of Barcelona and Goreme, Turkey. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
We left Casablanca by train (90 dirhams to Meknes, 2nd class, last minute purchase). For 25 minutes in the blazing sun, with the quite modern (but a bit worn around the edges) double decker train idling on the tracks with all doors shut, the hordes of overheated passengers on the unsheltered platform pounded on the sliding doors, shouting to be let in. We left 30 minutes late, thoroughly baked. Insert Cheech and Chong reference here.
Coming soon! Impractical Guides to… Wherever I feel motivated to write about next. Maybe Fes. We’re in Fes now. It’s HOT. Damnit.