Friday, December 18, 2009

Casablanca, Morocco

Well, we're back on the ship after another exciting port! Morocco was cool. I shall explain why.

We arrived in Casablanca early. I had signed up for a trip called "Marrakech and Camel Trek in the Sahara". It was advertised thus:

Located on an oasis at the base of the High Atlas
Mountains, Marrakech is the gateway city to the Sahara.
Legend and fact both contribute to the explanation of
Marrakech’s unique character. The town’s origins are
attributed to the development of an oasis, which grew out
of the refuse of caravans from the south, whose food
supplies contained dates. The palm groves that sprang up
provided an ideal place for the Saharan nomad
Almoravids to settle. Since this time, Marrakech has
seen many dynasties and fortunes rise and fall, resulting
in a remarkably beautiful city which has not only become
the capital of southern Morocco but an integral city to the
Islamic world. The cultural, natural and historical
attractions of this traditional Berber capital, seat to nearly
all of Morocco’s dynasties over the last thousand years,
make Marrakech the top tourism destination in North

Ouarzazate lies on the confluence of three important oasis valley systems: the Ouarzazate, Dadès and Drâa. As one
travels southeast from Ouarzazate to Zagora, the contrast of bare sun-baked rock with the lush green of the palm
groves forms some beautiful scenery. A labyrinth of irrigation channels feeds the fertile, palm-shaded terraces of
farmland in the Drâa valley. Dates are the primary commercial crop, and the best eating dates are found in Zagora.
The Drâa Valley has always been strongly influenced and interlinked with the destiny of the surrounding nomadic
tribes. It has served as a stepping-stone for Saharan explorations since the 10thcentury. Your experience in the
Sahara will include an overnight in a nomad camp and a camel trek into the desert.

Day 1: Depart by minibus to Marrakech (3-4 hours). Upon arrival, you will have free time to explore the city. This
evening enjoy a Moroccan dinner with folklore show and horse fantasia at Chez Ali. (L, D, Hotel in Marrakech)
Day 2: Travel to Zagora (7-8 hours, not including stops) in the magnificent Drâa Valley. A lunch stop will be made
in Ouarzazate where you will have a tremendous view of the Saharan world including its dunes, oases and small
mud villages. Later enjoy dinner in a nomad tent before settling into camp for the night. (B, L, D, Camp)
Day 3: This morning you will venture into the Sahara Desert on an early morning mehari (camel trek) with nomads.
Enjoy a last mint tea in the desert before returning to Marrakech. The late afternoon and evening are free to explore
the famous Jemaa el Fna Square and other sites. Dinner is on your own. (B, L; Hotel in Marrakech)
Day 4: Enjoy Marrakech on your own until you depart for your return by minibus to Casablanca.

It turns out that over 170 other students also thought that this sounded fun, so we had the largest trip group so far. We all met up early, got off the ship and onto the buses, and departed for Marrakech. I barely got to see Casablanca at all on the first day (and most of that was ugly cityscape), but we did stop briefly at the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world (after those in Mecca and Medina). It's big, and it's pretty, and it has a retractable sunroof (no joke) and a giant, powerful green laser that points towards Mecca at night.

After about two hours of passing ugly scenery, we hit Marrakech, which was gorgeous. Marrakech is the Red City; every building has a red clay look, with the occasional orange and pink. We went directly to the Jemaa el Fna square, a famous square and market in the old city. We were immediately beset by salesmen (target the tourists!). Some students had monkeys thrown on their back for a picture (gratuity highly suggested), and snake charmers were in easy sight.

The whole group went to a restaurant at the square. It's Ramadan, so we were the only ones there. I sat on a bench with pillows. Oddly, drinks (even water) cost extra, and we had to use our dirham (7.8 dirham to the dollar) to get any. We were served some good flatbread, an assortment of cold fruit & vegetable dishes, then a delectable chicken dish. Dessert was some very sweet mint tea (the only tea I've ever enjoyed). One of the guys at my table had a lot of trouble communicating that he wanted mint tea to the waiter, and then he proceeded to talk trash, say he was going to start a fight, and talk about how drunk he was going to get in the desert. Fun stuff!

After lunch we hit the souks. There were lots of bags, pots, beads, breads, massive piles of spices, orange juice stands, instrument shops, and pretty much everything else (including hashish, as some students were apparently offered). There were plenty of mopeds navigating the narrow streets of the market area, as well as the occasional donkey cart. One merchant made fun of me for wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day.

Speaking of those clouds... Nobody really expected it to rain. We thought we were heading into the desert. But sure enough, we felt a few drops of water, and then we had about ten seconds before a massive downpour started. My group ran onto the covered porch of a cafe, where we chatted with some smugly dry French and Australian tourists. We also got to watch the monkeys run for cover. We pretty much just tried to stay out of the rain until the buses got back.

We were taken to our hotel for the night and had a few hours to wander. We saw some closed shops (Ramadan again), a McDonalds (now serving the McArabia, a burger on flatbread), and lots of stray cats. Back at the hotel, some people tried to use the free internet but had a lot of trouble with the French keyboards. French is definitively the second language here, we discovered.

The night's planned entertainment was Chez Ali, the largest tourist trap in the largest tourist destination in northern Africa. It's like Epcot Morocco. We entered through a fake plastic Arabian treasure cave, passed by several groups of singers and dancers (all of whom looked depressed), and got to our tables in one of the many tents. The food was meh. Periodically some performers would come by all the tables in our tent and interrupt the conversation. Some of them were really cool; there was one guy playing the violin extremely well. Others were just depressing; they looked like they wanted to be anywhere else. It felt like cultural exploitation. And still others were just baffling, like the guy who walked around with some other singers with a giant old-style phone against his ear, occasionally putting it away and pretending to take pictures of us with a tiny disposable camera. I think maybe he was making fun of tourists? I don't know.

The second part of the Chez Ali experience was a big show in a central arena. First, a guy came out, lit some balls connected to strings on fire, and spun them around like he was at a rave party. Then, they brought out a belly dancer. Then, some guys doing acrobatic tricks on horses (and one donkey). After that, a bunch of guys on horses charged down the arena, spun their rifles (really just sticks with gunpowder), and fired at once, several times in a row. To end it, they had a guy on a fake flying carpet emerge from a high window, and they lit up the Arabic word for "goodbye" in fire. Overall: sometimes cool, mostly just really tacky. They took pictures of the people there and sold them on the way out, like a roller coaster.

Back at the hotel, I found a comfy bed and a weird shower that sprayed water in a 180 degree arc in front of it for no particular reason. I made sure not to drink any of the water. The next morning brought a measly continental breakfast and a long, long bus ride.

I was not looking forward to the trip out to the desert, but it turned out to be one of the best parts of the excursion. We traveled through the High Atlas mountains, taking narrow roads that wound up the slopes. The Atlas mountains were mostly barren, but beautiful all the same. We passed village after village of rural Berber farmers, each of which had a little cluster of simple adobe-like buildings, a few little plots of crops, and a few Coca-Cola signs. Some of the later ones out by the edge of the mountains were centered around oases and were surrounded by fig, apricot, olive, and date palms.

We stopped a few times to stretch our legs, take pictures, and visit the occasional roadside merchandise stand. We had lunch at a surprisingly spiffy restaurant. By now we were catching on that pretty much every "traditional Moroccan meal" was following the same pattern: flatbread, cold fruit, hot vegetables, and an assortment of meat, in that order. Rumor had it that one of the meats they served was pigeon, but it sure looked like chicken to me. Dessert was fruit in a camel milk yogurt.

As we reached the end of our drive, the landscape remained pretty but got progressively flatter, drier, and less colorful. Yes, the desert! A lot of people were pretty bummed because they were expecting to be in sand dunes with no plant or animal life for miles in any direction, but evidently, not even nomads live out there. This area was about half sand and half dried, cracked earth, with grasses and palms scattered about. It was still desert, though, I figured.

We were met by a big group of camels waiting for us on the ground. We had to split the camels since we were such a big group; half of us had to walk at any given time. I chose a friendly camel and named it Kevin, inspired by the movie Up. Other names given by our group included White Lightning and Toe. It turns out that it's really easy to ride camels nowadays; between the rugs that are piled on back and the hump, there's a pretty natural saddle, and there's a harness with a handlebar attached to the animal's torso. The camels were tied to each other and led out by the nomads towards camp. There was a lot of picture-taking on the trek; we joked that we were really only there for the Facebook pictures.

Our camel trek only took a bit more than an hour at a walking pace, and the buses took all our luggage to the camp ahead of us. The "nomad" camp had hot showers, running water, and a bar. I got the impression that these guys make their living by being "nomads" and taking tourist groups out on camel rides.

We had some time to kill at camp, so some friends and I wandered around the nearby desert for a little while. We found a bunch of bone fragments that someone determined were human; our trip's professor later agreed. Apparently it was a much less hospitable place without modern plumbing. We talked to the professor for a while as well. She's the Parasitology prof, and she made me deathly afraid of eating rare meat or swimming in fresh water at any of our ports.

At dinner (same formula as usual, but tastier) I sat with my little group of friends and a visiting Psychology professor. We talked US politics; I was sad to have missed Obama's big health care speech. At one point we were invited to have some fresh flatbread right off the fire; it was delicious. Afterward, the nomads brought out drums and did some singing and dancing, though the students' dancing was a lot more energetic.

After sundown, the parasite prof brought out a blacklight for some scorpion hunting. Apparently, scorpions fluoresce under UV light. Who'da thunk it? Sure enough, after some running around, we found a glowing-in-the-dark scorpion. After following it around for a while it decided to collapse on the ground and play dead for a minute before eventually running off. We also found a spider about as big as my palm.

The tents fit about six smallish mattresses, with sheets and a flat pillow for each. It was actually quite comfortable. We woke up early the next morning to a brilliant sunrise, a simple breakfast, and another camel trek back to where we got dropped off the day before. The camel behind mine on this trip was awfully friendly; I got some slobber on me.

The bus ride home was as beautiful as the first. Our tour guide (an Arab, the ethnic majority in Morocco) shared some racist jokes at the expense of the Berbers (the ethnic minority). They didn't always translate that well; I've done my best to format them in English:
- Why did the Berber put a mirror in his safe? So that when he took out money, he knew it was him.
- A Berber man has some money and wants to put it in a bank, so he goes into the city, goes to a bank, opens an account, and deposits it all. Then, he waits outside the bank for hours. Eventually the manager closes the bank, walks out, and locks the door. Then, the Berber puts his own lock on the door.
- A Berber man walks from his village to the city. He crosses a street, but not at a crosswalk, so a nearby policeman tells him to go back. The Berber goes all the way back to his village.

The other bus also got a sort of riddle that was relayed to me:
Q: Three ants are walking in a straight line. The first ant says "I am in front of two ants." The second ant says "There is one ant in front of me." The third ant says "There are two ants behind me." How is this possible?
A: The third ant is lying.

When we got back to the hotel, everyone in my group was looking for comfort food. I'm ashamed to admit it, but we went to the McDonald's near the hotel. It was still a cultural experience, though. In my group, we had a shrimp burger, a McArabia, steak fries, pesto-mozzarella nuggets, and a Kit-Kat McFlurry.

The evening was free, so we walked about half an hour to the big square again. We passed a huge crowd of Muslims praying outside the nearby mosque on the way in. At night, the square was a lot more crowded. There were a bunch of entertainers in the middle of it all, and most of the rest of the square was filled with small restaurant stalls. We were confronted by a guy who walked up and started reciting an old Obama speech. Then, after we caught on, he started high-fiving us and quoting Borat. We all got glasses of orange juice for three dirham (<50 cents); they were delicious but way too pulpy for me.

We entered the souks again and found out that the merchants here are very, very pushy and very, very difficult negotiators, way less flexible than what I saw in Egypt. Some of my friends paid way more than they needed to, but I suppose it's cool if everybody's happy with the price. I bought a cane to replace the one I lost on the way home from Egypt. We later found our way into a little musical instrument shop with all sorts of nifty devices. The shopkeeper pulled down a three-stringed bass plucking instrument that was apparently traditional in the Atlas mountains; he noodled around for a while before transitioning into "Stand By Me". Two of my friends paid good money for some drums. I expressed interest in one of the smaller drums they were selling, but I didn't have much money left. I emptied my pockets for the guy and ended up getting the drum for a dollar, a euro, and about 40 dirhams; it was a real deal.

The next morning we went to the square one last time. This time I prepared myself by filling my visible pockets with the amount of money I wanted to pay. I chose the trinkets I wanted, emptied my pockets in front of the guy, and got the price I was looking for. We got back to the hotel soon after and caught the bus back to Casablanca.

I met up with my roommate that evening on the ship and he convinced me to go with him and another friend to a hookah bar. My friends from the Marrakech trip raved about hookah as well, and one of the ship administrators told us that hookah was one of the few things that we definitely needed to try out, so I ultimately decided that I had to see what all the fuss was about. We left the ship and pretty soon wandered into a Casablanca local who said he had been visiting a friend he had on the crew of our ship. He happily directed us to a local hookah bar.

We were the only non-locals in the place. When we arrived there were only two other tables taken, but when we left it was packed; there was practically a line to get in. We got one hookah to share amongst the three of us (I think the tobacco was licorice flavored) and some mint tea. They also served some bottled water, but the bottles were unsealed, so we decided to stay away. We stayed there for a few hours talking, watching the people around us, and trying to learn how to blow smoke rings (with some limited success). It felt very authentic. Honestly, it was probably the best experience I've had on Semester at Sea so far. The whole experience cost 40 dirhams split among the three of us; about five dollars.

The next day was our last in Morocco, and my last chance to see Casablanca. I woke up to see a small group called Global Nomads setting up a satellite broadcast on the ship. The group is traveling with the ship and broadcasting to classrooms from the different ports. This time they had a female hip-hop artist from Casablanca to interview in front of high school classrooms in Virginia and New Jersey. I sat with a friend to the side and watched. At one point one of the US kids asked if he could ask some questions to the college students, i.e. us. So we ended up on the broadcast, talking about Semester at Sea, which was pretty neat.

Afterwards my roommate and I hit the town for a few hours. We found a craft shop that was selling everything that we saw in the Marrakech souks, but for lower, fixed prices. Sigh. We got some stuff together and got a discount from the supposedly fixed prices. On the walk back to the ship we stopped at one of the several painting shops and I fell in love with one of the paintings. The merchant asked for $70, then dropped it to $60. After much theatrical hemming and hawing, I said that I just *couldn't* pay so much and left. He called my bluff and let me go. So, I came crawling back and paid the full $60. That's way more than anybody else on the ship paid for a painting, but I don't regret it. I think that this shop may have been a bit nicer than the others; the paintings were more intricate and all from the same artist. But that's probably just an excuse.

In any case, we got on the ship with merchandise and painting in hand and set sail for Ghana that evening. I'm back in the Atlantic ocean and trying to regain my sea legs. More updates post-Ghana!

No comments:

Post a Comment