Taking a Look

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Casablahblah (and Other Moroccan Tales)

Let’s imagine that there are three kinds of people in the world.

1)      Those unwilling to step outside their comfort zone
2)      Those willing to step outside their comfort zone
3)      Those willing to jump outside their comfort zone

If you are going to travel to Morocco someday, you must fit into the third and final category. One and two will not cut it. Morocco is, and will be for any foreseeable future, an incredibly conservative, Muslim country. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if you wish to experience the rich culture and somewhat arcane lifestyle of the Moroccan people, then you must be willing to go against all instinct, to make yourself vulnerable, and to open your mind. But I promise you, I promise you, if you do, the rewards are infinite.

Casablanca is, much like Civitavecchia in Italy, a gateway city. Aside from the Hassan II mosque, built quite recently, and an exact replica of Rick’s Café from the classic movie, there is not much else to see or do in Casablanca. It was the first city we visited that did not have a commercial port; instead we had to dock in the industrial port, which was two miles from the city itself. Now, waking up the first day in a new port is always an interesting experience. You never know what the view outside your window will be. It could be lush, rolling hills in Dubrovnik, a black stoned castle in Naples, or even the Hagia Sophia across the bay in Istanbul. In Casablanca, I pulled up the shade on my porthole in the morning to find dust, half-completed construction projects, giant steel boxes, and a crane that was probably more rust than metal. And I couldn’t see a single building from the city itself.

Initial reaction? “Screw this.” I had just sat through a two hour pre-port the night before in which they had warned us we were about to disembark in the most dangerous port on our itinerary and that the threat of being assaulted, robbed, scammed, and apparently blown to bits by anti-American Muslim radicals was incredibly high. And then, peace! See ya! Have fun, hope you come back with all your limbs intact.  Awesome. So with all of those lovely death facts in mind, and the view of the African Compton outside my window, I was about ready to curl back up in bed and sleep Casablanca away. But I didn’t do that. I didn’t give in to my first instinct. This was the final stop. I had to make the most of it. I had to trek those two miles into the city. Luckily, I discovered that a free shuttle ran from out ship to the gates of the port so, ready to undertake our final stop by the horns, I hopped on with my friends, took the ten minute ride, still somewhat cautious about the abandoned port buildings we kept passing, and got dropped off in the dust. No, literally, the dust. Stepped off the bus into a nice old patch of dusty dust. Alright.

Past the port security guards lies the main street of Casablanca. According to a map we were smack dab in the middle of the street and could choose to go left, right, or straight. Both Rick’s Café and the Hassan II mosque were off to the right, a block or two apart from one another. In order to make sure we had something to do on our last day in port, however, we agreed to save both for later in the week. Thus, the first day in Casablanca involved a whole lot of nothing, aside from free Wi-Fi in a nearby hotel lobby. Sitting in an air-conditioned hotel bar, drinking Fanta (no alcohol during the day, because it’s Ramadan), and Facebook chatting with friends from home was both relaxing and unnerving. As seasoned travelers by this point in the summer, it was completely against our nature to twiddle our thumbs and just sit when a whole new city was right at our feet. It was entirely against out instincts. But when we spoke to some of our fellow voyagers later, we were assured that we made the right decision. No one did anything that first day. Because there was nothing to do.

But that’s ok! Because the next morning I was on a bus with some friends on an SAS sponsored trip to Marrakech, a large city four and a half hours away from Casablanca. Marrakech is one of three cities in Morocco you definitely want to spend your time in, the other two being Fez and Rabat, the capital. Arriving in Marrakech, we checked in to our hotel and were quickly whisked outside the city to a quaint Moroccan village where we ate a traditional lunch of eggs and meatballs, couscous, vegetables, cinnamon oranges, and mint tea. The whole ordeal proved to be rather humorous considering Moroccans generally do not eat with silverware.

After lunch came the crux of the trip, and perhaps the event I was most looking forward to this entire summer: the camel trek. For an hour and a half, through the palm groves and desert that lay outside Marrakech, we rode single file on the quirkiest animals I have ever seen. I chose my special friend, whom I dubbed Albert, as soon as I saw him. He was quiet, decently groomed, and practically unhinging his jaw as he chewed on God-knows-what. Which is a hilarious sight, by the way. Albert and I had quite the bonding experience as he carried me through the fields and slopes of Marrakech, and despite the 112 degree sun that bore down on us, Albert pushed forward and for that, I salute him.

During my jaunt through the desert with Albert, I picked up on a few camel riding tips that I believe now make me an expert on camel riding. If anyone out there wants to disprove me, then you can go to Marrakech and ride a camel yourself and we’ll compare notes. Until then, listen up. The first thing I learned about riding camels is that these odd little creatures do not get up with their front legs first, like most other animals. Instead, they hoist their hind legs up first, then the front legs, which means that when you are sitting on your friendly neighborhood camel and have only a flimsy metal bar to hold onto, it can get a little tense and panicky when you are lurched forward and feel yourself slipping off mid-rise. Most people tend to react by flailing their arms or kicking their legs repeatedly to keep balance, and I can tell you that this method of reassurance ends up being not-so-reassuring as all the people who employed this method fell off and had to climb back on, this time red in the face and covered in dirt. What you have to do, though it feels about as strange as turning around on a roller coaster, is stay completely still. The camel knows what it’s doing, and as long you don’t move, you won’t fall.

Successful camel riding tidbit number two essentially reverses this principle for when you are actually riding the camel. All you really have to sit on is a giant carpet with a metal hook attached to hold on to, so balance becomes a key component to confidently maneuvering your camel ride. It’s tempting to remain as stiff as possible once the camel actually starts moving, because you feel as though any slight movement that will disrupt your initial balance will send you toppling, and all of a sudden this intense image of your head getting trampled by giant ass camel feet is stuck in your head. But if you keep that tense frame, then be prepared to let your brain get squished. Letting your arms and limbs fall as loose as they can, and relaxing back into the hump of the camel, actually makes the ride much more comfortable and enjoyable. Thinking about your balance is no longer a conscious effort, it just flows. Which gives you more time to take silly pictures of your friends doing ridiculous poses, or of the girl in front of you, whose pants are getting nibbled on by her camel.

That first night in Marrakech, after the excitement of the day’s Arabian adventure had worn off slightly, my friends and I decided to  journey into the city to catch an ethnic show that our tour guide for this three day trip promised would include belly dancing, snake charming, horse riding, and a free drink. For the price we were offered, all of this seemed like an incredible deal, if we could actually find the place where the show occurred. Evidently, it was on the other side of Marrakech from out hotel, and walking at night, being the Americans that we are, is not a great idea unless your destination is only five to ten minutes away. Kindly enough, the hotel manager arranged for a van to come pick us up outside the hotel. The evening proceeded as follows:

9:15 pm: Dinner ends in the hotel dining room. Six of us agree that attending the aforementioned show would be entertaining, worthwhile, and would beat sitting around the hotel playing cards all evening. Inquires made as to the location of this show.

9:30 pm: Location revealed, through desk clerk, as “Too far. You walk, you die.” Plan to attend show called into question.  Agreement made that staying shank-free is top priority this port (and life in general). Hotel manager overhears the dilemma, insists that he will call a van service for us, free of charge. The likelihood of any shank related events occurring decreases.

9:35 pm: Bathroom breaks followed by six successive withdrawals from the lobby’s ATM machine. Moroccan dirham given to hotel manager to pay for our tickets. Moroccan dirham deposited into hotel manager’s pockets. Questionable looks ensue.

9:47 pm: Couches become a more appealing waiting venue.

9:58 pm: Solitaire begins on various smart phone devices

10:12 pm: Hotel manager spotted whispering to man in jumpsuit while gesticulating in our direction. Group arches eyebrows and exchanges suspicious glances.

10:22 pm: Agreement made to forgo plan for the evening in eight minutes due to lack of transportation.

10:30 pm: Aforementioned van arrives at the hotel gates. All six of us pile into the plain white vehicle and take note of lack of seatbelts and one window. Driver shuts the slider between front and passenger sections of van. A single light is turned on above our heads. Likelihood of shank related events increases slightly.

10:39 pm: Van passes a sign in Arabic that group concurs says “You are now leaving Marrakech.” Drive down a dirt road without lights, buildings, or signs commences. Likelihood of shank related events increases dramatically.

10:55 pm: Van rounds a corner and passes under a gate that materializes from nowhere. The sign reads “Ali Baba’s Fantasia Tourista.” Despite sign, there is noticeable lack of any building, structure, or breathing individual. Likelihood of shank related events enters weird limbo stasis.

11:00 pm: Van deposits cargo at sudden entrance to Fantasia. Likelihood of shank related events decreases extensively. Group proceeds inside and is seated underneath gigantic canopy.

11:05 pm: Moroccan beer ordered.

11:10 pm: Moroccan beer consumed.

11:25 pm: Relocation to stadium seating surrounding a strange dirt field. Costumed performers stand at one end of field.

11:30 pm: Show commences, involving one belly dancer performing one move to one song one time, several men firing several guns on several horses several times, a narrative spoken in Arabic the entire time, a boy on a donkey, acrobatic tricks performed by acrobats on acrobatic horses (?), a parade of aforementioned costumed performers, and a magic carpet. Group concurs on mass confusion, as well as mass entertainment.

12:30 am: Aforementioned show ends. Group reloads into plain white seatbeltless van.

1:00 am: Group returns to hotel on other side of Marrakech. General consensus that ignoring instincts in bizarre situation proved beneficial. Goodnights administered.

And thus, another typical SAS night came to an end, and gave way to another typical SAS day: an all day tour of Marrakech featuring botanical gardens, dead people’s tombs, a giant palace, and the Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth.

The Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth can be found in the center square, or medina, of Marrakech. An elaborate series of alleyways also filled with shops and boutiques surround the square so that you are enclosed on all sides by vendors. The marketplace is nowhere near as striking or impressive as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, but it does the job well enough. And in an entirely different manner. In Turkey, the salesmen are pushy and quick-witted, but if you kindly reply “No thank you” to their advances, they respectfully bow their heads to you and allow you on your way. In Morocco, all bets are off. When you step into the medina, you are like raw meat in a shark tank. Which is why you’ve got to go in with a cage to protect yourself. You must know what you are up against.

 What you are up against is the following:

A man with a monkey on his shoulder runs towards you. “Please, please, my friend, here, here…” you protest slightly, you think holding the monkey would be awesome, but you know they will rip you off. “Please, please, my friend.” Suddenly, the monkey is on your shoulder. Suddenly, two monkeys are on your shoulder. Another man has evidently jumped down from a flying carpet and is now arguing with the first man about which monkey you should be holding. A third man taps you on the back and you delicately turn, keeping on monkey cradled in your arm and the other balanced on your shoulder. The third man holds a tray with an assortment of trinkets and knick knacks. “My friend, my friend, where you from? Where you from?” You feign confusion. “Please, please, where you from? States? Ewnited States? Obama? Spice Girls? I know your cousin. I live with him six years.” Somewhere in the chaos, you manage to get your picture taken. But wait, all of your female friends suddenly have Henna tattooed up and down their arms and legs and short, hunchbacked women are holding out their hands for money. The two men with the monkeys are suddenly demanding payment, a ridiculous amount of dirham. You offer to pay half of that, a generous offer in and of itself, and they proceed to act incredibly insulted, curse America, and threaten to call the police.

And all this happens at the entrance.

I know that doesn’t sound like the most pleasant experience, and at first it isn’t. That’s because one’s first instinct is of intense irritation. Some people give in and end up screaming at the locals who forced Henna on their arms or put a cobra around their neck (somewhat justified). Some people meekly pay the ridiculous prices in order to avoid further confrontation. But neither of those roads has to be taken to survive the Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth. All you need to do is suppress your initial reaction of annoyance and fear, and fight back. Don’t worry, it’s entirely customary. Once they threaten to send you to jail (which is merely a bluff) respond with something clever. For me, I chose “Then I guess I’m taking your monkeys with me.” Watch closely, because you will catch your adversaries smile. You have entered the game now. Lots of witty banter ensues in the Most Irritating Marketplace, and with it reduced prices. As long as you negotiate and fight back long enough, the vendors will give in and charge you the appropriate price, often times giving you a pat on the back as they leave or blowing you a kiss as a sign of appreciation for giving in to their custom of “aggressive negotiation.”

This tradition is not easy to do by any means, because every few feet a similar situation happens again, and you must repeat the entire process over again, which in turn makes the medina the Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth. But a hell of a lot of fun too.

My time in Morocco was book ended in Casablanca, where I returned for our final night in port. For our last hoorah, we suited up (somewhat literally) and reserved a dinner at Rick’s Café, which was so strikingly similar to the set from the 1942 film I wouldn’t have been surprised if Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman sat down next to us. The following day, Friday, we went to visit the Hassan II mosque, which sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean, aware that since it was the Islamic holy day we would most likely be denied entrance. We were, but rather than leave as our first instinct told us, we stuck around and I eventually had the good luck to be taken down into the baths beneath the mosque by one of the mosque’s imams, who showed me how to properly wash my face and hands as if I were a Muslim preparing for prayer. This intimate experience is one I am eternally grateful for. After walking around the baths for awhile, the doors of the mosque were opened in preparation for the noonday prayer and we were allowed to stay and watch, just outside the doors, as a small Muslim family proceeded to pray. A part of me felt that it was wrong to watch them perform such a deeply personal act, but I could not turn my head away from how perfectly in sync and lithe their bodies were as they kneeled, stood, and raised their hands in silent reverence.

Leaving Morocco was a bittersweet experience. Boarding the MV Explorer for the last time and bidding farewell to the final stop on our itinerary took a lot of effort. My in-port experiences were over, and who can predict when I will return to any of the countries I was fortunate enough to visit, if ever? On the other hand, Morocco had drained me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was looking forward to eight days at sea, for the ocean is nature’s great healer. Standing out on deck, watching the Moroccan shoreline dip into the horizon, a content smile found its way across my face. How glad I was to have left my comfort zone, and how eager I was to do it again.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”—Mark Twain

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