Casablanca, Morocco

Casablanca/Rabat, Morocco
September 22nd, 23rd, 24th 2010

I once watched the movie ‘Casablanca’ and still recall a shot from the movie, a picture of a river beside an old looking town. I did not see that in Casablanca. It’s all modern now.

My days were spent getting lost once in the medina alleyways (and not returning again), finding a good fresh-fried begne joint, sitting in the park during the late evenings to people watch, walking to find the Hassan II mosque (it was a long walk! Didn’t help that I went in the wrong direction for a while), taking the 1-hour train to Rabat and finding a great couscous joint there. Not much to see sights-wise in Casablanca and Rabat, just passing time until my flight to Cape Town.

I wrote this entry real short because at this moment, I still haven’t posted any of my other Morocco entries and they all have better stories than this.

Go on…you know you want to see food pics!

Casa-Rabat Pics

Marrakesh, Morocco

Marrakesh, Morocco
September 20th, 21st 2010

Why do I do this to myself?

It was extremely cramped. There was no air circulation. The A/C, when working, blew out lukewarm to warm air. It smelled very funky. There were hardly any toilet breaks. (Toward the end, I was holding my pee in so long it hurt so to take my mind off the discomfort, I watched Hard Knocks on my mp3 player). And the driving was terrible. I almost threw up a few times and it took me all my willpower not to (I had a bag ready in front of me JIC). I don’t know if we were traveling at slightly higher altitude or it was just the very windy roads but it was nauseating.

I could’ve picked a shorter leg of my journey to ‘brave the waters of serious local transportation’ (see Fes entry), maybe from Marrakesh to Casablanca (4 hours)? Why did I pick the absolute longest leg of my journey to do it? I seriously think I am a masochist. But I told myself to man up. If the locals could do it, so could I. Next time, don’t drink anything before getting on the bus. Next time, pack snacks. Next time, don’t pick a seat in the farthest corner of the bus, where you are closed off from all angles.

After enduring everything, while enjoying the beautiful landscapes, we arrive at a rest stop where we had 45 minutes to relieve ourselves and get something to eat. The lamb tagine was spectacular. Fresh air, stretched legs, good food, and empty bladder. I felt like a new man! Come on, bring on another 9 hours in that bus! Ok, just kidding. I tried to converse with some locals I sat to next to the bus, but they just smiled at me because they had no idea what I was trying to say or sign to them.

Another 2 hours or so, and I arrived in Marrakesh. Good thing my neighbors woke me up (they knew I was going to Marrakesh) because this wasn’t the final stop and I could’ve ended up God knows where. It was 12:00 am. It was dark and I didn’t know where the heck I was. The map in my Lonely Planet guidebook had no street names. Not that I could find street names due to lack of, as well as darkness, even with streetlamps.

I walked slowly toward what I was told is the direction of the medina. Or was it Djemaa El F’na? Either way, that’s where I needed to go. A teenager saw me, walked up to me, and asked where I’d like to go. At this point, I could’ve said, ‘No thanks, I’m taking a petit taxi to where I need to go’ but no, I said ‘Riad 02 Hotel’. He offered to take me there and I accepted. I knew he was a faux guide and I knew I had to tip him at the end. It was 12:20 am, we were in an area where there weren’t that many people, the streets were almost empty, and it was dark. What could possibly go wrong?

We started walking and chatting a little bit, mostly because I felt slightly nervous. His English was pretty good. His name was Kareem (are they all named Mohammed or Kareem?). He was 15. He liked Real Madrid and I told him I went to watch a game at Barnabeu. His favorite player was Cristiano Ronaldo and his hairstyle was similar.

Kareem then took me off the main road (if you could call it that) and we began to make our way into the small, dark alleyways. I grew more and more nervous, walked slightly behind Kareem and constantly looked over my shoulder, especially when I saw a few random guys around, and a few followed us. They eventually turned off into another alleyway and we were alone again. Kareem kept assuring me ‘No problem, no problem’ when I stopped walking because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to follow him anymore. Scooters sometimes rode past us. We came to a tunnel that was so damned dark that I was convinced that was the place I was going to get mugged by a group of guys. I stopped and turned around and looked at a guy who was following us. He looked at me and knew what I was thinking so he assured me ‘No problem, no problem’ and ushered me on, trying to tell me he wasn’t a bad guy. I took yet another leap of faith and continued following Kareem until we eventually reached a small door which had a sign on top saying ‘Riad 02’. Apparently this place charged USD$50 a night but it didn’t look it. I expected a small, nice looking hotel but this was hidden away in a dark alley. I was a bit relieved to find it but I didn’t let up yet. Kareem knocked on the door and rang the bell but there was no answer. We tried for 5 minutes until I told Kareem that it was late and that no one was going to help me. As we walked away, the door opened and a man stuck his head out. He told me there were no rooms available so I thanked him and we walked away. I told Kareem I wanted to head toward the taxis. At that point, I was so lost in the maze that I needed his help to get out. He asked me how much I was going to give him. I offered him ‘10’ and he asked ’10 Euros?’ and I replied ‘No, 10 Dirhams’. He laughed it off, saying it was the equivalent of 1 Euro. Demanding fucker. He said 10 Euros was an acceptable price and I said ‘Let’s talk when we get to the taxis’. I obviously wasn’t going to offer him anything close but I needed to get to the taxis first. After a while, we heard the sound of a car and Kareem knew it was a taxi. We found one dropping some Westerners off and I offered the driver 20 Dirhams to get me to Djemaa El F’na, a bit over market value but whatever. Then Kareem started asking for his money and I handed him 30 Dirhams. He looked shocked, continually saying that ‘It’s nothing!’ and eventually asked for 50 Dirhams. I kept saying ‘No, I don’t have anymore, that’s it, I have to give the rest to the taxi driver’ and we went on for a few minutes, much to the annoyance of the waiting taxi driver. In the end, Kareem gave in, said ‘Welcome!’ in a gracious tone and I triumphantly got into the taxi. I didn’t really win. I could’ve chosen to get into a taxi in the first place, saving myself 30 Dirhams and all that nerve-wrecking moments but no, I am an adrenaline junkie of sorts. Or an idiot. Did I want to get mugged? Did I want to feel nervous and scared? Did I want to do all this so I could tell my readers about my experiences walking through those dark, quiet, maze of alleyways? Maybe. But what price would or could I have paid for the experience? All I know is, I won’t be doing anything like that ever again.

Found Hotel CTM, which was listed in my book. Good location, quite cheap but boy, what a dump, especially the bathroom but what I pay for is what I get. It was 1 am, the Djemaa El F’na was bustling with activity but I chose to lie in bed, in wait for a fresh start the next day.

I had initially wanted to spend 3 nights in Marrakesh but from the looks of things, I think 2 nights is plenty. I bought my ticket at the train station (holy crap, it’s a nice looking station, thank you Frenchies), checked emails, walked around the souqs (outdoor markets), and bought some stuff. I was mainly waiting for dusk to arrive, when the main square becomes filled with stalls selling all kinds of foods and when street performers are out in full force.

(Spice man)

(Djemaa El F’na at night)

I started off with a cheap option, something a lot of locals seem to eat because that’s what they can afford; an egg sandwich. A man will turn a piece of Moroccan bread into a pocket. Then he spread cream cheese, put a hard-boiled egg in there, cut/mashed it up with his knife, put a whole potato, mashed that up, and added some salt/pepper mix, hot sauce, and onions. Pretty good stuff and surprisingly, quite filling. I walked past other stalls, all selling different kinds of foods they throw on the grill on demand. One stall had sheep’s head, brain, and tongue on display. These foods were featured on Bizarre Foods (on Travel Channel) and I just had to try it out. So I sat down next to a few locals, no doubt enjoying their bizarre foods, watched the chef chop up some brain and some tongue, dish out a little curry sauce on top of it, and I ate it with a piece of bread. It wasn’t bad at all. The brain had the texture of yogurt, didn’t have much taste, and the tongue looked like pieces of beef. Baaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(Tasty looking or what?)

(Sheep tongue and brain)

I was pretty stuffed so after being hassled by street performers for taking pictures, I went to rest in my room. (They asked for 10 Dirhams, I offered 1, they said no, I told them I’d rather delete the picture, and they usually let it go for 1 Dirham. It worked every time.) After an hour, I went back to the square and scoured the place for more foods. Ate a bowl of harira, which reminded me a lot of one of the Campbell soups, and drank a glass of piping hot mint tea that had so much mint. After this, I was stuffed. I really wanted to eat other foods but I just couldn’t.

I could not sleep that night. The room was hot and stuffy and I was sweating a lot. I guess I could have counted sheep. (Get it?!) The next day, I hung around until my train left for Casablanca at 1 pm.

Marrakesh, Morocco Pics

Fes, Morocco

Fes, Morocco
September 18th, 19th 2010

After exchanging emails and saying goodbye to Yumi, I left to catch my 10 am bus to Fes. Instead of allowing us to load our bags directly into the baggage compartment of the bus, they made us pay 5 dH (dirhams, USD$1 = 8.5 dH) to check our bags in and they would load it for us. As one of the Canadian tourists I met there said, ‘Boy, they get us one way or another don’t they?’ But then again, this was common practice in Egypt and also parts of Eastern Europe, although they usually tag our bags and receive payment at the bus itself, instead of funneling them through a separate room.

The 6-hour journey took us through the towns of Tetouan and Chefchaouen, some popular tourist stops but I decided to skip those towns due to time. I have to be in Casablanca to catch a flight to Cape Town (South Africa) on the 25th. The plan was 2 nights in Fes, 3 nights in Marrakesh, and 2 nights in Casablanca.

Sat beside a Moroccan man who was very nice. He apparently spoke Arabic and German, but no French. Most Moroccans speak Arabic and French so his was an interesting case.

The journey on the bus allowed us to see a lot of Moroccan landscapes. What surprised me was how mountainous the regions we passed through were. The mix of colors was amazing as well. A couple different hues of brown, yellow, green splashed onto a canvas. I wish I had a better vocabulary to describe it all. Pictures say a thousand words but on a bus, it wasn’t easy taking pictures. The reflections from the window don’t help at all.

One thing I told myself before getting to Morocco was to ‘just let it be’. By that, I mean that I should just accept what prices people tell me their product and services are. I don’t mean I should be a pushover and overpay greatly if I know how much it should roughly be. I just mean that I shouldn’t go around stressing out at getting the best possible prices. If I do that, I lose my focus on enjoying everything else around me. In Egypt, I had spent a lot of time feeling stressed because I felt like I was constantly being cheated. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t but I had no point of reference. I automatically felt that way because the culture and reputation of the country made me feel it. I am a tourist; I will be a target to be cheated by people trying to make a living. I try to remind myself of that last fact; that these people are just trying to make a living. But it remains a fact; no one likes being cheated.

To sum my feelings up, I will ask about the prices. If it’s a little more than what I think I should be paying but I want it, then I will go for it. If it’s severely overpriced, I will just say no and move on. If I have no point of reference, I will have to think about it for a bit, how much do I really want it then and there?

Once at the bus station, I take a taxi service to the medina (the Islamic version of Old Towns in Europe, it’s really a town square). It’s packed with people watching street performers. There is also some sort of fair going on. I am initially lost but some guy offered to take me to where I wanted to go, Hotel Lamrani, a budget hotel. (Hostelworld, the website which I usually book accommodation through, has very few, if any, listings for hostels in Morocco, mostly because there probably aren’t any. All the website lists are overpriced hotels. So I look at my Lonely Planet guidebook for listings for recommended hotels, choose the cheapest ones, then go look for them upon arrival. If there is space, great. If not, go look for another one. If I run out of options from the book, which are few to begin with, I just walk around and find a random hotel, inquire about prices, check out rooms, then decide if I want to stay there or not.) Of course, he works for another hotel so he first tries to get me to stay at his hotel but I decline. Then he continues to take me to Lamrani. It’s just inside the Blue Gates, past a plethora of street hawkers and restaurants selling Moroccan foods. There is space, a triple-bed room but the hotel owner, ‘grumpy’ Mohammed (words from Lonely Planet), a man probably in his 60s or 70s, kindly charges me for a single. It’s nothing fancy, just a room with some old beds, a table, a sink and a window. The showers and toilet are communal but right next to my room.

I go take a walk that first night, intending to find a particular restaurant but there are too many small alleyways with no signs intertwining and I immediately get lost. I ask for directions from a teenager standing around and he hands me off to a kid, whom I immediately recognize as a faux guide. I know if he leads me to the place, I’ll have to tip him. I felt like a cheap bastard that night so I declined and set off on my own. The kid constantly followed me around trying to convince me to use his services. I continue declining nicely until one point I turn around and warn him to stop following me or I will call the police, a lie of course. The kid then starts yelling at me in Arabic, something about ‘Japon’, ‘shit’, and ‘fuck you’. I am amused but worry slightly that he’ll go find some thugs to find me and beat me up. A random guy, Kareem, apparently who owns one of the many shops on Taala Seghira (one of the two main alleyways), offers to take me to the restaurant but we find it is closed. He takes me to an alternative, which looked high class, had no one eating in it, and charged exorbitant prices. I declined eating there and Kareem kept asking me why. I mentioned that I though he was taking me to a friends’ place to get a commission. He immediately became angry and told me he felt insulted I would accuse him of such a thing. He told me to find my own way back but I told him I was sorry, and that my suspicions are due to my experiences in Egypt. He eventually accepts my apology and we shake hands and part from there on good terms. I eat at a random restaurant near my hotel and head to bed, despite the night being relatively early. I was tired from my bus ride, and also felt I needed to get away from the crowded night streets and regroup. What a night! All night long, I could hear the sounds of the streets within my walls but the melatonin soon kicked in and I was dreaming strange things.

The next day was spent exploring the areas within the walls of Fes, checking out a couple of the main sights. A lot of interesting places were off-limits to tourists and non-Muslims (like mosques) so there really wasn’t much to look at. For me, Morocco was a place I visited to walk the streets, smell the smells, hear the sounds, taste the food, and see how the people lived, not to visit any tourist sights, because unlike Europe, there aren’t many, at least which interested me.

(Beautiful woodwork, was tempted to buy a chess set)

(Coffee shop, Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid)

Let’s talk food. I had b’sara, ‘a garlic and butterbean soup topped with a dash of olive oil, eaten with a hunk of bread, a favorite breakfast food amongst the locals’. Lonely Planet gets the credit for the description as I would have no clue what it actually was. I actually sat at a table, in a cramped little space, eating with a bunch of locals so that was fun. I sampled different street foods ranging from sweets to fruit to different breads, one of them being very similar to roti canai (Malaysians know what this is) but eaten with Nutella or honey. I had tagine (of course), pastilla (a Fes creation, basically chicken, almonds, veggies and other things all stuffed inside layers of pastry, topped with sprinkles of cinnamon and powdered sugar, so delicious and filling despite its deceiving size), sweet mint tea (why take drugs when you can have mint tea?), and the best chicken couscous I’ve had so far, all at a restaurant called ‘Thaami’, spread over a couple of meals of course. All the local restaurant workers and shopkeepers constantly try to draw tourists into their establishments by waving their menus or wares in front of your face as you pass, and that’s really how I ended up eating there and liking it.

(Having b’sara with the locals)

(Pastilla, a Fes specialty, so good)

(Couscous with chicken)

Sometimes I cannot believe how different a country can be when it’s in a different continent and only separated by 2 hours on a ferry.

I booked a ticket to Marrakesh at the main bus station. Had to use all kinds of sign language and even writing down some Arabic numbers to try to get the ticket-guy to understand what I wanted. I didn’t book a CTM bus ticket (run by Eurolines, a bit more pricey but also nicer) because I decided I wanted to brave the waters of serious local transportation. This is the cheapest option for locals, so I knew discomfort was imminent but I must like pain. Oh boy…9 hours.

Fes, Morroco Pics

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco
September 17th 2010

On the bus to Algeciras, the port city where I would take a ferry to Tangier, I sat beside a Japanese girl named Yumi. Before anyone says anything, she wasn’t my type. She has been traveling around the world for 6 months so we had that in common (4 months for me). She was friendly and going the same direction so we teamed up for Tangier. In my mind, I didn’t want to go beyond Tangier with anyone. She probably didn’t either, judging from the conversation we had on how long we each planned to stay in Tangier and where we would be going next and for how long. It’s as if we were scouting and picking each other for information so we could plan on not running into each other after Tangier. It’s not that we hated each other; it’s just that I’m sure we both enjoyed our freedoms as a solo traveler. If I’ve never mentioned this before, I much prefer to travel solo. If I travel with someone, I have to compromise and think of the other person. Yeah, selfish, I know. But I’m not traveling with good friends or family, I’m traveling with total strangers, so that contributes to my discomfort traveling with others. It would be different in the other cases.

Getting on the ferry was simple enough; buy a ticket from one the many counters, get past a passport check point, wait, get on ferry, fill up a customs form, get off ferry, wait for free shuttle to Tangier city, get on bus and arrive.

That evening, we were walking around and saw a street food truck that had many locals surrounding it. We checked it out and everyone was eating escargots (small snails) in broth. So, we shared a bowl. They gave us toothpicks to pick out the escargot from their shells, and they were so tasty. The broth was spicy but delicious. I think this was my first time having escargots so it was a good experience.

We found a place selling tagine and couscous so we sat down and feasted. It was 9 pm. I only had a very light breakfast earlier in the day and Yumi had only had a snack bar so we were starving. Needless to say, our stomachs made us over-order. I had one chicken tagine and one chicken couscous while she had the same. We shared a plate of salad and we both had mint tea, a Moroccan favorite, which was downright fantastic. Hot, minty, and sweet would be how I would describe it. The tagine and couscous was fantastic as well and I just managed to finish mine but Yumi couldn’t get through half her couscous and we had a good laugh about how we were pigs.

Tangier, Morocco Pics