Time to depart – Morocco/Madrid, Day 6

We all had to leave pretty early to reach our respective destinations so we had set the alarm for 4:00am.  Perfect timing as the morning call to prayer was just sounding as we awoke.

It was freezing at that time of the morning but we started packing up and getting ready to leave as quietly as possible so we didn’t wake up any of the other visitors.

Unfortunately we had a last minute change of plans.  One of the girls had become pretty ill and didn’t feel she could make the 6-8 hour bus ride.  They already had ferry tickets booked from that port, but decided to take the taxi with me to Tangiers as it was only a 2 hour drive and they book a ferry from there.

Once we were dropped off at the main taxi terminal it was time to say goodbye.  Our driver already grabbed another driver who would take me to the airport so the goodbyes were very short.  In fact, once I hopped in the taxi and started driving away I realized there was so much I didn’t get a chance to say to my new friends.  I am sure I would have enjoyed my trip just fine even if I did not meet them, but spending it with them was wonderful.  It’s amazing how you can meet people from halfway around the world and become instant friends.  We enjoyed several days together and shared moments that will last us all a lifetime.  Then, before you know it, it’s all over and you might not ever see them again.

Well thank goodness for the internet at least so we can all keep in touch occasionally.

The airport is about an hours drive from the center of Tangiers so I had a bit of time to chat with the driver.  The only problem was the language barrier.  Tangiers, being so close to the tip of Spain, has a heavy Spanish influence and many people from Tangiers speak Spanish.  Of course, the driver spoke Arabic, but to my surprise he didn’t speak French!  Nearly everybody speaks Arabic and French in Morocco.  Being from Southern California, I understand Spanish pretty well, but I don’t speak it all that great.  The same went for him with French.  So for an hour we talked about all kinds of things, Morocco, food, my trip, where I was from, and even American politics.  But the funny thing was that he continued speaking in Spanish, and I would respond in French.  It was the best we could do and we both understood eachother fairly well.  It was amusing to say the least.

The Tangiers airport was small but hectic.  There were no assigned seats on the EasyJet flight and despite being in the first bording class, I was not able to get through the rush of people until the very end.  The Spanish passengers who must have all been on holiday were quite rude and didn’t seem to care for the airport’s procedures.

The flight was only about an hour and I soon arrived in Madrid.  I found a payphone and called Vicky, a girl from Lithuania who was now living in Madrid.  I met her on CouchSurfing and she told me to call her when I arrived.  She was unable to host me, but recommended an area where I could find a cheap and safe place to stay.  I took the metro there and found a private room in a two-star hostel for 50 euros.  It didn’t seem to pricey at the time but once I did the conversion I realized it was about $80!

Vicky and I planned on meeting up around 9:00pm to grab a drink and do some sight seeing.  Until then, I enjoyed my nice clean room and took a HOT shower.  It was nice to have a private room, bathroom, and hot shower for a change.

Since I had an early morning flight and was only in Madrid for the night, I ventured out to see the city.  I was given a nice walking map at the airport and it came in very handy.  I walked all over the area near Puerto del Sol just gazing at the beautiful buildings, cobble stone roads, and amazing statues.  There was a food and music festival going on in one of the squares so I listened to a great jazz band and was tempted to try some fresh prosciutto (ham/bacon, a specialty of Madrid).

I was quite hungry and decided to get dinner before meeting up with Vicky.  Madrid has more restaurants in such a small area than I have ever see before.  The choices were virtually limitless and I had a hard time deciding on what to eat.  Once I found a menu that looked good I grabbed a seat on the patio and did some people watching.  I was disappointed to find out that they were already out of the paella dish I wanted to try.  I was tempted to go somewhere else but I didn’t and regretted it.  My meal wasn’t very good at all.  A chicken and rice dish with a half-cooked egg yolk cracked over the top.  It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either.  Unfortunately it upset my stomach later though so that was disappointing.

I did some more walking around and ran across Cervantes statue in one of the parks.  Something about it really struck me.  Maybe it was that I had just finished reading Don Quixote a couple of months prior.  Or it could have been how my professor had told us about this exact statue that was erected for the great Spanish author.  Whatever it was, I had completely forgotten that it was there and found it only by chance.  Don Quixote was an amazing book and Cervantes a wonderful writer.  My only wish was that I was profeccient enough in Spanish to read it in its native language.

It was time to meet up with Vicky so I headed to Puerta del Sol where all the young people hung out.  I found Vicky and we decided to go grab a drink.  We sat down in a bar that was playing some loud electro music and after one mojito for her, and one diet coke for me, we decided to leave.

Vicky was fairly new to the area.  She moved there from Lithuania to study.  I was impressed that she could speak Spanish and English fluently, not to mention her native language.

Madrid really is a wonderful city to just simply wander by foot.  We did that for a while and she pointed out a few popular landmarks to me.  Eventually we decided it was late and she asked where I was staying so she could take me there.  I told her that I had my map and had already mastered the city, so I insisted on walking her home and then making my way back.  Anyway, it offered me a bit more sightseeing before I had to leave.  OK, I got a little lost on the way back when I put my map away, but that’s OK.  Whenever I realized I didn’t know where I was, I just pulled the map out and figured out my location.

Finally I returned for the night and fell asleep quickly.  In the morning it was time to pack my bag and take the metro back to the airport.  The week had flown by and I had an amazing time.  I wished I could have stayed longer but I had to get back to my job and school.

Madrid at night
Madrid at night

Enjoying the Rif mountains of Chefchaouen – Morocco, Day 5

4/2/08

After our wonderful night we awoke and decided to go see what was available for breakfast in the square.  There are a handful of small restaurants all which must cater to the tourists of Chefchaouen.  At the time, we were about the only ones.  We saw one or two other small groups that obviously weren’t from around there and the patios at the restaurants were pretty much deserted.

Each place staffed an English speaking employee to recruit people who walked past.  They all seemed to offer the same small selection for breakfast so we sat down at one and enjoyed some fresh orange juice, a selection of bread and jams, and a cup of coffee.  The girls opted for mint tea.  Even though my teeth were rotting from all the sugar in the mint teas I had already drank that week, I probably should have ordered another cup as well instead of coffee.  It’s the official Moroccan drink and you should really enjoy it when it’s available!

Lauren & Lizzie in Chefchaouen
Lauren & Lizzie in Chefchaouen

After eating the girls wanted to walk around the shops and see what was for sale.  Rob and I decided that we MUST check our email so we went to the internet cafe.

When we were finished getting our internet fix we walked back to our room and ran in to Youssef again.  He invited us over to where he lived (right next to the small hotel we were staying at).  We sat down in his modest place and started talking.  His walls were lined with rugs that he wove.  Although our tastes obviously differ, many of them were very impressive and I could only imagine the time it woudl take to complete just one, let alone the dozens he had.

He offered a coca-cola and we politely accepted.  He ran downstairs and was gone for several minutes.  When he returned sweating, with two ice cold coca-colas in hand, we were a little confused as to where he went.  He told us he ran down to the store to buy them for us! We felt terrible and apologized.  We assumed he had them on hand and that’s why he offered them to us.  Again, he told us that it was not a problem and that we were his guests in not only his home, but his city and he wanted to make us feel welcome.  Such a kind gesture is unheard of where we come from so Rob and I were extremely touched by the generosity shown by Youssef.

He asked what we were planning on doing for the day and we told him that we were going to walk around and see the city.  He told us there were some great hikes up the hills and he would love to show us.  Even if we wanted to turn him down, I don’t think he would have let us so we gladly accepted and went off to find the girls.

Rob, Jeff, Lizzy, Youssef (our new friend, guide, host, etc)
Rob, Jeff, Lizzy, Youssef (our new friend, guide, host, etc)

We began to walk up a pathway that overlooked an area of a stream that was built so the locals could wash their clothes.

Locals washing their clothes in the fresh spring water
Locals washing their clothes in the fresh spring water

We continued hiking up side of the hill and were soon rewarded with beautiful views of Chefchaouen.

Lovely views of Chefchaouen
Lovely views of Chefchaouen

Eventually we reached what Youssef called “Spanish Mosque” but I believe it to also be called the “Destroyed Mosque” based on the guidebook.  It was a very small structure, maybe 10 feet x 10 feet, with narrow stairs that went up a couple of stories to provide a wonderful view of the valley down below.

View from the the top of the destroyed Spanish Mosque
View from the the top of the destroyed Spanish Mosque

After taking in the views for a little while, we headed back down the path and walked down the other side of the town with its blue and white washed walls that are often synonymous with Chefchaouen.

Taking a break
Taking a break
Blue and white washed buildings of Chefchaouen
Blue and white washed buildings of Chefchaouen

When we made it back to the main square, we decided to tour the kasbah and old prison.  A quick 10dh donation to enter and we began the several story climb to the top of the prison which offered a great outlook over the city.

View of a mosque from atop a tower in the in the Kasbah
View of a mosque from atop a tower in the in the Kasbah
Me in front of the museum in the Kasbah
Me in front of the museum in the Kasbah

We were all pretty hungry after the hike and went to a restaurant that Youssef recommended for lunch.  He had a pretty bad cold and decided only to have some tea despite our encouragement for him to eat (we really wanted to treat him to lunch to pay him back for all the help and generosity he had shown us).

Surprise, surprise.  I had another chicken tagine.  Trust me, these are to die for.  So flavorful and juicy!

Chicken couscous tagine
Chicken couscous tagine

Rob, Lauren and Lizzie needed to purchase bus tickets for their trip back the following day so we walked to the station with Youssef and he helped them purchase the correct tickets.  They were heading to one of the port towns several hours away to take a ferry back to Malagra, Spain.  I was going the opposite way to Tangiers to take a flight back to Madrid, Spain so I decided I would just hire a taxi when I needed to leave.

With their tickets out of paradise in hand, we headed back to to our rooms to clean up.  Youssef invited us for dinner again.  We were surpised they would want our compay again but we agreed only one condition.  That they allow us to purchase the items needed for dinner.  He was hesitant but agreed.  We felt it was the least we could do.  We gave them 100dh, about $13, and it fed nine or ten of us.  Not a bad deal I’d say!  My only request was that for us to have chicken, since I’m a chickentarian and I really wanted to have a filling dinner.

Fresh produce for sale in the medina
Fresh produce for sale in the medina

I was quite surprised, and a little disturbed, when Mohamed, the man responsible for all the cooking, came home with fresh chicken, feathers and all!  He went up stairs to prepare it and I was a little freaked out but put it behind me quickly.  I guess I didn’t realize that the supply of frozen chickens would be sparse in Morocco!

Dinner was wonderful again.  We had the tasty chicken served over a bed of rice that was full of flavor.  The effort and quality put into food there is really amazing.  They love their cooking, that’s for sure.

It had been a long day and we were full.  We ventured back to our rooms and hit the hay.  There was no question that our final full day in Morocco had been wonderful.  We were able to spend some time in a beautiful town that was pretty far off the beaten path, meet some great people, and best of all, enjoy some amazing food!

Journey to Chefchaouen – Morocco, Day 4

4/1/08

I was planning on staying in Fes for most of the week and taking day trips to the surrounding area. I suggested visiting Bhalil and Volubilis to Rob, Lauren, and Lizzie and they seemed interested. After some thought, they decided to head to Chefchaouen, a town in the Rif mountains, and invited me. While I was looking forward to seeing the Roman ruins in Voulubilis, I decided that Chefchaouen did sound very nice and that I’d prefer the company of my new fronds than trekking it solo. So we packed up our things and headed for the CTM bus station.

When we arrived we were told that all the buses were sold out for the day and that we should try the station located in front of Bab Boujeloud, the entrance to the old medina.

There is one thing to understand. CTM buses are generally what tourists take, and are priced higher than the buses for the locals that we were about to use. On a positive note, they were only a couple of dollars.

When we arrived at the station we were told that there wasn’t a direct bus and we had to go to Ouezzane and “see” if there was another bus to Chefchaouen there. Without much choice, we paid for our tickets and spent an hour or so grabbing lunch at one of the vendors at the station. Supposedly I had a chicken sandwich. To be honest, I’m not sure what kind of meat that was in the bread but it was definitely tasty. The cook was very friendly ad patient with my mediocre French but wanted to practice his English by complementing the beauty of our female companions.

Shortly after finishing our meal we were approached by a man who said he was the driver and told us our bus was boarding soon. He took us to the bus, loaded our bags, and then demanded 10dh for each bag. We paid and took our seats. After sitting there for about 30 minutes and never seeing him again, we realized he was just hustling us for some change. The small amount was so trivial that we just laughed that somebody would go through so much trouble for pocket change.

The bus wasn’t the most comfortable and broke down twice. I’m not sure what was wrong but the driver managed to fix it after a few minutes.

A 20-something Moroccan man struck up conversation with us after hearing that we were going to Chefchaouen. He said he lived there and we would need to take a taxi because there was no bus going there that afternoon. We were a little hesitant to trust him but we went ahead and accepted his help in finding a taxi. He negotiated a very good deal for the taxi and asked if he could ride with us. We were happy to share it with him and we covered the cost. For over an hours drive up a small mountain, I think we only paid about $10-15 between the four of us. The only bad part was that the four of us had to squeeze in the back seat

Eventually we  arrived in Chefchaouen and mentioned that we were going to find a room at Pension Znika.  Our new Moroccan friend Youssef, told us that he lived next to Pension Znika.  We didn’t quite believe him, as we have already had our fair share of people doing anything they can for a tip, but we were too tired to try and navigate Chefchaouen with our guide book’s map and we let him take us there.

After walking up several hilly streets we finally arrived at Pension Znika.  Youssef came in with us and spoke to the owner.  After a short conversation, he told us the price for two rooms which was considerably cheaper than the guide book listed.  We each paid about $7 per night. I thanked Youssef and went to give him a tip for his help.  He immediately told me that he would not accept and that he was just being a friend by welcoming us to his town.

After that, he asked if we would like to go get some tea with him after we got settled and cleaned up.  We agreed and went up to our rooms.  Pension Znika is in a very nice small pension with a handful of colorfully decorated rooms.  The best part is the roof terrace and its beautiful view of Chefchaouen.

View from the roof terrace of Pension Znika
View from the roof terrace of Pension Znika

We met back up with Youssef and went out for some tea.  We spent a good hour or so asking him many questions about Morocco and Chefchaouen.  When we were finished, Youssef insisted on paying  for our drinks.  I believed he was being genuine but there was no way we would let him do that.  As we were finishing, he asked if we would be interested in going to his place that night to enjoy a tagine for dinner. We couldn’t believe that this guy who we just met could be any more friendly and welcoming.

We of course obliged and after a short walk around the main square, we headed over to his family’s place.  We realized by his “family” he actually meant his good friends.  Since they don’t have their own families there, they spend most nights together enjoying dinner and company.  When we arrived, we were surprised to see an American couple who another one of the guys had met and invited over.  There were at least 10 of us enjoying dinner.  We had a giant tagine with beef and an amazing an interesting base of peas and other vegetables and tasty juices.  I personally don’t eat beef so I enjoyed scooping up the peas with my bread and dining on that for the night.  It was very interesting sharing one big plate of food with everybody using nothing but our hands.

Remember, when in Morocco it’s polite to use your right hand ONLY for eating.  You can imagine what the left is commonly used for.

We must have spent several hours at dinner.  Everybody was incredibly nice.  Some of the guys spoke good English, some did not.  There were three languages going around the room, Arabic, French, and English.  In fact, the man responsible for the cooking started speaking some basic Japanese to me since I said I knew a few words.

Probably the best part was the corny jokes that one of the guys was telling.  Meeting travelers is obviously a common thing for them and he likes to have each one tell him a joke or cheesy pick up line.  My favorite was, “Do you know how much a polar bear weighs?  Enough to break the ice.  Hello, my name is Abdulsalam.”

We were cracking up to say the least!

Dinner in Chefchaouen
Dinner in Chefchaouen

When we returned to Pension Znika all four of us were in awe of how our day had transpired.  Stressed beyond reason earlier, we ended up having an amazing night with some extremely friendly people.  It turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of my life.

We were wide awake so we quietly went up on the rooftop terrace and gazed at the stars for about an hour.  The sky was so unbelievably clear.  Nothing like what I am used to at home.  It was truly breathtaking.

Night in Chefchaouen
Night in Chefchaouen

Exploring Fes – Morocco, Day 3

3/31/08

With some new travel partners I was excited to get on with my first real day of enjoying Morocco.

The hostel put on a small breakfast consisting of pastries and cafe au lait. The pastries were very tasty but it’s always difficult for me to transition from the typical hearty American breakfast I eat at home.

Dominique, Rob, Lauren and Lizzie and I decided to explore Fes el Jedid, the new medina of Fes. While it is called the “new” medina, it is anything from new. Built about 900 years ago, the medina is a walled medieval area where most people live, shop, and eat.

It wasn’t a very far walk so we passed on taking a cab. Before arriving at the entrance to the medina, we passed the king’s palace with it’s beautiful tiled walls and towering carved doors.

2388724797_a56f511c68_oEntering the medina is like stepping into another world. The walkways are thin and often difficult to navigate with the crowds. You had better be prepared to hug a wall when a donkey cart comes rolling through!

You’re presented with an abundance of sights, sounds and smells. Fresh foods are being cooked in a stall next to a shop specializing in rugs or finely woven silk. The goods are amazingly beautiful with the exception of freshly butchered legs of lamb and the occasional head as well. That was certainly a surprise.

The new medina was less threatening than expected. The guide books warn of unofficial guides looking to hustle you or rude shop keepers whistling at passing girls. We had a few people try very hard to get us into their shops, but we didn’t have any problems.

2388719553_7a85dfcb2e_oAfter exploring the winding streets of the new medina we headed to the Jewish cemetery and paid 10dh to enter. Fes once had a very large Jewish population and nearly every one of them who died there were buried at this cemetery. Bleached white headstones mark the above ground graves and a few small mausoleums have lit candles that look like they had been burning for weeks. At the far end was a wall which offered us a great view of kids playing football down below.

Kids playing football in Fes, Morocco from Jeffery Patch on Vimeo.

After the cemetery we headed back to the hostel and had Abdullah help book us an official guide to tour the old medina in the afternoon.

The girls decided to buy some snacks for lunch at a small shop but Rob and I opted for a bigger meal. We found a street front cafe and took a seat on the patio. For about $4 or $5 I had a salad with a plate of chicken kabobs, fries and hummus. It was quite tasty and the price was certainly fair.

Back at the hostel we met up with three people from Scotland who had also hitch hiked all the way to Morocco. They asked about joining in with us on the tour. Dominique decided to go at it alone so we had a group of seven. The tour guide didn’t seem to mind. It was much cheaper being split seven ways so at the end we gave him a pretty decent tip.

Fes el Bali, the old medina, was fascinating. It was much larger than the new medina yet the walkways were much thinner. It is built on a hill and there is no method to the layout of the hundreds of streets. I would have been extremely lost without a guide.

2388722707_0536401d5a_oHe took is to a mosque/madressa which I was surprised to be able to enter. It was small, but so unbelievably detailed that I was in awe.

There were so many sights to stop and look at but eventually we made our way up to where the leather tanneries are located. We visited a shop where we were shown some leather goods (the story of any tour in Morocco will likely involve being taken to a shop). After a short sales pitch we were walked to the back of the shop where there was a wonderful view of the tanneries below. Unfortunately the work had already ceased for the day but the smells coming out of the pits was powerful and unique.

Through out the tour we taken to several shops. While none of us young back packers were planning on purchasing anything we enjoyed the short demonstrations we were shown. It was interesting to see their techniques up close and in person. The mint tea at the rug shop was quite tasty as well.

2389558930_2a64795801_oDespite not planning on purchasing anything, several of us bought some scarves from a silk shop. Not only did they show us how they wove them, but they then proceeded to dress me up in one and show how a desert crossing Berber man would cover his face from a sand storm. I didn’t think the look was very fashionable for me, but I found a couple that my sisters would like so I bought them each a nice silk scarf.

One thing I was looking forward to was picking up some spices for my tagine recipes back home.  We visited a big spice shop and I picked up a bunch of Ras al-Hanout to smuggle back in.  The girls all got some henna done on their hands as well.

Lauren gets Henna in Fes el Bali, Morocco from Jeffery Patch on Vimeo.

Before the tour came to an end we samples some fresh almond filled pastries. They were amazing!

When we finally returned to the hostel for the evening we were all starving. We found a restaurant that was recommended to us not only by our guidebook, but a random stranger on our way. I’m pretty sure he wanted a tip but I don’t think any of us gave him one for reaffirming our choice in dining.

As every other meal I had so far, the food was wonderful. Chicken, golden raisins and some vegetables cooked in a tagine, served over fresh couscous. So juicy and full of flavor.

The food took a little longer than expected though so I went back with two of the other guys to make sure the hostel would keep the doors open past the 10pm curfew to allow the rest of our group to pay the bill.

Unfortunately they got lost on the way back and the security guard went to sleep. We had to wake them up when they arrived around 11pm and he wasn’t very happy!

Several of us stayed up and hung out on the patio again and met some other people who were also staying there. Long night of chatting with people from all over the world. It’s always interesting who you can meet halfway across the world.

Arriving in Casablanca – Morocco, Day 1

Hassan II Mosque
Hassan II Mosque

3/29/2008

Four flights and 18 hours after departing Los Angeles, I finally arrived in Morocco.  I landed at Casablanca airport and immediately walked out of the terminal to get a taxi into town.
The first thing I noticed is how green the area is.  There were lots of trees and vegetation.  It was much more beautiful than the barren desert I had imagined.

This would be my first experience utilizing my French here in Morocco.  I’ve been to Paris and Quebec, but both times I was not very fluent (I’m still not fluent, but I can get around well and carry on a basic conversation).

“Combien aller au terminal de CTM s’il vous plaît?” I asked.

“Deux cent cinquante (250dh),” he said.

The sign said 230dh but I didn’t care to argue.  The difference was less than $3 and it’s a long drive.  The guy I spoke to grabbed my bag and then took me to another man.  It turns out that the second gentleman was actually the taxi driver and the first guy just wanted to help with my bag to get a tip.  I gave him a whopping 10dh (about $1.50).  I could already tell that everybody here will try to nickel and dime you to death.  The thing is that they are literally getting nothing more than nickels and dimes from you.  It hardly seems worth the hassle they go through just to get some pocket change but, c’est la vie… en Maroc!

I was astonished how beautiful the countryside is.  So many fields, trees, hills, etc.  My favorite sight was all the kids playing football (soccer to us Americans).  It seemed that every mile down the road you’d see at least one group of kids playing in a random overgrown field, behind a building, or even in the street.
When we got closer to town I started to notice the beautiful French architecture.  It really was impressive.  But soon enough we entered the city and were caught up the traffic that seems to come second nature to all large cities.  Actually, the traffic probably wouldn’t be so bad in Casablanca if the drivers just followed the rules of the road.  I guess in Morocco they’re really just guidelines.  Every taxi I took centered their car over the lines that divided the lanes.  They would also pass other cars in the middle of intersections and while going around traffic circles.  Everybody loves to honk his horn as well.  The funny thing is that they wave and smile when they do it, unlike here in the ‘States where we tend to point a special finger in the air and yell obscenities.

After about thirty minutes we arrived at the CTM station.  He assumed I was departing on a bus and dropped me off near the departures.  This confused me though because I wasn’t sure exactly where on my map I was.  I began walking in the direction of the hotel I chose form my guidebook but it was difficult to pinpoint my exact location.  They are slowly changing the streets from their French names to Arabic ones.  So even though my map was made only a few months earlier, some streets weren’t correctly labeled on it.  For example, the king recently renamed two of the biggest squares in Casablanca.  He changed Place Mohamed V to Place des Nations Unies and the old Place des Nations Unies to Place Mohamed V.  Yet some people still refer to the new Place des Nations Unies as Place Mohamed V so things can really get confusing.  Can you tell?

Eventually I landed on Rue Abdallah and found the hotel I chose, Hotel Touring.  The owner was very friendly and put up with my French.  The best part was that the room was cheaper than listed in my book.  I paid only 125dh (about $17) for a room with a shower.  The owner told me, “Votre chambre est sur la premiere étage.”  Well I forgot that in France (and apparently Morocco) the first floor is what we consider the second floor in the States.  They say “ground floor” for the lowest level.  So I said, “c’est sur la premiere étage? Merci!” and then proceeded to pass the stairs and walk down the hall.  He quickly came out and said, “non! Premiere! Premiere!  Vous comprendrez?”  So I embarrassingly walked back to the staircase and thanked him.  This small hotel even has a small prayer room facing Mecca for the employees and guests to pray in.  My guidebook called it a mosque but it isn’t much more, to me at least, than a small room large enough for three or four people to say their prayers in.  Pretty neat though.

I dropped off my things and decided to explore the area.  I was extremely thirsty so I set out to find a bottle of water.  I stepped into a cafe and one quick glance at a can of Coke Zero made my mouth water so I purchased it.

Out on the street I heard somebody yell, “pas sucre!” which means “no sugar!” in French.  A man with some missing teeth came up to me and kept exclaiming, “pas sucre! Pas sucre!” while pointing to my can.  I don’t believe that diet sodas have been very popular in Morocco until recently.  Looking at most people’s teeth can reaffirm this.

“Où vous êtes de?” he asked.

“Je suis d’Aux Etas Unis,” I answered.

He exclaimed, “Oh you speak English!  I am learning.  Can we talk?”

In America we certainly don’t stop people on the side of the street very often just for conversation but he didn’t give me a choice.  A bit odd, I thought, but what the heck.

Eventually I realized that he just wanted to practice his English.  He started out with the basic formalities: “How are you? Do you like Morocco? Where do you live? How old are you?”  The conversation quickly died when he ran out of things to say in English.  I watched as he searched his brain for something to say.  Eventually he came up with, “I like horses.”  I decided we didn’t have much else to talk about and told him I had to leave.

A few minutes later another man stopped me, also commenting on my Coke Zero. His English was much better and he gave me his address to come visit him and his family if I had time.

While these encounters were very friendly, I realized I would never get anywhere if kept getting stopped every block.  I threw the can of soda away and oddly enough, nobody else stopped me to chat.

I found pay phone (they’re located in small shops with several private booths for customers) and called two friends who I had made on CouchSurfing.com, a social-networking website for world travelers.  They had offered to meet up and have some dinner with me while I was in Casablanca so I called to see where and when we should meet.  The place they chose was easy enough to find on my map but it was quite far, so I opted to take a taxi.  The fare was 10dh (about $1.50) and took me across the entire city.  What a steal.  In New York City you can’t even get into a taxi without immediately paying $2 or $3!

I arrived at the Twin Centre in the heart of the city and waited around for my friends.  The Twin Centre is two skyscrapers and looks huge in the Casablanca skyline but pale in comparison to even the smallest towers in large American cities.  At the bottom is a three-story mall that connects the two buildings.  It is a popular place for young people despite having very few interesting stores.

I waited for over an hour because my clock was set incorrectly.  It turns out that the entire world doesn’t observe day light savings time on the same date.  Whoops.

Eventually I met up with the three guys I chatted with online, Abdel, Hichem and Mostafa.  They brought two other friends so we had quite the group.  I felt very flattered and welcomed by them.  How many people arrive in a city on the other side of the world and have five people waiting to spend time with them?

We introduced ourselves and we began to walk down the road.  I didn’t ask where we were going but instead enjoyed the conversation.  Hichem was quite versed in English and I later found out he works for Reuters News Agency and has traveled quite a bit.  After walking for quite a while I noticed the minaret for the Hassan II Mosque.  I had planned on coming back the following morning to see it during the day but I was pleased to be introduced to it by my new friends.

Built overlooking the ocean, the Hassan II Mosque is truly magnificent.  It is the second largest mosque in the world (some say third, I can’t figure out the truth), behind only Mecca, and holds 25,000 worshipers.  It is also the only mosque in Morocco, and one of the few in the world, that allows non-Muslims inside.

While we were enjoying the view, the final call to prayer began.  It was loud, but beautiful.  I asked my friends if they wanted to pray and told them that I didn’t mind waiting somewhere for them.
“No, but thank you for asking.  We pray and attend mosque often, but in Casablanca, we aren’t very traditional.”

It was dark by this point and the light at the top of the minaret, which shines towards Mecca, was glowing brightly.

We continued on our walk and eventually ended up at a small cafe that they frequent.  We sat down and they ordered me some mint tea.  I had heard about it but was afraid it would be too sweet for me.  Boy, was I wrong.  It was amazing!  My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it!

We must have sat there for at least two hours talking about our travels, language differences, what we do for work, and our educations.  The thing that struck me the most about them, with the exception of the well-traveled Hichem, was how curious they were about America and the rest of the world.  They told me that they don’t get to travel often because it is very difficult to get a visa to most places.  I think that is something Americans take for granted.  We can go nearly anywhere without a visa yet much of the world does not have the same luxury.

It was quite late by this point and I was starving for food.  I was enjoying the company very much, but I had expected to eat dinner much earlier and I was beginning to feel sick.  They decided to finally get up and we continued to walk around the town.  Soon we came upon another small café and sat down at a table outside.  They asked what I wanted to eat.  I had no idea so I said I would have whatever they are having but that the only meat I like to eat is chicken.  They all ordered some chawarma.  I had no clue what was in it but it was pretty tasty.

After eating we decided it was time to part ways.  The only problem was that I had no idea where we were.  I figured I would just grab a taxi but Mostaffa told me he lives near the area I am staying and would walk back with me.  I thought that was incredibly nice of him and of course I accepted.  Mostaffa’s English was not the best compared to the rest of the bunch, but he was very eager to talk and practice.  I found out he was a huge fan of rock and roll.  Mostly the classics like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and even Johnny Cash.  He told me that he plays guitar and can play a lot of Dylan songs.  It was one of those moments where I realized that even though we can live on opposite sides of the planet, practice different religions, and have cultures that are vastly different, we still have many things in common.  It’s funny how music can bring so many people together.

Along the way we walked through part of the medina where many of the locals live.  I was surprised to see quite a few young people out playing football in a cement park.  It reminded me of the basketball courts in New York City.  Even though I don’t play, I found myself wanting to just go run around with them and kick the ball a bit.  Immediately the ball came flying at me due to an errant kick.  I kicked it back towards them but it hit a telephone pole and came bouncing right back to me.  I guess I’m not the most talented soccer player!

Eventually we arrived at the street for my hotel and I realized where I was.  I thanked him for his generosity and told him I hoped to see him again.

Even though there wasn’t much in Casablanca for me to see as a tourist, I found myself overwhelmed by the kindness of these strangers who welcomed me to their city.  I was certain that had it not been for them I would have had a disappointing night in Casablanca.  While it is likely one of the only Moroccan cities most Americans can name, there aren’t many reasons to visit.  I was glad my new friends gave me a reason to be there, if only for a day.