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.