Christmas in Casablanca

Trip Start Dec 16, 2009
Trip End Jan 09, 2010

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day! And what did Santa deliver to me today? Some mild gastrointestinal distress - perhaps from the cream sauce served with our shawarmas last night. I can't complain as it was an extremely mild case, barely anything more than indigestion. According to the guidebook, NOT having any problems while in Morocco means you've been left out. But I'm still unhappy with Santa - this is the fourth consecutive year that I've asked that he leave me a Spanish senorita in my stocking, but he continues to ignore me. I believe this is the fourth straight Christmas Day blog that expresses my dismay with the old man!

We packed up and headed out to hail a taxi for the train station - Christmas will be spent in Casablanca!  The driver asked for 50 dirhams! WTF??!!? I actually got pissed off and in my broken French, said only 20. He countered with 30, and I snapped that it was too much, then changing to English and said I'd only paid 20 before. He finally relented and agreed. Even 20 is too much, double the price that it should be - it's only pocket change, but it's the principle! I expect to be ripped off slightly as a tourist here, but come on! I'm willingly giving you double the going rate, but you still try and hit me up for five times the amount?

At Marrakech's sparkling train station, we popped into Segafredo for some real coffee, not that sour stuff we've been getting at breakfast. A latte would've been supreme, but I didn't want to risk having any dairy before a long train ride, in case Santa decided to be especially giving this year and gift me a much worse case of gastrointestinal distress!  The espresso was nothing special; it's not what I normally order so I can't say if it was actually good based on its own merits, or because it was an improvement over the swill we've been served so far in Morocco.

Last night, I vowed to have a Big Mac at the train station before departing, because I was so tired of the usual couscous/tajine routine. I probably haven't had a McDonald's burger in over two years, as it's not something I would normally eat back home, but it's something that would sure hit the spot here! Ultimately, I decided against it after the coffee, because it was still early, and my stomach was bursting with French baguette and pastries. I suppose I could've brought a burger on board and eaten it later, but didn't think it would taste that great when cold.

On board the train, we ran into two Korean girls that had been out at the same camp in the Sahara as us. Also in our compartment was a girl from NYC, but now living in Nigeria and working as a producer for the BBC.

Mary and I wound up talking about the Dutch platoon commander we met in the Sahara - it only took us two years, but we've finally found another guy that she found attractive, the first being Fernando, the security guard we saw outside of the bullfighting ring in Madrid ( He's probably not even named Fernando, that's just the name we gave him as a joke - we never actually spoke to him.

We didn't quite understand the Dutch guy when he gave us his name, so we made up the name of Anders for him. He's possibly Fernando's Dutch cousin, and we assume that some type of career involving wearing uniforms runs in the family.

Casablanca - some more scamming from the taxi drivers, who wanted 50 dirhams to take us to the city centre. They're all supposed to use the meters but don't, and we estimated the 50 to be 5 times the going rate. None of them were willing to even negotiate with us, so one of the station's workers pointed us in the direction of the city centre, saying it was only a 15-20 minute walk.  It ended up being a 30-minute walk to the hotel, and was a hot and sweaty one. Casablanca is warm and also quite polluted, making it very muggy.

Casablanca has a bad reputation for being grimy and run down - walking down Boulevard Mohamed V, we can confirm this! It feels a bit dodgy here, especially with so many crumbling buildings. Apparently, other than the Mosque Hassan II there are no tourist sights, and most tourists and Moroccans suggest it's not even worth stopping here, citing that it doesn't have much of a history (though it was founded 2000 years ago), and that the movie Casablanca wasn't even filmed here.

Hotel Guynemer - incredibly friendly staff here! We were shown to our rooms, where we quickly sucked down some water, and headed out for a bite to eat.  It started drizzling after lunch which was nice, as it seemingly calmed down the pollution and freshened up the air. We strolled over to the medina, noted in the guidebook as being quite decrepit. One of the vendors chased us down as we left the medina, probably overhearing me ask Mary if she was going to buy any souvenirs from Morocco.

Immediately on guard, I was searching for an angle, to see if he was trying to scam us or pick our pockets. He backed off when I told him that we didn't want to buy anything, but then he started asking us about Canada and asked if he could have something from Canada. I quickly removed my Canadian flag pin from my backpack and handed it over, in an attempt to get rid of him. He thanked us and left and as we walked away, I realized that my reaction was that of a rather ignorant jackass.

This is why I hate Morocco's hustlers - not because they are annoying and seemingly do nothing other than hustle tourists, but because of what they bring about in me. Apparently, all this guy wanted was to have a chat with a Canadian and get a little something from a country he'll probably never be able to visit, and I brushed him off like he was nothing, assuming he only had ill intentions. Maybe it's not a problem with the hustlers, but rather a personality flaw that I could work on!  It's a funny thing ... when away from it all in the calm of a Riad, I understand why the hustlers do it.  There's such a disparity in the standards of living between North America and here, it's hard to fault people trying to earn a tiny bit more money to provide for themselves and their families.  But such logic can be difficult to comprehend when somebody is in your face and trying to hustle you.

Casablanca reminds me a bit of Montevideo in Uruguay, another city with a reputation as being run-down and unworthy of a visit. And exactly like Montevideo, I kinda like Casablanca - yes, it has its dirty and crumbling parts, but that's what makes beautiful things like its Art Deco architecture and the Villa des Arts so wonderful. It's a complete surprise when you come across something like that, giving you a sense of discovery and even accomplishment, making it seem like you had to work extra hard to find it.

Though just a few blocks away from the hotel, we got completely turned around after popping into a department store to pick up a few items. A lady walked by and I solicited her help, not sure if some random person approaching in a dodgy-looking neighbourhood would scare her. She ended up walking us towards the Place, from where we could easily find our way back to the hotel, but not content with that, she asked a passerby if she knew where our hotel was.

He didn't know either, but still not content with that, she asked a nearby security guard if he knew where it was. He didn't know either, so he went into the nearby fire hall to ask for directions, disappearing for a good five or ten minutes. Truthfully, from that spot we could have easily navigated back to the hotel, but after her assistance had turned into such a big production, we felt bad at just walking away. Besides, we were enjoying chatting with her and learning a little bit about Moroccan people.

Her name was Malika, Arabic for "Queen", and was born here in Casablanca, and now also works here. She said something very significant to us, something that was actually quite sad to hear, and something that at once humbled us. Seeing our reactions as to how helpful the locals had been in getting us directions, she noted "See, we are not so bad, us Muslims. We are not all like how Western media portrays us. What you see right now, people helping people, is what Islam teaches."

She went on to further comment on Western preconceptions about Muslims, and how they are all stained with the same broad brush, because of the misdoings of a select few. Malika at one point even apologized to us, for opening her heart to two complete strangers, but cited the fact that it was because we had such kind faces, and that she felt very passionately about this matter.

Wow ... how much does that say, the fact that somebody can tell complete strangers something so personal, something that saddens them greatly, all because there are certain negative perceptions about their beliefs and way of life? In a way we felt ashamed, because it was obvious that in this part of the world, there is a preconception about Westerners, that we all think the worst of others.

We told her she shouldn't feel bad about telling us this, that we would never have dreamed of coming to her country if we felt that Moroccans were bad people. We understood that a select few have done terrible things, but that it's not fair to even suggest they represent an entire people or belief system. But we also told her that, by the same token, the beliefs and actions of a tiny minority in the Western world do not reflect everybody's views towards others.

Malika walked us to the foot of the pedestrian zone and asked us for our email addresses and we gladly obliged, all noting how random it was that we all got to chatting, and how strange it was that we were now exchanging emails. Though travel is generally about seeing the sights and soaking in the atmosphere of being in a foreign location, it truly is unforgettable experiences like this that make travel so incredible.

I think both Mary and I had already decided that Casablanca bucked all the negative stereotypes we had heard, but the pleasure of chatting with Malika cemented that fact. It's been my experience while traveling that sometimes, a single moment can make or break one's perception of a place, even one as brief as the one we had just participated in. Even if we had both hated Casablanca, this still would have left both of us with a good feeling, and still would have left a beautiful memory in our minds.

Back to the hotel to rest for a bit before heading out for dinner. Though we had spent the better part of the day on a train, we had been walking around for a solid few hours and as such, were both exhausted. And beyond the physical, we were no better off mentally - our conversation with Malika had also drained us, in that regard. Sometimes deep discussions do that to you.

Off to dinner - being Christmas Day, we decided to splurge tonight and have a nice meal at what is hailed as one of the finer French restaurants in Casablanca, Le Rouget de l'isle. On our way there, we were approached by a child trying to sell us tissues. I said no and continued to walk, and the kid feigned crying. We continued on our way and he wrapped both arms around my kneecap and sat down, refusing to let me move. Finally, I gave him 10 dirham, but then he looked at it, continued with the fake bawling and asked for more. I gave him another few dirham, but he continued until I gave him all the change I had. What else can you do in a case like that?
We quickly scurried the last little bit to the restaurant, so as to avoid any other kids from latching on to us.  Though deep down, I wished that Spanish senoritas would cling on to me like that when I walk around Spain ...

The restaurant had a rather limited menu given that it was the holidays, and it was early by Moroccan standards (8 PM), so we were the only two customers in the whole place.  It was a nice spot for dinner with a nice relaxed ambiance, and a soothing French sound track. I rather enjoyed the meal, but Mary less so. It was a nice meal, though even a bowl of crappy Vietnamese noodles at that Chinese place we saw earlier would have done just as nicely. We decided against having dessert here as we were rather full after having eaten so soon after our late lunch, and also because all the desserts had ice cream in them. We didn't want any further Christmas gifts of stomach problems!
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