Monthly Archives: November 2013

Casablanca — Here’s Lookin’ at You, Craphole City I Never Want to See Again

Since we’ve been back the most common question after “So what was your favorite place?” that we get is “So what was your least favorite place?” We went to so many amazing places and saw so many amazing things that answering the first question is difficult. Answering the second question is not difficult at all. Casablanca was easily the most terrible city we encountered. Horrible people, polluted, concrete sprawl. There was literally nothing redeeming about this place. We had to come to Casablanca because our flight to Frankfurt (via Lisbon) was flying out of Casablanca. We had to get to Frankfurt so we could fly home to America. People are always SO upset when they hear how awful Casablanca is, presumably because there’s a movie! And it’s called Casablanca! It’s a great movie! Casablanca has to be great! I have to question whether these people have actually SEEN the movie because even in the film, Casablanca is a shit hole filled with corrupt officials and murderous backstabbers. Life imitates art or vice-versa?

Getting to Casablanca from Essaouira was irritating because we had only 2 awful transit options. There was ONE bus that took 7-8 hours driving up the coast. This was ruled out because it left at some obscene time and because after one coastal bus turned vomitorium we were not ready to take another ride. The other choice, equally long, was to backtrack by bus to Marrakech and then take the train to Casablanca. This had a few benefits in that, first, I love taking trains and secondly, it wasn’t even going to be that bad a transfer as the bus station and train station in Marrakech are literally in the same building. So bus to train it was. Little did we know how awful this was going to be.

The bus morning bus ride to Marrakech wasn’t actually that remarkable. There did seem to be an awful lot more white people on this bus (and irritating white people at that –ethnic pants wearing dreadlock sporting long-term travel types that are pretty ubiquitous in SE Asia) but so be it. We got to the bus station which was pretty chaotic but nothing insane. Some British gap year girls (inappropriately dressed for a muslim country) were loudly berating the train ticket counter staff because they couldn’t purchase a train ticket to Essaouira. I was able to politely (and, inside, gleefully) inform them that they can’t buy a train ticket to Essaouira because THERE IS NO TRAIN TO ESSAOUIRA. “WHAT!? NO TRAIN?! HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GET THERE!?” Uh, take the bus dummies. I was told that they would NOT be taking a bus and they asked where they could find a private driver. I shrugged my shoulders and they huffily walked away. I hope those snotty children had a horrible day.

There was a bit of confusion about which track we were supposed to be on and we boarded a train that, for about 10 minutes, we thought might be the wrong train (in turned out to be the correct one in the end).  I don’t know what about my public transit experiences in Morocco made me think that their train system would be nice, but I just had this notion for some reason. It was difficult to find seats on the train but we eventually did. A young woman was sitting across from me spitting me DEATH STARES because I’d had the gall to ask her to move her shopping bags off the seat so I could sit in it. He rage eventually grew too hot and she actually got up and moved about 30 minutes into the trip. I want to try to accurately put into words how uncomfortable this train ride was but I won’t do it justice. We’d just gotten off a 4 hour bus ride. We were sweating. It was hot. The air conditioning on the train was broken or never worked in the first place. It must have been at least 95 degrees in that train car. The seats were very close together. Across from me were two French gap year kids one of whom was wearing very short shorts and insisted on putting his foot up the whole time. I got to know him…intimately…without ever exchanging a word.  The train interior was dusty and dirty and gross. The landscape was barren and boring. It was 4 hours of just sheer boredom, discomfort, sweat and a Frenchman’s scrotum directly in my field of view.

We finally arrived in Casablanca. I was hot, dirty, hungry and furious. And now I was going to have to haggle with a Moroccan cab driver. I was not going to take any shit because I just WAS.NOT.IN.THE.MOOD. We were accosted from the moment we left the station by cab drivers. This is fine, this is standard.  Our strategy in these situations is to bypass the most aggressive cabbies and find the one minding his own business smoking a cigarette away from the herd. We tried to do this but a few of the cabbies broke off from the herd and began following us. We got to negotiating and they quoted us some outrageous price – Like $6 to go less than a mile and a half. I was in no mood for this nonsense. We must have haggled and walked away from about 4 different cab drivers. They were getting mad at us for shopping around and they began to yell at us. We finally found a guy willing to bargain a BIT and we just gave up and got in his cab. Screaming cab drivers was our welcome to Casablanca.

We went to our hotel. We only had about 24 hours in Casablanca. I had wanted to go see the ONE tourist site worth seeing, the Hassan II Mosque which is one of the biggest in the world and it sits right on the coast line but it was too late in the day and we were exhausted.

hasan ii mosque (2)

Beautiful. Too bad I’ll NEVER SEE IT IN PERSON.

The other thing tourists here want to do (not that there are many because Casablanca pretty well sucks) is go to “Rick’s Café” like from the movie.  I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you CAN go to Rick’s! The bad news is that it was opened in 2004, so not exactly authentic. That means that for 60 years there was not a single soul in all of Casablanca who had the bright idea to open up a crappy bar, slap a “Rick’s” sign above it and charge way too much for shitty drinks to be consumed by dumb tourists with deep pockets. That boggles my mind.

We were hungry and thirsty so we went out to go find a store to get some snacks and drinks. We walked around for about an hour and literally nothing about this city appealed to us. It’s gray, dirty and depressing in an urban sprawl kind of way. There is an immaculate new tram system (which almost ran us over) but I am not sure exactly where it goes that would be useful for us. We were accosted by an insane man with a lazy eye on a street corner. He spoke excellent English which sent alarm bells ringing in my head. Anyone that speaks fluent English that tries to strike up a convo with a tourist on a street corner is up to no good. He actually, if memory serves, tried to ask me a question about sports. He just sidled up to me and asked “Do you like football?” I said, “Yeah, it’s great” and bolted across the street. We were whistled at, touted, and generally stared at as we walked around the city. I haven’t felt that unwelcome in a place in a while. We got some biscuits and waters and went back to the hotel. We rested. Dinner time approached. Kat and I looked at each other. We’d had 8 hours on buses, trains and cabs. We were sweaty and dirty. We were just done. Done with Casablanca, Done with Morocco and, in this moment, really done with traveling in general. These are the moments, and there are many of them, that people don’t think about when they hear the words “around the world trip.” In that moment, there was only thing to do:

This is, in fact, the actual McDonald's we ate at though this is not our photo.

This is, in fact, the actual McDonald’s we ate at though this is not our photo. 20 dirhams for a filet-o-fish?! Highway robbery!

Judge us. I don’t care. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Sometimes you just need a taste of home. We didn’t want to deal with finding a restaurant, getting there, dealing with the language barrier. We just wanted something quick and easy and, most of all, familiar. We darted to a McDonald’s we’d seen earlier in the day, went inside, ordered (it was the most crowded, chaotic McDonald’s I’d ever been in. MOBS of teenagers and a very harried employee taking peoples’ orders with a wireless device) got our stuff to go and bolted back to the hotel, refusing to look at anyone or anything. We ate our burgers and fries happily in bed and I hooked our laptop up to the tv and we watched American sitcoms. Casablanca was all happening right outside our window but it might as well have been a million miles away. We had traveled tens of thousands of miles over seven months and now we were doing all we could to try to feel like we were back in America. It was time for us to come home.

NOTE – Apologies for the lack of photos. We took no actual photos of Casablanca because why on Earth would we want to remember this place?

Essaouira – Vomit Bus to Paradise

We were happy to be taking leave of the all-inclusive resort in Agadir and all the pasty British people that live there. Very happy to finally check out and remove that goddamn blue wristband that I had to wear for 5 days to mark myself as one of the white tourist cattle that was entitled to free, crappy, all-you-can-drink martinis. Blerg. We were VERY excited for our next destination – Essaouira. A laid-back, quiet beach town famous for its windsurfing. When we told Moroccans we were headed to Essaouira they ALL said the same thing: “Lucky you!”

We got out of the taxi leaving the chatty driver and the (almost definitely) prostitute (see previous post) behind. We had gone to the bus station a few days earlier to buy our bus tickets in person because, surprise, the bus company’s website was broken (from what I can gather it NEVER works as when I asked hotel staff to assist in purchasing the tickets I was met with a shoulder shrug). So we’re waiting there for the bus…and waiting….and waiting. We began to panic that we’d done something wrong or that the bus was coming to a different part of the station or a different station entirely. No one spoke any English and even if they had, the bus station workers were much too engrossed in smoking cigarettes and scowling at anyone resembling a paying customer to answer my questions. So….we just waited. The bus did eventually arrive, an hour late, but better late than never.

The bus ride was pretty short – maybe only 3-4 hours. It was one of the most beautiful bus rides I have ever experienced. It was also one of the most awful. Not quite as bad as Burma’s 12 hour JESUS-I-HAVE-TO-PEE-BUT-THERE-ARE-40-MONKS-IN-MY-WAY-AND-THE-BUS-DOESN’T-MAKE-ANY-STOPS variety, but still bad. The route took us north directly (and I mean DIRECTLY) on Morocco’s rocky picturesque coastline. It was amazing scenery to look out as our bus drove along cliffs over the Atlantic. Occasionally you’d see caves where people had made homes right into the rocks. The road was incredibly twisty-turny and, on top of that, it also would go up incredibly steep climbs and then down steep drops. This did not abate for 3 hours. I do NOT get car sick EVER but even I was feeling a bit queasy. The 80 year old woman behind us was not of as stout a constitution as us. She immediately began vomiting into a plastic bag. Violent, wretching, incredibly smelly vomiting. This also went on for 3 hours. It was a situation where it was just so awful but she looked so frail and old. As a frequent traveler, my initial reaction to anything that inconveniences me is rage but, as Kat said to me, “This is somebody’s grandmother. How would you feel if that were your grandmother?” Mrs. Banh Mi makes me a better person every day.

Of course, that’s all in retrospect. At the time, I was not a happy camper. We stopped at a rest stop – really more of a shack with toilets (holes in the ground) and a few guys running a coal barbecue with about 6 whole animal carcasses hanging next to them. Normally I live for that sort of stuff but I wasn’t in the mood for food. Kat wanted some potato chips. We asked how much and were told some exorbitant sum like 20 dirhams — about $2.50.  This was highway robbery. That bag of chips wouldn’t cost that much in AMERICA, much less in bumblefuck western Morocco. Kat didn’t care. Her stomach wasn’t feeling right and she needed some starch in there. I refused to pay (and the guy refused to bargain). So for the umpteenth time a minor domestic ensued. These always play out the same way. Kat wants something. I am too cheap to pay for it. She gets upset. I realize I’ve made a mistake and relent. But THEN she doesn’t WANT it anymore. So we both sit in silence for 10 minutes until we both just agree to get over it. Needless to say, Mrs. Banh Mi got her chips in the end – along with an apology from me.

We got back on the bus. More wretching ensued. I cranked up my ipod and tried to remember Buddha’s teaching of the impermanence of the totality of human existence.

We finally arrived at Essaouira. We were staying at a traditional Moroccan home-stay called a riad. Homestay isn’t quite right. Imagine a B&B in a traditional Moroccan home. A guy from our riad was there to meet us at the bus station. Our bus was hours late and he had waited there the whole time. He also insisted on carrying our bags. For our whole stay in Essaouira he helped us, guided us and was generally kind beyond belief. When Kat’s watch broke he INSISTED on fixing it himself. It’s small kindnesses like this that transcend cultural and language boundaries that make longterm travel a special thing.

Our riad (http://riad-essaouira-malaika.com/) Riad Malaika was so wonderful. Friendly staff, beautiful building.

The view from right outside our room looking straight down to the fountain in the central courtyard. The breeze blowing over the water helps keep the building cool.

The view from right outside our room looking straight down to the fountain in the central courtyard. The breeze blowing over the water helps keep the building cool.

Our hallway

Our hallway

Hell, even the entryway into our bathroom was amazing

Hell, even the entryway into our bathroom was amazing

We took breakfast on the roof each morning

We took breakfast on the roof each morning

Essaouira is a popular destination and has been for quite some time. Apparently folks like Jimi Hendrix spent time here and this was a popular hippie/backpacking spot back in the 60’s. It remains a beautiful town with a historic medina feel despite the influx of tourism. There were a TON of tourists there – but they were mostly Moroccan families (though there was certainly no shortage of white people). It was the only place in Morocco where I was openly offered drugs – twice. There did seem to be a few hippy-types who would come to restaurants high as all hell and sit there and smoke cigarettes and drink coca-cola. We spent our time there wandering the windy streets inside the old fortress walls, walking on the (INCREDIBLY) windy beach and generally relaxing in the riad which despite the heat outside was cool and breezy with white walls and the traditional fountain in the center of the ground floor. We both loved being there and were very sad to leave. There isn’t a TON to do but that’s not the point. You just go and let the chill vibe wash over you.

SAM_3153 SAM_3150 SAM_3136 SAM_3131 SAM_3129 SAM_3125 SAM_3119

SAM_3161

Of course, there’s always time for goofing around:

SAM_3160

Whenever I think of Essaouira, I will think of this picture:

SAM_3174

Americans attach a lot preconceived notions to Islam and especially the Burqa and to the woman underneath it. This woman in her burqa and her sunhat says a lot to me. When a friend of mine asked if I had learned any grand truism about life from my trip I said not anything huge other than the universality that, really, we’re all just trying to live our lives and, hopefully, we’re lucky enough that once in a while we can spend a sunny day at the beach with the people that we love. I felt pretty awful about snapping this picture (we tried to do it surreptitiously) because this woman didn’t leave the house trying to be some sort of cross-cultural example to be displayed to the world — but she just spoke to me so much that I had to take it.

On our final night we elected to have dinner in the riad, prepared by the staff. We ordered the day before and we were able to watch (and smell) ALL DAY as the staff prepared our dinner. One of the cooks was preparing to leave for the day as we were eating. I saw her go into a room wearing one headscarf and come out in a different, more modern, headscarf. She shyly came over and asked how we were enjoying the food. It was, of course, amazingly delicious and we told her so. She smiled brightly and said, “Oh good! Very good!” and she hustled out the door. I loved that little interaction. She was proud of all the work she had put in all day and wanted a little bit of recognition. Chefs, no matter where they are from, are always the same.

This was a delicious lemony eggplant and ground lamb thing that was served as a starter.

This was a delicious lemony eggplant and ground lamb thing that was served as a starter.

The traditional and ubiquitous Moroccan soup, Harira. Usually made of chick peas, tomatoes and lentils.

The traditional and ubiquitous Moroccan soup, Harira. Usually made of chick peas, tomatoes and lentils.

The main course, obviously HAD to be, the classic tagine. I forget the one on the right but the one on the left was a beef and prune tagine which BLEW OUR MINDS. The best thing we ate in Morocco hands down.

The main course, obviously HAD to be, the classic tagine. I forget the one on the right but the one on the left was a beef and prune tagine which BLEW OUR MINDS. The best thing we ate in Morocco hands down.

Dessert was a series of cute handmade cookies -- including one that was shaped like the pointy cone-shaped hood that you see many older Moroccan men wearing

Dessert was a series of cute handmade cookies — including one that was shaped like the pointy cone-shaped hood that you see many older Moroccan men wearing

And, of course, no Moroccan meal is complete without mint tea. The teapot is gorgeous. Let's just agree to ignore that definitely racist handle cover.

And, of course, no Moroccan meal is complete without mint tea. The teapot is gorgeous. Let’s just agree to ignore that definitely racist handle cover.

After a few days and a wistful, windy walk on the beach it was time to leave. Our time in Morocco was coming to a close. We had a flight to catch out of Casablanca in two days. We had heard that Casablanca (correctly, as it turns out) is a miserable shithole and not worth spending any time in. So we only had one night budgeted there. We also had a hellish travel day ahead of us to get there. If you are a Banhmiandyou fan who likes to read posts where I am furious and full of rage, just you wait. This next one on our journey to, time in, and chaotic escape from Casablanca is a doozy.