Posts Tagged 'Morocco'

The Case for Casa

2501980441_83e5e9331eI didn’t plan on spending a night in Casablanca, but my bowels had other ideas.

Traveler’s diarrhoea—whatever, it happens; I’ll spare you the sordid details. Let’s just say that dehydration, gurgling cramps and lack of sleep, coupled with the stifling heat and constricted leg room of the 3-hour train ride from Meknes (this ain’t no Eurostar), were sufficient impetus to delay my connecting 7-hour bus ride in favor of a bed and flushing toilet. And so I ended up spending a night and morning in “the least Moroccan” city in Morocco, famous more for old Hollywood than medinas.

Most travelers and guidebooks will advise the eager tourist against anything more than lay-overs in what is arguably Morocco’s most well-known city. It’s too Westernized, they say, not exotic enough—full of all the traffic and shiny buildings and business men of home. It’s not the real Morocco, the cumin-scented crumbling alleyways of your fantasies.

During my lovely 2-day London lay-over, I read a Guardian travel article about Casablanca that my host had thoughtfully set aside for me. The author argued that Casablanca was just as much the real Morocco as anywhere else—and lacked the hassles and over-tourism of many of the country’s more popular destinations. I nibbled my morning toast and read with skepticism—sounded like a writer working a little too hard for an angle, to say something fresh and different.

Well, I’ll be god-damned if he wasn’t right.

Now, don’t get all excited. It’s true that Casablanca is not a beautiful or artistically cultured city; it doesn’t “boast” a lot of sights and its stray-cat- and donkey-less medina feels more like an outdoor strip mall than a relic of ancient urbanity. But Casablanca reveals a different side of Morocco, the struggles and tensions on the other end of the booming economy and rapidly growing tourism. I’m grateful for my extended stop-over in the city; without it, I don’t think I’d have gotten as full a view of the country.

Casablanca’s streets are filled with a different kind of energy—people swarming rhythmically and cross-walk-less across vast boulevards of sleek new cars and gasping palm trees. French business men and snappily dressed black Africans drop coins into the gnarled cupped palms of beggars. Less fortunate immigrants walk slowly along the sidewalks, displaying goods: tissues, random electronics, watches; they have thin arms, impossibly high cheekbones and a kind of dignified desperation. Young girls wear jellabas like bathrobes, carelessly; just as often, they sport bare arms and skinny jeans. The air is thick with honking horns, the streets grimy and littered. Colonial building facades look as though they’ve grown tired of being elegant; beside them, mirrored-glass new construction shoots into the sky arrogantly.

Despite an thriving economy—it grew nearly 6 percent in 2007—around 19 percent of the Moroccan population lives under the poverty line; no where is this more evident than in Casablanca. On the train ride in, we passed through scores of squatter settlements, sagging structures whose tin roofs were anchored with old tires and heavy rocks, sometimes a satellite dish. In direct contrast is the oceanside Hassan II Mosque, a half-billion-dollar monument to opulence and Islam that would have been offensive if it weren’t so damn impressive.  Since the 80s, Casablanca has also been the site of political uprisings, brutal repressions and suicide bombings.

You get a sense of this all walking the alternatingly busted-up and newly paved streets of the city—or slowly sipping mint tea at the cafes, what my sore stomach called for. I sat and watched the city, its people, pass; it fascinated me past my exhaustation and illness. In exchange, the city largely ignored me; I was just another poorly dressed, sallowed foreigner, totally uninteresting.

Casablanca’s not the kind of place to top itineraries. It’s not for the tourist who gushes glowingly about the authenticity of the Fez medina, or the simple quiantness of mountain village folk. It’s not for those seeking out some preconceived vision of exotism, doesn’t even try to live up to any stereotypes. It’s not for people looking to “get away” from it all. But if you wanna get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the carpet shops and faux guides, if you’re interested in seeing all of a country poised forever at a  crossroads of cultures and continents, if you’re traveling and not vacationing, I’d give it a look. Just be sure to buy some tissue along the way; you’ll need it in the bathrooms.

Bonjour guapa, you want sex?

No way did I flatter those boys with a photo. Here's a busy street in Meknes instead.

No way did I flatter those boys with a photo. Here's a busy street in Meknes instead.

In Fez and Meknes, I finally got a taste of the street harassment all the guidebooks warn of. It was still a lot tamer than anticipated, a multilingual assault of adolescent bravado more than an actual threat. Though the intention spans the confines of language, it’s easiest to brush off these comments when they’re in French or Spanish. It’s a little like having monkeys hurl feces at you; it sticks less when you don’t know the actual words being said.

But those boys are a cunning lot, and have managed to master a few key phrases in English: “massage”, “sex”, “fuck”, and most telling of all, “you like me?” Just to be safe, they like to mix it up, covering all linguistic bases, just to make sure their intention is entirely communicated.

The harassment comes nearly exclusively from one group, teenagers in Western clothing. Adult men are by-and-large very respectful; if anything, they want to sell you something, but I’ve had far more pleasant exchanges with adult Moroccan men than not. The young guys dressed in traditional jellabas tend to just ignore me, which is A-OK; same with the poorer young men, who just want to shine my dirty sneakers or sell me some tissue. It’s the 12-18 year olds in faux Western clothing you’ve gotta watch out for.

They hang in packs, pushing and nudging and teasing one another. They’re a kind of pathetic lot: thin and self-conscious, somehow lost in their t-shirts and blue jeans, short hair over-gelled and haphazardly spiked. They are consumed by this proposterous posturing, seeming at once to resent and idolize Western culture. They desperately strive to emulate it, can’t quite get it right; their cat-calls and gross comments feel like a plea for acknowledgment, validation. They want so much to be taken seriously, to be something other than what they are—and in that way, I suppose they’re not unlike any other ill-at-ease teenager. I can relate to the insecurity, know so well where it springs from, and I almost feel sorry for them when I see them all there, so sadly absurd in their metallic G Star Raw shirts and bedazzled-pockets denim.

And then they say some dumb shit, and I don’t feel so sorry for them anymore.

It’s a pain in the ass, for sure, but it seems to be something that comes with the territory, part of what it means to be born female in this world. It can wear you down—I may or may not have snapped and thrown a banana peel at a man in Venezuela once—but I’m sure as hell not gonna let it stop me from seeing the world, from being in it as fully as I can. I’m just gonna cover myself in thick-ass skin, maybe a tarp or something. You know, so the feces doesn’t stick.

Fez Through the Window

DSCN3272I arrived last night in the swarming, honking, neon-lit mess of life that is Fez.

The excruciatingly haggled taxi I shared with a mother-daughter duo from the bus station to the medina (we were accused of being “cheap like Berbers”—is racism usually an effective bartering technique?) deposited us at the gates to the 1200-year-old medina, what the guidebooks call the entryway back in time, into another world. After eight hours on a rattling first-class bus through plastic-littered landscapes and vast expanses of mountains, forests and fields, it felt like I had been belched into a place where millennia collided. I was swarmed in the frenzied, electric chaos of humanity—and, as always, I loved it.

I grabbed a room in the first cheap hotel I spotted, a simple space not much bigger than the double bed that occupied it. The wooden shutters were thrown open, revealing the light and noise, the smell of strange spices and the hum of motorbikes, the grit and life and incessant sea of people on the throughfare below. It didn’t matter that the threadbare room was only 80 dirhams (about $10) a night; I wanted it for those windows.

I knew it would be noisy (why one should always travel with earplugs), and I’m sure the novelty of the hustle-bustle will wear off, but so far, I’ve loved sitting hunched over my notebook on the lumpy mattress, staring out through the wrought-iron bars at the street—my own private perch, where I can spy like a secret, and take it all in.

I closed the shutters around 11pm last night, with stereos still bumping, engines groaning, dogs barking and cats crying and men shouting intermittenly. The glass of the shutters had been crudely painted over, so some of the street still got in, a thin illumination reminding me where I was. My earplugs only slightly muffled the medina din.

When I woke, I took out the earplugs and just laid, listening to the street as it arose, stretched, came alive. Birds shrieked in a high-pitched panic; a voice boomed from a loud speaker, wailed in prayer. Metal shutters rattled awake and voices called to one another; somewhere, a rooster crowed. I wiggled the warped wood apart; the smells of cooking meat and mint burst through. I sat and stared from my bed at the ancient city, its beaten streets and ashy rooftops, its sand-colored crumble of stone on stone, its endless passing of colored robes.

I had arrived in the heart of it, and was ready to join in.

Morocco: First Impressions

DSCN3259As I staggered off the Tarifa ferry, through the desserted port gates and into the quiet Tangier morning, I had a thought I’ve had before. It was the same thought I had as I first stared through a taxi window at the hazy Lima streets, when I first stepped out the Bogota airport, when I walked around big bad cities like Caracas and Mexico City. The thought is, “Oh. This is it?”

And I don’t mean it in a disappointed, anti-climatic way. The opposite, in fact. After all the hype, all the warnings and precautions, horror stories and wayward looks, my initial reaction to notorious destinations I’ve encountered is, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. Or so scary or different.”

Okay, I admit the squat toilet I used earlier in a restaurant bathroom was a little different. And I didn’t expect that hooded jellabas would look so curiously like clan robes. But, really—the intense cultural shock I’d been prepping for, again, didn’t hit.

My guidebook had prepared me to be inundated with pushy faux guides as soon as I left the port gates, to be lured into medina shops and held captive till I bought something, to be oogled and followed like a celebrity by sex-starved adolescents because I’m a solo Western female. Guess what? None of these things happened.

DSCN3241What did happen: I left the port gates, took a moment getting my orientation, and found the left luggage office. The clerk and I fumbled with mutally poor Spanish, and I left my backpack secure. I headed uphill, largely ignored by every passerby, and parked it at a cafe along the Grand Socco. I lazed, and have been wandering the Medina and Ville Nouvelle ever since. I plan on getting a coffee at the Beat-beloved Cafe Paris before meeting up with my couchsurfing host (only slightly concerned we won’t actually connect).

So far, the street harassment I so feared is, well, about what it is at home. Maybe less. A few young men have said hello in whatever white-person language they think I might speak; I’ve been the target of one gross kissing sound, and received one offer to be bought coffee. In short, Latin America still wins the prize for harassment, cat-calling and all-around-demeaning (but what kind of prize would that be?).  Attempts in Tangier have thus far proven half-hearted, generally good-natured and easy to brush off.

DSCN3236I’m also surprised by the dress of the women. I wasn’t expecting burkhas or even necesarily hijabs, but I’ve even seen some short sleeves—on the younger women, that is. I’m tromping around town in long sleeves, but I’ve seen many tourists in spaghetti straps and shorts. I have yet to see visible tattoos (does a knock-off Ed Hardy shirt count?), which I’ll take as a que to keep mine covered.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for half the city to still be shut down for Eid (thus the killing of time in an internet cafe). The attractions I’d starred in my guidebook have all been closed, and I haven’t been able to find any open shops in which to buy better long-sleeve shirts in. I’m hoping for tomorrow.

As I wandered around the Medina’s narrow Medieval “streets” (some aren’t as wide as my arms’ reach), I came around a blind corner and narrowly missed walking dead into a hijab-donning middle-aged women. We paused, made eye contact; we both smiled and laughed, then went on our way. I guess this is the oh-so-frightening Morocco, Muslim, African and not all that different.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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