It’s been three days since I left Portland, to spend six-weeks studying Arabic and Moroccon culture in Fes, Morocco, and I’ve already had more adventures then I can count. I flew out of Portland at 6:55 a.m. without having slept the night before after deciding that it would be more beneficial to actually pack my bags and have a good send off with my two room mates (excellent light show, Jacob). Thanks to the resulting exhaustion, I was able to sleep all the way to JFK (I usually never sleep on planes). I flew into JFK, and out to Casablanca without any hassles whatsoever. I even made a friend, Omar, on the flight to Casablanca. It turns out Omar will be at my school (American Language Institute in Fes, ALIF) as well, but for six months on a military orders to learn Arabic. Omar was from Niger originally, speaks English, French, and three dialects of Xhosa (please correct my spelling if this is off). After coming to the US in 2001, he joined the military a few years later and is currently finishing up his seventh out of an eight year service commitment.
Earlier this year, over spring break actually, I was lucky enough to be able to visit my girlfriend in Australia where she is studying abroad. Now, going through customs and “passport control” in Australia was a breeze. Not so in Fes. The lines to enter the Casablanca airport were long and slow. After one of the officials opened up the “Moroccan Passport Only” line to non-Moroccon passport holders in order to speed things up, Omar and I were turned away without explanation. So, we then had to return to our previous long and slow moving line. It took around an hour to actually get into the airport.
After that, Omar and I said goodbye and I set out to find out where I should check-in for my next flight. And this is where my Arabic was first put to the test. I figured out how to say “I am travelling to fes” (سأسافر الئ فاس) to a terminal worker who promptly pointed me in the right direction. On a completely different note, it was very surprising to experience the restroom attendant phenomenon. I was definitely not expecting someone (all women from what I observed) to enter the restroom and hand me a paper towel.
Back in JFK, I realized that instead of a one hour layover in Casablanca, I actually had around fifteen hours. My information was just a bit off. This may be one of the best mistakes of my life.
After saying goodbye to Omar, I wasn’t exactly sure that if I left the airport if/where I could re-enter in a timely fashion. It turned out the entrances were clearly marked and this was nothing to worry about. However, I decided to quickly get a GSM, prepaid phone (a very worthwhile investment as you will see later). With an additional hour-and-a-half of minutes, the phone, SIM card, and minutes cost about 800 Moroccan Dirhams (MAD), equal to roughly $100 USD.
I walked out of the airport and made a few calls just to test the phone out. After that, I approached a young man about my age to see where I could pick up a taxi. He didn’t speak any English, which was perfectly fine. My wild hand gestures and limited-cave-man Arabic eventually got us over to the taxi stand where he hooked me up with a driver to take me into Casablanca actual. I did have an entire day to kill, after all.
Abdel Ali took me through the beautiful country-side and to the Hassan II Mosque, which sits right on the Atlantic Ocean. We arranged for him to pick me up later that evening at the same spot.
The Mosque is beautiful beyond words (I will be uploading pictures soon). It was erected in 1993 and if I’m not mistaken is the tallest building in the country (please correct me if lonely planet proves to be false).
After snapping a few pictures of the Mosque, I meandered along the pier, through part of the city and eventually found this very odd “Carla Concept Store.” And extremely European-modernist style cafe with pictures of random European models everywhere and vespa-rip-off to boot. Very good food.
I continued to wander around the city near the Mosque for an hour or so. The area of Casablanca that I was exploring seemed to be very poor, not a touristy area, and just filled with trash everywhere you looked. I also received my first glimpse of a shanty town. I also walked along what I later found out was the wall of the old medina (city) of Casblanca. At first I couldn’t figure out what they were doing, but a number of men were stringing out and braiding strands of string that were 30-40 feet long tied around spikes in the wall. Driss, our site director, and what of the coolest and most knowledgeable people I’ve ever known, told me that they were weaving braids that are attached to traditional Moroccan clothing – as we saw later in the old medina of fes where all of the markets and shops are.
I eventually came back to the ocean, but this time I went to the north side of the Mosque. This side was covered in young men and boys (a number of whom seemed to have made a hobby out of push-up contests) all jumping in and swimming in a shoal that comes right up to the Mosque. This side of the Mosque and up the coast for a number of miles is covered in those tri-cone-cement-block things that look like toy jacks, but without the fourth spike. This area is covered with kids and fishermen. One of the kids even asked if I wanted to swim. I unwillingly declined as there were my belongings to consider.
Abdel brought his friend, Osama (or as he immediately put forward, “you know, like Bin Laden!”), who he had asked to take me around the city, but had been not been able to because of prior commitments. Osama came to find me in the enormous square surrounding the Mosque (blonde-white-guy in shades wasn’t that hard to spot), and rode back with Abdel and I. As Osama spoke excellent English, he gave me a mini tour of the city as Abdel drove us out. The end of the city and the beginning of the countryside was, as Osama it, marked by the appearance of horses and horse drawn carriages. These are not the |preened and proper|” horses and carriages you see in New York, these are majestic animals that are the livelihoods of their owners, riders, and drivers.
After getting back to the airport, I said goodbye to Abdel and exchanged numbers with Osama who told me to call him if I ever make it back to Casablanca. Then I went through the final stage of security (which seems to be pretty relaxed in the airports) and made it to the gate with quite a few hours to spare.
A number of times while I was sitting there, the people waiting by my gate started screaming at the officials. I thought this quite the odd phenomenon. The majority of the screaming and wild gesticulating seemed to becoming from one woman and her baby, so I thought it might have had something to do with accommodations, or lack thereof, for her child on the plane.
Oh how wrong I was. As I walked up to the gate around 11:00 p.m. I discovered the cause of the outbursts. My flat was being rerouted to Nador (close to the Algerian border), before actually going to Fes. This would mean a delay of a couple hours, and the people who understood what was happening (a better understanding of French or Arabic really would have been nice at this point) were angry nearly to the point of blows about it.
So, I got on the shuttle bus to the plane, which took off and landed in Nador without any issues while I slept soundly. I called Driss on my cell phone (this is having a phone comes in handy) and told him what was going on, or at least what I understood. To say the least, he was quite surprised that I was heading towards Algeria.
I was picked up by the shuttle driver Driss had originally arranged for and by Driss himself who wanted to make sure everything worked out. As he told me later, the flight information was never updated online, and he found the driver asleep with his feet hanging out of the back door when he arrived at the airport.
We made it to the Hotel Mounia alright, and I passed out. Now, keep in my that I am an extremely light sleeper. My room mates will attest to this as I constantly pester them to turn down event he quietest music when I go to bed. I set two loud alarms right next to my head, both of which I overslept by by about forty minutes. I stumbled to the lobby of the hotel, apologized for being so damn late, and began the real adventure.
I need to go get some homework done for tomorrow now, but there will be much more to come. Pictures will hopefully be posted soon as well.