Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca

Casablanca, we’d been hearing from several people who’d been there, is a letdown. It is, they reported, a city for commerce rather than a city for sightseeing. So we were pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be surprisingly pleasant. Of course, some people who have not been there have an overly glamorized perception of the city because of the classic movie of the same name (which actually was filmed on a studio backlot in L.A.); they seem to forget that the film portrays Casablanca as a place where people were dwelling in limbo, eager to get out of and go somewhere else.

Well, our take is that neither image is accurate; Casablanca is neither glamorous nor gloomy. It is, rather, a large modern metropolis which, though deficient in historical landmarks, is not at all a bad place to spend some time.

Leaving Berrechid

We came to Casablanca from Berrechid, where we’d been volunteering through WorkAway the better part of two weeks. The school’s driver, Khalil, picked us up in Berrechid – fortunately after Kimberly had found her missing case for our power adapter, which also contained the miniature worry doll she’d bought in Guatemala. Can’t continue the tour safely without the Guatemalan worry doll.

Then he drove us to Casablanca, where we picked up two brand new volunteers, Caitlin and Nico. They’re a young couple who met while traveling (she’s American, he’s South African), and now they’ll be part of our team for a while. Before he dropped us off at our new quarters, Kahlil gave us a whirlwind tour of some of the city’s points of interest.

First up was the Olive Souq, a marketplace that specializes in… well, olives. More varieties of olives than you could imagine ever existed in your wildest Technicolor dreams. They looked as if the folks at Crayola had decided to go into the olive farming business on the side. Near this marketplace was the king’s spare palace, though it didn’t look particularly impressive from the outside.

While walking through this area, we came upon a group of high school students who appeared to be involved in some kind of scuffle. On closer inspection, we saw that it was two or three of them fighting – if you could call it a fight when one person holds another in a headlock and pummels him relentlessly. Dennis didn’t notice what was going on, but Kimberly did and headed over to break it up and Kahlil backed her up, maybe saving someone from serious injury.

Our next stop was what is probably Casablanca’s finest architectural achievement, even though it isn’t very old (only about 30 years, though it looks older): the Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in Morocco and the seventh-largest in the world. Its minaret, the second-tallest in the world at 689 feet, towers above the shoreline like a lighthouse (which it sort of is, with a laser beam pointed toward Mecca), but with the splendor of the Colossus of Rhodes. We took a peek inside the lobby, but there is a charge for touring, and the outlander rate is exactly double what the locals pay, so we decided to pass. In our experience, mosques are more interesting on the outside than on the inside, anyway.

And then we stopped at the beach, which was a few miles away from the center of town, and just across the road from Sindibad Park (yes, that’s how they spell it), an amusement park/ zoo with a cartoonish statue of Sinbad the Sailor out front – we at first mistook him for Aladdin. It was a fine beach, but unfortunately we didn’t really spend any time there – just stopped briefly and then moved on. A pity, because considering its inconvenient location, we doubted that we’d have a good chance to come back.

It’s just as well that we didn’t stay longer, because we were eager to get to our new digs, the next stop on our itinerary. Truth be told, we had some misgivings about the volunteer quarters in downtown, because we’d heard that there is a great deal of noise on Friday and Saturday nights from the club downstairs. As it turned out, this was greatly exaggerated; or at least it wasn’t an issue in the room we had; we hardly heard the din at all, especially with some serviceable earplugs.

And we really rather liked the apartment. It was in a classic old stone building with hardwood floors. There was a complete kitchen, and piping hot water in the shower. We shared the space with Caitlin and Nico, as well as another fellow named… Nico. Really. But he was from Oregon, not South Africa.

Arriving on a Monday, we had a couple of days off to get acquainted with the city before we began teaching. One place we went was the medina, the older, walled hub of the city with a lot of vendors. Naturally, Kimberly the trip photographer, had her camera at the ready. At one point, a fellow who suspected that she was making a video of him, ran after us and demanded that she cease and desist – this was after we were well past where he was. So we assured him that he should not be so paranoid, because he was mistaken about us mistaking him for a media star.

Not finding all we needed/ sought/ craved in the marketplace, we ended up at yet another in a series of malls we’ve found ourselves resorting to in the countries we’ve visited. This one featured a really cool slide that you could slide on from one floor down to another, and security didn’t care if the kids who slid on it were kids in our age bracket.

In the mall was a sporting/ outdoorsy store somewhat like REI. Here we found some backpacks that struck our fancy – not the omnibus mule packs we wear on our backs when we are in transit, but smaller ones to wear in front. We already had one of these for each of us – one holds electronic gear and the other holds food and related items – but they both leave something to be desired, so we’d been seeking suitable replacements for some time. It’s tricky to find bags that are large enough to carry what we need carried in them, yet compact enough to fit under an airplane seat – these bags are always carry-ons. But these two seemed to fill the bill, so we bought them. But once we got them home, we finally came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t work out after all. So the next day we returned them.

Another store we went to (not in the mall, but not far away) was Marjane, a Wal-Mart type of supercenter where we hoped to stock up on a few hard-to-find grocery items. While browsing, we made the acquaintance of a fellow from Virginia who lives in Casablanca with his Moroccan wife. In addition to getting most of the groceries we needed, we found – wouldn’t you know it – actual bed sheets, such as we’d been searching for in vain for weeks. Of course we found them right after we’d already given up and bought unhemmed strips of cloth as a substitute. Well, we figured we could use all of the above, so we went ahead and purchased the sheets too.

Back at home, we were able to wash all of our sheets, thanks to the washing machine that was another of the welcomed amenities of our apartment. The only problem with it was that its drain outlet was not connected to any plumbing, so you had to keep a tub under it to catch the water, then dump it out into the nearby shower before it filled up again, The process required keeping a close eye on it, lest it overflow and make a mess. Don’t ask us how we know.

Although the downtown campus of the language school was only a short walk from our apartment, that was not where we were assigned, at least not at first. Instead, we were going to a busier branch, a few miles away. This required walking a few blocks to catch a metro, and riding it about half an hour, then getting off and being picked up by Khalil, who drove us the rest of the way. On the first day, before taking us on to the school, he stopped at a little outdoor restaurant and treated us to a tasty lunch of hearty lentil stew and bread. And the obligatory Moroccan tea, which he served to us by holding the pot up high as he poured, a Moroccan gesture of respect.

At the school, we’d each have 7 to 8 sessions of about 20 minutes each; each session would entail sitting in the hallway (classrooms were occupied with bigger groups) with 3 to 5 students.

Also at this school, we finally met Bob, a fellow American volunteer whom we’d been hearing a great deal about, and he turned out to be every bit the character he’d been rumored to be. Like Dennis, Bob is a southerner by birth (Arkansas and Texas respectively) who later moved to California (San Francisco and L.A. respectively). Like Kimberly, he is an avid photographer.

He’d been in Morocco for several months, a stay that soon was coming to an end, and he was becoming quite frustrated with the lack of opportunity to get good photographs of the people. Moroccans are often reticent about being photographed in public – as we’d just learned ourselves. And he’d run into all kinds of problems arranging a space to hold a photo shoot and models to participate at the same time. Once, he thought he’s set up a good shoot, but one of the parties just flaked out on him. Another time, he was going to do a shoot with a male and female model in her apartment, but learned at the last minute that this was strictly taboo in Morocco.

He was looking forward to returning to India, where he’d already spent a great deal of time. The people there, he said, are colorful subjects and are much more open to being photographed. As it happened, we were scheduled to be in India soon ourselves, so we discussed with him the possibility of our meeting up with him after we got there. (Spoiler alert: we did.)

Just Being a Baby Bird

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