Markets and Meetups: Day two in Casablanca

I quickly acclimated to Moroccan culture and was able to enjoy my second day with fewer culture blasts than the first.

I got a late start to the day, enjoying my time to sleep and eat breakfast at the hotel (which was wonderful, by the way! I highly recommend Moroccan House Hotel for anyone staying in Casablanca.) After breakfast, I had to switch hotel rooms because I had a new room which was booked as part of the tour. By the time I had settled in to my new room and gotten ready for the day, it was around noon.

I began the day by going back to the crowded part of town where I had eaten previously — the part that was full of shops and cafés. I turned a few different corners than I had before, and suddenly found myself in a   packed street market. It was exactly how I’d expect a market in Morocco to be. There were rows and rows of tiny stands packed with hand-crafted goods and plenty of knock-offs. I spent about an hour roaming around the market, getting lost in the winding walkways. I stopped at many shops and bought souvenirs for pretty much everyone I know. I’m terrible and bargaining because, though I, too, have very little money, I like supporting the local community; but at times I would buy two or three items from a stand and ask the seller for a discount for all of them. I had a pretty productive day at the market and found many neat knick-knacks, but after a while I grew tired and decided to leave to go somewhere else.

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I walked toward the water and stopped at a bench where I could feel the sea breeze blowing despite the view of the ocean blocked by big buildings. I took out the book I had with me any read for a while in peace while I stopped to look up every once in a while to watch cars zoom past.

When the sun became too hot and I reached a good breaking point in my book, I rose again to continue walking. This time, I walked around until I found Rick’s Cafe, the restaurant named after the famous cafe from the classic film Casablanca. When I saw a woman get rejected from entering the cafe because she did not meet the elite dress code requirements in her jeans and t-shirt, I figured that I, in my casual tee and maxi skirt, would be rejected as well so I did not ask to go in. But I did ask the bouncer at the door to take a picture of me in front of the café. 🙂

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After that success, I headed back to the hotel where I was to meet my tour group for orientation. I got there briefly before the meeting, and went up to my room where I met my roommate, a young Canadian who is between jobs and now off traveling. We walked to the lobby together and met our tour group in a lavishly decorated sitting area.

The guide introduced himself and gave a brief background of the tour. After filling out some necessary paperwork, we all got to know each other and became familiar with names and home countries. My tour is a diverse group; I’m the youngest, and one of three from America, the other two being a middle-aged couple form Missouri. Then there’s my roommate and her friend, both mid-20s and from Toronto. Another middle-aged woman from Toronto is on the tour, along with three other solo travelers — a girl from Vancouver, and young woman from Milan and a young guy (who’s apparently already a doctor!) from Sydney. There are two other Aussies, an elderly couple from New South Wales who are still very alive a kicking.

Everyone on the tour is extroverted, friendly and jovial — a blast to have on a small tour. We went to dinner together and enjoyed some traditional Moroccan cuisine along with wine, mint tea and Casablanca beer. Dinner was fabulous, but we all felt tired from traveling so we ended the night early and headed back to the hotel for sleep.

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Tomorrow, we’re off to Meknes and Fes, and I cannot wait to have tours of both! After today’s adventure, I’ve grown to really, really like Casablanca, but I’m ready to leave tomorrow and see some of the other beautiful cities Morocco is known for.

My first thoughts of Casablanca!

Today has been a crazy but wonderfully eye-opening day. My flight to Casablanca from D.C was blissful. Discouraged by my flights to and from London with Kuwait Airways, which were both horribly late and caused me to miss connections, I prepared myself to have an equally as crappy time flying to Casablanca. But Air France surprised me by being perfectly on time, even arriving early to Paris so I had more time to get to my connecting flight from Paris to Morocco. The food was fabulous, the attendants were friendly and helpful and the in-flight entertainment was spot on. I watched Casablanca, of course, and American Hustle, along with a few episodes of Modern Family. it was so hard to choose what to watch though because I there were so many options!

The only problem with the flight, which is no fault of Air France, was that I didn’t sleep at all during it; and when I arrived in Casablanca, it felt like 2:00 a.m. because that’s what time it was at home, but it was mid-morning in Casablanca, and I had whole day ahead of me! So, sleeping apparently wasn’t on the agenda.

Consequently, I arrived in Casablanca rather delirious and not prepared for the adventure in store. My first dose of cultureshock came when I went to the bathroom at the airport. My word, the stench reeked to the high heavens, though the cleaning crew had been in there right before I walked in. As soon as I finished up and opened the door of the stall to walk out, another girl walked in the stall while I was still trying to exit. I was taken aback, but continued on my way. But I couldn’t reach the sink because the girl’s friend had opened up her suitcase right in front of the sink and was rummaging through looking for something to change into. I patiently waited for her to finish up, but when I saw her begin to strip naked and change into the new clothes, completely ignoring the fact that I was waiting to get to the sink, I gently reached over her suitcase and stretched my arms to the sink and washed my hands. As I walked out of the restroom, a bathroom attendant handed me toilet paper to dry my hands with, which of course left paper residue all over my freshly washed skin.

Welcome to Casablanca.

Leaving the airport took some time, too, because I honestly could not tell which cars were taxis! None of the cars in the designated taxi area had the word “taxi” on them, but I watched as people got into them just the same. So I followed suit, but of course it was difficult to communicate with a driver who spoke only French and Arabic while I know only English and Spanish. I ended up showing him the address of my hotel which printed on tour documents, and he understood.

Fourty minutes and 350 Durham later, I arrived at the Moroccan House Hotel. My heart started to race when I went to check in and the receptionist said she did not have my reservation. WHAT THE WHAT! I showed her my confirmation email and explained now I had booked through Expedia and had already paid, but she said they had no record of my reservation. So I sat down in the lobby while she contacted her supervisor to get my room worked out.

Luckily, the interior of the hotel was so enchanting I was distracted from the room situation for a while. I looked around and gazed at the traditional Moroccan décor, including mosaic tiles covering every surface with elaborate designs and lavish furniture with beautiful, bright embroideries. A second receptionist brought me a tray of tea and cookies while I waited, which further distracted me from the situation, and I immediately set me at ease. I mean, c’mon, how can you feel anxious when you have a try of cookies in front of you?

After a few minutes, I was told that they had an available room for me and a bellhop helped my bring my bags tog my room. Things were looking up! The hotel staff was very pleasant afterward and made me feel very welcome. I settled in, took a quick nap, then freshened up and got ready to head out into town and walk around.

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My first thoughts walking around were “Damn, it’s hot!” I wore a long, loose dress over a pair of leggings out of respect for the modest dress code. But even those clothes made me feel like I was burning up in the desert sun!

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Despite the heat, Casablanca glistens. It’s the most metropolitan city in Morocco so not surprisingly there were people everywhere, including in the streets, as if traffic wasn’t anything to worry about. The city has a general foul odor to it, but as I walked closer to the ocean, the breeze helped whisk some of the stench away. I walked along a long, main road which ran along the coast of the shore. I couldn’t see the water though, because buildings and sand walls blocked the view.

I continued on until I arrived at the Hasan II Mosque. I don’t know much about its history, so please forgive me for my ignorance, but I did know that it was an extraordinary architectural feat and is the main attraction of Casablanca. It’s hard to describe how grandiose the structure is, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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I spent about an hour at the mosque, taking pictures and soaking in the sun as I stood at the water’s edge to watch wave crash against the mosque’s foundation. I was surprised by the number of people swimming in the water; there was no beach, so people (as in young men and boys only) were eagerly jumping over huge rocks to dive into the crashing waves. I was surprised no one got hurt, but I figure they do this so often they know how to protect themselves.

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After leaving the mosque, I wandered the streets for a while. I was starving, but I couldn’t find a restaurant that looked inviting. I have this thing about always eating outside at restaurants when it’s warm out, and luckily almost all restaurants here have outdoor seating, but very few had seats that weren’t full of men watching me as I walked by and making cat calls. I knew they were probably harmless, but I didn’t much fancy the idea of sitting down alone next to a table of me watching me while I ate. So I continued to walk around for about two more hours, looking for a place to eat.

Along the way, I got to see more of the busy streets and North African architecture. Casablanca is unlike any city I’ve ever visited. The buildings have modern, geometric designs, but most are run down and decrepit. Sand plays a huge role in the colors of building and walls here, as most are shades of tan and white.

I enjoyed wandering around and taking pictures, but hunger got the best of me, and I ended up at McDonalds. It’s the last place I ever want to eat when I’m traveling because I’d rather enjoy authentic local food, but I needed someplace reliable and fast, and where I knew how to pronounce the items on the menu. So, McDonalds it was.

I ate quickly and resumed my place wandering the streets. This time, I found myself in a bustling area, apparently the city center, which was full of shops, cafés and street vendors trying to bargain with every person who walked by. I walked a few laps around the streets, just soaking in the views and observing how Moroccans behave and interact. They’re much less bothered by personal space here, a lot more honk-happy when it comes to driving, and everyone seems to know everyone. I was learning a lot, but by then the sky was getting dark and I decided it was in my best interest to head back to the hotel.

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I’m now in my hotel room, writing this post on my iPhone (so please excuse any typos!) and getting ready for bed. It’s been a long but exciting day, and I can’t wait to connect with my G Adventure tour group tomorrow. I like Casablanca, and it’s been a joy to explore alone, but I think having some traveling companions and a tour guide to help give context to everything I’m seeing will make the rest of this adventure even better.

 

I won a trip to Morocco — and I’m leaving in 2 days!

Image from moviepilot.com
Image from moviepilot.com

I haven’t posted anything to the blog about this yet, because it seemed too surreal, but in two days, I’m leaving for a 10-day trip to Morocco.

Yes, Morocco. Totally random, right? I mean everything else on this blog is about Europe – how I’ve been saving up for it, planning itineraries, sharing tales of my adventures and so on.

And now I’m going to Africa.

Here’s how it happened:

The Contest

In March, I got a promo email from StudentUniverse, my ride-or-die site for booking flights, about a contest the company was hosting. Entrants were to create boards on Pinterest tagged #NeverHaveIEver and pin a bunch of travel-related things that they’ve always wanted to do, like skydiving, going snorkeling in Sydney, riding a gondola through Venice, etc. The grand prize was a trip to Morocco and $500 towards a flight.

Morocco had never crossed my mind as a destination to but on my bucket list, but I thought Y-O-HACTVMFF-O (you-only-have-a-chance-to-visit-Morocco-for-free-once), so I entered the contest.

Already a devoted pinner, I had no problem getting the board going. For the entire month of April I poured all pinning efforts into my Never Have I Ever board. Any free time I had before and during classes, I’d take to the board and pin pictures of all the beautiful cities I want to visit and crazy escapades I wanted to embark on.

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For a month this went on, and along the way I shared some of my pins with StudentUniverse on Pinterest and Twitter, grasping their attention and promoting their contest. And then, about a week after the contest ended, I saw this tweet:

StudentUniverse Tweet

OHHHHH EMMMMM GEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!1!!1!!!!!1!!!!!!!

I couldn’t believe it. I won. I won a trip to Morocco. I was going to Morocco. Morocco. MOROCCO!

The Dilemma

I sent an email to the address provided and waited, and waited, and waited. I finally heard back and got the details of the contest. The tour dates are all pre-set, so I had to choose any from the list provided that worked for me.The only conditions were that the tour had to depart before the end of August and already have at least four people signed up.

That’s where I hit a brick wall. My internship was already letting me take off a month for my trip to Europe, so I definitely couldn’t take off another week to go to Morocco.

Frick.

The other option would be to go the last week before school starts, but then I’d be missing crucial preparation time.

Frickety.

Decision time. I sat on it for a while, evaluating pros and cons, but then had to smack myself upside the head (in Homer Simpson style) when I realized traveling to a new country was way more important than missing preparation time for my last year of college.

I sent StudentUniverse my dates and mentally prepared myself for the adventure that Morocco would bring. But then I got a response. The tour group I chose did have enough people signed up, so I couldn’t go on that one. I had to choose another tour date that departed the week after or the week prior. My only options, then, were to have my internship boss kill me (figuratively…kinda) or miss the first week of school.

FRACK.

I was forced to make an ultimate decision. I definitely couldn’t take off from my internship because I desperately needed the money to afford going on the trip (Young, Broke Traveler). That left me with option #2. (Keep in mind that I’m an honors student who’s had perfect attendance since kindergarten, graduated high school with a 4.0, and has been on the dean’s list every semester of college — and I’m not bragging, I’m just trying to convey how important school is to me!) It killed me to think of missing my first week  of class, but I also thought “When will I ever get another chance to experience northern Africa and spend a week learning about a culture completely different from what I’m used to, meeting people who will teach me a different way of life, and appreciating the natural beauty of the world?”

A trip to Morocco would teach me more than I could ever learn sitting in a class that first week of school. Plus, Y-O-HACTVMFF-O, right? I responded to the agents at StudentUniverse that I’ll take the tour to that goes from Aug. 30 – Sept. 6. And that was that.

I completely pushed Morocco out of my mind to return my focus to my Eurotrip. Over the next few months, Europe was all I thought about, wrote about and talked about. But now it’s Aug. 26, and I’ve got some preppin’ to do.

The Details

The tour, a G Adventures tour called Morocco Kasbahs & Desert, begins in Casablanca and heads through Meknes, Fes, Merzouga, Todra Gorge, Aït Ben Haddou and Marrakech. The 14 of us on the guided tour will be traveling in a quaint van from town to town, staying in hotels, walking through medinas and meeting locals. Midweek, we’ll even be hopping on camel-back (I’ll do my best to refrain from making Hump Day jokes) and riding out to the desert where we’ll camp out overnight.

Morocco Tour Map

Yeah, sounds better than sitting in a classroom taking notes on data analytics, doesn’t it?

I’m flying into Casablanca early to have an extra day to explore the city. I leave Thursday the 28th and will arrive early Friday morning, spending the day alone until my tourmates arrive the next day. Saying I’m nervous doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m realizing how sheltered I’ve been traveling to touristy places where most people speak English or Spanish and I’ve been comfortable on my own. Morocco, while generally safe, is not the safest place for a young woman to travel alone due to the forwardness of most Moroccan men. And the primary languages spoken are Arabic and French, of which I know nothing. So I better not get lost.

I’m aware that I am freaking out for no reason and I’ll be fine — especially in a city as metropolitan as Casablanca. But for now I’m just doing my best to prepare and make sure everything can go as smoothly as possible. And trying to get the phrase “Here’s looking at you, kid” out of my head. 🙂

Have you been to Morocco? Casablanca? What did you think? Any advice to offer me?