Saturday, March 21, 2009

Arab, Euro, African Collision

The worst hour of the day for a plane flight.

A word about the Accra airport at 2:00 am... There is hardly anyone awake, and because I was early for my flight - the only flight that leaves after midnight from Accra - the customs line was completely deserted and silent.

Am I supposed to walk straight through and not get my passport stamped? I wander through to security, where two guards are cracking jokes and playing poker.

"No ladyee, you have to go back to customs..."

I protest, "But nobody is there!"

"Yes there is, you just gotta go back there and find them!"

I walk back to the customs area and hear nothing but the sound of dripping rain from ceiling to bucket and the faint hum, no wait - Snoring!?! From this angle, I see a foot sticking out from behind the customs booth. And, as I get closer, I see one mattress.

And then, two, three, more mattresses on the floor, each with a customs agent barefooted, snoring and sprawled out on top!!!

So here I am, unbelievably kicking the nearest agents' mattress and hissing, "helloooooo I need to exit Ghana, can you please stamp my passport?"

The tiny male agent - only about 5 feet or so - finally gets up and wobbles around in a drunken sleep stupor, pops his hat on sideways and wanders to one booth, only to find that it's not his booth.

Then he steps to the adjacent booth, realizes he's missing his stamp and then wanders back to his neighbors' booth fumbling around for the right stamp. Finally after 5 minutes of fumbling and bumbling he stamps my book and collapses back in a heap on his mattress.

Security was a no brainer after that.

Oh my Word. Only in Africa, I suppose.



Royal Air Maroc leaves Accra, Ghana at 3:40 AM, then hops over to Coutonou, Benin, a 50 minute flight before flying back to Casablanca and arriving at 9:30 am. We land in Coutonou somewhere around 4 am... the plane doesn't take off again for a while, until maybe 5 or 6? Then the lights go off. Some hours later, I am rudely shoved awake and the tray table slams down - "Le Petit Dejuener!" I am barked at to eat breakfast.

So in one night, I am rudely awaked 3 times, and exhausted from the heat, then the cold, and the shuffle. Horrible ordeal. I will give credit to Air Maroc - their planes are clean, fairly well maintained and the staff speak french, arabic and english. Although the english at 4 am is so fast and slurred sometimes I can't even understand it.

We arrive at Casablanca airport and immediately the difference is there; its much like a european airport. Few people on this flight are actually disembarking here; most are connecting.

One Ghanian complains about lost luggage... they seem to lose the luggage here a lot. It took me nearly 2 hrs to get my luggage. He got his earlier, and it was lock broken, thoroughly searched. I know my pack was checked in at the same time; there is no reason for me not to get it. I know they are testing my patience. So I wait.

It pays off. I get my luggage by 11:30 am from the transit staff who look at me sheepishly. Much of the conversation is french/arabic. They are a bit standoffish. a lot of angry people waiting for their luggage. The line is long. I am ready to fall asleep.

I decide to take the train into casa from the airport - its well connected, convenient. Most people who run businesses speak english these days, with a few of the older generation speaking french only. it pays to know french, even if its really bad. The train costs only 35 Dhrm into the city, instead of 300 Dhrms by taxi.

At this time of year, march, morocco is really green, pastoral.


The train dumps in the city at this station called Casa Voyageurs. It is maddness again, but with light skinned people; they are suddenly hassling us, demanding where to go. I am really fed up. I just want to get to a place and sleep. I don't care and I end up paying probably triple? but after all of that it doesn't even matter anymore. There are two classes of taxis, the small red ones should operate on meters but they harass tourists that have no idea with a prix fixe. With the french influence, these taxis are all tiny renaults with a flat yellow sign on top that reads "Petit Taxi" in french and arabic.

The taxi driver is a little bit of an old kook. He doesn't know where we're going, even though he has the address. We drive across the streets and half way across a main boulevard he slams on the breaks to avoid two giant white horses, completely decked out with arabian seat covers, and a old man and a young boy riding each in traditional moroccan costume. We detour and drive into this area with lots of arches and shops. He pulls aside and says ' wait here '. I am dazed. There are people sitting in a cafe drinking coffee on one side, with silverware and rugs for sale. On the other side a donkey tries to squeeze by in a street that really looks like its meant for pedestrians only. 2 minutes pass and he's back. We drive on, through twisted streets and then on to large boulevards. All the buildlings here are white, they look a little like the ones in Dar es Salaam but in much better condition. And the climate for me, is livable and breathable - it is dry, cool.


I don't spend much time in casa, actually spend most of it trying to catch up on sleep. I only head to the mall to get some toothpaste and that is it. Just walking around - It is really hard to tell who is or isn't a moroccan. A few times Spanish or Moroccan could be interchangeable. Lots of dark swarthy looking men. Arabic looking women.

I'm on the train to Marrakesh the next day. Its a 3 hr ride south. I meet two extremely tall dutch guys who are also going there. An older brother and his younger teenage step brother. We have two hours to kill and they tell me stories of traveling through Turkey.

In contrast to the overcast cloudly and mildly polluted casablanca, Marrakesh's sunny mediterranean climate is a welcome change.

We get to Marrakesh and these two brothers look kind of lost. I know where I want to go; there is a great hostel here called Equity Point - which actually in my opinion is probably the best place I stayed, period. It is really more like a Riad, than anything else. The taxi driver is demanding 50 Dhms. I am saying, are you kidding. The two brothers look at me like they don't know how to negotiate. I keep bargaining. The guy is a hard head. I get him finally to agree to take us for 40. It should be 20-30. And I know with my directions that he can't get us to the door; I'm staying in an area where no cars are allowed, close to the famous Djemma el-fna.

Djemma el-fna.

Completely blew away my expectations.

This is a place to get lost. if you uncertainty bothers you; it might be a good idea not to travel here... The real life turns up after dark. That's when all the food stands pop open. everything from Tajine, shish kabobs, snail soup, sheep heads, to chocolate mousse, carts full of french pasteries.... you can sit here and eat forever. The food is delicious, and cooked right in front of you. Of course the sweets are good - a lot of french influence on the cuisine.
Plus, the entertainment.... it is a veritable circus of sensory delights: snake charmers, henna artists, story tellers, belly dancers, drummers, bands, people in traditional costumes strutting around, shishas blowing about. If you get bored by the happenings in the middle of the square you can always entertain yourself by shopping in the maze of souks surrounding the medina. There are spice racks, dried fruit stands, orange juice vendors, artisianal pottery, everything moroccan.

What amazes me, is despite all the foot traffic, the streets are really clean, well lit and safe to wander around. A little crowded at times, with the motorbikes, vespas, donkey carts and pedestrians all competing to get by. But it adds so much character to the place. Its not just for tourists, locals come to the souks and eat in the Djemma. Some of the storytellers, herbal fetish vendors tell their tales completely in arabic, and are surrounded by moroccans listening anxiously; of what I don't know, unfortunately.

The people, amazingly diverse, friendly. The women are allowed to dress liberally, or traditionally, their choice. As with most islamic countries you have the call to worship from the minarets, but its not "in-your-face" like it was in tanzania. They don't blast it so loudly you can't sleep. In fact, I didn't have a hard time sleeping there at all.

I did get sick for one day unfortunately. The second morning in marrakesh I ran a fever. I was really scared at first, because I wasn't sure if it was malaria from ghana. But after several liters of water, rest, and tabs of the local vitamin c fortified asprin, I was better within 15 hrs or so. We hit the hammam the next day when I felt better; this was a really neat experience - to be scrubbed, steamed and massaged in a bath house with other women; a tradition here.

DSCN1997 If I could trade another 2,3,4 weeks to stay here in morocco, I would. But, plans change.... I promise myself I am going to come back here to finish my visit someday.

My plane leaves for the states from Casablanca. On my return trip, when I get to the train station, I ask for a metered taxi. In fact, I start demanding it and everything en francais - " Il faut que vous tournez le conteur ou ..... pas irai!". The minute I say it - all the hassling taxi drivers look the other way. Some shake their heads. Plus, I only want to go a short ways. No interest. Aha! I keep asking for it, and finally get one that will take me. He has another lady in the back seat and appears to group his rides....

After confirming where I want to go, he runs off to get some change and says he'll be back in a minute. A hear a small voice from the back of the taxi, she says "er, Do you speak English?"


Ah, yes! wow, do I speak english? So I find out that the lady in the taxi is actually a local casablancan - who insists on a meter - because they would otherwise overcharge. I tell her I came from Marrakesh, and she actually the same - She asks how long, and I said I was only here for 5 days. She said it was too short. 5 days is too short for Marrakesh. Wow. I feel the same. I could spend a month in Marrakesh and it would make me happy.

No comments: