Counting Sheep

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
1
43
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Trip End Aug 18, 2006


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Flag of Morocco  ,
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Having habla'ed our last palabras of Spanish to the port authorities in Algeciras, Spain we set our sails for Northern Africa and the Moroccan city of Tangier. Actually, the real work of sailing was being done by one of the large ferry operators that offer daily service between various European sea-ports and a few African cities that are also kissed by the magical Mediterranian. All things considered, our second inter-continental journey in as many days went off without a hitch and the three hour cruise gave us a chance to catch our breath after the all out sprint through Southeastern Spain. We tucked ourselves away on the starbord side of the boat and took to finishing our book on round-the world adventure travel. Somewhere in the middle of the fourth page we happened to notice that one of the members of the small family sitting behind us was bedecked in a Denver Broncos sweatshirt, and a brief inquiry confirmed that they were in fact from Colorado. Encountering them reminded us that for the most part, international travel (at least of the sort we are engaged in) is completely accessable to a fairly wide number of Americans and also seems to be rapidly increasing in popularity.

As we neared the port in Tangier, Morocco one very special American was on our minds. We were trying desperately to get ourselves to Casablanca by the middle of the next day to meet Steven's moter at the airport. At our urging and after several promises not to get her into too many dangerous situations she agreed to join us on our first forray into Arab-Africa. None of us was quite sure what she had gotten herself into, but the one thing we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that arriving late to pick her up in Casablanca airport would increase the odds that this first shared international travel adventure would be her last.

Motivated therefore by our desire to preserve good family relations and also by the insistence on the part of our guidebook (not Frommer, as many of you may well have guessed) that Tangier offers very little in the way of tourism, our plan was to make a b-line for Casablanca. The minute we hit the city we took a taxi to the train station and bought tickets on the next Casablanca express. With a little luck we would be brushing shoulders with Bogart by nine.

The train station in Tangier was completely uninteresting, but we did witness an event that left us completely baffled. Because the next train to Casablanca left fully three hours after we hit the station we had ample time to engage in one of our all-time favorite past-times: people watching. Although we didn't really notice them as we entered the station, from our seats inside the station we noticed that several movable metal gaurd-rails were set-up outside in amusement park fashon to control foot traffic. After thrity minutes or so a small crowd of people gathered on the other side of these blocades and for the next thirty minutes the crowd grew and grew. Not too long after that we noticed more and more police in the area and then, all at once, the front doors to the station were flung open and the mass of people on the clammoring on the opposite side of the guard-rails were allowed to rush inside. As near as we could tell, the only purpose of this mass migration of people was to quickly and franticly scurry across the station and gather against another set of guard-rails that had been put in place at the other end of the station. After the initial stampede the general chaos simmered to a dull roar and for ten or fifteen minutes the station got fiarly quiet. Then, for no apparent reason, the mass of humanity would ocassionally let out a collective burst of energy in the form of shouts, whistles, and general curfuffle. A few minutes later their clammoring reached a crescendo and the crowd was once again released from their gates and allowed to run free. This time they exited from the back end of the station and charged forward as quickly as they could to the newly arrived train. At first we were not completely sure what had caused this monitored mahayem, but over the course of the next few hours we had occasion to witness the entire event again as a new train came and went.

Sadly, the next train was ours, and without any choice at all we were swept up in this peculiar Moroccan boarding ritual. Just before the throng of people outside was given the go-ahead to move into the station we dutifully took our position near the front of the guard-rails inside. As hundreds of eager Moroccans crushed in behind us this decision proved to be part fortune and part folly. At one point one of the many policemen in the building gave an order for the men and women to seperate into two distinct masses. Then, as the train became visable the natives grew restless and the police were forced to physically hold the doors and rails against the mass of all too eager train passengers. Several passengers grew quite angry with the police and some of the women engaged in all out shouting mtches with the police. Eventually, when they train was almost to the station, several of the women begain pushing and shoving agains the guards and the gates until suddenly the door flung open and the whole mess of suitcases and flesh was released onto the platform. The hundreds of people who had been so eager to get to the train were now completely ravanous, so in no more than two minutes we were all forced through one very small set of doors. Several people were no doubt injured in this confusion and at one point Steven was so tightly packed against the guard-rail that he found it easier and safer to just stand up on it as the crowd of angry men carried it through the open door. Without any real consiquences we were reuinited on the platform and without too much difficulty we found our way to a car with two open seats. As far as we could tell there were plenty of seats on the train so the only reason we could come up with to explain this strange behaviour was that Moroccans care a great deal about where they sit on a train.

What is more, the train ride itself wasn't really worth the wait. Although we were pleased to be making the journey in the comfort of a seat, the temperature on the train was downright miserable. Despite several layers of warm clothing, we spent the better part of the next three hours shivering. There was no way of knowing how cold the car actually got, but suffice it to say not only could we see our breath, but by the tme we got off the train the window in the car was partly frosted over.

Finally, in case we haven't complained enough about our first Moroccan train experience, our friged but much sought-after rail car pulled in fully two hours behind schedule. For a trip that was only supposed to take four hours, our six hour journey put us into Casablanca much later than we expected. By the time we found our way to the hotel it was almost 2 AM and we were defenitely ready to manufacture some Z's.

Falling right back into our South American routine, we promply woke the next afternoon just in time to meet Steven's mother at the airport. We decided that it couldn't hurt to double check the flight details, so we found an internet connection and logged in. As it turned out Leo had been bumped from her connecting flight from Paris, and was therefore forced to catch another flight that would't arrive in Casablanca until about 5:30. Fortunately, through a minor miracle of modern technology, Leo was able to get word of her perdicement to us in Casablanca before we left for the airport. I guess the gods of the city felt they owed us some sort of recompence after the miserable train trip into the city.

After collecting Steven's mother, Leo, who looked pretty alert given her long hop over the pond, we all agreed that we ought to board a train that night headed for Morroco's capital city, Rabat, an hour and a half away, thus allowing us to wake up and begin touring the next morning. So without much adieu, we found the train and, after a connecting stop-over, we chugged into Rabatt, the political capital of the country and Morocco's second largest city. Once in Rabatt we headed for the Hotel Balima, a hotel that appears to have been somewhat of a relic of the French Protectorate of Morocco and remains to this day something of an institution in the city, faded glory notwithstanding. Indeed, it faces the Morrocan parliament building and appears to have been the home away from home for travelling diplomats lo, those many years ago.

We awoke relatively early the next morning and made readiments to see the city. We tromped down the major boulevard, Mohammed V (all major boulevards are so named, all after the king who recovered rule in 1956 after the French bowed out), only to find the streets nearly empty. Our first objective was to find a cafe for coffee and patisseries, but each and every such institution presented us with closed and locked doors, much to our chagrin. So we headed back to the hotel to enjoy coffee there and to munch on some small pastries we picked up on the street. While we ate these interesting honey covered, fried triangles stuffed with almonds and scented with orange blossom water, we perused our guidebook and realized we had arrived in Rabat on the very first day of one of the most important holidays of the year in Morocco, the Aid el Kebr. As we learned, the Aid El Kebr, a Muslim holiday, is celebrated somewhere between 68 to 70 days after the end of Ramadan and commemorates God's mercy in sparing Issac after God had ordered Abraham, Issac's father, to sacrifice Issac. Seeing Abraham's faithfulness to God's dictate - i.e. Abraham's willingness to follow through with the order - God provided a lamb to be sacrificed in Issac's stead. Moroccans celebrate this event by slaughtering a sheep on the first day of the festival and consuming different sheep parts for several days thereafter. Regrettably, the other thing they do is close everything, including souks, museums, restaurants, you name it. As such, our tour around Rabat was memorable not for the crush of tourists but for the constant reminders that the Morrocan people were celebrating this important holiday.

The first evidence of the celebration appeared as we strolled up Mohammed V toward the old medina. We were staying in the Ville Nouvelle, the new town - each major city that formed a base of operations for the French during the Protectorate contains an old town, the medina, and a French-crafted one, the Ville Nouvelle - and, as we crossed into the medina, we began to notice open fires stoked in the streets by young boys. Looking closer, we discovered that what they were burning were sheep's heads - the remnants of the ovines disposed of earlier that morning. As we strolled up the medina and through the vacant souks (markets), we were afforded glimpse after glimpse of sheep in various states of dismemberment: following fresh drops of blood, we saw young men carrying newly decapitated ram's heads in plastic bags through the streets, we saw shorn and headless sheep hung two stories high in the medina, being cleaned by local women, we saw boys weilding scarily large knives who were attempting to hack their way through the horns, ostensibly in preparation for frying up the head and brains of the deceased animal. We even saw a living and breathing sheep, perhaps not so oblivious to his fate as you might think: several kids were attempting to coax him into a slaughterhouse, and when he refused to budge, a few kids pulled on his horns from the front, and a few picked up his hind legs and pushed from behind, wheelbarrow-style.

After wandering the medina and the empty souks, we gazed out from the ramparts of the OUdaia Kasbah, in the old city, across the Sale estuary to nearby Sale, another midieval town, and then we ambled along the riverfront to the heart of Rabat tourism, the Hassan Tower. Begun in 1196 by Yacoub El-Mansour to rival the mosque in Cordoba, Spain, the Hassan tower was designed as a strikingly tall minaret (supposed to be 262 feet tall, actually 144 feet) to accompany the nearby mosque, enormous in its own right (each mosque has a minaret, or tower, from which five calls to prayer are made daily, kind of like a Muslim equivalent of a bell tower). After Yacoub died in 1199, work was discontinued for lack of funds and lack of interest on behalf of his predecessor, and the minaret has stood, a giant, but half completed husk of a minaret, for over eight hundred years. MIraculously, it survived a devasating earthquake in 1755, which razed the adjacent mosque; only tidy rows of marble pillars built to support the mosque remain, a somewhat eerie testament to what was once there.

Immediately adjoining the ancient minaret is a fairly new monument, the Mausoleum of King Hassan II, the late king who recently died in 1999. Designed by a Vietnamese architect according to the strictures set out by his son and the new king, Mohammed VI, the mausoleum is an exercise in opulence (and frankly, in our opinion, an exercise in unwise and unnecessary spending). The structure is built of gleaming white marble, roofed with traditional green tiles and decorated with painstakingly carved plaster. In the interior, a small balustrade runs around the perimeter of the room, from which visitors like us can gaze down upon the dead king and his relatives, safely ensconsed on the ground floor beneath a heavy blanket of marble. The walls are adorned alternately in cedar and different types of marble, both richly carved with Koranic verses and geometrical designs, while the ceiling is intricately painted with deep, rich colors in vibrant designs and highlighted by goldleaf trimming. The guard on duty volunteered to speak to us about some of the features of the design (although we couldn't understand much of his French); when we motioned to leave, he motioned for a tip but then declined to accept what we had offered. The failings of generosity, I suppose - his failing or ours?

Having explored most of Rabat on foot, we were tired and hungry and longed for lunch. Every establishment, however, save our hotel - in which we planned to eat dinner - were closed. After an exahustive search of the city to verify that, in fact, there were no other options, we succumbed to a meal at the Golden Arches - that's right, for her first real Morrocan meal, Leo got a hearty dose of Micky D's. We were mortified by our inability to show Leo a good culinary time, but we were out of options and our stomachs were grumbling. So, trooper as she is, Leo ordered a McArabia and, generous as she is, she deemed the sandwich to be very good. We suspect she was merely assuaging our guilt, but perhaps next time you are searching for a quick meal, you might try a McArabia - it ostensibly bears Leo's stamp of approval.

The remainder of the day was spent wandering the main drag along the perimeter of the royal palace (not open to the public) up to the ramparts of the city and back again, the walk made more interesting by the mosques we passed (not open to non-Muslims) and the orange trees dotting the avenue. After our Morrocan paseo, we refreshed ourselves with sweeted mint tea - an arabic favorite - while watching the growing crowds strolling just as we had. We were shocked to notice that most of the people wandering the streets were men in groups and even more perplexed when we looked around us in the hotel's outdoor cafe and found, out of eighty people, not more than a handful of women, including Leo and Cori. We resolved to keep an eye out for interesting gender demographics in the upcoming days.

Thankfully, that night, we finally were able to offer Leo something of an authentic Morrocan meal at the hotel. We dined on tajine, a quasi-stew made from pieces of meat and vegetables simmered in a tajine - a ceramic dish and topped with a conical ceramic covering. We enjoyed two types: lamb with prunes in a garlic sauce, and chicken with onions and raisins. We all thought the tajines to be very good, and hoped that the meal somewhat exonerated us for the McDonald's earlier that day. All in all, our first full day in Morocco was at least a partial success; we took in some fascinating local customs, dined on mctasty cuisine, and looked forward to our next foray into the country, Morocco's spiritual and intellectual capital, Fes.
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