Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Casablanca Never Visited

The many faces of Morocco

For a second there, I think I'm in Paris, with the many cafes bearing French titles taking up prime real estate on the countless street corners in the old bustling district of Casablanca. But of course I'm not. I'm planted on a different continent altogether. My third trip back to Africa. This time to the extreme North West or Morocco.

I wasn't sure what to expect in this country's biggest city that is as much European as it is Arabian (you can practically swim to Spain from Tangiers way up north). I avoided this area of the globe for a long time picturing caravans of tourists attempting to catch a glimpse of the Arabic speaking world not from their armchairs necessarily, but the closest mobile equivalent possible. Thus far anyway, I've seen little evidence of the cheese factor, lets call it.

I'm pleasantly surprised that this city has not lost its charm, or edge, in that the buildings that line both sides of the old Boulevard Mohammed V are still of the old white, pre-war (WWII that is), stucco-covered Parisian style architecture. Overhangs protect the outdoor cafes not from the rains (which most surely come at some point) but from the relentless sun...a bright warmth which is decidedly welcome in late April coming from a guy who just spent the majority of the never ending Winter up in Albany. If you want an idea of just how warm it is at present, think Miami, Florida or Los Angeles, California, and you get the idea. Still, it's not unusual to spot a woman outfitted from head to toe in a black abaya and khimar with a North Face down parka zipped all the way up to the neck, especially in the early evening.

This is a big city of 6 million, so there is constant activity...voices shouting in Arabic or French or a combination horns...sputtering motorcycle engines...robed young men pushing carts with battery powered speakers blaring prayers or a call to prayer anyway...fruit venders...police car sirens...Play Station cafes with patrons smoking Dhoka from water pipes...

For the Tony Bourdaine types out there, the street food here is pretty safe, so long as its cooked well. For lunch yesterday I scarfed a hot dog panini. I'm not entirely sure what the hot dog was made of, and it's probably a good idea that ignorance rules the day here. But it was served inside a deliciously crusty bread with vegetables. I finished the small meal with a cafe au lait.

For dinner I ventured out for a Moroccan version of a steak sandwich which are beef chunks cooked kabob style over a coal-fired oven. The beef is placed inside bread which is stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, and cooked green olives. It's wrapped in a tube made of paper to which a heaping helping of French fries is piled on top. The meal, along with a Moroccan beer (yes, you can drink alcohol here in this mostly Muslim country) cost a whopping 30 Dirham, or about three bucks US. I made certain to tip generously since, unlike Europe, this is a "tipping culture," or so the guidebook tells me.

One last item: I did inquire respectfully to my driver about the, ummm ISIS problem, with its presence in Algeria, Libya, and most points east and its training camps in Mauritania to the immediate south-west. Just last month a major ISIS cell was broken up, not to mention the refugees that are entering the country hoping to get to Europe. The tall, dark, wiry, thirty-something man was quick to tell me, "In Morocco, we practice an Islam that is all about the liberty and freedom. We will not tolerate ISIS. That is politics we do not want."

I hope things stay that way.