Sunday, January 13, 2008

Day 3: 25 December 2007; Chilling in Chellah

It was completely bizarre waking up in a completely different country and not being around my family for Christmas, but Christmas Day in Rabat started with clear blue skies and the promise of visiting Meknes, another Imperial City later, in the day.

According to our tour paraphernalia, although it was only established as Morocco’s capital in 1912 by the French, Rabat’s history stretches back to a settlement in 8BC, at what is now the Chellah area.

We arrived at Chellah early, the sun beaming through the trees. The vast site was entirely peaceful except for the hundreds of thousands of storks clacking their beaks, and the strains of the royal trumpeters practicing somewhere nearby.

We had about an hour to wander through the ruins of this historic area, and at first I thought that was going to be about 45 minutes too long. But actually, it was a lovely place to hang around in the sun, and admire the views over a colourful valley.

The storks, who nested in the tops of tall palm trees, clacked away, impressing their mates with a bizarre beak-bashing dance. It was really amusing to watch. Hundreds of cats also called this place home, and it was really sweet to walk round a corner to see what looked like a Cat’s Sunbaking Club – six or so cats were sprawled lazily in the morning sun, grooming themselves, and completely oblivious to us tourists.

I really loved Chellah. It was the perfect place to reflect on 2007 and consider the big changes that were looming in 2008.

Next stop was a local supermarket, to stock up on food for a Christmas lunch picnic. We were able to buy wine here too – sold in black plastic bags (which were rather conspicuous by default). Alcohol was not readily available throughout Morocco, but it was available in some supermarkets and hotel bars. Mohammed explained that while alcohol was forbidden as part of the Muslim way of life, it didn’t stop locals from drinking. Still, there was a slight sense that it was not an overly accepted thing to do.

With fresh food and bottled water in hand, we set off into the Moroccan countryside en route to Meknes.

I was surprised at how quickly the countryside changed. I don’t know what I expected Moroccan countryside to be like, but it seemed to vary in colour and texture every half an hour.

We pulled over to the side of the road, and Mohammed indicated we were at our lunch stop. It was a quiet little area, and we clambered, goat-like, down the hill into a green clearing. It was a shame to see so many empty plastic bottles and litter strewn all over the place. This was to be a constant site throughout Morocco, which was a real shame.

Rogue plastic bags and bottles aside, our Christmas picnic was great! We shared bread and cheese and mandarins, and whatever other nibblies people had bought.

I had loaded my Ipod with Christmas tunes, and we chatted as Dean Martin sang Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, which was pretty amusing. Perhaps more poignantly, the words to Bandaid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas echoed loud in my mind. We saw a lot of poverty in the next two weeks – kids and old people begging, and living in what we would consider to be sub-standard conditions. It reminded me to be thankful for what I had, and more thankful for things I took for granted – like unlimited food and running water, flushing loos and heating.

Lunch and reflection over, it was time to get back on the bus and drive to Meknes.

Day 2: 24 December 2007; Palaces and Kasbahs in Rabat

It took a couple of hours to drive out of Casablanca across to Rabat. It was time for our first Moroccan lunch, and we were herded into a little restaurant in the main drag. I tried a simple omelette and mint tea – both of which were to become staples for the next few weeks.

Bread also features heavily in Moroccan meals...every Moroccan meal to be precise. It’s offered automatically, and is great for soaking up juices in tagines, soups and pretty much any Moroccan food.

Our local guide then joined us on the bus for a quick coach tour round the main streets. Every Moroccan town’s main street is called after the king – Mohammed V. At least that makes it easy to always find the main drag.

We drove into the guarded ground of the Royal Palace, which had a number of stylishly understated buildings. Fountains and broad boulevards sprawled before us, and our local guide explained that this area was actually a little city in itself. VIPs and the King’s servants and their families lived in various parts of the grounds. The guide pointed out the King’s personal mosque, where he recites prayers each Friday.

Next stop was a visit to Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. They’re REALLY into mausoleums in this country, and this one was another example of ornate decorations. The grounds of Hassan Tower were lovely and looked out over Rabat to the sea.

The sun was well and truly out now, and it felt like summer – a lovely feeling in the middle of a northern hemisphere winter. It was starting to feel like a holiday!

Our final sightseeing stint for the afternoon was Rabat’s Kasbah – or Kasbah of the Oudaias. You can’t see much from outside the towering walls, which are ten metres high and 2.5 metres thick, but once inside, a magical maze of blue and whitewashed walls and narrow little streets revealed itself.

Cats scooted amongst the tourists and cars, as we walked slowly through what I reckoned was one of the most beautiful old towns I’d ever been in. I just loved the feel of the place.

We walked upwards to a large open area that overlooked the sea, and the rest of Rabat. It was on the walk back down through the Kasbah, that our local guide asked if I wanted to stay in Rabat with him and be his second wife. Nice! Fortunately the widely accepted practice of Moroccan men being allowed to take up to four wives was abolished some time ago. So I had to decline.

As we continued to head down the stairs, past people’s houses and yet more cats, we arrived at a fabulous little open air cafe that served mint tea and delicious Moroccan pastries. Some pastries resembled baklava, some were crisp pastry crescents, and they were all syrupy sweet and almondy.

The scent of citrus and the sea wafted everywhere, and we left the cafe to walk through lovely gardens. Orange trees laden with fruits lined the gardens, and as we were to see throughout the rest of the trip, lined pretty much every street.

Rabat’s Kasbah was indeed a little oasis in this buzzing city, and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t spend more time here.That said, we’d had a long day on limited sleep, so it was nice to get into the hotel and have a back bash for a few hours before dinner.

Our hotel was just opposite Rabat’s medina, which appeared from the outside to be completely packed with markets and people. Interestingly, our tour leader warned us not to go into this medina at night, and certainly not to go there alone.

We’d agreed to have a group dinner, and it was this evening I tried my first real Moroccan tagine – lemon chicken with olives. It was delicious!

It was also Christmas Eve, and the group was excited about the tour and in festive spirits. We sampled our first Moroccan red wine, the brand incidentally recommended by Lonely Planet, and a raucous night was enjoyed by all.

This was also the group’s introduction to Billy the Bull – Susie’s stuffed travel companion. Billy was sporting a stunning pink Chinese evening outfit, and he generated much interest from the locals, who I’m sure thought we were completely bonkers.

I wondered what awaited us for Christmas Day...

Day 2: 24 December 2007; Cruising in Casablanca

With a solid three hours sleep under my belt, the tour group congregated for breakfast and did quick introductions. Mohamed, our tour leader outlined the trip, and we set off for a morning of sightseeing in Casablanca.

The streets were busy, and men wearing cloaked jellabas were everywhere. We were to see many more jellabas in the coming days.

We passed Rick’s Cafe, made famous in the film Casablanca, and headed directly to the Hassan II mosque – undoubtedly one of the most iconic buildings in Morocco.

Completed in 1993, this monstrous structure and its vast esplanades overlook the sea. Our guide explained that some 6,000 builders worked day and night, in shifts, to complete the build in just six years. Impressive work!

Our tour inside the mosque took us past huge halls, decorated with ornate plaster carvings, marble, granite, cedar wood – all material came from Morocco with the exception of 57 Italian chandeliers and Italian marble pillars.

It was astounding to think that this building could accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 worshippers outside, at any one time. Because it was a working mosque, the guided tours were squeezed in between the five prayer sessions each day.

Our guide was quick to point out which behaviours were part of the Islamic religion, and which were not. Taking shoes off at the entrance at the mosque for example, was not a religious thing, but simply a way of keeping the mosque’s floors clean.

The mosque was deceptively high tech, with a roof that actually opened like those in sports stadiums. They reckon it got pretty warm and whiffy in the summer heat with 25,000 people inside...

Hundreds of loud speakers were ingeniously hidden in the timber pillars in the ceiling, and the floors were apparently centrally heated. The attention to detail was amazing. Millions of zellij (mosaic) tiles lined the walls and everywhere you looked, there were intricate designs in any manner of materials.

We then walked downstairs into the huge ablution rooms. It’s not obligatory to wash at the mosque, but it’s available if people want it. Again, this would be an amazing site to see, when fully packed with people.

The final stop was the enormous Turkish bath underneath the Mosque, built mainly as a way of showing curious tourists what Turkish baths are like. Again, this isn’t a formal part of the mosque, but more used as a social add-on to it, and is really common throughout Morocco. This Turkish bath had never been used though, and there seemed to be continued debate as to whether it would be opened up to the public, or simply left as a nice place to sit for a few minutes.

We mosied back to the coach, just as the sky cleared up and gave us a great view of the mosque under blue skies. It was warming up too. I was liking this place!

Day 1: 23 December 2007; Christmas chaos at Heathrow

The first day of my holiday started with a pea-soup fog blanketing much of London. There was bound to be traffic carnage out on the roads, and people carnage out at Heathrow, as some 18 million Brits embarked in the annual Christmas getaway. Blurgh!

My bus ride out to the airport was uncharacteristically on much so in fact, I arrived at Heathrow four hours ahead of my scheduled departure time. Oh well...i didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Morocco was calling!

And that’s when the real chaos began. Shabby T2 was packed to the rafters with people desperate to escape the UK for Christmas. Tempers and frustrations were obvious as the ground staff herded only those people whose flights had been called, into the check-in area, while everyone else had to wait in the overcrowded top floor of the terminal. People were sprawled over chairs, the floor and every other available space...Heathrow’s much anticipated Terminal 5 is allegedly going to improve this increasingly feral situation this year, but I think it will be a very long time before this airport can live by BAA’s ridiculous tagline of Making Heathrow Great. Making it bearable would be a good start.

Hours rolled by, and finally my Royal Air Maroc flight was declared open. The basement floor of T2 was even more crowded than the top floor, and flights were now being delayed and cancelled left, right and centre. Disappointed passengers were asked to leave the airport, because there were no facilities to rebook their flights onsite. They called in airport police to the check-in counters just prior to announcing the cancellation of a flight to Algeria...I don’t know what they thought the problem was going to be, but it certainly fuelled more angst amongst an increasingly pissed off crowd.

Royal Air Maroc had about 200 people in its check-in queue at this stage, and as we watched the clock tick by, it became less and less certain that we were actually going to get away at all. News eventually came through that our plane hadn’t even left Casablanca yet, and that they would only board us if our flight could get out of Morocco. There seemed to be about 3 million screaming kids, and even more screaming passengers, as BA, Alitalia and Lufthansa continued to cancel more flights...I felt truly sorry for the many Christmas plans and family reunions that were being systematically stuffed up by the fog.

Finally...after more waiting, we got the fantastic news that our plane was on its way, and we could be checked in. It took about another hour to process the huge queues, get through security and find somewhere to perch in what was now the most over-crowded airport I’ve ever seen.

Departure times were being constantly revised and pushed was shaping up to be a very long night. My flight finally took off just after 10pm, five hours after its scheduled time.
Two of my soon-to-be tours buddies were sitting next to me, and we acquainted ourselves, chatted for a bit, then slept.

Casablanca’s airport was fairly quiet, and it took no time to get through customs. Large piles of luggage congregated around the carousels, which didn’t bode well. Some bags from our flight arrived, but it took another 45 minutes for the next batch to come through. The cleaning staff were busily mopping, while we weary tourists wondered if we’d get to our hotel before daybreak.

My bag finally came – thankfully – and I went out to meet the tour guide, and let him know that my travel buddies still had not received their bags. He mentioned that two of the tour buddies that had arrived early had still not received their bags....unluckily for them, bag-tracking would be an ongoing nightmare throughout the trip.

Some 45 minutes later, the remaining bags arrived, and we exited into the chilly Moroccan morning en route to our hotel in Casablanca. My head hit the pillow shortly after 4am, but I was at least there, and couldn’t wait to get out and explore this mysterious land!