Standing room only

3 October 2014

Our day started out with a visit to Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. And because our favorite way to get around in the city is by foot, we set out just after 9 to try to avoid the heat.

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Old church from the french colonial days

It was pretty funny to see the looks on many people’s faces as we walked thru the city. I guess this is not a common route most visitors take.

We had checked online on various forums and blog posts and read lots of conflicting information on whether or not the mosque would be open on a Friday. We asked the girl at the front desk and she stated that it was closed to visitors on Friday’s as it is a day of prayer. This all made logical sense so we decided we could sleep in a go to the mosque later. However as we got closer, we saw bus after bus pull up.

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We thought it was a little strange, that was until we found an entrance, about thirty minutes after wandering around the grounds only to get turned away as we didn’t have a ticket. If only we had walked closer to the tour group! The guard at the door told us we could get tickets for a late afternoon visit. While we were annoyed we had no other choice but to walk away. The moral of the story is to just go early even if you think a site is closed and who knows it just might be open. On the bright side the courtyard and exterior of the mosque provided numerous detailed patterns and designs that provided plenty of stunning sights to make the visit well worth it even without viewing the interior.

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I think I could have taken 1000+ photos of all of the tile details and doors and it would not capture the beauty of the building. I have had an obsession with tiles and Moorish design after my first trip to Alhambra and this visit has only feed this obsession. By this point it was getting toasty and we had a train to catch so we wandered the grounds for another 20 minutes before we headed back.

Trying to find shade wherever we could, which was a hard job as the sun was almost directly overhead we sweated it out (the theme of our travels) as we walked back to the hotel.

It was then time to catch the train to Fez. But first we had to buy tickets. I stood guard over our bags tucked away just to the side of the “line” adjacent to a support beam and got to watch all the action while Adam braved it and bought the tickets. At first things seemed to be fairly orderly in the world of organized chaos but soon it turned comical and I had to turn my head as I started to laugh out loud.

The lone security guard doing his best to maintain a sense of order slowly lost control of all order. First it was a select few towards the end of the line that decided the temporary posts with retractable straps were in their way and not allowing enough people to crowd their way towards the front of the line so those we ninja chopped down. The mass crowding that was the line then turned into what looked like a meeting of two bodies of water. One section just began to flow around the other. At this point off to one side I saw a few lurkers who were waiting for the guard to turn his gaze away so they could cut in line. A few minutes later the guard took notice of them as well and began to push the temporary posts and strap barrier out when a slightly heated exchange began. The large crowd in line took note of this distraction and ran forward to get into the lines (that kinda did resemble single file lines) in front of the individual ticket windows. As the guard yelled out at the crowded telling them to get back those lurkers on the side took advantage of this moment to duck under the straps. The guard and a few others from the massive blob like line then started to get into a fairly heated exchange. Within the last few moments of chaos, Adam had already secured a place in line in front of a window, and I silently cheered him on as he held his ground from those lurkers from the side trying to cut in front of him.

While we had arrived at the train station at 12:15, thinking we had lots of time, to buy tickets for a 13:10 train we finally had tickets in hand at 12:55. Adam rushed off again to find some food, two croissants, before we made our way out to the platform.

It was once again a fun game of pushing your way thru the crowd and holding our own space (those years of playing defense in basketball and lacrosse have proven to be more helpful in traveling than I would have ever imagined) as we had to show our tickets to make it out to the platforms. Along the way Adam picked up a cheese sandwich and some chips, after all it was a four hour train ride.

Once outside and walking along the train we began looking for some open space with the cars. As the first two we passed were packed with luggage and people already crowding and spilling out of the cars. We finally decided to jump in the fourth car which was already out of open seats but at least had enough space to enter. We walked down the narrow aisles with our bags shimming past the few people walking by as well until we came to the center of the car and saw more people in front of us making their seats in the aisles. I of course had to pee but there was no way I was moving any further or even going to make an attempt to use the toilet on these trains. So we just looked at each other and started to laugh and shake our heads at this adventure.

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We thought we would have a good story with just buying the tickets but now we were standing on the train hopping that maybe we would get a seat in an hour or so when the train was scheduled to make its first stop. But until then we used our backpacks as seats, which were pretty comfortable. I was even able to fall asleep while sitting on mine. Lucky for me at the first stop a women in the car where we stood in front got off so I took her seat and we were able to get some luggage out of the aisle. This made it much easier for everyone else who did want to walk by as it was always a fun dance to maneuver around as someone wanted to walk by as you jammed yourself and your bags into the wall to create just enough space. While sitting on this car I learned quickly that when coughing and sneezing, covering your mouth is a learned behavior and that memo had not made it to my fellow train car companions.

The ride, at least the parts I was awake for, including speeding by shanty towns with satellite dishes, typical looking suburban towns with apartment complexes and shopping centers that looked just like they do all over the world – and here always including a Pizza Hut, endless flat desert, shepherds tending to their flocks with the easily recognizable white earbuds, vineyards, olive trees, lumber yards and as we approached Fez rolling hills and mountains. As we rolled to a stop out in the middle of nowhere here and there those sitting near the doors would jump out for a smoke/pee/stretching break which just made me laugh every time. And at other times we would pass by a guy holding a placard, one side red the other green, out in the middle of nowhere who was giving us the go-ahead when we switched tracks. And here I was thinking Vietnam was old school with the guys that rolled out the crossing guard in the cities.

Our four hour train ride became a five and a half our ride (which was shorter than I thought the delays would be) and we now had to make our way out of the station to find a cab. But first I had to pee. As I made my way into the restroom which was free, clean and had three attendants (are you taking note Europe) I noticed how protected the attendant standing out the women’s restroom was. She stood perpendicular to the door which was next to the men’s making sure only women got passed her.

We quickly learned upon arrival that Sunday was a holiday where there was going to be the sacrifice of a sheep. At first I thought the guy at the taxi station telling us this was a little off, but when we arrived at our hotel and heard the same story I had to find out more. Turns out the celebration is one of the largest in Islam and is called Eid al-Adha. The tradition starts with Brahim (Abraham) about to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Isaac), until Allah (God) intervened by sending a ram to be sacrificed instead. Yes, Catholic friends and family you also know this same story. All we were really told at first was there will be a killing of a sheep in the morning, then the families will bathe and put on clean clothes before they go out to meet with friends and family and celebrate this holiday. We were told that sheep can go for as much as 4000 dirham (about $450). Here I thought had a general understanding of Islam but once again I have learned something new today.

As we settled into our new home and had a few glasses of mint tea we decided to head out to dinner at one of the places our hotel recommended. We also decided to have one of the restaurant employee’s come pick us up. We had read about all the narrow alley ways in the city but once there it was an overwhelming maze. All the buildings looked the same and with so many people making final preparations for Sunday it was sensory overload, so we just took the easy route of having someone guide us to and from where we wanted to go. I was less concerned about someone else trying to harm us and more concerned that after a long day of travel, hunger would overwhelm us if we got lost and we just might hurt each other. The restaurant had very impressive tile work and the food was very tasty.

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Like most white chicks, I have a love of all things pumpkin and since there are no pumpkin spice lattes to be found, I made sure I ate pumpkin in every dish I could and here in Morocco it is very easy to do. Who knew it was such a functional food. Now I will just have to remember all of the dishes to try to recreate these at home.

Today’s Travel: Walking around Casablanca to Hassan II Mosque on the tram to the train station and a standing room only second class train ride to Fez.

Accommodations: La Maison Maure. A recently restored riad this place is pure relaxation in the heart of the medina. While there is lots of chaos just outside the doors, the rooftop terraces and various seating areas throughout the home provide a place to recharge. Our room on the fifth floor opens out to a lovely terrace and above our room is another terrace with 360 views of the entire medina. Our room is spacious with two closets hidden behind the bed with the floor to ceiling headboard, a separated shower and toilet (I never knew how important this was until we started traveling) and a nice chase lounge.

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And the included breakfast has been one of the best we have had. The French press coffee and various breads and jams plus a special item of the day gets us off to a great start. The staff is also wonderful and super helpful in making arraignments and providing suggestions. If I didn’t have a desire to see more of Morocco I could have spent our entire time here.

Adios Barcelona, Bonjour Morocco

2 October 2014

Today the weather was playing nice and we had a full morning to explore the city. We started our adventure with a walk down to the Gothic Quarter. It was a fun maze of small alley’s and beautiful stone buildings.

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Wandering down the alleys and into a few large open squares we found our way to Santa Maria del Mar.

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The building was so imposing surrounded by the much smaller shops. Once inside you could tell that this church was built for royalty. While not as ornate as some of the churches we had seen in Italy, the stone work, chandlers and ceiling arches made my neck ache. If the church wants to make an extra buck, they should really place a few reclining lounge chairs around so you can take in all the detail.

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We continued our little afternoon expedition thru the area by exploring the Born neighborhood. We made our way thru a market just before the actual neighborhood and just followed the roads up, down and around. It instantly became my new favorite area in this city. And there was still some much that we could explore there, but our time was running out and we had to walk back home to grab lunch and collect our bags. It just goes to show that even with a third visit to a city there is still so much to find, see and experience. Maybe on our next visit to Barcelona I will feel more confident in saying that I have truly explored the city.

Our last meal was at the same place we had our first on this visit at tasqueta de blai where we enjoyed our last tapas and got our fill of pork before we head back to a Muslim country.

Feeling like a pack mule, we walked up to the street to the airport bus. As much as I love traveling, I would like to get rid of my heavy bag and/or it is time to start to get rid of some of my clothes. On the brightside it wasn’t humid. It was an uneventful ride to the airport, but little did I know that we were in for quite the adventure to Morocco.

As we sat on the plane waiting for all the passengers to board I sat in shock. We have been on a few flights in the last 10 months but this one takes the cake as the most bonkers. I should have realized in this moment that we were heading to a country I just might not understand at all. I have never seen so much carrying on luggage in my entire life. People were carrying so many large bags and the overhead bins were almost spilling over before the plane was half full. Plus the kid next to me was a nervous wreck, wiping his sweaty palms on is jacket over and over and checking is phone every 10 minutes or so. For the first time flying I was a little on edge myself and closely watching every action of the kid next to me.

Upon arrival we waited in the long lines to clear immigration, where they still do everything manually, before getting our bag and making our way to the train. As we stood in line, or really in more of a cluster, where I made sure I held my space, it was a quick reminder again that we have left Europe and it really time to pay attention to how the locals act and try to blend in as much as possible. We got our tickets just in time to make it on the train. Once at the city center we left the station at found our way to the tram. Just our luck with only paper bills the tram ticket machines only accepted coin. It was a quick oh crap moment until a very nice gentlemen noticed our predicament, as we looked around the machine with a paper bill in hand, and he offered to change our bill for coins and told us the cost of the first and second ticket. And a few minutes later after going thru some very nice looking neighborhoods and a few that had me making sure I knew where my things were located, we were at our hotel.

Not wanting to travel too far for dinner, we found a restaurant close by that also happened to be across the street from the French embassy. The service was great, the building was stunning (I am seriously going to have a problem not taking a picture of everything) and the food was tasty. It was a very different pace from what we had just seen in the airports, but I guess this is how the fancy people see the country.

Today’s Travel: The walk to the gothic quarter and the born neighborhood before walking back home and to pick up our bags and walk to Plaza Espanya to take the aeropuerto bus and catch Veuling flight # VY7340 to Casablanca

Accommodations: Park Suites Hotel & Spa. My mother always said if you have nothing nice to say you shouldn’t say anything at all. Well, sorry mom, I have to say this hotel was pretty much a dump. The thing about this city though is every hotel is ridiculously expensive and they all have poor ratings unless of course you are spending a 300+ a night. When we walked into our room I instantly wanted to gag as it smelled like a two pack a day smoker had spent the last 5 years living in the room and every day the cleaning staff sprayed and horrible floral scent to try and mask it. It also reminded of a place that might have been nice looking 5 years ago when it was brand new but the shody craftsmanship was starting to show. But it was just one night and it was close to the mosque and in a relatively nice area of the city.