Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Saturday, September 3, 2011

9/3/11: Casablanca, Morocco

Our first steps off the ship onto Moroccan soil!
Tate wondering what lies ahead...

Our first day in Morocco started with a city orientation tour, briefly stopping in a neighborhood to see some shops, on the way to a tour of the interior of the Hassan II mosque, the largest in Morocco. 

This lady appeared to be a rock star in her neighborhood, with photos and news stories on the wall of her selling oysters.

Reade watching a different part of the world go by.

The El Hassan II mosque was built using primarily Saudi and Dubai money, and is very impressive. It is hard to appreciate the scale of it until you get inside, similar to seeing the Grand Canyon only from the rim, without going down into it. Once inside, the immense space becomes evident looking down its length, with people at the other end of it looking like ants. The ceiling is 100m high, with the minaret being substantially higher (the minaret in any Islamic community is supposed to be the tallest point within the city, so the imam could be heard in prayer from all around). Lots of Moroccan stone, some imported marble from Italy, gargantuan titanium doors (>20' high); part of this structure is literally built above the Atlantic, as in the Koran the prophet was 'of the sea' (or something like that). Men and women pray separately (our guide had a difficult time explaining this away), and during last week's Ramadan there would have been as many as 110,000 praying within and around this structure, 25,000 actually inside. Downstairs is an open bathing area with huge stone lotus flowers feeding water in different directions so all these people can cleanse themselves prior to prayer.

The interior of the El Hassan II mosque, an incredibly impressive structure.

One of the 20' high titanium doors.

Ornate detail work on a very large ceiling

Marble lotus flower bath area downstairs from the main level.

The minaret of the Ell Hassan II mosque, at left.

We continued on a quick bus tour of different parts of Casablanca, including a ritzy area where all the Saudi sheiks and princes have homes. In some ways similar to some of the homes in SoCal (think palms and balconies and ochre tones), except with walls all around each property, dirty/empty streets, and the windows of all the homes have metal roll-up doors over them (apparently a French thing). By about 1:00 the tour was over, and we were left adjacent to the medina, the traditional labyrinthine shopping area that is usually the oldest part of town.

This is where our first exposure to Moroccan culture really begins, and it was much like diving head first into something you can't quite see, or, perhaps more accurately, don't really understand. The medina is a maze of interconnected streets, paths and narrow walkways (souks), all along which are set up little storefronts, perhaps six to ten feet wide, usually about twenty feet deep. The paths are only occasionally big enough that you might consider them one-way streets , but you still find many motor scooters, bicycles, and yes, the occasional car. The souks are more or less covered using everything and anything; tarps, fabric, sticks, wood, vinyl banners, metal... detritus of any and all sorts. Others are open and narrow, perhaps two stories on either side. Not unlike markets in Mexico (or, I'm sure, many other places), you can find all kinds of stuff, from leather goods, shoes, knockoff purses, jeans, various textiles and pottery, to spices, fish, pig, local crafts, as well as trinkets and geehaws of all sorts. 

I have read and we have heard much about the bargaining customs of Morocco, but nothing can truly prepare you for it. Especially if you don't have any small bills or coins to cut your teeth. Walking around with nothing but 100 dirham bills (about $12.50 USD) is like an automatic invitation to pay 100 dirhams for something, anything, regardless of how much it's actually worth. It's not like we walked around triumphantly waving our bills in the air once we finally negotiated the local ATM, but it seemed a bit hard to try and pay 20 MDH for something if you don't actually have 20 MDH ready, in hand. Lesson #1 learned: Small currency=good. Next, we were (as predicted in many blogs) 'adopted' by a little old Moroccan guy (yes, named Mohamed), who wanted to show us all around the market, only subtly offering what I first considered to be 'help'. As he continued to try and talk to us in very broken English (mostly Arabic, as far as I could tell), Heidi's recently-acquired ‘cabbie radar’ started to take over, and she kept trying to abort the mission to find Tate an inexpensive Moroccan soccer jersey. Reade and I were kind of enjoying the randomness of it all and Tate just wanted the shirt, so Heidi was soundly outvoted by us men on our quest. We finally got to 'his' place with the cheap soccer jerseys, and ended up negotiating down to 150 MDH from the initial offer of 250. Paid about $20 for the $20 soccer shirt, after which our self-pronounced 'guide' wanted 40 MDH for his services. This mightily perturbed the lovely and usually laid back Heidi, and she furiously tried to walk away in disgust, while I felt a bit sorry for our guide and suggested we should give him at least something (I can't believe I didn't get a picture). After going back and forth and Heidi objecting to my offering him 20 MDH (she offered him one), I asked her if she'd pay $3 to make him go away. Without missing a beat, Heidi looked at him and said: "Will you go away if I give you this???" He emphatically said "Yes, yes, yes" and Mohamed took the twenty-spot and he was gone. It was well worth the 20 dirhams, and after paying about 20 bucks for a 20 dollar Casio watch for Reade, we were ready to be done with our shopping day, especially the boys, who were overstimulated in a whole new way. Lesson Learned #2: It’s probably best to generally avoid anyone who seems to want to help you, especially if they approach you (I’d say your odds are better avoiding a scammer if you pick the odd person on the street and ask for help) .

We continued walking Casablanca’s medina with the goal being to get to the outside of the wall, all-too-slowly learning that showing interest in something is bad, making eye contact with anyone selling anything is an invite to a 'friendly arm over the shoulder' (urging-nudging-pulling you into his shop), and completely ignoring any and all comers after your first "No thank you" is the order of the day. Don't touch the item, don’t ooh and aah over it, and never, ever hold it with your own two hands, as they'll never accept it back (which, to a Moroccan vendor, appears to mean you already bought it). Kapiche?

1 comment:

  1. Love it! The negotiating sounds like Bali. Can't wait for the next post!


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