Suitcase and World: A bit of new, a bit of old. Casablanca.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A bit of new, a bit of old. Casablanca.

Soon and I agreed that whoever woke up first this morning would email the other.  By 11pm last night, I was ready to hit the sack. Though I had set the alarm to go off at 7am, I was up well before then. Even though my room was on the 15th floor, the sounds of the drivers honking their horns like mad woke me up before sunrise. A few minutes after I sent my email, Soon replied. He was up as well. We both needed to get ready for the day so I replied back to him to just come by and knock on my door when he was ready to go. He takes his time! I was in and out of the bathroom and finishing up on the blog post for yesterday before I heard the double tap on the door.

Our rooms were located on the 15th floor and I was curious what the view was like outside the hallway windows so before meeting up with Soon, I decided to take a look.  To my pleasant surprise, the first window I looked out of had the view I was hoping for.  A pretty city view with the Hassan II Mosque in the far distance and somewhere beyond that was the Atlantic Ocean.  It was a hazy day and I hoped would clear up.

Our first order of the day was to get the room situation straightened out. When Soon and I checked in yesterday, they had given us single rooms I think because we arrived so early in the morning. I tried my best to explain to the women behind the reception desk that I had booked double rooms but something had gotten lost in translation. The woman replied that we could switch rooms today so we decided to get that task out of the way before we started our day. The women were extremely helpful but when I went up to the new room, I found that it was exactly the same single room that I was suppose to switch out of.

So, I headed back downstairs and once again, did my best to try and explain that I wanted one room with two beds in it. The woman replied that she was giving me one room and another for my friend. I tried one last time to explain that I wanted a double room and she again replied that we each had our own rooms. I gave up trying thinking that maybe they didn’t have any doubles left and so we had to have single rooms instead. Not that I mind having my own room but I didn’t want to be charged for the second one.

With the room situation sorta, kinda not under control (would deal with it later), Soon and I headed out of the hotel but before we took one step, I showed him the map of Casablanca and showed him the *points of interest* that I thought we should focus our morning on as I wanted to leave the Hassan II Mosque and medina to the afternoon so we could visit them with Aaron and Mildred.

"It was a picture perfect day "stunning blue skies with not a cloud hanging in it.
The temperature was probably in the high 60’s, perfect walking temperature. We headed down the Boulevard H. Boigny, retracing our footsteps to Place des Nations Unies (United Nations Square). There was a lot of construction taking place around the area so it was difficult to actually identify the *square* which is not shaped like a square so that didn't help things any. Luckily, the city's famous colonial perid clock anchors one corner and it’s hard to miss the clock.

As with our walk through Rabat, making our way through Casablanca was equally challenging for the fact that the map was not very detailed and there are no street signs posted anywhere. We got to a point where we had to choose from 6 different roads and although my experience tells me that a *boulevard* equates to a broad avenue, that does not appear to be the case in Morocco so everytime we had to go down a boulevard, we would inevitably make the wrong choice. Oh well. That’s how you explore! :-)

In Casablanca, you have to just figure out how to weave your way between cars to cross the road. Soon mastered the skill quickly and I would just follow him. Detours here and there because of constructions turned our straight line walk into a meander over unpaved ground.  It looked like they were laying down the tracks for a train of some sort.  Long stretches of asphalt had been torn up and crossings blocked so we had to zig and zag our way along.

"Our first destination " was the Place Mohammed V which is a square ringed by government and administrative buildings, the most impressive of which is the Justice Palace. The Palace is fronted by a small public garden.

We took our time for photo op and Soon shot a 360 video so we could remember what it felt like to be standing in the square.

"Don't like pigeon poop "We then walked across the street where there was a small plaza with a fountain. Hundreds of pigeons had flocked to the plaza presumably because someone was feeding them. I love birds but for some reason, flocking pigeons make me uneasy. Somewhere I thought I had read that their poop carries meningitis and I that’s all I could think about as I saw the birds fluttering about. I decided I was not about to walk near them. Even if they are not carriers of meningitis, I had no desire to be pooped on.  Eww.....

"A church like no other" Our next destination was the Cathedral Sacre Coeur. Yes, a church a rare sight in a Muslim country though this one no longer functions as a church; it was long ago relegated to being an exhibition hall. Against the crystal blue sky, the stark white exterior of the church stood out.

Compared to most cathedrals I’ve seen this one is pretty unusual, both on the outside and on the inside. The outside is remarkably devoid of any ornamentation and in some ways, a bit crude looking. The front door was open so we went inside.

There, we were greeted by a completely empty and I mean completely empty interior – no pews, no altars, not icons, no figure of Christ on a cross. Pigeons were flying about and their poop all over the floor. It was weird standing in an abandoned church….almost like a scene from a futuristic movie about a post apocalyptic land. Nothing that would ever tell you that this structure ever existed as a church if not for its layout and the stain glassed windows.

There was some sort of a attendant at the entrance and he pointed out to us that the several of the stain glass windows were actually representations of country flags. Huh… interesting I thought.

"Tebow time! "Then Soon got this whacky idea in his head to do an homage to Tim Tebow.  Whaaat??  He would do a Team Tebow pose at the spot that would have been the altar. Of course, I had to do the photo duties and in order to get the full effect the wanted, I had to crouch down on the dusty, dirty concrete floor to capture the photo.  Yes, please take a picture of me with the entire altar showing up in the background.  Sure, no problem.  Oh the torture I had to endure!  Two cameras, a thousand Tebow positions, a million snaps later and I got one shot that worked for him.  Another small victory for mankind, big victory for Julee. I'm thinking I'm going to have to charge for my photography services :-)

On our way out of the church, the attendant told us that for 20 dirhams each we could walk the stairs to the top of the church and from there, get a scenic view of Casablanca. Sounded good so we agreed to go.

First stop on the way up was the 2nd floor.  I think we were standing in the area where the choir and church organ would have been.  From here, we had a view of the altar.  So that's what the pigeons see.

"I'm not going any further "We started climbing the steps which were littered with pigeon poop. The first few set of steps were okay….not too much poop. As we ascended, the staircase got narrower and the layer of poop thicker.  Eww, eww, eww.  On one step, there was even a nest with an egg. As I turned the corner to go up the next set of steps, I saw a dead pigeon. I looked up the central shaft and I could see that we had at least another 3 or 4 floors to ascend.

I decided I didn’t want to go further. Something was telling me to turn back so I told Soon he could go ahead if he wanted to but that I was turning back. Soon looked up the shaft and he saw some crumbling pieces of wood and wondered if it really was safe to go further so he decided to turn back with me as well. I scurried down as quickly as I could. We handed over the 40 dirhams and left the church. It was good to be out in the fresh air!

On our way out, the attendant handed us a map of the city. It wasn’t much more detailed than the map that I had but it did have the Palais Royal highlighted on it. I had seen a picture of the Palace and since we had time, we decided to go there. Seemed pretty easy to get there – especially since we had gotten directions from the attendant plus we had a map in hand. Sure….that’s what we thought.

"A park and a cafe but no palace "
We started walking down a broad pathway that was lined on both sides by trees. Reminded me of the Tuileries Garden in Paris. We figured the park would lead to the palace. Oh how ignorant of us :-)

Before we got to the end of a park, we passed an outdoor café and was too beautiful a day to pass up the opportunity to sit outside, sip on a cappuccino and watch the world go by. Where in the world do we get our ideas from? We found a table and soon a waiter came by to take our order. We asked him if they have cappuccinos and he replied that they did so we ordered a cup for each of us.

As we waited for the coffee to arrive, we watched what little of the world that went by, go by. Not a whole lot of pedestrian traffic probably because it was a Monday morning and the normal world is busy at work. Our coffee arrived and from the color of the liquid in the glass I knew it couldn’t be a cappuccino but then what was it? All it took was sip to tell me it was hot chocolate and the powdered stuff at that. Either something got lost in the translation or else this is indeed a cappuccino in Morocco. Bad hot chocolate aside, it was a beautiful day and it was really nice to chat with Soon. I was starting to let go of the office and enjoy my time off.

"We're lost "After our coffee, we continued our walk down the park which I figured out after the fact was the Arab League Park. When we made it to the end of the park but did not see a Palace or any street signs to orient us, we realized we were lost. We turned in the direction that we thought we should be heading in but we were getting nowhere fast. Standing on the edge of a roundabout, I Googled the name of the hotel that we were adjacent to to get a street address. When we located the street on the map, we realized we had veered way of track.

By now, it was getting close to noon. Based on their flight itinerary, Aaron and Mildred were due to arrive at the hotel by about 1pm. I told Aaron to email me when they boarded the train that would take them from the airport to the hotel. By now, it was past noon and so we figured they had missed the train. Even so, Soon and I decided we needed to start heading back to the hotel so we would be there when they arrived. Lost as we were, we somehow managed to find our way back to the Palace of Justice and from there, we knew how to get back to the hotel.

"Stomach growling "I was getting hungry and we decided to grab lunch. My nose told us when to stop walking. We found a small restaurant that served Moroccan style sandwiches. A meat sandwich for me, a meat platter for Soon and two glasses of orange juice was our lunch. Simple but more than enough to fill our bellies.

There were a few missteps involved but eventually we made it back to the hotel. It was about 1:30p when we arrived back and so we decided to just sit in the lobby and wait for Aaron and Mildred to arrive.

As we sat there, I got an email from saying that he and Mildred had missed the connecting train and that meant that they would be late arriving. No problem since Soon and I had no plans on doing anything other than waiting for them.

"They made it! " Then, lo and behold, he emailed back to say that they had in fact caught the train…..they had been thrown off by a wrong departure sign. I replied to Aaron that he was only one stop away and that we would see them in a few minutes. Sure enough, shortly after 2pm, we saw Aaron and Mildred approaching the front entrance to the hotel. They had arrived safely and now the travelling foursome was finally all together!!

We greeted each other with hugs and gave them the room keys so they could deposit their luggage in the rooms and take a few minutes to freshen up. Aaron was so excited to be in Morocco that he was raring to go… need to relax or freshen up. As quickly as they had gone up to their rooms, they were back down in the lobby.

"To the mosque we go "Soon and I told them that since we didn’t have much time before sunset, the plan was to go to the Hassan II Mosque and then meander our way back to the hotel via the medina. This time the route to the mosque was very straightforward as it’s located at the end of the road that the locals refer to as the Corniche….it’s the road that runs alongside the port.

The first time I saw the Hassan II mosque was on the train to Rabat. I caught a glimpse of it as the train made its way out of the Casa Port station. The second time I saw the mosque was from one of the hallway windows on the 15th floor of our hotel. Now I would get to see it up close and from what I had read, it is decorated with beautiful zellij tiles.

As we walked along the Corniche, we came across a section of the wall that encloses the medina. Peaking above the wall were the crumbling stone buildings that crowd the medina. Freshly laundered clothing hung out to dry added to the clutter. The only nod to modern times were the satellite dishes that dotted the roof tops. On the other side of the corniche were all the metal and mechanical structures that you would associate with a present day working port – large boats, cranes, shipping containers. The contrast between the left and right sides of the street could not have been greater.

Although Soon estimated that it was about a mile long walk from the hotel to the mosque, it seemed like an eternity. At one point there was a left hand turnoff from the corniche and for some reason, instinct told me that was the direction to go in. In my rudimentary French, I asked a naval officer who was walking past us, “Où est la mosquée” and has he raised his hand and pointed his finger in the direction we were to walk in, I saw the minaret. We were indeed on the right street.

"A sight to behold " It was a short walk through a residential neighborhood before we made it to the mosque. The massive structure is located on a promontory located right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The distinctive minaret is stunning when viewed up close because it’s only then that you can see the intricate design work. The green color is a nod to Islam. Photographed against the brilliant blue sky of that day, the minaret was truly an impressive sight. I found myself drawn to constantly wanting to look upwards.

"Wow, wow, wow! "We followed the entry walkway up to the entrance. At the end of the walkway, was a massive and I mean massive plaza. It’s said that the mosque and plaza area can accommodate 80,000 people praying. We slowly made our way towards the mosque. I’m not an expert in Islamic architecture or design but I know a beautiful building when I see one and this is truly a magnificent one. Every door, archway, and fountain was decorated with zellij tiles.

The traditional Moroccan eight pointed star was a prominent motif element. Overall, the mosque was so simple in design yet so eye catching. Every which way I looked, there was beauty to behold. Even the stone floor of the plaza was designed with Islamic star patterns.

The front door of the mosque was open and men were entering for afternoon prayers. Non-Muslims are not permitted inside unless part of a guided tour and since we had no guide, all we could do was peak inside.

Even though we only caught a glimpse of the interior, it was enough to elicit a “wow” from both Soon and I.

By now, we had long lost sight of Aaron and Mildred but somehow they managed to cross Soon’s line of sight and he pointed them out to me. Since we hadn’t finished seeing the mosque, I told Soon to run over to tell them about checking out the interior and to agree on a place to meet up. We headed over to the edge of the plaza which overlooked the ocean. What a magnificent spot for a mosque!! It was late afternoon and there were a few hardy souls clamoring over the rocks. There was no beach. Turning my gaze back to the mosque, I just could not help but continue to marvel in awe at the beauty of Islamic architecture and design. Every shape, color and motif has a meaning. Though the plaza was not crowded there were a local residents and a few tourists strolling about. I have to say that since this is low season, we’ve not seen too many tourists in any of the places we’ve been so far. It’s been nice to only mainly hear Arabic and French being spoken around us.  So peaceful today but I couldn't help but wonder what the atmosphere would be like if there were 80,000 worshippers here!

We met back up with Aaron and Mildred.  As we stood in the plaza, Soon shot a 360 video.  The background noise is actually the wind blowing off of the ocean.  I slowed down the speed of the video so you can better see the detail of the buildings.

"Stroll through the medina"
It was such a beautiful day and we were in no rush to go anywhere so we just slowly made our way back out the entrance and down another street of the same neighborhood that we had passed through earlier. Following instinct, we veered off the main road and soon found ourselves inside the old city walls and were either the mellah or the medina. This part of the medina/mellah is more intended for the locals so the shops sold all the goods that people need for their everyday existence. The only time we stopped was when I caught eye of a vendor selling something very similar to what we know in Malaysia as *roti chanai*. It’s basically like a pancake, made of paper thin layers of dough, cooked in quite a lot of oil on top of a flat top griddle. This one had bits of onion and parsley between the layers of dough. Super hot as it was just taken off the griddle and super tasty. Soon and I enjoyed every bite. I must find out what this thing is called. I have to say the medina in Casablanca is really nothing like I imagine the medina to be like. Didn’t find it interesting at all really so I was keen to just make our way out.

"Dinner!"It didn’t take long for us wind our way through the area and exit onto Boulevard H. Boigny which by now Soon and I easily recognized. It was Aaron and Mildred’s first night in Morocco and though it was just about 5pm, they were ready for an early dinner. Of course, when in Morocco, eat Moroccan so Soon and I took them to the same restaurant that he and I had eaten at the night before. It was a round of lemon juices, tajines and couscous and mint teas for everyone.

After dinner, we decided to stroll back into the medina. This time we were in the tourist area so lots of souvenir shops, leather shops and handicraft places. It was a chance for me to get an idea of the stuff that they sell and what the prices are. I have my eyes on the leather pouf covers and here they’re asking 200 dirhams for cover that I think will fit my mom’s poufs which are 11”x17”. I think I can roll them down small enough to fit in my pack but we’ll see if I can get them for a more reasonable price in either Fes or Marrakesh. I also want to pick up a pair of slippers, preferably with soles that I can wear them outside.

We were strolling towards our hotel and along the way, stopped to buy bottled water for Aaron and Mildred. Back at the hotel, we all went our separate ways.

"Time to call it a day " Back in my room, I took a shower and then spent the rest of my waking time writing this blog post. Around 10:30p or so I thought I heard someone knock on my door and then attempt to open it. When they heard me say *hello*, the shut the door, turned around and I presumed walked away. A few minutes later, the phone rang and when I picked it up, the man on the other end asked me to come to the lobby to explain to him how I ended up with two rooms. I told him that I was already in my pajamas, ready to go to sleep, and that I would explain to him over the phone. I told him exactly what happened. He then told me that he needed my friend and I to move rooms. What?? He told me that we were only suppose to be in one room. I told him that I had said that several times to the woman in the morning but she kept insisting that I have two rooms. He again told me he needed us to move rooms. I told him I had already unpacked all my stuff at which point he asked me how many nights I was planning on staying. I told him we were leaving at 8am tomorrow and which point he said “fine” and hung up. If he had persisted, I would have vehemently pointed out that it was 10:45p at night and I was not going to wake Mildred up to relocate. Shortly after having that uncomfortable conversation, I went to sleep. I have a feeling this isn’t going to be the end of this issue but I’ll deal with that tomorrow morning.

Good night Casablanca! It was a great day!