Tuesday, March 07, 2000

TR Morrocco

Gibraltar, Morocco – Part 2
03/02 –03/09/00

Now where did I leave off? Oh yes, I had booked a 3-day package to Casablanca and was getting ready to depart Gibraltar. It was only a one-hour flight to Casablanca and I arrived in the early afternoon. The airport in Casablanca is new and very modern. But that is where new and modern (and clean) started and ended in Morocco! I was not long into the 45-minute train ride into the city when I began to see the dirt, filth and poverty along the train route. And of course the most common mode of transport in the rural areas is donkey and horse carts. As we entered the city the scenery did not change except there were only a lot less donkey carts.

Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco and is the financial and business center of the country. There are about three square blocks in the city center that contain the banks, business headquarters and the international hotels. This is the only part of the city that is modern and clean! The rest of the city is filthy and full of slums! There are only four major tourist attractions in the city. The Grand Mosque of Hassan II, situated on reclaimed land west of the port, is the world’s largest mosque outside Mecca. It can accommodate 25,000 people and is indeed a beautiful structure but the surrounding areas are some of the worst slums that I have ever seen.
The Medina or old walled city has been converted to souks or market places where you can buy anything you want or don’t want. On the outer edges of the Medina the shops and streets are fairly clean but as you delve into the bowels of the Medina, the area looks just like that –bowels! The filth and stench is unbelievable! I observed one old Arab sitting in the middle of the road with a pile of about 10 rotten oranges in front of him. He was trying to sell them for one Dirham (10 cents) each. I as told that he would sit there for 10 –12 hours trying to sell them because that represented his total income for the day!
The third attraction is the Place des Nations Unies, a grand public square surrounded by the city administrative buildings and includes a huge central fountain (that didn’t work?).
And the final attraction was the Parc de la Ligue Arabe, a large park in the center of the city. I was hoping to run there but it was the sorriest excuse for a park that I had ever seen and I refused to run in the filth!

At the end of my first day in Casablanca I had visited all four of the above ‘tourist attractions’. In addition to the filth and poverty, my other important observations were that nobody in Morocco spoke English and they had no concept of how to treat tourists.
Even the staff at my 4-star hotel, one of the French-Mercure chain could not speak English and the service was poor or non-existent. And I was still not sure or confident how the local people regarded tourists or strangers. Even though I had shucked my ‘American uniform’ for dull drab European clothes, I noticed that almost everyone in the streets would stare at me as I walked by? I quickly realized that I had made one mistake in my dress –I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and everyone wears long-sleeve shirts and jackets. But even after I put a nylon running jacket on to cover my arms they still stared at me? Then I realized that with my fair complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes that I must have looked (because I certainly felt) like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ walking through the streets! I did not see one other fair-haired Caucasian walking the streets in my three days in Morocco? But to be fair not once did I feel threatened, hassled or unsafe. And I walked into and through the Medina at night and through the slums to the Mosque and not one person approached me – but the stares and looks were difficult to interpret and did unnerve me a bit.

As I mentioned before, nobody –and I mean nobody spoke English! If you do not speak some French it would be very difficult to survive in Morocco! Fortunately my high school and college French gave me enough base to get by and I just considered the adventure to be a 3-day immersion lesson in French. I could get by well at the hotel and restaurants but had difficulty with the taxi drivers-especially when I needed to explain that I just wanted them to drive/tour me around to explore certain areas of the city.

So Casablanca was a big disappointment! I couldn’t find Bogey or Ingrid or their ghosts re-igniting their passionate love affair. Casablanca is certainly not beautiful or romantic.
There is no ‘Rick’s Place’. And the friggen airport is 45 minutes from the city – nothing like the movie. I don’t know whom to be pissed off at the most –Hollywood or Casablanca?

But it’s not time to jump ship yet? The next day I decide to take a train to Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. It is about one hour north of Casablanca. On the way I stop off at a seaside resort town called Mohammedia that is supposedly a weekend retreat for the citizens of Casablanca. I walked around for about twenty minutes and then hired a min-taxi to drive me around for about 30 minutes to show me the beach (1 mile of nice beach with oil storage tanks at each end) and the golf course. In one hour I decide that the resort town is just a miniature version of Casablanca- filthy and slums! So it’s time to move on to Rabat after I pay the taxi driver 10 Dirhams ($1) for his 30-minute tour.

Upon arriving in Rabat I tried to find or buy a map of the city but could not find one. A helpful citizen suggested that I should go to the Ministere de Tourisme. Since Rabat is the capital all the government departments and buildings are located there. So I take a taxi to the Ministere. Are you ready? Not only did the Ministry of Tourism have no staff who could speak English, but also they had no maps or information for Rabat or even Morocco? And they are supposedly trying to make tourism the number 1 industry? Good luck- not in my lifetime! But you can’t keep a good man down so I found a large international hotel and surprisingly even a concierge whom spoke English and he gave me a map and information on what to see and do in Rabat.
So I spent the rest of the day visiting the tourist sites. Oudaia Kasbah, a 12th century fortress that has been converted into a residential quarter; the Medina, bigger and cleaner than the one in Casablanca and the Hassan Mosque and Tower and the Mausoleum of Mommmed V. He was the king who achieved independence for Morocco in 1956.
Rabat is smaller and cleaner than Casablanca especially in the section of the city where the government buildings are located.

My biggest dilemma at this point was that after two days I really hadn’t identified a site to accomplish my hidden agenda –to run a marathon in Morocco. I had considered going to the Ministere de Sports in Rabat and asking them for help but after my experience at the Tourism branch I figured that would be a waste of time.
So when I returned to Casablanca I stopped at the Hyatt Hotel and talked to the concierge (another person would spoke English) and asked his advice. He recommended an area called ‘Le Corniche’ that ran south along the Atlantic coast from the Grand Mosque. So I hired a mini-taxi to take me out along the Corniche and determined that it could work.

The next morning I started very early (5:30am) from my hotel. I carried three bottles of water with me to drop off at 20-minute intervals. It was only a mile from the hotel to the Mosque and when I reached it I met three army squads doing their morning run and ran with them for a few miles. After 5-6 miles I realized that the road continued further along the coast and decided to keep following it. I would prefer to run out 13 miles and then just turn around and head back if possible. Luckily I found a taverna open that early to buy 3 more bottles of water and continued out the road. Eventually the road turned inland to join the main highway south to El Jadida. There was very little traffic but I did have to share the dirt shoulder with some horse and donkey carts. Finally at 13 miles I turned around and headed back. By the time I hit Le Corniche on my return there were hundreds of local citizens out running and walking. Again the funny/curious stares. But then again I was dressed only in a flimsy T-shirt and shorts and they all wore sweats or jogging suits including hats and hoods. Some even wore gloves. I never did figure out why? Was the clothing to keep warm? (temps were in the mid-70s) -for modesty (the women maybe but the men too?) –or to prevent exposure to the sun?
And in spite of the stares many of them greeted me with a friendly nod and a “Bonjour – Ca va?” (Good morning-How’s it going?) That made me feel much more comfortable. So I continued to run easy and finish my Moroccan Marathon!

The rest of the day I toured around some other sections of Casablanca but just found more of the same old filth and poverty. I was not too disappointed to leave the next day. On the train to the airport I met a Moroccan who now lives in Montreal. He confirmed all my evaluations. They treat him just as bad or worse than tourists. They have no concept how to treat tourists or what good service is –and yes the country is filthy and poor! But he did indicate that Marrakesh is probably the best city for tourists and it is also the gateway to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. That will have to be another time and trip.

Back to Gibraltar to catch my plane back to England.
But first I need to finish my tour of the Rock. I still haven’t been to the very top! So I take the Cable Car to the top for some magnificent views of Gibraltar, Spain and Africa. There is a nature reserve at the top with trails and roads leading to many other attractions. On the walk to St Michael’s Caves I experienced my first encounter with the world-famous Rock apes. In fact, these creatures are not apes at all, but a species of tail-less monkeys known as “Macaca sylvanus”. The locals were amazed that I had not heard of these ‘world-famous’ apes until just recently. I learned about the Rock in school but I must have missed the lesson on the apes? There is an interesting story associated with the apes – “the Churchill story”. On a visit to Gibraltar Sir Winston Churchill, on learning that their numbers were diminishing ordered that they be replenished. So the saying now goes “Gibraltar will cease to be British on the day that there are no apes left on the Rock”.
St Michael’s Caves are natural limestone caves that are huge and have such great acoustics that they have built a 500-seat concert hall within the caves. A concert must be a breathtaking experience with all the magnificent stalactites and stalagmites lit up with colored spotlights. Then it was on to the North face to explore the Great Siege Tunnels, a vast network of defensive tunnels excavated during the Great Siege of 1779-1783 (so they could shoot cannons down at the Spaniards approaching across the isthmus). In all there are over 33 miles of tunnels honeycombing the Rock. Most were excavated during WWII and are not open to the public yet.

On my final morning I do one last run up and down, around, over and through the Rock for nostalgia. Then I do my last minute shopping for some souvenirs and booze. Gibraltar is a tax and duty-free port so the prices are very good.
Upon arriving back at Gatwick I am surprised to find myself converged upon by two customs agents whom stick to me like fleas while they search my bag thoroughly and ask lots of questions such as “where have you been”, why do you travel so much”? I find this strange since I haven’t ever seen a customs agent during all my trips in and out of England the previous 10 months? Fortunately all they can find is a deranged marathoner and they send me on my way. Passport control must have noticed the Moroccan stamps in my passport?

And now finally(since I know you have been holding your breath)– the results of the ‘Europe contest’.
For those who submitted entries you have some idea of the difficulties entailed in determining the answer and probably want to know how I resolved those?
1) Europe/Asia border. Even most World Atlases don’t agree on the boundaries since some show countries such as Cyprus and Georgia in Europe. I finally consulted the National Geographic World Reference Book that clearly defines the boundary as accepted by most world laws.
2) Small sovereign states. There are many small states/countries such as Vatican City, Sam Marino and Andorra that can be easily missed. Fortunately I had noticed an article in USA Today listing them all.
3) Heritage/Politics. The most difficult! World Atlases depict the UK as a country. But believe me the citizens of England, Scotland and Wales and even other European countries recognize those countries as independent. They have their own governments and represent themselves in all world sports events (except the Olympics).

With these facts/assumptions in mind the correct answer is --- 47! The actual list of countries is attached for your reference.

The winner is---Nada Rutka with the correct answer of 47! I don’t know if she had the same countries but she had the right quantity. Congratulations!

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