On the sea day before docking in Casablanca, the ambassador did his final presentation. I was surprised to learn that as late as 1909, there were still no roads, no engineers, no doctors, and no pharmacists in Morocco. The country is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and a mountain range cuts it off from the Sahara Desert. When Morocco became a protectorate of France in 1912, the overseeing governor was Marshall Lyaetuy. His goal was to protect the culture, architecture and history of Morocco, so he built the modern cities next to the original, thus preserving the ancient monuments. We dock in the modern city of Casablanca founded in 1912. It is a major port and the city moves at a faster pace than in the rest of Morocco.
Boris hit the century mark when we touched ground in Morocco, having now visited 100 countries. . It will be a long day with a 13-hour tour. We drove through Casablanca passing a Catholic Cathedral with a Moorish flare built by the French. The Hassan II Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world, is located in Casablanca; we were only able to see the minaret (tower) in the distance. Its foundations are partly on land and partly in the sea. The main hall holds 25,000 and has a retractable roof. It is also the only Arab city to have a Jewish museum; our guide reminded us often that Morocco was a tolerant country. Casablanca is a city of four million people with a “continuous” workday from nine am to four pm. 65% of the population works in agriculture.
Mahjid, our guide, was proud to tell us that Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence in 1976. He also related a shocking fact; next year for the first time, education will be mandatory in Morocco. It will be provided to both girls and boys. I recalled the Ambassador’s lecture and realized that everything happens later here. The official language is Arabic, but French, Spanish, and English are also spoken. Ten million visit Morocco annually, mostly French with the number of Americans growing.
We left Casablanca on a divided toll way that is only 3 years old. We made one “comfort stop”. The inside restroom was closed, so we were directed to an outside building with one western style toilet and one squatter. There was also a trough to wash your feet. Odd, but then I saw that there was a prayer room in this same outside building right next to the men’s restroom. Muslims wash before prayer.
Marrakesh is an imperial Berber city established in 1062. It is often called “The Pink City” or “The Red City” due to the way the salmon-colored buildings look in the sun. Most of the Moroccan cities are whitewashed, but Marrakesh is pink to cut down on the blinding reflection of the sun on the white walls. The original settlers used to paint their skin an indigo color to protect themselves in the sun. Marrakesh is a city of almost one million people. We crossed a bridge coming into town, the mirror image of the 11th century bridge we will cross on our way out. There was delay as a tree was removed on the opposite side of the road so the road could be widened. Mahjid was upset that a 90-year-old tree would be removed for this “progress”.
We went first to photograph the minaret and then crossed through the gates into the old city where we toured the Baja palace near the Jewish Ghetto. They are just starting to renovate the palace. Although it is not as beautiful as the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, it was in very good condition. After the tour, we went to lunch at one of the nicest restaurants in the city. We sat on low chairs around a table where food was served family style. 98% of the Moroccans eat we their hands, but we all opted for the offered flatware. Mahjid raved about the wine. I didn’t care for it and we learned later that he had never actually tried it.
The first course was an appetizer platter with about nine different offerings. I liked the carrots, which looked like sliced red bell peppers, but tasted like candy. The second course was lamb that was so tender it just fell off the bone. After that another meat course was served with each of us getting our own small chicken to eat. This was followed by a platter filled with a mountain of fruit so high you couldn’t see the person who sat across from you at the table. Next was a platter of pastries all filled with almonds and the meal ended with mint tea or coffee. I was surprised we were not served dates.
Morton Dean and his longtime girlfriend Mary were on tour with us and sat at our table of eight at lunch. We talked about a lot of different things and Mort told us a story of when he was sent out to cover Woodstock and he sat down with a group of people who were all passing around a joint. While he asked them questions, they continued to pass the joint and to offer it to him; he politely refused. Finally “an attractive blonde with the most beautiful eyes, among other things,” (this is his phrasing) asked him what he was afraid of. He answered honestly, “that I will never leave”.
His girlfriend Mary is a bit of a daredevil who likes to heli-ski. When we went to the souk right after lunch, Mary was the first to have the snake charmer drape a live snake around her neck for a picture. The main plaza was filled with snake charmers who sat on carpets and made the cobras dance to the music from their pipes. Needless to day, the snakes they draped on your neck were not cobras. There were also those who had barbary apes who you could take a picture with. I opted for the apes. They ask for $20, but our guide had told us that a tip of $1 per person was appropriate.
We went through the market, which reminded me a little of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but was on winding streets, mostly uncovered. There were some people who had never been in a market of this type who were really uncomfortable with the pushiness of the vendors. I like the Grand Bazaar better for the shopping, but this setting was more picturesque and definitely more primitive.
Our last stop in Marrakesh was a garden with wonderful flowers and tile work pathways, Jardin Majorelle. Packing up on the bus for the trip back, I did a stupid thing; I dropped my camera with the long heavy lens on my big toe. Ouch. Thus ended my disco dancing days.
It was a warm sunny day in Marrakesh in the mid 80s. In the heat of the summer the temperature goes up to 126 degrees Fahrenheit. The drive back to Marrakesh was long, 3 hours. That was a half an hour shorter than the trip there. We passed several small villages along the way. As the sun set, we saw numerous shepherds retiring with their herds. The strangest sight was seeing one shepherd take his flock across the highway overpass, blending the old way with the new.