Sunday, December 07, 2008

Cool Africa

Casablanca, Morocco

It's been a great experience to visit Morocco this week. Actually it's been a range of experiences rather than just one - this is a very varied country and it's difficult to get under its skin and see what the culture is truly like. To that end it's been very helpful to visit with two people who live in the country and have more of an idea of how things work.

We had a good taste of African efficiency on Thursday when we came to leave Chefchaouen and get to Fes. It's a 4 hour bus journey, or about 200kms by road. We got to the bus station at 8am to buy tickets, but were told that all the buses were 'complet' (full) so we'd have to try another way. First some 'helpful' bystanders told us to go to Ouezzane, a town on the main road, then get a bus to Fes from there. So we waited an hour for that bus, only to be told that it too was 'complet'. So the next helpful suggestion was to go back to Tetouan, 2 hours the wrong way, to get on a bus to Fes that wouldn't be full. So that's what we had to do. It was a little dispiriting to pass by the Chefchaouen junction on the main road at about 4:30pm, about 7 hours after last seeing it going the other way. Never mind...

We had a good taste of Moroccan culture when we got to Fes. We'd rung ahead and reserved a triple room in the Grand Hotel de Fes for 600dh per night - 15 pounds each. What a bargain! It turned out to be a fantastic bargain. When we arrived at the bus station it was about 9pm. The bus driver took me aside and explained briefly (in French) where we were in relation to the city centre and how to get there. Top marks for helpfulness - this is what Moroccans are like usually. As we were walking to the taxi rank a hotel tout came up to us, started harassing one of the Aussie girls with us and the two Asian guys. Suffice to say he didn't win us over to staying at his hotel.

In the medina we had the ultimate experience of being 'Fezzed'. My optimism and enthusiasm for seeing it lasted about 20 minutes past the first tour guide offer from a 'faux guide' whose job is to take you to his uncle's carpet shop and hard sell you. We ended up at the tannery, where they make leather goods in an 800-year old environment preserved thanks to UNESCO (apparently; I haven't confirmed it yet). Our guide there said to take our time, look around and reassured us that there would be no hard sell. I picked up a satchel to have a look and then spent 30 minutes in battle with first the salesman - who insulted me, swore at me and eventually QUIT HIS JOB - then the general manager who was very charming and persuasive. I was as slippery as I could be and kept dropping my maximum price to what I actually wanted to pay. After a few close calls I finally walked out with the bag I wanted at a price I could deal with. But the experience was so traumatic I don't think I could do it again!

On Saturday we headed back to Casablanca where my friends live and work. It's a big ugly city for the most part, but seems to be the hub of the country economically. We had dinner at Rick's Cafe on Saturday night: not the original, but recreated to resemble the film version. Today we went to church, and I went to visit the Hassan II Mosque, one of the biggest in the world and quite impressive. Not a patch on St Paul's though.

It's been a bit of a whirlwind tour of Morocco, and there's lots I haven't had time to see. Hopefully there'll be time in the future to come back and experience more of the country. But for now I have a flight to catch to Madrid tomorrow afternoon, and then to London in the evening. Travel blog closed once again.

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