Our flight to Paris was uneventful and reasonably comfortable, we having plunked for an upgrade to what Air France calls “Premium Economy”, which air-travel-amenity-wise is pretty close to business class. Plus, Air France serves edible food. Once in Paris we met up with our friends and traveling companions Steve and Thumper during the layover for our flight to Casablanca. Their journey started in San Francisco so they were already pretty well exhausted.
Our Casablanca flight consisted largely of Steve and Thumper, ourselves, and a planeful of hajjis returning from their pilgrimage to Mecca. (This being about two days after 700 pilgrims were crushed in the crowd.) The hajjis are easy to spot, the women in white djellabas, sometimes modestly but colorfully embroidered, and the men in unadorned white full-length tunics (called a kamees). My favorite sight by far was a woman in a djellaba sporting a garish sombrero complete with multicolored ball fringe, as though she had made a wrong turn and taken a pilgrimage to Tijuana instead of Mecca.
Casablanca airport is modern and efficient, as befits its location; Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco with a population of about 6 million. Despite all the hajjis the airport was not particularly crowded and we moved pretty quickly through passport control and baggage claim, then easily spotted our tour lead. He is of course named Mohamed, a large burly local with a rolling gait and a likely heart attack in his future. (Actually, “local” is not exactly the right word: he is from Fez, which will be one of our destinations.) His English is quite good and like the other Overseas Adventure Travel tour leads in our experience is very well-informed and a continuous font of useful information. Among the latter was an admonishment not to eat the salad at dinner; we are very definitely in “don’t drink the water” territory, and eating uncooked fruits and vegetables is a decidedly bad idea.
The four of us were the only tour members on our flight, and so there only us, Mohamed, and our driver in the minivan on the half-hour drive to our hotel. The outskirts of the city, between the airport and town, look like a downscale version of Arizona or perhaps some place in northern Mexico, all scrubby desert and low stucco buildings among half-cultivated fields with the occasional grazing herd of goats. (There was a promotional video playing on the plane called “Morocco: Lands of Color”, although at this point the colors would be about ten shades of brown.)
Further in, however, Casablanca looks like an actual cosmopolitan city, many of the streets lined with royal palms. There are few high-rise buildings — I don’t think we saw anything taller than about ten stories — but there’s a modern-looking light rail system and a lot of activity on the street. The men are clad in everything from djellabas to western suits, and the women in everything from hajibs to spangled stretch pants. It is quite a diverse scene, especially near the heart of town at Marichal Square, named after the first French governor of the country. But despite the modernity there is a certain air of seediness: peeling paint, cracked stucco, litter in the streets. Practically all signs are in both Arabic and French, which is good news for us since we can get by with the latter.
We are staying at the Imperial Casablanca Hotel, distinguished by having been Gen. Patton’s headquarters during World War II. It’s modern-looking, with dark marble walls in the lobby and high-ceilinged hallways lined with black and white photos from the country in earlier days. Those hallways are long, high, and very dark: the ceiling lights are controlled by motion sensors and so the lights turn on and off as you walk down the hall. This is all commendably energy-efficient, of course, but it also means that you are always walking uncertainly ahead into an ominous pool of darkness and thus imbues the weary traveler with a vague unease á la The Shining. However, our room is well-appointed and comfortable and there is no blood seeping through the walls.
Dinner was buffet-style and oddly eclectic, the main entrees consisting of lasagna and paella. We met up with the other four members of this part of the trip, two 70-ish couples. There are only these eight of us for the next few days, after which we join up with eight more people for the main part of the tour.
Steve suggested taking a walk after dinner . The women were not interested so it was just the two of us; Mohamed offered to accompany us but we declined, figuring we would explore a bit; Mohamed then directed us where to walk and, more importantly, where not to. (It was 8:30pm by now, and dark.) We went about three blocks and didn’t see a lot: shuttered stores, a bar with some guys hanging out, some dark office buildings. Somewhat to my surprise it was not exclusively men out on the street, though they were the only ones actually hanging out; the women all seems to be moving more purposefully.
We got some local cash from a nearby ATM; Morocco’s currency is the dirham, worth about ten per US dollar. We decided to end the day with a quick reconnoiter of the hotel rooftop to see what kind of nighttime view we could get of the city. That tuned out to be not much, the hotel being only five stories tall. Other than a pair of huge brightly lit cruise ships in port, a mile or two from our hotel, the view was unrewarding. Tomorrow we will see more of the city before heading out for the long drive to Rabat.