Saturday, September 7, 2013

I've Moved!

Dear readers,

This blog has been moved to another site. 

Keep following the adventures here

With love and candor,


Saturday, April 6, 2013

The sound of coming home

I can't remember the exact moment when I stopped acknowledging the call to prayer. I have come to realize that many of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that once seemed so new and exotic have one by one been slowly accepted into my daily routine, devoid of any of the wonder and novelty that they once had.

When I am able to get out of work on time, I enjoy returning home on foot. It is a great way to stretch out my legs after a day of sitting behind a desk, unravel my thoughts, and take in some fresh air. I know I am almost home when I reach the old kinisa (church) and pass through the neighborhood souq (outdoor market) filled with produce sellers, runaway chickens, fishermen selling their daily catch, and glowing shops filled with towering cones of spices and country-fresh bottles of olive oil and honey being sold in recycled soda bottles. As the sun sets, the souq is set alight with incandescent bulbs strung on wire above street carts and white candles nestled between mounds of citrus.

The "Kinisa" - the local landmark of the neighborhood

As I was walking through this scene one night, headphones plugged in, I started thinking about what friends and family back home think my life is like. What sort of reaction would they have if they were here with me? Would they find this ordinary too?

In an attempt to share a piece of my everyday life through a different medium, I (stealthily) recorded my walk home through the souq a few weeks ago.

The clip starts out with the sound of motorbikes revving, punctuated by a car horn.

At 0:58 you can hear the first vendor shouting out the price of his product.

1:16 - "Limoun miya! Limoun miya!" A vendor selling oranges for 100 rials/kilo. As I mentioned in an earlier post, rial is an old form of currency and I don't know the exact conversion into dirhams, let alone dollars. What I can tell you is his products are as cheap as they are fresh and local - very.

1:24 - "Ashra dirham fraise, fraisa! Fraisa!" Strawberry vendor. Ten dirhams (a little over $1 USD) for a kilo.

The area where the souq is located is packed on either side with various carts and vendors. Some sell their products out of carts, others out of the back of their pick-up truck, or simply splayed out on a tarp on the concrete. There is a single corridor open between them for shoppers to mill through. However, as you can hear, motorbikes and cars often push their way through as well, creating additional chaos and congestion.

2:04 - the chirping and clucking of chickens kept in pens out in front of the butcher shops.

2:18 - radio from one of the shopkeepers

Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Search of Casablanca

Casablanca the imaginary

When you think of Casablanca, what do you think of? Chances are, the film Casablanca is one of the first things that comes to mind. Piano bars and flapper women smoking on long cigarettes being courted by ex-pat men draped in linen suits topped with fedoras smoking on cigars, sipping dark liquor seeking refuge from the
dusty chaos of the Moroccan souk outside the door. On several occasions I have embarked on a quest in search of this timeless “Casablanca”. What I have found, however, is it is just as fleeting as the beat poet’s search for the American dream back in the 50’s.
Casablanca the reality

It only takes a simple google search to find that most travelers who find themselves in Casa share this sense of disillusionment. They come in search for the Oriental mystique encapsulated by its namesake film that was actually shot in Hollywood, California. They come looking for that Western cosmopolitan “oasis” in a country that can feel as intense and relentless as the desert sun.  They think that its reputation as a developed city wedged between the European influence dating back to the days of the French protectorate and embodied by its aging art deco architecture and its strategic position along the coast of ancient North African/Arab routes that it will be a perfect compromise.  Like most of Morocco, Casablanca is a city of contradictions.

Within the Rabat ex-pat community, Casablanca is seen as a city filled with all of the unattainable Western goods that we crave.  Most of us see the city as a place where we go to experience “big city life” with all of its perks: specialty grocery stores, countless bars and options for nightlife, international cuisine, Starbucks coffee, and shopping centers filled with Anglophone Moroccans and European-Western fashion. Last weekend, we went there with the purpose of purchasing clothing to replace those from a bag that got lost in the black hole of international transit. While we ultimately left feeling successful with our trip, it occurred to me that it could be useful to future prospective travelers to write a bit about our experiences as two young American (vegetarian) ex-pats visiting the city. Though the city can feel very overwhelming, your best tool into enjoying yourself and taking in all that Casa has to offer is by coming in knowing what you are actually getting yourself into versus what you expect to find.

One of the first things to know about Casablanca is the taxi drivers.  They are surly, temperamental, and see Western tourists as having wads of money to burn in their pockets. They know that you are at their mercy and unless you prove otherwise, they will try to rip you off. It is very common in Casa to notice that cab drivers will not use their meter. Often they will try to determine a fixed price with you before leaving. You can assume that if they’re doing this, then they are making a pretty serious profit. If you get in the taxi and notice that the counter is not on, be firm and make sure to ask him politely to turn it on for you.  Do not be discouraged if the driver does not know where you are going. There is a chance he (for whatever reason) does not want to take you there. Do not fear. Someone will. If you are trying to get to a particular place (ie: restaurant, bar, club), it is never a bad idea to come prepared. Have the cross street written down as well as the actual address. If there is a landmark nearby, try mentioning that (the neighborhood where it is located is also important, as many boulevards stretch far across the city). Tipping is never necessary.

Second, the ancient city/medina is not worth your time and has a reputation for being dangerous and overpriced. The goods you will find are generally shipped in from (best case) the main artisan cities, such as Fez and Marrakech, and (worst case) if you’re not careful you may be buying a ‘made in China’ Moroccan trinket. If this is the experience you are looking for, I would highly suggest you check out one of the two cities I mentioned previously. If you are tight on time, the Rabat medina will certainly help you get your fix and is a mere hour train ride away.

Alcohol is something else to keep in mind. Don’t let the European vibe fool you – it still takes a bit of cunning to procure alcohol to consume in the privacy of your own home, or in our case, hostel room. Most major grocery stores have what is called a cave d’alcool (alcohol cave), which is usually located in the back corner of the store. The cave usually closes about an hour prior to actual store closing. Fridays can be particularly difficult, as it is the Muslim holy day and most major grocery stores will close their cave around mid-day to approximately 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. In general, I try to assume that 8 pm is usually the cut off point. Acima is a major grocery store that has several locations throughout the city. If you hop in a cab and say “Acima”, chances are there will be no problems.

As mentioned previously, the type of shopping I typically take part in in Casablanca is of a specialty nature. As a vegan/vegetarian, I was thrilled to learn that an organic grocery store has opened up two locations in the city.  The store is called La Vie Claire and it is located at 64, Boulevard Aïn Taujdat and closes at 7 pm.

Every time I go to Casablanca I stay at a hostel named Hotel Central. Not only is it the cheapest bet in town, but the owner is very friendly and a polyglot. He speaks English very well and at the sight of your passport will most likely bellow “OBAMA!” several times for dramatic effect. The rooms are simple and clean and the downstairs lounge area has lovely Moroccan tile work and serves a standard Moroccan breakfast of traditional breads and coffee that is included in your price for the room. The hostel is located within walking distance from the Casa Port train station, making it especially ideal for travelers.

Last weekend, we were craving Asian food and had dinner at a wonderful Asian fusian restaurant called Asia Garden (go figure). Not only did we find a seat on a Saturday night, but the service was very attentive, the décor was coherent (again, difficult to always find), and there was a drink menu. From dinner, we walked over a few blocks to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a famous Casaoui bar inspired from the film Pulp Fiction. As we turned down the street where the bar was located, we witnessed a small street scuffle that ended up involving all nearby shopkeepers and stoop dwellers. From our perspective, a group of Casa girls were getting into a taxi and saying goodbye to their male counterparts after spending a night out together. It was clear that the guys were tying to coax the women to stay out. In a juvenile display of aggression, one of the men lurched forward and lightly struck and disrespected the woman trying to get into the front seat of the cab. It was clear that he had obviously done something to upset this woman, and walked away coolly from the taxi with his cronies in tow. However, the girl who was attacked sprang from the taxi, tore off her down jacket, and began chasing down and screaming at her assailant. As the guy was trying to get away, we saw a storeowner run from his store, plant his feet against the pavement, crossed his arms against his chest, and blocked the running man like a New England Patriot’s linebacker. The man was soon engulfed by the mob forming in the street and we were able to safely watch from a distance as justice was served. We stood from a distance to watch the drama unfold near a bookcase filled with bootlegged DVDs. The owner, noticing our position next to his bookshelf, approached us hoping we were interested in purchasing some. We politely declined and continued on our way. Is Casablanca a dangerous city? Of course. Do Casaouis (people from Casablanca) take care of their own? Absolutely yes.

Upon arriving at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, we couldn’t help but giggle at realizing that we had found exactly what we were looking for: a classic 50’s diner scene, equipped with black and white tile, pounded sheet metal on the bar, artistic tile mosaics on the wall depicting famous scenes from the film, and a menu including a “Royale with Cheese” and “Mia’s $5 shake”. Of course, there were some inconsistencies: a European fashion channel playing the Spring 2013 haute couture fashion lines of famous designers and a band of Sub-Saharan Africans covering American hits like REM’s “Losing my Religion”.  It was everything we were hoping for.

After a few drinks, we decided to make our way back to be closer to our hostel and search for a nightcap. After a few strikeouts: Rick’s Café, a lovely homage to the film Casablanca, unfortunately stops serving at 12:30. 

Rick's Café 
We then tried a few hotel bars with no luck, and then stumbled into destiny: a huge blinking vertical sign spelling out “NIGHTCLUB” attached to the side of the Best Western Hotel. Equal parts intrigued and apprehensive, we approached the red carpet leading down into the club. I asked the doorman in my best naïve tourist impersonation if the nightclub was safe for women.  He assured us that it was very pleasant and with that we descended down the stairs. The drinks were overpriced but the entertainment was something out of the bar scene from the movie “Airplane!”. Old men in suits filled the paid tables surrounding the center dance floor and stained glass lamps with red bulbs provided the added ambiance. Part of the entertainment was an all-women dance troupe doing choreographed dances; each dance deserving a costume change into another set of scantily-clad leotards to fit the theme of the tune. Some songs were sensual Arab hits while others were classic dance songs from the United States and Europe. We felt like we hit the jackpot. Below is a video from the night:

The following day we went to Morocco Mall. Tourists should see no real reason to spend any time here unless they are in desperate need of some new Western fashion or crave the IMAX movie experience. Thursdays they show an American film at the IMAX in English. Getting to the Morocco Mall is a situation where foreigners will have a hard time not being ripped off by taxis. From the Casa Port train station, if you had the meter on, a taxi trip to Morocco Mall should cost you less than 40 dirhams one way. However, most taxi drivers will try to convince foreigners that due to many reasons (traffic, distance, etc.) that the trip is worth 60 or 70 dirhams. Try to pay around 50 dirhams. On the way to the mall, after the immense construction of the new port area, you will come across the awe-inspiring Hassan II mosque, set out over the Atlantic surf, which was built to be the most ambitious structure in all of Morocco. If you pass by at night, be sure not to miss the laser-powered floodlight atop the minaret pointing towards Mecca. The mosque is definitely worth a visit. Continuing on in the taxicab, you will pass along the “Corniche” boardwalk area along the coast, lined with chic clubs, restaurants, and cafés. The final sight to see before the mall is the mysterious Island of Sidi Abderrahman, a spiritual island haven just off the coast home to the famous Sidi Abderrahman marabout (spirit house) and several fortunetellers. Legend has it that Sidi Abderrahman had the power to walk on water, and therefore was able to travel into worlds only accessible to him.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

So there you have it, some tips for navigating and appreciating the “real” Casablanca. I hope this information serves you well. If there is something you are looking to be answered that I didn’t cover, please leave a message at the bottom and I will see if I can help point you in the right direction.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Trading order and efficiency for chaos and value

Afternoon in December on my street in the neighborhood of L'Océan, Rabat

I was lucky enough to take a little over a week off from work to go home and spend Christmas with my family in the US.  After spending about four months abroad since my last trip home this summer, I found the cold bite in the air novel and waking up to the dusting of snow on Christmas morning to be a real treat.  The biggest surprise Christmas morning, however, was receiving a new laptop.  I had been using the same laptop since the beginning of college and it had really started to show its age. Between its geriatric speed, my lack of internet access, and a new full-time job, I had little time or motivation to keep up this blog. With this new computer, I really have no excuse to not continue writing regularly anymore. Here’s to hoping I can keep my own promise.

On Christmas Eve, my mom and I took a trip to the local Whole Foods to pick up some last minute ingredients that we needed for our family’s Christmas dinner at home. As anticipated, the entire store was a madhouse with others in the same situation. The chaotic and almost claustrophobic atmosphere instantly transported me back to my shopping routine in my neighborhood in Rabat. After experiencing the natural “shock” of returning to American grocery stores with their long aisles with well-organized products, beautifully polished produce, and bright fluorescent lights, this experience made me ease back into my usual shopping routine. I grabbed the shopping list and wove through baskets, carts, and small children with ease. I aggressively wedged myself through the crowd and up against the bin of tomatoes, taking a moment to pick them up one by one and feel for adequate firmness and inspect for blemishes.  This kind of shopping experience is the one I am now familiar with. I have traded physically beautiful produce and well-organized shopping marts for the open Moroccan market, filled with its squawking chickens, aromatic spices, bananas hanging from cart roofs, and overflowing piles of vegetables spilling out onto the street. I have my regular vendors who I like to patronize, partially for the quality of their product, and partially because of the conversation.

In addition, rather than selling their produce in dirhams (MAD), Morocco’s standard currency that has an exchange rate of approximately 8.5 to 1 USD, the vendors typically say the prices in riyal, a currency that dates back from before Morocco was a French protectorate (which certainly says something about the history of this neighborhood). Of course, when asked, the sellers will convert the price to dirhams, but most locals naturally do the exchange rate in their head. At first, it can feel very daunting when hearing that a kilo of vegetables will cost you “400 rial”, but there is no need to be alarmed - it is less than 20 dirhams, or about $2 USD. The exact exchange rate still remains a mystery to me, but that is part of the ex-pat experience, I suppose.

The area of the city where I live and buy my vegetables is a lower to middle class residential neighborhood. It is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. I constantly witness (and sometimes even experience myself) the spontaneous crossing of friends, followed by obligatory bises in the middle of the street. Unlike the more professional/cosmopolitan areas where French is king, the language used on the street in my neighborhood is Darija. Usually, when Moroccan shopkeepers see a western-looking foreigner, their first instinct is to speak French. In my neighborhood, this is not the case. Not only does Darija reign supreme, but the socioeconomic bracket of the area would suggest that many of the people I interact with don’t have even enough education to know any French.

I have become very accustomed to this environment. I can see the ocean from my kitchen windows. In the summer, when the days are longer, I enjoy watching the sun set over the Atlantic as I cook dinner. Being at home made me consider the pro’s and con’s of the differences between the experience of grocery shopping in the United States versus Morocco. In the United States, we have long since traded out the small specialty vendors in replace of convenient supermarkets that sell everything on our shopping list. In Morocco, while there are small supermarkets that mimic this model, the majority of the population still adheres to the weekly cycle of the souk, where once a week, typically Saturday mornings, new shipments of produce, meat, chickens, and fish replenish the outdoor markets. Everyone has their preferred vendor for every category, and they build relationships with them. They will ask you about your friends and family.  If you haven’t been there in a while they’ll ask you where you’ve been. When Hurricane Sandy was all over the news, they all asked me where my family is in the US and if they were safe and well. They take personal pride in their products and are able to give you suggestions and help you pick the best ones. They will tell you what is fresh and what you should wait to buy. The bread vendor with carts piled high with khubz will direct you to the freshest bread. They will say “don’t take that one, it’s from this morning. Here are the ones baked this afternoon”.  The corner store by my house can even anticipate what I am going to purchase and even helps remind me that I forgot something (“no Coca Zero today?”). Sometimes if you are buying a great deal of things, they will even give you a small discount or throw in a small item for free.

Of course, there are benefits to each system. By living in Morocco, I have traded efficiency and order for chaos and value.  While every once and a while I wish that I could just go over to a Stop and Shop or Whole Foods, anonymously get everything on my list and silently check out, my current situation has consistently provided me with a loving (and necessary) nudge that helps me interact with my community on a regular basis.