Saturday, August 07, 2010

Day 54: Casablanca

I'm not sure whether I'm disappointed or relieved to say that our journey though the storm last night wasn't nearly as rough as expected.  We hit some strong waves but nothing like we were told to brace for.  We arrived to an overcast industrial port in Casablanca this morning.  There's not too much cruise traffic here so the port authorities seem a tad confused about how to handle 750 college kids.  We had a really interesting Diplomatic Briefing this morning before the ship cleared.  It was probably the most straight forward and politically informative one we've had so far; it was actually quite enjoyable.  After clearance, Daniel and I decided to go explore Casablanca on foot for a few hours before our city orientation departed in the early afternoon.  We actually ended up being the first two SASers off the ship and into port so that proved to be a little adventure.  After the 20 minute walk out of the Casablanca's enormous commercial port we found ourselves in town.

I think the best way to describe the streets of Morocco would be very dirty but interesting.  Daniel and I walked around the Mechouar Bazaar, through a local "market," and eventually ended up at the Hassan II Mosque.  We then followed the coastline back to the port.  Jumping right into the streets of Casablanca was a great cultural experience.  We saw a lot of local interaction, live chickens for sale on the street, huge slabs of meat hanging from stores (most covered in flies), feces in the middle of the road (unknown whether human or animal), eel and fish layed out for sale on the sidewalk, and multiple folks urinating on the sidewalk on which we were walking.  The most memorable part was the intense and strong odors.  It wasn't just one small of "nasty" but alternated between rotting fish, diesel, urine, cooking spices and incense among many others.  The way I'm describing this it probably comes off as a really gross experience but I didn't really think of it that way.  Yes, it was rather filthy but seeing the people made it really fascinating.  Their dress, mannerisms, interaction, and reaction to us was really great to see.  I guess that's one way to get a good feel for the culture.

After grabbing a quick lunch on the ship, the city orientation departed for the Hassan II Mosque.  While we didn't get a chance to view the world's third largest mosque from the inside, just seeing the exterior was amazing.  It's considered a "modern" mosque having been completed in the 90's and the Moorish architecture is quite intriguing.  The mosaic fountains are beautiful and the square is enormous; it can hold over 100,000 people (and will be filled to capacity in a few days as Ramadan begins).  After admiring the "Great Mosque" we departed for a drive around some of Casablanca's neighborhoods.  Later we stopped at the Lady of the Lord Cathedral, the largest of 7 Christian churches in the 99% Muslim city.  It was a unique design that had a ton of really intricate stained glass.  Next, we took a walk around the many shops and Central Market of the "New Medina" area before spending some time at the Palace Mechouar.  The palace is very pretty and still in active use by the king but serves a more symbolic role used primarily for diplomatic summits.  We had another stop in the Mohammed V square for a quick photo-op before our final walking tour though the UN Square and some of the bazaars closer to the port.  There wasn't a ton of time for shopping but this is probably a good thing as the merchants are pretty aggressive (we've learned that large groups and pretending to be mute usually fends off the many "guides" offering assistance).  We eventually arrived back at the ship.

I found an observation that Mindy made to be really interesting.  We didn't see anything on our city tour that was constructed before the 20th Century.  There are  definitely older sites out there, but after inquiring a bit we learned that the Moroccan Government doesn't really promote tourism to these sites because they are trying to cast a more modern view of the country by encouraging tourism to more contemporary areas.  It's an interesting tactic.  After dinner on the ship a few of us went out for a little walk to Rick's Cafe (Casablanca the movie, anyone?) for desert.  The cafe was opened by a retired US diplomat to replicate the one in the movie.  It was actually a really fun experience, especially since I recognized many of the subtle nuances having seen the movie a few days ago.  After the walk back to the ship and a quick ping-pong match it's time to get some rest.  That's all for now, I have to prepare for tomorrow's journey to Marrakech.

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