Friday, February 27, 2004
Touching down in North Africa
Oops. In all the hubbub my little life has seen recently, I forgot to mention I was heading to Morocco this weekend.
I write this sitting in a smoky, poorly-lit cybercafé in Casablanca, butt planted in a sophisticated instrument of torture posing as an old, old office chair. Nothing but Arabic males share the café with me, apart from the elderly French-speaking woman planted behind the rickety desk by the door; a teeny, ancient black & white television behind her plays a French channel (the picture actually a distressed-looking, nausea-inducing dark lavender and white), its murmur a constant in the background.
I knew I was in for a different trip when I boarded the plane this morning in Madrid, finding myself among Spaniards, French, Moroccans, a handful of young, partying Germans and (I am not making this up) the Namibian national rugby team. All of them. And me -- the only native English speaker in the bunch. Though I spoke Spanish, so no one knew. This talking-Spanish thing is great -- it completely confounds some folks, and my accent is decent enough that they can't place me from that. One of the Spanish flight attendants seemed to be checking me out, trying, I think, to figure out just where the hell I hailed from. Or maybe simply fascinated by my sheer animal magnetism. (Insert laugh track here.)
But I digress.
The plane landed beneath turbulent skies, dark gray clouds trading off with bursts of sunlight. Inside the terminal, things were grimly serious. The unsmiling old fart who seized my passport took a good long time inputting my info into a 'puter. After which some burly uniformed types made me (and everyone else) put baggage and coats through an x-ray machine. After which I joined crowds of loud, hyperverbal families trying to maneuver carts piled high with suitcases and monstrous duffel bags through grimly serious customs types, the inspectors barking orders at many of the over-baggaged travelers, ordering them to nearby tables/counters for forced unpacking. Me and my two teeny carry-on bags tiptoed through, unharassed.
Out in the terminal: plenty of signage, all in Arabic or French. No Spanish, no English. All signage, all conversation: Arabic, French. No one spoke anything I did, which gave them all license to ignore me. I managed to get cash, managed to wring a bus ticket out of one functionary, a large framed photo of King Mohammed VI (an image found all over Mohammed V Airport) propped up atop a nearby filing cabinet. Asking where the bus might be found produced vague arm gestures in the general direction of outside.
Outside: no signs indicating a bus stop (I'd begun getting the hang of deciphering French signage). No bus stop visible anywhere, in any direction. Tons of taxis, though. Mostly stressed-looking Mercedes Benzes. I saw a pair of older Spanish women from the plane, asked one about the bus. She strongly recommended forgetting the bus -- unreliable, slow, with apparently no guarantee of actually getting where you want to go. Take a taxi, she said.
The one big hitch: the taxi drivers. A wild bunch who seemed bent on ignoring me. I watched one of them move his Mercedes when his turn came to inch forward to the head of the line. He opened the door, got out, pushed the car ahead, straining against its dead weight. Not a great omen. This, of course, turned out to be my driver.
I get in the car. The driver speaks Arabic, French, nothing else -- we blather ineffectually back and forth. He will not negotiate and quotes a price, substantially above the figure the Spanish woman suggested. Take it or leave it. On impulse, I go with it, hand over the cash.
He has no idea where my hotel is, begins quizzing other drivers, a crowd quickly collects around the car, arguing, debating, arms waving, voices raised. I manage to raise my voice above theirs, I mention the hotel's street address, they all go, "OHHHHHH!", begin arguing about the best way to get there.
A consensus is finally reached, the other drivers drift off, my driver gets going. Out on the road, he gives his Mercedes the gas; I find myself flying down a foreign highway, well over the already-high speed limit, the driver drifting back and forth across the lanes, riding the white line when no other cars are near, hitting the horn when we get within several hundred feet of other vehicles. Riding right up on their rear bumpers, complaining until they're out of the way, flying ahead when they are.
We stop at a small row of toll booths, he pulls a card from his pocket, hands it to the attendant. There is no conversation to be heard anywhere outside, from anyone. Dead quiet, eerily so; the quietest toll booths I've ever passed through.
The airport is 20 or 25 kilometers outside of the city, the countryside consists of low, rolling, scrubby land. Most houses are built within walled compounds, the buildings looking like impoverished cousins to the adobe houses of New Mexico. Yellowish and brownish-greens predominate the landscape, with stands of orange wildflowers. The occasional mule or horse stands out in the middle of it all, grazing.
As we reach Casablanca's outskirts, traffic increases, most everyone driving like my guy. Mopeds abound, I come to appreciate the piloting one of those teeny buggers through the increasing vehicular chaos as an act of massive, demented courage.
My driver uses his horn any time he approaches another vehicle. Also any time another driver appears to be thinking of changing lanes. Also any time another car turns onto the main drag from a side street. Also any time he breathes in or out. (Most drivers around us seem to have been trained at the same Academy of Four-Wheeled Aggression as my cabbie.) My driver engages in one life-threatening maneuver after another, me sitting quietly in the back seat, having reached a blissful state of detachment -- almost clinical disassociation -- as a way of coping with imminent death, laughing quietly to myself in well-mannered amazement at the video game unspooling outside the cab's windows.
We have one especially close brush with a major accident, my driver must have interpreted my terrified, rictus-like grimace as smiling approval of his skill. He asks me, using a combo of French and big gestures, how many days I'll be in the city. I answer two, he immediately commences a hard sell re: hiring him for my return drive to the airport. I briefly debate saying something about snowballs and hell, let it go, smile, answer his continuing shpiel with a pleasant, noncommittal 'Quizá, a ver' ('Maybe, we'll see').
I made it to the hotel alive, found out there that no one at the desk spoke either of my languages. The desk people summoned a young woman from the office -- hair under a shawl -- she spoke a bit of English. We sorted things out, I soon found myself in an eighth-floor room. A room that struck me right then as a cousin to the dungeon I shared with G. in Sevilla -- dark, no windows, with a mysterious, stale odor. A hallway extended off from one side, leading to the bathroom. A hallway with windows looking out over the city. I dragged a chair out into that passageway, sat down to catch my breath and get an eyeful of Casablanca.
Twilight over a tired-looking Moroccan city:
Saturday, February 28, 2004
Though Casablanca is the largest city in the country, a modern center of business (as the guidebooks chant over and over), it appeared tired, rundown, shabby in yesterday's post-rain afternoon light, as if slowly breaking down beneath the sheer weight of high population and widespread poverty. Heavy traffic circulated through the streets below (older vehicles, mostly, including weary-looking, rust-streaked city busses), bicycles and pedestrians threading their way through it with little concern. Compared with Madrid and Sevilla, it suffered. And of course I looked at it through the prism of my own mindset, not at its finest right that nanosecond in the wake of language gap, general airport scene, wildass, death-defying ride into town. To the point that I gradually realized as I sat there that a part of me wanted to curl up into a ball and pass out for a good long while -- part sleep, part fetus-like retreat. Either do the fetal thing or call my travel agent in Madrid, change my return flight from tomorrow to today. The guidebooks I've read say there's not much to do in Casablanca, touristically speaking -- the prospect of walking its crowded streets for two days didn't seem hugely appealing.
And on the heels of that, I became aware of another part of me, feeling what I can only describe as glee at the fact that I'd just arrived and had already been neck deep in adventures. Goddamn, I found myself thinking, staring out over the downtown, the tower of a distant mosque visible above surrounding buildings, what an experience!
An hour later: me, out poking around the downtown area, trawling for an ATM, checking out stores, restaurants, people.
And the people here are unbelievably interesting. Like the city itself, a messy mixture of cultural elements -- Arabic, French, Spanish. Skin colors and ethnic types from all over the Arab world. Business suits, hooded desert robes, streetwear you'd see in any occidental city. Most, though not all, women sporting the hair shawl, a few completely hidden away in burkas. Cafés everywhere, virtually all the clients men, drinking coffee or tea, reading newspapers, checking mobile phones for messages.
One thing I noticed: the city seems mostly dog-free (in wild contrast to Madrid). The upside of that: poop-free sidewalks (in wild contrast to Madrid). Depending on where you go, however, Casablanca conpensates for the poop deficit with garbage or mud. And compensates for the dog deficit with feral city cats, looking reasonably healthy and comfortable with their lot.
I found my way toward the Medina, the old walled neighborhood -- the original site of the city before the French arrived and tossed together the current impressively alive, untidy monstrosity -- now known for the market that sprawls through most of the quarter's streets. On the way in, I found myself behind three Dutch 20-somethings, two males, one female, all in jeans/t-shirts. On impulse, I drifted along in their wake. A few Moroccan males they passed whipped their heads around to watch the young woman, their stares burningly intense.
Friday, it turned out, is the market's least active day due to religious observations, the atmosphere was quiet. Interesting, but not scintillating. I drifted along (buying nothing, endearing myself to no shop folk) -- man, talk about an overabundance of shoe stalls -- passing different cassette tape stalls, each playing music, one song fragment giving way to another as I walked. Somewhere in there, I became aware of a soap opera playing on television sets in various shops. A badly-acted soap, Arabic dialogue and melodramatic music following me along several narrow, winding streets until I passed out of the Medina into afternoon sunlight and traffic exhaust.
A nearby park presented itself, my butt settled onto a bench near a busy street/sidewalk. Busses, cars, trucks. Mopeds, bicycles, motorized carts loaded down with produce or scrap metal, young males hanging off on all sides, the odd bicyclist holding on for a free tow, looking like a slightly goofy pilot fish.
I sat, pulled out a notebook, began writing. A cross-eyed, limping 20-something I'd seen in the market appeared, threw himself down on the opposite end of the bench, facing away from me. Five minutes go by. He does a sudden 180, now facing me, one arm up on the bench back, head resting on forearm. I continue writing, he sits there, motionless. Minutes go by. I glance over -- he might be staring at me, it's impossible to tell: his crossed eyes are bouncing around in their sockets like amphetamine-fueled billiard balls. Suddenly ready for a change of scenery, I get up and cross the street, wading out into the traffic with some other pedestrians.
Detail, Casablanca hotel room:
Sunday, February 29, 2004
My second morning in Sevilla -- two short weeks ago -- I woke from amazing, luminescent dreams of well-being. This morning, my second in Casablanca, I woke from turbulent, disquieting dreams situated back in the States, the political state of things figuring prominently. A shower followed by a walk in morning sunlight and two or three glasses of hot tea at a café brought me back.
They make killer tea here, BTW. And salads. ("Killer": not a word I tend to associate with tea or salads, but there it is. If they made them in Madrid or the States they way they do here, I'd indulge in both a whole lot more.) Also, as might be expected, some righteously excellent hommous and tabouleh.
When I stepped outside at 10 a.m. this morning, the streets weren't quite as quiet as those in Sunday morning Madrid, but more sedate than I'd been expecting. I'd had some blinkered idea that Sunday a.m. in a Moslem city would be more or less like weekday mornings in western cities, Friday being the day of religious observance here. Silly me. The Monday-to-Friday business model predominates here as well -- stores were dark and shuttered, with few people about. A walk brought me to a café that's become my default haunt here, I grabbed an outside table, ordered tea, watched the local world slowly come to.
Sitting at cafés here means being an automatic target for the wandering black market vendors who pass by every few minutes (cigarettes; socks/neckties; batteries; sweets; occasionally toys -- an enterprising guy with boxes of toy trains passed by this morning). Males looking to shine shoes appear frequently, people pass asking for money. Almost all solicit respectfully, move immediately on.
Looking like a westerner, even one as unobtrusive as me (though salt/pepper hair and honky-white skin work against complete invisibility), has not meant getting hit on more than the locals, which I've appreciated. It has, however, meant receiving artificially friendly overtures once in a while from a certain type of male, wanting (a) money or (b) to guide me to a rug shop. They start out with an ingenuously friendly hello in Arabic or French, quickly change to broken English if I don't respond. I've learned the routine, I mostly continue on my way.
The street-encounter thing has been interesting. Curious glances aren't uncommon, and far more Moroccan women than I'd expected have checked me out in obvious fashion, some returning my gaze boldly, directly. Could be they're actually scoping me out male/female-wise, could be they're trying to determine my cash value, westerners apparently assumed to be automatically swimming in money. (All things being relative, it may be that compared to the local standard we actually are swimming in money.)
And there are occasionally lengthier, conversational encounters. I experienced the first of those Friday afternoon after leaving my cross-eyed benchmate. [See yesterday's entry.] A skinny, short 50ish type -- copper skin, receding hair, day-old stubble, lacking a few teeth. We jostled each other along a stretch of broken, uneven sidewalk, I said, "¡Perdón!"
"¿Español?" he asked. "Sí," I answered, meaning yes, I speak it -- not necessarily his question. He spoke a little Spanish, some English, immediately began a conversation that veered between them and French, laying a complicated story on me about owning a boat and a marine company, about Spanish business contracts that keep him going between Spain and his country, Mauritania, about mechanical problems that had left him stranded in Casablanca for a week.
A true tale? A fanciful yarn? Total rubbish? I couldn't tell, didn't press him to find out. I listened, genuinely interested in this character, enjoying the unexpected encounter, wherever it led.
I have no idea what this billboard is getting at.
Monday, March 01, 2004
His name, he told me, was Mousthfa (MOOSE-ta-fa). He said he had family in Spain, up Barcelona way, though he seemed vague on the details, his Spanish thin enough that he quickly lapsed into passable English. Something I said made his eyes widen, his expression indicating he'd just had a brainstorm. There is, he informed me, a Spanish cathedral in Casablanca -- would I be interested in seeing it? Of course, I answered. He immediately turned and headed off along the avenue, gesturing for me to follow. I trailed after, past vendors selling glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice from rickety, jury-rigged tables, the fruit bright orange amid the muted colors of muddy ground and the locals' clothing. Other vendors stood by trays piled up with what looked like rice-krispy bars, the squares glinting with the sheen of dried sugar syrup. Still others stood or squatted by small trays of cigarette packs, lighters, packages of batteries. Both sides of the street were crowded with pedestrians walking, with others clustered together waiting for busses, talking, the sound of passing traffic and conversations drifting through sunlit air and clouds of vehicle exhaust.
Mousthfa motored along at a pretty good clip, talking less now. I stayed by his side, trying not to trip over wildly uneven ground and randomly-strewn expanses of ancient, fractured sidewalk. We were headed into an area I hadn't yet explored, through streets of both residential and commercial character, past blocks of buildings, small scrubby gardens, the bursts of green standing out nicely amid the city. Down various avenues, around corners, me wondering where the hell we would end up, him steadily moving onward, focused ahead in a strange way, as if there might be more going on than guiding me toward a little-known sight.
We finally turned a corner that gave out onto a view of a large, white building thrusting up from tropical greenery -- the Cathedral of the Sacré Coeur, a strange hybrid of Christian/Arabic/art-deco design and architecture, complete with stained glass and flying buttresses. That, said Mousthfa, pointing, is the Spanish cathedral, his pace unslacking as we moved toward it. The grounds were surrounded by tall, iron fencing, I reached out my hand, let my fingers brush against its bars as we walked along. He spoke quickly, saying the building was closed at this time of the afternoon, might be open later, and continued striding on, toward a neighboring park (le Parc de la Ligue Arabe, I found out later). Through fencing and palm trees, I could see a young couple walking together, someone riding an old bicycle along a dirt path.
Mousthfa steered me into the park, maintaining the fast pace, making brief, almost terse comments about this being a good place to sit, something he said he'd done in his student days. (Hmmmm, thought I on hearing that.) He walked briskly on, his air that of someone with a purpose; I tagged along, waiting to see what would develop. He said folkloric events took place in this park in the evenings, that I might want to return and see that, continued moving diagonally through the expanse of land, along walkways, through spaces between trees, toward a far corner where I could see a street and one or two commercial buildings beyond the park's boundary. We came upon a remote bench, no other people around, he finally slowed, gestured for me to sit, parked himself near me.
I thanked him for taking the time to show me this bit of the city. He nodded his head in acknowledgment, got right to the point: in exchange for the time he'd taken, he wanted me to (a) either buy him a new phone card to replace the exhausted 10 dirham (about $11.50) card he had or (b) give him some cash. As tales of this kind of encounter abound in Moroccan travel lore, I wasn't shocked -- I had no problem with giving him a little money, pulled out about $2.00 worth of euros from my jacket pocket. He extended a hand to accept it, stopping in mid-motion as he realized I'd offered nowhere near what he was looking for.
He asked if I had any Moroccan money -- I did, a 20 dinhar bill, something I told him I was not prepared to hand over. He launched into a recapitulation of the hard-luck boating business story he'd told me when we'd first met, saying he was broke, that he needed the phone card to call his father in Mauritania. I offered the change I'd already shown him, he could see I wasn't prepared to budge, patted my leg, saying never mind, he appreciated the offer, we were both gentlemen, apologized for hitting me up.
For a moment, he stopped talking. Silence descended around us, the sounds of the city drifted faintly through the park. Then he began a second assault, touching on all the points he'd previously presented.
Nothing about his manner felt threatening -- just insistent. So for a while I stayed there, letting him do his thing, me offering what I'd already offered, nothing more. Strangely, as he made no headway, he began inflating the sum he wanted, until he asked me if I had an ATM card, suggesting we find a machine, that I withdraw some cash for him. I blinked in amazement at that, again offering the money I'd already proferred. He finally extended a hand, picked out a one euro coin, leaving the rest. At which point he asked which hotel I was staying at.
That was my cue to take off. I stood up, thanked him again for his kindness, said so long, left him sitting on the bench in the late-afternoon sunlight.
The next afternoon, I took a long walk through the city center's western expanse, toward the ocean and the Hassan II Mosque. My route took me past the wall of the Medina, where the sidewalk narrowed and a Moroccan man and I jostled each other. A slim individual in a dark suit, a bit shorter than me with graying, close-cropped hair. As on the previous day, I said, "¡Perdón!" He immediately looked over, asked, "¿Español?" I responded as I had to Musthfa, we chatted a while in Spanish. He also mentioned having family in Spain, in the north -- west of Bilbao he said, in Asturias.
He had a gentlemanly, respectful air, asked me where I was off to. I told him, he mentioned that we were passing the market, that I might enjoy seeing it. I thanked him, saying I'd already passed through it (twice, by that point). He nodded, we talked about something else for a moment. At the point where our paths diverged, he again mentioned the market, suggesting once more that I consider going in. I declined, thanking him. We said good-bye, I continued on.
The Hassan II Mosque
The Hassan II Mosque: beautiful, impressive, and strangely situated to one side of an enormous stretch of poor neighborhoods. I passed streets busy with kids playing fútbol, the air filled with their voices, other streets empty and derelict, the sour smell of garbage carried by the breeze.
I took a different route back from the Mosque, along the city's port, where I stumbled across the only reference to Bogart, et al. encountered during this trip. One lonely, gratuitous reference, planted in the middle of an otherwise unglamorous area.
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Got out of bed at a decent hour this morning; showered, shaved and otherwise pulled myself together. Pulled on clothes, went out for the morning's wake-up espresso and bite to eat. Along the way, picked up a copy of El País to thumb through as I sipped/nibbled. Got an eyeful of the headlines as I walked away from the magazine stand -- jumpin' Jesus, what a nightmare.
If one is paying attention to the picture painted by the local news media today, the world is not just accelerating downhill in the general direction of hell, we're doing so in the fashion of a pack of gibbering, partying apes, tossing confetti and firing off whatever noisemakers are at hand (while those in charge drain the brake fluid from our collective handbasket to sell back to the rest of us hapless nitwits at inflated prices). And if one studies that picture carefully, one can spot the distant figure of Hope off in the background, running toward the horizon with its ass on fire.
I stare at the front page: images of bodies amid the flaming wreckage of bombings (nearby people screaming religious epithets), stories of outrageous corruption, instances of blatant lies being spouted by various governments and political types. Then I look up and gaze around me here -- life going on normally; people drinking coffee, eating sweet rolls; two young mothers with babies at a nearby table, faces radiating contentment with their situation; others walking past the cafetería's windows, talking, carrying bags of groceries, maybe stopping to buy a lottery ticket from the woman at the corner or exchange a comment with one of the guys at the fish market across the way. I look back down at the paper: death, destruction, chaos. I look around me once again -- a quiet midweek morning in Madrid, air cool (though milder than in past days), sun shining through hazy clouds, people carrying on normal life.
I reflect on this contrast, and I think about the way we're trained to focus in on the hotspots of trouble, difficulty, tragedy, ignoring the rest of the picture -- the overwhelming majority of the picture -- where life goes its way, most things in most places functioning normally, existence carrying on in an intricate, beautiful dance of amazing variety and overall balance. And I think, who am I going to believe: media outlets who paint a picture that simply doesn't jibe with my general sense of the world, or my eyes, ears, etc.?
Seems a fairly clear choice to me, though one that might get me labeled naive, willfully dim, or other far less complimentary adjectives. Fortunately, I care progressively less about what other people think of my choices as I stumble my way through this life (and, paradoxically, I enjoy and care more for people in general as I care less about what they think about me).
I had no idea what to expect when I flew down to Casablanca at the end of last week. To that point, I'd never spent time in any part of what might be called the Islamic world. If I'd relied on the general picture I see sketched in the western media (on and offline), that Islamic world is a dangerous, alien place for an individual like myself, born in the States, carrying an American passport. There's no question that it was different in many ways from the cultures I've wandered through, and there were uncomfortable aspects, challenging moments, happenings that left me startled, momentarily disoriented. It was also fascinating, lovely, intriguing, touching, congenial, packed with sensations, sounds, smells, things to watch. Unbelievably complex, overall.
Thursday, March 04, 2004
One of the strongest impressions I took with me from Casablanca was of civility, of easy shows of affection. Of couples walking together arm in arm, hand in hand, talking and laughing. Of pairs of males -- clearly not gay -- walking together, arm in arm. A restaurant a few blocks from my lodgings, run by a French woman, became a default haunt for me -- tables outside provided good tea and excellent views of the local scene, service inside provided good food. Both my mornings in the city included a wake-up period outside this joint, absorbing the feel of that part of the world, enjoying the constant stream of passersby. The only two drunks I saw during my time in the city staggered past while I sat there, each stopping to harangue people at nearby tables. Both times the restaurant's doorman intervened when it became clear the drunks didn't intend to move on right away, both times he handled them the way he handled everyone -- effectively, with grace, kindness, tact. An elderly man approached at one point, walking with difficulty, aiming himself at an empty table to my left. The doorman moved quickly to pull out a chair, help the older person to sit down, asking what he could get him. I saw this kind of thing everywhere -- usually with less obvious examples, but marked by the same generous regard.
And young couples were everywhere, walking together, talking animatedly. Radiating affection, enjoyment. Without the demonstrations of physical affection I see here in Madrid -- arms around each other, kissing -- but sweetly enjoyable to watch just the same.
I'm grateful for this stuff, for this kind of lasting impression, because my final few hours in the city featured some jarring moments. One of those being the wildass trip to the airport. My taxi driver: a genial guy who drove with casual ferocity, providing a hair-raising ride that would have been more harrowing still if his car had had the pep and mobility to do the things he wanted it to do. As it was, he took the lines painted on the roads as vague suggestions to be ignored, weaving through traffic at highest possible velocity, inserting our taxi into any space that it would fit, regardless of the risk, no matter how small the opening appeared, working the horn the entire time. Pulling up to traffic stopped at a red light, slipping into the gap between vehicles already occupying legitimate lanes, turning the painted lines into brand new lanes, shooting off the nanosecond the light changed. (Not that he was alone in these maneuvers -- just more aggressive than most of his compatriots.)
That last day brought beautiful weather -- mild, breezy, the city and surrounding countryside awash in sunlight. The ride to the airport featured hitchhikers along every part of the route, many of them co-ed groups of adults, some families. Mopeds tooled about in every direction. Herds of sheep grazed off to the side of the highway, a shepherd, complete with staff, sometimes visible among the animals.
Kind of amazing I could see that much detail, now that I think about it, considering the speed at which we went by.
I hurled myself out of the cab at the airport with desperate gratitude at being released, heading away from the car and driver so quickly that my shouted thank-yous may have undergone the Doppler Effect.
Airport personnel remained grimly serious about the passport/inspection thing, luggage going through three different x-ray machines, passports getting eyeballed four or five different times from the moment of entering the departure area to the moment of boarding, the final two checks taking place within 60 seconds of each other, at the beginning and end of the movable concourse that extended from the waiting lounge to the plane. As if we might have craftily changed identities during that brief walk.
And then I found myself on a plane, surrounded by Spaniards, a seemingly accelerated sunset and falling of night marking the hour and twenty minute flight back to Madrid, where yet another uniformed person inspected/stamped my passport, and a Metro ride brought me back to a markedly different world from the one I'd just left. Glad I'd gone, glad to be back here. Glad to be planted in one place for a while, with a life to carry on. And already thinking about heading off somewhere else.
Barcelona maybe. We'll see.