Sunday, May 13, 2007
Vacation writeup, Part I - A Mercedes limo was waiting outside my door – the grand taxis are Mercedes as well, but this still had intact upholstery, climate control, window and door handles, and soft seats. The driver even helped me with my luggage, and we were off to Casablanca. The driver had a friend with him who he was dropping off in Khemisset, and we stopped there for a coffee. When I mentioned that I was in the Peace Corps, the friend, who is a doctor in the hospital, knew of both of the volunteers in Khemisset as well as the others in the province. I asked how he knew, and he said Khemisset is a small town. The population is something like 200,000 – it just goes to show how visible we are in our communities.
On to Casablanca! I was scheduled to get there earlier than my sister and family, so I asked my friend Rob if he would like to come up from the Marrakesh area for the day – he wanted to bring his computer in to be repaired anyway. I thought we might see some of the sights, but when I thought about how rushed that would be, I suggested we just go for a walk and have lunch. It was nice to do that – just relax and have some conversation – but there still wasn’t enough time! We walked to the port, which is industrial as opposed to picturesque, and then I had a tomato-and-goat cheese salad that featured maybe the best tomato and the best goat cheese ever – or so it felt, just because I have missed food like that. We also had a chocolate dessert that consisted of several separate elements (sure, we could have shared, but we each had our own). I would go back again just to have that lunch – and to see him again, because it’s about the same distance for both of us. Casablanca itself, Rick and Ilsa aside, doesn’t have much in the way of tourism, but left on the table for another time is an art deco walk and a beach outside of the central area. We did go through the medina, and it was nothing special. I’d love to go back sooner rather than later (and he has to pick up his computer!) but it’s off-limits for the time being due to the recent bombings there. No indication of when the time being will end…
I then had some spa appointments that my sister had scheduled for me – massage, facial, manicure and pedicure. All were quite welcome, especially the massage. I then went downstairs to see if they had checked in, and when I went back upstairs there were two beautiful young ladies in the hallway. We just ran to each other and hugged. And then it was just normal – I don’t know that I expected anything different, but that was good. The Royal Mansour is probably the top hotel in Casablanca (it is also where the Chicago Sister Cities group stayed, though of course I didn’t get to see them this time). We had dinner in the hotel – salmon, I think (whatever it was, it was something else I hadn’t had in a while) and talked about Morocco and the Peace Corps and life here (my sister is a faithful blog reader but my brother-in-law is not).
The next morning, we went to the highlight of Casablanca, the Hassan II mosque (it’s a good thing I scaled back and didn’t go with Rob – the window of tour times, between prayers, is limited, and the tour is long – we might not have been able to see it at all and we certainly couldn’t have done that and had lunch). It’s the third-largest in the world, the only one in Morocco that allows non-Muslims in, and no expense was spared in building it – the finest craftsmen from all over Morocco and the finest materials from Morocco and elsewhere were used. The tour was actually quite interesting, but it hadn’t been part of the plan for the day. So the plan for the day had to be adjusted and Meknes fell out.
Poor Meknes – hard to get people to want to go there. It’s one of the imperial cities, and I did go for a taste of it, but I haven’t been back yet for more exploration. I thought this was my chance, but I am glad I saw the mosque. We did go to Volubilis – we had all enjoyed Pompeii, Herculaneun and the Roman ruins so much last year (was that really just last year? Everything seems so long ago and far away) and we enjoyed this too. And then it was on to Fes - a big driving day, with more 20 Questions (another holdover from last year) - and the Palais Jamai – I had first learned of the hotel from the Sister Cities woman, who told me to go every few months, check in, get a massage and sit by the pool. Very good advice! Of course, the Princeton group was there too, a few weeks later, but I do like the idea and am keeping it in my back pocket. It’s a very nice luxury hotel, but after not having luxury or even modest conditions, I appreciated it all the more. Pam and Joe woke up with the morning call to prayer and couldn’t get back to sleep, but I slept very well in my king-sized bed with no wee-hours barking dog conference outside!
The travel agent had set us up with a guide and driver for the trip, which was very nice. I had been wondering how everyone would like Morocco, and with a guide it was certainly easier – less overwhelming to navigate, fewer decisions to make about where to go, minimal harassment. I still think they had a chance to see some of the Morocco I have been experiencing – and it was okay not to have to take grand taxis and buses and not to be invited in by every other shopkeeper. Our guide also got into the 20 Questions act, adding some Moroccan riddles, old tales that he translated for us. He had worked for the Peace Corps as a language instructor years ago! I practiced some language with him but his job was to talk to us in English, and my job was to be with my family, so I didn’t practice all that much.
We spent a day in the Fes – first one of the medersas, which still have amazing mosaics and carvings, and then around the winding streets. We went mostly to a part I had not seen yet – I could probably find it again on my own, but I too appreciated following someone who knew what he was doing. We also went to the mellah in Fes El-Jdid, the old Jewish section of town – saw a restored synagogue there and lots of jewelry (the Jews were the goldsmiths – imagine that). That section of town had balconies – as opposed to the interior courtyards, shielded from the street and the outside world, of the rest of Fes. And there was a potato chip guy! I miss potato chip guy in Azrou. The one in Fes had not only fresh potato chips but also mini-donuts! We then went to a fancy rug shop, where I saw the most beautiful rug I have ever seen – multi-colored, predominantly blue. Expensive, too, but the reason I couldn’t really think about buying it is that I have no idea where I will live next or what that will look like – I’ve had in mind having a Moroccan bedroom when I return, and perhaps I could build around a rug like this, but maybe it’s better to think about coming back some day for it – some day when money is no object. Valerie and Sabrina had fun rolling up the rugs with the person whose job it was to do that. We had a Moroccan lunch – the first of several kefta-and-egg tagines of the trip (kefta is ground meat). This is probably something I can learn to make for myself, and would like to! Yum. And we went to a fancy ceramics factory and shop outside of town. Fes is known for its pottery – especially its blue – and it was interesting to see the process (and, of course, the finished goods!).
The next morning, my sister and I took a walk from the hotel inside the medina – right near the hotel it’s non-touristy. This is notable because it is exceptional – usually when we are on trips I crave a morning or evening walk, whichever time slot works babysitting-wise. But on this trip I was very happy to stay in the luxury hotel – either in the balcony or even in the room. I was glad to see that my sister really liked Fes and saw its charms – I know some of the volunteers don’t like it, and even though I am not responsible for it, I do feel that Morocco is my home and want people to appreciate it. Then again, I couldn’t convince everyone how wonderful Chicago was either.
To be continued….