Casablanca.. The name alone conjures up images of dashing men in fedoras and trench coats, women in sleek dresses and barrel curls, dingy illicit bars teeming with dark shady characters. Clearly, what most people know about Casablanca is the Casablanca of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the fifties. Never mind the fact that the movie set never left the back lots of Hollywood, hordes of people from all over the world still flock to Casablanca, the coastal city in Morocco, to order gin from Rick’s Café in hopes of reliving the glamour depicted in the movie.
Me? I have never seen the movie. I don’t even really know what it’s about, and I have no plans of seeing it much to Andy’s chagrin. I was in Casablanca because of geography, logistics, and my stubborn refusal to get on an overnight train in Morocco. I started the Moroccan leg of my trip in Tangier, where I arrived by ferry from Spain. Once I got off the ferry I made my way to the bus station in downtown Tangier and got on the first bus to the Rif Mountains, staying in the picturesque town of Chefchaouen. After Chaouen, I took another bus to Fes, stayed there for a couple of days before hopping on another bus to Casablanca. My final destination was the city of Marrakech, but after reading about Jimi Hendrix’s obsession about the port town of Essaouira, I decided to spend a few days there myself.
Had I gone directly to Marrakech from Fes, it would only have taken one 8-hour bus ride. But no, after googling the town of Essaouira and being bombarded by hundreds of photos each one more stunning than the next, I knew I had to go. To get from Fes to Essaouira, I would either have to take an 8-hour train ride from Fes to Marrakech then another 4 hour bus ride to the coast, or I can take a 6-hour bus ride from Fes to Casablanca, then switch to a bus for Essaouira for another 6-hour trip. Fun! (not!)
I decided to take the more scenic, decidedly non-train option. The ride from Fes to Casablanca was actually quite stunning. You go up and down mountain passes both on the Rif and the Atlas, you see ancient olive groves lining up the road, you see boys in their traditional djellabas herding sheep, you see old men on the road with boxes upon boxes of cargo standing next to them waiting for a bus to pick them up. I initially had the entire back half of the bus to myself. I could lay down flat on my seat and extend my legs all the way across the next row. It was the best bus ride of the entire trip by far.
All that started to change an hour before pulling in the bus station in Casablanca. A leather clad, chain-smoking, mustachioed Lothario got on the bus along with what seemed like a hundred people and decided to sit next to me. Said man claimed he was hot and demanded I open up the windows despite the fact that it had started pouring. I refused. He yelled at me and threatened me with all the hexes he could think of. I am still not opening that damn window!
When the conductor took my side and told him the bus windows cannot be opened, he got up and moved towards the front, and a kind elderly man in a djellaba sat next to me. Unfortunately, I think he was an escaped patient from a TB ward. He hacked and coughed and sniffled for the remaining 45 minutes of the trip.
Fast forward an hour later, I’m standing outside the bus station in downtown Casablanca desperately trying to get a cab. Every time one stopped by me, people literally shoved me out of the way and stole my cab! Fuck! What is this, New York? Starving and soaking wet, I decided to play their game. I felt absolutely no shame or guilt when I stole a cab from a couple of tourists. Unfortunately for me, I was very much unaware of the Moroccan practice of sharing your cab with complete random strangers. Five minutes in the ride, the cabbie picks up a mother and daughter duo who are supposedly going the same direction as me. That would have been fine if it weren’t for the fact that both the mother and daughter insisted on smoking the entire way with the windows closed! Ugh!
And because this is a classic episode of Murphy’s Law, things were not done being shitty for the day. Due to traffic, construction, the sun’s alignment with the planets, or whatever, the driver dropped me off half a mile from the hotel and refused to find an alternative route. Great…….. The downpour has graduated to a full on storm, and my bag and I had ways to go.
When I finally checked in the hotel, the first thing I ask the manager was if they had room service or if they can accept food delivery for me. No and no. If I wanted food, I had to go out and get it myself. And by the way, the nearest restaurant was half a mile away, back where the cabbie first dropped me off. Cranky and starving, I was left with no choice but to walk the half mile for food.
The restaurant I went to was great and it had amazing food. Unfortunately, it was also pretty classy and upscale, and clearly catered to the power lunch crowd. The “look what the cat dragged in” getup I was sporting wasn’t really going well with the other besuited patrons. But bless the maitre d’s heart, he waived away the waiters assigned to my section and personally looked after me. He made sure I was warm and comfortable. The man even went as far as getting a clean, dry towel for me. He spent a few minutes chatting with me about my trip, and recommended that I get the b’stilla (Moroccan meat pie made of squab) since I’m only in Casablanca for a day. He started my meal with a huge bowl of harissa, showed me how to eat the b’stilla properly, and took note of which cookies I liked from the dessert platter he served. He gave me a huge doggie bag full of artisanal cookies when I left, and only charged me for the b’stilla.
My day would have ended on a happy perfect note if it weren’t for the fact I had to walk back half a mile in the pouring rain to the hotel. When I got back to the hotel, I was wheezing, sneezing, coughing, and about to pass out. My cookies were amazing, but I would give them up in a heartbeat in exchange for some Theraflu and a thick down comforter!!
Whenever I look back at that day I spent in Casablanca, I don’t remember the nuisance and inconveniences I was subjected to. Rather, it’s the maitre d’s smile, genuine warmth, and friendliness that I miss. He is my constant reminder that no matter how bad my day goes, something good will always come of it, and for that, I will always be grateful to him.
** Later on the day , after a 3 hour nap, I made my way to the Hassan II Mosque, said to be the third biggest at mosque in the world. I didn’t get to see much of Casablanca, but I’m happy I made the effort to see the mosque and the oceanfront. Even in the pouring rain, it was quite stunning and awe-inspiring.