Postcards from Morocco

By Helen Cook

"Mum's suffering culture shock but she's getting over it with the help of her credit card."

Cheeky devil!

"Remind Mum to downsize her bottom before she takes 'un grand taxi' again."

Okay, it was a bit of a squeeze with four large adults in the back of a clapped-out Merc but what a great way to meet the locals.

"If Mum gets us picked up one more time, I'm going home!"

Who's talking!

Morocco seemed the ideal place for a mother-daughter adventure. Sufficiently different culturally to feel like an adventure but safe enough if you respect the Muslim dress and behaviour codes.

Like Humphrey Bogart and co in the movie of the same name, we rendezvoused in Casablanca - Sarah from London and me from Auckland. The movie, which I had watched again before setting out, made it sound so romantic. It was only later that I found out the movie was made in Hollywood and the French "town" which inspired it was now a seething city of five million people.

Casablanca gets little mention in the books that expound the delights of Moroccan food, architecture and design. There's a reason. It's a crowded and dusty metropolis with little charm apart from a handful of art deco public buildings built when Morocco was a French protectorate in the 1920s and 30s. It is also very Muslim, which meant 4am wake-up calls from nearby mosques, unwelcome attention from men and no alcohol except in hotels and restaurants that cater for European travellers.

Our disappointment that we would not hear Bogart say "play it again" to Sam - though there is a replica of the fictional Rick's Bar - and drink martinis every balmy evening disappeared as we were absorbed by the chaos and colour that is modern Morocco.

We were there for two weeks, the first on our own and the second to join a walking expedition into the Atlas mountains. The organised expedition apart, our preparations were minimal - a hotel booked for our arrival in Casablanca and a Lonely Planet guide in our luggage. We were also on a budget, so the luxury riads and exotic restaurants enthused about by well-heeled tourists were off the agenda. Not that we were deprived - for around $100 a day we ate our fill of tagines, slept in clean and comfortable beds and had more adventures than misadventures.

We were looking forward to trying Morocco's famous cuisine and determined to eat what and where the locals ate. On our first night in Casablanca we spotted a cafe we thought would fit the bill. The problem was my French. What I assured Sarah would be a tasty lamb tagine turned out to be goat's brain. "Yuk", said Sarah. I should have known better. In a Madrid cafe a few years earlier I was stumped by the Spanish menu. Trying to be helpful, the waiter put his hands on his hips, flapped his arms and made noises like a chicken. "Ah, chicken wings! Yes please," I exclaimed. And out came a plate piled high with chicken livers.

"I'll buy a French dictionary," said I sheepishly.

Casablanca proved a valuable training ground for the trip ahead. With the help of my French phrase book, we discovered the best way to get around within the cities was by les petit taxis, fleets of red second-hand imports from France. For slightly longer trips there were les grand taxis, mostly old white Mercedes which don't leave until full - four passengers in the back seat and two alongside the driver in the front. Cosy! For inter-city travel, there's an efficient and modern train service.

It was on the train from Casablanca to Fez, the oldest of Morocco's imperial cities, that we experienced our first "pick-up". Call me naive if you like, but I am still trying to decide if it was a positive or negative experience.

We started out with our first-class carriage to ourselves. Within a couple of stops, it was full. We suspected our companions were travelling on second-class tickets, which was confirmed when the conductor stopped by and discussions in Arabic became quite heated. Watching over the conductor's shoulder was a young man who was clearly interested in occupying one of the seats being vacated. Which he did, with great enthusiasm.

"Hi! You must be Australians," he greeted us in perfect English. No, we were New Zealanders.

"That's wonderful! I have some good friends from New Zealand. We worked together on the Lonely Planet guide to Morocco." I pulled my Lonely Planet guide out of my bag without thinking.

"No, no. Not that one. The 2005 edition, with the Mosque Hassan II on the front."

That was interesting, we had visited the mosque in Casablanca. It was the most incredibly beautiful building we had ever seen.

"Well, I didn't work on that section exactly. I was in charge of checking the section on Fez. I'm mentioned on page 296."

The conversation flowed. Where were we going? Fez. That was his home town. Did we have accommodation organised? He had friends with a riad in the old city - he could arrange for us to stay there. Beyond our budget, we said. No problem. A friend worked at a lower cost hotel not far from the railway station. He would phone him right away to book us in.

In just a few clickety-clacks of the rail track, our accommodation was organised, he had arranged for us to eat lunch at a local restaurant around the corner, and his brother - an official guide - would meet us that evening to arrange our tour of the historic old city.

We realised that our travelling companion probably took a commission from the hotel, the restaurant and his brother. In fact, that was probably how he earned his living, working the train to Fez. Were we conned? Probably, but not in a bad way.

The hotel was reasonably priced and quite adequate, our lunch of fresh lamb cutlets delicious, and the brother turned up in his official guide uniform as arranged and, when we experienced the mayhem of the old city, we were very pleased to have him as our guide.

While Casablanca is a modern, albeit slightly scruffy, French-influenced metropolis, Fez is north African and Muslim through and through. The oldest city in Morocco, it is actually not one, but three cities.

The oldest, called Fes el-Bali, was founded in the 9th century by the first powerful Muslim dynasty to rule Morocco.

Then there's Fes el-Jedid, an imperial city built in the 14th century, just to the west of it. Finally, there's the Ville Nouvelle (new town) built by the French early in the 20th century.

It's Fes el-Bali that pulls in the tourists, although they are hardly noticeable in the chaos.

While the city is a Unesco World Heritage Site, it's far from a "look but don't touch" museum. It's about 500 narrow, tangled streets of sheer mayhem, contained by high, fortified walls.

Here, life goes on almost as it might have in medieval times, except that the donkeys are likely to carry crates of Coke and credit card signs festoon shop doors.

On the day we were to visit the old city our guide called to say he had been asked to look after a bus tour. Would we delay our visit until the next day? A little peeved, we decided to go on our own.

Le petit taxi dropped us off at one of the gates to the medina. In a moment we were surrounded by would-be guides. No, we didn't want their services, and we set out into the mayhem with at least a dozen hassling men in tow. Our discomfort mounted as we came to the first intersection. Should we go right, up the hill, or left? Panic set in when sellers of nougat, fruit, sandals and jewellery joined the chorus behind and around us. We were out of there!

We spent a very pleasant day at the smaller but equally old town of Sefrou, about 40 uncomfortable minutes south of Fez by un grand taxi. It was market day and the medina was packed with growers selling everything from strawberries and new potatoes to live snails.

Our guide to old Fez was as good as his word. He appeared next morning, full of apologies for letting us down, and led us on a grand tour that included traditional potteries and the famous but very smelly Fes tanneries.

The third and final city on our itinerary was Marrakesh, where we were to join our group trip into the Atlas mountains.

The famous and beautiful "pink city" is a holiday destination of the rich and famous along with millions annually from every corner of the world. Tourism is central to its economy and it is not coy about making itself attractive.

The wide boulevards are lined with orange, olive and jacaranda trees, bougainvillea and robinia spill over pink walls and rose gardens seem to go on for miles.

Centre of attention is the old medina and the Place Jemaa el-Fna - a market for medicinal plants, freshly squeezed orange juice, nuts and sweets during the day and a seething open-air food and entertainment show at night.

It was here, following our expedition into the mountains, that Sarah got a proposal of marriage. But that's another story.

Helen Cook paid her own way to Morocco.

GETTING THERE:
Helen Cook flew from Auckland to Casablanca via Dubai with Emirates.

ACCOMMODATION:
Their Casablanca accommodation, including being met at the airport, was organised by A Walkers World, Devonport, and The Innovative Travel Company, Christchurch.

GETTING AROUND:
Morocco's rail website www.oncf.ma provides good information about timetables and fares. Generally, there is no need to book in advance, just turn up at the station. First class travel is recommended.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
Useful websites include www.goafrica.about.com and www.morocco.com. A great website if you're looking for an organised trip is www.responsibletravel.com

- NZ Herald

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