By Karlie Marrazzo
After a spectacular but short visit to the Sahara Desert, Dave and I hopped into the familiar backseat of the Land Cruiser and hit the rocky road once again, destined for Marrakech. We left a different way than we came and were out of the dunes within 15 minutes. The soft sand quickly became horribly hard and bumpy. I began to feel like I was on the brink of insanity. I could feel my brain bouncing around, knocking against the inside of my skull. In that moment it was almost unbearable. I felt like screaming and jumping out of the window. I have major respect for Mohammed and all of the other drivers who are able to make that drive more than once in their lifetimes and to do it with such skill. According to the Sahara Services website, we were driving along an old Dakar Rally route. It seemed like there was more Mohammed wanted to say at many points during our drives together but he just couldn’t find the right words in English, and our grasp of French is minimal.
Eventually we linked back up with the road we came in on. Once more we passed through the High Atlas Mountains, but this time the peaks were completely covered in pure white snow. It was such a difference from two days prior, and even more of a striking image having just come from the majestic golden dunes of the Sahara. Only a couple of hours later we were back in the bustle of the Marrakech medina. We lived out the perfect example of the wonders of travel, being able to go between these three remarkable extremes in the span of only one day.
As soon as we got to our lovely riad we dropped everything and took showers. Glorious, hot, steamy showers. It had been three days since we had bathed and nothing could have felt better. The sand poured off of our bodies.
The next morning was laid back. I wanted to buy a couple more pairs of the casual Moroccan leather slippers that can be found lining every back road in the souqs, so we casually wandered the narrow alleys until finding just the right shop. We each found a few pairs and then returned once again to the main train station to catch our train to Casablanca.
When we were planning our trip we had to decide if we wanted to spend any nights in Casablanca, and it didn’t take us long to realize that there wasn’t much there for travelers and that most people generally avoid it. However, we decided to spend one night on the way back in order to make it a little easier to catch our flight out of Africa.
I love taking the train on my travels and was looking forward to settling in to our first class seats and enjoying the ride. The first class cars were arranged in compartments with six seats in each. Even though we had seat reservations and still showed up fairly early, somebody was in my spot. No problem, we’ll just sit somewhere else. Except that it became a problem because Dave and I ended up in two other peoples’ seats. Being the polite Canadians we are, we asked the young woman (and I use the term woman loosely) in my seat if she could please move over one seat. She played dumb, staring at us and pretending not to understand English. We showed her our tickets and gestured for her to move over. She became irritable and agitated, flat out refusing to slide over a mere eight inches, miraculously learning English and demanding we get the train controller. Dave got the controller, a small, meek man, while I stood my ground with a near raving lunatic. Now, even though the controller was asking her to move seats, with our tickets in his hands, she still refused, standing up, screaming and swearing repeatedly in front of other passengers who included a mother with her little boy. Another passenger, a Moroccan-American international man of mystery in round tortoiseshell glasses, came to my defense, telling her to calm down but throwing some (very true) biting insults in. I decided to save my sanity and moved in to the next compartment over.
Our new location was much calmer and our fellow passengers much more interesting – the man who came to my rescue, an late 40s businessman with an impeccable sense of style and a high-end, top secret job; an Adrien Brody look alike; and a stunning, classy young woman who could have been a supermodel. I have to give some thanks to the crazy lady in compartment #3, for if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have met those other wonderful people.
We finally disembarked and emerged into the chaos of Casablanca. After exchanging hand gestures (her) and smiles (us) with our old friend from the safety of our taxis, we were spat out into the heavy traffic. Contrary to what the masses believe, thanks to the movie of the same name, there is no romance to the city. The movie wasn’t even filmed there, but on a sound stage in California. No, Casablanca is a sprawling, crowded, and hectic working city with little of interest for visitors.
Feeling totally deflated, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the first hotel of our trip, dining in the hotel restaurant. The trip had so far been full of extreme highs and lows and we needed rest, so we didn’t feel the need to try to squeeze any more out of it in Casablanca. The next morning we would visit Casablanca’s main attraction, the Hassan II Mosque, before spending one more night in Lisbon and then ending off the trip with 25 hours in London.
The Hassan II Mosque is the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world. We would have loved to see inside as we’d never been in a mosque, but we missed the guided tour by mere moments and wouldn’t be around for the next one. Dave tried to convince me to sneak in on the tails of a cruise ship tour group, but I chickened out at the last minute. It was quite clear that we didn’t fit in with the khaki pants and SLR-around-the-neck crowd anyhow. The mosque was still a wonderful sight to see from the outside, surrounded by slick tiles, a gorgeous geometric fountain, and traditional tilework.
Hailing a taxi for the return to our hotel was a bit more irritating than it was to get there. Like I said, there aren’t many tourists in Casablanca, and apparently the ones who do go there are easy to rip off. Not us. We approached driver after driver, all of them trying to charge us a minimum of 50dh or more for a ride that should have only been 15 dh. Again, it’s not the cost of the ride, but the principal of being ripped off. We managed to find a decent guy and got him down to 30dh.
After a very awkward run in with the cleaning staff in our hotel room, we stopped by a Moroccan pharmacy for one last time. Returning to the hotel, I proceeded with check out while Dave checked outside for our airport shuttle. The young man behind the front desk confronted me about my comments regarding the awkward situation with condescension and disbelief. This was one of the only moments that Dave wasn’t standing beside me in Morocco, and was one of the only moments that I was made to feel lesser as a human being because I am a woman.
Our shuttle driver seemed to take the most bizarre and narrow side streets imaginable to get to the airport. We left three hours early but I began to wonder if we would make it on time. After what seemed like an eternity we were on a highway, with the airport appearing shortly after. Casablanca’s frustrations continued on inside the airport. Our flight back to Lisbon had been cancelled on us when we were in Fes, but for some reason it was still listed on the board, so we ran around trying to figure out if we could get on it. Turns out the flight was cancelled, they just hadn’t taken it off of the schedule yet. Or was it? The line for border control was moving at a snails’ pace. I was already feeling agitated when we made it to the front of the line and it was incredibly hot and stuffy in the airport. The border officer asked us for our declaration cards, even though we weren’t given any. Eyeing the pen prominently sticking out of his shirt pocket, I asked if he had a pen I could borrow to fill it out, to which he looked me in the eye and said no. It was not my finest hour. I hastily filled it out and slammed it back on the desk. In any other country I probably would have been punished or at the very least scrutinized for behaving that way in an airport, but luckily for me we went through with no problem. I’m sure I’m not the first person to lose their cool in that airport, but I won’t ever do it again.
We flew to Madrid where we had a three-hour layover before catching a flight to Lisbon. We had been greatly looking forward to spending another night in one of our favourite cities, but due to the original flight being canceled, we didn’t arrive until 10 pm rather than 2 pm as originally planned. This only gave us enough time to meet Susanna, the lovely host of our Air BNB, before falling into bed only to wake up the next morning at 6 am for a rainy, foggy taxi ride straight back to the airport.