A Travellerspoint blog


Casablanca to Cairo

Here's looking at you kid...

sunny 23 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

We thought we'd start this entry with a handy algebraic formula on bus journey times in Morocco:

X = 1.5nY +Fba

X = the number of actual hours' journey
n = the ticket office guy's propensity to overstate
Y = a random number between 1 and 50
F = whether or not the ticket office guy has had a fight with his wife that day
b = whether he's had his breakfast
a = whether you asked him contritely enough or not

And then... just throw a dice and be done with it.

We decided to glam it and take the more expensive national bus service from Chefchaouen to Casablanca. It was only a little more comfortable but we arrived to a much warmer and sunnier Casablanca.

There's not much to see in Casablanca, being more of a commercial hub. It has lots of old art deco buildings and lots of unfinished ones too (credit crunch? laissez-faire construction timetables?). Feeling a little unsure of what we'd do for two and a half days in Casa, we immediatly did what any bus-weary, hungry traveller would do - we headed to the comfort of a bar. In our case, it was 'Rick's Bar'. It was not really authentic, as the actual Rick's Bar in the movie Casablanca was a studio set, but it has been recreated by an American woman to be sort of near the real thing - piano in the bar, lounges to smoke cigars, and the black-and-white movie silently projected on a wall. We were so happy to have a drink and non-traditional food for once (Burgers! T-bone steak! Pasta!) that we ignored the Auckland-prices and settled in for the afternoon. We were crestfallen when we realised that the place was shut between 3-6pm and we had to leave.

The rest of our time was spent walking around the city, seeing the Central Market (horsemeat anyone? Cow carcasses with ahem, apendages attached? Box of thirsty kittens?), fair to low-quality artisan shops and shops selling everything and anything.

The 30th of December was an auspicious day - Jac's Mum's 60th - so we checked out of our modest hotel and into.... the Sheraton. It was five stars, in the 80s sense, but shad all the comfort, amenities and attentive barmen required for a celebratory stay. Throw in several wines, a bottle of Moet and lounge singers seranding Mavis with Happy Birthday, and we did little but sit at the bar all day and night.

On the 31st, we took a red-eye flight to Cairo. Interestingly, at Casablanca airport security was very lax - the check-in desk didn't even open our passports, the security check involved a bribe solicitation, and immigration was the most casual and cheerful we've ever experienced.

However - Cairo! Busy!!! Cab drivers driving 140 kms an hour! Non-stop tooting in a city of 9 million (last census taken 1992 however)! Certainly a wake up call, literally, as we arrived at 6am. We checked into a very unpalacial Capsis Palace Hotel and slept and wiled away the hours until we met our Intrepid Group.

Our group of 14 were made up of a trio of Aussie girls, travelling through Bangladesh and India together; a Sydneysider; an American couple for Silicone Valley; two Canadians; another Mother/daughter pair from Hawaii and California; and oddly, a lone Austrian guy - who seemed as surprised with us as we were with him. New Years Eve was spent getting to know each other over dinner, then half of the group came up to Chalky and Jac's room (the only with a balcony) to drink Stella (not Artois, but the Egyptian local) and cheer over the swarming, beeping traffic below. Needless to day, Cairo wasn't overly festive, being a non-Western country, but we still managed to rouse some of the passersby below us. Here's to a good two weeks together!

Posted by JacChalky 03:15 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Fez and Chefchaoen

Will this rain ever end?

storm 15 °C

La Gare du Fez , being only an hour's journey from Meknes by train, greeted us with surprising modernity and the sunny day.

Fez's medina is huge, with over 9,000 windy streets, and is 15kms in circumference. Our Riad was located in the south east, right near a main Bab (gate). After our happy stay in Meknes, our Riad was less cosy in atmosphere - too many white walls - and service. After enjoying a sweet mint tea welcome, we set out to find the heart of the Medina. That first sunny afternoon however, soon turned to rain, and we were quick to 'take refuge' in... a Westernised bar - many of the bars in Morocco are stricly men-only, where men are men and women are strictly unwelcome, unless they're prostitutes. It was the first modern bar we'd found since Belfast (Chalky was beside himself!). We're not ashamed to say we then spent about six hours drinking white Morrocan wine and eating olives.

Our days were spent wandering the souqs, getting hopelessly lost (in the rain!), and a little annoyed at the touts. Alas, Marrakesh and Meknes had not prepared us for the barrage of polite but persistant young men who tried to get us to visit their father/uncle/brother's carpet/ceramic/artisan/leather shop. Even the little kids have a punt. Again, they back off quickly but there are more of them here in Fez. We did allow one guy to get us 'unlost' amidst a downpour which turned the lanes into small rivers. At one corner it was so flooded, we stood alongside the locals who were all unsure of how to ford the ankle-deep muddy (and probably donkey poo-filled) water. Speaking of donkeys, they were everywhere in Fez, scrawny poor creatures, burdened with sacks and being lead through the souq lanes. Many lanes ingeniously had a plank of wood nailed donkey-head-height to prevent them from entering.

We also let one guy lead us to a Tannery, as it was wet and we couldn't find the leather quarter. He didn't want any cash, being employed by the Leather Co-operative that he took us to. We were given sprigs of mint to ward off the stench and walked up to get roof-top views of the outdoor sludgy dyeing pits, with animal skins heaped and hung everywhere. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of the colours though, due to the rain, which meant the colours would be changed for the next day. Back below in the Co-op, there were two floors full of brightly coloured leather bags, jackets, ottomans, purses and shoes, but alas our packs don't allow purchases!

Our highlight of Fez would have to have been 'Thami's', a little street-food cafe near the main gate of the Medina. Our Lonely Planet had raved on about Thami's modest cafe, and when we stumbled upon it he rushed out, brimming with a wide grin and proudly showed us write-ups from The Guardian and other travel articles in a ratty plastic cover. We weren't terribly hungry, but soon gobbled down his tasty makoda (potato fritters), loubia (round beans in a lamb-stew-tasting sauce) and spicy ladies finger and tomato dip. His small outdoor table was occupied so he welcomed us to dine right in his kitchen, his wife Sandy busying herself around us. It was so delicious we returned the next day and ordered his 'rost chicken' (broiled before deepfried, rather than actually roasted) and his speciality, kefta (meatball) tajine. He doesn't have space for a drinks fridge so gets orange juice, soft drinks and mint tea from neighbouring cafes. Such a cheerful, lovely couple - she cheekily pushing him away when we took photos of them.

Another must-do in Fez was to procure some very rare alcohol for Christmas Day, which would be spent in a very small village called Chefchaouen. We headed to the Ville Nouvelle, which every town has in contrast to their ancient medina, (and every Ville Nouvelle without fail has the ubiquitious Avenue Mohammed V, named after Morocco's King). We checked out the Central Market, which was crammed with trays of foreign fish, shiny fruit and veges and rows of turn-you-vegetarian butcher shops. Our Lonely Planet said there was an alcohol shop right nearby so we searched the neighbouring streets. We were about to give up when we found it and bought three bottles of cheap plonk - two white semillants and a red - for only NZD23! Then, we realised we didn't have a bottle opener (note to self, must buy Swiss Army knife next time if only for that purpose) so returned to the souqs to unfortunately scour the stalls without any luck.

So on Christmas Day we took a bus to Chefchauoen, which was about 4 hours away. We'd gone to the bus station the day before to buy tickets in advance, but were greeted with a grumpy ticket officer and frustrated tourists who were upset that the roads were closed due to the rain! Uh oh. We were advised to just return the following day. Which we did, at 7am, hoping to catch the 8am bus. Again the ticket officer was still grumpy and told us the roads were closed (likely because Chefchaouen was in the mountains) but we could catch the bus to Ouzzane or Tetouan, which curiously were the stops before and after Chaouen. We befriended an German guy who was in the same situation as us, and sat patiently in the cafe for the 10am bus, which a friendly local had said was the true bus time....

It pays to check every bit of information you get given though! Jac decided at 7:50am to double check this benevolent piece of advice, and luckily she did, as the bus was leaving in 10 minutes! We scrambled to down our coffees and teas, gathered our packs and quickly purchased tickets. As we hopped on the bus we met an Australian woman who was surprised to hear that the road to Chaouen was closed, as she hadn't been told that by grumpy ticket officer. We hopped off the bus at Ouzzane, an unremarkable and shabby town, and the ticket lady knew no such thing about roads being closed. We think its because the bus was pretty empty and the Fez ticket officer must have tried to discourage us from going, perhaps to save a bus trip.

We arrived in the rain to Chefchaoen, which is a cute village nestled amongst the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco. Its name literally means 'look at the peaks', the Chef (look at) only added to its name in the 70s. We gave small gasps as we first glimpsed it rounding the corner, as it's entirely blue and white, with tiled terracotta rooves which is a nod to its Andalucian roots. 'What a charming place ' we thought... until we were told by a Canadian traveller that the water was shut off the previous day. And we saw two of the previous day's frustrated tourists board our bus headed out of the town. Uh oh.

Thankfully our hotel, although suffering heavily from leaky-building-syndrome, had running (and hot!) water. We ventured into the main square Plaza Uta el-Hamman for lunch, and ate amongst a horde of snotty-nosed, manky cats who tried every trick in the book to snaffle a bit off our plate. We had few Christmas beverages at a nearby hotel (why, after that afternoon in Fez we realised we missed having our beer-o'clocks!) before retreating from the pouring rain to spend Christmas afternoon/evening in our room. Jac had two Christmas carols on her iPod (one, a Mariah Carey, the other a John and Yoko Lennon) so we played them on repeat, to create that 'department store' festive feeling. The previous day we'd bought not-so-secret santa presents, to be not more than 25 dirham (NZD4.50) and each blindly pulled out a present from a bag. I received a Fez keyring, Mum two small blue and white ceramic bowls, and Chalky a dodgy-English tajine cooking book (with recipies like 'Chicken with Cardoons', and instructions to cut courgettes 'at their extremities'). Chalky managed to open the bottles of wine using his bare hands and a chopstick (don't ask why we had chopsticks on us) and we had a cosy and thunderstormy night in.

We were in Chaouen for three days, two of which were absolutely pouring with rain. We were kept company by our books and the steady stream of straight-to-video American movies on telly (box office hits such as "Narc" and "Half Light" and "Bloodrayne"), while the hotel staff ran around with mops and terracotta pots to stop the leaks.

The third day, thankfully, blissfully had sun - which made us so excited after 7 solid days of rain and patchy sun. We roamed the compact medina, saw its markets and mosques and - made sure we bought our tickets to Casablanca, a day early, afraid that more rains would come and trap us into this charming, but small village.

The only downer to our visit was the hotel management, who tried to pull a fast one and make us pay for the extra night, even though they were okay with us staying 3 instead of 4 nights. They tried to say the one-night deposit we paid over the internet was a 'booking fee' paid to the online 'travel agency', and then when we vehemently protested at the fallacy of that, changed their story to say that actually we still had to pay for the fourth night because they couldn't give our room away. When Jac sternly told them off for bad customer service in not advising us of that on our first night, they then rang the booking agency and said that they (i.e. the Manager's buddy, probably) said that we could instead try to get 25% off the final night back off the agency. As we'd treated ourselves to a 'luxury' hotel, we were not pleased.... time to get the fluck out of here and onto Casablanca!

Posted by JacChalky 09:09 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


Rain, rain, go away...

rain 15 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

So after our 10-hour bus ride, we arrived in the dark, pouring rain to Meknes bus station. We tried flagging a 'petit taxi' into the Medina, but we were repeatedly ignored in favour of locals until someone picked us up. Probably because they're metered, so why pick up someone who can't speak Arabic and will pay you the same?

Our gratefulness wore off though, when we received the 'Just Arrived Tourist treatment' - instead of being ripped off, we were dropped off... in the middle of nowhere. We even had written instructions for our driver. So we sought shelter and waited, drenched, unsure of what to do next, when Mavis' cellphone rang! It was the owner, wondering where we were. While his English was good, we had difficulty describing where we were (as 'nowhere' and 'in a dark street' didn't really suffice) so he asked us to pass the phone to someone who could speak Arabic. The only people around were little kids, so Jac picked a responsible looking girl and gave her the phone... poor girl had to try and speak while an untrusting Jac's gripped with vice-like determination.

Within 10 minutes, Omar the Manager cheerfully turned up and lead us into the Old Town and to our Riad. We were kinda wondering what we'd booked, as the alleyway we arrived at was dark and dingy, but to our surprise when he lead us through the nondescript front door, a beautiful and homely Riad greeted us! The central courtyard had lovely marble floors, there were little salons with plush sitting areas and cushions, and huge, antique doors and carpets adorning the walls. Omar and his staff were the most accomodating and lovely people ever.

So Meknes is fairly small and quiet, and often overshadowed by its bigger and more impressive neighbour, Fez which is only 60kms to the east. However the grand mosaic gates and enormous sand-coloured imperial walls make you feel like you're truly enclosed in an Imperial City. The souqs sell more modern goods, like shoes and clothing, but there are still the requisite artisan shops, with owners enticing you in.

The unfortunate thing about Meknes is that it rained. And rained. And rained. But we still managed to walk lots and see the sights, like the tomb of My Ismail, who was the first King to unify Morocco and pacify the Berber tribes. It was the first 'sacred' place that allowed entry to non-Muslims, and it while only Muslims could approcach the tomb itself, the mausoleum was beautifully tiled in mosaics and had wild mint growing in the corners. Another highlight was that Chalky and Jac also managed to order The Biggest Couscous dish ever in a local restaurant, which took some sleeve-rolling and space-saving burps :p

Despite the rain we stayed for two days and then took a train to Fez in search of better weather.... and computers that let us upload photos...

Posted by JacChalky 10:52 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


Tajines, Couscous and sweet mint tea

sunny 27 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Es Salaam Alaykum / Hurroh

Our trusty sleazyJet delivered us Marrakesh with good humour: "Please ensure you take your luggage, belongs and children off the plane - we don't want them" but unlike our Belfast Ryanair flights, delivered the typical each-man-for-himself budget airline experience. After selecting The World's Longest Immigration Line (others zipping to freedom as we waited on what must have been an extremely thorough officer), and paying the expected Welcome, Naive Tourist taxi fare, we arrived near the main square of Marrakesh, Djemaa El-Fna.

Overwhelming was an understatement. As soon as we hopped out of our Grande Taxi, backs already groaning with our over-packed bags, we were hit with the sounds, smells and buzz that is Morocco - Arabic music blaring from flourescent-lit shops selling fake everything; spicy kebabs filling our nostrils; and dodging the crowd that either walked, motorbiked or pedal biked, all without collision. Did we say we were exceptionally out of place?

Our Riad (courtyard hotel) was located in the souqs - winding market lanes crammed with stalls selling beautiful ceramics, carpets, spices and small animals, however on actually studying our Google Map, it turned out the map was completely wrong. So, armed with our taxi driver's scrawled map we tried finding our Riad - you can guess how that went. Finally we gave in and reluctantly allowed two small boys to lead us to our Riad, who then snubbed the Chupa Chups that Jac offered.

Much to our delight we discovered that most Moroccans parlent Fran├žais, however their keyboards speak Arabic.

Our days were spent exploring the souqs, being invited in by vendors to smell (and sneeze at) all the different spices, including some that were Viagra and anti-Viagra (surely the latter is just Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day?) and indulging in the fine art of haggling over NZ50c - it's all in the win, with perspective of course. Actually, unlike other cultures experienced, Morrocans are a very easy-going and non-aggressive, who are happy to desist after you say 'La, shukran' or 'non, merci' and often reply with a genuine, 'Pas de problem'. However there were frequent calls of 'Ni Hao!' or 'Konichi Wa!' which surely must have been directed to Chalky.

Lunches consisted of tajines or couscous with mutton or chicken, and dinners were eaten in Djemaa El-Fna: skewered meats, bread, dips and olives, snail soup (just like mushrooms, but complete with face) and other goodies served on cutlery/dishes that you just knew had not seen a good wash since they were packed at the factory. Every evening Djemaa El-Fna springs up small makeshift restaurants, stands packed with dried fruits, fresh orange juice, and crowds of locals gambling or watching storytellers act out traditional tales to Arabesque music and dancing.

We decided to visit the Ourika Valley, near the Atlas Mountains, where we did some impromptu and unexpectedly tough rock climbing to see waterfalls and collect quartz. Not only did we discover muscles in our backs, arms, legs, and hell, little fingers that never existed, but we also seriously lagged our guide, Jamal who leapt gracefully up and down the mountain. We'd met Jamal while walking past his shop, and he guessed we were from New Zealand. He was such a lovely and gracious man, who is a devout Muslim - he dashed off a few times to pray, once entrusting us with his shop to mind, much to Mavis' delight... never have so many locals and tourists alike pulled double-takes at the small, Chinese woman dressed in Kathmandu, trying to entice visitors with "Bonsoir, entrez s'il vous plait?".

After being enchanted by Marrakesh, we decided to head to Meknes and booked a 7-hour bus north. Except it wasn't 7 hours, but more like 10. It was comfortable yes, but had highlights such as men hopping on to serve us long, impassioned pleas for money or Koranic sermons; and the delightful experience of having a local woman cradling a toddler have intermittent and loud screaming matches with the driver over the fact her husband was left behind at one of the stops. Every time the bus stopped it in fact, reminded her. Luckily they were reunited some hours later, where the he caught up with the bus somehow.

Tired and weary we finally arrived at a very rainy Meknes.

Posted by JacChalky 02:33 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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