Layover in Casablanca, Morocco

On my way back from Barcelona, I had a 24-hour layover in Casablanca. I really had no plan for my short stay in the city. If I had more time in Morocco, I would have preferred to visit Marrakesh and Chefchaouen. I have a friend from Marrakesh, and he raves about all there is to do in his city. Chefchaouen is a mountain village where all the buildings are painted blue, and pictures of the village often pop up in my Pinterest travel feed. Still, one of my goals while working in Doha is to visit five new countries each year, and because of my layover, I had the opportunity to visit my second new country of 2018—so I thought that I better make the most of my stop in Casablanca.

While still in Barcelona, I tried to look up things to do in Casablanca, but the travel websites were ho-hum about the city. The Hassan II Mosque was mentioned; the old medina came up as well, but it didn’t sound as well received by reviewers as medinas in other cities within the country; there was a corniche that I could visit; and Rick’s Café, a recreation of the restaurant from the movie Casablanca, was pointed out by some websites. After using Google Maps to triangulate an area to stay that was proximate to some of the mentioned sites, I went on AirBnB to book a place for the night.

The first room I requested was in a traditional Moroccan home and looked fantastic from the pictures. Even if I didn’t do much in the city, at least I could take fabulous photos of the home. However, the host would not be in the city during my layover, so I had to withdraw my request. The second room that I requested was very close to the Hassan II Mosque and was about half the price of the first room. Once I confirmed my stay, the host got back to me promptly. His name sounded Chinese, and one of the ways that I was able to contact him was through WeChat—which, for those who don’t know, is the most popular messaging app in China. Strange, but at least I had a place to stay.

Flying into Casablanca, the first thing I noticed was that the land outside of the city looked like a patchwork of green squares. This surprised me—much like the unsupervised teenage girls milling about Barcelona—because I had become acculturated to Doha over the past six months. In Doha, the default color is tan. In Casablanca, grass could actually thrive without sprinkler systems constantly irrigating the weak plants that have no purpose being in a desert biome.

After landing at Mohammed V International Airport (CMN), I made my way through customs with no difficulty. The first thing I typically do when landing in a new country is log onto the airport Wi-Fi, if one is available. This allows me to look up information, access my messages, and use my phone apps. CMN had free Wi-Fi, and I found out that Uber was available in Casablanca. In Barcelona, Uber and Lyft are not cleared for use, but that didn’t matter because I was able to walk everywhere or hail a taxi. The next thing I did was withdraw money from an ATM in the local currency. I had to check the conversion rate between US Dollars (USD) and Moroccan Dirhams (MAD) using an app on my phone: 1 USD converted to roughly 10 MAD. So, I withdrew 1000 MAD (roughly 100 USD) for my stay in Casablanca.

While in the airport, I next ordered a ride using Uber. However, the second I stepped out of the airport, I lost my Wi-Fi signal and was dropped from the Uber network. I tried walking to the pick-up area to see if I could identify my driver and was hounded by men asking if I needed a taxi, I give you good price. I waved them off. Then I walked back to the airport building to see if I could regain the signal and was hounded by more men asking if I needed a taxi, I give you good price. I waved them off. But once I got near the airport, I was unable to regain the signal! I was not going to be able to use Uber, and if I wanted to get to my Airbnb, I was going to have to select a taxi driver that seemed most trustworthy.

“I asked you if you needed a driver, and you said, ‘No!’” retorted the first driver that I stumbled on.

“I know, but I had an Uber reservation.” I responded.

“Uber charge you 311 MAD. I charge you 300 MAD.” He was right, so we headed to his car.

My driver’s name was M, and he had lived his entire life in Casablanca. He told me my English was very difficult for him to understand, which amused me. Nonetheless, I periodically asked him questions on the way to the Airbnb destination, and he was able to figure out what I was saying through my thick Midwestern brogue and provided me with some information about what I was seeing through the window.

We drove past a lot of large squares of land with small houses dotted on them. “Is land expensive in Morocco?” I asked.

“Yes, very expensive.” M responded.

“What do people grow on the land?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question.”

I tried recasting my question, but M was still unable to explain what crops were grown on the plots of land in between the airport and Casablanca.

A little later, I queried, “What is the name of the brown hooded robes that the old men are wearing?” I saw a couple men wearing them as we entered the perimeter of Casablanca.

“They are called djellabas. They are to stay warm in the cold.”

“Are there a lot of Jews in Morocco?” I saw quite a few Hassidic Jews in the airport.

“There used to be, but now Jews stop here on their way to Israel.”

“Where do these Dacia automobiles come from?” They were everywhere on the road.

“They are made in Morocco, but they are part of Renault, which is in France.”

As we made our way through the city, M asked me for the phone number of my Airbnb host so that he could find the exact location. He called the number and said that we would meet a person. At a street corner, a tall teenage girl in a hijab, leather jacket, yoga pants, and Adidas sandals jumped into the front seat and directed us to the building. Once we got to the building, M asked me if I wanted a ride tomorrow to the airport. He gave me his card with his phone number and his brother’s phone number. I could message him using WhatsApp. It took us a half an hour to get from the airport to the Airbnb location, so I thought it best to confirm a ride for the next day.

“Yes, please meet me here at 1pm.” My flight was at 4pm, and I wanted to leave plenty of time for any traveling mishaps.

The tall girl and I took the elevator to the fourth floor where she gave me my keys, but there was a mix up about who I was. So, she went into another room, and the Chinese man who had confirmed my room request came out and straighten up the matter. He told me that I was very handsome, but his compliment failed to convince me. I’m 41 years old and bald! Had he told me that I looked wise or distinguished, he might have had better luck stroking my ego.

The tall girl and I went up to the seventh floor of the building to my apartment. I was sharing the apartment with other travelers, but I had my own private room. As we passed the living room, I saw four bunk beds set up hostel style. My room, however, had a double bed, closet, and a window. I was also right next to the bathroom. Most importantly, I had Wi-Fi access in my room. My accommodations were neither Brahman nor Spartan.

After showing me my room, the tall girl wanted to show me the roof, and this is when I became most excited. From the roof, we could see the Hassan II Mosque alongside the ocean, which was quite the spectacle. What was most compelling to me about the vista was that it was evening, the sun was casting a striking color of light, and clouds were making fantastic shapes in the sky. I thanked the tall girl for escorting me, rushed to my room, grabbed my camera, and headed to the mosque.

View of Hassan II Mosque from the roof of my Airbnb rooftop.

The clouds were quite dramatic during my exploration of the mosque. 

The biggest obstacle to taking pictures during my visit were the other visitors. There was no avoiding them many times, so I had to become comfortable with them in the shots. 

The architecture of the mosque was impressive. I could have spent an entire day shooting all of the nooks and details of the structure.

The setting sun created lots of dramatic shadows for me to play with. 

I was running around the mosque trying to explore it from different angles and perspectives.

The interplay between the mosque, visitors, light, shadows, and clouds made it very easy for me find many compelling shots.

My photo safari took me to the rocky shoreline where the low tide allowed me and other visitors to climb out past the break wall.

I spent as much time as I could with the waning light hunting for photos.

I experimented with some panoramic shots of the mosque.

Another panoramic past the break wall.

I spent most of the evening wandering the perimeter of the mosque for photo opportunities. Once I was satiated, it was time for me to scrounge up some food and head back to my room. However, aside from the mosque, I was in a pretty shabby part of Casablanca. I went to a couple restaurants, but they had sold out of most of their food. I was able to order a couple chicken sandwiches and went back to my Airbnb room.

Inside the apartment, my flatmates, a bunch of young Chinese tourists, were cooking. I said hello, made a B line straight for my room, ate my sandwiches, and fell asleep. I woke up at about 11pm and spent the rest of the night on my computer. From my room, I could hear the wail of dogs and people arguing in the street. There was no streetlight outside, so I was content to spend the rest of the night in my room, surfing the internet.

The next day I walked around my Airbnb a little more and determined that there wasn’t much for me to see in the area. I messaged M and asked if he could pick me up at 12pm and take me to the airport.

On the way to the airport, M took me on the scenic route so that I could see the beaches of Casablanca. There were some nice parts to the city, but I would have had to take a taxi to access them. Also, this was the end of my 10-day vacation, and I was at the point where I just wanted to get home.

In spite of my traveling fatigue, one last question occurred to me. That morning when I strolled around the mosque one last time, I saw tour buses unload Chinese tourist at the site. “How come there are so many Chinese tourists in Casablanca?”

“I think the government lifted visa requirements for Chinese visitors for one year.”

Ah. Made sense.

M got me to the airport eventually, and I tipped him 100 MAD for his helpfulness. Then I checked in and made my ways through security and customs. Once I was at my terminal, I had plenty of time to kill. However, I spotted a buffet and enjoyed a full plate of Moroccan food.

After eating my fill, I had a better disposition regarding Casablanca. I had endured my layover, and now it was time for me to head back to Doha.

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