Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Not so lonely with Lonely Planet in Morocco

I have often seen tourists with a Lonely Planet guide, a bottle of mineral water and a sheepish smile on their face moving about in the country. All my tours abroad have never been touristy - mostly functional with little time to roam around. In any case I am really not the type who would want to go to all the known tourist destinations and stand in long queues and listen to guides. I would rather visit people, interact and left to myself read about the country. Therefore in all my trips abroad I have never carried a guide and have really not visited places locally. Infact I really do not enjoy international travel especially because of all the attendant problems of visas, foreign exchange and the pain one has to go through for a short trip. I did look around Rome on a guided tour years ago, and when I went to US and Canada was taken around by relatives and friends. Infact my sister tells me that I was the most difficult guest she had because she did not know how to entertain me, because I got excited with nothing.

This time I decided to try and feel like a tourist on a trip to Morocco. The excitement was only because Morocco was not a usual destination, there was something different. Though the trip was "official" - for an annual network meeting of academics in business schools working on microfinance. I thought it would be a good idea to build in some more fun. The last time we had the meeting out of the country was in Pretoria and I had not ventured out of the scheduled and formal events and therefore saw very little of Pretoria. This was compounded by the fact that we were advised that it was not safe to walk around and the hotel we stayed strategically had a "happy hour" that served liquor for two hours between 5 and 7 in the evening!!

So in preparation for the trip, for the first time I bought a Lonely Planet guide for both Morocco and Paris. The meeting was in Rabat, but the organisers had indicated that we could land directly in Rabat or in Casablanca. The flight to Casablanca was via Dubai and to Rabat was via Paris. Since I was flying with some friends from Bangalore, we decided to take the new Air France direct flight from Bangalore to Paris that connected to Rabat. On the way back we had an "Evening in Paris" and I was hoping to look around there as well.

Lonely Planet books are comprehensive and well written. Not only do they help you to navigate around the place, but also help you to rediscover yourself. For instance we were booked in Hotel La Tour Hassan and the book says that "The palatial complex is arguably the best all-round five star hotel in town. The rooms are well stocked with every imaginable amenity, but are otherwise unremarkable..." Wow! the hygiene factors were easily taken care of! The guide has good maps and tons of info that a lost tourist would need. So there I was in Morocco, with a Lonely Planet guide, a mineral water bottle (taken away from Air France) and a sheepish smile. I suddenly realised that while you are being a host you have an impish smile, as a guest in a strange place, particularly where you do not know the language you could only sport a sheepish smile and of course an improved vocabulary that started with shukran - "Thank you" picked up from the book.

It was a good journey from Bangalore to Paris. I had Srini and Saleela for company and it is always fun to have somebody like Srini who has a great sense of humour. From Paris we had an immediate connecting flight to Rabat. The CDG airport in Paris is an imposing structure, with buses going in underpases while the flights were taking off. It was quite a change from the crammed Bangalore International terminal - which only had one hall and long queues. We had to change terminals and there were local buses that ferried us. Our departure was from Terminal 2B (arrival Terminal 2A and all other terminals were starting with 2... wonder whatever happened to Terminal 1). We were checked through and therefore all that was left was the security check. We were then herded into the aerobridge, but it did not logically end up in a plane, instead ended in a tunnel like bus! I don't know what it is called, but Saleela promptly named it as the "People Eater". Once all the passengers were inside, the entire thing was lowered to ground level and driven to the air plane.. Srini called it (and the entire CDG airport which actually looks like a large refinery) an unnecessary piece of engineering.

Once in the flight, my usual problems started. They had not loaded vegetarian food for me. Lonely Planet had indicated that there would not be too many problems for vegetarians but they do not cover Air France in their book!! No wonder I love Air India, somebody understands what it means to be a Vegetarian in Air India and they also understand English. Saleela and Srini did have some food because they had booked their meal preference as Vegan, as against the highly suspect meal category called "asian vegetarian meal" booked by my travel agent... I was later told by Saleela that if you are travelling international, it is always better to book yourself a vegan meal. (Well, the story repeated on my return flight as well.. no food from Rabat to Paris, had to survive on a welcome champagne, wine and cheese - Upwaas - on liquid diet, if you want to call it)

Rabat Airport is a cute little airport with only two flights landing every day. It was smaller than the small airports in India like Pune, Vadodara, Jaipur.... I surprisingly cleared customs and immigration without any problem. One of the reasons why I hate international travel is because I have this uncanny ability to get picked up for a thorough search every time! It has happened to me most of the time. We were told to be conservative about converting our currency to Dirhams - as per the local laws you can only re-convert 50% of what you have converted! But as the hotel accepted credit cards (and our cards were accepted internationally) there was not much of a problem. On my first visit to Washington I had problems in explaining that I only had $100 denomination travellers cheques (the room bill was $110 and the lady at the reception did not have $90 change!) and my credit card was only valid in India and Nepal! Thankfully those days are gone and we can truly behave like international citizens. Sonia (our local host, and an Italian - but she said she had nothing to do with the Gandhis!) was in the Airport to take a vanful of people (all of whom had joined us in Paris) to the hotel.

Rabat is clean and well maintained. It has a Arabic/French culture and the large buildings that touch the skyline are usually the mosques. Unlike the mosques that I have seen elsewhere (which have huge domes) the mosques in Rabat were all square columns. In the evening we were taken on a walk to Le Tour Hassan (well, the hotel also has the same name, but the original was the Hassan Tower - nothing to do with the English word "tour") and the Masoleum of Mohammed V. Since this was not a conducted tour in the traditional sense, I had to resort to Lonely Planet to find out some more details. This is what Lonely Planet says "Rabat's famous landmark overlooks the bridge across Oued Bou Regreg to Sale. The Almohad sultan Yacoub al-Mansour began construcdtion of this enormous minaret in 1195 with the intention of reaching 60 m, to make it the largest and highest in the Muslim world. The project was abandoned at 44m when the sultan died four years later." The tower has a imposing wall. If you see the first photo, the lady standing is somebody to watch out for. If you see the photo on the right, the guy on the photo is not somebody to watch out for, it is me. Like all touristy places, they have their set of people who nag you - a set of "college student" like looking people who want to put henna on your hand. I ran into the complex avoiding them, but Saleela had her hand hennaed even before she could realise it. She was taking photographs and as a result was 20 Dirhams poorer!!

Well the tower is truly impressive and the place is well maintained and clean. We did not have much time to roam around as the sun was setting and it was closing time. So most of us did the usual touristy thing of clicking as many photos as possible. With the advent of the digital cameras, I guess we are careless about how we take pictures and a tad liberal in clicking. It is a bit irritating for me, but well the advantage is that I can upload these pictures quickly!

The same complex had some other interesting things. Let me continue some more of Lonely Planet -- "The tower still stands but little remains of the adjacent mosque, which was all but destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. Only the re-erected, shattered pillars testify to the grand plans of Al-Mansour." The pictures capture those pillars. There is also a Masoleum of Muhammed V in the same premises. We were able to see it from outside and take a few pictures, but no luck with more as we were out of time.

Well, this is where the story of Lonely Planet ends, because apart from this, most of the engagements (in spite of all my preparations to really turn a tourist) were official. We went on a field trip to Casablanca to understand what is happening with the microfinance situation in Morocco. It was Id season and we could find sheep being readied for the "sacrifice" (see photo on the left above, the draught power is that of donkeys - right photo). We visited Zakhoura Foundation and interacted with their clients. The trip was on a thursday and we were expected to be free for our shopping after the visit. However the visit itself was very long and by the time we returned to Rabat. Though we did not see any of the glossy scenes of Casablanca it was worth the visit - we could see the other side of the tourist destinations and interact with people who had their own interesting lives. The trip was to meet and interact with the poor clients of Zakhoura Foundation's poor clients and then a brief interaction in the office. Zakhoura Foundation works all over Morocco, but they have significant activities in urban areas including Casablanca. I think we visited 4-5 clients that day. Wherever we went (like in India) we were chased by a group of urchins who were interested in seeing what we were doing.

The usual ritual was to get introduced, talk to the people and get an idea as to how their lives had changed after access to microcredit. I spent some time in talking to the kids around and it was quite an experience. None of us knew each other's language and therefore it was indeed difficult to carry on an effective conversation. However, they were quite enterprising and asked me if I was from the land of Shah Rukh Khan!! This was quite a revelation for me. I had heard of stories as to how Russians were mad after Raj Kapoor and would sing "Mera Jootha hai Japani... Phir bhi dil hain hindustani"... here I was in Morocco listening to a boy singing the second edition of the heart of hindustan song - he went - "Hum Logonko samaj sakho toh samjho dilbhar jaani...." ending again with "Phir bhi dil hain hindustani". It was heartwarming to see some Moroccan kids claiming that their hearts were Indian. Shah Rukh Khan was a passport for all houses and there were none that had not seen at least one Shah Rukh movie. No, Aamir, Salman, Saif did not feature in the list. Yes, Devdas, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, K3G and Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani defenitely featured in the list. One of my fellow travellers was a Brazilian and he got welcomed because he was from the land of Ronaldinho... football being the other craze of people. The boys were wearing Zidane jerseys with No.10 on it!!

The country place is very colourful with even the walls of the poor households painted with grand and intricate designs on most of the walls. Infact one of the poorest houses that we visited possibly could not paint their walls, but had shining stars stuck all over. Even the hotel walls were very colourful (see a picture with Srini) and there was a palatial look to the entire place. The place is famous for paintings, ceramicware and leatherware (largely from camel leather). I took pictures of the interior walls of a poor entrepreneur who rents out wedding dresses. Nataliya who was from the Russia wanted to try out a wedding dress and the hosts obliged. She was decked up with the full bridalwear and also placed in the palanquin to demonstrate how weddings happen there. The only thing missing in Nataliya's wedding was a groom!!

We also saw buggies - like the Mumbai victorias around the streets of Casablanca.
Otherwise the local transport is in two types of taxis - petit taxis take you around within the city, but are restricted within certain zones. For the airport you are expected to take a "grand" taxi. Surprisingly all "grand" taxis were Mercedes - something that was difficult for me to digest, given the status attached to a Merc in India. All the grand taxis looked badly battered and almost like the erstwhile Indian Contessas. I did try to take a picture of the Grand Taxi when we were loading our luggage to the airport, but later discovered that a guy came inbetween the lens and the car! It was raining heavily on the day of our departure and any further adventure with photography was not called for. I have nevertheless uploaded the photo of the Merc here. I lost the evening left free for roaming and shopping in rediscovering Shah Rukh Khan. While the microfinance and poverty story was a familiar stuff, we had not known the extent of poverty and illeteracy. Apparently the current King is forward looking and there has been a lot of reform.

In spite of the appaling poverty, people appeared happy and were willing to talk and interact. Morroccans are very hospitable. We also went to the Zakhoura Foundation office and had
a presentation. After about 4 hours of interaction, one of my Indian friends ultimately said, we can do with some Chai.. expecting that the organisation would order chai from a nearby cafe. Nothing of that sort happened. Morroccans drink "Mint Tea" which is yellow-brown in colour and is poured from an ornate kettle into a glass. The proper way of serving is very much like how tea is mixed in Kerala - tea is dropped into the glass from a height.

We had to postpone our shopping by a day as our free day was taken up by Casablanca. Friday is a general holiday, but we were told that we could go to Medina - a place where we could take small gifts back home. We were also told that Medina market is known for bargaining and it would be good if we could get stuff at about half of the originally quoted price. Medina is famous for leather stuff (including shoes) and handicrafts. When the day ended, we had a 2 hour window to go to Medina. The market was walking distance, but it was raining. Saleela used her usual charm at the hotel reception to borrow an umbrella from the reception and we truged in the drizzle. I did most of the talking in the market trying to bargain on stuff. I would pick up stuff, bargain hard and argue telling that Shah
Rukh would be happy that an Indian was given a good deal, and as soon as I finalised the deal Srini and Saleela would say, "that is great, we will have two more pieces of the same!!" Two shopkeepers referred to me as Berber - a tribe that belongs to the northern part of Morocco. I wondered if it was a compliment or an insult, but nevertheless had not option but to smile. We bought a whole lot of small things that only helped in proving that we went to Morocco and returned to the Hotel.

For the four days we were there, we were quite known in the hotel for our insistence on Veg food. The first day we got only Khus Khus - an Upma like stuff with heaps of boiled vegetables and some gravy on top. Moroccans believe in feeding an army even if there are only three around the table. We decided that we needed to take care of food security given the non-veg nature of the cusiene and on our way back from the walking tour of Tour Hassan decided to pick up fruits. We saw a shop - with apples and bananas - as usual, it was my job to do the talking. I inquired how much the apple cost for which I was told it was 20 dirhams. I assumed it was the price per piece and a quick calculation indicated that it would cost Rs.100 equivalent... but given that no other veg food was available, we were willing to settle for it. Ultimately it turned out to be the cost for a kilo and we actually got 4 apples for the price. Srini said that if the shopkeeper had understood what we were willing to pay, he could have really hiked up the prices!! What to do, paapi pet ka sawaal hai! From the second day onwards the Chef (his name was also Hassan and was as tall as 6 foot 6 inches and we promptly called him Tour Hassan - the tower of Hassan) ensured that he would make something for us "without meat, without fish, without egg". Ultimately when we returned, we were left with two apples in Bangalore, which I gladly gifted to Saleela. I wonder if she ultimately ate the apples imported from New Zealand via Morocco!

On the whole it was not a very exciting trip, outside of the business and I really could not do much apart from the small things described above. However, I discovered the joy of reading Lonely Planet - it was great and I did read up quite a bit on the history of Morocco.

Before leaving I asked Sonia if there was a duty free shop in the airport where we could pick up some ethnic stuff (or whether we should reconvert all our currency back into Euros). Sonia had indicated that we sho
ud actually do all our shopping in the city itself and there was nothing much in the Airport. I also asked Sonia what it meant if the shopkeeper called me Berber - she indicated that I should take it positively, it only meant that they appreciated my method of bargaining and it generally came out of admiration of having dealt with a tough nut. However, this is what Lonely Planet has to say on Berbers: The ancient Berbers have inhabited North Africa since Neolithic times... Little is known of their origins and their physical features range from dark and rounded sub-Saharan traits to light skin and blue eyes. What it is to be a Berber is a slippery subject. Although 70% of Moroccans have Berber blood, only 50% acknowledge their origins as it has a hefty stigma. Berbers are perceived as primitive, even savage. Tellingly the word 'Berber' has derogatory connotations - in Arabic it means 'barbarian'.... Sonia, did you say that the connotation was positive? Well, I am lonely on the planet!!

We had grand plans of opening up the booklet on Paris. There was only one glitch - Paris was an hour ahead of Morocco, so we had miscalculated our arrival time. Srini and Saleela were in Radisson hotel (though in the CDG area), while I was booked in Holiday Inn. We were trying to co-ordinate between us and still make a dash to the Eifel Tower in Paris. But that was not to be... our hopes were partly dashed in Rabat airport itself. The Paris flight was delayed by an hour already and it was raining cats and dogs. Sonia, was right about the airport though, the duty free shop had exactly 25 bottles of liquor and looked like a paan shop. There was nothing else in the airport. The guy downed the shutter soon after boarding was announced, as it the announcement was for him to close the shop! By the time we reached paris, we were tired, I was hungry and we just decided to hit the sack - just go to the respective hotels so that we could catch a flight to India as soon as possible.

After 4 days of indifferent food and time zone differences, I was happy that I touched home. I quickly asked Gowri to make me a cup of strong filter coffee at 2.30 am and having had it, and having convinced myself that I was back home, I hit the sack.

Some photographs.......


Edward Ott said...

Like your writing and really like your photos. and now i really want to go to Morocco.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sriram, really interesting travelogue. And if you think you had troubles, at least you didn't have a vegetarian dog along!

Lotus Reads said...

From one book blogger to another: thought I'd just say "Hi" for now, but I do plan on returning to read your latest entry on Morocco as well as some of your book reviews.

Anonymous said...

oh, the kids on the photo are soooo cute! im planning to adopt one.. and ur writing is great as well! ;)