Monday, April 4, 2011

Amazing Morocco

Friday, April 1, 2011

Agadir Adventure

We set the clocks back an hour last night so on the one hand we got an extra hour’s sleep but on the other, it was still dark when we got up to go a-travelin’. We were all ready early and left the ship before the 8:30 meeting time we thought we had with Abdou, today’s driver-guide. Alas, he thought we had an 8:45 meeting time and we stood in winds up to 20 knots while we dodged dust and waited for him. He had been there all the time but had not put a sign on his van. We all piled into his mini-van and headed off to see Agadir. MA and D had visited Agadir in 2001 but had had an unsatisfactory HAL tour so we were hoping for a more successful visit today.

Before we exited the port, he took us past the vast fishing fleet which was practically next to us in the commercial harbor. There were hundreds of boats of various sizes, but none was very big; some were no more than large row boats. The fleet fishes for sardines, a staple of the Agadir diet. Much of the catch is exported. Despite being Morocco’s major fishing port, Agadir’s economy depends more on tourism and agriculture. The primary crops are oranges [600,000 tons?] and tomatoes [200,000 tons?]. In an economic irony, Abdou says the country imports catsup.

We saw many men preparing their boats to go out to sea including large groups shaking out their nets so they could be folded and then thrown in the water. We also passed boats under construction. They take six months to build by hand out of eucalyptus wood.

Once we cleared the harbor, we headed up a high hill with a winding switchback road. At the top were the remains of the Kasbah, the ancient walled area of Agadir. At the parking lot where we pulled in, we were practically surrounded by camels and their owners who were trying to entice us to take a ride or pay to take their pictures. We did neither although all of us took lots of pictures of others camels; none of us was crazy enough to ride the nasty beasts. Agadir suffered through an earthquake in 1960 with the loss of 15,000 lives. The Kasbah and one small area closer to the center of town were the only places not destroyed. When we later drove through this other area, Abdou explained that it was being left as it is as a reminder of the earthquake. As a result of the totality of the damage, Agadir is a very young city, only fifty years old. It still has some dilapidated sections and it’s not pristine, but for the most part is attractive and architecturally diverse.

Descending the hill, we passed trees best known for the goats which climb them to feed. Abdou said that the goats graze on the fruit of the tree when there is nothing else for them. We did not see any goats on the hill but did see a photograph of them later in the day. As we drove around, we passed the Protestant church which had a sign out front that said just that. We passed mosques here and there; and we saw the wall around the Catholic church. Abdou said that Agadir is 70% Berber and 30% Arab but we did not ask about the religious makeup of the city.

We did know before we met him that there is a small but still active Jewish population and asked our new best friend to take us to it.[We heard from others later that there may be a second synagogue which we did not see.] A guard outside the compound told us it was closed until 6:00 tonight when there would be Sabbath services, but we hopped out so we could, at least, get photographs of the front door. As Ed says, if we don’t have a picture, we weren’t there. Lo! And behold! Someone came out of the front door and spoke with Abdou and the guard and we were suddenly inside the synagogue.

There are many reasons for visiting synagogues, not all of them religious. First, it is interesting to compare them. Like churches and cathedrals, they all reflect their location to some extent. Thus, the synagogues of the Caribbean tend to have sand floors. Not all have stained glass, but some do. Some have one altar but others have an altar where the torah is housed as well as a separate one where the rabbi conducts the service. You get the idea.

A second reason for visiting synagogues is that most people don’t. A cruise friend refers to “ABC,” by which she means “another bloody church.” There simply aren’t enough synagogues to get tired of them. In the past year, we have seen them in Barbados, Curacao, St. Petersburg and now Agadir. [We will try to see one tomorrow in Rabat, but it is Sabbath and we may not be able to enter.]

The men donned head coverings [yarmulkes]. The main sanctuary is not large. Bench seats are arranged in parallel just two rows deep. One open end faces the ark where the torah scrolls are kept. The ark was covered with tapestries. The other end is taken up by the pulpit [bima for the purists]. There is a balcony as well which is probably used by the women of the congregation. In the middle of all this are what we would call Persian carpets. We all took pictures before leaving. D offered a 5 euro note to the young man who let us in and he showed D where the donation box [the pushke] was and dropped it in while D watched. Ken went back to do the same thing when he heard that there was a box. Others from the ship entered before we left, but this definitely was not on any HAL tour. This visit made up for the one in 2001.

Ken and Lois wanted to go to the Berber market but we think they really wanted the souk, the open market like the ones in Africa. We had been rushed through last time and would have liked to see it again at our own pace, but by the time we made this clear to Abdou he was unable to get a guide to take us and seemed worried that we would get lost inside. Score one for Abdou; there was no doubt we would be there for years looking for an exit.

We did go to a Berber market but not the souk. The Berber Artisan Market was a five-story monument to tourism with fixed prices and a “no photo” policy. Prices were high and we knew we were in the wrong place when a HAL bus arrived and disgorged its litter of tourists. Their arrival was our cue to leave.

We did eventually find the t-shirts, post cards and stamps that Ken, Lois, Louise and Bill wanted. At one point while they were looking vainly for t-shirts, D walked into a neighboring shop and had a delightful time buying something-which-will-not-be-specified for one of the daughters. He was the last one back to the minivan and was castigated about being the last old lady out of the souvenir shop. It was worth it.

We also visited a shop selling products made from the oil of the goat-feeding tree. The product is called argane oil. Our visit there reminded us of visiting Punto Carpets in Istanbul two years ago – a demonstration and explanation of the oil extraction process followed by the inevitable sales pitch. One product we had to try [whether we wanted to or not] was a combination of the argane oil and eucalyptus oil; when rubbed on the hands it produced a vapor which not only cleared our sinuses but our eyeballs and maybe our colons, too.

The goat tree contains ‘nuts’ which are dried and crushed to produce the argane oil [when the goats don’t eat them]. Products available for sale included oils, creams and soaps of varying aroma and alleged health-and-beauty benefit. The shop also sold loose mint tea [a mixture of green tea and mint leaves] and spices. It was like an old-fashioned Western medicine show – Dr. Abdul’s Argane Oil Cure-All.

And all of this happened between 8:45 and 11:45!

Our last stop was on the Agadir Promenade. Like the Bund in Shanghai, this promenade follows the beach through several areas filled with shops, cafes and other entertainments. We sat on the sea wall between shopping blocks and stared at the water and the weary-looking HAL passengers who dutifully trooped off their buses and followed guides to the shopping area. In the distance we could see the motto, “God, Country, King” which was written in stone on the hillside leading to the Kasbah; we had seen it earlier [on the way to the top] but had been too close to really read it. Okay, it was in Arabic and we couldn’t read it but at least now we had some idea of its scale. Large.

We were back at the ship by 12:30, right on schedule. Despite our requests and changes to the itinerary, Abdou was a champ. We are now three-for-three with tours. We should only be this consistent at Trivia.

Lunch today was special – a fresh seafood barbecue by the Lido pool. Thom and Fermin had managed to purchase a 325 pound tuna and a 254 pound “captain fish” while in Lanzarotte. The fish were actually butchered on the Lido as we watched [from a distance]. This was without doubt the freshest seafood we have ever had. D tried both types and thought they were both well-cooked and delicious. MA had the captain fish because the tuna was rare [the way it should be] and she can’t/won’t eat it. Lunch from 12:30 – 1:15 led to Trivia at 2:00. Since some passengers went on an overnight to Marrakech, the room was not as crowded as usual. We suspect that some folks were eating a late lunch upstairs after returning from shore excursions. We managed 12/18 which was enough for second place. No unused correct answers crossed the table today – what we knew is what we wrote and what we didn’t know is also what we wrote. A sampling:

-- What was the Beatles’ only monochrome album? -- Where was tissue [think Kleenex] first used? -- What woman was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1952? -- Who wrote The Jungle Book? -- Where did Sarah Palin finish when she was in the Miss Alaska contest? -- What did the authors of Mein Kampf, Don Quixote and Pilgrim’s Progress have in common when their books were published?

And then the nap for MA while D went to the Ocean Bar and updated the journal.

Tonight we had dinner in the Pinnacle Grill for a special Imperial Dinner with Trivia-mate Sandra and her husband Alan. The menu included a smoked seafood platter or pate; borscht or salad; lobster ravioli, pork chop or tournedos of beef; and strawberry Romanov or crepes Suzette. Most had been given fancy names in line with the theme of the meal. The food was okay, but we have never been overly enthusiastic about the Pinnacle Grill on any of the HAL ships.

The show tonight was comedian Marty Brill, the first almost-famous performer we’ve seen in a long time. He has not lost a step and kept us laughing for almost an hour.

Tomorrow – Casablanca and Rabat

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Racing Around Rabat

It was another short night because we had a tour scheduled to begin today at 8:00. D went off the ship to find the driver and guide and by the time he was ready to reboard the ship, the rest of the group – MA; Ken & Lois, Bill & Louise; Arthur & Linda [the rabbi and his wife]; and Kate & Carl [the guest speaker and her husband] – were on the gangway. We drove in a fifteen-passenger van, so there was room enough for everyone without crowding.

As we drove from the Casablanca freight terminal, we saw trucks filled with bags of ammonium nitrate which is a chief constituent of fertilizers [and terrorist bombs]. Nitrate is the chief export of Morocco and most of it is shipped from Casablanca. The nitrate industry drives the country’s economy even more than tourism, agriculture or fishing.

Our first stop today was the Alger Synagogue. Linda had brought a list of six synagogues in Casablanca and this one was not on it! Although it was small in relation to many American synagogues, it claims to be the largest in Casablanca and, by extension, in Morocco. Because we were touring on a Saturday, we were afraid we would not be able to enter, but the guardian of the gate and the rabbi took pity on us and allowed us to come in. We were not able to take photographs, however, which was our loss as the sanctuary was quite beautiful. We were not permitted to stay for long as the men of the congregation were arriving for morning prayers and they did not want us interfering with them.

The gate guard did allow us to photograph through the open gate door and he was more than accommodating while we took turns taking pictures of the front of the building and, in some cases, decorations in front of the building which may have been for a bar mitvah or wedding reception. Our best guess was that it was a bar mitvah since it was Shabbat. D was able to get a picture of a bit of the interior of the synagogue by shooting through not only the front gate but also the open front door. It wasn‘t much but it was better than nothing.

In a show of ecumenism, we went next to the Hassan II mosque. We had been here in 2001 but our visit then was after dark so we had no concept of the majesty or scope of the mosque. There really are no words to describe this place. Not only is there a mosque, but there is also an entire complex of administrative and support buildings. The mosque itself features a minaret which is about 200 meters tall – that’s over 600 feet! It is the tallest minaret in Morocco and possibly in the world. At the top, there is a laser which shines at night and can be seen for 30 km, about 20 miles. The laser shines directly toward the holy city of Mecca.

Although The Bus tours were able to enter the mosque, we were not. In fact, we were so early that the exterior fountains had not yet been turned on when we arrived. Friends who came later on the HAL tour said the interior was magnificent. We did learn, however, that the interior holds over 20,000 worshippers and the plaza in front of it holds more than 80,000. The whole complex was built on the ocean’s edge so it is visible for miles.

What at first looked like tile work on the exterior of the minaret was actually intricate patterns in concrete with the insets painted green. Redouane [RED-wahn] our guide explained that green is the color of Islam and that most mosques have green in their exteriors. There was lots of tile in fountains and decorative spots around the mosque. As we stood gawking at the Hassan II mosque, we saw people coming and going, some with small children; it was a busy place.

Historical note: The mosque was built in 1999, started by Hassan II and finished under the reign of his son, the current king, Mohammad VI. The current dynasty has been in power for approximately 400 years. Mohammad VI is in his 40s and is very popular with the people; eventually his son, Hassan, will become king. Although there have been some small demonstrations urging more democracy, the royal family is in no danger. First, there has been none of the oppression seen in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt because the country is more of a constitutional monarchy. Many people would like it to be a real constitutional monarchy but that will a slow process since the king essentially writes and/or amends the constitution. Just as important, and reminiscent of Tudor England, the king is also considered the head of the Islamic religion in Morocco. Although there is no discrimination against non-Muslims, the country is definitely a secular Islam one. For example, the flag has a red background with a green star in the center. The green color is for Islam and the five points on the star represents the Five Pillars of Islam [look them up yourselves].

We hustled from the Hassan II to the van and then through the city to reach the highway to Rabat. It almost an hour’s ride from Casablanca and Redouane kept up a steady narration about Morocco and Islam, answering questions without a problem. His English was good and no one had trouble understanding him. We passed smaller towns which someday might merge into metropolitan Casablanca; saw commercial construction; and passed lots of sheep and cattle with an occasional goat grazing in fields by the roadside. We did not see any agricultural fields, however.

Where Casablanca resembled a dilapidated Paris, the roadside to Rabat could have been anywhere except for the diversity of clothing. There is no government mandate that women dress conservatively, but most wore either full caftans or head coverings. In the cities, there were more women visible in Western styles. In all cases, though, the children were fully Westernized as were most of the men. Some of the men wore flowing djilabalas over their shirts and pants; very few were dressed exclusively in traditional robes. Redouane had a custom-made silk djilabala complete with hood which he wore all day.

The highway to Rabat was a toll road [think Delaware Turnpike] and there was periodic construction, so it wasn’t so different that being in Florida. At regular intervals, we saw groupings of three Moroccan flags by the side of the road. Although there were no pictures of Mohammad VI to be seen, the national flag was ever-present. We also passed miles and miles of mimosa trees bearing orange blooms and “Atlantic pines” which, we were told, are not pines at all.

Finally we entered “new” Rabat, the city outside the city. Here we could see many commercial buildings and enterprises mixed in with a string of new car dealerships which stretched for perhaps a mile. We passed abandoned Jewish and Christian cemeteries side by side. They are still being maintained despite the fact that most of the families have long been gone from Rabat. Redouane said that there are no Jews left in Rabat [unlike Casablanca] but that some have continued to hold title to property “just in case.” Similarly, there is some Jewish tourism because families will come back to visit the cemetery. Most of the Jews left in the early 1950s following the creation of Israel although some went to other countries.

Our first stop in Rabat was the royal palace, one of several throughout the country. While Rabat is the administrative capital of Morocco, there are other capitals as well and the king has palaces throughout the country. In Rabat, at least, the palace is a complex of low buildings including an official residence; government offices; servants’ housing; mosques and other buildings. It is reminiscent of the Bachchissary [sp?] palace we saw in Ukraine two years ago and nothing like the castles of Western Europe. We had a long walk over hot blacktop because security forbids stopping in front of the residence. It was 90 degrees or so and Louise was grateful that the footing was smooth. It wouldn’t be later.

Although we were able to watch as the red-uniformed guards marched out of the residence, we did not see the actual changing of the guard. Overall, there was not much to see as far as we were concerned and it was a bit boring.

We visited the mausoleum of Mohammad V and his son, Hassan II. Housed in a beautiful white marble building, the crypt is actually at ground level but visitors must climb the equivalent of two flights of steps to enter the building. At the upper level, the building is a hollow rectangle filled with marvelous tile work on the walls. Visitors can look over a railing at the marble coffins of Mohammad V, Hassan II and Hassan’s brother. There are attendants in each corner dressed in traditional garb, but they are relaxed rather than threatening. There are also “guards” at each of the entrances as well as Mounties at the street entrance. None of the guards objected to having photos taken and some of our group even posed with them while spouses took pictures.

There was a large plaza in front of the mausoleum although it was nothing like the one at the mosque in Casablanca. It was filled with large but unfinished columns which were originally meant to hold the roof which was never built. They were spaced so regularly that they looked like they were standing at attention. At the far end of the plaza was another minaret, this one obviously old. They mausoleum site may have been selected because of the presence of this minaret. It now has loudspeakers installed at the top for the call to prayers at the mosque which was built adjacent to the mausoleum. Once again we were practically in the ocean and could see where Rabat’s river flowed into the sea. On a bluff in the distance, we could see our next destination.

We discovered early in our adventure that lunch was not included in the tour today, another miscommunication for which D paid severely. Actually, no one seemed too upset as it turned out. We went from the mausoleum to another Kasbah, a walled enclave which was once a fortification. Redouane said that it was now an artists’ colony but we saw no evidence of that. We did see lots of uneven steps and cobbled streets which were, once again, difficult for Louise to traverse. We saw very narrow “streets” which would not have been wide enough for a car and walked up and then down before coming to Redouane’s destination – a small plaza with covered seating where we could get drinks and snacks [on our own dinar]. While most of the now-weary travelers requested mint tea, MA and D opted for the Drink of the Gods, real Coca Cola. The proprietor also offered almond pastries which included, but were not limited to, almond macaroons and baklava. Everything was 1 euro each regardless of what it was. For 6 euros, basically, we had lunch.

We left the little café and walked through a formal garden of trees and bushes, not flowers, to reach the street and our van. The path was rough but Louise has been a trouper on all of our tours so far and managed to get up the steps to street level. Bill, her husband, is no stranger to her determination and needs, but Ken has been Johnny-on-the-spot at every stop for the past two days, making sure that Louise is okay.

We drove through what was described in all of the research material as the Jewish mellah. “Mellah” is the Arabic word for salt and the Jewish quarters in both Casablanca and Rabat at called mellah because at one point the Jews had a monopoly on the salt trade. The mellah was just another run-down neighborhood with no distinguishing characteristics save for balconies on the fronts of the flats. Several properties had turned to ruins but these, we were told, still belonged to the Jewish families who had left. The others, which were none too good either, had been sold. There are no Jews living in Rabat and no real way to see that they were ever there except for the cemetery.

It was time to return to Casablanca and the ship, so we retraced our ride on the toll road and headed to the center of the city. We arrived at United Nations Plaza where we saw, among other things, the HAL shuttle bus. We meandered the area for a bit looking at French architecture and just absorbing the life of the big city, for that’s all Casablanca is – a big European-style city which needs paint. Several members of the group wanted to shop so we ended up at a prix fixe shop [where we discovered HAL bus #13]. What they really wanted was the souk or native market but they were already off the bus before D could stop them. By the time everyone had finished looking or buying, there was too little time for either the covered market across the street or the open-air souk. More meandering through Casablanca brought us home to the Prinsendam at 3:00, right on schedule.

We hustled to the cabin, dropped the travel bag, picked up the Trivia bag and went to the Ocean Bar. We should have eaten lunch instead. Linda wasn’t back from the Marrakech overnight trip but Louise joined us for thirty minutes of fun but not enough correct answers.

We checked e-mail after getting iced lattes and found a message from Roxanne saying that HAL seemed to have reversed its position on travel to Egypt. D wrote back “Too Late!” and we went to the room just in time to hear the captain announce that we would be going to Egypt. We are back on the original itinerary. No one is upset at missing Dubrovnik if it means we get to the Pyramids. D went back to the computer center and e-mailed both the Israeli and Egyptian tour agencies to alert them to the change.

What a great day!

Moroccan night in the MDR found lots of people in caftans or djalabalas. Even D wore a fezzy-sort of thing he bought on the pier when we returned. The show was a jazz pianist who played be-bop, stride and ragtime numbers and who was really quite good.

We had to set the clocks back tonight, losing the hour we gained in Morocco, so we will sleep late tomorrow.

Tomorrow – A much-needed day at sea

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