Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Morocco: Casablanca

I've always had Morocco on my list of places to visit (granted, pretty much the whole world is on that list), but it was a back burner kind of place. I figured I'd get there when I got there. Enter the need to get away from Beirut for a short time in January and the ease of a direct flight and a tour that lined up with my dates, interests, and price range, and voila! Morocco in January.

The tour began on a Thursday, but the way the flights worked out I had to either fly Monday night or get in super laterThursday night. My boss was amenable to the extra days (thanks C!), so a longer stay it was. I initially had grand plans of going to Tangiers, and Gibraltar, and Chefchaouen, and I still want to visit all three places, but the timing just didn't make sense, especially on my first days in a new country. So I decided to have a relaxing few days in a nice hotel.

The flight was fine in retrospect, though the lack of entertainment was a bit annoying. I sailed through customs and immigration, but my transfer wasn't waiting for me. Turns out they were in another terminal, and I didn't know there was another terminal. They found me eventually, and the drive to the hotel was fairly quick. I checked in, ensured breakfast was included in my rate, checked in with my parents, and slept.  

Tuesday was a day of rest and recuperation, bookended by a lovely breakfast and a very tasty dinner. I took advantage of reliable internet and updated all of my software and all those other important things that fall by the wayside when internet is awful as well as indulged in a nap. I was a bit disappointed at dinner to find that the entire menu relied extremely heavily on truffles and foie gras, two foods I really hate. But I was able to eat around these ingredients and have a lovely meal.

Wednesday I ventured out and visited Hassan II Mosque, the third largest in the world (after those in Mecca and Medina) and absolutely gorgeous inside and out. I arrived too late for the last morning tour so instead had lunch before doing the interior tour.

Lunch was at Rick's Cafe, which was highly recommended to me by friends who served in Casablanca. I've never actually seen the move 'Casablanca' so much of the nostalgia was lost on me, but the ambiance and service were superb, and the food was fabulous. I had a delicious duck breast with puréed celery root - so tasty!

I arrived a bit early at the mosque for the afternoon tour but had plenty of time to wander around and take exterior photos and marvel at the cats and the architecture and the views of the Atlantic. The mosque, completed in 1993 after only six years of construction, is built on a site partially reclaimed from the ocean and was funded in large part by public donation. The overwhelming majority of the materials, including the marble and cedar wood, are sourced from Morocco, and it's a remarkably stunning building. 

Our tour guide was a lovely woman who stayed uncovered, an example of Morocco's moderate stand on religion and freedom of personal choice. She was a great guide, giving all the stats and facts but also some fun stories and anecdotes. We had time to wander the giant prayer hall (which can accommodate 25,000 worshippers) and admire the extreme attention to detail in the carvings and ceilings and decor. The roof is retractable, and I'd love to see it open and with natural light. Only a few of the opulent Venetian glass chandeliers were lit, and it would be fascinating to see them all fully lit as well. 

After the prayer hall we visited the ablution room and the - to date unused - hammam before the tour ended. I took a taxi back to the hotel and had a simple room service dinner. Tomorrow - to Rabat!

Hassan II Mosque

Courtyard details

Gorgeous minaret on a lovely, blue sky day

Lovely colors and detail

Detail above the exterior doors

Doors, made with titanium

Some of the mosque's resident cats

A frisky kitten

Sleepy time

The beautiful prayer hall

The mihrab and minbar; the marble on those two columns is among the only non-Moroccan material in the Mosque (Carrera marble from Italy)

The retractable roof, made from cedar wood

The speakers are camouflaged on pillars - see the white box in the middle of the photo.

Gorgeous mosaic details

Close up of the door detail

Ablution room


fountain with mosaic

Exterior fountain

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Morocco: An Unexpected Wonder

I'm starting this post on the plane back from Casablanca to Beirut, though I'd forgotten that my iPad keyboard needs Bluetooth and is thus not functional right now so we'll see how far I get typing on the touch pad.

In the coming days (let's face it, weeks, given my photo upload speeds) I will post the blogs about my two weeks in Morocco. But. I wanted to preface that series with a note about how much I enjoyed this trip, especially given how little I was looking forward to it. 

I don't do a lot of group tours because I usually prefer to have my own schedule and flexibility to adapt things, but this seemed like the best way to see (most) of what I wanted to see in Morocco in the time available and without breaking the budget. I had never used Gate1 before, though they'd always been floating in the background as a possibility. My first choice had been G Adventures, but they canceled their January departure for lack of participants so I was open to other options. Gate1 is indeed a big bus tour company, but their attention to detail and guide quality are superb and set them apart. My only complaint is lack of down time, but I also opted for all optional tours. I think an extra free day in the desert at the favorite hotel would be a perfect addition to this tour, the 13 day Kaleidoscope of Morocco.

So the company is a strong one, the guide and driver and bus assistant were top notch, but we also had a small and cohesive group of tour mates. Only three of us were traveling alone but I felt like everybody was always included by everybody else, and it was a group of seasoned travelers. Nobody smoked, nobody was ever late, and nobody was crazy. You know there's always one of each on a tour, and sometimes it's the same person destined to drive everybody else nuts. But we were supremely lucky, and I felt like I got to hang out with and get to know every single person. That was an unexpected bonus of the trip, and it went a long way to overcome my low expectations for this adventure.

We also had perfect weather with only a couple hours of rain one day and comfortable temperatures throughout. I never needed the coat I brought, though many others wore theirs. You couldn't
ask for a better time to be in the Sahara - we really lucked out all the way around. Plus there weren't droves of tourists, even in the major tourist centers. There were some, but it wasn't
crushing throngs of people.

And then there's Morocco itself. I hadn't realized how socially progressive, theologically moderate, and relatively stable the country is. From family planning to eliminating plastic bags to finding unique ways to educate the entire populace, including rural and semi-nomadic people they have some great ideas and initiatives. It's not perfect, but I was very impressed throughout the weeks on a number of fronts.

But what really brings people back to Morocco over and over again are the people and the places. We had fabulous interactions with people from all regions and social and cultural/ethnic strata which greatly enriched the experiences. Plus it's just plain gorgeous, from the mountains to the plains to the valleys to the desert to the sea to the cities. There's something for everyone. Two weeks was enough to scratch the surface, and I hope you enjoy this series on this fascinating and rich country. 

Edited to add photos of some of my treasures:

Gorgeous hand-pounded enameled brass plate from Ouarzazate.

Lovely carpet from Fez!

The first of two kilims in complementary colors/designs

The Griffin seal of approval

The second kilim

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

South Luangwa - Final Day

I just finished my last official game drive in South Luangwa (not counting the quicker drive to the airport in Mfuwe later on). It was a beautiful morning, but there just wasn't much game about other than the common animals - and seemingly fewer of them than we've been seeing.

Highlights were elephants again going crazy for the wild mango fruits, a water monitor lizard eating, and a silly young elephant who wasn't paying attention to where he was running and didn't see our vehicle until the last minute. He visibly jumped, turned tail, and ran away to find his mom, trumpeting all the way.

I'm almost packed, just need to take a final shower after lunch and change clothes, and my iPhone and iPad are charging for the final leg of the journey home. I've absolutely loved it here, but I am excited to see my cats and sleep in my own bed. I think this was the perfect amount of time away, as I feel refreshed and rejuvenated. I had a tough few months prior to this and so really needed to disengage. And this has certainly been what I needed; I stuck to my vow not to check work emails at all. I may start peeking in airports on the way back, but that will be mostly to triage.

Zambia is a lovely country with warm, friendly people and amazing natural beauty. I think I could happily serve in Lusaka. It's a small city with not a ton to do, but it has my favorite South African brands and has decent weather and is close to lots of great safari destinations. I asked a lot of questions of the other family about life in Lusaka, and they were very positive. I'm always scoping out future posts!

South Luangwa has been wonderful for its leopards and the night drives - that combination is unique, and I'd love to come back. We explored some areas of the park on this morning's drive that I hadn't previously seen, and these were gorgeous as well. I love the Sanctuary brand, but I also scoped out some other options that are much more affordable on a non-super-splurge trip. 

Anyway, I'll sign off now and head up for my final lunch at Chichele.

Baboon and baby

Scavenging wild mangos

Crested crane


Another land monitor


Very contentedly caked in mud

Shy bushbuck 
Feeling us out