Now that I am in Marrakech, it is down to work. Yesterday was completely full for me with project concerns and planning, while Josh explored the city a little bit and enjoyed spa treatments at our hotel. It was raining all day yesterday, so I didn’t really feel like I was missing out so much on the sight-seeing anyway. Speaking of our hotel (Hivernage), it is pretty high quality (although not the most beautiful design), especially the food. They have by far the best breakfast I have so far experienced in Morocco, and dinner at their restaurant is also top notch. Today will be another full workday for me, although I will probably take a lunch break with Josh to show him around the Jardin Majorelle.
Today was mostly a driving day for Josh and I on our way to Marrakech (where I have a few days of work). Since we had to drive through Casablanca anyway, we decided to stop and see one of the world’s largest mosques, the Hassan II, which was completed in 1993. It is apparently the only mosque in Morocco that is open to non-muslims, partially to make its operation self-funding. It is an extremely impressive edifice, and I have to admit to being quite awed by the scale and design and craftsmanship of it.
From Hassan II Mosque
Last night, on a few internet recommendations, we decided to mix it up a bit and go for a meal at a restaurant/riad in the center of the Medina, so I called to make a reservation and ask them to come fetch us (which their facebook page said they would do). We were a little surprised when it turned out to be a French woman who came to get us and take us back to what turned out to be her riad. She was quite chatty all the way there and through dinner and we learned that she had been in Meknes for 6 years and was in the process of moving riads, so the menu was a little reduced. We were also the only ones there for some time, when a Spanish couple arrived in the middle of our meal, which made us feel a little better about our choice. We had pumpkin soup and various salads, which were ok, nothing special, and then for the main course a camel tajine that was surprisingly good. All during the meal she would come to the table and start monologues about living in Meknes, and how it was difficult for her, and that there were many forces arrayed against her. She spent a fair amount of time talking about the corruption, and the difficulty of finding good help. She told us that her current helper was number 79 (and she referred to many of the others by their number and deficiencies). She also spent a fair amount of time telling us about being attacked by boys with stones in a southern town that is supposedly part of the cocaine drug trade, and how many people are terrified of walking alone in this country, but not her. By the end of the meal, we were in a hurry to get out of there and away from her, she seemed a bit unhinged. One of the best parts of eating out at her place was the winding path of the medina we were led through on the way there and on the way back, in the dark of night.
This morning Josh and I set out by car from Meknes to see a couple of sites about 30 minutes north of the city. I should stop here and tell you that I think (so far) renting a car was a really great thing to do, not at all because of the rental experience itself (kind of a pain) but because we really have been able to set our own pace and see some of the very beautiful countryside. This is especially true at the moment I imagine, as the rainy winter months make all the hills especially green and lush.
The first site we went to was the excavated colonial roman town of Volubilis. The place was shockingly intact, and it really gives one a full impression of a roman era city. There are many types of public and private building, clear street grid, some great mosaics, and beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. In addition, there are several great vantage points around the site that give you a spectacular view and clear sense of the whole. It is a shame that a lot of the stone was apparently looted over the years by rulers in nearby towns for their own building, one wonders what it would have been like had these remained. I strongly recommend a visit, it is really a fascinating place.
After that, we stopped over for a bit on the nearby (10 min by car) town of Moulay Idriss, which is a lovely hill town with maze like streets running all over. While it was quite picturesque and worth exploring the streets, the most beautiful sites in the town are not open to non muslims and so alas we could not enter. It is worth stopping in the town if one if visiting nearby Volubilis, but I would not make a special trip to see it alone.
It was pretty easy to get parked and find our riad (Felloussia) once we arrived in Meknes, despite it being inside the winding streets of the medina. We then went out and gave Josh his first taste of a real medina (the one in Rabat, as I said, was pretty easy to navigate). As is normal for someone’s first time in the winding maze of such a place, I think he got a little uncomfortable at one point when it wasn’t clear how we would ever find our way out. As I have mentioned previously though, even though it is less than perfect, the combo of google maps and GPS makes navigating way easier than in past eras. We then came back to a truly excellent dinner tajine prepared by our riad. I had the beef and prune one and Josh had chicken and citrus. Both were some of the best I have ever had.
This morning Josh and I took a few hours to walk around Rabat, primarily through the medina and the kasbah. The medina of Rabat is a quite simple affair, very easy to navigate in compared to Marrakech or Fes, but it was a nice intro for Josh to the souk chaos. After making our way through we found a lovely cemetery on a hill overlooking the ocean, and then meandered over to the kasbah where we were assaulted by several touts and schemes. After wandering around the kasbah for a little bit, we went in to see the palace and some guy forced a hurried and awful tour on us, and then tried to shake us down for a huge sum (which we refused). Other than that though, it was all super cool and totally worth a visit.
Josh and I finished part one of our Amsterdam trip (we are returning on the 26th for 2 more days) with a canal boat tour, then made our way to the airport by train. The Schiphol airport was as close to deserted as I have ever seen, which was nice, but our flight to Casablanca was somehow pretty full. I have to pause here and say a word about the food on Royal Air Maroc, it is quite remarkable. Remarkable in the sense that is bar none the worst airline food around. And that is saying something. It seems they inherited a bunch of frozen dinners from other airlines leftover from the 70s, and are reheating them until they run out. Their fleet of aircraft is likewise from the same era, so perhaps they got a deal on both together. Once we arrived in Casablanca, I negotiated through the highly chaotic scene at the cell phone service booth (these places always have tons of people screaming and waving their arms) and walked away with all the cell phone service, texting, and (most importantly) unlimited internet we will need on our road trip here. After that we went to pick up our rental car, another adventure since the guy was not at the booth. I had to call a number and he seemed kind of pissed that he had to come give us the car we reserved. Then he tried to change the price, then told us we had to pay cash (we refused), then gave us a car that had no gas in the tank and told us that was normal. My advice to those of you wanting to rent a car in Morocco in the future: go with one of the big name companies only, even though they cost a lot more. In any event, we remained cool as cucumbers, gassed up the car, and made it to our hotel in the center of Rabat. Tomorrow we will explore Rabat a little before moving on to Meknes.
The project I have to do here in Marrakech is related (as so many things in Marrakech are) to French expatriates who came here many years ago. Many of them were (or are) in the fashion industry, and this place has a rich history that interweaves their stories with the stories of Morocco and the stories of the fashion world, its inspirations, history, and gossip. So several of the people around me are quite familiar with that world where I alas am not. And in conversation, they often drop names of people who are central to this history, and whom I suppose are quite famous, but whom I have never heard of. I try not to stare so blankly and make a mental note to look them up later, hoping I can figure out the spelling or last names when only the first are used. Still, I have to admit that one of the reasons I enjoy working with diverse clients is to learn something about their interests, their work, and their worlds. Today is my last day in Marrakech, for tomorrow I fly to Casablanca at 4am(!) and after a few hours layover, back to New York. This trip has been fantastic, but I am ready to be home.
I have long been fascinated and often frustrated by the seeming inability to make what seem like standard technical processes in the US or Europe work as expected in places like Morocco (or India, or other “developing” countries). To take one example from yesterday, WiFi connectivity. It was constantly dropping even though I was close and had a strong signal. It would ask for passwords that had already been entered. It would slow to a crawl very often. It would disappear from the network and then reappear sometime later. This is a technology that has been in use for many years, and it has a set of technical standards attached to its use. It is used millions of times over in countless places. In theory, this is not something that should be so unreliable here. But then you realize that technologies like WiFi (and many others) rely not just on the standardized equipment, but are based on a huge array of invisible items that go into making it so plug-and-play in places like the US:
1. WiFi internet connectivity is only as good and fast as the phone company or cable company or satellite company that supplies it on the other end. In the US, there are many fallbacks and safeguards that improve reliability, and these have been developed over many years.
2. Following on from the above, investment in the underlying telephone network. Capital improvements for things like this seem to happen rarely here and when it does rollout is beset by all kinds of corruption and delay. Often countries like Morocco are sold aging equipment and techniques that are no longer in use by their former colonial overlords (France) and sold to them by the same.
3. Technical expertise setting up networks. There are very few people here who have formal training in these things and they often are flying by the seat of their pants. They are reluctant to ever admit not knowing something for fear of losing a valued contract, and they often patch together these networks in ways they should not.
4. Places like Morocco and India do not have strict building codes, or they are not enforced. This results in the built environment often interfering with the signals through shoddy electrical wiring. They also tend to be places where, because of environmental conditions, they built quite thick concrete or stone walls which make it challenging to get a WiFi signal through.
I have to admit I didn’t expect to be back in Morocco this soon after my first trip 6 months ago. But this time I am here for work, so it is a bit more formal. The hotel they have put me up in is a western style boutique hotel, and it is nicely designed with a lot of nice touches, even as I am reminded of the chaos of certain places (there was a dog barking loudly just outside my not very soundproofed window much of the night). I am staying til Sunday, at which point I will finally head back to New York. After more than a month on the road, I am ready (even though I am excited to be back in Morocco).