Casablanca, Morocco – my first encounter with real poverty

I got back from a 9 day trip to North Morocco and it seems I have been away for a month, in a completely different world. This time, I didn’t go solo. I went with one of my best friends and we decided to go with Intrepid Travel. We felt safer going on a group tour to this country – after all, two young female travelling alone in Morocco doesn’t exactly scream safe.

That was the main reason why I advocated for Intrepid – it has a young spirit, affordable tours and the itinerary covering the main northern towns of the country seemed perfect for a first visit. I do usually take a lot of pleasure out of the planning phase of the trip and I was afraid I wouldn’t be getting the chance to have my own time to explore. Thankfully, the opposite happened. We did have some tours around some towns, but mostly we were allowed to explore them by ourselves, at our own pace.

So, the first stop was Casablanca. And believe me, Casablanca is not the most welcoming town.

This was my first time travelling to a country with a culture completely different of my own. The irony of this is that Morocco is actually not that far from Portugal, and we share deep roots and History. Hard to believe it, but it is true. Casablanca was once Casa Branca (Portuguese for Casa Blanca – White House) but the Portuguese abandoned the place after the big earthquake of 1755, destroying not only Lisbon but also some important towns in Morocco, including Casablanca. Needless to say the geographical position of Casablanca would once again be of european interest, becoming in 1912 part of the French protectorate.

Casablanca has always been more of a commercial location, barely caring about tourism. And we were pretty sure about that once we landed in Mohammed V airport – where we had to wait for about 1 hour just to go through passport control. And no, this wasn’t due to big queues, but due to how slow they were working (cultural shock).

The local currency, the Moroccan Dirham, is a closed currency which means you can only get it in Morocco. Having this in mind, we were planning to withdraw some cash after landing (if you live in the UK, get Monzo – it allows a monthly money withdrawal up to £200 in foreign currency without having to pay any fees). There were two ATMs and both weren’t working. As a result, I had to exchange the £20 I had in my wallet in the exchange office so we would have cash to pay for the train ticket to the town.

You would think getting to main public transportation from the airport to the city centre would be easy. Not here – there are no signs whatsoever directing you to the train station. The entrance is indeed inside the airport, underground – ask someone as a stewardess, the only one able to tell us where the bloody train station was. Oh well… with all this, we spent almost 2 hours inside the airport, and lost the precious time we needed to visit one of the only mosques opened to non-muslims in Morocco – the Hassan II Mosque. But well, when travelling as everything in life, things not always go as you want, and you have to accept it and roll with it.

We were only able to see the Mosque from outside. It is an impressive view that I highly recommend – towering by the Atlantic ocean, it is indeed majestic so I can only imagine how it is inside. I’m still a bit sad I didn’t have the chance to visit – it is commonly thought to be the third biggest Mosque after the ones in Meca and Medina, able to accommodate over 25,000 worshippers, but I’ve also read it’s only the seventh largest.

The weather was in a foul mood, so the pictures look dark and not joyful at all. In my opinion, it does give that dramatic tone I kinda like and it was the mood I was in, if I am being honest. And imagine that with the calling for the prayer – a chant that happens 5 times a day and could be a little bit unsettling for someone like me, not used to it.

But I have to tell you about our way to the Mosque. We trusted Google Maps to lead us through the fastest route – about 30 minutes from the hotel where we were staying. And during that 30 minute walk I entered a world that was completely alien to me – a world of extreme poverty. The buildings were destroyed, decadent. The markets in the middle of the streets sold everything from food to drinks, clothings to home accessories – but is such poor conditions. Food covered with flies and dust, I was wondering how people eat that and survive. We passed streets where only men worked in diverse materials – from wood to leather, car and scooter pieces. The women to have been delegated to the inner streets.

At some point, I wasn’t even sure if we should be there. Like I was intruding. I felt uncomfortable, not sure if unsafe but at least completely out of place.

I couldn’t help thinking how close to us, and yet how far. How the only thing separating me from those women was a place of birth. How these people didn’t know anything else, so they didn’t expect anything else. They rested under ceilings that seemed about to fall on their heads – there was no impatience or sadness in their eyes. Only some sort of acceptance, with which came happiness. This was the impression I got through Morocco – I was privileged for living in a modern world, where progress made its part and where I’m able to be an independent woman, able to travel, to learn, to work. But was I happier than them?

I only had the courage to take my camera out once we got to the Mosque. The misery we had seens was just around the corner, but you could see a big elegant cafe facing the ocean, name Gatsby. Yet that wouldn’t fool me. That was the closest I had been to such poverty. By the sea, I felt a little better. I knew I had to go back, taking a similar route. But seeing how the kids played careless in the water made it even clearer to me how alike we all are. And how unfair the world to could be for making us forget that.

Love, Nic

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