We left our apartment at 10:59 pm with one book bag apiece, our passports, and the tiredness of a long week at work weighing on our shoulders.
“Are you sure we’re not too old to be doing this? I’m barreling towards 30. And you? Well…”
“Even if we were, it’s too late to turn back. The tickets are booked.”
And they were. Two plane tickets to carry us a few hours north, over the formellement déconseillé and the déconseillé sauf raison impérative zones of Mauritania—those ares that the French government has strongly advised not traveling to, due to terrorist activities. Crossing the Sahara under the cover of night by plane seemed a much more reasonable mode of travel, juxtaposed Gabriel’s suggestion: hitchhike on the iron ore train, which is apparently a thing.
We had no reservations and no plans—only a return ticket that would carry us back to Dakar at the end of our holiday.
By 5:30 am, after an endless night of traveling by taxi, bus and plane (with little sleep), we stepped out of the airport and caught our first glimpse of it: Morocco. That exotic country, romantically painted by novelists, artists, travel bloggers and musicians, alike.
What would it become for us? An offering of bewitching spices, smooth silks, mesmerizing mosaics, and alluring medinas? A patch of green, at the northern tip of our desert?
The first thing it became was rain. But instead of fretting over the damp weather (and whether our photos would look washed-out from overcast skies), we rejoiced in the smell of fresh precipitation. We haven’t seen rain in Dakar since late September.
A friend of our colleague and travel companion, who previously lived and worked in Morocco, kindly picked us up from the airport, welcoming us with pain du chocolat (chocolate croissants) and water bottles. She took us in the direction of the city centre, where we hopped out on a sidewalk and started walking around with the hope of finding a hostel and nap.
Little more than 30 minutes later, we were nestled in the covers of a warm bed. And while my 29-year-old body wanted to sleep all day and recover from our all-nighter, I reluctantly set an alarm to wake up only an hour later.
As Gabriel so lovingly put it, “we can sleep when we’re dead.” In the meantime, there was too much to see, eat, do and write about. Because we had landed ourselves in Casablanca.
First item on the exploration list: find food. And because we were where we were, where else to dine than at Rick’s Cafe?
“Gabe… I don’t know. Should we?”
“It’s an iconic thing to do in Casablanca. It’s within walking distance, and it’s opening soon. Why shouldn’t we?”
“Um, maybe because neither of us have ever seen the movie and if we go, I’ll have to write about it on the blog. And…”
“And… then I’ll have to admit to the world that I’ve never seen Casablanca.”
The interior of the restaurant was charming, with warm dark woods contrasting white-washed walls and pops of gold from traditional Moroccan fixtures. As our host sat us by an old piano with a large smile, I was under the impression we were given special seats of honor, as the first guests of the lunch hour. And as more guests arrived and took turns posing at the piano for photos, I could only assume the old instrument held some significant value in the movie. (Are you cringing at my ignorance yet?)
The waitstaff spoke English, which is always a small treat. And the prices, despite dining in a tourist trap, were much less than what we pay for an average meal in Dakar. Between the roasted duck with fruit chutney, goat cheese croquettes with honey, lavender, and crushed almonds, and the John Dory pepper mignonette with thyme, it was difficult to settle on what to eat. While we waited for the meal to be prepared, we were served warm bread, fresh from the oven, and baked with dried fruits and nuts.
Eager for the meal to come, we kept our eyes on the kitchen. An appropriate amount of time passed before our dishes appeared.
His: Black pepper seared filet, dauphines potatoes, spice
Hers: Roasted lamb shank, sesame caramelized prunes, saffron rice
Embracing Moroccan culture, we took on a relaxed dining pace, ordering mint tea after the meal was complete. We sat back to enjoy our last few minutes in Rick’s Cafe, puzzling the meaning behind certain architectural details that seemed to capture other guests’ attention—the curved arches, balconies and stenciled brass lighting.
We made two monumental decisions over tea. The first, to watch Casablanca upon our return to Dakar. The second, to walk off the large meal we had just devoured. Leaving Rick’s, our feet took us on a meandering path that eventually led to the Hassan II Mosque.
Standing 210 meters tall and built partially on land, partially on the sea, the colossal mosque can accommodate more than 25,000 people and is one of the largest mosques in the world. It took several minutes for us to walk around two sides of its exterior. I found my eyes bouncing left to right, up to down, as I took in its sheer breadth and marveled at the tiny details within its facet.
We’re no strangers to mosques. Living in a muslim country, we see them in every neighborhood. But even Dakar’s largest mosque could have fit multiple times inside of Hassan II. After visiting other mosques in the West Bank and Jordan—including the Cave of the Patriarchs, or Ibrahimi Mosque, where the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah are thought to be—we didn't feel the urge to pay €16/person to see the interior of Hassan II Mosque, which was only built in 1992. Instead, we appreciated the exterior architecture and stayed outside, pointing out the traditional arches, mosaic tiles and intricate designs that caught our eyes.
The sky was clearing and we decided a stroll through Casablanca’s medina might be next in order. Under the shadow of Hassan II’s minaret, we veered away from the affluence of the coastline and into the other Casablanca—the local Casa, where everyday Moroccans shopped for fruits and vegetables, clothes, dried spices and Arabic sweets.
Losing ourselves in the labyrinth of footpaths that ran between the narrow space of towering apartments, we wandered for some time, taking in the sights, sounds and smells.
Not wanting to actually lose our way, we kept the minaret in sight and gradually worked our way back to the coast and to Casablanca’s promenade, where we spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening observing graffiti artists create visual messages on concrete walls along the walkway by the water.
Ahead, Casablanca's port grew in size. Not nearly as large or as deep as Dakar's port, the sight of shipping containers and large freight ships offered a moment of homesickness for Senegal. Waves crashed against the manmade sea wall that kept Casablanca’s coastline from eroding into the Atlantic, as fishermen sat on top of the giant concrete jax, hoping to catch grub for dinner.
That night at 10 pm—only 23 hours and 9.2 walked kilometers since our journey first started—I sat in bed, desperately wanting to sleep. For someone who requires 7-8 hours of shut-eye each night, the one hour morning nap I took felt weeks in the past. Instead, we pulled out city maps and public transportation routes of Morocco. Plotting our next move, we made a plan for the following 24 hours.
It's how we approached the entire trip—24 hours at a time. And the plan for Day 2 was this: hop a train and be in a new city, with new things to see and new things to do and new things to eat, by lunchtime...
Moms, Dads, and Grandma—thank you for making this adventure possible. We wish you could have come with us, but we’ll just have to take you there through the blog instead. – G + S