From Casablanca with Love
I have always wanted to visit Morocco. Oddly enough, when the opportunity presented itself, I almost didn’t take it because I was upset with how my Christmas plans were going. I had been looking at the flier for the Moroccan trip on Instagram but I didn’t feel any excitement for the chance to visit the land of the Berbers or to shop at a souk. The only motivation was that I would not be alone at Christmas in the same house that almost a year ago, I had been unceremoniously jilted; very much like the Christmas of 2011. Cut to December 24 – I’m in Casablanca. It’s still dark outside – the view from my hotel room is amazing and I’m thinking of the adventure-within-an-adventure I had just trying to get to Morocco.
I’m a master planner and I make lists for everything. The trip to Morocco was no different – one list for clothes and another for shopping. By three p.m. on the twenty-second, I was awake to finish packing, tidy up my laundry and clean my house. I am superstitious about having a dirty house when the New Year rolls in. When the taxi cab came to pick me up, I decided, on a whim, that I needed to get more money from the bank. I had enough money for a plane ticket to Lagos (the Casablanca flight was from Lagos) so why did I need more Naira? It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was cutting it close by travelling from Abuja to Lagos on 22 December as I was expected to be on a flight to Morocco by 6am the next day.
The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport is a nightmare at Christmas. Flights are regularly cancelled and tickets are hard to get without prior booking or online purchase. As expected NAIA was a mad house. There were only business class tickets left on the last flight of my (then) preferred airline. Thank God I had that extra cash! I bought one and checked in and settled down for the four-hour wait for my 18:15 flight.
Cut to 23:00. I was on the queue to board the plane, thanking God that I had the sense to leave the lounge and hang out around the boarding gate. My flight was never announced over the public address system. The nine hour wait at the airport would have been more soul-crushing if I hadn’t been in the VIP lounge. I got to enjoy air-conditioning. I could stretch out and sleep on one of the couches. I could charge my phone. The staff were friendly and concerned that I had been waiting for so long. Best of all, there was a clean toilet! A couple of times, it crossed my mind that “one could get used to this VIP lifestyle of a something!” Most of the time, however, I was in turmoil. I texted with friends without disclosing my situation. Each time I thought about how long I had been sitting around, tears welled up, and I didn’t want to cry in front of anyone. At some point, I knew I had to change my attitude if I wanted to feel better about The Wait. I played my Optimism Game: “The good thing about arriving Lagos so late is that I wouldn’t need to leave the airport to stay at a hotel. The good thing about staying at the airport is that I would not spend money on a hotel. The good thing about not spending the night at a hotel is that I wouldn’t oversleep and miss my flight to Casablanca.”
A Tale of Two Mogadors
Bright lights and a warm pink façade welcomed us as our tour bus rounded the corner. I felt a flood of relief. We had been driving for about three hours and tempers were shortening – at least mine was. Arriving at the Mogador Palace Agdal in Marrakech marked the second leg of my Moroccan adventure. The day before, 23 December, the A-Bay tour group had landed in Casablanca from Lagos and after a quick lunch and some currency exchange, we went to our hotel, Mogador Marina.
Both hotels are as different from each other as the cities they are in. In Casablanca, we were met with white walls and clean lines that reflect the tall white buildings all over the city. A smiling waiter approached our group with a very welcome kettle of tea which he poured ceremoniously, in long pulls into ornate tea glasses, rather like the pouring technique of the mai shai in Northern Nigeria. In Marrakech, we were treated to traditional music and, for a token, we posed for photos with the musicians. The Mogador Palace Agdal fulfilled the romantic fantasy I had of Morocco. A large chandelier as the centerpiece of the large lobby set the mood perfectly. I spent quite a lot of time sitting beneath that mini-sun looking at the intricate detailing on the ceiling and walls. I am not exaggerating when I say that the hotel is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
I noticed a good number of hotels in Marrakech, a few of which are called Mogador (I went online and discovered that there are seven Mogador hotels in Marrakech alone!). With its rich history and well-preserved structure, Marrakech is a mecca of sorts for tourists. Our A-Bay Tour group spent hours milling around the Medina (which is a UNESCO heritage site) and the souk, haggling loudly as we shopped.
There were few opportunities for me to practice my broken French because most of the hotel staff and vendors I interacted with spoke English. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the vendors at the souk could haggle in a few other languages!
In the week that I spent in Morocco, I got the sense that Moroccans are proud of their heritage and that is why it is easy for them to showcase it to the world with no excuses or pandering or the sort of over-translating and transcribing I sometimes see in Nigeria.
Christmas morning in Marrakech was crisp and cold. This was nothing like the Harmattan cold I was used to – and in the 1990s, it got pretty cold. At least in Jaji and Kano, there was hope that the afternoons would be warm. To me, this was winter – and at 7 degrees Celsius, I’m sure that meets global winter standards.
Wrapped up and booted, I joined the rest of the tour group for our trip to the Square and a walking tour around the souk, the Koutoubia Mosque and the Bahia Palace. As we walked and stopped every few minutes for selfies, our guide told us legends about the city: how it was founded, why it was called the Red City, and the generous zakat paid by a favourite queen, Bahia – upon missing a single day of fasting, the queen made amends by donating all of her gold jewellery to the Koutobia mosque. The gold was used to mould the orb at the tip of the mosque’s minaret.
We visited the royal Saadian tombs famous for intricate pale walls and ceilings. It appeared to me that in Moroccan architectural design the idea is to draw one’s eyes heavenwards. No ceiling or panel prepared me for the intensity of the Bahia Palace courtyard. Stepping out of the pavilion into the natural light of the uncovered square, I felt that I were walking on sunshine. A fellow traveler put it perfectly: “It’s like we walked into a 3D screen.” Our guide had told us that Marrakech receives so much sunlight, that all buildings are required by law to be red to dampen the light “or we would all be blind.”
Christmas Dinner and a Show
I was nervous about Christmas dinner.
It might be the most wonderful time of the year but it can also be emotionally tasking for me. It is part of the reason I was determined to do something different for Christmas 2017. When dinner time came around, I didn’t know what to expect – just that we were to wear “something nice” and we would miss our reservation at the Comptoir Darna if we didn’t leave the hotel on time. The pressure was mounting!
As it turned out, there was no need for anxiety. The restaurant was intimately lit and had the sort of deep, dark décor that I love. The wait staff looked smart and spic in black. While waiting for our orders (lobster ravioli and the smoothest, most delicious mashed potatoes since my mother’s Christmas fare), the musicians returned from their break with heady rousing Moroccan music.
Eating on this trip turned out to be quite a hassle for some of my fellow travelers. I would only describe some of the combinations as unusual. We had discovered a restaurant which claimed to provide African fare. I cannot dispute this claim. I can say, though, that it was not the African fare that we expected! I remember how shocked I was to discover that my avocado and prawn salad was gently layered over a bed of cold, unsalted boiled rice. That would be my only gastronomical mishap. I ate my fill of couscous – Large mounds of it, heaped with steaming vegetables and soft meat that fell apart between my fingers. My first breakfast, in Casablanca, featured delicious semolina flat breads called msemen and hacha. Christmas lunch at the souk in Marrakech was a tangy chicken tagine and a selection of Moroccan salads. Perhaps, my favourite thing to eat was bread. There were so many types in different sizes and textures. Though ubiquitous, bread in Morocco was far from boring. I will confess that I brought home a stash of bread, stowed away in my hand luggage, wrapped in brown paper. And of course, there was tea. Whether it was the undoubtedly famous brew containing wormwood that we had in a traditional Berber home on the way to Ourika, or it was rose tisane, offered steaming and fragrant with mint at an apothecary, I drank tea. I don’t know if it’s the taste or the ceremony around tea drinking, but tea has always made me feel comfortable.
Of course choosing from the menu was accompanied by talk about our culinary adventures in Morocco. I looked around the restaurant – loud groups, including ours; and a happy couple who might’ve been on their honeymoon. This was the first Christmas I was spending with people I had just met. We didn’t exchange gifts. There wasn’t any pressure to have a perfect celebration. I missed my family but I was relieved that with this group of relative strangers, there would be no management of expectations.
I felt incredibly happy.
Photo Credits: In Preparation for Tea, The Chandelier of Mogador Palace and Guided Tour through Bahia Place by Maryse Ledoux