(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :

http://www.travelblog.org/Africa/Morocco/Grand-Casablanca/Casablanca/blog-827033.html)

The Moroccan policeman has a smile on his face that looks pasted-on friendly but it’s pretty clear to us all that there’s serious intent as he reaches forward and touches my arm over and over.

Even our ever-smiling guide Redouane (“Red-One”) has lost the happy light in his eyes. But that’s not important just yet … let’s go back just a bit.

………………………….

RABAT, Morocco

It’s like a symphony performed with the lights turned out.

The sounds float on the cool pre-dawn air into our hotel room through the window left open to allow fresh air that won’t come from the non-functioning A/C unit.

First, the sweetly lyrical but haunting chant crying out through the loudspeaker that calls the Muslim faithful to the first of their 5 times daily prayer.

Then a pleasant woman’s voice emanates from the train station across the street reciting a list in Arabic, French (the 2 main languages spoken in northern Morocco, Berber is spoken more in the south), and English, of destinations for the next train arrival.

Soon after, the squealing sound of a train’s wheels incite dog songs to begin the baying chorus of their ancestors.

Finally, a child’s quiet cries intrude through the background to end the symphony.

This is how the day started in this Muslim city just a bit north of Casablanca in the Monday morning darkness.

………………………………..

Breakfast in the white table-clothed hotel restaurant is filled with a gaggle of brown-skinned, mustachioed and tuxedoed Moroccan male servers hustling here and there and yet serving very few guests. It’s clearly mostly busy work, but they’re very good at giving it a realistic feel of useful activity.

The serving tables are replete with large platters of just-made crepes and steaming French toast, all manner of fruit, eggs, salad vegetables, and finally, tall spindled serving trays of… shall we say…dry enough to choke a camel, almond-infused sweet goods.

The night before, at a different table in the same restaurant, all of us 5 Canadian travelers-on-tour brought out our tourism six shooters.

In a game of oneupmanship, one by one we fired off an impressive-to-us list of previous travels and exotic adventures. When one of us finished, the next began and raised the ante. China versus Nepal versus Galapagos versus Iceland and so on.

It’s not a contest I enjoy, but my competitive side wouldn’t let me escape and be quiet. Embarrassed at myself, I fired back with my travel credentials. Take that … bang bang!

After arriving on a late night flight from Madrid, the first tour day had been a whirlwind of exploring sprawling Casablanca (population 4 million) with the main Hassan II Mosque and its enormous 200-metre high minaret, the highest in the Islamic world. We removed our shoes to enter with respect and took in the enormity of the marble and cedar shrine to Allah.

The dark, cloudy day was accompanied by large Atlantic Ocean waves smashing into the beach front behind the mosque, giving the scene a roar for the ear and an ominous look for the eye.

Leaving Casablanca, we began the driving loop through northern Morocco’s varied history and landscapes and flavours.

 

The Road from Rabat to Fez

On the smaller Moroccan highways, there are police roadblocks each half hour to hour along the way.

We approached the very first of our journey shortly after a lunch break of delicious chicken tagine (moroccan stew), and little triangle-shaped pastries that mixed a savoury inside (chicken, ground almonds, and egg) with a sugar-dusted outside, in the old university town of Meknes. I’ll be looking for a recipe for those pastries!

Two sour-faced and officious cops waved our 7-seater van to the side of the two-lane paved highway. It was a stretch of road surrounded by lush green fields of fava beans, gentle, verdant slopes rising on both sides.

We had passed alongside huge wide swaths of olive orchards in their silvery grey hues, although the trees were empty of olives for now. On the other hand, the almond trees had been in full pink blossomy splendour and from time to time we had seen bitter orange trees with large ripe round fruit hanging from their branches.

It was as lush an agricultural area as I had ever experienced.

It was also as lush a police hustle as I had ever encountered.

In the driver’s seat of our van sat Fouad, a slender, mid-twenties fellow with a slight resemblance to a young Barack Obama, a big infectious smile and a happy demeanor.

In the passenger seat was Redouane, our handsome, thirty-two year old guide for the journey.

We five Canuck journeyers in the back, sat quietly eating local mandarin oranges, and watched with interest as the discussion went along in Arabic between the officer at the window and our two guides. Eventually both Redouane and Fouad were asked to get out of the van and join the police at their vehicle behind.

Five minutes passed and then 10 as the discussion went on with no resolution; at times it looked like there was some heat in the words of one of the cops and once in Redouane’s face.

But I wasn’t satisfied with watching and waiting as Redouane and Fouad argued and cajoled the police officers. Despite an ongoing discussion with our fellows, the police managed to multi-task and continue to pull over other truck and van drivers, apparently fleecing a few hundred Moroccan Dirhams from some, the equivalent of maybe 30 or 40 Canadian dollars.

Finally, foolishly … stupidly … impulsively … I stuck my head out of the van door, aiming my camera towards the excitement occurring between the police and Redouane.

I snapped a photo of the back-and-forth 15 metres away, pleased that I had been so discrete, and no, I didn’t use a flash.

Climbing into the back seat area, I reached over the back of the seat and took a second shot through the rear window of the van.

I sat back in my van seat, proud of my photojournalism skills.

But, unfortunately, I HAD been caught “red-camera”-ed.

I could hear the crunch crunch crunch of approaching footsteps on the soft shoulder gravel and then the head police guy’s face peered in through the open van door. Redouane looked worried behind his shoulder. The police officer smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile.

Redouane spoke over the cop’s shoulder:

“You must erase the picture you just took and show the policeman while you’re doing it.”

The cop reached in towards me and touched my arm while I turned on the camera. I was way too timid to resist and insist on freedom of expression or whatever might show true courage.

Everyone else in the van sat in stony silence.

I’ve never deleted a photo on this Canon SLR camera and so Maureen and I fumbled over and over, pushing this button, then that, then another. Nothing seemed to bring up an erase screen.

The cop continued looking at me and touching my arm each time it was clear I hadn’t erased anything. Then he pulled out a small flashlight and held the light on the camera’s back.

Quickly, I spotted a garbage can icon – YES!! This had to be it.

I touched the button beside the icon and the word ERASE popped up on the screen.

The beads of sweat on my forehead began to cool and when the button was pressed, the cop could see the photo disappear. I hoped that he wouldn’t look at the screen and notice that there was a second photo of the scene. But he was too skilled at this scenario and immediately he signaled to me that I should erase the next photo as well. I hit the garbage can icon and it was … gone.

The cop looked up at me, smiled, touched my arm, then said in broken English, “Enjoy your stay in Morocco”. OK…

Redouane refused to pay a cash bribe to the cops, insisting on a written fine so that there would be a record of his “crime”. The travel company would pay the cost of the official fine later for the burnt out taillight that couldn’t possibly have been seen by the cops prior to pulling us over.

…………………………………………….

Off we continued; we passed through a dozen more road blocks in the next day or so without incident – just a collective holding of breath and nervous laughs each time by the 7 inhabitants of our van.

Darkness descended as we finally pulled into Fez for the night. The evening air was cooling to about 6 or 7 C when we hopped out of the van and checked into a beautiful 5 storey Barcelo-branded hotel and prepared for a visit to the famed enormous Fez Medina (old walled city) the following morning.

The delights of Fez and Marrakesh will be the next stops on this blog’s journey. More surprises to come!!

Advertisements