Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Running Away from Casablanca

View of agricultural plots and the beach Imil Tourga in Mirleft, looking down the dry river basin

I ran away from Casablanca yesterday, traveling through the night to the south of Morocco. It shouldn’t have been hard to leave, but it was. Feelings of failure and that I was simply giving up made the trip to the bus station longer that it was, a nervous sweat poured down my forehead accumulating particles of pollution that floated from the streets, and I kept turning my head to look behind me for a sign of what to do. Waiting in line to buy my ticket seemed like an eternity and I continued the round-about process of self-questioning followed by unsatisfying answers until someone tapped me on the shoulder to let me know that I was next in line. This actually surprised me, because most any other Casablancan would have simply cut you in line if you weren’t paying enough attention to realize that you were next, or at least this is what I would have expected from my experience in the city thus far. Yet despite this random act of kindness at the queue, I didn’t change the affirmative decision I had recently made, and I pursued my purchase of a ticket for an 11 hour night bus ride towards the southern coast.

View from my hotel room in Casablanca

I had come to Casablanca with a purpose. I wanted to accomplish something, and yet soon found out that I was only another one of the many people trying to do the same. The city was full of people with grand ideas who had come from all over Morocco with the dream of finding good work , and throughout my time there, I didn’t meet one person that was actually from the city. I was told that anybody who was actually born and raised in Casablanca left when the French did, and those that have come to fill the old French colonial buildings have done so out of an obligation to find work and fulfil their moneymaking dreams. There was no sense of patriotism for the city, no hint that people actually liked where they lived, only that they were there to work and send money home to their families. Understanding this made it easier to explain the general grudge that most people seemed to carry with them. It was a grudge against anybody that has had better luck than them in the city. A grudge that makes it almost impossible for one person to help another- unless it is for money, of course.

Looking for the path. View from the top of the hill in Mirleft

The idea was to work with the Moroccan National Swimming Federation on what I had hoped to be a continuation of the general enthusiasm and support for the international Gibraltar team I was trying to put together. I wasn’t really asking the Federation for that much, simply to be put in contact with some swim teams in Casablanca so that I could find swimmers, train with a swim team, and make some friends in that big city. They played with me as if I were a dog, or so I felt, although I may have poorly interpreted our interaction due to cultural misunderstanding, because I am further learning the pace of how things work in Morocco, which is, compared to the U.S. or even Spain, is slow. Basically, my meeting with the Federation started by them telling me to come to their office on a certain date and time - normal, right? When I arrived they made me wait a while, only to tell me to return later that day. And when I did, I was given five minutes of time with a man who had his briefcase packed and sunglasses on his head as if he were already out the door. I had only been in Casablanca for one day, but had already had a string of unpleasant experiences that made me desperate to begin to find some kind people, or I should say find nice people that weren’t only nice because they wanted money. This together with my experience at the Federation, which as I have described was highly unproductive (I came out of it with a phone number and an email that were written in such a sloppy and rushed print that I can’t even read them), made me immediately feel like I needed to leave that city. But I, like the other three million people that walk those streets, had come to Casablanca with a dream, and I didn’t want to simply give up.

La Grande Mosquee de Hasan II in Casablanca. Very big, but with little warmth

What began to drive me crazy about Casablanca were the number of beggars on the streets. It wasn’t a normal kind of begging, where people sit with their hand out. The type of begging here followed you as you were walking ,or was a small child that clung to your leg, or were hands in your face or fingers on your shoulder. It was a begging that was abundant and overwhelming- it was something that I didn’t know how to deal with. I’ve experienced countries more poor than Morocco, places like Yemen or Bolivia, and consider myself somewhat accustomed to poverty. Now I don’t think that this is a good thing, and by accustomed it is not that I don’t have a problem with, and definitely not that I accept poverty, only that I know that in places where real poverty exists, I always walk around with my pockets full of small change to give away. This, I feel, is the only way to be somewhat comfortable as a tourist in a place where people beg (and even this level of comfort I have a problem with). But it wasn’t enough in Casablanca, because not only did people consistently beg persistently, but the city was also full of people asking me for money because they had given me directions or showed me a restaurant- people being nice and then asking you for money because of it.

Imil Tourga. The beach at Mirleft

The Senegalese soothsayer who had followed me around my first day in the city, attempting to coerce me into becoming his business partner in a fucked-up plan that he had which included creating some type of magic perfume out of herbs unique to Morocco, but which was really just an attempt at getting me to give him a lump sum of money for his “start-up costs“, found me after my great meeting with the Federation. It was Saturday and I had arrived in Casablanca on Thursday morning. By that point I was so jaded by the city that I found the soothsayer as a stroke of comic relief from the desperation that plagued me. He found me on my way to the coastal section of Casablanca, where the beaches and boardwalk are, and invited himself to come along. Then came the first hints of another scheme. On the bus ride towards the water, he said numerous times “Il faut que je te dis quelque chose”, but every time that I said “Vas-y, dites-moi”, he would just shake his head in some pitiful attempt to look sorrowful. At the beach he finally told me that he was really sick and needed money for antibiotics. He held is side in pain and shook is head in that sorrowful, but really pitiful way. 300 Dirhams. I ran into the water when we got to the beach, and stayed there until I had my head together, for at that point I was about to go crazy. The thought crossed my mind that he may steal my stuff as he sat on the sand waiting for me, but I only had with me my clothes and enough money for the bus ride and maybe some food, and possibly could have cared less if he left me stranded at the beach in my board shorts, and not going for a swim was simply not an option.

Legzira Plage. Awesome arches descending into the sea

Mansour was his name, and I invited him to tea after I got out of the water (only because I wanted to stay near the ocean to watch the sunset, otherwise I would have returned to the hotel to get rid of him). The complaints about whatever illness he had invented had slowly faded and we began to share stories of Senegal and Califonria, making me think, obviously a bit to optimistically, that he had left the antibiotic story behind and in the sand where it belongs. But when we returned to the centre of town and were walking down the streets towards my hostel, he began with that same story, the same side-holding and head shaking stance followed by an I need 300 Dirhams, please. This on top of all the other begging I had experienced drove me momentarily crazy, not that crazy, but I did yell and curse enough for him to look scared and walk away. I haven’t seen him since.

Main street, Mirleft. Vew from the hill

I think that I would have tried to make things work with the Swimming Federation if it weren’t for the desperation I felt in the streets of Casablanca. My project seemed futile, or without purpose compared to this begging. Neither did I feel like I could live a healthy and active life there, and I began to question what my project actually was. In sum, I questioned, and obviously continue to do so, whether I should live my life for an ultimate goal (which in this case is the organization of an international team of swimmers and a traverse of Gibraltar in relay fashion), or do I simply follow what feels right and live where I feel most healthy and alive? I should have prefaced this by saying that prior to arriving in Casablanca I had spent five amazing days in Mirleft, a southern town on the coast, where I passed the time swimming in the ocean and playing in the waves with the locals, feeling extremely good but not really thinking about the project. Thus going to the bus station and buying a ticket out of Casablanca and south to Mirleft, was, for me, filled with these existential thoughts of how to live my life.

Hakim, aBoubakar and Max

I came to the decision that my project must be an expression of my immediate goals, but always taking into account the fact that I have already paved a path in life to become a doctor. Thus for my project to have true meaning and value, for me to feel like through it I am living a good life, I either need to be doing something that benefits the community around me (and the swim didn’t seem to have any purpose in Casablanca), or I must be cultivating my individual potential for this later purpose. So I’ve decided to return to Mirleft, where the ocean seems to be a healing force for my body and spirit; the beach here is one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen and the waves are perfect for body surfing.

The souk scene at Marrakesh

I still don’t know where the project of an international Gibraltar team and swim is headed, although it may still have a chance amongst these Surfing Bebers. I didn’t leave to forget the desperate chaos of Casablanca, or because it was simply easier to give up on my project. I left because I want to feel great in my life right now and not struggle to find meaning in the big city- I‘ve done a lot of that type of thinking in my life, and believe that I‘ve found my own answer.

Small town in the Ourika Valley, outside of Marrakesh
I’ll have to return to Casablanca on my way back to Spain, and I’m sure to use the pockets of coins strategy to survive. I’m very curious to know whether I’ll bump into Mansour once again, and what type of story he’ll come up with this time. I’m going to the ocean right now, there are bunch of people waiting for me in the waves. They are crazy about my waterproof camera and all want me to take video of them surfing. I obviously will want to body-surf on my own without the camera, but I’ve got the whole afternoon to do it all.

Ourika Valley

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