We've been on a whirlwind tour of Morocco. We're only halfway through, and already I'm sorting through so many thoughts and impressions that I can't possibly sum them all up just yet. The juxtaposition of past and present here is so intense as to be almost painful. We've spent the past couple of days in Casablanca, where the streets are a chaotic tangle of cars, bicycles, motorcycles and people, with the occasional burro thrown in for good measure. I saw a man balancing a crate full of live chickens on his moped yesterday morning.
The air is thick as chowder with diesel fumes and smoke - this in January, when the temperatures are still relatively cool. I can't imagine how it must be in the summertime. Traffic lights and street dividers are mere suggestions. There is no such thing as a pedestrian crosswalk; people stream across the streets at random, playing cat and mouse with the vehicles. Several times, I had the urge to fish my sleeping mask out of my bag and strap it on so as not to keep clutching the armrest in abject terror.
And yet, amid the mayhem, there is great beauty. We toured the jewel of the city, the Hassan II mosque, built literally over the top of the Atlantic Ocean. Gorgeous. I wished, yet again, that I was a better photographer. We left Casablanca around noon today and began the drive to Marrakech, about 210 kilometers south.
It was quite a drive.
The first 100 kilometers took us on a four-lane highway, with two lanes in either direction; easy. Then the highway ended, and became a two-lane road, with one lane in each direction. Trucks clogged the road, chugging along slowly, spewing diesel as they went. Cars tagging behind the trucks would suddenly dart out and swoop past them, on the chance that a tour bus wasn't bearing down in the opposite direction just around the bend. That last half took us three times as long as the first.
All the stopping and starting made us hungry, so we pulled over to a large gas station with an adjoining cafe. Colorful signs pointed to a vinyl overhang that sheltered a cluster of tables and plastic chairs. It didn't look promising. Imagine my surprise when, behind the tables and chairs, we found a series of small stalls. In one, two men stood in front of a row of skinned lamb carcasses; in another, a man assembled brochettes from cubes of meat; in another stall, a man cooked the brochettes over a fiery grill. In the last stall, two women sat in front of a wood-burning fire, making flat disks of bread and shoving them into the fire as they were ordered.
For the thousandth time, I was grateful to be traveling with a native of this country. He spoke at length with the butcher and the others, and soon we had a table full of food, far more than the two of us could eat. One plate held the brochettes, expertly spiced, with a hint of woodsmoke. Another held mechoui, a pile of meat that looked as if it had been hacked off the side of an animal; turns out, it was. Mechoui is a whole lamb roasted over a wood fire and hacked into pieces and served in a heap on the plate - bones, fat, gristle and all. This isn't proper fork-and-knife food. You eat it with your fingers, hunting through the pile to push aside the fatty bits and yank out tender hunks of meat. It felt carnivorous and primal, let me tell you. Grrr!
The bread reminded me of naan bread, with its crispy exterior blistered with burns and a hot, soft interior. We tore it into pieces and wrapped bits of meat around it, topping it with tomato salad and a dab of harissa. Divine. We finished with a pot of the ubiquitous mint tea, hot and sweet.
It was just what we needed to fuel the rest of our drive.
We're in Marrakech now. It is nearly 2 am here, and my head is about to hit the keyboard, so I'll go for now. More to come...
P.S. I haven't figured out slide shows yet, hence all these scattered photos. Sorry! I wish it was prettier.
P.S.S. Sorry I haven't responded to any of your comments! Most of the time I've just had an hour here or there to quickly write something up, often in a hotel lobby, and so I haven't had the time to talk back, but thanks for all the nice notes!