We arrived safely in Casablanca this morning, and so far I’ve survived nearly six hours here without getting mugged, food poisoning, heckled, or even overwhelmed. Whew! Off to a good start. My trepidation was somewhat heightened this morning when our Portuguese taxi driver told us, “Watch out for the Moroccans, they’re worse than gypsies.” And this to my husband, who is half Moroccan. Yeah, real nice.

But we made it here with no problem, other than exiting from the wrong arrivals gate when we got here. Our driver was of course waiting dutifully at the second gate with his little sign, to no avail. We found him though, and got into his ancient but well-maintained Mercedes, with plastic-covered cardboard boxes spread across the floor and boxes of tissues on both the dashboard and in the back. We then proceeded to make our stately way in to Casablanca, which is quite a fair distance from the airport.

What struck me right away was the combination of totally familiar and yet utterly alien. I saw Minnie Mouse sunshades in car windows, and buses with names in Arabic on the back. Advertisements with Eva Longoria selling condos nestled next to tall minarets. Donkey carts carrying huge loads trundled their way across freeway overpasses right next to Ford trucks and SUVs I recognized from home. Women with elaborate headscarves and long, ornate gowns crossed the street next to men in business suits with briefcases. The similarities were reassuring, the differences jarring, but overall there was enough I recognized (particularly in French) to feel comfortable.

Our hotel is right in the middle of town, adequate and quirky but nothing fancy. We threw our stuff into rooms and went out to find lunch at an ornately decorated restaurant the guy at the desk recommended, which turned out to have zellij tilework on the walls and couches to recline on as you ate off stained white tablecloths. The chicken tagine was heavenly, the spicy soup enough to wake even us up from an early morning start, and the dessert was oranges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, a blend of spices and sugars typical to Moroccan cuisine. To Gabe, this food tastes like home, so he could not be more happy.

While Gabe is relishing in the tastes, I am drinking up the sights. The people and outfits fascinate me — and the appeal is apparently reciprocated. Gabe turned to me as we were walking down a street near our hotel and said, “Those two ladies totally checked you out.” I replied, “Me? Why??” Because to them, I am the one who’s exotic here. I feel plain as paper compared to their bright colors and exotic head scarves, but to them, my jeans and short, loose hair are equally as alien. What an odd concept.

This afternoon we snagged one of the ubiquitous petit taxis, which are cars of different makes and sizes, but are without exception all red and all ancient. He took us out to the gigantic Hassan II Mosque, completed only about 10 or 12 years ago, which is truly a work of magnificence. The scale of the thing is unimaginable, and when the guide told us that the cost was only 8 million euros, we scoffed. Murano glass chandeliers, intricate carving and tile work throughout its cavernous interior, titanium doors, and a ten foot thick roof that rolls back so the worshipers can see the sky? Yeah, right. They burned through that much money in the first month of work.

It was sterile and ostentatious, obviously not at all typical of the rest of Morocco, but it was still worth seeing, both for the sheer spectacle of it and also because it’s one of only two mosques in the entire country that is open to non-Muslims. It sits out over the water, which comes hurling in off the Atlantic in massive white-capped breakers — truly a fitting complement to the awesome power of the mosque. I guarantee I will never see another thing like that in my life.

We wandered back via another petit taxi, and looked through the Marche Central, where we stopped for what I know will be our first of many cups of sweet mint tea. We sat at a sidewalk table and watched the world hurry by, and watched it watch us as it did so. There is literally no point in trying to blend in here, it just doesn’t work. Portugal I can get away with, but not here. So why even bother?

Everyone seems very friendly and willing to talk though, such as the vegetable vendor in the market, who explained to me that the strange white items floating in plastic bags filled with water were celery root. I was surprised when he didn’t try to sell me any, but rather told me what they were and went about his business.

We’re back in the hotel for a short rest before diving back out into those madhouse streets for another wander and some dinner, both of which can prove to be an epic endeavour here. I said to Gabe that it feels like the Alice in Wonderland version of Portugal — it’s rundown and grubby, but also quaint and charming, in some places breathtakingly beautiful. There’s just… more. Of everything. And it’s all much, much closer and in your face.

If we had come here before living in Portugal though, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I would’ve cried mercy early on and retreated into a quivering mass in our hotel room. But living in Lisbon has prepared me for this better than I expected, and instead of wasting my energy trying to protect myself from getting overwhelmed, I am letting it happen, opening my sensors wide and letting it all stream in.

Off we go again… but first, here’s some photos.

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