Rabat, Capital of Morocco – Kasbahs and Bullet Trains

27 03 2020
Rabat, Rabat Morocco

Rod and Penny at the Rabat Kasbah

We awoke early at the Hotel Al Walid in Casablanca. The plan was to go by rail to Rabat, walk around the city, and then continue by rail to Meknes. After breakfast and then fiddling with various ATMs to withdraw Moroccan Dirhams, we walked across the square, managing our luggage as best we could, and caught a train at the Casa Voyageurs Station, originally built in 1923.

The station underwent a recent $47 million renovation for Morocco’s high speed train (more on that below). It is totally up to date. Boarding the train, however, was another matter altogether. Once it arrived, there was a crush of passengers with luggage hastily getting on. The train was European style with cabins and an aisle on one side. Our guide, Mohamed, went into action shepherding us to the right spots and getting luggage on board.

The ride was about two hours to Rabat. The station is situated at an ideal location for checking out the city on foot. It was late morning, and the marine cloud layer had yet to burn away. Mohamed led us to a restaurant across from the station where we would store our bags and have lunch after our walk. We were given maps and an idea of a route. It’d take us past government offices, through a medina and on to a Kasbah with views of the Atlantic.

 

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I found the city center to be attractive and clean, with a French architectural flair. There is no shortage of BMW and Mercedes vehicles. The architecture, red flags with stars and palm lined streets had me remembering such sights in Saigon and Hanoi, both of which were French colonial cities, which now have those red flags (But the Moroccan star is green, and the Vietnamese star is yellow)!

We passed through the Medina and reached the seaside Kasbah des Oudaias. It was built in the 12th Century by the Almohad Dynasty. Along the way, we were approached by a couple of unsolicited “tour guides” offering unsolicited information and then asking for a few dirhams. Once through the Kasbah gate, Betty and I allowed one of these Faux Guides to lead us through a residential part of the kasbah (if you are wondering, I paid him 20 Dirham, and he turned around and told the next people we paid him 100). Like in the medinas, it consisted of narrow lanes with centuries-old doors behind which were apartments. Some of the doors had ornamental handles with spiritual significance, and many had the year built above, some of which said 1330. Imagine that, living in an apartment built in 1330?! There was also a lot of blue, which he said it was thought kept mosquitoes away. It ended at a 1/4 acre sized rooftop “patio” overlooking the Atlantic, the river nearby and centuries-old battlements. The weather was clearing and turning nice!

Once outside, we checked out the garden of the Kasbah. It was very attractive, well cared for, and even had a small cafe with a view of the coast.

We headed back to the cafe where our luggage was stored, sat down, and had a hearty lunch.

Then, it was back on the train to Meknes. Ours was a regular speed Moroccan train. It took us about 3 hours to get to Meknes.

The train has European style arrangements. An aisle down one side, with compartments on the other.

 

The compartments in our First Class rail car had comfortable seats with head rests. Luggage was stored above the seats.

 

Well, I needed to pay a visit to the WC! And well, open the toilet and let it fly!

At the Rabat train station, I couldn’t help but gawk at the 21st Century Moroccan TGV as it pulled up.

The Al Boraq

It is called the Al-Boraq, and can travel 200 mph. It operates on a 201 – mile line between Tangier and Casablanca. To be extended to Marrakesh and points south. It opened in November 2018. Tickets can be had for less than $50. It could cover the distance between New York and Washington, DC in about 90 minutes. Kind of amazing! Well, another time I guess.

The train ride to Meknes moves inland, passing olive, orange and date groves, orchards, vineyards, grazing sheep and cows, and fields of barley. Meknes is the religious capital of Morocco, and we’ll see some of it the following day.

 

 

 





Casablanca, Morocco – “Of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine.”

25 03 2020

Rod Cannon resized

For several years Morocco has been right at the top of my travel list! Many years ago I spent a month in Turkey. The people, food, history and varied topography impressed me so much, and I’ve been wanting to visit another Muslim Mediterranean country ever since. Morocco, with its coast, Roman ruins, labyrinthine medinas, riads, Sahara Desert, kasbahs, 13,600ft Atlas Mountains and Atlantic beaches, plus a reputation for friendly people certainly checks all those boxes. But for several years I was held back by 40-hour airline flight itineraries. In the fall of 2019, I was able to book a non-stop flight from Portland to Europe with one connection to Casablanca. With that, I was IN!

On Black Friday I signed up with Intrepid Travel for their “Best of Morocco” tour. It hit all the varied spots I was looking for. Even better, with credit card points, I paid for the flight and most of the tour. We had 13 people total.

The 1st day of the tour started with a 6 p.m. meeting. That was the only time spent in Casablanca, and I wanted a chance to see it. So, I arrived the night before and booked a day tour of the city. I arrived at the Al Walid Hotel with enough daylight to walk around the square where it’s located. Across the square is the Casablanca Voyageurs train station. It’s a modern station blended with a French colonial building. Along the square, a Light Rail system shuttled passengers. I immediately noted the relaxed nature of the people. Nobody was rushing around like in some 3rd World cities. The traffic was not dense. There was a lack of the din of horns heard in many cities.

In fact, that evening I slept with my hotel window open all night. After 11 p.m., it was very quiet inside the city! One thing was an immediate delightful surprise – I could hear and understand people speaking French! This was my first night and I ordered dinner, purchased a train ticket, and later spoke to the hotel attendant in French! WTF! I studied French for 7 years but hadn’t used it much. And all of the sudden it came out of my brain from nowhere! It was like automatic. And super fun! I had loaded a French/English language app before I left which helped fill in gaps. But not in French was the Imam prayer call at about 5:45 a.m.! Breakfasted, I snagged a “Petits Taxi” and set off to our joining place, Rick’s Cafe.

Casablanca, population 3.6 million, lies on the Atlantic coast and is the commercial capital of Morocco. Its name is synonymous with the 1942 film noir namesake film – considered by some to be the best of the 20th Century. With that, of course, the day tour met at Rick’s Cafe! The interior of the cafe is an exact replica of the movie set. The morning had typical coastal clouds but they’d burn off.

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The irony is that none of the film was made in Morocco at all. The whole production was done in Hollywood. Nonetheless, it endowed the city with a romantic and mysterious reputation.

Joining me were Stephanie of Washington, D.C., Chevon of the Virgin Islands, and Oliver of Melbourne, Australia.

We introduced ourselves and then Bennie, our guide, led us on a three hour walking tour. Two highlights were the Old Medina followed by the New Medina. A medina is a distinct section of a city (or quarter) often highlighted by narrow walled lanes – lanes with doors or shops on the sides. One can find themselves fascinated and, sometimes, lost for hours in a medina. Sometimes a seemingly ordinary door, when opened, will lead to something completely unimaginable, such as garden surrounded by a multi-tiered lodge – or Riad.

On the walk to the Medinas, we passed through some examples of Spanish-inspired architecture, and the classic form of Minaret found in Morocco.

It was just barely opening time at the medinas. The shops were opening up one by one, each specializing in a type of good for sale. Products included seafood, chicken, leather, textiles, olives, nuts, grains, timepieces, produce, glassware, metals, spices, and even a pet store.

More images of things one can get at the medina!

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Trotting around medinas can be a bit exhausting for for anyone. Not the least travelers that are jet lagged, with tired legs and minds. So we saw more, stretched our legs, and then, had tea and lunch. Casablanca definitely has a laid-back cafe lifestyle. The weather was turning out superb – dry and warm. We had an outside table by a town square, perfect for people watching. And I continued using French, which was super fun.

Later, Chevon and I headed to one of Casablanca’s seaside attractions – the Hassan II Mosque. Hassan 2 resized

The seaside mosque looms over the city skyline – visible from almost everywhere. It is the largest mosque in Africa.

It was finished in 1993 at a cost of about $750 million, much of which was donated by worshipers and the King. It can hold 25,000 worshipers inside, and 80,000 outside.

It is very intricate and has a roof which can be opened to the sky. Down below is a mammoth area where worshipers can wash before the services.

From outside, near the edge of the property, the city gives way to the Atlantic.

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It was a full day sightseeing in Casablanca. A good way to begin the trip.

I’d meet our group about 6 p.m. and then we’d go out for drinks and getting to know one another.

Looked like it was going to be a good vacation!

 





Morocco Coronavirus: Last Seat Out to France

20 03 2020
Air France Boarding Pass

Last seat to France out of Morocco

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Morocco. I managed to land in Portland, Oregon, 15 March about 10:15 a.m. Normally, I would begin blog posts about a trip abroad starting from the beginning. But this time, due to unprecedented times, and because of the immediate international travel lock-down sweeping the globe, I am writing about my miraculous exit from Morocco just as the country shut down travel to France.

I was on an Intrepid Travel “Best of Morocco” tour, which began on 1 March 2020. I flew into Casablanca. The trip ended in Marrakesh. For economies of money and time, I decided to purchase a round trip from Portland, Oregon to Casablanca instead of two one way flights. My flight home was scheduled to depart Casablanca March 16, transit through Paris on the way back to the USA.

The Coronavirus pandemic began sweeping around the globe before I left home, but there were not many international travel restrictions at that time. I met my tour group, composed of Americans, English and Australians, and we explored Morocco’s coasts, cities, deserts, kasbahs, medinas and ruins together. As we enjoyed ourselves the virus was spreading and governments were working overtime to enact plans to contain it. These plans included restricting travel. Airlines would be affected.

We were on the coast, in Essaouira, when I first got an idea that things were doing downhill. First, my original Air France flight from Paris to Seattle was re-routed to Atlanta due to “operational constraints.” I did nothing. The USA had temporarily banned Europeans from traveling to the USA. US citizens could come home. Then, on the way to Marrakesh, on March 13, Air France sent an e-mail that my Paris-Atlanta flight was “canceled due to operational constraints.” With this, I began to worry. Still, I figured I could re-book another flight to the USA – I had time. Maybe I could book a flight around the European Union or a non stop from Morocco to the USA.

It is nothing short of a miracle that I am here right now and I will tell you why. Well, it is a combination of my own intuition, French language, travel experience, flexibility, and tenacity, with a good dose of luck that got me home.

I had a good data connection on the bus, and I tried to use the links on the e-mail to see or change my flight. None of them worked. At the hotel in Marrakesh, before the dinner, I tried the same, no luck. Some intuition told me that I must continue to try to reach Air France or Delta (Air France’s partner) to get a lock on a flight from Paris to USA – that became my #1 priority, instead of going to dinner or doing my tour of Marrakesh the following day. Something told me I needed to lock that flight down.

That evening, I tried every known method of contacting Air France or Delta Airlines. I tried both Delta and Air France Websites via my phone, and they were locked up. I tried Air France online chat, which, once I logged in, just sat there, nobody answering. I tried Delta telephone customer service which said it had a 6-hour wait. I called Air France telephone customer service and waited 90 minutes before it hung up. E-mails went without response as did texts. The Apps for these airlines did not work. It felt like I was chasing my tail.

So I resolved that I MUST speak face to face with an Air France agent, so the following morning, after breakfast, I took a taxi to the airport. I arrived about 9:30 a.m.  NOBODY knew what was about to happen in Morocco.

What occurred next was 100% unexpected and a miracle which in a way never could have happened unless I took action. I arrived at the airport, and the Air France line was long – normal because there was a flight going out. I learned Air France did not have an office in the airport nor in Marrakesh. The only way to speak face to face was to wait in the line patiently. What happened next was simply incredible.

I reached the Air France agent at about 10:40 a.m. I told him that I was trying to change flights for two days coming up due to a canceled flight. He looked at my reservation and his face became a bit panicked and contorted, not sure what to do to help me. That is when he told me that the government of Morocco had banned all flights to France as of 12:00 p.m. THAT DAY! He told me to go back to my hotel, get luggage, and return immediately, so that I could get on a waiting list on this flight.

So, with that information, I knew my “Best of Morocco” trip was over. I ran outside the airport and bargained with taxi drivers for a round trip taxi ride including waiting at the Les Trois Palmiers Hotel for me to throw my luggage together! I even got the driver to understand that this was an emergency and he kicked out existing passengers in his car so he could get my drive done quickly. Once in the car this became a scene worthy of Hollywood, with the taxi passing other cars, swerving in and out to get my round trip done. Back at the hotel I was an emotional mess, remembering how much fun the trip was and realizing I was alone and couldn’t say goodbye to people I met. I rifled through my money to get a tip to our guide Mohamed. I left a note for my roommate Michael to deliver it. With that done, I ran out to the taxi.

More miracles to come. At the airport I waved to my agent and he put me past the line to get me in standby. There were probably 20 of us on standby. The flight was due to leave about 12:30 and gates closed at 12:15 or so. Somewhere during this time I saw tour mates Penny, Craig and Michael who all had decided, like me, to drop everything and go home. Royal Air Maroc, the next counter to Air France, told them that “there was nothing it could do” to help them. After a few minutes, another agent announced (in French of course) that NO STANDBY SEATS WILL GO. He said, in French, that he didn’t know what to do and that the computer showed next flights are March 28. That resulted in 100% pandemonium amongst the French citizens trying to go home. There was crying, there was yelling, there was anger, there was disbelief.

Keep in mind that nobody in Morocco outside the airport was aware of this 12:00 p.m. shut down. I could only imagine the tourists enjoying their day unaware!

I decided to stick to my plan, and not leave that counter. I could still succeed if I could get a flight plan around the European Union back to the USA. When the crowd paused a little, I kindly spoke to the agent about my situation, and he listened. Whilst this was going on, for some completely unexplained reason, the Royal Air Maroc agent one meter away also heard my situation, and said to me, “May I please see your itinerary?” And then a MIRACLE happened. She produced a boarding pass! She quickly grabbed my luggage, tagged it and said RUN to the gate. And so I did. With very sweaty palms got through passport control in a rush.

Luck stuck with me because it was already 12:16. My flight was delayed! Once through passport control and running to the A5 gate, I saw my original Air France agent standing there, with no other passengers, looking at me like he was hallucinating, but I was there! I had a boarding pass. He cheered and ushered me onto the plane, which I thought was an Air Maroc flight. But it was that Air France flight! The passengers and crew cheered me as I got the very last flight! THE very very LAST seat!

Wheels up!

Doors closed, wheels up and I was gone. The entire plane cheered. And I was only trying to get a flight changed for March 16!

I had a one-segment boarding pass, so my luggage was checked to Charles de Gaulle Paris and no further. Once in the airport I visited the Air France customer service desk. The agent was able to get me on a flight to Los Angeles, departing within the hour. I took it. There was no time to get my bag, or go back and forth through passport control and security. So the agent put an electronic tag on it in the baggage software system. And I was off.

Well deserved!

With my connection in the USA, I was home at just after 10 a.m.

I filed a lost baggage claim with the airline, and it followed me the next day.

All my luggage arrived the next morning in perfect shape!

Here I am at home. The world going crazy. Events are happening so fast and not predictable. God Speed to travelers everywhere during this crisis!

 





Skiing Anthony Lakes, Oregon on Super Bowl Sunday

8 02 2020
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Mike, Lisa and Myself. Fluffy snow!

I have a friend, Lisa, who lives a 4-hour drive east in La Grande. La Grande is blessed to be a 40-minute drive from Oregon’s best powder ski resort, Anthony Lakes. I try to make a pilgrimage out there from my home in Portland, OR, at least once a winter. The Grande Ronde Valley surrounds La Grande, and the mountains which ring the area have plenty of year round opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts.

In winter, the Elkhorn Mountains, which rise above 9,000ft, offer Alpine skiing at Anthony Lakes as well as countless Nordic trails. You won’t find Portland area crowds. In fact this past weekend, which was Super Bowl Sunday, we did not have a line at the ski area. We pretty much had the slopes to ourselves.

Anthony Lakes is like skiing way back when. When fixed-grip chairlifts rules the resorts. When a $40 lift pass was the norm. And there was no hyper rush to get the best parking spot. Today, Anthony Lakes is still like that. Only you can get a weekend pass cheaper if you buy online early. And, tickets are $20 on Thursdays. It’s mostly advanced terrain. But, there are green-rated slopes from the top. BTW, there is excellent Nordic skiing from the lodge around the lakes, and your alpine pass is valid for the Nordic runs, too.

The plan was to start skiing early and then host a Super Bowl party at Lisa’s house. It was to be a perfect day! While it was stormy and icy Saturday, it snowed 6″ of dry fluff overnight. The weather on the hill was blizzard–>sun–>blizzard–>repeat. So we had filled-in tracks snow most of the time we were there.

Well, I didn’t bring my GoPro. So, in this video, I was holding ski poles, gloves, and bare-handing the cell phone. At least you can see how nice the snow was!

We departed in time to get back to town and make preparations for the Super Bowl. Friends arrived, we munched, and watched the best Super Bowl in years. Both teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs were peaking in the weeks prior. I like both teams, but the Chiefs had a 50 year drought and I favored them. The 4th quarter did not disappoint. The chiefs came from behind with a spectacular defensive effort and three touchdowns!





Alameda, CA: Touring the USS Hornet CV-12

5 02 2020

My college roommate friend Mike Matthews lives on Alameda Island – this island has quite a variety of things going on. It has a container ship port, an old Navy base, beach access, high tech offices, a very beautiful old town with late 1800’s homes, and a generally fair climate – even in January.20200112_133935

On Sunday we took a tour of the aircraft carrier Hornet with Mike’s son Jake and friends. There were two USS Hornet aircraft carriers in the US Navy during World War II. The first, CV8, was essentially put out of action during the Battle of the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands. Japanese bombs and torpedoes knocked out all her power, and she lay a sitting duck in range of enemy planes. The US Navy scuttled her. The second USS Hornet, CV12, an Essex Class, was an entirely new “superweapon” of World War II. She was one of of 24 such aircraft carriers, each of which could carry 100 WWII planes and travel over 14,000 miles without refueling. The Hornet went 15 months without ever docking in port. She was attacked 59 times and was never hit by a bomb or torpedo. The American Navy, with 24 of these “portable air bases” moving about the Pacific, equipped with their new fighter planes, brought the Japanese Navy down.

The Hornet’s mission continued straight into the Apollo moon program. It was the Hornet that picked up the crew of Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon.  The Hornet handled new jet airplanes in the 1950s – 1960s.

On top, Hornet has its flight deck, and we could see some of the planes out there. Below, the next deck is the hangar deck. On the hanger deck sits some propeller and jet fighter planes. But also there are Apollo and Gemini space capsules. And, super cool, the actual “Decontamination Trailer” the astronauts would go into as soon as they were brought on board.

To see the other decks, we crawled down stairs which were nicknamed “knee knockers” for good reason! Space is tight and they are steep. Down below, we checked out the crew quarters, ship’s store, ready room, the room where pilots would get their mission briefing, and the galley.

There was even a kitchen with “food” that the crew could select. All in all, it was a really interesting museum. Hard to imagine over a thousand people on board!

 

 





Marin Headlands, CA Hike with my Annapurna Sanctuary Trek-Mates!

5 02 2020
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Rod, Cathy Ann, Annette, and Uli!

In early January 2020, I spent a weekend in the San Francisco Bay area. My college roommate Michael Matthews lives there, as does Cathy Ann Taylor, who was my guide on treks in Bhutan, Peru, and Nepal.

I contacted Cathy Ann and we decided to do a nice hour-or-so hike up in the Marin Headlands. Also joining on the hike were two of my Nepal trekking-mates! Annette Brinton and Ulrike (Uli) Koehne. In Nepal, we hiked about 38,000 vertical feet on the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek!

We met at the Tennessee Valley trailhead. It is in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The hike wound up the hills and, once over the saddles, we could see all the Bay area! I could see container ships coming in from the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco and all the way to Oakland. There was no fog! Cathy Ann said at our highest point we were about 1,000ft above the ocean.

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Cathy Ann kept up a brisk pace. I sweated a bit, but the breeze and my quick dry apparel made quick work of the wetness and by the end of the hike I was dry all over again.

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With Uli!

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Adrian, Annette, Rod, Michael, Amala, Thupten, and Cathy Ann

Following the hike, we met Michael at a dockside restaurant in Sausalito. There were other guests and one total surprise! Cathy Ann’s husband Thupten was with us, as was Annette’s husband. The surprise guest was Amala, Thupten’s mom! I met her in Nepal!

What a perfect day.





Metolius River, OR in October

28 01 2020
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Picture perfect from my campsite.

In late October 2019, two things converged: A couple of midweek days off, and a forecast of 70-degree sunny days for the Metolius River area. The Metolius River campgrounds stay open until mid December. With such a terrific forecast and time off, I scrambled to pack up one last time and get some more camping and river watching in!

The Metolius River valley and its Camp Sherman zip code are one of Oregon’s jewels. The river is super clean as it emerges as a fully grown river from a lava tube at the head of the valley. The valley is populated by orange-red barked Ponderosa Pine. And the Forest Service conducts regular “controlled burns” so that the underbrush never grows too high. The valley road winds along the river but also climbs to vistas of nearby Cascade peaks such as the Three Sisters, Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mount Jefferson. This means that a drive to the campground immerses you in a lush, peaceful forest with a blue ribbon trout stream populated by hopeful fly fishers, punctuated by blue skies and snowy peaks.

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10,450 ft Mount Jefferson

70 degree days in late October in the Metolius area are not the norm, but they do occur often enough that it’s worth keeping an eye on the weather in case they pop up. The area sits in a rain shadow just east of the Cascade crest. It’s guaranteed the campgrounds will be 50% empty. No reason for a reservation.

I found one of those picture perfect, lots-of-real-estate campsites with a magnificent view of the river. And not far from the rest room either!

Just behind my site, on the other side of the road, was somebody camping with some kind of tiny Airstream trailer. I set up my tent, put the pad, sleeping pad and pillows inside.

Then, I proceeded to set up the camp kitchen and the fire pit that is always a “reason to come camping.”

The valley sits in a north-south position. With a low ridge to the west and a higher, 800ft ridge on the east side.

 

I sat by the river and read my New York Times as the warmth set in. But as it was late October, I started to realize that the lower level of the sun meant an early sunset here.

 

The forecast for this area said nighttime low temperatures would be in the low 40’s. That was no problem for me. So, I brought my 32-degree down bag. This Mountain Hardwear 800-fill down bag has been terrific. It’s been warm even down to the mid 30’s.

With the sun setting and chill creeping in, I lit a campfire and hastily set about making dinner. By 7:30 p.m. it was mighty chilly and time to crawl into the sleeping bag.

With my sleeping bag zipped up, ski hat on my head and gloves, plus my two pillows, I was actually just fine sleeping through the night. In fact, I was quite surprised how comfy I felt. I looked forward to the 70-degree day following.

The next part isn’t so rosy. I went to bed at 7:30, so my 6:30 a.m. I was DONE with sleeping and very much wanted to get up and start the day. What I wasn’t expecting was while although it was light outside, the sun had not come up over the eastern side of the valley. And much of what was liquid last night was now frozen. The pump on the camp stove barely moved. It groaned and squeaked, as did I. The temperature was clearly below freezing and not the mid 40’s predicted. While I was fine tucked into my sleeping bag, outside I was in the discomfort zone, and the sun wasn’t anywhere near rising above the valley wall anytime soon! Worse, I could hear the radio coming from the tiny Airstream trailer just accoss the way. This is when I knew that for late season camping a trailer does have it merits!

I managed to pump up my stove and get a nice few cups of coffee going. Then, the fire. Still, I was a bit put off by the weather forecast. As the morning progressed, it wasn’t until 9:30 by the time the sun came up over the hill, warming everything up. So, I realized the actual maximum temperature was only a few fleeting hours today. Whilst beautiful, I decided to just head back home rather than endure another long morning! It wasn’t the night, it was the long cold morning that got to me. Nevertheless, the Metolius area is beautiful even in late fall. Perhaps a hotel night would do the trick!