Friday, May 26, 2006

15 Things I Like About Rabat

It has been suggested (are you reading this Knarf in the City?) that, in my blog, I have espoused a decidedly negative attitude towards Morocco in general, and Rabat specifically. This was not my intention when I began this blog; rather, I was seeking a forum or a sounding board to vent my frustrations (as a Western catfish out of water) and to voice my, albeit, snarky observations. So, in an effort to offer a more balanced view, I decided to make a list of what I actually like about Rabat. There may be those among you who will be surprised to learn that there are things that I actually like about my adopted city. In random order, they are:

1) The Kasbah de Oudaias
Ahhh, the Kasbah. I confess that I was disappointed to see that both faux guides and henna whores have moved into the Kasbah, providing a less than salubrious addition to this oasis of tranquillity. Sitting precariously on the city’s edge peering over the Atlantic, this former fortified town is now home to Andalusian Gardens and a rat warren of white & blue homes (see Cat in Rabat’s photo above), many of which were built by Jews fleeing a re-Christianized Spain in the 16th century. The gardens are home to a gazillion well-fed cats, and if you time your visit right, you can watch the Cat Man feed and water them. Works for me.

2) Les Pains au Chocolate
Soft melty chocolate embedded in a warm flakey pastry. Oh yum! Moroccan pastries are the happy culinary bastard of France’s colonialism and the Moroccan penchant to not watch their waistlines. To be consumed in vast quantities with even vaster quantities of …

3) Coffee
France’s legacy at its finest. Whether you order a café crème or a café nuss-nuss (half & half), Moroccan coffee is so good that it is often almost possible to block out the Not Nice Men who are trying hard to grab your attention from a nearby table. Not Nice Men? – what Not Nice Men? …. Sluuuuuuuuurrp. A cup or glass of coffee will set you back anywhere between 5-10 dirhams. Many cafés offer a petite dejeuner, which, for around 15 dirhams, you can bag a coffee, a pastry of your choice, and a tall glass of freshly, squeezed orange juice. Fruit Loops pale in comparison.

4) The Petit taxis

In spite of the fact that taxis (i.e., their drivers) offer their own challenges (your safety being a prime example), they are cheap and (generally) efficient. A trip from my flat to the train station in Centre Ville costs about 7 dirhams (less than a buck). Most cabbies are rather garrulous and are not easily shaken by your lack of language skills. If you’re lucky, the driver will put on, at deafening volume, a copy of a copy of a copy of a Koranic tape, but if you’re really lucky, he’ll play nothing at all and not speak a word the entire trip.

5) Strawberries
Omigod: it’s amazing that I haven’t turned into a giant strawberry à la Veruca Salt (who turned into a giant blueberry). I cannot stop eating them (and at 50 cents a quart, you can see why). These freaks of nature are often bigger than walnuts but retain their juiciness and flavour. In fact, I would have to say that the fruits & vegetables found here are both delicious and unsettlingly cheap – how will I ever be able to pay more that 50 cents for a kilo of tomatoes again?

6) The Medina
I have an acquaintance who refuses to go to the medina alone. I used to find this puzzling because Rabat’s medina is, to say the least, benign and laidback, but then I just gave up trying to figure her out. The medina is home to everything (from girdles to live turtles – neither of which I have bought) at cutthroat prices. Generally, a specific item will arrive during any given week, and everyone will carry it. Merchandise comes in waves (like pirate ships do). The medina is comprised of various souks, so if you need fish, you go to the fish souk, fabric, the fabric souk, etc. You get the idea. There is a modest tourist souk that offers the usual items, including a few King Tut statues for the geographically-impaired tourist. The dealers are pretty low-key and once they get to know you, the hassle-o-meter drops as do the prices. It is a sad fact that I cannot walk past my jewellery guy without buying something, but this is one of the pitfalls of being a reincarnated magpie.

7) The Train
Moroccan trains are probably the best in all of Africa (bearing in mind that the bar is set pretty low) but I do like the ONCF rail system. Fares are frighteningly low and there are always several, if not many, trains a day to your destination. The trains are generally very clean (okay, I do travel 1st class a lot, but will do 2nd if push comes to shove) but I do try to ‘hold it in’ as long as possible and not use their toilets (memories of the Mount Vesuvius erupting toilet on the overnight train to Tangier still haunt my dreams). ONCF has a great website and I find that the personnel (both in the stations and on the trains) are exceedingly helpful. What can I say? – I like trains.

8) The Concierges
Most apartments have concierges who act as doormen and jacks-of-all-trades for the buildings. For a few dirham, my concierge pays my bills for me (well, I do give him the money), saving me hours of waiting in line (literally). If I need anything, he will do it. I rather like that. I wonder if he’d consider poisoning all of our neighbourhood dogs for me? On the advice of a colleague, I make it a point to greet the concierges in my neighbourhood regularly as a safety precaution of sorts. I figure that if I disappear, the police can retrace my steps by interrogating the concierges.

9) Pirates (Arrrrrrrrhh Me Bucko!)
Yes, I support the black market – I spend my honestly earned salary on illegal products. I’ve said it. But (at the risk of sounding a tad defensive), I have no other option. I can’t walk into the HMV on Follow-the-Leader and buy licensed products because neither exists. Besides, this week I scored with 8 films (many of which are not available yet in Canada on dvd) and the complete season of a television series, all for about $14. I would like to add that the Da Vinci Code – which opened this week worldwide – is already available on dvd (although I’m sure it was filmed in the theatre with a handheld camera).

10) Flowers
No, I am not turning into my mother, but I confess that I often find myself staring out my livingroom window and fixating on the jacaranda tree across the street (in full purple blooms), or the ubiquitous bougainvillea flowers cascading over the city’s walls. I still marvel at the Bird of Paradise plants I see planted about the city – they have forever ruined tulips and daffodils for me. It’s a riot of colour that nonetheless provides a calming zen-like quality in an un-calm & un-zen-like city. Of course, the earplugs help. And the booze.

11) The Hanoots
I frequent 2 hanoots, or corner stores: one the size of a telephone booth, the other the size of 3 telephone booths but with 37 times the merchandise. Both proprietors are friendly and are genuinely kind men; indeed, hanootiers (yes, I made that word up) will often provide credit to their clients. See if your 7-11 back home will let you keep a tab. Hanoots are fabulous holes-in-the-wall where you can buy everything from apricots to skin bleaching cream. I have yet to have a bad hanoot experience (although, I know that they exist – see how positive I am by not giving details?), although I do find it curious that prices can fluctuate hourly.

12) The Fried Bread Thingy
God, what are these things called? – someone tell me! provide me with a pronunciation guide! allow me to move beyond pointing at the damn things! I am told that these thingies aren’t considered bread per se, but rather a snack. Large squares of artery-clogging flakey bread are fried on a grill and eaten hot. Prices range from 1-3 dirhams. Sometimes you can get them filled with fried onions and green peppers and olives. I slather cream cheese and chopped cucumbers & tomatoes on them and eat them in 4 bites. I am salivating as I type this.

13) The Weather
It’s 29 °c today!! How can I make disparaging comments about a weather system that allowed me to wear flip-flops in January; indeed, the only time I wore socks this winter was when it rained. And no tsunamis! Enough said.

14) The Cult of the Repeat Customer
At first glance – or rather on first encounter – many shop attendants in Rabat can be a tad surly, having missed all of their customer service seminars. But return once or twice, and the balance tips in your favour. You will be treated as a conquering hero, with kisses, chattiness, and improved service. The clerks I haven’t been able to thaw out are the cows at Ursine Direct, the china store I always sometimes frequent – but I’m working on them. Those cows will smile at me goddamnit. The waiters at the cafés I patronise don’t bother taking my order because they know what to bring, and the same is true for the few restaurants where I am a regular. Of course, I always order the same thing. Still, it’s a rather nice – and dare I say ‘warm & fuzzy’ – feeling.

15) It’s Not Casablanca
This one is pretty much self-explanatory. Casa is icky: it is loud & polluted, while Rabat is less-loud & less-polluted. There is a dearth of green things in Casa (i.e., plants not aliens), whereas Rabat is flowery and has wide grassy boulevards and parks. I wish Rabat & Casa could switch names because Casablanca is infinitely cooler sounding & Rabat sounds like the noise a frog makes. But it is what it is: an urban cesspool brimming with monkey poo (figuratively, I believe). No thanks. I’ll stay in Rabat.

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