Really Living: Casablanca, Morocco... 25 years ago (vol 1)

After nearly a year long hiatus primarily due to work demands, I'll be re-launching this blog over the coming weeks and months. I say re-launching vs. re-starting because I will be re-branding it as well. In the next few weeks this site will be re-named "Really-Living" and will be re-organized around that concept. I will also try to post regularly - shooting for every Thursday. Discovery: A gift from my 17 year old self:

My basement last summer: grey light slanted through the sliding glass doors and pooled around puddles of warmer light under the bare bulbs and their dangling strings. Squatting in a far corner I sorted through piles of books, shoeboxes heaping with old letters, and a plasma globe from the 80’s. There, under a pile of receipts for products long since gone was a pair of unlikely objects. I had a sense of déjà vu as I drew them from the bottom of the box, a sudden wave of haunting intimate knowledge yet unfamiliarity: a tiny spiral bound notebook, and a thin red hardbound training diary bound by a rubber band. Two 25 year old gifts from my 17 year old self – jaggedly scrawled journals of my first two trips to compete in the world championships – first, the 1986 world speedskating championships, and  second, the 1986 junior world cycling championships.

Of the two artifacts, my curiosity was piqued the most by the latter. Africa, Morocco, Casablanca – the scents and sounds came flooding back - torn pages of memory now whole: senior year of high school, graduation, the 7-11 cycling team, Eddy B., the Colorado Springs Olympic training center, and a return to a familiar yet alien place where I was yet an outsider. A dozen 17 year old kids dropped in North Africa with little supervision absorbing the sights and sounds of a completely foreign culture... Then… yes then, a sudden smile, a memory of that day that preceded it all: the heat, still air over shimmering concrete, and the crisp latticed shadow of bicycle wheels on the velodrome, and the “perfect race” an exquisite combination of adversity and triumph, surprise reversals, and vindication.

No. Nothing since had ever topped it. Not any of the following world championships, not the Olympics or the medal race. No, the “perfect race” of that summer possessed all the elements of a McKee plot – the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, and resolution. Never again would the outcome of a race so utterly possess all facets of my existence. More to come on that race, but first the denouement: Casablanca, Morocco. (Pictures complements of Stefan Spielman, journal is un-edited except for punctuation)

The creased binder creaked as I eagerly opened to the first page of the journal and read those first words, penned by that familiar stranger. Walking backward into a dream I read:

(Tuesday) The plane flight was 6 1/2 hours and I didn't sleep at all. We left at 8:00pm from New York and arrived at 7:30am in Casablanca, Morocco.

The people at the airport treated us very well, although they didn't speak English. We drove through a dry wasteland - shrubs and dead grass - to our hotel on the outskirts of downtown on the ocean. I wish I had a camera - there are so many strange sights and smells. Men hold hands with men and women with women - a social custom that apparently you do with friends.

It is flat here for the most part. The people here are generally very dark skinned and many seem to have some black as well as arab ancestry. There are also some full blown african natives here. About half of the people are wearing long shawls in town while the rest have 'normal' clothes, but the further from downtown you get, the more the traditional dress gains a monopoly. The traditionally dressed women usually wear hoods and veils.

Armed and unarmed soldiers are stationed occasionally on the highway and in the city. There are nice modern buildings in town, but there are a lot of rundown chipped stucco apartment buildings too. There are some nice houses, but otherwise the average household dwelling consists of a small vegetable garden surrounded by a white painted wall on three sides and a shabbily built flat-topped, low-roofed house comprising the fourth wall. The floors appear to be dirt. There are also houses made of cheap corrugated sheet metal rusting into the dirt - very poor.

The people seem to like us very much - I'm not sure if it is because we are Americans or because we are cyclists. After unloading our stuff, we set off to find a place to eat at 10:00am. Apparently restaurants serve meals only at certain times, so we went to three places before being able to get someone to serve us food.

When we arrived at the hotel, no one spoke Arabic or French in our group so we were having a hard time. We weren't making much progress until a young man - approximately 22 years old - very nice looking with nice clothes (casual) and a cheerful attitude introduced himself as Mohammed and told us he would help us. He helped us unload and get our rooms and found us a restaurant. He kept asking us about "Rock and Roll" and if we liked Chuck Berry, E.L.O., or Ray Charles. He was very entertaining.

He explained that he was an English major at the university and that he wanted to be a translator someday, so he was practicing. When we finally found a restaurant, Mohammed ordered for everyone. While we were waiting for the next 15 minutes we were accosted by approximately 17 "street sellers" selling sunglasses, chains, ornaments, wallets, and shoe shines. I was smart enough to give a definite no and look away, but some of the guys looked at the stuff, while others would say no and then watch the men with interest in their eyes. Some of the guys (Mike and Greg especially) got rude - which didn't help much. One of the peddlers had open sores and pustules all over his body - talk about culture shock! The man selling sunglasses was trying to sell them for $25. Before he left, he was asking only $5.

Mohammed and the owner finally drove them off so we could eat. Lunch was composed of French Bread (very good - it comes with all meals) and steak and French Fries with Coke or Orange juice to drink. I  had Coke - I wasn't going to risk getting sick. I ended up eating a Shishkebob someone had ordered (Stefan) as well. It was pretty good but everything has a weird taste.  The smells are weird too - our Hotel has this strange musty smell. Scott says it is incense. After lunch we slept until 4:00pm then got ID cards for worlds, then went for a ride.

The people loved us - everywhere we went people would wave – hundreds and thousands of them (a far cry from a ride earlier in New Jersey prior to Somerville and Nutley where after 100 “hello’s” only one small boy returned our greeting) . They also all had something to say – everyone would always wave and yell something in French or Arabic. We rode 20 miles – first we went to the track then South along the coast, and then finally around the 8 mile road course loop which is relatively flat with one 180 degree turn and was marked with arrows painted on the road.

We then went to eat the correct time at the hotel. At one point, as we returned our bikes through the parking garage, we came upon our hotel staff removing dead chickens from the trunk of the car – bodies complete with feathers intact and simmering (festering?) in the heat in the trunk. No surprise, we had French bread, bean soup, an omelet with spices, and – of course – chicken for the main course w/ apple pastry for dessert, all with mineral water to drink – pretty good!

After dinner, Stefan, Scott and I went out to the beach, walking down the shiny cobbled steps to the sand. Every night about 8:00 it gets cloudy and foggy until morning – whereupon it clears up – all the cars have yellow headlights for the fog.  The tide was coming in and we climbed around the ruins of some old castle or other building, then sat on the rocks that the ten foot high waves were crashing on. We looked across the 1000’s of miles of water back to home. It was really beautiful.

I’m going to bed – its still Tuesday.


Next up: Where Mohommed is arrested and dragged away by his hair, screaming...