Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Morocco - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 2)

Getting on the plane, we heard announcement in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic, which got us quite excited. Taking off, we saw the farmland drop quickly below us. The view was not that exciting as it was hazy that day, giving everything below a dull, grey look. Eventually, I noticed were were over water... then land again. I was excited to think that this was the first time I was over African or Arabic airspace. At first, the landscape below looked green and hilly and I was somewhat disappointed at how similar this looked to Europe. However, as we descended into Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, I noticed that the earth around us looked drier than when we took off, and had a brownish tinge to it. I could not see any cities, and only saw some farms and small buildings. I was also unable to see the coast. It turns out that the airport is quite a ways inland away from the city. I was also quite excited to fill out the Moroccan immigration cards, which were in French and Arabic. This was the first time I had to fill out any kind of paperwork written in Arabic or had seen Arabic being used as an official language.

As our plane had arrived a bit late we had to hurry to find our next plane. The airport felt large and efficient, but its age was obviously showing in its yellow walls and design. At one point Felix was certain that we were supposed to go through a gate, and just as we walked out the automatic door, I turned to go back in and dragged him with me. It was a good thing that I did since that was the door exiting the security area and if the door had closed behind us we would have had to go through security again. After some more searching and passing through yet another metal detector, we found our gate. Looking outside, the landscape looked dusty and the old bare yellow walls of the airport made me feel like I was in another time period. Still, there were some modern architectural elements to the airport which brought me back to reality. Seeing the red Moroccan star against a green background, the portraits of the King, and letters written in Arabic, I realize that I was in a very different part of the world.

Most of the passengers in the waiting room appeared to be foreign, some looking like businessmen in suits, some looked like travellers, and there was a Caucasian family who looked like they were on vacation. I had also wondered how many people were going to Ouarzazate because of the movie studios there. The Caucasian family looked so out of place I wondered if one of them was a famous actor I didn't know and was brining their family with them on an extended shoot in the area. Because of the people in the waiting room, this place did not feel exotic at all, and I was afraid that with the pace at which the homogeneous global culture seems to be spreading, Morocco would not be much different than any other country. Finding that our plane had been delayed, I took the opportunity to use the bathroom, which I thankfully found very clean for a developing country.

After what seemed to be a very long wait and delay, we were led down a dusty ramp and onto a bus. After a short drive around some large jet liners, we saw we were approaching a small turboprop with the old Royal Air Maroc insignia painted on it. Boarding the plane, we noticed that is was obviously old and had seen better days. Some panels seemed lose, with corners jutting out, the carpet and upholstery was old and peeling in areas. It gave a very cozy and adventurous feel to the plane. The door to the cockpit was open and through it we can see workers loading our bags into the forward cargo hold, down the middle of which was a path from the cockpit to the rest of the fuselage. We kept an eye on the bags being tossed in the cargo hold netting, and were relieved when we saw our bags being loaded.

The take off was one of the most violent and steep take offs I have ever experienced. The acceleration pushed me deep into my seat. I was surprised that such an old plan had such power in it as I had been in much newer turboprops and jets that had never demonstrated such power. Perhaps we had a short runway and needed a steep climb for whatever reason. The ground fell quickly below us and before we know it, we were high up in the sky again. Throughout the violent climb I was afraid that plane would disintegrate under all that pressure, especially after seeing the condition the plane was in. The rest of the flight was comfortable. The announcements were in Arabic and French, so I was able to understand them. We were served drinks in cups with the Royal Air Maroc insignia and some Arabic lettering imprinted in them. I had very much enjoyed seeing this exotic combination. The Royal Air Maroc insignia evoked old days when transportation was difficult and I couldn't help but think I was in one of those old adventure movies such as Indiana Jones.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 1)

I woke up at 6:20am. It was just before sunrise, and the sky was dark blue. When I looked over at Felix, he started to stir in his sleeping bag. We were both awake, before our alarms went off. We were excited and ready for the day. This will mark the true start of my adventure, the flight that will put me just south-west of the Mediterranean so that I can start my journey - my goal of a land crossing of Europe along the Mediterranean Ocean from west to east. We packed up quickly and quietly as to not disturb our hosts. After the usual morning routine, we were ready to leave. We left the key in our room and passed through the corridor were we can see the other Couchsurfer peacefully asleep on the couch. Heading out the door, after one last mental check, we pulled the door closed, which automatically locked itself behind us.

Exiting the building, we see that the action had already started in the streets. The day was reaching full brightness, some of the early commuters were heading to work, and some stores were opening up. The day was already warm and humid, and we can tell that it was going to be a full-blown summer day ahead. We found our way to the subway, already bustling but thankfully not crowded yet. After we arrived at the airport, we found that we needed to take another bus to an outlying terminal, T4. The bus drove on what looked like a deserted raised highway, with the surrounding land empty, dusty, and of a brownish-yellow colour. There were industrial-looking buildings once in a while. The bus was modern, air-conditioned, comfortable, and clean, a stark contrast to the landscape we saw outside. The bus took one last ramp curving right on a bridge, and we saw the terminal ahead of us. It was a large silver building with glass panes. It seemed new and looked like work was still being done on it.

Pulling up in front of the airport, we hopped off and went inside. It was a modern airport of a standard design. We looked for the Iberia Airlines section. The first leg, operated by Iberia Airlines will take us to Casablanca, where we will board a local turboprop plane to take us rest of the way to Ouarzazate. Seeing the exotic looking Iberia and Royal Air Maroc airline symbols, I felt that we were on the verge of a great adventure. Checking in at the counter, I was slightly dismayed that I had to check my bag. I was somewhat comforted by the fact that we were not in the US or on a flight operated by US Airlines, as I've had horrible experiences of lost luggage nearly every time I fly through Philadelphia. However, I was still nervous and skeptical since I wasn't sure how reliable Moroccan airports were.

Passing through security, with me holding the top detachable portion of my bag, we found that were were still quite early. The airport had a large multi-story shopping mall, and we found a small café to have breakfast at. I had an overpriced Spanish version of a panini. Nonetheless, it was a warm breakfast and a welcome start to what I'm sure will be a full day. Madrid had been an introduction, a staging area of sorts, and soon it would be the start of my long-awaited adventure.

After breakfast, we exited Spanish customs. I was thrilled to get another stamp in my passport. Similarly, I was looking forward to the stamps I would collect in the next few weeks passing through Morocco, Gibraltar, and back into the European Union. I have always found it thrilling to receive a stamp in my passport. It is tangible proof that I had been somewhere and that it was not just a beautiful dream. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, we followed signs and arrows toward our terminal. I found it cool that each sign had an electronic section displaying the estimated time until our destination in number of minutes which turned out to be surprisingly accurate. Arriving at our terminal, we sat and waited, watching the planes and rolling hills outside through the glass walls and chatted with each other.

The terminal was empty at first. There were rows of seats. We took turns going to the bathroom, taking a drink from the water fountain, and just walking around the area. We were restless. I noticed fun, complicated sign holders made up twisting tubes bolted together. I noticed there were many large bolts in the design of the airport, giving it an interesting, almost industrial, but clean and bright feel to it. Eventually, the waiting area gathered a small crowd. I was staring at the electronic boarding sign intensely as I saw the plane finally arrive and the passengers dismount.