Our last post introduced the experience of driving in Casablanca. Related intrinsically, yet distinct as an experience unto itself, is the matter of parking.
First, we have heard that roughly 70 percent of Morocco’s economy is unofficial duty-free commerce…aka, black market…aka, free market in its truest form. Unemployment is high. The idea of a high school student working a summer job at McDonalds (or, McDoo, as we noted in a previous post) is out of the question, because every job at McDonalds or Pizza Hut or wherever is a career position. An opening will garner a few hundred applications. So industrious and motivated people who cannot find jobs do what such people have done as long as there has been commerce: they find a need in the market and fill it.
The Need: Some things in Morocco are not scarce, such as sheep and donkeys and scooters and streetside Hanouts that collectively sell anything and everything. One thing that IS scarce in Morocco, and especially in Casablanca, is available parking. Imagine parking in New York City on a bad day; that’s a good day parking in Casablanca.
It is not that no parking spaces exist, but that available parking spaces can be very hard to find. Casablanca’s streets are often narrow with parked cars crammed into every nook and cranny where they can be shoehorned to fit. Even in a parking lot, lines are painted so closely together that pulling in or out of a space may require people to wish their Drivers Ed class from years before included instruction in the Moroccan 16-point turn. You cannot drive in Casablanca without the ability to parallel park…and to do it well. Correction: you should not be permitted to drive here without that skill; but, people do.
To make matters more complex, it takes a while to learn the rules of where you can – and, more importantly, where you cannot – park your vehicle. Naturally, you cannot park in a way that blocks a driveway or garage. Beyond that intuitive element, though, drivers new to Casablanca may get confused by the No Parking signs, comprised of a blue circle with a red border and a red “ \” or “X” through the center of it. Typically, they come in pairs, marking the front and back boundaries of a No Parking section of curb. Sometimes, though, one has difficulty finding the second sign, so you do not know on which side of the sign you can see it is okay to park and which is not. Or, sometimes, there are No Parking sections mixed with sections where it is okay to park, but you do not know which signs mark the okay parking section and which signs mark No Parking.
Yet another parking challenge is the Yellow Curb, which only works well to discourage parking when it is not faded and difficult to see as yellow. It also does not help convince drivers to avoid yellow curbs when so many others ignore their parking prohibition. Do this at your own peril, though. Twice in recent weeks, Brian parked on the yellow curb in the CIL to pop quickly into the French grocery store O’Self. This weekend, though, when we went to the CIL to shop at O’Self and some Hanouts, there were blue-uniformed police handing out tickets and towing vehicles from the yellow-curbed median packed with cars. Good thing we had found a legal spot this time, or we would have had to taxi home (a subject for another post!).
Violating any of the No Parking rules can result in finding The Boot attached to one of your wheels, like a metal sandwich that keeps you from driving away because your wheel cannot rotate. Unlike in the U.S., where getting unbooted is often a highly bureaucratic process, here you just find the guy who booted you, pay him, get unbooted, and drive away chagrined that you did not see the faint traces of yellow on the curb. Far worse is getting towed, which can take long hours and many dirham to break your car out of Bad Parking Jail.
The Solution: Back to our initial comments about free markets filling the needs of consumers, the answer to the problem of parking in Casablanca (and elsewhere in Morocco) comes in the form of the Parking Guardians (ou, en français, les gardiens de parking). An entire service industry has grown around the need for drivers (1) to find good, legal parking spaces, and (2) to feel confident that their vehicles will be safe during their absence from petty vandals and thieves. We are sad to have read some naïve and unflattering descriptions of the Parking Guardians online. In reality, these men are not shysters and charlatans. They provide a real service, at a negligible price, which makes life here easier and more enjoyable. Indeed, part parking attendant, part traffic cop, part 3-D Puzzle Master, and part bouncer, with yellow safety vests and an option to wash your car while you are gone, les gardiens de parking are Morocco’s Knights of the Chivalry of the Curb mixed with a sort of pure capitalism that would make Adam Smith proud.
For as little as 2Dh (2 dirham is about 25 cents) they will find you a spot to park on their stretch of curb and help direct you through the process of parking. This could mean directing your parallel parking with wild left and right wheel-turning gesticulations that somehow help fit your 3 meter vehicle into a barely-bigger 3.25 meter curbside opening, while the Guardian simultaneously holds up honking traffic with a Moroccan wave. It could also mean having you drive your vehicle halfway up onto the sidewalk perpendicular to the roadway to sandwich more cars into a small stretch of curb, this time likely holding up two lanes of honking traffic for you while you park. Last weekend, when we went to shop in the CIL and DID NOT PARK ON THE YELLOW CURB, it meant that as soon as we parked curbside in a free space, a Parking Guardian appeared with a 2 dirham ticket from the automated streetside parking pay box (that we had not seen), instructed us in pantomime to put it on our dashboard, and ensured that we were not towed while the local authorities were towing yellow curb cars left and right. After an hour of shopping to get fresh basil and broccoli at a Souk, fresh Moroccan bread and baguettes at the bakery, skewers for the grill at the hardware Hanout, and an assortment of butcher meat, cheeses, and more splurgee items at the French grocer O’Self, we gave the Parking Guardian 10Dh plus 2Dh for the automated parking ticket that he had given to us. Where could we shop for an hour stateside and pay only $1.25 to park? And these guys will even remind you to turn your mirrors into the side of your car – or just do it for you – to keep passing traffic from taking them off as drive-by collateral damage. As difficult as it may be to remember which of the handful of Parking Guardians huddled together in the median of the roadway is taking care of your car, they always remember which cars in their care go with which drivers.
A couple weeks ago we were headed to meet a mixed group of Moroccan and expat friends at someone’s flat for a Moroccan Movie Night that featured a Moroccan film presented (and, after finishing the viewing, discussed) by the film’s Moroccan producer/director. On the way, we stopped at Chez Paul, a fancy French restaurant, to pick up some things we could contribute to the group’s potluck refreshments. Having to zip in and out because we were running late, but with no streetside parking available, we explained in a mix of English, French, and pantomime to a Parking Guardian who spoke mostly Darija (Moroccan Arabic) that we needed just a few minutes to park and run inside. Our mission explained and his duty accepted, we just got out and let him figure out what to do with the car. Less than 10 minutes later we emerged with a box of savory treats as we wondered if we would find our car anywhere. There it sat, pulled into a driveway about 20 meters away. The Parking Guardian saw us and brought over the keys. When we asked, “Combien?” (How much?) he shrugged his shoulders and smiled broadly. We gave him a 10Dh coin, and he blessed us as we zipped off to our evening.
The Parking Guardians can be your friend or foe. Friend is much better. Shortly after getting wheels, Brian headed into town to get a haircut at The Palace salon. Pulling onto a side street off major drag route Boulevard Ghandi, he was stuck behind a slow-moving, very pink-faced German driving a big BMW SUV. In slow motion, the German ignored the Parking Guardian directing him to a spot further down where the street was wider, and pulled over to the curb in such a way that it blocked anyone else from getting past on the street. The Parking Guardian and Brian exchanged bemused glances from meters away and shrugged at each other as the German got out of his Beemer. Then the Parking Guardian turned his corrective attention to the German violating the Chivalry of the Curb, blowing a whistle loudly and repeatedly, and berating the German until – duly shamed – he got back in his SUV and drove ahead another 10 meters so Brian could park. Again they exchanged glances, rolled their eyes at the lack of decorum showed by the German, and smiled at each other for each doing their part to respect and preserve the Chivalry of the Curb.
On your mark…get set…here we go!