We have heard since before arriving in Morocco about the cold Moroccan winters. So far in Casablanca, though, winter seems to have been scripted by Pacific Northwest screenwriters back in the U.S.: lots of rain, so that the mild cold cuts through walls and clothes in ways that a good old sub-zero Midwestern winter does not.
Because all the buildings are made of concrete walls and tile floors, you cannot escape the dank chill. Towels and wet clothes do not dry, and mold is not the friend of things in your closet. With no central heating, last month we ordered two tons of firewood to minimize the chill during this winter rainy season. Of course, because we live on the top floor of our building, the wood got hauled up four stories to the roof by men carrying large and awkward 30 kilo plastic weave bags of firewood on their backs with no more than a thin layer of cardboard as padding. Brian first had to figure out a way to cover the 10 ft long x 5 ft wide x 5 ft high stack – lest the ample rain turn our supply of well-dried wood into a useless wet and moldy mess – and now has to carry the awkwardly heavy bags down to our apartment in order to make fires.
Still, while the expected rainy season has come to Casablanca, it pales in comparison to our concept of winter honed through our years living in Cleveland. Cleveland, where they do not close school for snow; they close it for COLD, and “cold” does not exist until the temperature drops to -20°F (-29°C). Cleveland, where our house’s poor old furnace at times could not keep up with the biting wind chill, so that running nonstop it could get our inside temperature up only to 50°F (10°C).
Yet, having spent the last several years in Louisiana and Arizona, we miss having REAL winter. In both those locations, winter is when you sit outside in shorts and tees with friends and refreshing beverages to enjoy the evening and ruminate on how that is what justifies enduring the summers there. So when we volunteered to chaperone our school’s Speech & Debate team at a weekend competition in Ifrane, four hours northeast of Casablanca through the mountains, we thought we might even get to enjoy snow. Such thoughts tantalized us as we sat on the bus outside our school’s gate waiting for the last of our students to board. With Casablanca’s afternoon sun beating down on the charter (schools cannot take their own buses outside the city), it felt like a furnace – likely over 100°F (38°C) – when Mohammed, our driver, finally turned on the a/c.
That roasting start served as a stark contrast to what we had in store for our weekend. We noticed a little chill in the air by the time we stopped at a gas station outside Khemisset to give kids a bathroom and snack break – 26 high school kids packed into a mini mart at the same time as a similarly-stopped busload of uniformed military, all vying to check out through one cashier. Twenty-five minutes after starting the 15-minute break, we had shooed the last of the kids back to the bus, but no one could get on because our driver Mohammed was still absent with the bus locked. Finally he came out of the bushes next to the parking lot. Apparently that was a better location to take care of business than the bathrooms inside.
Getting back on the bus, we tried checking with Mohammed to make sure he knew our hotel destination in Ifrane. After five minutes of not finding the right click between our broken language skills and his, we decided to wait until we got to Ifrane to pilot him to our spot. As we rolled through the mountains, ears popping from the changing pressure with our ascent, after the last hues of the sunset fell into the horizon, we realized that the bus felt COLD. While the temperature of our new environs had dropped, Mohammed’s blasting a/c had not. One of our students worked her icicled self brittley toward the front and asked Mohammed in Darija (the Moroccan Arabic dialect) if he would please turn off the a/c. He did, and we started to thaw as we passed through the open, broad streets of El Hajeb sporting trees with actual leaves, not frons. We could tell that autumn had come here, with leaves having changed color before dropping off.
Finally we rolled into Ifrane later than we had expected. Rather than check in at our hotel, we had to go straight to the restaurant where we had a reservation for our large group. As we disembarked from the bus we were greeted with a temperature below freezing…but, to our great disappointment, no snow. After The Forest restaurant impressed us at their ability to feed 26 high school students, three chaperones, and one bus driver in an hour’s time, dressed imperfectly for the cold we shivered back to the bus and headed for our hotel.
Fifteen minute later we arrived at our hotel, a sprawling resort that looked in the dark as if it had seen its best days 20 years ago. In Morocco, though, even new construction can look that way. Audrey and the Speech & Debate coach went inside to register the group and get keys, while Brian waited patiently with the students back at the bus. And waited longer. And still waited longer. While he and the students shivered, he could see Audrey across the street and through the glass doors, and wondered why she did not emerge with keys to end the night standing in the cold. Meanwhile, Audrey was inside arguing with the front desk people about how to pay for the rooms. Our reservation had been made for a certain number of rooms; yet, this being Morocco, they decided upon our checking in that now they wanted to charge us by the person. After more than an hour, Audrey finally got it resolved and led kids to their toasty rooms waiting for them.
Taking 26 kids from freezing temps to toasty rooms led Audrey to look forward to settling into our toasty room as well. As they say here: “La la la.” (No, no, no.) The other rooms were warm. Ours, which actually was a cavernous apartment that could sleep up to 10 people in various rooms, was stone cold…maybe 40°F (4°C) at most. Thinking systematically, first we closed the doors to the kitchen and other extra rooms so their cold would stay there. Then we turned on the wall heaters in the three remaining rooms (including our bedroom), and prayed they would warm things up quickly. The did not. We piled every blanket we could find onto our bed, and slept not only in our clothes, but in our coats as well, hoping that by morning the room would be warm. Yet, as cold as we were, we appreciated our good fortune for having a space indoors to sleep. Mohammed the bus driver slept on the bus.
In the morning, we discovered a few things. First, the buildings we thought looked dilapidated from the outside the previous night looked even more so in daylight. The setting could have worked for a Moroccan horror film. Much of Morocco could learn that a coat of paint makes a big difference. Second, despite this, Ifrane truly is a beautiful town: full of pine trees and broad-leafed maples and other deciduous tress with actual leaves that drop for winter to crunch when you trod upon them, and beautiful houses lining winding roads through rolling hills as you drive from one neighborhood to the next. Frost covered the ground, so that everything glistened in morning light and had a refreshing crispness. If municipalities could have parents, Ifrane’s cement chalets would result from a fling between Morocco and a village in the Swiss Alps.
So we got up in our still-not-warm flat and prepared for a day chaperoning and judging Speech & Debate events. At least we no longer could see our breath inside our sleeping quarters. Brian, who elsewhere is always warm, opted for Old Man fashion by wearing a pullover sweater underneath his suit coat and bow tie. While he is only 49, Audrey noted the Old Man thing more as an actual condition than merely as a visual image when she helped him pull his sweater all the way down instead of resting as a knotted mass bunched up around his midsection.
Off through the weekend, with two days of judging and overseeing our great kids, we were not as cold as we had been that first night. Still, warm never entered our minds as an apt concept. We had wanted winter, and we got it. Jack Frost did not nip at or noses; he was too busy laughing heartily at us for getting exactly what we asked for.
Back in Casablanca on Sunday night, nursing the colds we have fought since before Ifrane but accepted post-Ifrane as unavoidable, we did not feel the pre-furnace bus chill we felt when we left school on Friday afternoon. Having seasons for a weekend was mostly good. Expanding our appreciation for the diversity this country offers we liked even more. And then it was very good to come home. Our drizzly Casablancan winter chill has never felt so good.
On your mark…get set…here we go!
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