The Changing Landscape:  Craning for a View in Casablanca

We did our weekly grocery shopping at the new Carrefour Hypermarche in Dar Bouazza.  With no traffic, it takes 10 minutes for us to shoot down R320 (named Boulevard Abdelhadi Boutaleb), the main road at the base of the hill where GWA resides, and travel from GWA to this nearby suburban location…much quicker than the 20-30 minutes it takes to shoot up R320 to reach our Carrefour Gourmet default location downtown.  The appearance this year of this convenient Walmart-ish superstore, co-anchoring a new strip mall alongside a Dar Bouazza location of the Home Depot-ish Mr. Bricolage, marks a turning point in Dar Bouazza’s development from quiet village to a “location, location, location” spot for residential and commercial development.

Sealing the deal on Dar Bouazza’s developing status, for better or for worse, is the recent opening of a big new McDonald’s at the big rond point (traffic circle) intersection of R320 with P3012, the road leading to the Crazy Park mini-amusement park just before it bends left and runs alongside a stretch of popular beaches on the Atlantic shoreline.  The McDonalds is so new that Google Maps has the McDonald’s name pinned in the right location, but the satellite imagery shows the land as just the big, empty area it was before grading and construction began.

Along the fairly short span of road between GWA and Dar Bouazza there is so much active construction that we see cranes everywhere.  Each night as we watch the sun set over Dar Bouazza and the Atlantic from our balcony, in addition to beautiful fields lush with green from the winter rains, and beyond them buildings – homes, mosques, barns, and more – that seem to have been there for ages, we see cranes standing at attention over the new neighborhoods they are building.  This is not unique to Dar Bouazza. The Casablanca metropolitan region, from Dar Bouazza (south) to Bouskoura (east) to Mohammedia (north), is having a construction boom. Cranes, cranes, and more cranes everywhere! We wonder how there can be such demand for housing with all this development. A couple weekends ago while making a final visit to the Commissary before our membership expires at the end of February, Brian drove from GWA, up the Rocade Sud-Ouest (Southwest Ring Road), and out to the A1 autoroute (highway) to loop around Casablanca’s east side and then north up to Rabat.  As he drove just the 12 kilometers from our apartment at GWA to the entrance to the A1, he actually counted the cranes he could see and got to 48 cranes…48 CRANES before he gave up counting!

The pattern in this developing country really is no different from such development in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th Century.  With a developing middle class, families who can afford to move from their urban homes to the suburbs move to outlying towns that swell with new transplants.  We encountered the impact of that on what gets left behind in the cities when we ran schools in Cleveland. Perhaps that same impact will strike Casablanca in the coming years.  Perhaps not. Time will tell.

“For better or for worse…”  That really is the key to weighing what we have seen happening around us in the greater Casablanca metropolitan area since we arrived in July 2016.  During our “newbie” phase we had veteran expats tell us of how things had changed just in the several years they had lived here. We arrived to encounter a major road construction project underway to widen and improve Boulevard Abdelhadi Boutaleb.  At the time, one of those veteran expats told us amid a conversation about the road construction, “Just wait…You will see things change quickly here.  I remember when, not too long ago, Boulevard Abdelhadi Boutaleb was called Route d’Azemmour.”  Indeed, GWA still includes on business cards and letterhead its Route d’Azemmour address in parentheses after its Boulevard Abdelhadi Boutaleb address because so many people in the area still refer to R320 by its former name.

With all the change we have encountered in four years, there is quite a mix of plusses and minuses.  For example, since opening Africa’s first bullet train in November 2018, for less than $20 passengers can travel 321 kilometers (201 miles) from Casablanca to Tangier in two and a half hours instead of the more than five hours it used to take.  Pretty convenient.  And all the residential development also brings commercial development, like with the Carrefour and Mr. Bricolage in Dar Bouazza.  Many, especially the new transplants in these locations, think of such development as great progress, and for the expats among them it makes adjusting to their new lives here easier.  The cost, though, is the loss of what was there before, both visually and culturally. Thinking about our first year in Morocco, we loved driving down R320 and seeing long stretches of fields, growing grasses and wildflowers painting them with color this time of year, and sheep grazing happily in them with their shepherds tending them the way shepherds have tended their flocks for millennia.  Each new neighborhood and strip mall consumes more and more of these fields. The other day we looked out from our balcony to the beautiful ocean view we have enjoyed for four years and Audrey said, “I’m really going to miss this view when we move.” Brian replied, “If we stayed, it wouldn’t be too long before we would lose a lot of this view anyway.”

Since our own newbie year, when each new batch of newbies arrive we have been among the veterans who tell them how much things have changed, and each year we see more and more change.  What the new newbies take for granted and build into their cohort’s baseline understandings of Morocco as a developing country, we instead appreciate as change – whether as progress or other – compared to the “I remember when…” conditions we know from before they came.  Earning the “I remember when…” merit badge does not require anything special; it just takes staying long enough to have stories of how things used to be different to tell to people arriving after our baseline understanding of Morocco changed.  And, of course, our non-expat friends have so much more “I remember when…” that they can share, and deserve great thanks from us expats for their endless patience with the continuous arrival of new expats who have to go through the same evolution from newbie to “I remember when…”

Just in our time, we have seen much change in Morocco and change in Casablanca.  At GWA we would like to think that we not only have seen change, but that we have worked hard to help bring change here.  And, perhaps most important, in our time here we also have seen change in ourselves. Morocco and its wonderful people have shaped us in ways that will stay a part of us long after we move on to Panama next summer.  Moreover, as we begin to think about our transition to Panama, we look forward to returning to Morocco to spend time with Charlotte and the family she is starting here. Regardless of what future changes shape us going forward, it pleases us greatly to know that no matter where we go Morocco and our friends-who-are-family and family-who-are-friends here will always be in our hearts, and we will look forward to each return we make as life continues to unfold.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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