Casablanca is a coastal city of Morocco known for a handful of things. Most Americans will know it for the 1942 film of the same name with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Muslims around the world may recognize this seaside city as the spot of the immense Hassan II Mosque.
But for all its splendor and exoticism, there are things to beware of lest you end up inviting them to go bump in the night…
We, a traveling partnership comprised of an American and an Australian, were not used to being on a vacation without booze. The muslim country of Morocco has very few bars that can hold a candle to the watering holes we’re used to, and as for liquor stores and beer distributors, if you ask around there simply isn’t.
We spent our days out and about, having mint tea in sidewalk cafes while considering our next meals, hoping we can forget the idea of a nice cold brew.
On our Friday afternoon, we even followed a travel-guide map around the city to get a peek at the best of Casablanca.
It was a lackluster tour, with its main events being decrepit facades and indiscernible “motifs” of dilapidated architecture.
One stop on this simple walking tour was the Hotel Transatlantique inside which we heard rumor that there was a bar.
We enjoyed the front face for what little it had to offer, and were pleased when the foyer offered more exciting details. Large bronze lions, stained-glass lamps, and statues double my height filled the room around the concierge like a crevice in the Addams Family mansion. We waded our way through French to inquire about the bar and they pointed us farther into the belly of the hotel.
This room was even more lavish. The walls were lined in velvet to match the plush chairs and the molding looked like it was carved from silver and gold. The bar, of course, was dark, dim, and seemed to never have been dusted.
They had an unlit refrigerator, locked and teeming with beer. It was here that we each opted for a bottle of the local Casablanca beer.
On a napkin, the tender (who I imagine has many other duties in the hotel besides this one) wrote down our total in dirhams: 160. This price was the equivalent of about $16, meaning we paid $8 each for a bottle of beer in a country that hardly drinks.
Had we spoken the language better, we could have questioned it. Instead, as if emerging from a week in the desert, we relished in the beads of moisture that began to bloom on the tinted bottle and were just happy to have found something, anything, fermented.
She set us up outside in the courtyard, which was, we reasoned, truly what we paid for. It was gorgeously intricate and exotic, with decades-old trees winding their way to the sun through the narrow opening and beautiful tile-work.
We enjoyed, but refused to pay for another beer. We ended our walking tour with yet another underwhelming vista, and headed toward our one saving grace: a bar we had confirmed was half decent.
When we arrived at this bar it seemed they had a secret. There was a large tent erected just outside the door, in a way that initially kept itself hidden from being too readily identifiable. Instead of the darkly lit and painted black doors we’d grown accustomed to relating to alcohol establishments in the city, the white tent here instilled in us some hope.
Our language barrier with the bouncer made us seem as though we weren’t going to be allowed in, but the owner soon emerged, speaking jovially in English, informing us we can go in so long as we don a white shirt that he can provide.
We graciously accepted the matching gifts which he sized perfectly after only a few quick glances at our individual physiques, and went inside. The entire place was white and buzzing under blue lights. The bar was tended by men in suits with slicked-back hair, suitable representatives of the top-shelf liquor that lined the shelves behind them. We situated ourselves in a corner and ordered a bucket of full-sized Coronas for half of what we paid at the Transatlantique.
A city frustratingly filled with the sober French speakers of the world was closed behind us. Inside we had a party painted white, and a live soundtrack sung sweetly in Spanish.
We left the bar glowing from the excitement (and of course the bucket and a half of beer). We had certainly left behind our Garden of Eden, navigating the dark streets. Every now and then, the shadows would scurry. Cockroaches darted under foot, confirming the demons of the night were out to play.
We decided to eat something when we got closer to home. Seeing as we were in a coastal city, a sushi joint seemed promising. The small restaurant we landed on was packed inside with young adults in their 20s and 30s, on dates and out in large groups of friends. I spoke Spanish here to order our food to take home, making sure to point just for clarification and hoping it resonated.
We waited for quite some time here, all the while watching others dig into massive slabs of sushi.
For our own order, we stuck to a familiar fish: salmon. The restaurant had Salmon in its name. We felt confident in our choice.
When the food finally came out to us wrapped tightly in a paper bag, we hurried home to dig in. It was a heavy bag, and the price we paid made us feel as though we had made out like bandits.
In truth, we got a raw deal.
We split the loot down the middle, trying each of the different styles of (presumably) salmon sushi they had arranged for it. Some of it was very recognizable, while other things were more out there, like a larges square that seemed as if it were going for a salmon pizza.
There was one element of this meal that had shocked both of us. No strangers to sushi, we identified it as a sort of “weird crab stick.” It had more of a resistant crunch to it, almost like gelatinous animal fat and marrow, and had a hole through the middle as if it were previously wrapped over a straw.
It wasn’t good, but we were hungry.
With an early morning train ticket booked, we ate a little and wrapped up the rest. Tummies fed (although not full), it was time for bed.
But the spirit of these fish from foreign shores did not share this inclination. The loathsome roaches on the street gathered their information and delivered it to the devil; he knew we had left our alcohol-fueled sanctity of the white bar and ambled home in a hungry, vulnerable state.
The roaches were just the emissaries. It was the kraken who was sent to do the dirty work.
At about 3 AM, I could feel his insidious tentacles start unfurling within me. No longer asleep, I curled over on my side, attempting to let my own stomach acid slash away at the half-digested dinner. The briny mucous of the monster began rising in my mouth. I swallowed, reasoning with myself that I had only a few hours to recharge before we would set off on our weekend train travels.
But once you’ve awakened the kraken, there is no sending him back to his depths without a fight. So I arose, fearful of what to come, but steadfast.
Alright, I told him, let’s dance.
His attack was to corner me in the bathroom, seated and helpless on a throne of porcelain as it tore through my insides. I countered by sending my own tentacles down my throat, diving to the depths and returning only when I had locked onto his nefarious limbs and drug him out thrashing.
Oh, did he thrash, but I fought back.
In the end, I won the fight. I ripped open a pack of alka seltzer powder, and sat up in bed sipping it as a toast to my triumphs. When it was through, I tucked back into bed, exhausted from the battle.
In the morning I arose battered, bruised, but not beaten.
I made it to that train.