Dateline: December 30, 2011 – Rabat, Morocco
I was very proud to learn my first word of Arabic. Not so much to learn my second. And of the many questions I have asked myself on a fishing trip, perhaps none was as strange as “Why am I standing so close to a cobra?” Read on.
So it was that I found myself in Casablanca three days after Christmas. This was supposed to be more of a vacation than a fishing trip, but let’s face it, that’s always a blurry line with me. What, you may ask, was appealing about a trip here? Well, for one, there is great food, and more importantly, there is amazing history. (None more amazing that the fact that this is where US troops fired their first shots in the European theater in 1942. Better yet – and you can look this up – it was against the French, who promptly surrendered.) Still, I was making this trip with a companion, and I needed to consider what she wanted to do, at least faintly.
Despite my protestations that I would look at some of the cultural stuff, I pretty much got to the hotel, rigged the rods, and headed for the waterfront. My companion was understanding and accepted the venture as a cultural experience. We wandered the crowded streets, which were filled with vendors of every description, especially if the description is “food I won’t eat.” The locals were very friendly. We communicated a bit in my rudimentary French, enough for me to determine that they did in fact catch some fish here. My companion also knows a bit of Arabic, and I kept picking out the word “samak,” which would make sense, as this means “fish.” The ocean views were beautiful, especially as we approached the mammoth Mohammed V Mosque.
The Mohammed V Mosque, from more than a mile away. It’s big.
I worked my way down the shoreline with nary a bite, and as the thin winter sun began going down and it was getting chilly, I began to have doubts. I considered making an appeal to the Fish Gods.
The Casablanca shoreline near the Mosque. It was here that I became spiritually desperate.
I often commune with the Fish Gods, to feebly beg for a new species or country. In fishing terms, this sort of passes for being spiritual, but with these entirely foreign Fish Gods, I was lost. I was about to launch into something along the lines of “Are you there, Allah? It’s me, Steve.” (Which I am certain would land me on some sort of do not fly list.) Before anything theologically unfortunate could happen, I got a small bite. I set the hook, and there, in the shadow of the Mohammed V Mosque, I reeled in a small Wrasse and added Morocco as my 73rd country.
The Moroccan Fish Gods smile briefly upon me. I should have quit right here.
The basic mission had been accomplished, and it was getting rather blustery and dinner awaited, so we headed off to the hotel and a lovely seaside restaurant, where we ate fish species that I have never caught.
The next morning, we went on a hybrid tourist/fishing adventure to harbors north of Casablanca. Our first stop was Mohammedia, a quaint fishing village about 20 minutes north by train.
Mohammedia harbor. Not a regular tourist destination.
It was here, in this authentic-smelling fishing port, that I found a quiet corner and set up shop along with one local fisherman. In very slow French, him with a Moroccan accent and me with a junior high school accent, we discussed baits, fish, and rigs. The harbor was bustling with activity, boats loading and unloading, engines roaring, and men shouting in Arabic, Spanish, and French.
Steve and a local fisherman, Mahmoud. He is pulling apart a large, well-aged prawn to use for bait. I haven’t smelled anything that bad since Jaime Hamamoto put the dead crab in my tackle box. (https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/the-countdown-to-1000-the-worst-little-girl-in-the-world/)
I caught a few fish, including a wonderful little new species – the Atlantic Wrasse. (Different from yesterday’s Wrasse, although I may be the only person who cares.)
The Atlantic Wrasse. A fine new species. I should have stopped here.
The unfortunate Wrasse did not make it back in the water, however – it was snatched by one of the local stray cats just as I finished my photos. I heard the locals talk more about “samak,” which by now we all know means “fish” in Arabic.
The Moroccan Wrasse-eating cat. Amazingly fast.
We then headed another 40 minutes north by train, to Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. This is one of the nicest tourist venues on the coast – far less industrial than Casablanca and with loads of historical sites. We spent several hours walking around the waterfront and touring the 12th-century Kasbah that dominates the harbor entrance. The weather was glorious.
The Kasbah wall. I threw a stone at it, so I can now truthfully say I have “Rocked the Kasbah.” Oh, and our outfits Clashed.
On the Kasbah wall, looking out to sea.
Steve desperately hunts the tidepools for something. Anything.
After touring the Kasbah, we had some local pastries in a quiet corner of the Chellah gardens. We then wandered down by the waterfront, and it was here we met Abdul. Abdul is just one of the many, many folks trying to make a living off of the tourist trade – it is tough to walk down any street in a well-travelled area without getting repeatedly approached by locals offering all manner of tours and services. Yes, most of them were pushy as heck, but this is an extraordinarily poor country, and getting paid to take someone on a tour might mean they get to feed their family that night. There is a big difference between greed and desperation, so as irritating as the constant approaches could be, I tried my best to be patient, be a good guest, and not act like an American.
Adbul astutely noted that I was holding a fishing rod, so it wasn’t a stretch to figure out I wanted to go fishing. We chatted for a while, and came to the agreement that I would show up there the next day at 9am and he would arrange a boat, motor, bait, and local fisherman for roughly $150. I went to bed pleased that night, although my companion had her doubts.
Steve and Abdul. Abdul may look like a fast operator, but looks can be deceiving. Not in this case, however.
We took the train back up to Rabat the following morning, the Moroccan coastline whipping by as we headed north. Arriving at the dock at precisely 9am and ready to go, I learned several things about Morocco. First, I learned that NOTHING happens quickly. Abdul was there, but the boat was not. Abdul promised the boat would arrive “any moment.” “Any moment” apparently means “10:15.” I also learned that Morocco has astonishing inflation. The quoted price of the activity, $150, had shot up rather sharply overnight to more like $250 – an astonishing 24,000% annual inflation rate.
While we waited, I did fish under the dock and get a few gobies, but alas, these were the same species I had caught in Turkey last year. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/01/01/venus-visits-the-temple-of-diana-mars-goes-fishing/) Once the boat finally appeared, we then had to wait for the motor. My patience was growing as thin as my hair. When the boatman finally got the outboard and bolted it to the stern, my mouth dropped in astonishment. I had seen this engine laying on the dock when I showed up, and I had presumed it was a discarded pre-war relic that had corroded onto the planking. More duct tape than metal, it took over an hour to get started. Once it did start, it sounded like an asthmatic 6 year-old going “phhhhhhhhht,” so that even at full throttle, we could easily whisper over it.
Yes, there’s an engine under all that electrical tape.
As we headed for the ocean, I asked what had been brought for bait. Adbul looked at me as if I had lost my mind. I was forced to review the overall concept, at which time Abdul indicated that we would need to make a stop and, shockingly, that he would need more money. We pulled into a small set of docks on the north side of the channel, and when our boatman announced that we needed a pound of squid, chaos ensued as at least 25 vendors raced down and tried to sell us this squid and anything else they could think of, including engine parts, electrical tape, and local tours.
The guy in the green is buying a pound of squid for me.
This process took quite a while, and I fear that I became a bit impatient. In hindsight, I should have understood that these were not professional fishermen and were doing the best they could. I kept looking at Adbul and saying “Samak!” He looked back at me and said “Hamak.” Presuming this was the local pronunciation of the word for “fish,” I agreed, pointed out at the ocean, and said “Hamak.” He shook his head, pointed at me, and said “Hamak.” I assured him I was not a fish.
Adbul and his associates discuss additional upsell opportunities.
It was after noon when we finally wobbled out on to the ocean, and yes, it is likely I was a bit petulant. Despite Abdul’s representations to the contrary, we were pretty much not leaving the harbor entrance, and this was probably for the best, as I can’t imagine their coast guard is all that efficient.
It was rough out there, and the boat, which was apparently not designed for use in water, did not handle the conditions well. Normally the fishing would distract me from this sort of issue, but we were almost completely undisturbed by fish, allowing me to focus on the sea conditions and the admittedly lovely view. Naturally, the view got old really quickly, and Abdul’s refusal to take the boat further out than safe swimming distance was irritating. I inquired “Samak?” Again, Abdul responded by pointing at me and saying “Hamak!” The boatman smiled. So I agreed with him and pointed to the water and said “Hamak.” This set the boatman giggling, and I pretty much gave up on the conversation.
I finally had one good bite in the mid-afternoon, and to my great joy, it was a decent-sized Spotted Weever. I had caught this fish previously – on my birthday last year in Croatia, (see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/where-have-all-the-vowels-gone/) but this one was certainly larger.
A personal best Spotted Weever – something we all strive for.
But that Weever and a small Seabream were pretty much all I had to show for the day, until we drifted past the harbor breakwater and I tossed a Sabiki that came back loaded with silvery Sardine-like creatures that turned out to be European Sardines. A species! A species! The day was a success after all.
The European Sardine. I was much happier to see it than it was to see me.
That was it for my Morocco fishing. We got to the dock and I had to take care of business with Adbul – the price had somehow gone up to $300. (More of that exponential Moroccan inflation at work.) He also had taken to calling me “brother,” and based on this newfound fraternal closeness, he recommended a healthy tip on top of the base amount. We haggled exuberantly for quite some time, and even after I thought we had concluded, he followed me to the cab rank attempting to reopen the negotiations. (Successfully, I am ashamed to admit.) I am certain I gave him far too much, but he had given me my samak (or hamak) – my Moroccan species.
My companion had been touring north of Rabat and she met me at the dock as we returned. She thoughtfully avoided the payment discussion, but as we walked away, she asked – “Any samak?”
I responded -“They pronounce it ‘hamak’ here.” She said “No they don’t.” I said “Yes they do.” Never one to miss an opportunity to demonstrate that I am incorrect, she whipped out her English/Arabic dictionary. Seconds later, she began giggling uncontrollably.
“Oh Steve.” she said. “Hamak means mentally unstable, or more generally, crazy.” And she giggled some more. I replayed the conversations from earlier in the day over in my head and scowled.
We were in the country four more days, and despite the occasional overzealous prospective tour guide, it was a magical place. Hiking the Atlas Mountains on New Year’s Day, wandering the endless warrens, museums, and restaurants of Marrakesh, it was all charmingly exotic. Except for the snakes.
My companion and I hang out with local serpents in Marrakesh. (Yes, we got there on the express.) In case you wondered, yes, those are cobras on the pavement – the snake around my neck was apparently not a cobra, which is nice.
So it was that I closed out 2011. It was a year of many species, many records, new countries, new friends. It was also a year with some sadness – my mother passed away in 2011, and although I can not be more grateful for the family and friends who came together during that particularly awful summer, it remains a terrible loss.
In case any of you might actually recognize my travel companion, life does have a strange way of unexpectedly putting things right. We can only hope she doesn’t catch any more species I haven’t.
My companion and I hiking the Atlas Mountains, New Year’s Day 2012.
I think this was dinner in Casablanca – I can’t remember because things were a bit fezzy. (Or, as Austin Powers said “Strange, I’ve seen that fez before …”)