By Linda Buchanan Allen
Photos by Linda and Boyd Allen
Namina sinks to her knees and bows her forehead to touch the floor. She mutters a prayer in Arabic while we watch, just a bit uncomfortable with the idea that we are witnessing something too private. But she’s not self-conscious, and when her prayer is complete, Namina rises back up and smiles easily at us, as if she has gone away and returned to find us waiting for her. She motions with her hands for our group to gather closer around. About twenty of us are touring the Hassan II Mosque together, which sits at water’s edge in Casablanca (yes, that Casablanca, which in real life is a fairly rough shipping town). We have sailed here from Malaga, Spain aboard the Star Flyer, one of three clipper ships owned and operated by the Swedish company Star Clippers. Casablanca is the first stop on our week-long adventure on the tall ship that will also include stops at Tangier and Gibraltar as well as Cadiz and Motril, Spain.
Namina, our tour guide for Casablanca, sports a blue shawl wrapped around her head and neck with a short blue caftan—the dress of a modern Arab woman. “You can wear this with jeans or leggings,” she says. She explains that Arab women cover their head and neck but show their face and hands. They leave the house, get educated, go to work. Berber women, on the other hand, live much more conservatively: They cover every bit of flesh but one or both eyes; they rarely leave the house for fear of encountering strangers or foreigners, especially men. I detect a glint of pride in Namina’s description of her own modern lifestyle. She continues the tour, leading us down marble stairs from the cavernous main worship area to a lower level where two types of hamman, or purification bath, are located for worshippers to complete the obligatory ablutions before prayer. These may involve everything from massaging the scalp with argan oil to washing the face and hands with sand if water is not available. Namina gestures to show us in what sequence and direction the ablutions must take place—but emphasizes that all of these rules are guidelines for Moroccan Muslims, not mandates. “To pray five times a day is suggested,” she says. “But it is not required.” She wants us to understand how tolerant Morocco is—without pointing directly to other countries or regions where fundamental Islamic law is, indeed, law.
When we file back up two flights of stairs into the sunlight where we blink at the towering structure of marble, cedar, stucco and tile, Namina tells us that 15,000 laborers built the whole thing between 1987 and 1993, at a total cost of somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion. The Hassan II Mosque isn’t old, but it is impressive, a massive green tower standing guard over the harbor. “Green is the color of hope,” Namina points out.
Standing in the courtyard outside the mosque my father remarks quietly, “Every American should see this.” I know he is thinking of 9/11 when he says this, and I understand what he means: Many Americans still equate Islam with violence, and cannot separate the average citizen from a terrorist. I appreciate his sentiment but I am more impressed by something else. At age 87, my father still wants to learn about other people, even if he doesn’t understand their language or customs; he and his wife have signed onto the clipper ship with my husband and me, eager for the adventure.
Yesterday, when we spotted the four masts of the Star Flyer rocking gently against the sky at the new pier in Malaga, my husband Boyd and I fought the urge to sprint toward the gangway. I glanced at my dad for a reaction to his first sight of the boat—I thought his eyes crinkled, but he didn’t walk any faster. He pulled both his suitcase and my stepmother’s along the concrete sidewalk, insisting he could handle this fine. I squelched the urge to help. In fact, it didn’t take long to check in with the white-uniformed crew and board the 300-foot-long ship, which holds only 170 passengers. (By evening, we learned that only 108 travelers had boarded, giving us even more elbow room.) This was Boyd’s and my second trip aboard the Star Flyer, which explained our earlier giddiness. We wanted Russ and Shirley to love it too. Night fell as we tucked into our first five-course dinner in the elegant but cozy ship dining room. Above us on deck, the crew scurried back and forth, readying for departure. On each of the next seven nights, waiters would offer a choice of appetizers, soups and salads, entrees and desserts—ranging from crispy roast duck to spicy Spanish bouillabaisse to rich chocolate ice cream. (On board, all meals are included except drinks—a glass of wine costs about $5.) At 10:00 p.m. we joined our fellow passengers on deck as the crew cast off the lines tethering us to the pier and the Star Flyer eased into the harbor under brilliant bouquets of stars twinkling in the black sky. In the distance, Malaga’s historic Alcazabar Castle glowed against the dark hill.
We sail all night and awake off the coast of Africa. In the morning, we crowd the rail to catch our first glimpse of Morocco across a gun-metal sea. After a breakfast of sizzling omelets, thick bacon and fresh watermelon slices, along with an assortment of iced pastries and dense breads smeared with real butter—all chased down by hot black coffee and sweet glasses of orange juice—we’re ready to take on anything. Over the ship’s intercom, Ximena, the Star Flyer’s cruise director, calls us to the deck for the day’s briefing.
“Welcome,” she greets us in English. Then “Wilkommen” and “Bonjour.” Every Star Clippers cruise director must speak fluently three major languages: English, German and French. Each morning and evening, he or she briefs the passengers on upcoming excursions, evening events, onboard entertainment (such as crab races, ship trivia and pirate night) and suggestions for independent shore activities—in three languages. Life on board the Star Flyer is relaxed and informal—we aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, so we don’t mind the three-language speech, and even pick up a few words here and there of the other languages. Shortly thereafter, Captain Klaus stages the required evacuation drill, and all the necessary details of orientation are complete.
We have all day to play aboard the ship as we skim the coast of Morocco toward Casablanca. Boyd deftly climbs the rigging to the crow’s nest to shoot photos, and later we both crab-walk out onto the net below the dolphin striker where we watch the water race below us. We decide not to tell Russ about either of these activities. We know he’d jump at the chance, even though he had a heart valve replacement only six months before. Sometimes keeping mum is the best strategy for avoiding disaster. But there are plenty of other things to do on our day at sea, which passes like a gently rocking dream. We watch the rugged coastline roll by, read a few pages from our books, and chat with other passengers— from England, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands. Many are on their second, fourth, even sixth Star Clippers trip—there’s something addictive about traveling aboard a four-masted tall ship, even when the engine is chugging. When the sails unfurl and the engine cuts out, it’s downright glorious to ride the sea powered by the rhythmic swish of the bow slicing through whitecaps.
Conditions are just right, so the cruise director summons us to the tender for a chance to take photos of the ship under full sail. I poke Russ in the arm. “You don’t want to miss this,” I say. That’s all he needs to hear. Russ and Shirley follow our heels down the swaying gangway to the wildly rocking tender. Russ almost trips while trying to step into the tender but he makes it and hangs on tight as the tender speeds away from the Star Flyer. The ocean is rougher than it looks from the deck of the ship, and the tender rides rolling swells while we snap photos of the magnificent 300-foot-long clipper ship as it cuts through the pewter sea. We are lucky to get these photos—not every voyage presents the right circumstances for this. Russ takes in all the action without a camera—he has our promise of photos when we get home.
Then we reach Morocco—a day in Casablanca and a day in Tangier. In Tangier, our guide Mohammed collects us in a sun-drenched courtyard with the Arabic yodel “Yella Yella Yella,” which seems to mean: “Hello, come with me.” Walking swiftly in a flowing white robe, he threads us through a maze of whitewashed stucco homes and cramped streets, past open markets offering whole plucked chickens, unidentifiable fruit and leafy greens, potatoes, olives, currants and shelf upon shelf of canned and bottled concoctions. We pass a barbershop and a milliner. We visit a tea shop where we are served hot, sweet tea and cookies. We walk through the Medina, stopping at various ancient buildings. Last, we make our way to the cooperative where three floors of local pottery, leather jackets and purses, handmade jewelry, embroidered linens, teas and oils are displayed for our choice. A salesman quickly spots me inspecting the brightly colored pottery dishes, vases and tureens. “First I give you the price,” he instructs cheerfully. “Then we bargain.” We both laugh and set about haggling over one particular water jug and bowl combination. He keeps trying to add other items but I stand my ground, as if guarding my turf. Periodically we burst out laughing. We finally arrive at a price that’s half of the asking price. I know he has won in the deal, but I don’t mind.
Back on board, we compare treasures, order glasses of white wine from the deck bar, and stroll the perimeter of the ship. We’ve got our sea legs by now, and we’ve eased into a rhythm of late and leisurely European dinners. As the sun drops to the horizon like a burnished doubloon, Captain Klaus—a thick, crusty German with a dusting of white stubble—appears holding a set of bagpipes against his chest. This—besides sailing—is his other passion. In fact, when on land he lives in Scotland. We know this because Russ has peppered the captain with questions—about his job, his life, his sailing career. Captain Klaus toasts all returning passengers (Boyd and me among them) and serenades us with the strains of traditional bagpipe tunes. Later he and the crew, who hail from roughly 20 different countries, will scatter themselves among us in the dining room to eat a friendly but quick meal (turning down offers of wine or cocktails) and return to duty.
For the rest of the week, the Star Flyer glides along the Spanish coast making stops at Cadiz, Gibraltar, and Motril before returning to Malaga. Some of the passengers take organized excursions ashore while others opt to wander the streets, restaurants and shops on their own. At Gibraltar, Russ and Shirley join the Star Flyer guided excursion through the Great Siege Tunnels. (The tunnels were built deep inside the rock by British soldiers in the late 1700s to thwart the Great Siege by France and Spain, then augmented under Winston Churchill during World War II, and opened to the public in 2005.) We decide to catch the funicular (cable car) to the summit of Gibraltar to see the view and commune with the famous Barbary apes. Yes, apes really do swarm over the upper reaches of the rock. They will leap onto the hood of a car or the top of a person’s head. They will bite if you try to feed or touch them. But if you watch quietly, you’ll see an entire society in action—family groups, friends, teachers, and students. A parent grooms a child, a friend drapes an arm casually over the shoulder of a companion, two youngsters chase each other through the thicket. We walk down the winding road below the precipice as apes dart back and forth in front of us, until we reach the invisible end of their territory and we realize they are no longer with us. So we head back to the bustling cobblestone streets and jockey for an outdoor table at a pub where they serve traditional British fish and chips—and a good glass of lager.
At Cadiz, Russ and Shirley opt for the long bus journey to Seville with its spectacular esplanade while Boyd and I explore the streets of Cadiz and the local museum which houses artifacts from the Phoenicians—shards of pottery and tools, replicas of their slender, graceful boats, and a pair of mummies. Finally, at the Andalusian port of Motril we make the trip to Granada and its romantic walled Alhambra.
Meanwhile, each night on the Star Flyer the wine flows as the crew offers entertainment that probably doesn’t meet the specs of a major cruise ship but which we find as hilarious as the inside jokes and antics of our own families. It turns out that Danny the bartender can really sing. And the Star Flyer version of Trivial Pursuit is highly competitive (our team wins a bottle of red wine). When measures of dance music begin waft out from the piano bar, Russ winks at Shirley and takes her hand. They whirl cheek to cheek across the deck as the ship bobs softly under the brightest stars in the Mediterranean sky.
If You Go:
Visit the Star Clippers Web site at: www.starclippers.com, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter. For information call: 1-800-442-0551 or email: email@example.com. You can book a Star Clippers cruise either directly or through your travel agent. The company offers advance-booking discounts ranging from 25 percent to 45 percent, with additional promotions on airfare and hotel accommodations. Unlike a major cruise line, Star Clippers only operates three boats—which limits where the boats are sailing at any given time.
Generally the level of walking difficulty on shore ranges from easy to moderate. For those who might have trouble with the steep gangway and boarding the tender at mooring sites, check to see whether a particular itinerary docks at ports or moorings. Shipboard attire is casual, but the captain suggests dresses or slacks for women at dinner, and slacks with polo or dress shirts for men (jackets are not required).