Peace Out, Morocco

After fifteen days on the road with the most boring group of people I have ever met (entirely excluding the one or two who actually had enough intellectual curiosity and lack of self-centeredness to ask me for this Blog address; you know who you are, so please don’t be offended because this is not directed at you), I am happy to say goodbye to Morocco tomorrow morning and head to Venice, where I will be stationed for four or five weeks. Surely there will be a plethora of food and experiences to share with you during that time.

Just as a quick note, as I mentioned, I was largely unhappy with the tour I took, so if you want advice related to this, please feel free to email me or send a message. That said, my issues relate to the tour company, not the tour leader, who happens to be very good. He also does private tours on request, making it cheaper than going through a company, so if you want his info, let me know.

Alright, back on point. The food in Morocco is very good, but also very repetitive. Basically, you have the option of a variety of tangines, couscous, or brochettes (i.e. kebabs). Westerners often go out in search of “authentic” restaurants where locals eat, but the truth is, from what I understand, Moroccans don’t really go out to eat. This is a fairly poor country and while the food is good, it is not as though Moroccons are interested in gastronomical experimentation, and, accordingly, they see no reason to eat out and spend more than they would spend eating the same thing at home. This is also why I am not sure why Westerners are so keen to seek out pricey restaurants here. If you want authentic, basic is better – that’s the stuff people are actually eating at home.

For my last Moroccan dinner I had couscous with vegetables, raisins, and lamb (it was supposed to be vegetarian, but whatever). This was only the second time I had couscous in Morocco and it really is good – much lighter and fluffier than I have ever had at home. Sometimes it is even cooked in the tagine.

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Before meeting with the group for dinner (THANK god, no more group dinners), I went for a walk around Jemaa el-Fna, the main square in Marrakech and one of the most frenetic and lively squares in North Africa (or so they say; I have very little basis for comparison, other than Egypt). You may remember that this is the square where there was a terrorist bombing earlier in the year at a cafe. The building is still covered and there are abstract paintings on top (photo below). The square itself is filled with snake charmers, guys with monkeys, palm readers, henna artists, and other forms of entertainment in addition to lots of street food cafes, including street escargot. Yeah, I didn’t know that existed either.

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Walking around the square is truly an exhausting experience. It is jam-packed with people, I was constantly harassed, constantly asked for money, etc. A good place to see, but my two, fairly short, visits yesterday and today were more than enough. I couldn’t get photos of much of the crazy stuff because people hunt you down for money if they see you take a a photo. Yesterday, one of the guys in my group got chased by a snake charmer demanding money, snake first, for the photo that he took.

Today on my way into the square, I bought a delicious slice of pistachio, sesame nougat topped with almonds. If the guy selling it wasn’t so rude, it would have tasted even better.

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Alright, there’s always more to say, but I will leave it at that. I covered a lot of ground in Morocco (we drove 2200 kilometers) and I am glad a saw it, but not sure how soon I will be back. There are a number of reasons that this is not the most fun place to visit, especially for a single, white female. That said, I can’t complain about having the opportunity to experience it. I do, however, vow never to take a group tour again (other than small day trips or outdoorsy trips where I have no other choice). I leave you with a photo of yesterday’s sunset. Speak to you from Venice.

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Rotten Fish and Hot Chips

I spent today in Essaouira, a fishing village on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. It has a seedy beach town vibe with Muslim influence, if you can image that. The beach is long but it is sparsely populated since Moroccan women are fully covered. A lot of the men here are creeps and Essaouira is fairly ugly for a beach town; lots of smog and dirt. There is, however, a bit more flexibility in the dress code, and for the first time I felt fairly comfortable wearing shorts in public. See racy attire below (also an attempt to satisfy David G.’s photo request).

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That guy seemed to be doing sit-ups, but I’m not entirely sure.

Anyway, as I mentioned, Essaouira is a fishing village and its main income comes from, guess what, fish! Every day at about four in the afternoon fisherman come up to the dock in their dinky boats and suddenly fish is everywhere. It absolutely stinks; one of the worst things I have ever smelled. It is a sight to see and an odor I hope to never smell again. What struck me as interesting was the fact that the exact same routine has probably existed for centuries; nothing progresses very quickly here. Unfortunately, I don’t have great action shots because most people won’t allow their photo to be taken without payment, if at all.

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I had decent swordfish for dinner but my experimental meal was lunch – a meatball sandwich topped with hot chips (fries) and some Moroccan pastries for dessert. The sandwich was satisfying to some extent but also sort of bland. The pastries included a pistachio cookie, a baclava-like bite made with almonds, a honey-coated crisp wonton-shaped pastry filled with something that resembled the filling in pecan pie (not that good), and, my favorite, a crispy, probably fried, sesame cookie-type-thing coated in honey. They were ok, but nothing compared to their Turkish counterparts.

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Clearly I have recovered from my upset stomach (as mentioned, probably thanks to the walnuts that I cracked open with a dirty rock), but now I think I have indigestion. Tough life.

Tomorrow I am off to Marrakech and on Sunday to Italy. I have had enough of Morocco.

Nature’s Trail Mix and Other Mountain Sustenance

Despite what I wrote in my previous post, my visit to the High Atlas Mountains was wonderful. We had about a five hour drive from the gorge, plus a few stops, and the last stretch of the drive was one of the most frightening I’ve been on. The weight of our minibus must far exceed regulation when everyone and their bags are accounted for, and we twisted and turned around blind corners inches from the edge of a cliff. Needless to say, I was thrilled when we were dropped off to start the one hour hike to our gite, which is a very basic mountain lodge with dorm like rooms (although the mattresses are on the floor). The minibus is not allowed to make the journey because the road is too narrow and uneven.

The people, all of which are Berber, in the tiny village just below our gite are the friendliest and most pleasant people I have encountered in Morocco. Basically, they have been living in the mountains in the same way, for centuries. Nothing has changed except many of them have satellite television. It is almost unbelievable. They seem genuinely happy to see us and the children in particular, of which there are many, love saying “bonjour.” Not a single person asked for money and some were so generous as to offer us produce from their plants as gifts.

On arrival, we had a traditional mountain dinner and the next day an odd but good mountain lunch. Dinner was barley soup (think watery oatmeal texture) followed by spaghetti with a meat stew (or sauce). Funny how pasta makes its way into every culture. Lunch the following day was salad, tinned mackerel, Berber omelet (made in a tangine), something that resembled saffron pasta, although saffron is very expensive so I’m not sure what is actually was, and a dessert of oranges sprinkled in cinnamon (I highly recommend this and it is easy to make, just peel, slice, and sprinkle).

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We spent the morning of our full day in the mountains on a hike we went for a hike, which was really more like a stroll. Anticipating this, I woke up early to go for a run first, because I haven’t had many opportunities to do so since I’ve been here. About half way through the walk, I got a bit hungry. The valley below the village is very fertile and people grow a lot of food there. Because of this, I was able to snack on fresh walnuts (that I cracked open with a rock and probably ingested the dirt/dung that was on the rock and my fingers) and apples and figs that I picked from trees as we walked. I never liked trail mix, but this falls in different category. However, I ended up with a stomach ache and had to skip dinner. I am still recovering. Oops.

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There are beautiful farm animals in the surrounding hamlet and since I love animals and they kind of relate to food, I am going to include a few photos, including a shot of the cutest cow I have ever seen. Today I also saw a cat and a chicken sharing food. Bizarre.

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I Need Bug Spray

Since I have been incommunicado for the last few days, I thought a quick post to update you on my whereabouts might be a good idea. We left the Sahara and headed south to Todra Gorge where we spent a day and two nights. The gorge was pretty, and unexpected, though not the greatest place I’ve ever been. Following our visit to the gorge, we headed west to the High Atlas Mountains, which I will write more about in the next post. I am now on the Atlantic coast in Essaouira.

On a general note, I have been disappointed with my time in Morocco so far, and will certainly never take a tour again. I have found it very difficult to engage and understand the culture when traveling with so many others and I have not had enough time on my own to explore. We are herded between various shops and tourist attractions where the only goal is to sell us things that we do not want. Literally everywhere we have gone, including stops on the side of the road for a photo during long drives, someone magically appears trying to sell you something. It can be anything from a sun hat to fresh grass stitched in the shape of an animal. And they won’t stop at “mosquitoes people are inherently similar to mosquitos – it doesn’t matter where you are, they find you, swarm, and try to take a bite. No matter how much you shoo them away or wave your arms to brush them off, they keep coming back.

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Two Deserts or One Dessert?

For me, dessert and desert have always had something in common. When I learned how to spell, the teacher taught us an easy way to remember how to spell these similar words. She said, “think of which you would rather have two of and that is the one with two s’s.” In most circumstances, two desserts probably is preferable to two deserts, but not when you have the opportunity to sleep under the stars in the Sahara, as I did last night.

After a one hour camel ride (1.7 miles, yes, pathetic) we reached a Bedouin tent right before sunset. As the starts lit up, we enjoyed a traditional desert dinner of rice soup and beef stew, which despite the pictures below, actually tasted pretty good. Everyone was in bed (on the ground) by 9:30 so we could star gaze. Surprisingly, there was light pollution, so while it was beautiful here, the stargazing is better in central Australia. We woke at 5:45 a.m. today for a disappointing sunrise, but regardless, the Sahara is breathtaking.

To cover my food bases, earlier yesterday, we also had a traditional Moroccan pizza, which is made of a brown bread filled with eggs, meat, spices, and a few other things I could not decipher. Pretty good. I have become somewhat addicted to Moroccan tea, which was served with the pizza. Also, en route to the Sahara the day before, we stopped at a hotel for some trout, a local delicacy. Moroccans use bread as their utensil, so every meal is served with a lot of bread.

Somehow, in the Sahara 60 kilometers from the Algerian border, in a rustic auberge literally in the middle of nowhere, I have wifi; this is in stark contrast to the sad fact that in my office in midtown Manhattan, I never could even get decent mobile phone reception. They have that here too, I just don’t have a phone. Just a quick post, but figured I’d put something out there when I could. It might be another 4 days, though maybe not.

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And finally, Lacey of Arabia.

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Off to the Desert I Go…

Tomorrow I am heading to the Moroccan desert, followed by the Todra Gorge, and then the High Atlas Mountains. In other words, it is unlikely that I will have Internet access for the next 5-6 days. I will take notes offline and report back as soon as I can. Please don’t forget about this Blog in the meantime. I will leave you with some food photos, this time from the medina of Fes and today’s lunch. More anecdotes when I am back. And happy New Year to those of you celebrating.

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And finally, the world’s strongest toe:

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How to make copper bowls – mystery solved.

Lamb: It’s What’s for Dinner (WARNING: this post may include graphic content unsuitable for certain readers; but you should read it anyway)

The majority of today was spent in Meknes, a city in northern Morocco. Meknes is home to a fairly small Medina (meaning, “old city”) that is comprised of a myriad of narrow alleyways making up a local souk, or street market. Anything from meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables to laundry detergent, leather, fabrics, and mattresses are available at the souk. In the few hours we spent wandering around and literally getting lost in the souk, I saw no other Westerners. I also got air punched/attacked by a seven year old. In the afternoon, we made our way from Meknes to Fes, stopping off at Volubilis, the best preserved Roman ruin in northern Africa.

Here are some photo highlights from today, some food, some scavengers, from life to death, and the soil from which it all begins.

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