Monthly Archives: September 2013

Morocco Journal 3: Shop, Bargain, Buy or Walk Away

How many glasses of mint tea can you drink in a day?  Every shop owner, whether in the souq or in a traditional store, will offer mint tea.  The tea is delicious.  It is also a strategy to get you to sit down, talk and stay a while.

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A while can often be two hours!  Don’t take the tea unless you are ready to linger, like what you see and willing to bargain.  You have to bargain hard.  You have to get to the point where the seller begins to call you a Berber.  Then, you know you are getting closer to the real price.  It took me a day to learn this.  Yesterday I was called a Berber repeatedly with a great deal of respect.

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In Oaxaca, crafts people may offer you a mezcal as a sign of hospitality.  There is very little if any pressure.  Of course, if you drink more than one, you may lose your sensibilities.  Oaxaca prices have very little play in them.  Most things are tagged. Some are not.  It’s different in Morocco.


There is nothing for sale that has a price tag on it!  Yes, there are tags with numbers, but all the sellers tell you these are reference numbers.  I expect that they are indeed some type of pricing code, but I couldn’t even begin to decipher this.

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If you want something, here is what you do.

Don’t ask for prices first.  Decide what you like.  Select a group of things.  Sit down. Have some tea.  Take your time.  Watch the presentation of beautiful hand made art.  Once you decide on what you like, take out your notebook and pen.  Draw a chart like a Scrabble scorecard with the seller’s name on one side and yours on the other.  Ask him his price and to write it under his name.  Offer less than half his asking price and write that under your name.  He will cross it out and write his “best” price.  You will say NO and write your best price.  Don’t go down too far too fast or you will pay too much!  You need to do about four to six to eight rounds of this back and forth.  You will get to the fair price when he says he can’t do any better and you say you won’t pay that much.

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I had a traveling companion once who said you have to learn to walk away and then you watch the price go down.  This is not something we are used to in our culture and at first it feels very uncomfortable.  I think a lot of the bargaining mentality also comes with the power of the dollar and the exchange rate.  We have such an advantage using dollars in Mexico.  Much less so than here in Morocco where the Dirham is tied more closely to the Euro.  Now, 8 Dirhams to the dollar — a 20 percent premium.  In Mexico, 12.5 or more pesos to the dollar — a 20 percent discount.

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I’m figuring there’s about a 40% discount margin.  If you end up paying a little more, but you love the piece, you have struck a good bargain.

Rule of Thumb applies to small inexpensive things like baskets you find in the square to very costly, large carpets in shops.  However, in the square, you may have to do all those calculations in your head 🙂

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I’m traveling with Judith Reitman-Texier, founder, La Bedouine argan skin care and La Bedouine Lifestyle.

Morocco Journal 2: Marrakech–Oaxaca Connection

After a 24-hour journey from Raleigh, North Carolina to Marrakech, Morocco via Madrid, Spain, I headed out on Day One with my guide Fadil into the labyrinthine Marrakech souq (souk).  I was forewarned. It is easy to get lost. Don’t even think about going in without a guide, advised a U.S. State Department friend who lived in Rabat for years.  I took him seriously.  Opinions vary on this, but I decided to be cautious and get the lay of the land.

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It was early morning after a rainy night.  Only the cobra snake charmer greeted us on Jemaa el-Fnaa, the city’s main square.

Then, we entered the souq.  Except for the minarets, Arabic script, women wearing djellabas, and narrow arched and cobblestone alleys, I could have been in Oaxaca’s Abastos Market where I have often lost my bearings among the tangle of vendors. 

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My priority today was to see the Dyer’s Market.  But, as usual I got sidetracked. Temptations are many.  As in most international markets, craftsmen congregate by trade.  Here, there are sections for jewelry, ceramics, shoes, leather bags, traditional clothing, food and spices, cookware, and even a goat skin auction.

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Marrakech–Oaxaca Connection

Natural dyes.  Here in Morocco, indigo, poppy, saffron, mint, kohl, henna, and other plants and minerals are used to dye wool for rugs and fibers for clothing and shawls.


Silk of the Agave Cactus.  Just like in Mexico, the agave leaf is soaked and pounded, the fibers separated and spun, and used for weaving and embroidery embellishment.  We call it pita in Oaxaca and sabra in Morocco.  It has the shiny texture of raw silk.

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Fruit of the Agave.  Lo and behold, I’m walking through the market and see a street vendor selling tuna, which is what we call the fruit of the agave cactus.  He peeled the skin and offered the fruit to me and Fadil.  We each got two for 5 Dirham.  That’s about 15 cents each.

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Sesame seed snacks.  The women who balance the baskets on their heads filled with sweet sesame treats on the Oaxaca Zocalo and the souq pushcart vendors have a lot in common.


Donkeys.  There are beasts of burden in every culture, thankfully. MarocSouq-32

Weaving Techniques. Men weave on the heavy floor loom.  Women weave using a lighter weight vertical loom that looks more like the Navajo loom.  MarocSouq-33

And, then there are the rugs.  Stunning rugs, just like in Oaxaca.  Too many beautiful rugs to choose from.


Market life for the staples of life.


Photography: Traditional people do not want their picture taken!

Moorish influences in tile work, craft, food.

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Construction:  Buildings are made of adobe, earth’s raw materials.

Of course, so much here is different, especially in food and beverage.  The whiskey of Morocco is mint tea.  We are getting used to dining without a glass of wine in this alcohol-free Moslem country.  Couscous and tagine are culinary gifts.  The hammam, or sweat bath, and the spa life are integral to the culture.

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Morocco Journal 1: What To Wear and Other Notes

The debate about how a woman from the western world is to clothe herself while traveling in the Moslem Kingdom of Morocco continues.  I want to be respectful and also comfortable as the temperatures hover close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cover your elbows, advises one friend.  Another says, elbows are okay, just don’t show forearms or cleavage.  Another tells me to wear a long skirt or dress and cover your ankles.  Don’t worry, ankles are okay, says one more, it’s not Saudi Arabia, you just don’t want to wear short shorts.  At my stage of maturity, that would not be my thing.  Today, I am in the serious pre-packing thinking stage of open suitcase and clothes on the bed.

Jude looks at argan soap

Jude looks at argan soap

Sunday, September 15 is departure day.  I am traveling with my friend Judith Reitman-Texier who has been to Morocco many times for her company La Bedouine argan oil skin care and lifestyle.  Her wise counsel is priceless and her planning even more so.  Jude, also a published journalist, invited me to come with her as she writes reviews of 5-star Marrakech riads for travel magazines and sources product for her business.  My role is to photograph and document all.  Of course, the textiles are what draws me there!


Morocco Packing Notes

  • wide-brimmed hat
  • sunscreen
  • no open-toe shoes
  • long linen dress
  • shawls that can drape and wrap to cover
  • 2 long linen skirts
  • 1 pair loose linen pants
  • loose linen tops (3-4)
  • long sleeve linen top
  • 3-4 changes of underwear
  • sleep shirt
  • comfortable walking shoes
  • closed toe dress shoes

The list sounds like what I recommend for Oaxaca, except the arm-leg cover-up part.  Always, no short shorts!

Plus these essentials:

  • Contact your bank to let them know travel plans so they don’t block ATM money withdrawal.
  • Contact your wireless mobile service if you want data, text and voice coverage while traveling.
  • Important Note:  Especially for a woman, it is essential to carry a cell phone wherever you are that connects you to home in an emergency.  Don’t skimp.  It is part of travel safety and security.

And comments from friends on my Facebook page keep coming in, like this one:

Covered up but cool because it sure was hot when I was there. And although they do not drink they serve local beer to the tourist – just do not try to take the lovely bottle as I did. The waiter went nuts and thought I was stealing (which could have cost me a hand) but the owner graciously insisted I keep the bottle after my husband came to my rescue. On the street my husband was offered two camels for me.


Mexican vanilla beans, mezcal and chocolate

What to do with a Mexican vanilla bean? Why not a Groucho Marx impersonation?  Even though I recommended adding it to a bowl of sugar for flavor.


On Friday, we had a Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat mini-reunion at the Oak Leaf Restaurant in Pittsboro, NC.  Who? Robin, Debbie, Becky and me.  As soon as I presented my North Carolina friends — all professional women — with a gift of a Mexican vanilla bean, a maguey fiber facial scrub, and a package of tasty mango fruit leather, you can see what they did first. I’m not certain which one started it.  This speaks volumes about the fun we have in Oaxaca during the retreat each year!  And, there’s space for you.


I also brought along a bottle of private label El Diablo y La Sandia madrecuixe sylvestre (wild) agave mezcal to open and share.  This is only available for sale at the B&B in Oaxaca. The restaurant was to charge us a corkage fee, but their first question was, Where did you buy this?  Oaxaca, I said, waiting for them to ask, How do you spell that?  Oh, she said, wait a minute.  Then the manager came over.  We are really sorry, we can’t serve you this bottle.  Though I’d love to taste it, she confessed.  It has to have been purchased in an ABC (Alcohol and Beverage Commission) Store for us to legally open and serve it here.  She was really, really apologetic, but we had another solution.


After our delicious BLT lunch of a fried green tomato, goat cheese and bacon sandwich (minus the bacon for two vegetarians), we declined dessert at the Oak Leaf.  We had something else in mind and went next door to the Chatham Market Place.  This is our local organic grocery store and cafe.  Here we bought vegan chocolate cake dessert for each of us, and took four tumblers outside to the picnic table, where we easily broke the wax seal on the bottle, twisted off the cap and poured.


I have to confess, chocolate and this herbal earthy mezcal go really well together. We did NOT drink the entire bottle!  Not even close.  Just a little sip.  But, most of us managed to finish the cake!

Mexico’s gifts to the world include the vanilla bean, mezcal and the word for chocolate.  Add to that mole, corn and colorfast cochineal.  Anything else you can think of?

Chicago’s New Maxwell Street Market: Little Mexico

When you are in Chicago and if you want a bit of Mexico — with her street food and open air tianguis market culture — make your way to Chicago’s near west side for the New Maxwell Street Market every Saturday.   The backdrop is the city’s stunning Loop and Magnificent Mile.

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Beyond the Loop on the near west side is a historic immigrant neighborhood where Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Eastern European Jews, African-Americans, and now Latinos from Mexico and Central America settled.

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The original Maxwell Street has been developed for a University of Illinois at Chicago expansion.  The new market, a neighborhood gathering place, is now located on Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Polk Streets, just west of the Chicago River. You get there from Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road by CTA Bus #12 or by foot.

Serving horchata and aguas de tamarindo, sandia, jamaica

Serving horchata and aguas de tamarindo, sandia, jamaica

In my days of living in the midwest, I confess I never made it to the Maxwell Street Market, known for its blues musicians, flea market bargains and once-in-a-lifetime antique treasures.  So, when I arrived in Chicago from Mexico City to visit friends on my way back to North Carolina and the opportunity came to explore, I said “yes.”


The line for Rubi’s snaked down the block

Be sure you come hungry!  What I found were several blocks filled with street vendors not much different from Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Sunday market except on a much smaller scale.  The standout was the food vendors. People from all ethnic backgrounds, including plenty of visitors toting cameras, formed lines snaking down the street for tastes of savory tacos al pastor, steaming tamales, traditional aguas — fruit waters — made from tamarind, watermelon, lime and coconut.  There were at least four stands selling nieves, the famed ice creams that more resemble the intense flavors of an Italian gelato.

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There is also organized live music, and if you are lucky as I was, you might come across an old African American blues musician belting out a tune on a guitar or saxophone, reminding me of the Mississippi Great Migration and The Warmth of Other Suns.

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There’s not much remaining of the original Maxwell Street’s flea market atmosphere.  What I saw were sellers of new tires, perfumes, electronics, out-of-date packaged foods and snacks, nail polish and make-up, hardware and garden tools, office and school supplies, used and new clothes, shoes, records, and a few chachkahs.  There were few antiques per se.


Dried hibiscus flowers


Dried star fruit, papaya, kiwi, pineapple, mango

What attracted my attention were the dried tropical fruits, roasted nuts, tamarind pods, spices and chili peppers that we see throughout Mexico and especially Oaxaca.  I heard mostly Spanish spoken by buyers and sellers.  

At the food trucks and under the cooking tents, women prepared and cooked fresh tortillas and grilled corn on the comal, men tended the spit-roasted pork and grilled pineapple, a family displayed their made that morning sweet and chicken-stuffed tamales,  and young girls ladled out fruit drinks into clear plastic cups.

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The children strolled hand-in-hand with parents licking on a cone of traditional Mexican ices.  Neighborhood shoppers bought fresh berries from the few produce vendors interspersed between the aluminum kitchen utensil and car cleaning supplies stalls.

Pods of tamarindo fruit ready to pluck the juicy centers

Pods of tamarindo fruit ready to pluck the juicy centers

If I lived there, I would have filled my shopping bag, tempted by what is familiar to me and the tastes I love.  As it was, I settled for a glimpse into what it means to keep the culture through a reverence for its food.


Of course, saying a prayer at the home altar to the Virgin Mary, a patron saint, and the Baby Jesus  will help ensure that the culture is preserved.  Locals shop for religious icons at the market, too.