Tag Archives: Morocco

Morocco Journal 7: Camels and Beach Life Essaouira

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Last night at sunset I met friends at Beach & Friends Cafe, the last set of buildings on the Essaouira strand before leaving town and heading south toward Agadir.  It is where you can get a great seafood dinner with a good glass of vin ordinaire — red table wine — for a reasonable price.

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The ocean view and camel entertainment can’t be beat.

It takes a brisk half hour walk from the Medina along the crescent shoreline to get there.  In the distance I could see the sand dunes rising and the outline of camels and horses.

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I passed families strolling and tourists catching the last rays for the perfect tan.

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Camels!  I have ridden elephants in Thailand but never camels.  A camel ride at sunset in Essaouira?  Why not!  The view is nothing short of spectacular.

It is not easy to get on top of a camel, even when they are sitting.  That hump is very big.  When I got situated on top of the Boucherouit rug that covered her back, I was pretty high up and the camel hadn’t even risen yet.  I was thinking, how will this animal get up without me falling off.

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Hang on, the two young camel herders said in French as they motioned for me to grab both wood poles attached to the saddle.  With my camera and money bag dangling, the camel slowly rose and I swayed like I was on a small boat in rough seas.

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As the camel made its way across the dunes, I looked out and imagined what Lawrence of Arabia must have felt like.  Then, someone told me he rode a motorcycle across the desert.

Most of the photos were blurry.  Have you ever taken a picture from the back of a camel?  Hah!  I surrendered my camera to the herder who assured me he would get great photos for an extra 100 dirham as he pointed the lens into the sunset and stepped back into the surf.

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Do you recognize me?  These three women in a camel train ahead of me were on their way back to the cafe, too.  I managed to get one in focus, sort of.

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And, I loved the experience!  Scary.  Thrilling. Definitely fun.

 

Morocco Journal 6: Essaouira Faces and Places

The melting pot of Essaouira attracts Anglos and Moslems from throughout the western and African world. This week I met a Parisian couple, both professionals, whose parents immigrated from Tunisia and Algeria.  Their gorgeous children captured my eye.  The mom of these children, Saoud, speaks four languages fluently — French, Arabic, English and Spanish.

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We are meeting people who have left France and the U.S. to find comfort and an easier lifestyle in Essaouira.  Many have been here since the 60s and 70s when pop-rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens visited.  Stardom is not far.

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I also found delicious Italian food prepared by a Moroccan who has a 10 seat restaurant called Vague Bleu.  It’s on a little side street off the road to the Bab Marrakech (the Marrakech Gate) and recommended by ex-pats who have been living here for years — he from the U.K. and she from Long Island, NY.  The gnocchi topped with a pesto spinach sauce was heaven.  So was the aubergine (eggplant) rolls, tender melt-in-your mouth morsels of puree.

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And, the fresh fish topped with curry spice couldn’t have been more tasty.

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Our lunch companions included Parisian antiques collector Richard, local resident Rachid whose father was a silversmith, and a young woman with a great smile.  Je ne parle pas francais, I say, and launch into Spanish only some understand.

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Henna painting is a big thing here.  Street corner artists set up shop to paint fantastical designs on any part of your body.  Or, pick up a tagine clay cooker to bring home to prepare one of Morocco’s most famous pyramidical foodie dishes — veggies, seafood, chicken, lamb or goat — seasoned with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and peppers.

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Along the early morning avenues before the shops open, the egg man pushes his cart to vend brown, fresh from the hen goodness as shopkeepers sweep the 17th century cobbled streets to prepare for the tourists who are the town’s economic lifeblood.

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Our favorite morning past-time is to take a seat at a cafe, sip a rich cup of fresh ground and brewed Cafe Americano and people watch.  Maybe accompanied by a croissant filled with chocolate, too!

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About 70,000 people live in Essaouira and they need to eat.  (Once, 40 percent of the population was Jewish.) There are thriving fruit, vegetable, fish and meat markets intermingled with tourist shops selling Berber jewelry, handwoven rugs, antiques, pottery, and organic argan oil. Everywhere is a hammam or spa.

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On every corner there seems to be a patisserie or bakery offering delectable French and Middle Eastern treats made with figs, dates, honey and pistachios.  The French influence is strong.  You can’t go more than 20 feet without coming upon a creperie stand turning out handmade delicacies drizzled with chocolate.

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The people are warm, friendly and helpful.  We met Nora at the local coffee shop owned by her family.  In addition to serving an incredible cup of cafe Americano, she led us to her favorite hammam where we made an appointment for the real deal — the traditional communal (same sex) experience with body scrub, sweat bath, masque, massage and hair wash for under $25 USD.  My skin is now soooooo soft.

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What’s a babouche?  Pointy-toed shoes of course!  The traditional style for Moroccan women and men.  The original ones intended for outdoor wear are treaded with car or truck tires, I’m told, and last forever.  The ones for inside the house are more like slippers.  Then, of course, there’s the jewelry shopping and this happy salesman (above right) made the sale of a lovely Tuareg silver and carnelian pendant and was eager to show it off.

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I’ve not succumbed to the many sweets yet, but the temptation is very strong.   Now, I’m off for my morning cup of coffee.  Only one or two required.

Morocco Journal 4: From the Medina to the Palace

From North Africa, the land of coucous, tagine, lamb, prunes, dates, figs and apricots:  We moved from the cozy, neighborhood riad on a busy street in the Marrakech medina near the crush of the souq and Jemaa el-Fnaa square to an oasis about 15 minutes beyond the city center.

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The Mosaic Palais Aziza & Spa driver fetched and spirited us away in a new Rolls Royce to a neighborhood of gated palaces, mature date palms, lush gardens, climbing pink bougainvillea and aromatic jasmine.  We entered a refuge, a rose-colored enclave of repose and serenity.  Luxury and 5-star boutique hotel only begins to describe where I landed, thanks to Judith Reitman-Texier and skin care and lifestyle company La Bedouine.

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Marrakech is a desert sanctuary. Known as the Red City for her mandated salmon pink buildings, travelers come to experience her legendary romantic appeal, great craftsmanship, outstanding food, and focus on personal health.

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Spa life is an integral part of desert culture where both men and women of all economic levels take a weekly cleansing hammam.  Small guesthouses, luxury boutique hotels, and grand international hotels all offer spa treatment services. Here beauty is more than skin deep.  It is a meditation whose source comes from deep within for spiritual and emotional cleansing and purification.

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Mosaic Palais Aziz & Spa is a perfect spot for the frenzied.  There’s not much to do here except lounge on pristine white divans on a patio outside the room or at the pool and swim.  Take your time.  North Africa is slower paced, just like Mexico. Enjoy a spa treatment, take a turn in the fully equipped gym, and sleep at any hour of the day.  Reading a book seems to be the preferred entertainment for guests stretched out around the two pools.

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You can dine at two extraordinary restaurants where Daniele Tourco, director of food and beverage and chef de cuisine, ensures that guests have the best fresh-made Moroccan and Italian specialties.

Have you ever had scorpion fish?  Karim el Ghazzawi, President and CEO, recommended I try this last night.  Otherwise, I would never have ventured there with a name like that.  I know scorpions. I find them in my Oaxaca casita and I would never eat one!  I step on them.  But, the name belies the delicacy and Morocco is famed for her fresh fish and oysters.

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There is even delicious Halana brand merlot available at the hotel that is made in Morocco to sip at your leisure.

Arabian Nights architecture and decor, lemon, olive, date and pomegranate trees heavy with fruit surround me.  I’ve just emerged from a four-hands massage (imagine that).  I feel so fortunate to be here at this moment, far away from stress and the decisions at hand.

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I did venture out on my own on Day Two, stopping periodically to consult a map, with no difficulty.  Though Morocco is an Arabic and French-speaking country, I found myself able to get along in both Spanish and English, using Spanish as my primary language.  In tourist areas and hotels, most people speak enough English for basic communication.  

Now, for another glass of mint tea before dinner!  I’m six hours ahead of you.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Market life for the staples of life.

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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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