OVERVIEW OF MOROCCO
Ramadan was in full swing when we visited Morocco, men and women refraining from food, drink and cigarettes during daylight hours and feasting once the sun went down. As explained by a carpet salesmen, this holiday is meaningful to Muslims because the weathly become humble, and have time to reflect on all they have in life as they meditate and grow in their relationship with Allah. Devoting quiet time to religion and practicing self-control replaces the need for food and quick fixes.
To travel during this holiday was beneficial for learning about customs of Moroccans, since most are Muslim. We were able to sample special juices and foods that are only served at this time of year and we heard plenty of horn blowing and wailing during the late night hours as locals walked around the city banging drums. It was explained that this custom is to wake up the people, getting them ready for their 4 am prayer time. I was also told that during this season, men were to be more conservative, only glancing quickly at women and never staring. Hearing this made me feel a bit safer, although I saw the rule broken more than a few times!
Above: Sunset in Morocco marks the time of day during Ramadan when the fast is broken and people can eat dinner.
Traveling during this time was also a bit challenging for us non-Muslims due to the fact that many places were not serving food during the day because of the fast, and some stores were closed. But after long, hot days, we saw what we had been looking for: the towns burst with life, as if the solar energy of the daytime had recharged the people to full power for the evening. In reality, it was the one meal they had just eaten which perked them from their docile state.
After seeing a few ruckuses and conflicts among grown men, we incurred that men get a bit testy during this season due to the lack of food during the day. This theory was confirmed by a Burber boy, the native people of northern Morocco, as he led us to a hotel, avoiding a fight in the path. He mentioned that men do easily snap during this time of year. I guess it is the same in all countries- men are grouchy without their food!
Above: Food was abundant after sunset.
Although the main languages were French and Arabic, forcing us to work extra hard at getting our point across, we were rewarded by making an escape from the Euro, paying with the Durham, which was 8 Dh/ $1 US. This was a much better deal for traveling Americans than Europe had been!
MARRAKESH AND THE NIGHT FESTIVITIES
Walking through the shopping stalls of leather goods, hand knit sweaters and unique trinkets was a bit of a temptation, but with just one already stuffed backpack, I painstakingly decided not to buy an treasures. Marrakesh is known for its tanneries and beautiful leather products, so the shoes and sandals are well- made and abundant. In the maze of stalls, fresh orange juice stands and patisseries abound, obviously inspired by the French.
Above: Goodies abound in the day market. The shoe area was my dream come true.
In my opinion, the highlight of Marakesh was evening time in the town square, where cooking stalls popped up, drum circles formed and competitive games began. Smoke from the open air kitchens wafting over it all, the organized bustle reminded me of the first day of a county fair, complete with sweets and sounds of screaming and laughter.
Above: The activity of the night market.
After being recruited to stall #129 by a young boy, we were served a flat fluffy bread, like a thick piece of white pita. We ordered a mixed salad plate, a chicken tajine (a clay pot filled with a mix of herbs and meat) vegetable soup, and olives.
Above: Moroccan tajine: chicken, veggies or lamb cooked in a clay pot.
The spices in each dish made Western food seem bland and the fun atmosphere of the cooks and servers hustling, singing and shouting to each other set a jolly mood. After we were declared to be filled to our brims, we headed toward a fishing game where the object was to hook the neck of a one-liter soda bottle with a ring attached to the end of a pole. It ended up being much harder than it looked, so we jumped and raised our arms in celebration when Jason finally won after playing for 30 minutes. Although he just walked away with the bottle of soda and no cash prize, the game had been our nightly entertainment; it had been cheap and was accented with bands playing nearby.
Above: Jason fishes for bottles.
At this point we wandered up to a restaurant overlooking the active square in order to have a good photo shoot and we stumbled upon a booth selling camel rides in the desert. We booked on a whim for the next morning and planned to meet the group at 7am.
DESSERT IN THE DESERT & A CAMEL TREK
Our drive toward the camels ended up lasting a surprising nine hours, winding us along mountain ridges and into Zagora. Because restaurants were all closed for Ramadan, we ate lots of junk food desserts for breakfast and lunch- prepackaged brownies, cola, Snickers, and cookies refueled us as we neared the desert.
Above: The winding desert road to Zagora.
After naps, chats, desserts and more naps, our driver finally deposited our van load of twelve tourists in the desert where our camels waited. As suggested by the caravan leaders, we wrapped our heads in scarves to protect us from sand storms and had sunglasses handy to guard our eyes. Each of us crawled up onto the back of a camel as it rested on the ground and then with a clicking sound, the caravan leaders urged the beasts to stand. Initially shocked by the height and bumpiness of the ride, we soon relaxed and soaked in the scenery of dunes and local children who would run up to us, tossing us origami-like creatures they had folded from desert reeds. At sunset, we took a break from our ride and the leaders spread out a blanket with their Ramadan dinner. As they ate, the camels lounged and relaxed and we tourists took some snaps.
Above: Jason and I in front of his resting camel at dawn.
When our caravan arrived at the camp under a dark, star-studded sky, we were served tea and chatted about how amazingly sore our backsides were from the ride. Dinner was then brought out by the caravan leaders. First, the thick flat bread that we had been served in Marakesh was once again delivered, telling us this was a staple of the Moroccan diet. D’sara, a thick butter bean and garlic soup was brought to the table next, followed by a large clay pot tajine filled with spiced chicken, potatoes, and carrots. Lastly, a bowl of fruit was presented for dessert, filled with bright yellow melon and tiny desert oranges. Everyone was pooped from the drive and trek so we crashed atop cushions, four to a tent. These shelters were made of carpets and tarps and ended up keeping the rain out when it surprised us at 1 am with its arrival.
Above: The candle-lit dining tent in the desert.
“Has this really become a normality for me? No place to stay, no transportation, no English or German speakers and it’s raining. Why am I not even phased by this?”- A quote from my journal.
It was 3:30 am and we were unloading from a train that we initially thought would last until 8am. Our REM had just been revving up while we were spread across leather benches in a 2nd class train car. The conductor then announced that Fez was the next stop and we should prepare to depart. Sleepily, we lugged our backpacks down the narrow hallway, straps and buckles clanking every window as we trudged along.
Outside, it was sprinkling, something unexpected by us Moroccan travelers and we had no map. All taxis were taken by passengers who had hurried out of the station, prepared and awaiting the early morning Fez stop. Using Jason’s trusty compass to guide us northeast, where we were told the old part of the city was located, we decided to just start walking. After five minutes of silent steps in the rain, a taxi with a young driver and his friend pulled up, blasting club music in Arabic and asking where we needed to go. I showed them an address of a pension I had luckily copied into my journal and the wild goose chase began, stopping at payphones to call the hotel and asking other taxi drivers who were out at this ungodly hour for directions.
When our taxi driver found the hotel, we all banged on the metal, locked door and stood outside getting damper and damper by the second. Finally the owner of the place woke up, let us in and agreed to our negotiated price. But our taxi driver insisted an extra fee for walking us to our hotel and helping us find it. We are used to getting charged the “tourist tax” everywhere we go and it was late so we agreed to his 50 durham ($7 US) charge for the ride and extra help and said goodnight. But upon arriving to our beds, the morning chanting begun across the loud speaker, just in time to keep us awake for one more hour!
Above: Although Fez was hectic, we tasted the best cous cous with raisins, veggies and rice there.
It was truly foreshadowing that this was how we were greeted in Fez, because the chaos of this city is what we will probably remember about it. Dodging stray cats, ducking out of the way of bikes, and trying to avoid eye contact with men were all top on my priority list as I walked down the labyrinth of the old city streets. I must have looked a bit nervous because one young Moroccan man asked me if I needed a body guard. When I answered with a quick, “I already have one, thanks,” he assured me that an African body guard was always better! After seeing locals blow their noses in the streets (not into a tissue as they stand in the streets, but blowing it into the air of the street) and hearing people cough and hock up loogies, I decided not to shake hands with anyone and to head back to the room for a much-needed nap!
Above: An old door on a narrow Fez street.
After all of the commotion, we desperately needed to head for the hills, so we packed up and took a two-day journey with a train, then a bus, then another bus to Chef Chaouen, a mountain village. As passengers aboard a funky, decorated bus, we passed cacti abundant with fruit, onion stands run by locals, and many beautiful mountain vistas.
I figured it was a good sign that we had seen no tourists aboard the buses or outside for two days, and that we were about to uncover an authentic Moroccan area, sans souvenirs, where no one would try to charge for walking us to a hotel or demand money because we took a photo of their band, as people had in other areas.
I was right- this place was peaceful and low key! In the following days, Jason, typically with an iron-clan stomach, nursed a bit of a flu bug and we decided the food that was considered “Moroccan” was called so because it meant “More-On-Can.” Yikes! But in a hotel with a plant-filled, open-air atrium, cozy decor of blue and white painted walls and tiles, and a peaceful atmosphere, he was on the mend.
Chef Chaouen’s native people, the Burbers, are known for living in the mountain region, where they work harvesting marijuana and running tiny plantations. One night we were in the town square and played cards with some local boys. We asked them our questions about Ramadan and also asked if marijuana usage was looked down upon by some in Morocco. They assured us it was a normality in the local community, pointing to a table of old men playing dominoes in the corner. All of them, some looking like they were over the age of 80, had pipes or joints and looked to be enjoying life. The local boys also explained that women, too, are allowed to smoke hash, but with all of their responsibilities with the family life, they do not have as much time to sit and smoke with friends.
Above: Playing cards with local guys in the town square of Chef Chaouen.
The next day we went for a hike in the mountains and as we entered the countryside, a villager greeted us with a smile. When we asked him how to reach the top of the mountain, he pointed to the trail but then said we should come to his courtyard for mint tea first. As we followed him, he pointed out cactus fruit and cut one open for us to try.
He tidied the trail for other passersby and we could see he was gentle and well-liked in his village. Finally, we walked down a tiny dirt trail into his yard. Here we saw a goat tied up to a tree, figs spread out drying in the sun and a cat sunning himself in the dirt. Our host introduced himself as Fadar and pointed to an old lady who was flipping the figs in the sun, explaining that it was his mother who also lived in the home, which was an obviously hand-built, stone building with thin, tin strips as a roof.
Above: Fadar´s mother dries figs outside her stone hut in the mountains.
Once the tea was served, Fadar made us laugh by pointing to words in his English/Arabic dictionary and explaining that the goat we had just seen was his coming year’s Easter dinner. As we sat there we asked him what he did and he responded by telling us exactly what the boys the night before had told us. He proudly showed us a huge potato sack of “kief.” He then put a thin cloth over an empty bowl and set some of the dried plants on top, covering the whole contraption with a burlap bag. After beating the bag with a stick, he uncovered everything revealing a powder that had filtered through the thin cloth into the bowl. This was what he sold as hash! He balled it up, heated it and then packed it in a bag to sell. We were amazed and asked again if this was legal in all of Morocco. He smiled, laughed and bobbed his head up and down.
Above: A demonstration from a local hash farmer and his dried plants in the foreground.
After thanking him for the tea and the demo, he guided us to a trail that the goats use to climb the mountain and we continued hiking to discover a spectacular view of Chef Chaouen below.
Above: View from the mountains trail behind Chef Chaouen.