Hungry for Morocco

**see photos tab for pics**

Marrakesh

Arriving into Marrakesh, the capital of Morocco, we quickly found a Pension down a side alley near the center of town on the terrace-level, the cheapest rooms available.  Immediately, I was thrown into Spanish 101 as this would be the only way we could communicate unless we were lucky enough to stumble across someone that spoke English, a real treat.  French is the language of preference in Morocco due to colonialization around the 19th century, but most speak a bit of Spanish as the Spaniards occupied the southern part of the country and of course, it was necessary for business.  The streets were crowded with locals, mostly men, some dressed in traditional garb, long one-piece linen shirts that extend almost to their ankles.  The women were covered including a burka and some wore the full face cover.  We walked around looking for a cafe and quickly realized this wasn’t going to be easy.  It was Ramadan, a celebration that lasts for an entire month where basically anyone over 18, and sometimes younger if they choose, doesn’t consume a thing when the sun is up.  No food, no water, no smoking, no anything, including brushing your teeth should you decide to sleep in or having sex.  The “rules” state you’re not even supposed to look at the opposite sex more than two glances, although this rule is probably the least followed.  Most rise early in the morning, pre-sunrise, for the first of their five daily prayers.  During this time, they will eat some food, have tea or coffee and brush their teeth.  So, from roughly 6:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night, those that follow Islam throughout the entire world make this ultimate sacrifice.  Asking a local, they explained it is a sacrifice that they make so that no matter if your are rich or poor, during Ramadan, you are all on the same level.  Needless to say, any cafes that were actually open were filled with tourists only and most cafes didn’t serve food.  Fortunately we found one near our pension and sat down for a big breakfast.  We hadn’t eaten ourselves in almost 12 hours but in reality only 2 of those hours we were doing anything besides sleeping.  Maybe it was just feeling guilty but as I drank my fresh-squeezed OJ and sipped on my coffee, ate my eggs and slathered butter and jam on the fresh croissants, I couldn’t help but feel eyes watching.  Within seconds a motorbike whizzed by and we heard a commotion in the street.  He had hit a pedestrian and this would be the first of roughly two altercations we would see per day while in Morocco.  I can’t really say I am surprised because if I hadn’t eaten or drank anything for several hours, I’d be the first to jump down somebody’s throat for the slightest transgression. 

We were warned that Morocco just wouldn’t be the same visiting during Ramadan and while that’s probably true, I’m really happy we visited during this time.  Seeing a Ramadan celebration first hand is something I will never forget.  As the sun sets, the vibe in the air borders the night before Christmas as a young child.  You can sense the anticipation and as people around you sip their first fresh mint tea or light up their first cigarette, have their first tasty morsel or give their wives a kiss and a pat on the ass, you feel the mood change.  Several times during this moment at night as we would walk down the street, locals would offer us some of their food, even though the amount was small and they knew we had eaten throughout the day.  Of course, we would refuse and say thank you but couldn’t help being completely amazed at these gestures.

In Marrakesh, after a gorgeous sunset, things really picked up because the Central Market opened and mobile restaurants set up shop.  The lights, the smells, the music and drums beating.  The buzz of talking everywhere arround you and smoke rising from the numerous tagine clay pots cooking lamb and chicken.  Carts with fresh seafood on ice and assortments of meat surrounded by tables and behind them chefs busily preparing the orders being called back. As you walk by, the purveyors would come up to you and in perfect English ask where you were from.  For some reason, they never guessed America for us but we think they were just having some fun.  The first gentleman that approached us was quite funny but we wanted to see the rest of the market before deciding.  Looking around, all of the restaurants are exactly the same so we promised him if we ate at one, we’d come and see him and he made us remember his number.  142 my friend, say it, 142.  We did and ultimately we returned for a fantastic budget-travelers dream meal.  Surrounding the restaurants are other carts, these filled with dried fruits such as dates, apricots and bananas, assortments of nuts and spices, not to mention ten different types of olives, each specially marinated with different spices and herbs.  Stores with colorful carpets and shoes are at the edge of the souks, the markets for goods, that connect to the central market.  Returning to 142, our new friend was happy we gave our word and stuck to it, something we’re not so sure occurs often.  The menu was extensive and dirt cheap.  We split a chicken tagine over couscous that was cooked with golden raisins, fresh dates and root vegetables.  On the side we had two types of salads and a moroccan soup and the entire bill came to $7, including drinks.  Afterwards, we played some local carnival-style games, winning a liter bottle of coca-cola and then snuck into the corner bar which had a spectacular view over the market below.  Here, we booked our trip to Zagora, for an overnight camel trek in the desert, which left early the next morning. 

Zagora Camel Trek

What they don’t tell you when booking this trip is that it’s a 8-9 hour drive to get to the camels and they stop every hour or so at their buddies tourist shack to try and push overpriced goods.  Fortunately, the drive was through the stunning Atlas Mountain range, otherwise it would have been completely unbearable.  Arriving at our destination, the camels were ready to go and after being instructed to buy two waters each we were introduced to our transportation and off we went into the sunset.  My original plan was to do a 4-5 day camel trek through the Sahara but after riding for an hour, I’m glad we decided on our two and a half hour round trip.  Our asses were killing us and I felt like I had been forced to do a split for an hour, stretching my upper-inners a bit farther then they’re meant to be.  The sand kicked swiftly into our faces and most of us were forced to wear bandanas or traditional head wraps.  Our group was fantastic, with a German and Spanish couple, two Swiss gals and a group of Japanese travelers to make the journey that much more enjoyable.  Arriving at our camp, an encircled group of large tents with a large tent at the point meant for group meals, we unpacked and were served dinner.  Surprisingly, everyone was completely exhausted and we all turned in early.  Before going to bed though, Erin and I sat out under the moon and enjoyed the tranquil solitude that surrounded us.  The next morning, we hopped back on our camels and head home.  Halfway, we dropped off our German riders, as they were planning on some hiking in the vicinity and picked up two Kiwis who had been campervanning around Europe for a few months.  I learned an awesome card game from Hide and the Japanese crew, whose highlight is the winner gets to “flick” the loser in the forehead.  Yet another game, I wish I had learned earlier growing up with my brothers!  After the hellishly long ride was over, we quickly rushed to the train station to board an overnight train to Fez. 

Fez

Fez is busy and the medina, the center, is built on what seems to be the side of a hill.  I say seems to be because when in Fez, even with a good map, you spend half of your time lost.  Being lost is one of my pet peeves but in Fez, I just had to let it go and it turned out to be a good decision.  We just roamed around the medina for two days with no real direction and only hoped that at some point we would spot a landmark that would help us home.  Small stalls that sold freshly baked pancake-style breads and others with fresh-squeezed orange juice would get us through the day.  At night, finding an open restaurant was always a challenge but proved to be no match for our rumbling tummies.  This time, we would opt for Morocco’s famous cous-cous with lamb, perfectly seasoned with some cumin and topped with raisins and dates.  After a day and a half of Fez, we were just kind of sick of it and opted to leave that afternoon.  In Jordan, we were instructed by our friend Regina that we had to go to Chefchaouen in the north while in Morocco, so we asked directions and hopped a train.  At 5:30 in the evening, we were instructed to get off the train and catch a bus the last 100 km into the mountains.  As it was Ramadan and the sun was on it’s way down, all buses had stopped and the trains were finished as well.  Having another traveler’s bug, we quickly found a hotel for the night and made sure the bathroom was near.  I could only say estoy enfermo while rubbing my stomach to the ladies that ran the place and they asked for 2 dirhams, about 15 cents, and ran out to get me the “local fix,” about 15 packages of apple tea.  The tea was no match for this illness though and I was in for a long couple of days, including an unintended Ramadan-esque day of non-consumption.  The next morning, after what seemed to be an eternity, we caught the early bus to Chefchaouen.  We had finally found the type of city we were looking for in Morocco. 

Chefchaouen

The blue city as it’s called, is like most cities, split into the old and new.  It seems as though the old is usually for tourists so we quickly made our way there and with the help of a friendly local, found our hostel suggested by Regina, Hotel Mauritania.  At $7 each a night for a room and meals being as cheap as they are, we felt like we were back in Egypt and excitedly hatched plans for all we could afford.  Oh wait, we were sick though so first we had to struggle through that, mostly bed-ridden.  On the second day I was in bad shape and refused food and drink for the entire day.  At about 3:00 in the afternoon, sitting at an internet cafe, I was so weak I began to fall asleep in the chair.  Erin woke me and said I should go home and rest so I struggled back up the hill towards the hotel.  I hadn’t eaten or drank anything for nearly 8 hours and wouldn’t have anything for 4 more.  I will never understand how people celebrating Ramadan can work regular jobs, some as laborers or even harder, as restaurant workers, without eating or drinking.  It is truly the ultimate sacrifice. 

Finally, the sickness lessened and like a new spring day we entered the city with a fresh start.  The tight alleys and little shops and locals selling odds and ends carried us through the city.  Just about everything is painted some shade of blue and after perusing the streets we decided to hike up the adjacent mountain for some fresh air and exercise.  After about an hours climb, we ran into a local on his way home and after some pleasantries, he invited us back to his house for “some tea, and to see my family’s business, making hash.”  Never ones to miss a unique experience we agreed.  For the next 45 minutes we followed him up the mountain and he would stop and show us how to spot the difference between fresh and dangerous cactus-fruit and also picked one for us to eat.  Arriving at his house, we noticed it was under construction and he was in the process of drying figs in the sun.  Soon, he came out with a table set, some tea and an English-Arabic dictionary from 1985.  With the dictionary he looked up the Arabic word for “Easter,” and then pointed and laughed to the tied-up goat we had passed along the way.  Apparently, that would be their celebratory feast at the end of Ramadan.  Then he brought out his tools-of-the-trade for making hash and proceeded to make it. Offering us what he made, we passed but thanked him for the unique experience anyway.  We asked him if his hash is sent all over the world and he just smiled an nodded his head but mentioned it wasn’t him that was doing the smuggling.  Wanting to finish our hike but not sure of the route since we were led to his house, he led us to the trailhead and we climbed up the mountain for a picturesque view of the city and valley below.  Rewarding ourselves that night which would also be our last, we went out for a nice dinner in the town square and bid the quaint little city goodbye.  The next day we traveled by bus to Tangiers and then took the ferry across to Tarifa in Spain and thus began our adventure towards Barcelona.

Morocco during Ramadan

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.

FEZ

“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.

CHEF CHAOUEN

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.