Saturday, January 31, 2015

It's Raining on the Risotto! - Morocco Week #3

After a week at the beach in Essaouria it was time to catch the bus back to Marrakesh to our next airbnb home. When we booked it, we didn't realize it was less than a five-minute walk from the first place we stayed! Seems ironic in a city of a million people. The good news was we knew the immediate area and where to find everything the neighborhood had to offer. And our new friend Rashida, whom we met at our first airbnb, was nearby for help as needed.

The view from our seats in the front of the bus. This is typical of most of the roads on the 3 hour journey.
Similar to our first experience, we staid in a riad. A riad (Arabic: رياض‎) is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. The word riad comes from the Arabian term for garden, "ryad". The word is as overused as Kleenex is for tissues, and has become short for any type of guest house, be it palatial or otherwise. In this case, the house was well on the side of "otherwise".
Looking down the ally from our new front door
The riad where we had our first Marrakesh experience was a lovely, tranquil setting. This new accommodation was more typical of a single family, no frills house with a hole in the middle. When Rashida stopped in to say hello she slowly looked around, and  after some thought said " are getting a chance to really live like a Moroccan". As she left she warned us "Remember it could rain in here". And with those words she waved goodbye and left us staring upward.
Michael found it hard to imagine that we would have rain on our table that same day
I could go on about the challenges of this little abode - but I could also note that our stay here will be one of our most memorable Nomad experiences. Here's the link:
The kitchen, just beyond the open dining area, is barely big enough for one.
Add two more pans and a few spoons and a steak knife and you have just about all the cooking gear available
Here's a quick recap; the main floor consisted of a toilet under the slant under the stairs (a no-go zone for stand-up use) A kitchen the size of a generous broom closet, the aforementioned open to the sky dining area, and a small room with a couple of seriously uncomfortable couches and a space heater that we called "the snug". Fortunately the TV received a couple of English channels and the wifi signal was good because we spent a lot of time in this room.

Michael looking forward to my first Tangine in our dark little "snug".
On the next level there were two bedrooms and a larger bathroom with shower. The shower drain had a plastic covering that needed to be replaced the minute you finished showering to prevent ancient odors from past civilizations wafting upwards.

On the top level there was a pleasant terrace, another small sitting room and the washing machine. And that wide-open, often raining sky. Which brings us back to the main floor. Maybe we should have looked a little closer at the pictures, or recalled the review from one woman who complained of wet slippery tiles. Or maybe we should have considered central heating and a roof in January a good bet in any country.

I could check the weather from the warmth of our bed
We had to laugh as we dashed from the warmth of our bedroom to the bathroom down the exposed hallway. It’s not often you step in puddles on the way to the loo! Then there was the run from ‘the snug’ as we named the main floor sitting room through the cold main floor to the equally chilly kitchen for yet more tea. Cooking was a hilarious, and precarious dance in a small space with a very feisty propane stove. It was cold in the house so I often cooked in a sweater and my down jacket. All those years on the sailboat prepared me for that – but I hadn’t counted on catching on fire! “What’s that smell?” I asked myself while preparing dinner. “Burning goose feathers, that’s what!” The bottom of my down jacket had caught fire while I was reaching over the stove to grab a pan off the shelf. Fortunately, there was no bodily harm, but my Uniglo jacket required patching.

My favorite jacket all patched up for Paris
A little rough around the edges - and I have no idea what the patch means, but I like it.
Rashida helped me find a street market tailor and a “scrap store” where we dug through bags of remnants to find a suitable piece of fabric and what I thought might be a stylish A&F looking patch. The tailor sewed it all up on the spot. Total investment $1.50 (about right for the craftsmanship) and I guess I earned my cooking badge.

Our tour guide Abdul was a great source of information and insight into Moroccan culture
The cover of a Moroccan magazine issued shortly after the attacks in Paris
We booked a private walking tour with a lovely guide named Abdul who runs Marrakesh Guided Tours. He was totally up for any and all political and religious questions we had.  Coming so soon after the tragedy in Paris it was good to connect with a Muslim person who loved his country, city and his religion. In fact, we made many wonderful new friends during our time in Morocco.

My new friend Monsif makes the freshest fish and chips I've ever tasted and his gazpacho was amazing.
I have the recipe - and he has a sketch by me framed and on the wall of his restaurant, Le Perle Blanche.
I fell in love with Moroccan food and wanted to learn more about it so I booked a day long class at Souk Cuisine. There were just six of us in the class so we had lots of hands-on experience that included a couple of hours of shopping in the large marketplace (souk) in the medina.
Cooking classmates armed with shopping lists and courage
We were split into teams of two and given shopping bags, cash and a list of ingredients to gather. Since I already had a couple of weeks of souk shopping under my belt I was prepared for the slaughter of two chickens, the dodging of vegetables as they were tossed from the seller to the weigher to the  bag boy and ready or not – to you, and the overwhelming array of spices piled high in cone shapes and overflowing out of feed bags. Fully loaded we headed to the kitchen and made a wonderful four course lunch while our instructor Gemma gave us insights into the cuisine.
One of three chefs doing prep work while we had tea and learned more about Moroccan cuisine

Making authentic couscous is a labor of love - but so delicious.
Michael finished off the week with a trip to a Hamam. He was rubbed and scrubbed and felt like a new man.
Michael apparently steamed off enough weight to top up the snack supplies
Looking back at the past three weeks we can say that we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Morocco and hope to explore it further - but even these two seasoned Seattlites wouldn't mind if it didn't rain next time. 

Debbie and Michael
Senior Nomads

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Retreat to the Beach! - Morocco Week #2

After a madcap week in Marrakesh we retreated to the seaside city of Essaouria to catch our breath, and a breeze. Essaouria is a lovely, laid back destination on the Atlantic coast about two and a half hours away by bus. I have to admit to some fleeting trepidation around taking a bus in Morocco, but it was the best choice, and it turned out to be a fine way to travel. The bus was plush with lots of room and big windows - and not a peasant or chicken crate in sight.

We shared the road with donkey carts, camels, motorcycles, hippie-vans and dilapidated trucks, as well as meandering pedestrians - none of whom seemed concerned in the least that our bus was bearing down on them.
Our lovely bus to Essaouria - a great way to travel in Morocco.
We stepped off the bus in a dusty parking lot and were swarmed by "helpful" young men offering taxis, rickety push-carts to carry our bags, guided tours, camel rides, carpets and restaurant discounts. Add a few hangers-on and you've got a show! This is the first time in our Nomadic travels that we didn't have our host contact information and arrival details written out. I guess it was because our host told us it would be so easy to get to the apartment. “Just grab a cab and give the driver the name of my restaurant. It should cost about 6 Turkish Durham” - that’s about a dollar. Okay! Well ... there was a lot of animated discussion and grabbing at Michael's iPhone to verify this information. Then there was confusion about where the restaurant was (there was one with a similar name inside the Medina where taxis cannot go – this got the cart guys excited!) And then the price brought some laughs. Finally - we broke out of the scrum and found our host Federico by phone. We thrust the phone at the cab driver and hoped for the best. After a brief discussion, the deal was done and the crowd moved on. Total cost: two dollars. I don't think we were robbed.
Itching to get our toes in the sand! The weather was mixed, but we got a few sunny days.
Our newest home sat above our host's very nice Italian restaurant, Gusto Italia. Hey, you can't eat fish and tangine everyday! The pizza was delicious. The apartment was modern, but spare - the best feature being the large glass doors that looked through leafy palm trees at the beach. If you didn't look left, right or down it was a nice view and allowed for plenty of light. The sun was out - the beach beckoned and you could actually hear yourself think. Here's the link:

A sea of fishing boats in the port.
Essaouria is a small city with a big history. Its Portuguese heritage comes through in some of the architecture - but the real influence can be found in the thriving boatyards and fishing port. We watched as a dozen men worked to build one of four 65-foot fishing boats from the keel up. Every piece of wood is hewn by hand on-site. There were piles of eucalyptus, teak and mahogany ready to be bent to fit the frames. For a small tip a salty old sailor gave us a tour of the yard and we learned it takes ten men, one year to build each vessel. 

Our guide took us deep beneath the boats for a close up of the process
The underlying frame of a boat under construction
 At the nearby fishing port a fresh catch came ashore early in the morning, and again in the late afternoon. Housewives and vendors alike crowd around the boats to haggle for the best fish - then load up their carts and head off.  Steps away there were 30 or so stalls all set up to entice you with your choice sea creatures by the kilogram, toss it on the grill and serve it up with lemon and sea salt. You had to run the gauntlet of menu waving hustlers, and of course there might have been  a little slight of hand on the pricing  - but still, for a just a few bucks you got a plate full of just-off-the-boat fish, fries, salad and a warm coke. I gave my heart to Mustafa at stall 5.

Mustafa reminding me "American Idol Style" to come back to booth number 5
This fish is going to Hollywood!
The Medina, or old city, is walled on all sides with 6 entrance gates, or Babs. Within the Medina there was a lively souk with all the usual crafts, household goods, spices, fresh food, bakeries, cell phone kiosks and some impressive galleries.

 This piece really captured Morocco for me
Most of these shops are one-man operations so when the owner is called to prayer from the mosque minaret, he just put a broomstick over two crates or parks a bike across the shop entrance as a sign the will back in 10 minutes. That is trust and a compliment to Islamic culture.
Off to pray - back in ten minutes!
Loading up on our daily allotment of oranges and bananas.
Fresh herbs were piled high all down the street. I love cooking here!
Jars of raw pigments to mix with fabric dye, paints and glazes.
The most prevalent product on offer in Essaouria was argan oil - used both for cooking and skin care. It apparently has magic anti-aging powers! Shop after shop offered it as soap, cream or spray bottles for your body, or as a intensely flavored cooking oil made from toasting the nuts. Argan nuts are indigenous to Essaouria and the products are created exclusively by women. And goats. Lots of goats.  
You are not seeing things ... those really are goats in that tree!
First step, cracking the hard, hazelnut like shells with a stone.
When I first heard about the process I was a little put off. Apparently these goats clamber up planks into knarled argan trees and nibble off the almond sized nuts.Their digestive tracks can digest the tasty (if you are a goat) outer skin, and then the undigested hulls are gathered after they have been, err, "processed". Really? Much later I was relieved to find out that actually, the nuts are spit out after the skin has been chewed off. So really it's just goat saliva and not poop. Better, right? The real work starts after the women gather the nuts then crack the outer hulls, peel off the tough skin around the nuts, take those and grind them in ancient mortars and extract the oil in drizzles. I hope my purchases help their thriving micro-businesses. Learn more about argan oil online.

I enjoyed shopping during Essaouria's slower paced shoulder-season and wandered the souk for inspiration for a week's worth of meals and once again marveled at the myriad of spices, nuts, and fresh foods. We were also intrigued with shopping at the new Carrefour hypermarket that opened a week before we arrived. Carrefour is a French owned company and the largest supermarket chain in the world after Wal-mart. They have 10,000 stores in 34 countries around the world. In Morocco it is one of the rare places you can buy alcohol - however all that evil business is tucked out of site in a "cave" and those purchases are a separate transaction. 

The store itself was huge and brightly lit. It offered everything you could find piled in the souk, but in an orderly fashion all lined up in aisles and cold cases. And of course, there were European foods on offer and specials were announced on the sound system! The only thing missing were customers. There were some - but they seemed more curious than serious about shopping. It will take some time to shift the population away from the daily shopping and socializing over tea in the market to filling a cart full of plastic packages and sterile meat at a "Soukermarket”

Carrefour's  pre-packaged must-have ingredients for every kitchen. Your's for $3.00
What we enjoyed most were long walks on the spectacular beach. A 10-mile stretch of hard packed sand with dunes and a pile of ancient ruins along the way. There were lots of lovely camels and horses to ride. We petted them both but declined to ride either, although the ab-crunching movement that came with a camel ride seemed very good for the core.

A well deserved rest after a five mile trek, sans camels.
My new friend Daisy. She had lovely blue eyes and was soft as a kitten
Slow day on the beach for this young one
The weather was hit and miss, but we got a fair amount of sunshine and definitely cleared our heads. Soon it was time to load back on the bus and return to the magical, mysterious world of Marrakesh for our last week in Morocco.

Debbie and Michael Campbell
Senior Nomads in Europe (and a little beyond)

P.S. Most of the apartments we've stayed in have televisions but is rare to find English channels. As it turns out, in Essaouria there was a satellite dish so we got BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera which allowed us to watch the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris unfold. Our hearts were broken. Mary and Gregoire and the kids joined the big Sunday solidarity march with the kids. A historical day for us all. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Nomads meet Nomads - Week #1 in Morocco

Planning our Senior Nomad adventures is half the fun. Way back in August when we where home for son Christopher’s wedding, we started penciling out where we’d like to go next. Our departure for Round II was set for early November.

We both wanted to explore more of Central and Eastern Europe off the beaten path – but that would be better left until warmer weather. Some of the cities we want to visit are bleak on any given day, but cold, dark winter weather would only add another layer of gray to the already dingy government monoliths and cinder block housing. So after spending the holidays in France we plotted a southerly course to find the sun, saving places like Serbia, Kosovo, Romania and Belarus for spring.

Michael standing at the passageway to our riad

Morocco was on the list so here we are! We flew south from Paris and arrived in Marrakesh on January 4th. This dip into North Africa required a little more forethought than most of our European destinations so we read up on traveling to "the Magreb". And then we stopped before we changed our minds! It seems there is a love-hate relationship with this country when it comes to being a tourist. And we have experienced both so far. We loved our airbnb and the wonderful people who hosted us there. 

The good parts included having a driver pick us up at the airport, thus avoiding the first gauntlet - haranguing taxi drivers. We were delivered to our door – and that was another good thing. Finding the riad (A riad (Arabic: رياض‎) is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. The word riad comes from the Arabian term for garden, "ryad"),
required plunging down a poorly marked, narrow, twisting passageway that became darker with every turn. Had we been on our own I am not sure we would have had the courage to continue, but we had trusty Mustapha leading the way. Of course in the bright morning light it looked much less forbidding and after the day we found it easily.

Inside our oasis. It was a large, lovely home just for us.
The riad itself was an oasis of calm. And that is also a good thing. It didn't take long once you headed out to explore the colorful streets and the deep tentacles of the Medina to be happy you had a cool, comfortable home to return to. Not to mention English TV channels (a rarity), a roof deck, a wonderful housekeeper / cook who spoke English and was there to help with anything you could possibly need. And make breakfast every morning! Her name was Rashida and she made all the difference in our stay. She escorted me through the market (more on that later), to a Hamam and took Michael to negotiate SIM cards for our phones and to buy bus tickets to our next stop in Essaouari.

Holding tight to Rashida. She spoke English, French and Arabic and was a life-saver.

On our first night our riad manager, Gilbert, took us to dinner to a nearby restaurant owned by a friend. It was called 13 a table It was a sort of semi-private, communal table situation. Not open regularly but always serving a Moroccan family-style dinner on Sundays. Gilbert is French and spoke little English, but it didn’t take Michael long to find our they share a love of sailing and so began tapping away on their translator apps on their phones.

Once we reached the restaurant, again down a narrow passageway, the large single room was filling up with guests. Many knew each other as regulars and others mingled and met around the fireplace and a glass of wine. Note: alcohol isn’t necessarily hard to come by here, but it isn’t obvious. There are very few western type bars outside hotels. Drinking ‘dens’ are a male only affair usually tucked down alleyways. The booze is segregated in the grocery store and there are a few ‘bottle stores’ sprinkled about. In this case, since it was a “private dinner” the wine was flowing. 

We were the only “English as a first language” couple – but of the twenty guests, there were enough who spoke it well enough to carry on interesting conversations to make for a convivial evening. Michael sat next to a young man named Victor from Senegal and that topped-up my husband's insatiable need for political discourse for the night. Our dinner included creamed spinach and mint soup with cumin, a rich chicken and peanut stew over mashed sweet potatoes, and for dessert a rice pudding with pomegranate seeds and ginger biscuit crumbles. Delicious!
A Moroccan U-haul trailer
Our neighborhood! The passageway to the riad is on the left past the man in orange.

Okay now for the challenges – nothing bad really, it's just so different here.It became tiring to be on guard and hassled, and taking your life in your hands to cross the street even now  in the off season, so I am sure what we experienced isn’t half of what it would be like in the spring and summer. 
The central plaza, Djemaa El-fna. Street fair by day, sprawling food court by night.
A popular pastime was the tedious task of fishing for a bottle of warm soda
Spending time at the central plaza, Djemaa El-fna, was an eye-opening experience. Again, we were seeing it in winter, but I can imagine the crush it must be in the high-season. We gaped at snake charmers (from a distance), passed on having monkeys in sunglasses cavort on our shoulders, did not play dice, buy herbal erectile dysfunction teas ground-to-order, buy false teeth from a jar, pay to have our picture taken with “authentic” persons, or haggle for rugs or slippers we couldn’t buy anyway! 

When we return to Marrakesh after the rest of our Moroccan adventure, we will spend time on the square in the evening when it turns into a giant outdoor restaurant with hundreds of booths serving anything edible. Anyone for a boiled sheep’s head and 4 spoons? 

Speaking of food, shopping was daunting. We are so used to cooking for ourselves that it would be hard to break the habit and eat out here, even though  the food is really good - and inexpensive. So I plunged into our neighborhood “souk” or market, to get the basics and ingredients for dinner. The market ran along a sun-dappled alley that seemed to stretch for forever. I soon found myself overwhelmed by the colors, the smells and the sheer variety of goods. Let alone figuring out how much things should (and could with a little haggling) cost.
Piles of vegetables and herbs, heaps of pungent spices, Carts full of oranges – and one laden with snails crawling over every surface. And meat. Lots of meat in all its “can I carve something off this fly-covered hanging carcass for you madame?” glory. And fish and shellfish of every kind. And poultry of course. I was in the market for a chicken … but not on this first foray.

Weighing a basket of vegetables - all produce is bought in bulk
 There were jumbles of pots and pans and tangines. Leather goods and cardboard boxes filled with underwear and socks. Toys and bolts of fabric, candy and dangerous, bee covered pastries.

The smell of grilling meat easily brought out my inner-carnavore!
And then there  glowing charcoal braziers with tantalizing skewers of lamb and chicken and little hole in the wall kitchens serving bubbling tangines with lashings of couscous. The whole place was Heaven – and Hell.
I managed to fill a bag with delicious easily peeled oranges for $1.00
I was brave enough to negotiate for a bag of oranges and then scrambled back to the riad to get Rashida. She led the way back to the market, and since she shops there everyday, she was able to get the best prices for everything on my list – and we agreed that we would prepare a chicken tangine together that evening. I was elated. Now we just needed that one last ingredient - the chicken. I should have known when I saw birds clucking in the back of the shop that this was not going to be an ordinary experience. Let’s just say the chicken was as fresh as if I’d gone to the hen house to get it myself. 
Rashida buying the tantalizing spices for our tangine. They are now in my suitcase!
The fresh chicken - before and after.
Within a very few minutes our dinner guest was dispatched, plucked, chopped and wrapped in newspaper and ready to go. All for $3.00. It was definitely time to go back to the oasis and knock-back some mint tea. I do have to say that poor chicken was the best I have ever eaten. 
Our chicken tangine with prune and olives was a tribute to our feathered friend
The next day, I decided to experience what goes on behind the heavy doors of a traditional Hamam. I was doused with buckets of hot water, oiled, steamed, rubbed with a loofah mitt and sea salt within an inch of my life, slathered with green mud, steamed again, doused again, soaped up (amazing hair wash) and showered. All this in the bewildered company of 5 other naked white ladies. I then had a blissful massage. Alone thank you. After all that, I was spit back out, blinking in the sunlight to rejoined the chaos. 
Not far off from my experience!

We leave for the coast tomorrow. Heading to Essaouria for some beach time. We will be there for 8 days and then back to Marrakesh for a week where we will stay at a different airbnb riad not too far from our first one. At least we’ll know the neighborhood and where to buy chicken!

See you at the beach.

Debbie and Michael

Senior Nomads