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

1 comment :

  1. My daughter sent me the Seattle Times article on your adventure. Thanks for sharing! Looks like you are having a great time and appreciating the people and cultures you are encountering. Have fun! Travel safely.