Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gezellig on Eid Al Adha

October 26, 2012

I ate breakfast with the only other guests at the hotel, a Dutch couple.  Because I had just been to Holland, I told them all the things I loved about Amsterdam and Edam.  "My favorite Dutch word - well, that would be the only Dutch word I learned - is gezellig!", I told them.  "We don't have a word for that in English."  Gezellig translates to "cozy, friendly times in a nice place".  It refers to people mixed with atmosphere mixed with contentment.  Laughs over beers and candlelight in a cozy pub on a crisp fall day - that's gezellig.  That's also what I did every night in Holland.  Making pie with your grandmother while watching the Facts of Life or Wheel of Fortune together - that's gezellig.

Morocco was really amazing so far, but not really gezellig.  Being yelled at in a hot, dusty souk - so not gezellig.  Being ignored in a bus station - no gezellig there either.  I was starting to feel it out in the country, though.  Now that I had met some other tourists and we were enjoying our coffee in a beautiful gorge on a sunny morning.

Abdul drove me into town in a little Renault (following another), top.  In town we met up with Karim's brother, Abdul #2, who was to take me on a four hour hike through the gorge.  We stopped for a picture at the bottom (below).  The gorge reminded me a lot of Colorado.  There was a lot of scenery in Morocco that reminded me of the American west.

Abdul was professional but friendly.  I was really comfortable talking to him, just like his brother.  We started talking about food, and I told him how much I enjoyed eating.  And how my friends called me "the bird of the sea" for that reason. In Berber, seagull sounds like "segunay".

Segunay in the gorge:

There's that orange shirt again!

Abdul led me up a rocky path.  He was a fast walker.  I had just run a half marathon five days before but I could barely keep up with him.  Of course he already heard me brag about the half marathon, so I was a little embarrassed to have to stop to rest while out of breath.  

He pointed out some wild thyme.  It was very heady and fragrant.  The mountain air was so nice after the motorbike fumes of Marrakech.  This is what Aveda candles aspire to, people. 

He took me up to a nomad Berber's home.  Everything was made of rocks.  Even the animal pens were tall circles of stacked up rocks.  The Berber clan had two caves to live in during the winter, but lived in open tents the rest of the year.  The rest of the family was in town or out with the animals somewhere, and this man who was holding down the fort made us tea from the same type of wild thyme we had just seen.  The old Berber guy had light blue eyes.  It's just odd to see such light-colored eyes here.  Apparently it's a Berber genetic variation. Abdul knew him in passing, and sometimes he would take his hikers here to meet him. 

The Berber man had just killed a goat and had strung it up.  I would think it was for the holiday, since all the city people had killed a sheep especially for today - but something tells me that he eats goat like this all the time and this was just his typical Friday night dinner.

Abdul had me pose for a photo pouring tea:

Because I am a sick, sick individual, I asked to be translated:
"where did you put the goat head"?  

The head was stuffed in a burlap bag three feet from where I was sitting.  Oh, there it is!
Nothing on that goat was going to waste.  I'm sure he even had a purpose for the goat's teeth and corneas.  The fur was definitely going to be made into a blanket or rug.  mmmm. cozy!  Gezellig? well.. possibly!

After more than four hours of fast hiking, I was starving and joked to Abdul
"I'm so hungry I could eat that goat head!"

Something I've noticed about the Moroccans and Egyptians I've met are that they have good senses of humor.  I was sometimes able to deflect a little bit of aggression in the souk with a joking comment.  I remember in Dahab, there was a very pushy restaurant guy that I would walk past three times a day but eventually we would just laugh at eachother.  There is a little bit of playfulness in the culture.  I mean, there's a whole lot I don't understand at all but it's something nice that I've noticed in North Africa.

As we were descending into the little village, Karim called Abdul and told him to invite me to the family's house for lunch.  I was excited.

Abdul led me though some back streets and alleys of the town, through some home-made aquaducts and through an olive grove:

We went to the family's guesthouse, where nobody was staying today.  Children were laughing and running  around a large, hanging sheep carcass, its wooly fur laid on the ground inside-out in one piece just as you'd take off a sweater.  The fact that they were actually able to skin the sheep in ONE PIECE impressed me so much that I forgot to feel queasy. 

Eid Al Adha is a Muslim holiday that means "feast of the sacrifice".  It recognizes the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, and people today (In Morocco, anyhow) sacrifice a sheep.  It was crazy how many sheep I saw being carted away in wheelbarrows down alleys in Marrakech.  And today in the little village, people had already killed the sheep that morning while I was hiking and having coffee with the Dutch people, and were already washing the sheep skins in the river. 

I had no idea what Eid Al Adha lunch would entail.  I assumed that the dinner was the important meal, and I'd be just dropping by for tea and a kebab.  The family (those who was there for the meal) was three sisters, an older mother who had henna-covered hands and feet and had kohl-rimmed eyes, four brothers and four small children including a 10 month old adorable baby girl nicknamed "Couscous". The Father had died four years before, so the oldest brother took the patriarchal role.  He welcomed me and introduced everybody.  He, Karim and Abdul were the only English-speakers.  Arabic wasn't spoken in the home, either, but a Berber dialect.  

We had mint tea and watched the Hajj live from Saudi Arabia on TV:

And later, on another TV:

With the hajj being on TV, we talked a little bit about religion.  I asked them a few questions and we talked about difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.  The oldest brother made some comments like "people of all religions are welcome in our home.  All of our religions stem from the same place anyhow", which I thought was nice.  We talked about the Hajj and what it means to Muslims.  This fairly progressive family agreed that the Hajj was just a little bit showy sometimes - and the true meaning of being a Muslim is to help your neighbor, and isn't it better to save your money and just do good in your community instead?  Apparently, it costs thousands and thousands of dollars to go.  They have special travel agencies just for the hajj and every country is only allotted a certain number of permits per year.  You can be a good Muslim and go to the hajj but you can also be an equally good Muslim closer to home.

I wanted so badly to take pictures of the entire family and document the day the way I normally would but I put my phone away and just listened and got in the moment.  I felt really awkward pointing my camera in people's faces and it didn't feel right.  (Even though I had just taken a bunch of pictures of the Berber man, who I actually thought was a bit of a ham and didn't seem to mind at all. Besides, I gave him some coins as I left, which is what you do in those situations.)  I don't have pictures of the older brother who I talked to a lot or of cute little Couscous, who they actually put in my lap. I will have to rely on my memories of the family.

We went outside and Karim asked me:  "you eat everything, right?"
"oh, yes!  I eat everything!"

Eid dinner would be the bigger cuts of the sheep.  Eid lunch was the sheep's guts.  Here is the offal, just sitting out on a table ready to be strung on kabobs!

They marinated all the meat in a mixture of thyme, rosemary, coriander, pepper, cardamom, cumin and saffron.  The brothers weaved the liver and the caul fat together.  They BBQd it all, including the large honeycomb-looking stomach and passed the kebabs around. We ate the Moroccan way and just grabbed with our hands and ate with the one round loaf of bread that is at every Moroccan meal I've ever seen.

After awhile I was struggling with eating with my hands and they gave me a plate and fork.  I was slightly embarrassed, but it was OK.  The tea had absinthe in it.  I was really surprised and then found that they meant the wild absinthe plant.

The absinthe:

I am a pretty brave eater so I tried to forget the visual of the dead sheep carcass in the yard and the thought of all the functions of the internal organs I was eating.  I told Karim to translate to everyone for me "Thank you so much for sharing your holiday with me.  It is an honor for me to be here with you all".   I complimented the brother on the gut-marinade, and wrote down the ingredients that I might use one day with non-sheep gut meat. After dinner, we ate pomegranates fresh from a tree in the yard.  How could you possibly top this dessert?

They also had a pear tree, but didn't know the english word for pear and asked me to tell them what it was. 

After dinner, Karim took me on a walk into the village of Tamtattouchte with his little nephew.  He ran into some of his neighborhood friends and they posed for a photo by this sign.  The sign probably says something really lame, but it looked like a good photo to me. 

It was getting late so we didn't go far into town.  We turned around and I raced the nephew back to the guesthouse about 150 yards.  He probably thought the large foreign woman was completely crazy.  Actually, that's nothing new.  They drove me back to my guesthouse while playing Berber music.  Berber music is usually one man singing in a warbly voice for 2 minutes, then a woman always answers, singing back for 2 minutes.  There is a lot of percussion.  I got to know Berber music VERY well a few days later.  Too well.  It is nothing like any other music I've heard.  Karim, Abdul and I talked about what middle eastern-type music I know about.  They were surprised to know that I have an Amr Diab CD.  Amr is an Egyptian pop singer I heard a lot in Egypt two years ago.  This was probably like admitting I have a Justin Bieber CD, but I'll defend Amr and say that he is much better. 

I wouldn't see Karim, Abdul #1 or #2 again because they were going to spend the rest of the night with their families and I was going to the desert the next day.  But I won't ever forget them and how they showed me the nicest possible side of Morocco.  They probably invite people into their home all the time and didn't realize how much it meant to me.  This was the kind of day with opportunities that happened because I was alone and got out of the big city.  The Atlas mountains are a world away from Marrakech - different language, different music and the most hospitable people you could ever hope to meet.  It was a total Gezellig day. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

Three people threw up on this bus and none of them were me

I wanted to break up my time in Morocco between Imperial Cities and natural sights.  I only had time to really see four things in ten days, and they had to be reachable during a holiday (Eid Al Adha) week.  I emailed hotels, bus companies and even investigated tour guides.  I have never researched a destination more than I did Morocco.  I had to cut two things off my list that I badly wanted to see. (Essouria and Chefchaouen).  I posted questions on forums and I googled and double-checked ratings.  Ultimately I decided to do the trip independently, using a combination of bus, train and hiring drivers.  I also relied heavily on my hotels to help me.  If I needed them to buy a bus ticket for me and have me pay them later - I just asked and luckily they did it.  There really is a tradition of hospitality in Morocco.  Hotel operators seem to genuinely care about my happiness.  Every single place I stayed checked up on me while I was there to ask "how is everything?  Are you doing OK?"

Two of my hotels arranged drivers for me and we negotiated rates back and forth through email.  Morocco is largely a cash-based society so I rarely used my credit card.  I hated carrying around so much cash (I entered the country with 1000 euros that I withdrew in Amsterdam) but I watched it and locked it up like a hawk and never had to use my credit card or give it out to someone that I didn't entirely trust.  This seemed to be the normal way that people travel here.  With the fraud notices put on my card in Holland, I didn't even want to risk having to use the ATM until the end of Morocco. I would have been stuck with no cash and no way to use my credit cards.

I arrived at the Marrakesh bus station and tried to find out where my bus was parked.  I asked a few people who worked there and they just said "no".  Not where it was, when it was coming.  I just watched the bus area but I didn't know where the end destination of my bus was, only my stop - so I couldn't look at the city name on the windshield.  I found a young couple who looked like they spoke English.  I was on their bus. Well, I trusted them and just got on their bus and hoped they were right.

We rode for a few hours towards the Atlas mountains and stopped here for a little break:

Then we started up the mountain passes.  It was exactly like driving through the mountains of Colorado.  Only less guardrails.  I looked over the right side and felt a little faint, so I just looked to the left.  The woman I was sitting next to put her head down.  Then she hiccuped.  Then she urgently rustled around for a plastic bag.  Uh oh.  

I was only mildly motion-sick, but the sounds and smell of puking made me almost puke.  I, too, rustled around for a plastic bag and had one ready.  The bus lurched around switchbacks like this one:

My neighbor didn't speak english and clearly I don't speak arabic. I felt really sorry for her.  All I could do was give her the international shoulder pat and sympathetic look and "OK? you OK?" 

A young couple was holding a one-year old baby across the aisle.  They, too, rustled for plastic bags.  The baby puked three times over the next hour.  There was another victim in the back.  Everybody on the bus was green and miserable.  The bus was  full of people going home to their families for Eid Al Adha so there was no room for the pukers to stretch out or get some air.

Eventually, we reached the Todra Gorge area, my destination.  We went through a beautiful town called Skoura that was a genuine palm oasis.  I saw a few Oasises (sp?) while in Morocco.  They were beautiful!  Quite the opposite of the DeKalb Oasis on I-88.  After hours of desert would be a lush palm forest. 

Sorry that my thumb got in the way here.  An example of an oasis town:

I arrived at the bus stop in Tinerhir and immediately had a stalker as soon as I got off the bus.  This was getting really tiring.

Hello!  What's your name? Where you trying to go?  I take you there!
Sorry, thank you.  I don't need help right now.

You Americans all the same!

I got a taxi to take me to my guesthouse out in the middle of the gorge.  It was lovely.  I had a room all alone in this castle.

It was super cozy with stone walls!

The queen of the castle had wisely packed away some wine from Marrakesh in her sigg water bottle and had a sundowner on her little balcony.  This Gorge had a river but it was dry in the other sense of the word. 

I had a lovely view of the gorge:

My guesthouse made dinner and I just ate whatever they made for me.  It was a fantastic tagine with tiny lamb meatballs.  I gushed compliments to the chef and they invited me back into the kitchen, where I hung out with Abdul and Karim.  Two polite young guys, maybe late 20s - not like the aggressive and crazy casanovas I had been meeting in Marrakesh and the bus stop. We talked about cooking, music and our families.  Karim gave me some vegetables to chop.  They were done making dinner for the guests (just three - me and a Dutch  couple) and they were now making dinner for themselves.  We made a tagine together and talked.

They liked to eat their meals outside. I wanted to leave them alone to eat but we just kept talking and I wanted to take a few pictures.  Karim and Abdul ate the moroccan way - no utensils, just using bread to grab everything.  We had a nice conversation about their lives in the village and how things are in America.  I showed them a few pictures of my friends and life in Chicago.

The tagine:

I arranged to have Karim's brother to take me on a 4 hour hike the next day.  We would leave in the morning so that he would have time to celebrate the holiday in the afternoon.  It was so nice to know that I already had someone that I could trust, even though I had never met him.  I was really lucky to get someone to take me on the 26th, because operations in Morocco pretty much shut down that day.

This was such a refreshing place to be out in the quiet mountains with nice people!  Abdul and Karim:

I came back in the guesthouse where the owner was playing the traditional Berber guitar.  (More about Berber music later!  I got a very good dose of it a few days later.) 

I slept soundly in my stone castle room and got ready for a day of hiking and what would end up being one of the most memorable days I've had in all of my travels.  Coming up - Eid Al Adha!

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Hassan #32 and simple goals

October 24, 2012

I woke up to the call to prayer echoing around Marrakesh.  The morning one (at 5AM) always seems louder than the other times of day.  I stayed in the old, traditional part of town where buildings are very condensed, and there are a few mosques in the medina.  In Amman, I think they used the same recording so the call was uniform across the town.  Here, it was sung live with many different voices.  "Allahu Abkar..." - I think it is saying something like "God is great, there is no other deity but God"  I find it extremely spooky, especially when it is still dark and you are sleeping.  Spooky but so beautiful.  I wasn't staying up late in Morocco so I wasn't annoyed by it like I was the Dutch church bells across the canal that "gong!!"ed me awake and into a post - half marathon party hangover just two nights before in Amsterdam.  It's all right, Allah.  I'm an early bird too.  I feel you.

After a jarring first day, I decided to make it easy on myself and have only TWO goals for today.  One, to find the museum of photography, and two to find a really note-worthy dinner in the Dja El Fnaa.  That was it.  The museum of photography was only about a 20-30 minute (SAFE, EASY) walk away, but I knew that it would take me hours to find it because maps are completely useless here and the entire town is like a corn maze.  Every street is narrow with high walls and no street signs. Main streets are twisting alleys with no rhyme or reason.  And even if you could just use trial and error - well, that would be nice - but the entire souk is filled with people who wanted to talk to me, follow me, get my attention.  If I asked for directions, they will not simply point the way.  That is an invitation to talk!

"Umm.. parlez-vous anglais?  non?  Ou est la musee de photographie?
"hello miss!  you cannot go there.  Too difficult for you.  I take you!"
"no, merci. can you just point the direction?"
(suddenly the person is starting to walk with you)
"I take you.  you will not find it.  too difficult for you.  First you come to my shop.  nice shop"

"bonjour.. ou est la musee de photographie?  that way? or this way?"
"it is closed!  you come to my shop"

"uh.. bonjour"
"where you go? where you from?  America? I take you, you cannot go alone"

After brushing off people for over an hour, and walking in the general direction where I thought it was, I tripped over some beautiful bowls sitting in the street.  I love the arabic-calligraphic design.  I really haven't seen too many examples of it in the souk.  I apologized to the man and picked up the bowl I knocked over.  He just smiled and didn't try to sell me anything.  I found my shop.  He let me look in peace and didn't hand me 15 things while I was looking.  I loved him.  we started our negotiations.  I give the equivalent in USD:

me:  how much are these?  (three small bowls)
him: $210
me:  oh, that's a little more than I wanted to pay.
him: how much you want to pay?
me: $12
him: $18!
him: OK, $15!
me: OK.  Shukran!

easiest negotiation ever.  we went from $210 to $15 with no fight.  I love my bowls, but $210 makes me laugh.  He even threw in an extra one so now I have four.

After the little bowl detour, it was back to finding the museum.  I started to ONLY ask people who were BEHIND a counter, so they wouldn't leave their shop to give me unwanted company.  That worked sometimes, but there was nearly always a friend standing nearby who tried to walk with me.  sigh.  So then, I started to ask only veiled women.  But none of them spoke English and many didn't speak French.  Finally, with the help of some young girl students, I found the mosque that it was next to and after 10 more minutes of trial and error, I found it.  It took me almost two hours.  To walk the equivalent of one mile.  I was so excited.

The museum had all kinds of amazing historical photos of Morocco:

I got into a conversation with the French co-owner of the museum about on-line sales and our (similar) hopes for the US election.  I would love to buy some of these prints when I get home.  My apartment is already in danger of looking like a crazed Cost Plus World market, but I can't resist buying things from every country I visit. 

Even the floor of the museum was a beautiful old tile.  I am crazy about Moroccan tile.  From a purely design standpoint, Morocco is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen.  The towering mosques, the atmospheric old crumbling streets, the intricate tilework and courtyard plunge pools in the riads..the experience of walking down a 4 foot dirty alley to imposing 8 foot high doors of a building that opens up into the most grand, mosaic tiled courtyard..everywhere. Hidden surprises around every corner. All the Islamic and Asian influences come together with a touch of traditional African style to make what is uniquely Moroccan.

The rooftop of the museum had a nice, hassle-free restaurant where I had some awesome preserved lemon chicken tagine with olives.  Two months ago, I preserved some lemons in my apartment for the specific purpose of making this dish when I came home.

I found my way home a little easier, because my hotel is near the Dja El Fnaa and that is a major part of town.  After using a horrible internet cafe to write the Amsterdam entry, I went back to the Dja El fnaa for dinner.  I saw this busy stall that had crowds of people around it waiting to eat there, everyone eating tiny little sausages.   This was stall number 32 - Hassan's stall.

Here is a video I made of dining here!

Because I was alone, I slipped into a single seat quickly at the hottest spot in town just as I would at Kuma's corner at home.  Dining solo rocks!  OK, not always.. but you can usually squeeze in much faster than a group of 2 or 3. Everybody crowded together on single benches and even though there were several things on the menu, every single person had ordered this so I did too:

They were lamb merguez sausages.  Heaven.  Smoky, so fresh and served with a side of what tasted like salsa. I topped off the sausages with some couscous at another stall where I happily dined with some fellow Americans.

After dinner, I wandered around to watch the show.  Drummers, snake charmers, musicians, all in little circles that had people watching and throwing appreciative change.

The Dja El Fnaa has not changed in a thousand years.  My kind of dinner theater!  I had a pre-bed glass of wine at kosybar, the rooftop bar near my riad and went to sleep by 10PM.