Shokran Bezaf and Ma’eel Salaama, Morocco

After spending over three months in Morocco, I truly feel that I know this country very well. From the Ergs of the Sahara to the arid coast of the West…from the mountain forests of the Rif to the steppes and scrublands of the High Atlas… from the steep cliffs of Cap Spartel to the vineyards of Meknès…from the wildflower fields between Fès and Chefchaouen to the blossoming almond trees of the Middle Atlas… from the windy beach of Essaouira to the labyrinth of souks in the medina of Marrakech. I have mingled with the locals and haggled until I couldn’t haggle any more. I have enjoyed every minute and soaked in all in like a sponge.

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View of the High Atlas from our rooftop terrace

Now, it’s time to head back to Rhode Island (the snow is all gone, right?) I will always remember these few incredible months. I am so thankful that my two girls are excellent travelers – and superb negotiators in the souks as it turns out. I am especially proud and grateful that my husband continues to follow his heart and works tremendously hard so that we are able to discover the world together.

Wine break overlooking Dadès Valley

Wine break overlooking Dadès Valley

As I say goodbye to the place that’s been my home for the past few months, I remember all of the new things I experienced. There was a lot of wonderful, and some not so pleasant, but I don’t want to forget a single thing.

On our "derb"

On our “derb”

So, in no particular order…

  • Drank mint tea
  • Learned how to expertly negotiate the narrow derbs of the medina with a stroller- avoiding obstacles of donkey poop and not getting run over by a motorbike
  • Wore a jellaba
  • Wore out a pair of babouche
  • Slept in a genuine centuries-old kasbah
  • Took several extremely long car trips with two children and lived to tell about it
  • Drank freshly squeezed orange juice every day
  • Found a couple of descent Moroccan wines (lots of research- but someone had to do it)
  • Saw goats in trees
  • Learned that haggling with a big smile will always get you a better price
  • Learned some basic Moroccan Arabic phrases
  • Realized I could get by with my “Frenglish” and got lazy with the Arabic
  • Walked – A LOT
  • Drank mint tea
  • Realized that Michele Smith makes the best chicken with lemons and olives tagine going (inside or outside of Morocco)
  • Learned that henna women at Jemaa El Fna can get really crazy
  • “Free” does not mean “Free”
  • There is no hummus in Morocco
  • or belly dancers- unless you count to masked men in Jemaa El Fna at night
  • Successfully homeschooled Océane ( I think ) for 3 months
  • Became addicted to iced hibiscus and rose tea
  • Nothing is too sweet for a Moroccan
  • Drank mint tea
  • Missed my dishwasher
  • Ate a camel burger
  • Found out what my hair looks like without a haircut for three months
  • Discovered “Savon Noir”
  • Ate enough “Vache Qui Rit” for a lifetime several lifetimes
  • Still emptying Sahara sand from my shoes after visiting there over a month ago
  • I never want to see certain items in my “Morocco wardrobe” ever again
  • The country can use more signs.
  • Counting on waking up to the 4:30 am call to prayer still playing in my head -even in Rhode Island
  • Not all kefta are created equal
  • Drank mint tea
  • Managed not to lose 1 Piggy, 1 Elephant, 1 Doggy, and 1 Iggle Piggle
  • Fortunate to have 4 visitors from Mauritius, 2 from France and 1 from England
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Picking up some fresh OJ in Jemaa El Fna

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My two cuties

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Windy in the Sahara

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Chillin’ in a Toureg Tent

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Sweet Dreams are Made of This

Way before the planning of this trip to Morocco, I had been daydreaming of what it would be like to stand in a vast desert landscape among dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. I am completely in love with the idea of it. I don’t know why exactly. These thoughts give me chills with goose bumps and warm my heart totally.

We decided a few of weeks ago that we would make our way to the edge of the Sahara via Merzouga, which is in southeastern part of the country – it’s about 50 kilometers from Algerian border. We booked our 2 night stay in Merzouga, and planned our visit to “The Greatest Desert”. At over 9,400,000 square kilometers (3,600,000 square miles), the Sahara covers most of North Africa- making it almost as large as the United States.  I was beyond thrilled to experience a small part of it. Especially the dunes of Erg Chebbi- which legend tells us were created by God as a punishment to the locals of Merzouga after they refused to give shelter to a woman and her child during a local festival. A massive sandstorm came, and buried the village of Merzouga as it was then- so the legend goes.

On the road to Merzouga

On the road to Merzouga we stopped here. A guy popped out of one of the holes in the ground and invited us into the tent for some mint tea. He digs  “khettara ” which are underground channels for the provision of water. You can see course wells along the side of the road.

First sight of the dunes! Yippie!!!!

First sight of the dunes! Yippie!!!!

As we made our way from Marrakech to Merzouga, I found myself starting to get nervous that perhaps I had created too high of an expectation of what the Sahara and the dunes would be like. I tried to prepare myself for the distinct possibility that this village may be very touristy and unauthentic. I was ready for the streets to be lined from end to end with shops which have “cheap price for you, madame”. I was ready for the food to be so-so. I was ready for a veritable tourist trap.

Strolling around the village of Hassilabied where our hotel was. It's very quiet- not super touristy as I expected. That may not be the case in a few years :(

Strolling around the village of Hassilabied where our hotel was. It’s very quiet- not super touristy as I expected. That may not be the case in a few years though

Fast forward to our arrival at The Maison Merzouga Guesthouse where the Seggaoui family graciously welcomed us to their palatial home-tel and extended their special brand of Berber hospitality. This family was living in the desert just one generation ago. When water got even more scarce, they moved just outside the dunes and started a new life. They began with a shop selling sculptures made from semi-precious stone and carpets, but when some travelers needed a place to stay in the area, they opened the door to their home and the guest house was born! It wasn’t too long before they closed up the shop and focused on their guest house. Let me tell you that Ali and his brothers go far beyond the obligatory mint tea and run of the mill Moroccan cuisine! The first night we were there, I had the most scrumptious kefta I have ever had! Every meal we had there was plentiful, delicious and prepared and served in such a way that you feel how much they enjoy each and every minute.

Ali arranged for our sunrise camel excursion the following morning. The first time out would be just for Ash and me. Ash’s mum was traveling with us, so she would room with the kids so we could easily wake up and get ready at 4am. Our “camel guy” knocked on our door and led us through the dark hallways, and out the door where our camels awaited. I eagerly hopped on mine and the guide gave him (her?) the signal to stand up. The camel straightened its hind legs and jerked up its front legs (and I managed not to fall off) and we were good to go.

We were led through the darkness of the village streets to the dunes which were about 15 minutes away from our hotel. I was just beginning to really see my camel (and his large eyes – protected by long, curly lashes that keep the sand out) as we approached the dunes.Our guide took us into the dunes and then we were free to prance around for an hour. My fears of being one tourist among hundreds all posing along the dunes were put to rest. It was just us. Well, there was one group of Chatty Cathys, but we distanced ourselves from them right away. Exhale.

YES!!!

YES!!!

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Waiting for sunrise

The dunes of Erg Chebbi are massive and reach a height of up to 150 meters or so ( The “Superman Building ” in Providence is 130 meters). Altogether, they span an area of 22 kilometers from north to south and up to 5-10 kilometers from east to west. You feel like an ant amongst hundreds of anthills. Sometimes I would look up to see Ashley, my ant companion scurrying along a distant peak.

Here comes the sun...

Here comes the sun…

As the sun was rising over the dunes, the sky was lighting up in colors of yellow, orange, pink and blue. It slowly got brighter and brighter until… BAM! The dunes lit up in tones of orange so beautiful – almost fluorescent at times.  I alternated between trudging up the giant hills then running down, walking along the distinct ridges, and just sitting around with my jaw hanging down to the sand.  I buried my hands in the fine orange sand which is so dry that it did not stick to my skin at all. When I pushed it from the the top of a dune, it flowed down the side like a liquid. I caught myself just staring with my mouth wide open a number of times. It’s just breathtaking!  The way the sunlight shone on the towers of sand casting long shadows was truly one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen in my life.

I was here

I was here

Ashley

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In too short of a time, we were called back to the camels. I already looked forward to the next sunrise when we would share this same experience with Océane and Luna.

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No Toys, No TV, No Problem

The question I have been asked most by friends and family since we have arrived in Morocco is “How are the kids?” It has come in various forms, such as “How are the kids adjusting?” “How are Océane and Luna keeping busy?”, “What are the girls up to?” I have to say that I feel happy and proud of them to say that they are doing just great.

Water bottle bowling

Water bottle bowling

Even though we had the option with the extra room, we decided they should room together. The house can be quite dangerous for an adventurous 3 year old- with its open center courtyard stretching meters from the bedroom level to the ground floor. With the two girls together, Océane would be able to keep an eye on her sister in the early morning hours when she’s feeling most energetic and daring. Océane typically uses this time to teach Luna some French words or just do girly stuff like braid her hair. Most mornings there is some amount of crying on Luna’s part which tends to be what wakes me up. It could be Océane being too demanding or Luna just being a crybaby about nothing in particular. Either way, that’s as bad as it gets, so I really feel that the arrangement is working out.

Water bottle bowling

Water bottle bowling

Many of the weekday hours are set aside for Océane’s schooling. She has French “school” with Ashley after breakfast, a break for lunch, and then English “school” with me in the afternoon. Weekdays,for the most part, are structured for her. I guess it ends up being about four hours of school a day, plus homework. This is how it goes Tuesday through Friday. After school, she typically likes to read. (Yaay, Kindle!) She’s on Book #4 of the Lemony Snicket Series. She discovered the series since we’ve been here and can’t get enough of it. I absolutely love how excited she gets about reading! How great for her! My only wish is that the Kindle downloads were little cheaper. At 6 bucks a pop, at the pace she reads- it adds up quickly.

When she’s not reading, you can find this clever and inventive kid making her own toys and games from practically nothing. This is a skill she’s been honing since she was a toddler in Mauritius and we gave her a “toy” which was basically colored water, sparkles and beads in a plastic water bottle. Shake it. Roll it. Just don’t open it, or drink it. She’s growing up to be a very resourceful and creative kid. She never ceases to amaze me with her inventions!

Dolls made from the red wax wrapped around cheese

Dolls made from the red wax wrapped around cheese. The wax was melted in the sun and molded

Not that my kids watch a lot of of at all, even in the States- but that is not even an option here. There is no television in this house. The “tv” they do get is one episode of

Aluminum foil figures and axe made from found materials

Aluminum foil figures and axe made from found materials

Sesame Street every other day. OK, that’s really for Luna just so I can sneak in a shower, and maybe even a little bit of work in her waking hours- but Océane will really get into it if it happens to be her “recess” when it’s on. Netflix is not an option here, nor does my Amazon Prime membership work to stream stuff for free. I do have the option to buy through iTunes, but that is a slippery slope, my friends. So, for these few months, Océane’s knowledge of toy-making from found objects, aluminum foil and whatever we’ll allow her to hoard will certainly come in handy.

Océane made this "top" which she modeled from something similar she saw being sold in Jemaa El Fna. Found objects.

Océane made this “top” which she modeled from something similar she saw being sold in Jemaa El Fna.  She played with it for 2 weeks before I bought her the “real thing”(Found objects.)

"The Real Thing" -Top sold in Jemaa El Fna

“The Real Thing” -Top sold in Jemaa El Fna

Life in Marrakech- One Month In

Our house is located in the medina in the “central souks” neighborhood, so every time we leave our place to go to eat, shop for groceries or get just about anywhere, we need to make our way through dozens and dozens of merchants hawking everything from meat hanging on hooks to touristy trinkets and scarves and spices of every kind. Most of these guys will call out to me in Spanish to get my attention for whatever reason (I guess I have that sort of Spanish “un yo no se que “)  The women who paint henna designs on hands try to get my attention by shouting “Hola! Hola!” from meters away. Then, when they get no response, they try “Bonjour” then “Hello” and that’s when they run out of languages to try on me. Each one of these sellers invite passers-by  to “Just come see. Very cheap. Good price for you. It’s not expensive”.

Dinner in Jemaa el Fna

Dinner in Jemaa el Fna

The thing is, I am almost never browsing when I go throughout the souks. I live here, at least for a short time. When I am walking through there, I am not walking aimlessly. I am not in tourist mode.  Only twice have I walked through the maze of shops ready to buy something that tickles my fancy. Most times I am going somewhere with a purpose. For example, I might have one hour to get to the grocery store and back before Luna wakes up from her nap. I’m not quite in the mood to have intricate henna designs applied to my hands or look into a stall full of hundreds of stainless steel teapots- even if they are “practically free”. Yes, we have actually heard that term used.

games in the square

games in the square

Snails- Ask Ash about that one!

Snails- Ask Ash about that one!

When you enter Jemaa el Fna, you have guys wrapping snakes around your neck, others pushing monkeys wearing dresses at you, and the balloon sellers trying to get your preschooler to grab a balloon from them. All of these things are “free”- until they are not. Here’s how it goes. I have seen it so many times now. Unsuspecting tourists will be invited by the elaborately dressed water seller to have a photo with them. (note: They don’t actually sell water anymore. They are more like beggars dressed in costumes. )The tourists politely refuse at first. Then they get pestered and followed by same water guy who assures them that it’s “gratuit”. When they finally cave in, they take turns snapping photos of each other standing awkwardly by the water guy, or with a monkey on their shoulders, or a snake around their necks (see photo) – it’s all the same. Then the “prey” says thank you and begins to move on. This is where it can get ugly. Now the guy is asking for money- sometimes 200-300Dh! Even if the tourists give some, it’s never enough. Ultimately, it will end up in both parties being completely dissatisfied with the experience. But this is how it goes in the square day in and day out.

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obligatory awkward snake pic

 
 
Strolling through the medina, you will notice so many photo opportunities. The contrast of the ever-present cloudless blue sky and red buildings is absolutely stunning. The men on donkey carts, the women dressed in colorful traditional clothing and spices piled high in stalls all add to the immense beauty of this place. It really is like living in the pages of National Geographic when you step outside our door. Naturally, you want to snap away and capture all these memories for all time, but the vast majority of people here take great offense when you point he camera anywhere in their direction. I read that it has something to do with Islam, but I’m not yet convinced that is the case. I think they are just fed up. I can actually understand if someone gets upset if they notice a person taking a photo of them hanging their laundry or waiting for the bus. I guess it would be pretty weird if I walked outside my door in Riverside to get my mail, and someone was there waiting to snap a picture of me. What I’m having a difficult time with, however, is when they forbid you to take picture of a mound of spices or a pyramid of tomatoes on a table. If they see you trying to do these things, they will immediately scold you and ask for money. Evidently, 5-10 dirhams make everything alright. This kind of stuff leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Quiet spot in Jemaa el Fna

Quiet spot in Jemaa el Fna

As a matter of fact, it seems that everyone is Marrakech wants 5-10 Dh from you. Just try to walk to any of the sites in this area. Along the derbs leading to any of the ruins or museums, etc. you will find strategically placed kids or men just “hanging out”. They will point you in the direction of the attraction in the area and then start walking with you.  Try as you may to tell them that you know where to go and don’t need their assistance, they do not listen. They will stick with you until you reach the destination and then demand money for their “help”. Yep. We are constantly trying to shake these “guides”. Such is Marrakech. Lots of locals just trying to get some dirhams from tourists. To be fair though, the locals we have become friendly with are genuinely kind and warmhearted. They love children and they are always picking up Luna and showering her with kisses. They have been welcoming to us and have gone out of their way to make us feel at home here.  We’ve found our “fresh orange juice guy”, “our fruits and nuts guy” and “herbs, spices and soap guy” and we are loyal to them which they appreciate immensely. Jemaa el Fna is teeming with fresh juice booths selling orange, grapefruit and lemon juice. It’s super refreshing and at 4Dh (about 50¢) a glass, it really worth it. We give our business to this one booth and get our o.j. for the week from him. He’ll fill up an empty liter water bottle for 24Dh (less than 3 bucks), and then we get to have it at breakfast. Our dried fruits and nuts guy, who we refer to as “Number 6” (each booth in the square has a number) is really friendly and gives us tons of free stuff to eat while we are there buying stuff from him. The week we arrived here we were walking around Jemaa el Fna one evening and saw his booth tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the square. He called out to us, but we were way to tired and were about to head back home. He passed a card with “#6” written on it. Ash told him we would be back to buy from him soon. He mustn’t have believed it, as he’s probably heard that lots of times in the past. He asked , “you promise?” Ash answered, “yes.”. The next week we were in the market for some dried apricots, dates  and figs and we walked directly to his stall. As he watched us approach, a smile lit up his face.  Each time we even pass by his place now out hands get filled with treats.

Océane jamming with some musicians

Océane jamming with some musicians

Ash getting some herbs. Spot the bag of hibiscus by his left elbow.

Ash getting some herbs. Spot the bag of hibiscus by his left elbow.

I guess I’m getting to be “in” with the herbs, spices and soap guy too. The first time I bought some dried hibiscus from him, it was 20Dh for 100 grams. Today when I went, he recognized me and I got 100 grams of hibiscus and a 1/2 kg of “savon noir” for a total of 17 Dh.  I have been making iced hibiscus / rose tea and love it so much. I think I have Ashley and the kids hooked on it now too. The “savon noir”  is an oily paste made from macerated olives, argan oil and other natural oils. It is renowned for its ability to purify your skin and helping to shed dead skin cells. It’s rich in vitamins and does a great job at exfoliating and moisturizing your skin. I have looked this up online and found out you can order it in the US for $19.99 for 250 grams. Here, I get that amount for 35¢. I plan on taking full advantage of this luxury while I am here!

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Maria’s turkey brochettes

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Salad prepared by Maria

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Meat with prunes, sesame and almonds

Speaking of luxury…We have been lucky enough to have Maria helping us out around the house. She not only cleans our place one a week, but and also does our dinner shopping and prepares excellent meals for us a few times a week. She doesn’t understand English, but we communicate with my broken French, visual aides and smiles. Her smile is wonderful and her cooking is fantastic. We inquired about her services after we were here for a couple of weeks and we noticed that the only Moroccan dishes available in the restaurants were the same over and over again. Surely, they eat more than 3 dishes here, I thought. Enter Maria. She has been making us all the delicious home cooked stuff you can’t find in the restaurants. She uses her own recipes and well as some passed from her mother. We just received an invitation to have couscous at her house this Friday, so I’m really looking forward to that! We are homeschooling Océane, so there is not much free time as you can tell by my lack of blogging and infrequent posting of photos.  Ash does the French in the morning after breakfast, and then she gets a break until after lunch. While Luna naps, I do the English lessons. Having Maria around to help out a few nights a week makes it a lot easier to manage with the kids/schooling. We use the weekends as an opportunity to escape the medina and get some fresh air in the wide open spaces of the mountains and valleys. This past weekend we headed out very spontaneously to the Middle Atlas. We were just sitting around after breakfast and picked a place on the map. Ash had a car rented in 15 minutes and we were packed in in the car within the hour. This trip was simply amazing! Sometimes the best plans are no plans at all. Much more about that in my next post. Until then…

 P.S. – Attack of the Henna Women — After I had written this blog, but before I had a chance to post, this happened: I was buying some orange juice at Jemaa el Fna. I was standing waiting for my order when a henna woman approached me. She was fully covered from head to toe in black with only a small area uncovered revealing her eyes. I politely told her that I was not interested in henna today, as I have to be unloading groceries when I get back home and I have children to tend to. I thought she got the message, but then she started with the whole “It’s a present for you- welcome to Morocco” business. I thanked her and then reminded her that I was still not interested at the moment. She again insisted that it was a “gift” and then grabbed my hand and just started going berserk on it with the henna. She was going so quickly, she had a whole splotch of stuff on there before I could even blink. She told me that she usually charges 200-300 Dh for what she was doing for me as a “present”. First of all, there’s NO WAY she EVER gets that much – and second of all- I don’t want any henna! She was frantically making a mess of my hand trying to finish before my juice was ready, so she could get her hands on my change. Meanwhile, her accomplice was trying to get Océane to let her make some designs on her. Océane held her hands behind her back didn’t budge. Next, they started with Luna. Woman #2 was trying to remove Luna’s sneakers and wanted to paint her feet. I told them “NO!” Woman #1 was just staring at me as I was getting my change. She said to me, “I gave you a gift. So you will give me a present now.” I told her that I did not want the design. I told her that she grabbed my hand and offered me a gift, even though I had protested. She eyed the 5Dh changed I had just received. “Just give me the 5 dirhams,” she said. I handed it over to her and told her,” That is NOT the way gift giving works. If you ever see me here again, do NOT even speak to me.” Then I walked away. She doesn’t care. She got her 5DH which it what they really make anyway. I did get to use the decorated hand as a pass for all the others who tried to nab me as I made my way home though. When I saw them looking my way, I just held up my hand and I was home free. 🙂

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

We decided to venture out of Marrakech last weekend. We don’t have a car here, so we needed to rent one. Ash reserved one Friday evening and picked it up at 7:00 am on Saturday. Since, there are no cars in a large part of the medina, the girls and I packed up and met him there by 7:30. We were headed through the High Atlas to Aït Benhaddou which is a fortified city, or ‘ksar’, along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and several films have been shot there and in the surrounding areas, including Gladiator and The Last Temptation of Christ and even Lawrence of Arabia. Sounds pretty cool right?

Stir crazy in the car

Stir crazy in the car

It took us about 30 minutes just to find out way out of Marrakech. There is absolutely no indication how to leave this place! After asking many locals about how to catch the N9 (which also is not marked, so they probably have no idea what we were even talking about), we finally were on our way!

We really had no plan except that we wanted to arrive at Aït Benhaddou before sunset, so we could check into our auberge and see the ksar before nightfall. The driving time is only about 2 and a half hours, but there is so much stunning scenery to take in along the way, so we knew we’d take much, much longer.

Fueled on ‘Vache Qui Rit’ and bread, we left the hustle and bustle of the medina and Marrakech and made our way to the vastness of the outlying area that leads to the High Altas. Before we knew it, the mountains were only meters away from us and we were about to begin the twisty and turny drive through the mountains.

Along the way, there are marvelous views of the dwellings that blend with the mountain landscape almost seamlessly. We stopped many times along the way to get a peak of the local people going about their everyday life of tending to their livestock and washing their clothes. The peddlers of various “Moroccan treasures” await you at these viewpoints. At every stop you will find a small shop selling pottery and rocks and minerals. “Just come in for 2 minutes. Just look. You don’t need to buy. Come see,” they plead. Just as every shop in New Orleans sells the “hottest sauce” and there’s a miniature Statue of Liberty in the hand of every hawker in New York City, you will find the same few items for sale in this area of the country to “remember” your trip. But none is more prevalent when traveling through this area of Morocco as the omnipresent geode. They are extremely colorful and extremely FAKE. There are tons of these things lined up at every viewpoint. Sometimes there’s just a lonely guy sitting on a wall, just hanging out. When he sees your car approach, he reaches down and picks up one of his stash of 3 colorful geodes and whistles to get your attention to try to sell you one of these fine pieces of crap. I can’t believe there is a market for this! People will buy anything!

Since we had headed out super early and the bread and cheese breakfast was far behind us, we were hungry for an early lunch and started keeping an eye out for a place to stop. As we rounded a bend we saw a small colorful table selling freshly squeezed orange juice. That sure looked refreshing!

Hassan serving up some freshly squeezed OJ

Hassan serving up some freshly squeezed OJ

We parked the car and hopped out for a few glasses. The guy was all smiles and pressed a bunch of oranges for us tout de suite. We were ready to be on our way and Ash was looking to settle our tab, but this sweet little guy wanted to show us what he was cooking up inside his humble establishment. He brought us inside and showed us the tagines he had going and proceeded to serve us some mint tea. Turns out this guy has quite a little marketing plan going. He has this terrific little “photo op” fresh o.j. table just as you come around the bend. You stop. Then he starts ups up a little conversation over some mint tea and shows you what he’s cooking up. “Assiez vous,” he invites. Before you know it, you’re eating Berber fried eggs, and ordering 2 tagines! Hassan was very hospitable, his was food delicious, and we truly enjoyed the experience at his place. When we settled the tab at the end, he gave us very fair prices too- BONUS! We felt so fortunate to have shared some time with this sweet little man. As we passed by the busload of tourists being mauled by the geode salesmen at the “restaurant stop”, all we could do was smile.

Tempting us with his tasty tagine

Tempting us with his fresh tagines

This was the tastiest one I've had so far!

This was the tastiest one I’ve had so far!

Off the main road a couple hours into our drive, we took a minor road to the Kasbah at Telouet. This fortress was the seat of the El Glaoui family’s power. The palace is badly damaged but still visitable. A couple years ago work was started to restore it, but looks as though it’s going very slowly. Although the site is free to visit, there’s a team of older teens who have made their own sign for 20Dh entry and park themselves in front of the only entrance. We tried to find another entry, but in the interest of time we caved to their demand and just paid them their “admission”. I don’t think anything would have happened if we didn’t pay them, but they could have been annoying during our visit or something could have ‘accidentally’ happened to our car. The detail of the kasbah was just amazing and it’s quite mind-blowing to think of that this place looked like back in the day. We came, we paid, we rocked the kasbah.

chillin' at the kasbah

chillin’ at the kasbah

Kasbah at Telouet

Kasbah at Telouet

We got back into the car and snaked through the ever-changing terrain of the High Atlas until we reached our destination, “Auberge Café Bagdad”, just as the last tour bus was heading out. Perfect! This quaint little B&B on the main drag in Aït Benhaddou is owned by a native Moroccan guy who grew up in France and his French born wife. Mohammed and Rose left their hectic life behind three years ago when they packed up their two kids and moved to Morocco to open up the place, which they named after the 1987 German film “Bagdad Café” . Now they are a family of five and are really enjoying their new life. Two of their three kids are about the same ages and Océane and Luna, so they all were running around playing “cache-cache”, as the adults compared work and child rearing stories over mint tea in the courtyard.

ksar at Aït Benhaddou

ksar at Aït Benhaddou

The next day we were visited the Atlas Film Studios where they have filmed such movies as The Jewel of the Nile, The Living Daylights, Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator. We strolled through various sets which took us back thorough time in Jerusalem, Egypt, Rome. After our brief tour there, we set off to find the oasis at Finnt.

Ksar at Aït Benhaddou

Ksar at Aït Benhaddou

 

A long and bumpy road ended in the serene, lush oasis. We enjoyed a lunch of brochettes and rice surrounded by enormous sun baked rocks and the iridescent green valley. This place is like magic. We’re thinking of going back there to stay for a few days.

Walking through the Finnt oasis

Walking through the Finnt oasis

Finnt  -  If you look closely, you will see Océane and I on the left

Finnt – If you look closely, you will see Océane and I on the left

After four long hours back to Marrakech, we reached by 7pm. Wow! We really packed it in! Just a half hour walk back through Jemaa el-Fna and we were back “home”. Time to start planning our next road trip!

“Manage with bread and butter until God sends honey” – Ancient Moroccan Proverb

What can I tell you? The days have been just flying by. We are settling well and are over the jet lag and lack of sleep. The kids have been amazing! They love exploring the house. I can only imagine how huge it must seem to them with its winding staircases tons of nooks and crannies to explore. Luna has already declared herself Salaam Kitty, Queen of the rooftop lounge. Her loyal subject, Océane has provided her with a throne overlooking the satellite dish sprinkled rooftops of Marrakech.

Queen Salaam Kitty and her loyal subject

Queen Salaam Kitty and her loyal subject

Living in an open air house is quite nice, although it can be a little chilly at this time of year. I’m very thankful to have a heated living room and bedrooms. Last night it rained a bit, so we hung out in the living room. I brewed us a pot of mint tea and made a “Moroccan stew” with some veggies Ash bought and whatever spices were in the kitchen. He braved the rain and headed out to find us some bread to accompany our dinner. He was back shortly with some freshly made “Msemen”. This is one of the five breads in Morocco ( and the second one we have tried). Msemen is a square, pan fried bread which is remarkably similar to a Mauritian farata (or Indian paratha). We gobbled that up with the stew and finished our meal with some mint tea, cookies and oranges. The girls are really digging the mint tea, so I now make a small modified pot for them. I don’t include the gunpowder green tea or the sugar – just mint leaves and water.

This morning we had plans to head out to the souks. I prepared some basic breakfast of yogurt, oranges and coffee (for me) and tea (for Ash). I barely had time to boil the water before Ash was back with another delicious bread. This time he bought something that looked similar to a giant English muffin. This ‘babout’ or “Moroccan muffin” as the kids call it is sort of a cross between and English muffin and a pocket bread. It easily splits open and can be filled with jam or cheese, or even Nutella (I think I’ll try that next).

The most common bread I see everywhere is the  “Khobz”. I think it just means  “bread” actually. It’s a smallish round flat loaf which is usually white. We’ve been served this with tagines as well as merguez sausages. Just basic bread really.

The two we have yet to try are the “Meloui” and the “Beghrir”. The Meloui look like round spirally pancakes.They are shaped by rolling a flat piece of dough like a carpet and then flattening the upright coil into a circle. The Beghrir are more crêpe-like and look like Ethiopian Injera. I have not seen this one anywhere yet, but I am on the lookout!

Just as there are five delicious types of bread here in Morocco, there are also five calls to prayer (Adhan) which be heard over many loudspeakers coming from many mosques a round our house. The first one (fajr) occurs between the very beginning of dawn and sunrise (read EARLY). Currently sunrise is at 6:06 am, so the the call is about 20 minutes before that. In April, however, the fajr will be around 4:30 am.

I am already sleeping through the first call and hardly notice the others throughout the day. It’s funny how short of a time it takes one to become acclimated to another place and its customs. The people here make it easy though. Everyone is so warm and helpful. They especially love our little “Moroccan girls”- they were embraced and kissed all around the medina today as they strolled around in their djellabas.  Home sweet home for the next three months… Inch Allah…  🙂

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Watch this space

Well, it’s finally here. The trip we’ve been planning since July is just three short days away. Now that the madness of the holidays is over and I have had time to focus on what lies ahead, I am truly getting pumped. I don’t think I was really able to mentally prepare or let myself get in travel mode until the moment that last Christmas ornament was tucked away in the basement. Now, I glance at the “must do before leaving” list and realize that there aren’t too many line items without a checkmark next to it. It’s real. It’s happening.

I’ve been here, in galavanting mode, many times in the past. In fact, I have spent extended amounts of time in all kinds of cool places around this globe. Océane spent the better part of her toddlerhood on the move. Over the years I’ve eaten gelato on the Spanish Steps in Rome, climbed Mt. Fuji in the dark, labored up the Monkey Steps to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu, tracked lemurs in the jungle of Madagascar, and left my passport with a total stranger in a village in Thailand in exchange for use of her motorbike for the afternoon.

This will be a very different experience. Read ‘traveling in a foreign land with unfamiliar customs and language WITH KIDS’. Aaah, no mac and cheese here, babies. Luckily, the other food our kids rely on for sustenance is the ubiquitous hummus. Their bodies may be comprised solely of chickpeas when we return in April. Also, in our planning of trips to foreign countries in the past, we had been focused on where we would go and what we would do, and of course – if you know us very well at all- what we would be eating and drinking. In preparation for this trip, I have been reading almost exclusively about the people and the culture of Moroccans. I am focused on familiarizing myself with the traditions of Islam and the psyche of Moroccans. I am learning about etiquette in all sorts of situations and even studying a little bit of Arabic.

I am also finding out that there’s not much in my wardrobe that will be coming with me. I’ve heard that although Morocco is definitely on the more progressive side of the Islamic spectrum, it would not be advisable to prance around in jeggings and a tank top. This would most certainly attract attention (not a good kind) I definitely want to be respectful. Besides, I am not a huge fan of being at the receiving end of catcalls, or being spat upon- so I am going to go with the more modest, non curve-showing, loose-fitting type of dress just to be on the safe side.

This Wednesday, I set off on a trip that is sure to open my eyes to a new and exciting world. I will make new friends. I will get to know (some) Arabic. I will home school. I will get frustrated. I will eat new foods. I will expand my culinary repertoire. I will walk in the Sahara. I will ride a camel. I will appreciate this opportunity. I will enjoy.

Watch this space.