Saturday, February 27, 2010


There are many things for which I am grateful. However, spending a week in Morocco has made me more aware of how lucky I am to have been born in America.

By the standards of many in this world, I am spoiled, pampered, and incredibly rich.

As an American, I take many material things for granted.
  • Shelter: I have a home that would be considered a palace by billions of people in this world. A home with bathrooms, that does not leak in the rain, has windows to provide light, has beds for sleeping, has chairs for sitting, has a table for eating . . .
  • Running water: At the turn of a faucet, I have clean water to drink, to bathe in, to cook with, to wash my clothes in, to flush toilets with, and so many other things that I cannot even imagine.
  • Electricty: At the flick of a switch, I can turn a dark room bright, turn a cold room warm, heat my water, refrigerate and cook my food, wash my clothes, wash my dishes, and so many other things that I take for granted.
  • Food: I have grocery stores everywhere, all with more food than I can possibly eat, including fresh, healthy produce; safe and sanitary meat, poultry, and fish; fresh dairy products of all sorts; and anything else my taste buds could want.
  • A Job & Money: I have a great job, one that provides me with enough money so I can afford to pay for the things for which I am grateful.
  • Transportation: I have two cars that take me where I need to go, and they are safe and reliable, with heat, air conditioning, a radio, seat belts, and room to hold anything I need to transport.
  • Clothes: I have far more than I can wear and everything that I need to be warm and dry from head to toe.
  • Doctors & Medicine: I can go to the doctor for whatever ails me. I can also go to one of those aforementioned grocery stores or a drug store and buy medicine for almost anything that ails me.
  • Equal Rights: As a woman, I can expect to live, work, and be treated as fairly as a man.
  • Education: I received an excellent education as both a child and an adult. For this, I am grateful both to my country, which provides free education to every child, and to my parents, who financed most of my college education. How fortunate I was to be able to educate myself well enough to be gainfully employed!
  • Freedom of Religion: I can practice any religion I choose.
I know there is more, so much more, that I cannot even think of because I expect it - things that I take for granted that others may never experience in a full lifetime.

I am also thoroughly grateful for the ability to travel. Without the ability, desire, and interest in traveling, I would not have the wonderful opportunity to see that which I have seen, and I would also not be reminded to appreciate that which I have.

And, of course, I am grateful for my friends and family. Without them, where would I be?

Love to all!!

Our Last Days

Our last full day in Marrakesh was truly one of leisure. After another yummy breakfast of fresh yogurt, Moroccan bread and fresh-squeezed OJ, we went hotel crashing. You may remember that we crashed the Sheraton when we were in Tenerife. Well, Dado decided that we should crash Le Meridien, one of the Sheraton hotels, here in Marrakesh.

We set off with our map and managed to walk almost directly to Le Meridien, which was about 20 minutes away. We didn't even need a guide!

Le Meridien is nothing at all exciting. We are even more grateful now that we chose a Riad! Here at Dar Silsila we have personal attention from Mohammed and the other employees round-the-clock, we have opulent rooms, and we have the most amazing dinners!

Our visit to Le Meridien lasted a mere few minutes: long enough to scope out the pool (not heated), see that there weren't any restaurants open for lunch, and use the bathrooms. That's it.

We walked out to the main street and caught ourselves a horse-drawn carriage ride back to the square.

Along the way, we had some great views of the minaret.

And the wall of the Medina.

At the square, we were hoping to eat shish kebab as we did our first night. However, all of the restaurant stalls were gone! Either they are not there during the day, or - this being Friday, which is a holy day - they were closed for the day.

Instead we settled for what turned out to be a completely boring lunch except for the call to prayer. There was a small mosque in front of the restaurant, and Dado loved the opportunity to see the real thing.

Josey also decided that she was going to confront her fear of snakes and snake charmers. Wow!

Here are some other strange sights we wanted to capture. Some are self-explanatory.

The square with the snowy Atlas Mountains in the background.

These are the nut vendors who populate the center of the square.

And the olive vendors at the start of the souk.

Dado and I later indulged in a local tradition: hammam baths.

Sidebar: According to Mohammed, we learned that every neighborhood in the Medina (there are many!!) has its own mosque, bakery, fountain (although most of these are no longer in operation), and hammam bath. The hammam baths are public (one for women and one for men). In the hammam, you coat your body with the Moroccan black soap, and you sit in the dry heat for several minutes. Next, you rinse the black soap off with water. Then, you use a coarse glove to scrub your skin. It is a very, very old tradition in Morocco, so the black soap is very significant.

At Dar Silsila, you can have a couple's hammam with a massage. Wow! Talk about indulgence. Sorry, though, no pictures. This was completely in the nude. Woohoo!

Our very last day was spent completely browsing . . . and it provided a last, fantastic shopping adventure for me and Josey.

Did I mention the silk vendors? I had noticed them on our first day. Apparently it is "cactus silk", which is rayon. It is in the most vivid colors imaginable. I love it!! However, I don't know what to do with it. Thus, the crafter in me wanted to go back and buy some "just in case" I ever have a need for it.

I had seen the silk vendors during our wanderings, but I had not yet seen any yarn. Imagine, a country that grows sheep but nary a yarn store to be seen! Well, luck was with me. Max stopped at a stall in the souk to admire some beads, and I happened to notice an entire wall of yarn in the background. You would think that with my love of knitting, the yarn would have been calling to me. However, the visual cacophony of the souk makes it nearly impossible for me to focus.

So, thanks, Max, for doddling!

Josey and I each bought a ball of yarn with a matching hank of silk, and I also bought some for my friend Sharlene. Sharlene, when you read this, pretend you didn't notice this part. I also bought some extra silk . . . for some future project.

Of course we also had to make a final stop at the pharmacy/spice shop to drop off our bags of clothes. They were so happy. Max stocked up on henna, so he can give us his own henna tattoos. Great idea!

At last, it was time to take the van to the airport. Sigh. The kids did not want to leave. Thus is the sign of a successful vacation!

The airport was stressful because one has to wait in the same "passport control" line to leave as you do when you arrive. Luckily it moved faster this time - only about 30 minutes. However, prior to that we had a real thrill.

In the US (and everywhere else we have traveled in the last year and a half), you are not allowed to bring more than a bit of liquid through security. Not so in Morocco! We carried through water and wine! Can you believe that?!

And even better?! Dado's 2-foot, 40 pound fossil had to go as a carry on, disguised by a jacket draped over the top of the suitcase. Well, right as we were leaving Dar Silsila, I moved the suitcase in front of the fossil suitcase, and it tipped over - breaking the tips off of the fossil! I was so terribly sad! However, Dado handled it very well . . . Until the security guard said it was too dangerous to take onboard, so we had to check it.

Well, we did not have the option to check it because we had no room in our single checked bag - plus it was well, well over the weight limit. So, Dado paused a moment, the security man walked away, and we just continued on to our gate. No one stopped us. No one made us check the fossil. Dado hauled it right onto the plane! Lucky for us, but not so safe. Wow!

Our flight was quick, the landing in Reus, Spain was uneventful, and we were checked into our hotel by 10:00ish PM.

Many, many thanks to the staff at Dar Silsila. Mohammed was the best. The food was to die for. The atmosphere was perfect. It was an amazing gem in the heart of a chaotic place.

Many, many thanks to the other wonderful people we met during the week. They were welcoming, kind, and considerate.

And so many wonderful souvenirs! Luckily, the damage to Dado's massive fossil is almost unnoticeable.

We were fortunate to have had such a perfect, wonderful vacation.

Love to all!!

Essaouria & Camel Rides

By this time, we were getting overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh. We are not shoppers at heart, and that is the main attraction in Marrakesh. Thus, we decided that a day trip was in order.

We asked Mohammed for recommendations, and he suggested either the 12-hour trip to a kasbah or the 8-hour trip to Essaouria, which is a beach town on the Atlantic coast of Africa.

After much debate and research, we decided that the kasbah would be more interesting, but the description of the road and "people puking" on the way scared us off. Josey gets carsick very easily, and that wouldn't be fun for anyone.

Thus, we chose Essaouria. They even have surfing there, so how could we go wrong?

Our next decision was to stay the night in Essaouria because we didn't want to spend all day in the car. Mohammed helped us with all of the arrangements, hired us a driver, and we were set!

We expected a 2 hour and 20 minute drive, which was what Mohammed told us. We also expected many stops along the way, as we experienced on the way to the waterfalls. Neither turned out to be true.

Instead, we had a journey of more than 3.5 hours through almost completely uninhabited terrain. Well, I should say undeveloped. There were small settlements with anywhere from 2 to 10 square stone houses spread out all along the roadway.

Here are some pictures Dado took from the car . . .

There where also some larger villages that were bizarre. They seemed to spring up out of nowhere, and they had a lot of new construction that seemed completely abandoned. Thus, there were large apartment-looking buildings with openings for windows and doors but no additional work being performed. Eerie.

Here is what Dado could capture from the car.

There was also a lot of road work. It seems that they are building an autoroute throughout Morocco, and we encountered many spots of construction. In between these spots, the roads were sometimes smooth and well maintained and other times dirt. The heavy rains lately certainly were not helping the roadways.

Overall, it was a somewhat depressing drive. The only other noteworthy thing about the drive was the small "Argan Forest" we encountered. Here, some of the Argan trees actually had goats in the trees! It was pretty funny to see. Can you see that white goat in the branches?

As we finally topped the last mountain before the coast, we saw Essaouria spread out below us. It was much larger than we expected.

Our driver dropped us off at the port, where another man put our tiny suitcases and our kids into his cart and wheeled us to our Riad.

We checked into our Riad for the night (Ick! That is all I will say about the Riad Maison de la Sud. The Riad Dar Silsila is far superior!!), put our stuff in our rooms, and headed out for lunch. Since the drive took so much longer than we expected, we were starved. Good thing we had "emergency food" in the car to snack on.

We found a little cafe right at the entrance to the Medina where we enjoyed food in the warm, warm sun! Up to this point, our time in Morocco had been very, very wet. Thus, the sun was very appreciated! In fact, it was so warm that Max took shelter in the shade.

While eating, Mike and I were people watching. Our general observations were that the people of Essaouria are not as strictly Muslim as the people of Marrakesh: they do not seem to wear as much traditional clothing. And, there were women working in the restaurants and shops! This was almost unheard of in Marrakesh. The people also seemed to be more affluent, or at least they did not look as poor as most of the people in Marrakesh. There were a lot more dogs, too.

After lunch, we went for a walk on the beach. Wow! We were actually strolling the African coast. How bizarre is that?!

Here are some pictures of this quaint little port town.

The beach was very stormy: lots of debris strewn about, lots of mud in the waves, and the waves were very disorganized from the storm. However, there were actually several kite surfers, a wind surfer, and a few normal surfers. Considering how awful the waves were, I really don't know why the surfers were out there. They were "getting hammered," as Mike described it. Not to mention that the water was so dirty and full of debris that it must have been rather icky!

As we walked along, I noticed that there were camels across the cove! Camel rides were one of our priorities for Morocco. We had originally wanted to ride camels in the desert, but Mohammed said that a desert trip required 2 days (and I really did not want to spend the night sleeping in "an authentic Berber home" in the desert!!). So, camel rides on the beach would be almost as good. Not long after I pointed out the camels, a Moroccan man "approached us" (read as "hard sell") to see if we were interested in camel rides. Dado negotiations to the rescue. He worked it out so that all 4 of us could go for a ride.

Oh, yippee! To be perfectly honest, I really didn't want to ride a camel. I'm allergic to horses and have had some miserable horse-riding experiences. I was worried that camel rides would be the same. So, my excitement level wasn't at an all-time high.

However, it was really fun!! Josey and I rode on "Caramel", the girl camel, and Dado and Max rode on "David", the boy camel. The two camels were tied together, with me and Josey in the rear, and we were led by a guide.

Here is one of my most favorite pictures from our Moroccan vacation . . . Josey preparing to give Caramel a kiss.

And David "smiling". Can you see those teeth?

And drooling!
The most exciting moments were when Caramel stood up (you mount while the camel is sitting on the ground) and when she sat back down. These were exciting moments because they are lurching moments!

Here are Dado & Max getting ready to ascend.

If Josey hadn't been hanging on tightly when Caramel sat down (below), she would have fallen off right over the top of Caramel's head!

Our ride lasted about 30 minutes, and we were led along the beach and through the sand dunes. Going up and down the sand dunes was also rather lurchingly thrilling. Josey and I had a more entertaining ride because David, the lead camel, was tooting, burping, drooling, and otherwise digesting! Josey and I can tell you that camels are pretty stinky. However, that made the ride even that much more interesting.

Caramel was smart, she kept her head near Dado & Max's legs, which was a little in front of David's stinky end. Can you see the expression on Max's face.

So, afterward, we all determined that the camel ride was definitely a highlight of the trip! And, as it turns out, we were extremely lucky to have chosen the timing for our camel rides. The wind became very, very strong about 30 minutes later, and it stormed violently all day Thursday!

After the camel ride, we wandered along the beach and through the Medina of Essaouria. This medina was much like the one in Marrakesh only smaller and a lot less high-pressured as far as sales go. In fact, the entire vibe of Essaouria was almost laid-back in comparison to Marrakesh.

Max found some cool beads; I found an absolutely gorgeous cloth of silk, cotton and wool that is died with the red poppies that are my favorite in all of France - this will someday be a bedspread or lovely covering for the back of a couch; and Dado found more Argan oil for cooking (this was even more plentiful in Essaouria than Marrakesh!).

Later, Dado found a fabulous restaurant tucked away in a little alley. It was the most authentic looking building we had seen, complete with brick walls and the bizarre dark wood ceilings. The server was very, very nice, too.

And thus ended our first day in Essaouria.

Our second day in Essaouria was noteworthy for only two reasons.

One, there were violent wind and rain swells all day, and these kept us indoors or seeking shelter most of the day. Not very conducive to walking along the beach or browsing the medina. Although we did get this lovely sight.

Two, Dado got a haircut!! He tries to only get haircuts in foreign countries now. This is not hard, considering we live in a foreign country. Check out the pictures. Too bad the first shot is so washed out . . . you miss out on the full effect of the cyrillic writing.

I especially love how the man sterilized the straight razor - alcohol and flame.

The rest of the day was spent in the car. I kept my head down, knitting, while we drove through mud and water the whole way home.

We were so pleased to be back at Dar Silsila!! Back to our clean rooms, a working shower, and a wonderful, absolutely delicious dinner. It was chicken cooked in a tajine with lemons and spices. Incredible!! Mike and I ate so much that it was almost embarrassing. Merci to all the staff at Dar Silsila for one of the best meals of my life.

Love to all!!

A Day with Fahd

For our third day in Marrakesh, we decided to wander around and see the tourist sights within walking distance from the hotel. Because our agenda was so casual, we lounged around in the morning, ate our leisurely breakfast at the Riad (yogurt, bread, fresh OJ), and set off around 10:30.

We stopped to say hello to our friends at the spice shop/pharmacy from the first day. Max wanted to buy some Moroccan black soap, and Josey wanted to buy some kohl makeup (which is also very plentiful here and has traditional/religious significance). As we were negotiating, Dado suggested that we give them our clothes before we left. This was perfect! They obviously could use the clothes.

So, Dado explained what we had done in our packing and asked if they wanted the clothes. They were very pleased! As a result, we received all of our intended purchases as a gift that morning. As I said before, we really like these men, and they provided a lot of great Moroccan memories for us!

We also scheduled an appointment for 4PM that afternoon for both kids to get henna tattoos - the real thing this time, from a real tattooist - not one of the maniac women from the square!

Then, we consulted the map and headed off. By the time you exit our little neighborhood (about 1 block from the Riad), there are already Moroccans lining the street waiting to ask you, "Do you need a guide?" "Do you want a taxi?" "Do you want to take a horse-drawn carriage ride?" etc. It's overwhelming!

However, Mike had a good feeling about one man who asked if we needed a guide. They agreed on a 10 dirham (1 euro) fee to guide us to the Saadiens Tombeaux - the tombs of the royal family. We could have found it by ourselves, but this was much more entertaining. The guide's name was Fahd, and off we set.

He led us through the amazingly busy streets of downtown Marrakesh, where we all stared wide-eyed at the people and shops around us while trying not to step in puddles. Max only fell down once, narrowly missing landing face-first in a road apple!

Sidebar: Other than the rain and resulting mud, the streets of Marrakesh are remarkably clean! There are almost no dogs, so there is no dog poop. Yay! In France, there is dog poop everywhere. It is actually disgusting. So, this is a nice change. There were very few road apples, too, because the horses all have poop-catching bags under their tails. So, I really have no idea how Max almost managed to fall face-first into one, but he did.

The remarkable aspects of the Saadiens Tombeaux are:
  • The fact that they date from the 1500s, but they were only "discovered" in 1917!
  • The ornate scrollwork and detail that covers every square inch of the walls and ceilings in the open tomb buildings.

The tombs themselves are in the ground, marked by rectangles of different tile work. There are remarkably few tombstones. The tombstones and narrow, short strips of rock centered on the rectangle of tile. Fahd told us that the scrollwork on the walls was the story of each person's life: their accomplishments, etc., that would help them in the afterlife.

There were 4 tomb buildings, and they are all open air, which surprised me. There are low walls to keep people out, but the cats and birds were inside.

On the way to and from the tombs, we passed one of the several entrances to the Medina (entrances in the inner city walls). There were storks nesting at the top of the entrance!

Our tour of the tombs required a mere 15 minutes, so we were quickly looking for something else to do. By now it was nearly lunchtime, so Fahd led us to a Berber Riad/restaurant. We invited him to eat lunch with us, so during lunch we received a lot of great information about Berbers, the Muslim religion, and the surrounding area.

Lunch was delicious and different from our other meals thus far.
  • First course = Moroccan salads: Cucumber and tomato; marinated eggplant (but it was green eggplant!); lentils; green salad. This was served with the traditional Moroccan bread that is shaped like a fat frisbee.
  • Main course: Shish kebabs for me and the kids; beef and veggie tagine for Dado; and chicken and citron tagine for Fahd.
  • Fruit course: A gigantic plate of fruit with oranges (which grow everywhere here); mandarins; apples.
  • Final course: A collection of Moroccan pastries served with traditional mint tea. The pastries were three different cookies.
Fahd taught us that there are three traditional varieties of tea in Morocco, and the mint tea is typically served in the heat because the mint has cooling properties for the body. It was a delicious and enjoyable lunch!

After lunch, Fahd led us to the terrace. Since we were enjoying a break in the rain, there was incredible visibility. We could see the Atlas Mountains as well as the tallest mountain in all of Africa: Jbel Toubkal.

The restaurant was right near the square and the souks. Since Max had shown an interest in an authentic Moroccan robe, Fahd brought us to a clothing shop run by his friends, where he said he could get us a good price.

This was a fun stop! Max knew exactly what he wanted, a djellaba, which is the robe worn by 50% of the men in Morocco. Check him out! He looks like a mini Obi Wan Kenobi, doesn't he?

Josey wanted one of the traditional women's robes, a kaftan. Her choice took a bit longer. She started wanting pink (to match the head scarf she had purchased on the first day), then she changed her mind to teal. The only teal robe she liked was too long. Not a problem! They offered to hem it for her, ensuring many additional years of wear when she let out the hem.

I originally had no intention of buying anything. However, while the kids shopped, I found a beautiful pink tunic with white trim and a hood!

Next were the negotiations. We learned on our first day that because the kids are spending their own money, the Moroccans give them a better price. Thus, we let Josey do all of the negotiating for herself and Max. Of course Mike aids when necessary, but that is rarely required. They started at 350 dirhams for my tunic, 300 for Josey's, and 300 for Max's. I got mine lowered to 300, and I stopped negotiating. I know I could have dropped the price further, but I wanted the kids to succeed more than myself.

Max caved at 200 dirhams. If the guidelines are true, that you can usually get your item for 1/2 the original asking price, he still had a bit more wiggle room. However, he was so incredibly happy with his purchase that it was a good thing!

Josey was once again the master. Considering she was also receiving custom alterations, I had to remind her of that fact and that you pay extra for that. She finally settled at 180 dirhams. She looks fantastic!!

Whew. That took a while. However, Fahd said that we were near the spice area in the souk, so off we went. We stopped at his friend's spice shop, where we were served tea. We bought some Moroccan cinnamon: several small US bottles worth for 1 euro. It smells divine! The shop owner gave Max an Josey each an interesting necklace, so they were thrilled. And while we were wandering around, Fahd found little wooden camels for each of the kids, too.

Imagine that! Here is a man willing to guide us around Marrakesh for a single euro, but he gives my children gifts! Of course, Mike and I had already decided to pay him much more than the original euro, and we did buy him lunch. But still. Very considerate.

Here are some action shots from this part of the souk . . .

Okay, by now we were once again overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, sales, etc. It was time to wander back to the hotel. We parted with Fahd, and he gave us his number in case we needed a guide again.

Back at the hotel, we decided to talk to Mohammed about taking a day trip the next day, to escape the chaos of Marrakesh. Details on that in the next blog entry.

And suddenly it was already 4PM, time for henna tattoos! The kids were so excited. We walked to the spice shop/pharmacy, and they sent for the tattooist. Either she didn't speak any French, or she wasn't supposed to speak to us. I think it was that she didn't speak any French, to be honest. So, we negotiated the mere price of 50 dirhams for both kids (remember, I left 100 dirhams for the tattooing vultures in the square!!), and the kids decided to let her use her imagination.

It was interesting. She squeezes the henna out of a syringe and simply draws her design. Then, the kids had to wait 20-30 minutes for the henna to dry. Once dry, Mike scrubbed it off their hands, and voila! They rushed downstairs to show Mohammed the finished results, and he recommended putting some olive oil on to bring out the color.

They are beautiful! Many people now have told us that the real henna tattoos are this light reddish-brown color. We have seen many black ones, but those are made with chemical dyes.

The kids were very happy with the results.

The rest of our evening was very relaxed. Dinner at Cafe Arabe, then off to bed.

Love to all!!