Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sahara: Dunes & Dromedaries

Two of us were missing. We were going to have to leave them behind. Perhaps they were hopelessly lost in the maze of alleys that make up the Marrakech medina. Or maybe, like thousands of others, the erupting Icelandic volcano had cruelly interrupted their trip. That they would choose not to show up is unimaginable. Still, we had delayed our departure for more than an hour and we had to move on. So began the most memorable stretch of the Great Odyssey (so far).

I awoke that morning at 5 a.m. It was a full two hours earlier than necessary, but I was far too excited to sleep. I hadn’t stopped thinking about it since the email from Omar popped onto my iPhone screen, confirming my spot on the excursion. Even if I had wanted to sleep a little longer, those damn chirping birds in the Dar Balthazar courtyard weren’t about to allow it. So, at 7 a.m. I ducked through the Hobbit-sized front door into the cobbled alleyway of Bab Doukkala, leaving behind yet another opulently decorated riad, where I’d stayed relatively cheaply since my return to the Red City from Essaouira. It was a brisk start to the day, much like an October morning in Las Vegas, but that wouldn’t last. As the sun rose high in the sky, so too did the heat. I strapped on my 45 lb pack and launched out on the 2 km hike to the far side of Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square, where I was to meet my fellow travelers Dorinda, Ninka, and Tabitha from the Netherlands, Kate from NY, and our guide Youseff. We were headed to the desert, to the Sahara!

My Desert Hotel

In my warped Western mind, the thought of camel trekking and the Sahara conjures visuals of 1001 Nights, powerful Sultans, scheming Grand Wizirs, great riches and fabled desert cities, long lost beneath shifting sands. (Some of these visuals came to me from reading the Arabian Nights and from movies like Lawrence of Arabia. The rest came straight from the pages of 1970’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck comic books. We all have our influences.) No wonder I had been looking forward to it.

First we’d have to cross 600 kilometers of mountainous terrain to get to the Saharan dunes of Erg Chebbi which is in eastern Morocco near the conflict-closed border with Algeria. Between Marrakech and our destination lay the snow capped High Atlas Mountains and the stunning gorges, fertile valleys and oases that lay immediately to their east.

Youseff, our Guide
The High Atlas Mountains

In the distance, we could see the Atlas range rise sharply from the rocky plains that surround the city. Unfinished cinder block housing projects and dying scrub grass aren’t much to look at so I was happy when the evergreen and poplar forests of the foothills began to appear. Valleys began to fill with the unmistakable silver-green flash of olive trees, rimmed with yellow flowering prickly pear (which brought to mind the countless unfortunate encounters I’d seen poor Wile E Coyote endure with that cactus, in my youth.)

As we climbed higher into the mountains, sweeping ridges appeared in a remarkable variety of colours of earth and stone. Cinnamon brown and earthen red Kasbahs and ancient-looking Berber villages clung to steepening slopes, with their terraced croplands haloing villages in patchwork green.

Heading Through the Pass

The French Foreign Legion completed the Tizi-n-Tichka pass through these mountains in the mid 1930’s. It must have been a harrowing job to work on. My ears popped as the 4x4 wound and looped its way to our peak altitude of 7,415 feet, still far below the 13,667 of nearby Mont Toubkal. With every turn, a breathtaking new vista appeared. Looking back over sheer cliffs at our hairpin route I felt the dizziness set in. This feeling was intensified by precipitous drop-offs hugging barely protected corners of blacktop and the ever-present threat that we’d turn a blind corner and tragically hurtle through a wayward flock of sheep lounging in the middle of the roadway.

Immediately after the pass, as we started to descend down the eastern slope of the High Atlas, the landscape turned arid, an early promise of what we were to find when we reached our destination. Heading northeast now, we stopped briefly at Aït Benhaddou. This magnificent looking Ksar (fortified village) is a UNESCO protected site that has starred in many films over the years including, most famously, Lawrence of Arabia. Continuing on, we passed Ouarzazate (Wahr za zat), the gateway city to the Sahara, and the Moroccan ‘Hollywood’. Our 4x4 briefly veered off road and as we crested a hill, Atlas Studios came into view on the desert floor, with its larger-than-life film props piled deep against studio walls. This is where Kingdom of Heaven, Last Temptation of Christ, Gladiator, The Mummy, Jewel of the Nile and others were filmed.

Aït Benhaddou

There was a lot more to see as we continued past the oasis at Skoura, through the Valley of Roses, and into Dadès, the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. Here, the gorge cuts deeply back into the Atlas Mountains. Canyon walls drop 1000 feet while nearby, lush valleys are coloured with elegant palms exploding upwards like regal green and gold fireworks. We stayed overnight here alongside the rushing river on the floor of the gorge.

Dadès Gorge

More driving, more gorges, and finally in the afternoon of the second day we reached Erg Chebbi. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular trip through the Atlas, but was thrilled to finally climb atop my camel.

The reality of the Sahara is, not surprisingly, much less romantic than the ludicrous visions that pop culture had attempted to forge in my mind. Still, all folklore has some of its roots in fact, and that was sufficient for me. For thousands of years, great trading caravans have traversed this desert bringing gold, silver, spices, and slaves to and from Northwest Africa for trafficking to Europe and beyond. Much like our small group, the caravans of ancient times were led by camel pullers charged with navigating the merciless desert and safely shepherding camel trains of up to 10,000 beasts to water and their final destinations. While I failed to discover any lost cities of gold, I was not the least bit disappointed with my excursion.

I was struck by the absolute silence of the desert. Beyond the odd snort (or other bodily function) emitted by our sturdy dromedaries, or the nearly imperceptible shuffling of hooves on sand, there was no sound. Even my fellow trekkers were oddly quiet. Perhaps, like me, they were immersed in the moment – absorbing the remarkable terrain, the sweeping dunes and the perfect sand curves that would excite even the most jaded mathematician. For two hours following the hold-on-for-dear-life forward and backward lurching that occurred as my ride got on its feet, our barefoot Berber guide led us up, down and around the dunes, navigating us along crests where one wrong step could send us tumbling camel-over-rider down sandy embankments.

Erg Chebbi, Sahara Desert

Unlike the camel-riders of old, I had climbed atop my trusty steed for pleasure, not necessity. After a couple of hours (ten minutes, actually) I had no problem understanding that the act of riding such a beast for any length of time is only reasonable in times of necessity. Comfortable, they are not.

The trip to our camp was everything I had hoped it would be. After a little stretching and some mint tea with the others, we climbed the 900-foot dune rising behind our tent to watch the sunset change sand from pink to brilliant orange-red for as far as the eye could see. It was like a scene from a movie. It won’t come as a surprise that in the desert, there are an infinite number of stars. After a couple hours lounging in the sand, gazing upon those stars, dining on camp-cooked Tajine, and listening to the tribal drumming of our Berber hosts, I faded off to sleep.

Our Berber Hosts
There is more to this story beyond the return camel ride to rendezvous with our driver and the long trek back, but perhaps I will keep some parts of the Great Odyssey just for myself. It did occur to me though, as we wheeled across lands still traveled by desert nomads, that right now I’m not completely different from them. Like the nomads, I am (for the first time in my life) completely at liberty, with no permanent home to call my own -- a Canadian at Liberty...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Moroccan Cooking: Tagine and Spices

Moroccan Spice Souk

We were five travelers in this seaside village, brought together in the cozy second floor loft of a renovated almond warehouse by a common passion for great food and a desire to make a cultural connection with the place we were visiting. As we tucked into the first course, a warm, spicy courgette salad (salads are typically cooked in Morocco and bear little resemblance to the leafy greens that are on every menu back home) I wasn’t the only one who was left speechless at just how good this tasted. It wasn’t just because we had prepared the dish ourselves. Could this really be a salad? Is there a way to eat vegetables and actually enjoy them? Perhaps I’d found the answer to increasing the amount of vegetables in my diet. Spices.

Chicken Tagine with Olives

Morocco’s rich food culture has developed over thousands of years and I feel lucky to have had the chance to experience and learn about it during my three weeks here. It’s not surprising that the Moroccans create so much flavor by incorporating delicate blends of spices like ginger, saffron, cumin and cinnamon into their food. After all, North Africa has always been an important transit point on the historical Spice Route. Over the centuries, enormous caravans of thousands of camels crossed the Moroccan Sahara bearing loads of exotic spices between the Middle East, Timbuktu and sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and eventually, the Americas. It’s no wonder that the families who may have guided these foreign caravans across the desert or housed the traders in the medinas of the nation learned to use spices in their food so well.

 Shopping for our Ingredients

In every medina I’ve visited in Morocco, spice merchants have filled their shops with lavish displays of aromatics, herbal remedies, berries, barks, minerals, and spices, often piled high into fragrantly scented, teetering pyramids. I’ve even heard that you can tell where you are within North Africa and the Middle East, simply by closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and discerning the dominant spice scents wafting through the air of the souks. I think I’d have a hard time picking these fragrances out from the less-special odors left behind by all the donkeys and mules…

Fes Market Souk

Several hours earlier I’d met a wonderful group of fellow Chefs-in-training at l’Atelier Madada. It is an exceptional facility offering cooking workshops for visitors to Essaouira seeking to create Moroccan cuisine using ingredients produced in the region and caught in the Atlantic. Joining me were Heike and Christopher from Germany (near where I’ll be visiting in early August), and Cameron & Amber, two ex-patriot Canadians now living in the Middle East who arrived in Essaouira chasing the wind. Together, we shared a memorable experience, learning to cook the traditional Moroccan cuisine, including the aforementioned Courgette Salad, a mouth-watering Sea Bass Tagine using fresh fish caught just hours earlier in the Atlantic and purchased dockside at this African village’s working fishing port.
Sea Bass Tagine with Vegetables

Tagine is perhaps the most recognizable type of Moroccan food, in part because it is named after the unique cone-shaped clay pot that is used to slowly simmer the ingredients, often over many hours. During the course of this terrific class, we had the opportunity to learn about Moroccan life and rituals. Beyond the great food, it was an excellent cultural experience - just what I was looking for.

You want your chicken fresh?
Lamb Tagine with Caramelized Onions, Dates and Almonds

I’ve since had the opportunity to take cooking courses in both Marrakech and Fes. As I continue my travels over the remaining 12 or 13 weeks of this odyssey, I hope to have similar experiences learning the local regional cuisines throughout Europe and hopefully meeting more great people along the way. I can’t think of a better way to connect with a culture than to participate in it like this.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Just a quick post to say thanks to everyone for their kind comments and encouragement. It's exciting to know that someone other than me is reading this blog!

I'm just back in Marrakech after an amazing adventure camel trekking in the Sahara, and am headed for Fes tomorrow morning. Stay tuned - I should have a couple of new posts up in the next few days.



Thursday, May 13, 2010

Essaouira: Hippies and Cannons

Essaouira - The White City

The guidebooks call Marrakech the Red City. It’s an apt name, given the simmering intensity of Morocco’s southernmost Imperial City (and of course there’s the official red ochre palette that shades all the city’s buildings.) After Marrakech’s red, I was ready for Essaouira’s white and blue, and it couldn’t have felt more different. After a three-hour crossing of a bleak and rocky section of Moroccan desert, I’ve arrived in the White City, Essaouira, on Africa’s Atlantic coast. It’s a laid back fishing village, awash in white and blue, like an African version of the Greek post card villages that so many more of us are familiar with (without the hills to climb). It’s not just the colors that give it such a cool vibe. This is an artistic place, bursting with painters, writers, wood-carvers, and musicians, where the waves are owned by kite surfers and the less-energetic chill on patios to Ray Charles grooves blasted from tinny speakers.

Before Altamont crushed the hopes and dreams of the peace-loving hippy nation at the close of the sixties, Essaouira was a hot spot along the Hippie Trail. Droves of “Longhaired freaky people” left Greenwich Village, Yorkville and the Haight in search of enlightenment, and traveled to places like Goa, Katmandu and Essaouira. Judging from the dread-locked dudes who you’ll bump into in back alleys (“I’ve got the really good stuff”) it feels like a few of their grandchildren may still be here. Jimi Hendrix himself hung out in Essaouira a while.* This is my kind of town.

The African Sun on her way to the Americas

The city itself is only a few hundred years old (in its current form – it has been occupied by one conqueror or another since prehistoric times). It’s protected from the cool offshore winds and the invading hordes of days past, by huge fortified ramparts built during the Portuguese occupation in the early 1500s. The cannons still face out to sea.

Until the caravan trade died out in the latter part of the 20th century, Essaouira was a vital trading port and entryway to Africa from the west. As other less-isolated cities grew in importance and certain lines on the global map were re-drawn, the city’s 40%+ Jewish population began to abandon Essaouira, migrating to places like Israel and Quebec. Morocco was a French protectorate until the 50's so nearly every local you speak with will light up when you mention you’re from Canada. “Montreal? Quebec?” It’s so nice when you meet other people around the world who view Quebec and Canada so favorably (and so united.)

Off to learn how to cook Tajine and do some quad biking in the Sahara.

* The legend of Jimi's presence in Essaouira, and Morocco in general, may have outgrown the facts. Whether or not he actually owned a place there is disputed and it seems that many local hoteliers claim Jimi stayed at their place during his visit(s).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Marrakech: Faux Guides and Leather Tanners

Locals Selling Goat Hides in the Souk

He was an elderly Moroccan gentlemen, quite distinguished looking but for the missing teeth, and wearing a silky cream and yellow coloured djellaba and skull cap. He smiled generously and said hello to me as I passed through the souk. As most do, he also asked where I was from. Thankfully when I said “Canada”, he didn’t burst into a rousing rendition of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (the teenaged food-stall tout did just that in the square last night – he was pretty good.) Beware, if you answer even the most innocuous question asked by a Moroccan in the souks, they will be stuck to you like duct tape. He tells me that the Berber market is in town today and that not many tourists know about it. The prices in the square are much too expensive he warns, as he tries to establish trust. Next, he shows me that his hands are yellow and explains, in French, how this comes from working in the tannery, but I suspect it is from saffron. He tells me that it’s a holiday for most of the tannery workers so if I’d like, I can see it today. At least I think that is what he said. It’s nearby. He’ll show me.

My spider senses had gone off long ago. I’ve read about Marrakech’s un-official guides, but since I’m at liberty, open to experiences, and not on a timetable, I cautiously let him lead the way. The narrow, winding pathways of the souk are behind me in moments and there is now a lot more room to dodge the donkey carts. I’m the only non-Moroccan in sight as we’ve entered an industrial looking area of the medina. All around me are darkened repair shops and moped graveyards. Evidently this is where old bikes go to die. Soon the parts will re-emerge in the form of cobbled-together creations capable of scattering tourists another day. We duck down an alley and behind a wall, where my ‘guide’ introduces me to Tannery Man.

Tannery Man speaks English quite well and immediately gives me a handful of formerly-fresh mint, gesturing that I should hold it under my nose to cover the disgusting smell of the various processes used to produce the finished leather. He narrates a tour (though one absent of much to see) and walks me through the tannery I’m now in, past the huge concrete vats, while explaining the four steps in the process of tanning the leather (soaking in lime and water; soaking in pigeon shit; soaking in flour and water; soaking in something that I forget. It’s not important.) Next, he tells me to duck my head and we step down into a pitch-black room that should have scared the crap out of me. My eyes adjust and with the help of a single beam of sunlight jutting through a ragged hole in the wall I see a rather weathered-looking man in the corner. He is sitting alone, behind a wooden frame of stretched skin and handily shaving the hides with an enormous crescent shaped knife. This is what he does all day long. Tannery Man tells me to take a picture but without a flash on my iPhone, it would have been a waste of effort. Of course, today was the first day this week that I left the Riad without either my video camera or my DSLR. Figures.

The tour continues past the other end of the field of vats where cowhides are stretched out and presumably waiting to be dyed. Two men are waist deep in some sort of noxious substance working on a hide as I pass – I guess they didn’t get the day off. Tannery Man then leads me out and after dodging more donkey carts, we cross the alley to another section where camel hides are piled up. In the midst of this industrial wasteland of smelly tannery and little else, I keep wondering to myself, how much is this sojourn going to cost? I know they’ll want money. Everyone wants money. I didn’t need to wait long. Miraculously, as I step through the next doorway, I find myself in the middle of an out-of-place showroom, well lit and lined with finished leather goods and it is finally clear how this entire money making operation works. When I say no to the leather (there is a better selection in the souks), I’m ushered down the stairs and into a room full of carpets and brightly colored kilims. Unfortunately for them, I wasn’t in a buying mood and dispensed with this phase of the tour quite quickly. Then comes the time to pay off Tannery Man. I hand him a 10 Dirham coin (about $1.20), which was met with the usual overly dramatic expressions of disgust. “No! No! 150 dirham is how much people pay for this special experience.” We debate this for a moment or two, before out of nowhere a ‘passerby’ appears and confides in me: “That is only worth about 1 euro. This man has three children. Give him more.” This is part of the game in Marrakech, as I’ve experienced a virtually identical approach on four other occasions this week. I toss him another 10 MAD and silence his protests with a firm “No more. It’s okay. It’s okay.” and turn away. Of course, my guide has now returned and wants money too. I’m perfectly okay with this, since by now I am completely turned around and have no idea how to get out of the tannery, through the souk, and back to the main square, so I commit to paying him but only after he gets me back to where I wanted to go.

So this, folks, is how it works and what may happen when that helpful Moroccan says hello in a souk. If you have the time and the interest, go along for the ride. You can write about the experience in your blog. You might be wise to bring a traveling companion though...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Marrakech: Charming Cobras and Striped Djellabas

“Take the train from Casablanca going south, blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth. Colored cottons hang in the air, charming cobras in the square. Striped djellabas we can wear at home”     - CSNY

It’s been over 44 years since Graham Nash rode that train and wrote those lyrics about what he saw in Marrakech and not much has changed in the medina. In fact, with the exception of electricity and plumbing, I’m not sure that much has changed in hundreds of years. I am staying in a riad, a traditional Moroccan guesthouse, deep in the old city derb. The guests who were in the other two rooms have moved on and I currently have the entire place to myself, including the orange and lemon trees growing in the open central courtyard. It is a very welcome and peaceful oasis from the absolute chaos of the souks, which wind their way along hundreds of paths and alleyways through the medina in no discernible order.

It’s a very good thing that alcohol is in short supply here, as you need to be sober and alert to avoid being rolled over by beasts of burden hauling carts or motor scooters hurtling at too-fast-speeds through narrow winding passages filled with locals and tourists. There are merchants at every turn selling spices, silver, ceramics and anything else you can imagine.

Give me a break - SwissAir lost my pack
and I was having a bad hair day!

The Marrakchi are very pleasant for the most part, and even when they seem unpleasant (like those darn taxi drivers) it is only part of their negotiating game and once the deal is done, their innate Moroccan charm generally comes out. Of course, I’m only speaking of the men, because with the exception of the young lady who grabbed my hand in the square and before I knew what was happening had already half-completed the drawing of a henna scorpion, the women don’t seem to interact with the tourists. Almost exclusively men work in the shops, and like the Turks I met in Istanbul a few years back, they can be very friendly, often persuasive and unbelievably persistent. The women just go about their lives in the derb, shopping the markets, looking after the children and their homes. You see them wearing all forms of Muslim dress, some very conservative, some not so much, some with headscarves, some without. Occasionally you’ll even hear the click-clack of high heels on cobblestone beneath their kaftan robes. For the most part though, everything is surprisingly relaxed amidst the chaos. Still, after my first day getting lost in the souks, I half expected (hoped?) to hear a small boy behind me shouting “Dr Jones, Dr Jones – this way!”

The epicenter of the medina is Place Jemaa el Fna, the main square. During the day, faux guides/touts, monkey handlers and snake charmers ply their trade in return for a few Dirhams. In the evening, the place absolutely teems with life and I can easily see how it might be a little overwhelming on the senses for many Westerners. It felt very exotic last night, as the sunset turned the terracotta colored Minaret at the back of the square a rich golden red. Tribal drums beat constantly, intermingled with the rhythmic, whining wail of horns played by the snake handlers and the putt putt vroom of those ever-present, exhaust-spewing mopeds. By sunset the food merchants had set up their carts and the square became a medieval midway of sorts, with all manner of hucksters, storytellers, tooth-pullers, henna artists, and kif dealers offering their services throughout the square.

A very exciting first stop in Morocco.

Place Jemaa el Fna

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Madrid: Toros & Tapas

After 8 1/2 hours in the air and four transfers, I arrived in Madrid, Spain's cosmopolitan capital for one night. It was the ideal place to launch out on my odyssey as surely my basic, yet long lost competency in Spanish would return immediately and soon I'd be conversing with the locals over tapas and Rioja. Think again.

With just a few hours to enjoy Madrid, I headed to Plaza Mayor, a 17th century gathering place in the historic centre of the city. While the square is now flooded with tourists sporting iPods and digital cameras, herders once drove enormous fighting bulls through the streets of the city to do battle with matadors on these cobblestones while earlier, accused heretics faced gruesome executions here during the Spanish Inquisition. Welcome to the Old World, where 'ancient' means something quite different than 'born before 1950.'

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Two passions of the Madrileños are tapas (tasty appetizer-sized dishes) and bullfighting (for and against). I decided to get a flavor of both at once. La Torre del Oro is a tapas bar and temple to the art of bullfighting located on the Plaza. If anyone thinks it’s always the bullfighter that wins, think again. Dozens of photos of matadors being gored by 1200 pound fighting bulls decorate the walls along with the heads of several massive bulls, including one that the barman claims was killed during a fight famously attended by both aficionado Ernesto Hemingway and General Franco. Those who are still following this blog when I return to Spain at the end of June will likely hear more about bulls, but suffice to say after seeing how enormous these Spanish bulls really are, I’d be wise to rethink any close encounters that may occur down the road...

 Onward to Morocco!