Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

Filtering by Tag: Morocco

History of a Trekking Guide

Our trekking guide Ali never went to school as is the case for many Berber children. He learned to read and write Arabic by attending morning and evening classes at the Mosque. His father was a driver and his mother, like many Moroccan women, was a homemaker taking care of the 7 children. Ali is the second oldest and went to Marakesh for a trip with his father to visit his uncle when he was 13. His cousin was studying French from a primer and he immediately felt a desire to study himself. For the next few days he followed her lessons, looked at her books and asked her about school. She told him he could buy his own book in the market for 2 dihram. He asked his father for some money but didn’t tell him want it was for. He went to the market and bought a French, German and English primer and began to teach himself. 

Ali (center) chats with a local (left) as we hike up the mountains.

Ali (center) chats with a local (left) as we hike up the mountains.

The following year Ali’s father died and he and his brother left the countryside for Marrakech to look for work. Ali started as a dishwasher but knew if he could improve his language skills, he could make more money working the front of the house as a waiter speaking to foreigners. He got another job at a shop calling out to tourists in several languages as they passed by trying to get them to look in the shop. He opened the shop in the morning, sprinkled water on the ground to keep the dusk down, dusted the merchandise and was given two hours in the hottest part of the day for lunch. 

Ali wore a blue turban the whole time we hiked.

Ali wore a blue turban the whole time we hiked.

Instead of going home or sleeping, Ali spent his lunch hours walking to the bus station to meet the bus from Agadir that came in around noon. He would practice his new languages with the tourist and offer to show them around the old Medina for tips. He learned from them what western tourists like, how to speak to them and interact with them and he earned a bit of money. 

I like Ali. He’s a slight but strong man. I imagine he’s around 50 years old with his salt and pepper hair and bad teeth. He has two teenage boys 15 and 17 and a daughter who’s 6. He smokes but always steps away to do it. His English and guiding abilities are unparalleled. He’s the best guide we’ve had either in Morocco or Senegal. He tell us unprovoked about the people, architecture, plants and customs of the Berber. He’s warm and funny and sincere. He seems to know everyone in every village and tells me he’s been guiding longer than I’ve been alive. “The mountains are in my blood.” 

Ali knows every trail, peak and valley in the mountains and is happy to share his vast knowledge.

Ali knows every trail, peak and valley in the mountains and is happy to share his vast knowledge.

It’s hard for me to imagine Ali as a young hustler obnoxiously calling for tourists to “take a look in my shop, I make you good price.” Or hassling road weary travelers fresh off the bus, “I take you to your riad, show you the Medina, you pay what you like.” These types of suspicious young men who hound me for my business are what I like the least about Morocco. The idea that they are practicing their English and that they have aspirations for more skills and a better job hadn’t occurred to me until Ali told his story.  

Ali’s first experience leading a trekking expedition happened innocently enough when he invited two German backpackers to visit his home village for a week. They stocked up on supplies of tea and bread and sugar and flour and Ali lead them through the mountains. They slept in his family home and he introduced them to the neighbors. The Germans loved the nature, the quiet away from the cities and the free flowing kif or marijuana that was available in the mountains. They suggested Ali start a trekking business. 

Ali likes the mountains as much as I do. We give the High Atlas a big thumbs up.

Ali likes the mountains as much as I do. We give the High Atlas a big thumbs up.

Ali liked to hang around in cafes that westerners frequented in Marrakech. He send and received post cards from the westerners he met and the cafes were good places to find people who would read and transcribe his post cards for him. It was at a cafe that Ali met the Scottish adventurer Hamish Brown. Ali would go on to lead Hamish through the mountains of Morocco as Hamish developed Atlas Mountains Information Services, took photos, documented the landscape and promoted tourism in Morocco. Ali helped coordinate the 90-day 1400km trek across Morocco which no one had ever attempted. Ali coordinated a visit for Mick Jagger when he wanted to learn about Berber music. He hosted mountaineering clubs and with Hamish’s help eventually received an official guide’s license even though he had never been to school.  

Ali wore button up shirts and jeans every day even in the heat.

Ali wore button up shirts and jeans every day even in the heat.

Ali’s quiet determination, tirelessness (he trekked in jeans and rarely seemed out of breath or tired) and preparedness with candied nuts, a water source, and communication with our cook and accommodations made me feel like I was in the most capable hands as I navigated goat tracks in 90+ degree heat (30º+ C) in the High Atlas Mountains. 

The High Atlas Mountains 

Abdil has a well-trained mule who wears a blue tarp outlined in yellow and orange embroidery that goes under his tail and neck. On top of the tarp Abdil puts woven panniers and in the panniers he puts a stove and tank of propane, a picnic blanket woven from sheep’s wool, plates, cutlery, two teapots, silver platters of various sizes, pots and pans, his own personal effects and any of our things we wanted to be without until the end of the day. 

Abdil’s mule grazes on the path while we eat lunch.

Abdil’s mule grazes on the path while we eat lunch.

Abdil doesn’t speak English and defers to our guide, Ali, for everything more than an indication that we’re finished eating. He has holes in both sides of both of his sneakers. He wears a green baseball cap and does the dishes in the river. I’m on a three-day hiking expedition in the High Atlas Mountains and I’ve never had a cook with a mule before. He makes lentils, tajines, and beautiful salads out of seemingly nothing. 

Abdil packs everything he needs to cook in the green panniers that sit on the mule’s back. Sometimes he sits on the mule’s back too.

Abdil packs everything he needs to cook in the green panniers that sit on the mule’s back. Sometimes he sits on the mule’s back too.

We start our expedition after lunch. Morocco is a country of late starts. As one shop keeper told us, “Europeans have watches but Africans have time.” It’s easy to forget one is in Africa while walking in Morocco. I saw dung beetles in clusters turning mule excrement into dirt this morning. I thought to myself about how I had seen the same large, shiny black insects “when I was in Africa.” I had to catch myself. Tanzania is Africa, but so is the Magreb. Morroco is every bit as African as Subsaharan Africa is African.

Abdil washes dishes in the river in his signature green baseball cap.

Abdil washes dishes in the river in his signature green baseball cap.

Abdil finishes the dishes and we head out as he packs the mule. Even with our head start he’ll easily pass us in less than an hour. All while we were picnicking under a tree near the river women were crossing the water in groups of 3 or 5 and continuing past the mule up into the hills. Some carried babies. Most carried nothing. All were covered head to toe in the long dress with long sleeves that marks many a Muslim woman. They wear leggings under the dress and cover their hair in long scarves. Some have hoods, all look hot in the heat. They shuffle along in flip flops or loafers, in stockings or barefoot. 

We ate our lunches on this sheep’s wool blanket that doubled as Abdil’s prayer rug.

We ate our lunches on this sheep’s wool blanket that doubled as Abdil’s prayer rug.

They are walking to a funeral. Last week a 20-year-old man was swimming in the river with his friends near the dam. He drowned and his body was taking to a hospital in Marrakech. They just gave his body back to the family and now everyone from the surrounding villages will pay their respects before burying the body. Our guide tells us the caravan of walking women is something of a party as they chat and gossip spreading the village news. Ali says they’ll put on their sad faces and start crying once they arrive. One women jokes with Ali and asks if we (the three America and two Belgian hikers) want to come to the funeral. He retorts saying we’ll go to the funeral if they’ll walk over the mountains with us. The offer is rescinded.

Abdil lead his mule for two days across the Atlas Mountains to cook for us. He left the second night and we packed our own lunches on day 3.

Abdil lead his mule for two days across the Atlas Mountains to cook for us. He left the second night and we packed our own lunches on day 3.

We’re walking on a mostly paved road up from the valley into the hills. When we get to a turn off, a big white car is letting out some of the village men to go to the funeral. Ali knows the driver and sends his respects to the family. It seems unfair that the men get to ride while the women walk but I don’t say anything. Instead I ask about the prevalence of cars and motorbikes. Ali says a new Japanese motorbike (the preferred country of origin) will set back an owner 8000 to 13000 Moroccan Diram, roughly $800-$13,000 which isn’t a small sum in a country where the per person income averages $8,000. 

Cars are more rare than motorbikes which are more rare than mules. Most people walk. The Berber people are the hill people and they are the oldest ethnic group in the world dating back to 10,000 BC. Many Berber, or Amazighs as they often call themselves, live much the same way their ancestors did: heading sheep, growing food, and ascribing to whatever religion is popular with the ruling class of Morocco. Over the ages they’ve been animist, atheist, worshiped the gods of Egypt, Hellenistic Greece, the Jews, the Christians and now the Suni Muslims. At night on our guesthouse terrace, I see Abdil praying on the carpet we used as a picnic blanket, folded into a prayer run, facing Mecca.  

The Sahara Desert

Overland travel in Morocco is not a quick endeavor. The main roads are paved and generally in good shape, but there is no train service into the desert. There are small airports but flights are infrequent and expensive. There are buses that take 11 hours to get from Fes to Mezouga but we opted to join a 3-day van tour with a driver and a guide to see the desert, the mountains and take the very long and scenic route to Marrakech.

The Parc National D’Ifrane

A barbary macaque hangs out by a souvenir cart.

A barbary macaque hangs out by a souvenir cart.

The Parc National D’Ifrane is a national park in the mid atlas is and home to the barbary macaque an endangered monkey related to the Macaques in Asia. These guys have no tails and no fear. They take peanuts out of tourists’ hands  and scramble over the tent of trinkets for sale manned by a father and son team. The park is _______

Ziz River Valley

The Berber communities that surround the Ziz river are mostly made from sun-dried clay.

The Berber communities that surround the Ziz river are mostly made from sun-dried clay.

The oasis in the Ziz River valley is 80km long and is the longest oasis in Morocco. Date trees and animal fodder grow along the Ziz River. Once home to a flourishing community, the young people today leave the villages for the bigger cities. At one time taxes imposed on camel caravans though the oasis made the locals rich. Today a fossil and geode market alongside sheep herding and date farming are the main industries. The views are spectacular as a green valley snakes along the river as far as the eye can see while the desert encroaches dry and read from both sides. 

Mezouga

Merzouga is a XX town in the southeast of Morocco XX miles from the Algerian boarder. It’s a city that butts up against the Erg Chebbi Dunes, the largest sand dune in Morocco. From movies I thought that the Sahara desert would be all sand, dunes and dust. In reality much of the desert is red and rocky and covered in scrub brush. The dust kicked up from the wind creates a perpetual haze and occasions produces cyclones and dust storms. 

Camels

A camel shepherd leads his animals across the Erg Chebbii Dunes.

A camel shepherd leads his animals across the Erg Chebbii Dunes.

There are no stirrups on a camel. There actually aren’t any two-humped camels in Morocco. Camel riders, who any more are predominately tourists, ride the mono-humped dromedaries. The males are tied together with ropes that are lashed around their mouths, under their necks, bellies and tails and keep the donut-esqoue saddle from sliding off the hump. Camel’s rear knees bend to the back and their front knees bend to the front when they kneel to let their riders mount. Their two left feet then two right feet walk in a plodding unstable gait. It’s a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. I was happy to experience it for a few hours and can’t imagine crossing the desert for weeks on camel back. 

Sleeping in the Desert 

The desert camp in the Erg Chebbii Dunes has 10 tents and a red carpet aisle.

The desert camp in the Erg Chebbii Dunes has 10 tents and a red carpet aisle.

Morocco has welcomed western tourists for the past hundred years so the circuit is well worn and the tourism industry is a popular one as more European, North American and Asian tourists descend on Africa. All throughout the Erg Chebbii Dunes are glamping grounds set up with large vinyl tents filled with full sized beds, Moraccan rugs, running water, electricity and a full bathroom. The camp grounds have outdoor seating, a restaurant for dinner and breakfast and a fire pit for evening drum circles. A kitten named Loli entertained us by chasing the bugs in the sand and climbing up the tent walls. 

Todgha Gorges

The Monkey Fingers are an impressive rock formation in the Todgha Gorge.

The Monkey Fingers are an impressive rock formation in the Todgha Gorge.

The Todgha Gorges are some of the most beautiful scenery in Morocco. With the stratified red rock it reminds me of the American southwest. The Monkey Fingers are curvaceous rock formations through the limestone river canyon. The switchback roads are well-paved but steep and the river that cuts through the canyon is filled with plants, frogs and birds.

Kasbah de Ait Ben Haddou

The Kasban de Ait Ben Haddou sits on the often dry El Maleh River.

The Kasban de Ait Ben Haddou sits on the often dry El Maleh River.

The Kasbah de Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made in the 17th century it’s been the filming locations for scenes from Gladiator, Game of Thrones, and The Mummy among others in conjunction with Atlas Studios, the largest movie lot in the world by square miles. The Kasbah sits above the dry bed of the El Maleh River. Only 4 families still live in the Kasbah. The rest of the city is a tourist site of souvenir shops, weaving workshops and demonstrations of the amazing indigo invisible ink art that rarely turns a sale. 

Much of southern Morocco feels redundant, empty space punctuated by villages of red and gray square buildings. The landscape is scorched and sun bleached and the roads are filled with tourists, motorcycles and the occasional 18-wheeler. Camels and donkeys graze in the sun while their owners find shade under turbans and cloth canopies. It’s not beautiful on first look but once you blink the dust out of your eyes and see the mid-Atlas mountains rising on the horizon or the moon in the mercifully cooler night sky, the Sahara grows on you.

Toubab

My olive skin that marks my mixed European descent acts as a curious barrier to categorization. In Asia locals thought I was Indian or Sri Lankan. In Italy people are confused by I can’t speak Italian. My students in Chicago thought I was mixed race but the most predominant assumption people make about me is that I’m Spanish. 

Through the medina of Fes shop keepers go through the three sentences they know in myriad languages, “Madam, come look, I make you good price.” in English, French, Spanish. Often I’m shouted at, “Hola señorita.” In Senegal I was told I must be Spanish because I was there at the beginning of the rainy season and “Spaniards like rain.” The customs agent greeted me in Casablanca in Spanish and warmly welcomed me to Morocco. A Spanish woman asked for directions to the castle in Portugal in Spanish. I was able to answer her and she was surprised and impressed when I told her I was American. 

In Laos the word for white person if Falang, literally “French person.” In Senegal, another former French colony the word is Toubab. Like many Americans, I can trace my roots back generations to my European ancestors, some of whom were French and immigrated to England with William the Conquerer in 1066. That side of the family has been in America for a long time. I’m about as removed from being French as one can get and yet I still feel the shame of colonization when I’m called out for my skin color. 

This little girl lived in a village in Casamance, Senegal.

This little girl lived in a village in Casamance, Senegal.

The Senegalese children are wont to point and shout “toubab, toubab,” when we walk by. We saw a gaggle sliding down a dirt hill on a crushed 10-liter plastic water container as if it was a sled on powdery snow. The children want their photo taken with us and to practice any English or French phrases they’ve picked up. They don’t seem to say “toubab” derogatorily or with any particular malice. We simply look so different from their own very dark skin. 

In Morocco people come in all shades. There are light haired, green-eyed Moroccans who can trace their roots back to the piracy and white slave trade of the 1700s. There are black Moroccans with roots father south in Mauritania, Algeria or Libya. There are short and tall, curly haired and strait haired Moroccans. There are Berber Moroccan women with tattooed foreheads and chins.

The Senegalese kids loved taking selfies with my cell phone.

The Senegalese kids loved taking selfies with my cell phone.

We stick out in other ways though. We don’t speak or read Arabic. We look like western tourists with our backpacks and our sneakers, checking our phones for directions and speaking in English. We don’t wear shorts or short skirts but we also don’t cover our heads. Not all Moroccan women do, but certainly more than half of the women we see wear a hijab. 

Megan and I stuck out like a sore thumb every where we went.

Megan and I stuck out like a sore thumb every where we went.

We haven’t spoken to many women in Morocco. Like in Senegal, the tour guide industry is male-dominated. Women are often at home raising children and taking care of the household. We see tons of men in bars drinking tea and watching sports but we never see women loitering about.   Morocco is one of the most liberal muslim countries in terms of women’s rights but like the world over, I can still see inequalities. 

I’m lucky to have been born a white woman in America. I recognize that traveling is a privileged not afforded to everyone and I’ve been reminded time and time again of just how hard it is for a Senegalese or Moroccan native to get a visa to Europe or the USA and how easy it is for me to travel wherever I like. 

Soccer is Life

With 4 billion fans, soccer is the most popular sport in the world and with two major tournaments going on during my time in Africa, it’s been incredible to see how sports fandom is expressed the world over. 

In Senegal wrestling is more popular than soccer, and more popular than rugby but they have national teams for all three. Senegal is in the Africa Cup of Nations, which is a tournament held every two years. There are 24 teams playing in Egypt for the $4.5 million in prize money. Senegal’s team is the Lions and when the national team plays, everyone watches. The hostel staff in Dakar pushed back he start of dinner to watch the Lions win against Tanzania. People on N’gor island shouted and ran around the bar when their team scored. Men in the street walk around selling green jerseys with the team’s official logo and no matter who’s playing, the Africa Cup is on the TV, talked about in person and reported on the news. While we were in Casamance, a house with a big screen TV drew seemingly the whole village. People crowded around the door and windows to watch the tournament. Senegal is doing very well having beat Kenya, Uganda, Benin and Algeria to make it to the final round of the tournament. 

Morocco and Egypt are the Cup of Nations as well and as our tour guide in Rabat told us when we asked about the sports popularity, “football is life.” It’s a big dream in Senegal as well as in Morocco to play professional soccer and especially to make it onto a European team where both the pay and the prestige is greater. 

Megan, Chris and the drum salesman wear Senegal caps in Dakar.

Megan, Chris and the drum salesman wear Senegal caps in Dakar.

 Soccer still lags in popularity in the United States, ranking 4th behind American football, basketball and baseball. I’ll admit to not being a huge soccer fan myself even as the US Women’s team takes the World Cup by storm beating Spain, France, England and finally the Netherlands t claim their 4th world championship, the most wins by any FIFA team in the tournament’s history. 

Children everywhere play soccer in bare feet and in flip flops. They play in sand on the beach with sticks demarcating the goals. They play with deflated basketballs, with volleyballs and with tattered soccer balls that are hardly recognizable. Walking through the narrow, winding pedestrian paths of the Fez medina we saw goals spray painted on opposite walls in a square. Driving through the desserts of Morocco we saw soccer field after soccer field with metal goals sans nets and raked dirt piches.

The French woman who runs the Casamance NGO tourism company we used said all of France is now rooting for the USA even though they beat France. Megan Rapinoe has a purple pixie cut and plays forward for the US. She’s become a mouth piece for equal pay for women’s sports and a vocal proponent of equality across the board. She’s been kneeling for the national anthem during the World Cup in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s questioned why FIFA would allow the Africa Cup and the Women’s World Cup to be at the same time siphoning viewers away from the women. The protesting prone French, love her, which eases the sting of the loss. 

The women’s final was on our last day in Senegal. We watched the end of the game with the hostel staff where we stored our bags for the day. The game ended with 7 minutes of overtime for a penalty. All of the players looked exhausted. The staff told me I looked like forward Alex Morgan. I don’t look like her. She and I are both white women. We both have brown hair. But that’s about where the similarities end. I remember when I first started teaching on the south side of Chicago and struggled to tell my male students apart. Perhaps it’s the same in reverse with Senegalese men and American women? 

We’ll arrive in Egypt the day after the Africa Cup finals. We’re still cheering for Senegal, who have managed to come so far even though they’re not favored to win. The US women’s team will make their rounds in America. Rapinoe says she’ll refuse to visit Trump’s Whitehouse. In the meantime we’ll keep an eye on the score by popping our head into coffee shops where men (always men and only men) gather to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and watch the game. 

The Tanneries of Fes

The Chaouwara Tanneries in Fes have been processing hides from goats, sheep, camels and cows into supple dyed leather for nearly 1000 years. Crafts mades out of the bright yellow, pink, blue and brown leather are made and sold in the souks where stalls While the reputation of the tanneries are that the shop owners are pushy to make a sale, the pits themselves stink and the viewing platforms are crowded, I experienced none of these and had an incredible time watching the workers from above.

This is the door that magically opened when we walked up to it (I have the suspicion someone inside heard us talking in the alley.) A man opened the door and told us to wait a minute. Another man re-opened the door a few minutes later and took us up to the 4th floor rooftop to observe the tannery below.

This is the door that magically opened when we walked up to it (I have the suspicion someone inside heard us talking in the alley.) A man opened the door and told us to wait a minute. Another man re-opened the door a few minutes later and took us up to the 4th floor rooftop to observe the tannery below.

We had read that the early morning was the best time to go to beat the crowds so we set out at 7 a.m. and arrived around a half hour later to find all the shops closed and not another soul in sight. Moroccan culture is late to bed and late to rise. You’d be hard pressed to find a cup of coffee before 9 a.m. but I was shocked that none of the doors on Rue Chouara were open, especially since the touts we talked to the night before said the workers start the day at 5:30 a.m.

The Chaouwara tanneries are the oldest in Africa having been built in medieval times and refurbished in 2016. The process remains unchanged and many of the workers are from the same family who orally pass down the technique through the generations.

The Chaouwara tanneries are the oldest in Africa having been built in medieval times and refurbished in 2016. The process remains unchanged and many of the workers are from the same family who orally pass down the technique through the generations.

There are touts all over the Medina. These young men sit around with their friends or pace the streets looking for tourists to chat up and guide. “Hello, madam, that way is closed, turn this way, madam,” is a favorite line to draw foreigners toward their friends’ or family’s shops. They’ll try 2 or 3 different languages until they find one that sticks. I been greeted with “Bienvenidos” more than once. They will guide you to the mosque, to the tanneries or to the museum seemingly acting like a good Samaritan then expect a tip or walk away in a huff when you don’t respond or tell them you’re not interested in their services.

Rawhide from cattle, goats, and camels are brought to the tannery via car or pack mule to begin the process of softening and dying before they’re made into leather goods.

Rawhide from cattle, goats, and camels are brought to the tannery via car or pack mule to begin the process of softening and dying before they’re made into leather goods.

We wandered down a few of the tight pedestrian alleys that make up the maze of the Fes medina. We passed a garbage collector who scooped up the piles people leave by the stoop and placed it into the pack on his donky’s back. We found closed door after closed door and a tout who told us to come back at 10. We eventually found ourselves at No. 70 around the back side of the tannery. Magically the door opened and we were lead up a winding staircase to the viewing platform at the top.

Hand stitched “poofs” are leather pillow covers of dyed and embossed leather are used to sit on at low tables in many Moroccan restaurants and tea houses. Megan bought one she’ll stuff with cotton batting at home then put in her classroom’s reading nook.

Hand stitched “poofs” are leather pillow covers of dyed and embossed leather are used to sit on at low tables in many Moroccan restaurants and tea houses. Megan bought one she’ll stuff with cotton batting at home then put in her classroom’s reading nook.

I’ve never been much of a fan of leather but seeing how challenging the work is I have a new appreciation for the material. Men used huge hooks to scoop heavy soaked hides from the bath that softened the skin and loosened the hair. Other men used big brushes to clean the soaked hides and remove the fur. In the brown stone pits, cleaned white skins were thrown into colored vats of dye made with indego, henna, and poppy. They then jumped into the vat stepping on the hides and swirling the mixture with their feet.

The Chaouwara tanneries use natural dyes. Yellow color comes from Saffron, which is the most expensive and it applied to the hides by hand rather than soaking the hides in vats. Here two men dye goatskins with saffron dye.

The Chaouwara tanneries use natural dyes. Yellow color comes from Saffron, which is the most expensive and it applied to the hides by hand rather than soaking the hides in vats. Here two men dye goatskins with saffron dye.

The tanneries produce a lot of leather, a lot of pollutants and include less than desirable working conditions for the men who are exposed to ammonia and lime as well as chilly winter temperatures (5ºC/40ºF) while wearing flip flops and being half submerged in the vats. The days are long and the smell (while not as bad as I imagined and not as bad as I’m told it used to be) isn’t great.

Once the hides enter the tannery, it will be soaked for a few days in white stone baths. The liquid is a mixture of water, cow urine, salt, pigeon droppings, and quicklime used to soften the hides.

Once the hides enter the tannery, it will be soaked for a few days in white stone baths. The liquid is a mixture of water, cow urine, salt, pigeon droppings, and quicklime used to soften the hides.

Because we arrived so early in the morning, we didn’t have to share our viewing gallery with anyone. There were three aggressive dogs on adjoining balcony next door. Our French-speaking guide asked us if we wanted to get a better view from the dog balcony (minus the dogs.) We agreed and he warned us that it wasn’t cleaned up yet. We said that didn’t matter. What we didn’t quite catch is that it was piles of dog excrement that wasn’t cleaned up as the dogs run around on the terrace at night. Fez’ homes don’t have back yards and parks inside the medina are non-existent. We watched our step and laughed that the dog poop smelled worse than the tannery pits and took our photos and watched the poor mules carrying loads of skins back and forth.

The Fez River, which runs along the eastern side of the tannery was for many decades polluted with chemicals from the tanneries and craft workshops.  Moroccan architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni wrote her Harvard thesis on the revitalization of the river and improvements are slowly but surely taking place.

The Fez River, which runs along the eastern side of the tannery was for many decades polluted with chemicals from the tanneries and craft workshops. Moroccan architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni wrote her Harvard thesis on the revitalization of the river and improvements are slowly but surely taking place.

Our guide ended up just being the door guy. While he took us into the three floors of shops, he said he couldn’t actually sell us anything because he didn’t know the prices and that the shop keeper wouldn’t arrive until 10 a.m. This worked out wonderfully for us as we felt absolutely no pressure to buy anything and could look to our hearts content. We tipped him 15 dirham for unlocking the door for us and sharing his knowledge about the tanning process before heading back to our hotel for breakfast.

Dozens of shops sell handcrafted leather goods and each of the viewing balconies over the tanneries has its own boutique filled with purses, coats, shoes, wallets, and cushions.

Dozens of shops sell handcrafted leather goods and each of the viewing balconies over the tanneries has its own boutique filled with purses, coats, shoes, wallets, and cushions.

Moroccan Cooking

I had been waiting to feast on the Moroccan delights since about a week into our time in Senegal when I got tired of the endless piles of rice and dry chicken. Tajines, the conical-shaped ceramic pots for which this famed dish is named, are on every menu. The Viande aux pruneaux (beef and prunes) is a sweet tagine served with a cinnamon and allspice sauce surrounding a tender cut of beef. A hard boiled egg and sesame seeds garnish this tajine along side prunes and sometimes apricots. I’ve had it twice and it’s been my favorite Moroccan dish so far. Couscous is the national dish of Morocco, also served in a tajine. It comes with carrots, eggplant and a choice of various meats.

Zalouk egg plant salad is served with mahrash and spicy bread and harira soup.

Zalouk egg plant salad is served with mahrash and spicy bread and harira soup.

Snail soup is on offer as a street food and vendors with carts of piled shells set up in the souks (food markets) and on the roads. Tacos are a stable on every fast food menu but they aren’t like any taco I’ve ever eaten. Most akin to a panini or a grilled wrap, meat or falafel is wrapped up with potatoes, sauce and vegetables then grilled. 

The final chicken bastilla is dusted with confectioners sugar and cinnamon to balance the savory shredded chicken stuffing.

The final chicken bastilla is dusted with confectioners sugar and cinnamon to balance the savory shredded chicken stuffing.

Moroccan tea is super bitter, which is cut with loads of sugar and sprigs of mint. Tea is everywhere and comes out of scalding hot ornate silver tea pots. Experts pour the tea from on high into small handle-less glass cups and back again to mix it in an elaborate display. The coffee is thick and equally sugary. It’s just as likely to be instant as not. There’s also a big fresh juice and mocktail culture here as alcohol is taboo for the muslim majority.

Black olives are simply salted while green (and the purple olives that grow on the same tree) are soaked over and over to lessen their bitterness before flavors like garlic and chili powder is added.

Black olives are simply salted while green (and the purple olives that grow on the same tree) are soaked over and over to lessen their bitterness before flavors like garlic and chili powder is added.

We took an amazing cooking class at Cafe Clock in Fez led by the hilarious and talented Souyed who took us to the market, told us stories about Moroccan home remedies and taught us to cook a salad, soup, main and dessert.

Camel steak, burgers and kabobs aren’t uncommon. The meat is rumored to strengthen male virility.

Camel steak, burgers and kabobs aren’t uncommon. The meat is rumored to strengthen male virility.

Stretchy Moroccan filo dough is made on a hot griddle and brushed with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Stretchy Moroccan filo dough is made on a hot griddle and brushed with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Moraccans love their bread it comes in tons of sizes and textures. It’s often greasy and as our cooking instructor told us, Moroccans don’t mind a big belly or behind.

Moraccans love their bread it comes in tons of sizes and textures. It’s often greasy and as our cooking instructor told us, Moroccans don’t mind a big belly or behind.

Morocco grows a ton of produce and it’s almost all organically grown and brought into the medina by push cart or donkey.

Morocco grows a ton of produce and it’s almost all organically grown and brought into the medina by push cart or donkey.

The teaching kitchen in Cafe Clock is a beautiful and cozy space filled with wood and natural light.

The teaching kitchen in Cafe Clock is a beautiful and cozy space filled with wood and natural light.

The chickpeas for the Harira were pealed so they cooked faster. We roasted the peppers and egg plant on the metal rack over a gas range for the zalouk salad. The eggs were used for the Fassi maccaroons and in the filling for the chicken bastilla.

The chickpeas for the Harira were pealed so they cooked faster. We roasted the peppers and egg plant on the metal rack over a gas range for the zalouk salad. The eggs were used for the Fassi maccaroons and in the filling for the chicken bastilla.

The citrus macroons used the zest and juice of two huge lemons and an orange, 4 eggs, powdered sugar, flour, coconut, oil, and orange water.

The citrus macroons used the zest and juice of two huge lemons and an orange, 4 eggs, powdered sugar, flour, coconut, oil, and orange water.

Rabat, Morocco

A large French-speaking Moroccan woman who occupied my seat in our shared car on the first class train ride from Casablanca to Rabat nearly gave us a heart attack when we asked her when the Rabat Station was coming up. She non-chalantly told us we had passed it and we frantically went into Plan B mode. The train wasn’t expected to even arrive at the station for another 6 minutes. I checked the map. We were still two stations away. Crisis adverted. The woman just shrugged. 

Morocco is not Senegal (nor did I expect it to be.) It’s a developing country and economic powerhouse as far as the African continent goes and business is booming. We walked 2km through a long market street with our packs as vendors around us hawked toys, fresh juices, pastries and bread. Rabat smells like donuts frying in oil, piles of perfumed soap for the hammam, and the sea breeze that comes off the Atlantic. 

Rabat is an unlikely Arabic capital as most muslim leaders tended to keep their capitals inland and leave the sea to the sailors. The medina was all but abandoned when an influx of Moors from Andalusia were pushed out of Spain during the 16th century and fled south to Rabat. They were skilled pirates and stole from the Catholic Spanish and kidnapped Europeans for ransom in what our tour guide called “the white slave market.” 

The Salé graveyard overlooks the ocean and the Oued Bou Regreg river.

The Salé graveyard overlooks the ocean and the Oued Bou Regreg river.

Our tour guide was named Abdel and he taught at New Haven College in Connecticut on a Fulbright award. He was as laid back as his long black curls bounce around his face. He posted his services for a free walking tour on GuruWalk and met us at the largest gate that used to lead to the palace but now leads into a art gallery. 

The Hassan Tower is a 12th-century minaret that was never finished.

The Hassan Tower is a 12th-century minaret that was never finished.

Rabat sits on Atlantic Ocean on the west bank of the Bouregreg River. Sale is on the east bank. The two cities are connected via two car bridges, two tram lines and row boat ferries. Each has a walled medina with a graveyard separating the beach from the city. Locals and tourists alike swim, relax under umbrellas or participate in water sports ranging from surfing to jet skiing to wind surfing. 

The city of Salé is less of a tourist attraction than Rabat, (which itself isn’t as visited as Fez, Marrakech or Casablanca.) Instead of stalls upon stalls of gold jewelry followed by stalls of leather goods, soccer jerseys and electronics, we see live chickens on the ground beneath their slaughter brethren in the butcher cases. We see half cows skinned and hung on giant hooks and stalls full of housewares, hardware supplies and produce. 

The gate and walls of the Medina in Rabat.

The gate and walls of the Medina in Rabat.

In the Jewish quarter in Rabat the wooden shop houses above the market have balconies. Abdul says that’s because Muslim’s keep the magic inside in the courtyards of the  traditional riads while Jews don’t mind having the world see in. There are very few Jews living in Morocco. Many have moved to Israel or other countries. There’s a beautiful white cathedral near the train station but in a country where more than 99% of the country is Islamic, I don’t imagine it’s often used. 

The riverfront in Rabat is a popular gathering place in the evening. Rowboat ferries bring people from Salé to join as well.

The riverfront in Rabat is a popular gathering place in the evening. Rowboat ferries bring people from Salé to join as well.

Most, but not all of the women cover their heads with a scarf. I see a few wearing a full burka, but that is the exception, not the rule. Alcohol is relatively expensive but not impossible to find and the roads are paved, there are traffic lights and the rule of law prevails. We are warmly welcomed wherever we go and offered directions, henna tattoos and travel tissues to buy on the streets. Rabat is the perfect introduction to the organized chaos of Morocco.