Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Morocco: Essouaira

As my regular readers know, I don't like getting up early but can be enticed when unusual wildlife encounters are on offer. Today's fare: goats in trees.

We left Marrakesh at 7:30 and started west towards Essaouira, a former Portuguese city on the Atlantic Ocean and now a famed wind/kite-surfing and fishing destination. I snoozed for the first ninety minutes of the drive, waking as we made a quick bathroom stop before reaching our first destination: argan country!

Argan oil is made from the nut of the argana spinosa tree which only grows in the vicinity of Essaouira in Morocco. They've tried growing it elsewhere to no avail; it likes this area. As a result, the region's 13.5 million argan trees contribute 100% of the world's argan oil (also known as Moroccan oil), the latest cosmetic and health food fad. And for good reason - argan has amazing vitamins and anti-aging properties and is super rich with antioxidants as well as tasting great. Traditionally argan nuts were harvested once per year, fed to goats (who adore them), re-harvested from goat droppings, and then processed into oil. Most cooperatives skip the goats these days, since the digestive enzymes (which do a great job cracking the nut's hard outer shell) make it harder to preserve and not fit for consumption. Women do all of the argan processing, and it's estimated that two million people in the region gather an income from this thriving business. 

The trees have strong, twisted trunks and flat branches, which makes them easily climbable by the region's goats who are absolutely crazy for argan fruits! Our first stop was on the side of the road to see one such tree filled with goats. What a sight! No sooner had I stepped off the bus than a shepherd was handing me a tiny, fuzzy baby goat to cuddle. Day made. He nuzzled and cuddled and was a sweetheart before I passed him off the next person. Then it was time to photograph his elders in the tree. You really have to see the pictures to believe it - it was quite a sight. 

We stopped a bit farther down the road to inspect the fruits more closely. They're green on the tree and turn yellow when ripe and brown when dried. Once we arrived at the women's cooperative we were visiting we got to see firsthand how this oil is made. It's an arduous process!

The dried fruits (nuts? I get confused with the terminology) are pounded between rocks to remove the tough outer shell. Then they move to another rock station where the nut's tough outer shell is removed. The nuts are then either toasted (for food-grade argan oil) or sent directly to processing. They use the discarded husks/shells as fuel for the fires for toasting. 

The nuts (toasted or not) are put into a special device resembling a moving mortar and pestle where they are ground into a powder and some of the oil is extracted. Another woman then adds a tiny bit of water to this resulting mess and kneads it for two hours. At the end the ground/kneaded nuts form a cake-like patty that is pressed and the oil reserved. The cakes are made into black soap used as an exfoliant. I believe they said it takes 80 kg of fruits to get 5 kg of nuts to get 1 liter of oil. Or something ridiculous like that. It's time consuming and very hard work, but these ladies made it look easy. Before we were let loose in the store we had a chance to sample bread dipped in pure argan oil (deliciously nutty), local honey (about what I expected), and amlou - argan oil mixed with honey and crushed almonds. Amazing. I hear Whole Foods sells it. Worth every penny. We also sampled a few of the lotions and other byproducts before doing quite a bit of damage to all of our wallets!

From there it was off to Essaouira for a day by the sea. We had an orientation tour of the port where fishing boats bring in significant amounts of the world's sardines and anchovies and where fishing boats are made and repaired. The smell was overwhelming, but the cats and seagulls were in hog heaven and among the healthiest I've ever seen!

We wandered through the main square and the souqs en route to the sixteenth century Portuguese fortress with great views of the water and coast. From there we were on our own, and I was tired and hungry and cranky so roped a few people into lunch at the first halfway-decent looking place we could find. It turned out to be perfect, and my mood improved exponentially. Most of us had been waiting for Essaouira to do lots of shopping since the products are good, relatively cheap, and the level of hassle is relatively low. I wanted some Ramadan lamps and opted for two small square tabletop ones since I have neither a home of my own or room in my suitcase to bring back the big ones I love. A future adventure! I wandered a bit more but was pretty shopped out and felt good about what I'd bought already. I have some fun gifts for birthdays this year!

A couple of us headed back to the square where we met up with our tour manager and ate delicious gelato which hit the spot. It was a very warm, almost hot, day, and I'm once again so glad I'm doing this trip in January when the weather and tourists aren't extreme. 

Our group came together and shared shopping stories before boarding the bus to head back to Marrakesh. I was tired by the time we got back and opted to order in food and catch up on writing and emails before we head to Casablanca tomorrow.

Goats in trees!

I mean, really. How cool is this?

I got to hold this little darling as well. What a fluffy sweetheart!

Looking contemplative

Their minders are in the shade...

Argan nuts

Argan kernels roasting

Drying in the sun

Women hard at work.

An example of the rocks they use is on the right.

All stages of the process


The very fragrant port

Ships in dry dock awaiting repairs

Cigarette butts. The amount of litter was insane.

Baiting hooks/lines is a separate profession.

Some of today's catch.

Lots of fresh citrus juice.

Father/son hat knitting duo.

The son works nearby and just came by to say hi to Dad and show off.

Lots of shopping here!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Morocco: Marrakesh

Another action-packed day in Morocco! After not the greatest night's sleep (room is too hot, but keeping window/balcony door open means noise) I was glad breakfast was much better than in our last hotel. We boarded the bus at 8:30 and drove first to the gardens near the Koutoubia mosque and minaret. The minaret is Marrakesh's tallest structure, and the current mosque is built next to the foundation of the previous one, destroyed at the beginning of a new Berber dynasty to reinforce their power. The gardens were relatively quiet, with Seville orange trees bordering a lovely walking path. I think my favorite find was that one of the cell phone palm trees even featured fake dates to 'blend in'! We also met a group of traditional water sellers, men in elaborate costumes who would pass out water from their goatskin canteens in exchange for tips. While their profession is no longer thriving, they spend their days posing for and with tourists, who have given them coins from around the world that adorn their leather bags where the metal cups are stored.

Then it was off to the Saadian tombs, burial grounds for many of Morocco's royals from many centuries ago. The less important royals have mosaic-covered tombs on the grounds of the area, while the kings, queens, and royal children lie in three grand pavilions, each featuring mosaics, intricate plaster work, and painted cedar wood ceilings.

Next was the Bahia Palace, a Moorish-style palace that looks entirely ordinary from the outside. But step into the first courtyard, and you're greeted with lush courtyards with fountains, mosaics, and more plaster/stucco decorations. We meandered through the reception rooms, the ladies' quarters (including those of Bahia, the favorite wife), and the men's quarters. Each room had a ceiling of painter cedar wood in a different (very grand) style, so we spent much of the time looking up. A beautiful place.

I expected to be enthralled by Djemma al'Fna, the famed square in the heart of Marrakesh that is home to snake charmers, monkey trainers, henna artists, juice stands, and vendors of every imaginable trinket, but it really just made me a little sad. Granted we were there during the day, when it's not nearly as vibrant and busy at night, but the constant hassle by the vendors and the shakedowns for tips from the performers just felt icky. I had read about the Djemma and knew these pitfalls, but I had hoped to enjoy it more. Oh well. The walk to the square was along a street lined on both sides by horse-drawn carriages, each green and pink carriage drawn by two horses. For the most part they looked healthy, and our guide told us that each carriage owner typically has two teams, and he alternates them each day. He also said a veterinarian checks each pair in the morning to make sure they're faring well; if that's all true then it makes me feel a bit better. But I'm still a little leery.

The monkeys on chains dressed up in clothing and made to perform acrobatic tricks made me shudder, and the snake charmers weren't nearly as exotic as you might think. They batted at the snakes with a drum before beating the drum as some of the snakes listlessly reared up. Another man played the flute in the background. 

I was very glad to leave the square for our next destination, a Moroccan restaurant where we had a culinary demonstration and lunch. A lovely Berber woman showed us how to prepare the meats and vegetables that accompany couscous and then how to make the semolina balls themselves. It was fascinating. Semolina, white flour, water, and a lot of effort go into this tasty dish. 

We then ate couscous (not what we'd seen made, but previously-prepared versions) along with delicious Moroccan salads and cookies. It was a lovely, and filling, lunch.

Next we drove to the Majorelle Gardens, founded by the French painter and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner. They feature gorgeous examples of desertscaping amidst a few water features and several gazebos. The deep indigo-blue villa is now a small but really impressive Berber museum featuring tools, clothing, and jewels. I really enjoyed the displays. 

Some of the group ventured into the medina for a couple more sites, but I had my fill of adventures for the day and headed back to the hotel for a nap. Sleep didn't come easily (hot room, noisy with the window open) so I checked email and got ready for dinner early.

Dinner was an optional excursion that I'd been on the fence about, but someone who had done it before raved about it, and I am glad I opted in. We started with a ride in a horse-drawn carriage from our hotel through the city to Djemma al'Fna to see the nighttime festivities before turning around and winding around back alleys in the medina until we finally reached an unassuming alleyway on a quiet street. A restaurant worker met us and took us the ~100 m down a winding, narrow passage with low lighting that felt a bit ominous. But then we turned the corner and entered a spectacular riad courtyard, where we were first invited to wash our hands in a luxurious sink with hand-poured warm water. As we dried our hands and fully entered the courtyard waiters handed our glasses of fresh juice, with crushed almonds lining the rim. A small pool with a stunning mosaic was backlit, adding the the allure of the scene. Four colorfully-dressed Ghanwa musicians played a rousing welcome song, inviting us to take photographs and join them to try spinning the tassels on their hats. It was a lovely welcome.

Once the musicians finished we were led inside to our table, with generous spacing between each person and lush cushions and chairs. The room was dark, lit by several Ramadan lamps in the corners and a few other low lights. The walls were a spectacular olive green color, and the whole setting was absolutely exquisite. There were only a few other occupied tables and our group of nine was by far the largest. The waiters filled our water glasses and took our drink orders while the maitre'd explained the tasting menu, which was expertly rolled and presented in our napkins. Once we ordered our choices he then rolled them up for us again, taking care to make sure the 'Enjoy your meal!' note was showing. 

The starters were eight different vegetable salads (which, when placed on each table explained the need for the generous spacing!), different takes on dishes that have become familiar during this trip - carrots, eggplant, zucchini, turnip, squash, and potatoes featuring heavily. As we enjoyed the salads and briouates (stuffed pastries), an oud/drum duo serenaded us with lovely music for the entire appetizer portion. Midway through the mains (tajines of various flavors/meats), a belly dancer with a lit candelabra on her head came in to perform. She returned as dessert was served (pastillas with fresh fruit and cream) and did a whirling dervish interpretation that was much more entertaining than the one in Istanbul, since it was an artistic/creative interpretation. We finished with mint tea as the Ghanwa musicians did one more performance, one playing a stringed instrument and the other three using their leather slippers and hand cymbals as instruments. All in all it was a fabulous experience, highly recommended if you're in Marrakesh. It was at the Lotus Privilege, and the whole time I felt like I was a member of a secret club, invited into an intimate setting for an exquisite evening. The only downside was getting home late with our earliest morning yet looming...

Along the Tischka Pass

Gorgeous vistas

Fake geodes for sale

Tagines for sale

Koutoubia Minaret

Water sellers

Foundation of the original mosque

Cell phone palm trees, complete with dates!

Saadian Tombs

The 'lesser' royals are outside

While the pavilions host the tombs of the higher echelon royals

Gorgeous stucco work

Very happy cats

Bahia Palace

Intricate design details everywhere you look.

The ceilings, different in each room, were a marvel.

I am particularly drawn to the arches.

Beautiful door

Complete with house guest

I was enthralled by these arches and the shadows they created

Approaching Djemma al'Fna

The stench along this stretch was unbelievable.

The Djemma in all its daytime glory

More water sellers angling for tips

Monkey handlers. Not impressed.

Lots and lots of juice stands.

These monkeys just looked so unhappy.

The somewhat listless snake charmers

And their equally listless snakes

Couscous demonstration

Semolina and flour and a bit of water (and a lot of labor) and you've got couscous!

The finished product.

Majorelle Gardens

Yves Saint Laurent memorial

It is quite difficult to capture non-blurry photographs from a moving horse carriage at night...

Ghanwa Musicians