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My Moroccan Adventure

The nice thing about taking a little time off to recharge is, it gives me time to think and reflect. I actually get to slow my roll and spend time writing down my thoughts.  With bringing back my Moroccan menu this week, it has sent me back to our journey there late last year and it got me thinking about that whole experience all over again.  I wanted to share with you what that was like and hopefully encourage you to do the same. 


To set foot onto African soil for the first time, it was dream come true. There was a surge of energy I felt, as if I was being recharged from the ground beneath me.  But it also came with a lot of uncertainty, anxiousness, and doubt. I had hoped I had not romanticized the idea of Morocco so much in my mind that I would somehow be disappointed by the trip and setting myself up to be let down.  Luckily, I was quick to learn, that would not be the case.  In fact, Morocco began to exceed my expectations from the very beginning, and all those questions and fears I had, were put to rest as I traveled my way through the country.  
For anyone who is traveling to Morocco for the first time, I would strongly recommend ferrying in from Tarifa, Spain, and starting your journey in Tangier.  Tangier is great training wheels for Morocco. Consider it, Morocco lite!  It is a great city to ease into the Moroccan way of life, without overwhelming you.  There is an Old Medina part of town, but there is also a big modern city as well.  It is a perfect blend of Moroccan and European cultures. The street peddlers are very friendly and great at striking up conversations, but be careful, that is how they lure you in.  But after a few “no thank yous” and insisting you don’t need their services for whatever they are offering, they graciously back off, and always part by saying, “Your welcome” instead of “thank or have a nice day”. This always cracked me up.  
We enjoyed our first taste of Morocco at a restaurant called Restaurant Ahlen and it did not disappoint. Delicious Harira Soup, a fresh cucumber and tomato salad, lamb tagine, chicken tagine, and a Spanish omelet for the table.  All the bright vibrant flavors of citrus and warm spices were fantastic.  And then to end the meal, a complimentary hot sweet mint tea, which took tea to a whole new level.  They don’t just bring you tea, it is a whole ceremony of creating the longest stream of hot tea being poured from an ornate silver teapot to the glass.  This is done to aerate the tea and enhance the flavor.  It is simply green tea steeped with fresh herbs, typically mint, but sometimes they will add rosemary, thyme or fennel. Any kind of fresh herb to help it be a digestive after your meal.  But mint is the typical offering at all restaurants and cafes.  I couldn’t get enough of this gorgeous tea, which the locals deemed “Moroccan Whiskey”.  Because Moroccans don’t drink alcohol, their vice is sugar.  They love their sweets, pastries, and sweet tea.  Our first night in Tangier, we sat on the balcony of our hotel sipping mint tea watching the sunset over the Mediterranean.  Not a bad first impression of Morocco.  
Off to Marrakesh!

The next day we were off to catch a train to Marrakesh.  Thanks to funding from the French, they have high speed gorgeous trains.  And because everything is so affordable in Morocco, Bruce and I got to splurge and sit in first class.  I think our first-class seats were cheaper than a standard Amtrak ticket, by a lot.  I strongly recommend taking the train to Marrakesh because it is a great way to see the country. It is comfortable, affordable and scenic. We had reserved a room with a riad in Marrakesh and arranged to have our host come pick us up from the train station.  This is also strongly recommended to do, and I will tell you why.  Marrakesh is INSANE!  We got in his car, and he proceeded to drive through the most crowded and confusing streets I have ever experienced. The cars drive down the divider lines that separate 2 lanes, not in the actual lanes themselves. And then throw in hundreds of mopeds, motorcycles, donkey carts, bicycles that drive on either side of the cars.  Everyone cuts off everyone, but there is a rhythm and an understanding between the drivers that is just understood.  As a westerner you really can’t make sense of it.  We entered a roundabout, and all of us were holding onto each other, something, anything that we could get a death grip on.  I have never seen such chaos and had no idea how we were getting out of it, but luckily our lovely Dutch host has been driving these streets for over a decade, and to him it was just another day of commuting.  At one point, our friend Danny turns to all of us in the back seat, and with wide eyes and says, “I think we now know why they don’t drink!” It was a perfectly timed joke to lighten the moment, because all of us at that moment had thoughts such as, “So this might be how we go out.” and “It was good run.” And “I guess there are worse ways to die.” 
By some miracle we made it alive to the Old Medina gate where we got out and our host showed us to our riad.  We were so happy to see how cozy this place was, and then our host being Dutch, had beer and wine for us to purchase, which was quite the relief after that drive in.  We all needed to cut the anxiety edge a bit with a few drinks.  They cooked us a lovely tagine dinner in the courtyard, and we settle in for the evening with a lovely fire going in the living room.  
The next morning, we had arranged a tour of Marrakesh with a private guide. This was also something that was critical for us to see and navigate as much of Marrakesh as we could.  And to do it safely.  It was probably our most expensive part of the trip, hiring Omar for a day and half, but it truly was worth every penny and if you are going to Marrakesh, I would strongly encourage you do the same.  We got to see all kinds of museums, mosques, palaces, schools, the city on the outside and inside of the fortified walls.  It is a big bustling city, and just trying to navigate inside the medina is insane. You have roads that are maybe 6-7 ft wide and tall walls on either side.  They allow motorcycles and mopeds down these streets where it is full of pedestrians, donkey carts, women with babies in strollers, and bicycles.  Walking the shuks in the medina is honestly more terrifying than the roundabouts outside the medina walls.  You cannot be a spaced-out wandering tourist where you stop and look around and are oblivious to the space around you.  You must be quick, agile, alert, and anticipating everyone’s moves coming at you from every angle.  The first day with Omar, was very intense and stressful, but also exciting, and it felt like we were in good hands. We just followed his every step and stayed as close to him as we could to learn the protocols of the street. By the end of the day, we were so exhausted we were just happy to be back home at our riad with cold beers waiting for us.  
The next morning, Omar came and picked us up and had arranged a cooking class for me and my friends. I had no idea what kind of set up this was going to be, and I think Omar intentionally left out all the details so I could be surprised. He drove us out to a remote village and hour outside of Marrakesh. We showed up to this beautiful farm to table experience where we learned about cooked salads, khobz bread, and 3 different kinds of tagines.  We learned about the tea ceremony and the variety of herbs you can use.  But mint is by far the best.  It was a dream come true for me to work alongside such an amazing Moroccan chef.  Chef Talik.  Not to mention this program is helping locals develop a trade and to make themselves employable in the food industry. It is also supporting women who are single mothers and struggling to make ends meet.  They sell their crafts and jarred goods, like preserved lemons, jams and pickled vegetables.  Just an amazing experience all around. 
When the class was done, we headed back to the Medina where we stayed, and that is where Omar parted ways with us.  We now had an afternoon and evening left to explore on our own.  Omar left us with knowledge on how to navigate the streets and we had more confidence now, much more than we did when we first arrived. So off we went to explore the shuks in the medina.  This time we were on point, and totally in sync with the streets.  Dodging mopeds and donkey carts like champs, wandering the streets and trying not to get lost.  We turned the corner, and were shocked to see on display, bloody cow hoof stumps just tied together on display, I am assuming for sale.  But it was quite a shocking and somewhat disturbing site that stuck with us. But we continued through streets.  After a few hours exploring, it was approaching dinner time, we realized that we might be lost, and was really struggling to find our street that would take us home.  But as luck would have it, we turned the corner, and there they were! The bloody cow hoof stumps.  I never thought I’d be so happy to see those again. But they were the landmark that got us back to our riad in time for dinner. 
Our last night in Marrakesh we spent watching the sunset over the rooftops on the bustling city, and as we sat drinking it all in, the sirens start to wail and the call to prayer begins.  Chanting over loudspeakers from each mosque throughout the city start to harmonize with each other, and the sounds of the chanting became this calming vibration over the city. Listening to that gorgeous sound while the sun sets and birds fly overhead is truly a site to be seen.  It honestly took my breath away.  

Stay tuned tomorrow.  Our next leg of the trip will be to the Sahara!  
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