Friday, June 26, 2009

Eating & drinking or AKA the simple pleasures

I’m taking full advantage of the freshly-squeezed orange juice season at hand here. At the very least my day starts and ends with a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice from the Djemaa el-Fna, 6 DH/0,5l bottle (less than 9 EEK!). And i don’t want to hear any lip about the dangers of drinking/eating fresh juices/foods in Morocco. Of course everything within reason, but avoiding them completely is just too big of a trade off - you just miss out on too much great stuff and it's not worth it. I know some people who visited Morocco and avoided drinking and eating anything fresh, including that very same tasty orange juice. And i dare to say that they also didn’t get to see the Morocco as it is intended to be seen. How can you? if you only do what a hysterical guide-book allows you to do. In any case, for those who avoid drinking fresh orange juice out of fear of it being mixed with unhealthy local tap water, you can always choose a vendor who provides 100% pure juice. Ask about it or if the language barrier is too high, climb into the booth to see how he’s squeezing it.

Kaidi last year posing with an orange juice vendor on Djemaa el-Fna

Eating with hands is very common in Morocco, bread is often used as means to get the sauce, soup or other food into your mouth. That of course means that almost every food is served with fresh bread, which does not do any favours to my figure.

The other day i was having lunch with the hotel’s cleaning ladies and the reception guy Abdul - we all sat around a big plate of steaming cous-cous. I ate with a fork, because getting something so small as pieces of cous-cous into my mouth with just two fingers seemed a bit of an impossible task. But it was interesting to observe how they were doing it – they took a big chunk of that flaky cous-cous, squeezed it in their palm tight until it formed a sort of a solid piece which could then easily be put into the mouth. I think i will prefer to eat cous-cous in the future also with a fork or spoon, it’s just too messy business to eat it with hands.

Few days ago I was walking aimlessly deep in the medina when I suddenly stumbled on a nice little street, which was filled with different street-food vendors. The clientele was 100% locals and prices also very nice. This is pretty much valid for all southern countries I’ve ever been to and also goes for Morocco – the tastiest and also most affordable food is usually the street-food, because it's simple and without alterations to meet the palette of tourists. This little food street I found was a nice gem and I took great care afterwards to remember my way out of there – which was not easy as anybody who’s ever been lost in medina can tell. As much as I like the food on the nightly Djemaa el-Fna, the choice there is still rather limited. Most food-stalls offer the same stuff and after you’ve eaten there for a week, you’ve pretty much exhausted the choice in the menu. Finding this little food street brought some fresh selection on my plate. And being able to buy fresh strawberries afterwards for dessert from the nearby market sealed the deal for me. I will definitely return there. If i can find it that is.

There's also a big variety of sweet snacks sold on the street. I personally don't appreciate sweet food particularly, so i might be a bit biased when it comes to liking/disliking it, but they all seem to be kind of same for me: very sweet and overly greasy. Last time when me and Kaidi were in Fes, we went on a mission to go around in medina and try all kinds of different sweets. We didn't get very far with our testing, the sugar levels alone threatened to give us diabetes. But if you're into properly fried sweets, Morocco is definitely your country. On the Djemaa el-Fna nightly market, there are usually guys walking around with carts loaded with sweets (as on the photo ->), so if you're done stuffing yourself with tajine's, it's time to overdose on sugar.

I do want to make a recommendation though. After the sunset, when the culinary chaos of Djemaa el-Fna is on full blast, there are women and girls walking around with trays on the main square and nearby streets selling very tasty coconut cookies. Around 9pm they are starting to leave already, so shop early :). Though also a serious sugar blast, those cookies are still very tasty - soft and light. If you ask for the price, they will say 2-3 DH/each. In reality don't even ask, just give them 1 DH per cookie and be confident. Maybe locals get away with paying less, but 1 DH was as low as i could get away with.

I would like to take this moment here and say big “thank you” to Vantaa, Heathrow and Stansted airports for supplying me with perfect size zip-lock bags. Well .. , maybe supplying isn’t the right word, it’s more like they created a chance for me to stock up on those neat bags on my way to security check :). These bags are perfect for traveling. Among other things, perfect also for keeping food fresh. I already have a bit of a routine - i buy few of those cookies, eat some in the evening and the rest will be just as fluffy and soft in the morning, with the help of my zip-lock bag. But if you leave them in the open air for the night, they turn into stone-hard sugar blocks.

The cookies in question, a typical selling style

Truly, recommend

Another very very sweet staple part of the Moroccan menu is the mint tea. And absolutely delicious, if brewed properly. Also surpisingly refreshing on a hot summer day. There are many different ways of making it, but whatever the approach, it always consists a generous amount of fresh peppermint, simple chinese gunpowder green tea and lot's of sugar. When visiting somebody's home, making the tea can turn into a bit of a ceremony. As a rule, the tea is prepared into a metallic pot. When the tea is ready, the first cup is always poured back into the pot. It helps the sugar to blend with the water better. They also like to pour the tea with great precision into the cups from very high up, which sometimes results in tea splashing all around.
Photo: the guys at Djemaa el-Fna are very skilled in pouring the tea without a single drop going to waste. And you would not believe the speed they do it at.

The tea is served from glass cups, but because cups get very quickly very hot, it might be somewhat problematic to drink. The trick is to hold the cup between the thumb and index finger, but so that the index finger is supporting the glass from the bottom and the thumb grasps the top edge of the glass.

Ready glasses with mint and sugar on the nightly Djemaa el-Fna food market, all you need now is a dash of boiling water

I've been eating on Djemaa el-Fna nightly food market on most evenings and i've kind of developed a favorite food-stall i go to. There are different types of food vendors on the market. Some specialize on grilled meats, some on lamb, some fish and so on. And some on reeling in the tourists, which as mentioned in some earlier post before, are the places you want to keep away from. I've tried the food in many different food-stalls, but i somehow kept coming back to one and the same and now i go there already knowingly. Every food-stall has a number and sometimes it takes me quite a time to find my stall no. 4. It's more of locals-oriented place, the guys working there are fluent only in Arabic with few French words to boot. But we manage just fine. By now they already know that i don't like onions, so they fish out from the tajine all the onions for me. I also always order the soup, which isn't even in the menu - one of the guys always runs to get it from a nearby soup guy. We know each other by name and every time i come, they already welcome from far: "Sofi! &%#¤=¤#%?`%#! (something in Arabic)". And they are also very protective when anybody shows too much interest in me. The chef was showing me photos of his wife and children the other day and was obviously expecting for me to share my photos with him. That part actually was too difficult to explain that i don't carry photos in the wallet, as a matter of fact, i don't even have a wallet.

In the beginning when i started going to the stall no. 4, the vendors around it were always trying to make me interested in their food. By now they are already used to that i only eat at the stall no. 4 and when they see me coming, they say things like: "Oh, number 4 girl!", "Every time it's number 4! Maybe today it's 6, yes?" or "Yes, Shakira, your table in number 4 is reserved" etc.

Milod and Ahmed, two guys from the food-stall no. 4


PS! Kaidi, Kaidi - i eat olives now! OK, i eat certain type of olives, but still, it's a progress nonetheless! I never quite got the handle on eating olives and since Moroccan food has plentiful of them, then the topic of i really should start to eat olives is every once in a while in discussion. Kaidi had this theory/urban legend/hearsay, that if you eat 11 olives in a row, no matter how disgusted you are, you will start liking them, or at least to tolerate. So we put it to the test, i think she made to the 6th one, i almost threw up already around 3rd. But now, having so much olives in my everyday food, that they come out of my ears already, i'm starting to differentiate between them. The black ones are still unbearably gross, the green ones are so-so, but they also have pink ones here. They marinate them somehow and i must admit that the result is very decent. Now i actually go to market and buy myself pink olives. On the top left side of Djemaa el-Fna is a small market court, where they sell fresh herbs and olives. I've tried the olives from all the vendors already, the number 12 is definitely the best. And he doesn't cheat when it comes to weighing me my 200 grams of olives.

During last couple if years i’ve traveled quite a lot. Partially in Europe, but mostly still to various southern countries. And every time i go to a country like India or China, something new is added to my list of vaccinations. A lot of people have been asking if i’m vaccinated and against what. Currently i’m vaccinated against AB hepatitis, typhoid, diphtheria, tetanus, encephalitis and poliomyelitis. Without those vaccinations I don’t think I would be so careless as I am now eating in absolutely random places absolutely random food. Of course there are many diseases you cannot vaccinate against, but seeing on every trip too many toilet-bound tourists battling with some avoidable stomach problems, I’m really glad that my vaccination book is as full as it is. I think that my peace of mind is worth more than saving money and traveling without even basic vaccinations. New and interesting experiences are always fun to have, but I think I’m ok with skipping the one of having explosive diarrhea while being surrounded by squat-toilets (on the photo ->) or a simple hole in the ground.

I have been sick few times, but nothing really worth mentioning, only some lightweight stuff. Those few times have however taught me the importance of not relying on local pharmacies, specially when there's a language barrier the size of an Eiffel tower to boot. Have you ever tried to pantomime that you have a diarrhea and you need some Loperamid tablets? Yeah, those were some fun and creative moments .. :)

Berber tajines cooking slowly. Berber tajines have round shape, whereas the usual tajine dish is more conical.

Lamb brains, Djemaa el-Fna nightly food market

Cheap and tasty bread, that accompanies most foods in Morocco. They sell them all day long on the street-shops or from carts just like the one on the photo, costs 1-1,5 DH/piece. I've had quite a few times a situation that i want to buy the bread, but when i start paying it turns out i have no coins and only some bigger bank notes. And so many times the vendor has just given me the bread, sometimes saying something like "Welcome to Marrakech" etc.

Nabil hiding behind the bread

Food sample of Djemaa el-Fna nightly food market

A girl carrying a pastry tray to the bakery

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Phone numbers wanted!

She was cruising in the city – relaxed and worriless. The setting sun was turning already pink buildings of Marrakech into flaming red and the evening shadows were growing longer and longer. The bustling life of the nightly Djemaa el-Fna was getting into it’s groove. She enjoyed being alone, she was free to satisfy her every wish without worrying about anyone else. But was she indeed alone?

Somebody had been observing her, somebody with unkind intentions, waiting for the right moment. A moment to take what he wanted, after all that’s what he was here for.

She decided to go to eat and strolled lazily into the thick crowd of Djemaa el-Fna. He saw his opportunity .. - he reached his hand and with a moment of a second he was gone, leaving her without a mobile phone.


Good riddance with the mobile! It was an old almost prehistorical piece of **** anyway, but the unfortunate part is that along with the mobile he also got all your phone numbers .

So, please, everybody reading this, drop me a line or send me an sms, so i could regain your digits. That goes to my fluffy foreign friends as well :). In short, everybody.

Big big thanks;

Friday, June 5, 2009

Couchsurfing in Morocco

I have mentioned couchsurfing on this blog before, but i’ve never really explained what is it. So, for those of you who don’t know - couchsurfing (CS) is a network of travelers, who offer (each other) free accommodation for some period of time (usually few days). "A host" is a person who offers his/her home for sleeping. "A surfer" is a traveler who takes you up on your offer and spends some time in your place - hence "to surf" :). You don't necessarily have to be a host in order to surf or vice versa. The system is built on mutual trust and respect and every surfer or host who has had a connection with another user is encouraged to leave a reference telling others how was the experience. This is a way to keep the program safe and functional – honest feedback. Both hosting and surfing is strictly free. A host may charge for example for the use of his private phone or a surfer can bring a bottle of wine for dinner etc, but in all other aspects it's still free. CS is not really about traveling cheap, it's point is not to provide free hotel but to enable social networking. You meet new people, see other cultures up close etc.

Me and Jevgeni have been hosting about a year and during this time we’ve met some very cool people. I haven't had any bad experiences, nothing even remotely negative to say, everybody's been very respectful and polite, usually also social and outgoing. As a rule people who CS are also travelers, so it’s easier to find a common ground by sharing travel stories etc. With some people you connect better, with others less. But it's the same in life, it's not like you're friends with every person you meet, only a small amount of them stand out exceptionally. Tartu, the city i live in, is kind of off track, you actually have to make an effort to come here, it's not just easily on the way from one place to another. That means fewer travelers find their way to Tartu, as opposed to our capital Tallinn. In the same time we also get more "serious" travelers who actually want to go an extra mile and see a smaller city also, not just the capital.

When we started hosting my friends and family thought (yet again) that we are crazy to open our home to strangers like that. "You will get robbed!" was the main warning i heard from them. OK, everything can happen, but i really doubt that a person from Canada will come all the way to Estonia to steal my TV and if necessary i can always reduce the risk to a minimum by choosing only surfers who have lots of positive references from their previous hosts. If 20 people write that this surfer was an awesome dude, very polite and cooked for the hosts, then you can assume his going to be the same at your place. And if he really does something to offend you or to create a problem, you can leave him a negative reference (which he can't delete himself) to warn others. And no serious traveler would ever damage his chance to get hosted again with getting a bad reference, so they behave very good. Experienced travelers are usually anyway very respectful and polite, it's the one-time tourists who might bring with them a small expectations of your home being a hotel, because that’s the only way they are used to travel. But like i said, such problems are very rare, the CS system takes it's safety and user control seriously.

CS is an awesome program, but in Morocco it can be tricky. In Morocco 99% of hosts are male and yes, some hosts are very decent and trustworthy, but there are also too many hosts who are using CS as a dating service to get white women. I’ve heard some creepy stories about single female travelers that got strongly harassed by their over-enthusiastic male hosts, who had failed to understand the concept of couchsurfing. But there are also entrepreneurial Moroccans who use CS site as means to make a living and finding costumers for their riads or shops. Very often profiles promising things like „authentic berber life-style“ etc are actually providing accommodation as a service though you might not be informed of it before you arrive or sometimes you hear about it altogether in the very end. They might expect a „donation“ or so on.

In October last year, when me and Kaidi were planning our Morocco trip, i was searching a host for us near Fes. I found one guy named Hassan Bouaouina (on the photo ->) who was terribly happy and inviting and wrote me immediately back saying yes, of course, he can absolutely host us bla bla bla + long list of nice things tourists can do in his village, places to visit bla bla bla and in the end of the e-mail he added [quote]: „my guests don't pay like normal tourists, the charge is lower“. I got of course all puffed up „what you mean pay? CS is a free culture exchange program!“. But out of the interest i asked how much he wants to get paid, thinking that maybe it’s something symbolic like money for dinner etc. He wrote back that he is a poor student and he will only charge us 250 euros. (!). I didn’t know if to laugh or to be furious – the sum was so inflated and unrealistic, it seemed that it must be a bad joke. My plane tickets from Estonia to Morocco and back cost the same! And this guy here is kindly offering us few days of accommodation in his family’s mudhouse for 250 euros. But no, it was not a joke, he was dead serious. We exchanged quite many e-mails, so there’s no chance that i misunderstood him. I reported him to CS admins, hoping they will boot him off the site, but i guess they gave him a warning and only stripped him off his „city ambassador“ status.

„Ambassador“ is a title you get if you are verified and endorsed by the program and it’s usually a sign to others that you are 200% trustworthy. Ambassadors are appointed by the key members of the program who live in the same region so it can be at times a bit of a „friends vouch for their friends“ circle, which makes it possible for people like Hassan to get away with charging his guests and not getting his account suspended.

I left Hassan a negative reference and the guy got tottaly pissed at me. At first he wrote me three times a week trying to convince me to remove the reference. His first approach was lamenting: „What’s the big deal?“; then he started saying that i had misunderstood everything and he never meant to charge us, that he would make an exception for us. Not a very intelligent guy after all, i though. After a while he started claiming that it wasn’t even him who wrote those letters, that somebody had logged into his account and pretended to be him. When this didn’t get him the desired result he commissioned couple of his past couchsurfers, who had been obviously very pleased with their surfing experience, to e-mail and inform me that Hassan is a truly an excellent guy and would never ever ever charge for hosting. One French girl took the whole affair rather personally and wrote me 3 very long letters varying from very emotional to extremely rude and abusive. I think as a last resort he tried to hack into my account to remove the reference himself, because suddenly i started getting regular e-mails from CS system informing me that there are too many unsuccessful log-in attempts to my account. If nothing else, the guy is definitely persistent :).
Hassan actually has a lot's of positive references, so he most likely hasn't tired to charge anybody that blatantly before. Maybe he just got tired of all those wealthy Westeners, who stay in his place and thought he can just as well make money off hosting them.

CS website has this feature that if you are logged-in, you can see all the surfers who are currently visiting your country/city etc. Each time you log-in your location is recorded thus allowing CS to display information like „nearby travelers“. So every time i log into my account in Morocco, i start getting kind offers from Moroccan guys inviting me to come and visit them in Rabat, Ourzazate or God know where else. And this time was no different. „I live alone in a big apartment, i can show you around town, we can go to a desert tour, etc“. Are there really women who go for these offers and think they’re legit? These guys never have any credible references, if they have any at all it’s usually brothers and friends who vouch for them. They usually don’t have even decent decriptions of themselves and by the looks of them the most of them are also severly illiterate.

So i’m in a pickle here now .. so many choices .. i wonder if i should go first to Rabat or Ourzazate .. ? :) :)

Young groovy generation of Moroccans

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Out and about in Marrakech

Marrakech medina

Morocco has many wonderful features and different places in it are differently captivating. But when i'm in Fes or Marrakech, my utmost favourite activity is to stroll around aimlessly in medina (the old town). Fes and Marrakech medinas are quite different, from size, color, architecture and so on, but they both are very intriguing and photographically provoking.

Marrakech medina is a busy busy beehive, if you're not careful you can get stung a bit. By "stung" i don't mean anything too serious, at most maybe pick-pocketed. While i'm sure there are also areas, which might be actually criminal or dangerous for tourists to walk in, the biggest threat i've encountered so far was getting nudged / driven into with a motorcycle. Most medina streets in Marrakech are wide enough to be able to drive there with a roller/scooter/bike etc. Add occasional donkey carts and even small cars and it's suffice to say some streets can get quite busy. The bikers are usually quite good in navigating between the people, but every once in a while you'll meet one that over-estimates his skill-set and drives right into you. It's not necessarily painful, just annoying to get a tyre-print on your clothes.

The further you walk from the Djemaa el-Fna, the less tourists you will see. Overburdened and crowded shopping streets slowly converge into living areas with usual people going about their business. It's very interesting to walk around randomly, because you often end up in places you would never even find with a map. Or meet people who you wouldn't meet in tourist areas. Medina is cool because it's entirely unstructured and unexpected. Medina in Marrakech has somewhat more logic to it, than the one in Fes, but the general idea is the same - total maze of streets and houses, often without any names or numbers. You never know where does the street you walk on actually lead and smaller streets often just end with a wall. Some of the streets are narrow and covered, others quite wide and open. One moment you are passing a fresh vegetable market and the other you find yourself on a street full of leather workshops or tailoring businesses (which are the very same back-alley places that cater for the shops on the main streets) etc. Deep in medina are hidden homes of some very rich people, both local and foreign. If you could just see the rich decor or tasteful renovation of some of those houses, you would never guess it by the simple door from the street.

Door knocker, this symbol is called Hand of Fatima

There are very few to non-at-all tourists walking significantly far from the Djemaa el-Fna. I don't have a map of Marrakech or a map of medina, but i feel that i don't even need one, because it's quite easy to navigate. If you want to stay in the central area of medina, follow the flow of tourists. The less tourists, the further from Djemaa el-Fna you are. If that is indeed your aim, just keep choosing streets without tourists and you will soon find yourself surrounded only by locals. Works every time. The locals are actually very kind and helpful, but they do seem to have a trouble with the concept of "just walking around randomly", because as soon as you're a bit out of the tourist area, you get some helpful people stopping you on the street and informing that the direction you are walking in "has nothing to see" and/or the "big square" is the that way.

Photographing + people

I've never felt unsafe in Marrakech having my camera out (in daytime) and i do literally carry it everywhere with me. OK, i might also be a bit careless sometimes, but even with that in mind i still think Marrakech is very safe for a photographer. You should try to be respectful while taking photos of the people though - most of them do not want to get photographed and shoving your camera in their face is considered very rude. Some people want money, but it's quite rare and i almost never pay anyway. I have few times given some dirhams to children when they've been posing to me cutely, but only because i wanted to give. In my experience Moroccans are not aggressive when it comes to asking money for photos and not getting it, so feel free to say no.

I had a situation once in Fes - i was walking in medina and there was an interesting looking man in the market, holding a live bird. I asked if i can make a photo of him and he said yes, for 2 dirhams. I was ok with the price, so i started shooting. When it came time to pay and i was fumbling in my pockets to find coins, two other guys stepped up and started picking a fight with the bird-man for charging me in the first place. Needless to say i was very pleasantly surprised, my very own Moroccan protectors :).

My "model"

And my "protectors" :)

Riads in Marrakech

While hotels are the standard means of accommodation in Morocco, you can also choose to stay in a local style ethnic riad (ryad), meaning basically a guesthouse/bed & breakfast. Riad is usually kind of a luxury place, a small house in medina converted to accommodate guests. Riads are very private and peaceful, with only few rooms to avoid crowds. Traditional riad is a house with an open courtyard with rooms/apartments around it. As a rule the morning starts with traditional Moroccan breakfast, usually served on the rooftop terrace. Most riads also offer lunch and dinners. It's a very nice way to live in Morocco, but also a quite expensive one. One night in a riad in Marrakech can cost from 1000-5000 EEK a night (1440-7200 DH), the upper price one being already a super luxurious place.

Same as hotels, riads can also be in a very different range of quality. Arabic culture has a strong history with appreciating luxury and style, so a high-end riad can be almost like a palace where your every wish is granted swiftly and you feel like a royalty. The beauty of interior can be breath-taking, making you feel like you are part of "The Thousand And One Night" tales. So if your budget allows, stay in a riad for at least a day; allow yourself the experience of being wealthy in Morocco, even if it's just for one night.

Typical riad breakfast for one person (middle-range riad)

Inner courtyard of a simple riad, with lantern hanging down


Marrakech is a city of enormous variety. If you like shopping, just enter the medina and you will have a vast choice of souks (markets), offering you all the imaginable Arabic style products, from teacups to handmade exquisite furniture. Some of the souks are dedicated to one certain item like souk of babouches (slippers), jellabas (long ethnic robes), leather, metalwork etc. You can even commission custom made things from a local master. Of course bargaining is a must. I wouldn’t recommend buying your souvenirs too close to the tourist areas, like from the shops close to Djemaa el-Fna. Prices are higher and the sales-guys less motivated to meet you half way – if you don’t buy, the next tourist will.

If you don’t quite like the market quality or style, you can do your shopping in the high-end designer boutiques, that offer higher quality and more distinguished design. In Gueliz, the new part of the city, you have all the western shopping choices that one could wish for. The same goes to food, means of transportation, accommodation, entertainment etc. The choice is very wide and budget range flexible. The same money that a budget traveler spends in Morocco in a month, another person can blow in few days. There are some insanely rich people living in Morocco and the city caters accordingly. It all comes down to choices you make.

At this point in my life i get to mostly experience the authentic ethnic Morocco. My budget as such would not withstand me dipping into trendy nightlife and restaurants of Marrakech. But considering that at the moment i have very little interest to the modern part of Morocco anyway, i’m quite happy with the situation. Maybe in 5 years or so i would yearn to climb up the local social ladder, rubbing elbows with the rich and richer, but at the moment i like my backpacking travel-style and simple and often like-minded people i meet along the way.

Beautiful necklaces

Shoe shop for women

Metal bracelets

Moroccan teapots

In Marrakech markets you can easily find also modern stuff, fake of course.

Moroccan tea glasses, adorned with hand-painted art

The whole wall full of tea glasses

Moroccan tajine dish, Safi ceramics. Though sales-guys will tell you that you can easily cook with those dishes as well, they are still meant for decoration. The dye used in glazing is too poisonous for everyday use

More ceramics. Almost all ceramics in this style comes from a small town called Safi

Carpet shop

Fabric merchant. Interestingly, almost all merchants in Morocco are men. I've seen only few women selling on food markets or independently some handicraft on the street-corner.

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