Scenes from Chefchaouen

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Chefchaouen is the famous “blue city” of Morocco. It’s a small town tucked in the mountains, and its main draw is that it’s doors, walls, stairs – almost everything – are in shades of blue.

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

There are a few theories as to why the city is blue: one is that the blue color drives away mosquitos – – if this is really true, I will readily paint everything I own blue. Another is that Jewish refugees introduced the blue color when they migrated here. But whatever the reason, it spread throughout the city, and it is probably the best thing they could have done for tourism!

The best way to explore is to just wander through the narrow streets and go wherever seems to be the most blue. Around just about every corner, there is an instagram-perfect scene!

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Even if the road dead ends, you’re still rewarded with some phenomenal sights.

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

And the beautiful doors:

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Door in Chefchaouen, Morocco

There is also a short and very worthwhile hike up to a mosque on an opposite hill to get a view of the entire city:

Chefchaouen from a distance, Morocco

Chefchaouen from a distance, Morocco

Whatever the reason for the color, it’s a beautiful, calming town!

Sunset Viewpoint over the Fez Medina

Fez medina after dark, Morocco

The best place to watch the sunset in Fez is from the hills to the Northeast of the Medina. From there, you can see almost the entire sprawling Medina below.

Sunset viewpoint over the Fez medina, Morocco

Many people go to the Marinid tombs to see the view, but they are in the far side of the road, meaning that there is a highway and a few ruins in your way. If you stay on the Medina side of the road instead, you can easily climb on top of one of the ruins for an unobstructed view!

The ruin from which the photo above was taken:

Sunset viewpoint over the Fez medina, Morocco

Sunset at Ramadan is an even more special affair. Just as the sun goes down, cannon blasts from mosques around the Medina are fired before the call to break the fast sounds from loudspeakers. It’s a little alarming, to be honest, if you don’t know what’s going on. You wouldn’t be blamed for briefly wondering if the city was under attack.

As the sun goes down, the lights turn on:

Fez medina at sunset, Morocco

Fez medina after dark, Morocco

It’s a very peaceful place to be, but even here there are touts. Either those self-assigned guides who “lead” you here and then demand money for their efforts, or the lurkers who ask for money in exchange for nothing at all. Given the darkness and the fact that you’re on top of a ruin without railings, I don’t recommend going alone.

But if you’re looking for a place to enjoy a birds eye view of the Medina without the craziness, this is it!

The Medina of Fez

Nejjarine Fountain and museum in Fes, Morocco

The Medina of Fez is reportedly the largest Medina in the world, with a population of around 150,000 and a total of 9,500 streets (this number is repeated a lot, but did someone actually go and count all the individual streets? And if they did, shouldn’t they have maybe drawn up a map in the process?). Because the Medina is so large and the owner of my hostel repeatedly emphasized how easy it is to get lost, I signed up for a tour through the hostel. At 25 euros, it was pricey, but if I could learn a lot from a local, then it’d be worth it.

Sadly, I did not. The guide barely explained anything and led me to shops to “learn about the traditional handicrafts of Fez” (*cough* buy). In the end I still had to turn to Wikipedia, which was much more friendly and informative. So, some information courtesy of the guide and most of it thanks to Wikipedia:

History and Culture of Fez

Fez served as the capital of major Moroccan kingdoms from about the 13th century to 1912, when the French moved the capital of Morocco to Rabat. The Medina is the old city center of Fez, founded by the Idrisid dynasty in the 8th century. Altogether, there is currently a population of 600,000 in the Medina.

The ancient city is most known for 6 traditional handicrafts: carpet, camel blankets, embroidery, artists that restored the king’s palace, cactus work, and the tannery.

The Blue Gate

There are 14 gates total to the Medina of Fez, and the most popular one is the blue gate. Even though it’s called the “blue gate,” it’s actually only blue on one side – the side facing outward. This is because blue is the color of Fez, welcoming visitors into the city. On the inside, the gate is green, the color of Islam.

The Blue Gate in Fez, Morocco

Right inside the blue gate is the more modern side of the Medina. It’s where the bulk of the restaurants are, and while the old Medina center shuts down on Fridays, this area typically remains open.

Nejjarine Fountain

A beautiful fountain from the 14th century – that’s about all the information that I could find about it both from the guide and online.

Nejjarine Fountain and museum in Fes, Morocco

Except I did find a translation: “Nejjarine” means “carpenter,” which makes sense because the building to the left is the carpentry museum.

Nejjarine Museum

The Nejjarine (or carpentry) museum used to be an old fondouk from the 18th century. Merchants used to leave their goods and their donkeys on the bottom floor and stay in the rooms above. Over the years, it converted into a repository, and then a police station in the 1940s. Now, fully restored, it serves as a museum of wood arts and crafts (or, alternatively, carpentry).

Nejjarine carpentry museum in Fes, Morocco

It costs 20 dirham ($2) to enter the museum, which – surprise, surprise! – wasn’t included in the tour fee. The museum wasn’t the most exciting one I’ve ever been in, due in large part to the fact that my guide simply sat outside while I wandered through it and most of the signage was only in Arabic and French. However, just the building itself is quite magnificent!

On top of the museum there is a rooftop cafe. I heard that it’s free to enter if you say you are going to the cafe, which is what I would recommend doing. The bulk of the experience is walking up through the building anyway, and you catch a few exhibits on your way up.

Kairaouine Mosque

This mosque and university is the oldest university in the world, founded in Fez in 859 and still in operation to this day. It was started by a woman, too, no less – Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of a rich merchant. However, as it is also a mosque and mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims, all that we can do as tourists is peer in through the entryway.

Entryway to Kairaouine Mosque in Fez, Morocco

Madrasa al-Attarine

Though I wasn’t able to enter the Kairaouine Mosque, I WAS able to go into the Madrasa al-Attarine across the street. It is also a school, but built in 1323 by the sultan and open to tourists.

Madrasa al-attarine in Fez, Morocco

Madrasa al-attarine in Fez, Morocco

One tidbit that I did get from the guide (though I can’t confirm its validity): the fountain in the center is made of marble from Italy. Allegedly, they traded 1kg of sugar for each 1kg of marble for the fountain.

Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum

Moulay Idriss II was the son of Idriss I, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty. He refounded the city of Fez in 810 (not sure why it needed refounding), and became the city’s patron saint. His mausoleum sits at the heart of the Fez Medina. It also houses a mosque, so only Muslims are allowed inside. Just the entrance itself is beautiful, though:

Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum in Fez, Morocco

The mausoleum is also an auspicious place for women with fertility issues. On one side of the mausoleum lies this grille. Women who want to get pregnant leave a lock on the grille, and once they become pregnant, they come back to remove the lock. There are only two locks on the grille now, so I guess the women of Fez aren’t having many issues in that area!

Locks on the side of the Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum in Fez, Morocco

Carpet Cooperative

I definitely wouldn’t have found this carpet cooperative without the guide, because it was tucked in a passage that looked like it led to someone’s house. In fact, it DID used to be someone’s house – allegedly, it belonged to the teacher who used to teach at the very Madrasa al-Attarine above. When he died, he donated his house to be used as a carpet cooperative that is funded by the government and benefits the 1,300 women who make the carpets by setting fixed prices and making sure that the women get the appropriate cut.

…Allegedly.

When I looked it up online, a place that looked the same in the photos got a slew of 1-star ratings. People claimed that the salespeople pressured them into buying, never shipped the carpets as promised, and even added an extra “0” to the final credit card charge.

So, even though I sat through the sales presentation where they rolled out carpet after carpet and served me mint tea, I’m glad I didn’t actually buy anything. The visit wasn’t a complete waste, though, since I at least got some knowledge from the carpet salesman who showed me around. Who knows if it’s true at this point, but it sure was more information than I got from my guide, from the entire tour combined.

Carpet cooperative in Fez, Morocco

Things I learned from the carpet salesman:

  • Traditional Moroccan houses are designed with two levels and an inner courtyard. In the winter, the family lives upstairs, and in the summer, the family lives downstairs where it’s cooler.
  • You should flip the carpet over and use the backside for 3-4 months out of the year. This allows you to see the design clearer on the frontside, and also helps to beat out the dust.
  • There are three types of Moroccan carpets: Berber, Arab, and nomadic. Berber carpets have the tattoos of the tribe and the family within the tribe on them. Nomadic carpets have no color, as they are made using undyed sheep’s wool.

Tanneries

Fez is famous for its tanneries, but they are not very easy to get to. The best view of the tanneries is from the rooftops, and the only way to get to the rooftops is through leather shops, which are hidden in obscure alleyways. So the only way to find the leather shops is to be guided by a generous local who will turn around and ask for a little something as a token of thanks.

I was saved the trouble of all that because I had a guide. Who I was paying way too much for a subpar experience, but hey…at least this portion of the tour would have been a subpar experience with or without him.

Upon entering the leather shop that the guide took me to, a salesman handed me a sprig of mint. The mint, he explained, was for the smell, and as soon as I got to the rooftop, I understood. The tanning process involves a healthy amount of ammonium (which they soak the skins in to make them soft enough to dye) and a fair number of other chemicals, so the fresh mint is definitely nice to have.

To the left are vats of ammonium, and to the right are vats of dye.

Tanneries of Fez, Morocco

Tanneries of Fez, Morocco


That concluded my tour of the Medina. After asking if I “wasn’t going to buy ANYTHING? Anything at all?” the guide unhappily took me back to my hostel — and made me pay for a taxi to take us both there.

I learned that there most definitely are terrible tour guides. More importantly, I learned that a single bad encounter can weigh heavily on your view of an entire city. When I think of Fez and look at the pictures that I took of these beautiful locations, I can’t help but feel a bit of residual bitterness. Of all the memories I have of the city, this unfortunately is one of the top ones.

But, determined to make some good memories of the city, I went out afterwards to explore the Medina on my own. As predicted, I did get lost – well and horribly lost – but it was a great adventure. This is what I hope to remember!

Streets of Fez, Morocco

Streets of Fez, Morocco

Street shop in Fez, Morocco

Camel ride and night in the Sahara Desert

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Camel riding is the activity most closely associated with Morocco, so I booked a desert tour specifically to do just that. The camel ride was just a small portion of the tour, lasting for only 1.5 hours each way from Merzouga. In between, we spent the night at a camp in the Sahara Desert.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Just as the desert tours are most likely all operated by one company, I get the feeling that there are only a few places that conduct camel rides. Our driver dropped us off at a hotel at the edge of the desert where dozens of other tourists had already gathered. Some were on 2-person private tours, and some were on huge 16-person group tours like the one I was on. It didn’t matter, we were all funneled here for the camel rides into the Sahara Desert.

Starting point for camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

After checking us in, the staff at the hotel informed us that we were leaving as a group at 6pm, when the Sahara had cooled down and in time to see the sunset en route. We could bring a little bag for water, our cameras, and whatever we needed overnight, but otherwise we should leave everything else on the vans.

At 6pm, we all gathered outside the hotel where the camels were waiting. They were already tied together in strings of 5-7, patiently sitting in a row. The staff split us up into groups somewhat arbitrarily, and each string of camels got its own driver/guide that led the camel up front.

While we waited, they showed us how to tie our scarves into head scarves, which they insisted was necessary for sun and sand protection in the desert. Given that it was a pretty calm day and the sun was already on its way down, I think they brought us more joy as a touristy gimmick than real functional benefit.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

And we were off! When the camel gets up and sits down, it does so one side at a time, so you really have to hold on to avoid being thrown off backwards or head first. It’s similar to horsebackriding, lurching with each step. The rocking is especially bad when the camel goes down a sand dune and sinks deeper into the sand.

The camels are extraordinarily well trained; when the rope comes undone (as it did twice for my camels) and there is nothing pulling it forward, it simply stops and awaits further orders.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

It’s also worth noting that the camels move extremely slow. Slow enough that I could easily outpace them at my normal walking speed, even moving through sand. So I understand their usefulness if you are traveling with heavy loads, but solely as a means of short-term transport, they’re not the best option.

Our guide was a nice person with a fondness for practical jokes. He helped us take pictures while we were on the camels, but he would pocket our phones with a note of thanks and not give them back until a while later. Our guide struggling with his turban:

Our guide on our camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

As we rode on, the shadows got longer and longer and the dunes glowed ever more orange.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Just before sunset at 7:30, we stopped to climb one of the taller sand dunes to see the sun drop below the horizon. The sand is ultra fine, making it a little difficult to climb but very fun to slide down!

Sunset in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Along the way, we saw some scattered camps tucked between the dunes. Little black boxes clustered together in larger rectangles. According to the guide, these belonged to nomadic Berber families that lived and worked in the desert, including at the camp that we were headed to. We arrived at this main camp after another half an hour or so, just before it got dark.

Camping in the Sahara

The camp consisted of many tents around a central square/camp fire, with only two toilets for the 60 odd people. The tents had beds and sheets in varied conditions and could accommodate up to 6 people, but we were also free to sleep outside. Even when night fell the temperature didn’t drop too low, so you could sleep inside without sheets and outside with a thin blanket.

At night, we had a surprisingly nice meal (considering that we were out in the desert) of soup, bread, chicken tagine with vegetables, and cut up fruits. Then, the guides all gathered to play Moroccan drums for us.

Dinner at camp in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Most people retired to bed by 10:30-11:00, since we had to get up bright and early at 3:30 to ride back during sunrise. It was painful to get up, but the starry sky was breathtaking without any light pollution! (And also, unfortunately, impossible to capture on camera).

Just as we stopped for sunset, we also stopped briefly to appreciate the sunrise.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Sunrise in the Sahara desert, Morocco

By 6am, we were back at the hotel where we started, and where they had breakfast waiting for us.

This is where we said goodbye to the camels. They’re a little scruffy looking with patches of missing hair, so I’m not sure how well they’re taken care of. It struck me that people are often up in arms about elephant riding and how inhumane it is, but doesn’t the same thing apply to camel riding? The camel has traditionally been a beast of burden, but it also doesn’t feel quite right to exploit it for touristic purposes.

In any case, I did enjoy this ride, but I think it’s a one-time thing – unless I’m somehow part of an actual caravan next time!

Desert tour from Marrakech to Fez

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

My top priority for Morocco was to see the Sahara Desert, and from research it looked like I could do it en route from Marrakech to Fez.

The Sahara Excursion

The hard part was picking a tour company to go with. There are hundreds of different excursion companies, not to mention random people handing out flyers and calling, “Excursion? Exclusion?” I looked up a few of the top rated companies on TripAdvisor, but they only did private tours ranging from 500-700 euros for only 3 days and 2 nights. In the end, I went with the package that the hostel was selling, 75 euros for 3 days and 2 nights (not including making my own way to Fez afterward). It seemed reasonable compared to the other group tour quotes I got, which were for 90 and 125 euros.

On the morning of, a man came by the hostel around 7am to pick me up. A couple of other people were also with him, and we walked a little ways to the main square where the man directed us to one of the many identical large vans. There wasn’t an official company whatsoever, just a van, a driver, and a group of other people who at least confirmed that they where there for the same thing.

I learned from said group that we all paid different things: some 80 euros, some 65 and even 60 euros. They sell you more expensive packages with the promise that the amenities will be better, but we were literally all on the same tour. I guess it just depends on how big of a cut your hostel/hotel/agency wants to take.

Our unmarked van followed the dozens of other unmarked vans and made almost all the same stops, so I get the feeling that there is just a single excursion company that everyone funnels the tourists into. The only place that we stopped at which was unique was an argan oil shop, where a row of ladies showed us how argan oil was made next to shelves of merchandise – yep, it was one of those tours.

We also all soon discovered that there are a lot of little fees that they didn’t mention up front. Two breakfasts and two dinners are included, but no lunches (which run at about 100 dirhams or $10 a piece). Each day we had a local guide, who we were very much encouraged to pay 20 dirhams to. Entrance fee to Ait Ben Haddou, 30 dirhams. Oh, and by the way, it’s mandatory to have a scarf for camel riding. Luckily, you can get one here cheaply for just 60 dirhams!

Next time, I think I’m just renting a car. But anyway, it was a good brief introduction to Moroccan life inland and next to the Sahara!


Atlas Mountains

A little ways outside Marrakech, we made a pit stop along the side of the highway to take pictures of the Atlas Mountains:

Atlas Mountains, Morocco

You can tell we were going to be entering desert very soon!

Ait Ben Haddou

Our first real stop was Ait Ben Haddou. It is an old village that dates back to the 18th century, and around 10 families currently live here. It has become steadily more popular amongst tourists since the 1960s, due to its status as a world heritage site and its use as a set for popular movies. These have included Lawrence of Arabia (1961), Gladiator (2001), and, most recently, Game of Thrones! Some of the families here played extras in these films/shows.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

The village is on the other side of a river, named Asif Ounila, which is Arabic for “salt.” Currently, the river is mostly dried up. But in the winter time, there can be so much snow melt from the Atlas Mountains that the river cannot be crossed.

The houses are all made from a traditional mixture of mud and straw, which provides insulation from the extreme heat in the summer and the cold in winter. However, especially when it rains hard, the wall erodes. So it has to be patched up every 5-8 years.

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

According to the guide, the mound in the distance was used as the smaller colosseum for the Gladiator.

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

I’m not sure exactly where Game of Thrones was filmed, but there was definitely a great view from the top of the village.

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate is another, much bigger city known for its involvement in the movie industry. That’s about all I know, because we just stopped for 10 minutes to snap pictures of these buildings, and then we were out.

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Later, I checked online and found that there isn’t all that much to see in Ouarzazate, people mainly use it as a home base and take day trips out to other places like Ait Ben Haddou. At least I’m standing by that because it makes me feel better about not having seen it at all!

First Night: Boumalne de Dades

At the end of the first day, we entered canyon lands.

We checked in for the night at a hotel near a ravine. The amenities were nice (but maybe I only think so because I’ve been staying in hostels the entire time – I can’t remember the last time I stayed somewhere where I was provided with a towel!), but two rooms within the group found bed bugs. I didn’t check closely, but I woke up bump-free, so hopefully that means there weren’t any in my bed…

Todra Gorges

Our first stop on our second day was a Berber village near Todra Gorges. We walked through farmland, past all sorts of crops that he guide explained even even let us taste: alfalfa (to feed animals, and for green dye), apricots, dates (which are pollinated by hand), wheat, figs, olives, mint, pomegranates, corn, and bamboo (for the roofs of the kasbahs).

Guide through Todra Gorges on the Sahara excursion in Morocco

Then we entered the village itself, where the guide took us to a kasbah that sold berber carpets.

Carpet seller on a Sahara excursion in Morocco

Commercial stop #2! We did learn a couple of things about the carpets, though:

  • Carpets made from the dromedary camel (which has just one hump, whereas camels have two) wool is the longest lasting, but they can only be sheared once in their lifetimes.
  • The carpets use natural dyes: henna for brown and red, saffron for orange, alfalfa for olive green, indigo for blue
  • If a carpet only has one fringe, that means that only one woman made it. However, if it has two fringes, two women made it.
  • The women don’t have plans for the carpets before starting, they simply weave whatever patterns they feel like and use carpet weaving to tell their own stories.
  • It takes about 7-8 months for a woman to finish a large carpet, because she works on it for about 2 hours a day between housework.

After politely listening to the carpet dealer and all awkwardly refusing to buy, we continued onto Todra Gorge, a beautiful canyon with bubbling clear groundwater.

Todra Gorge, Morocco

There used to be a hotel inside the canyon, but it closed after a rock fell from the canyon and through one of the buildings. Yep, pretty bad for business.

Sahara Desert

Finally the Sahara desert, the main event! We arrived in Mezouga in the evening and rode camels out to a desert camp, where we spent the night. Read about the full camel ride here!

Ride to Fez

The tour that I booked covered a return trip to Marrakech, but since I wanted to go to Fez instead, it was – surprise, surprise! – an extra 300 dirham ($30) fee. This was steep compared to the 150 dirham ($15) buses that run from Merzouga to Fez, but it only goes overnight. So, alas, I gave into the convenience fee.


Sahara Excursion Summary

Overall, it was a great excursion. Commercialized, yes. Rushed in places, yes. But it still delivered a fair amount of value, especially if you haggled it down to a good price. My impression was that most tours probably went along the same route and included the same things, so I’m glad that I didn’t splurge for a private tour. I’m sure it would have been nicer, yes, but 5-7x nicer? …Debatable.

Regardless, whichever way you go, it’s worth the trip! Just look at these scenes:

View from the bus to the Sahara, Morocco

View from the bus to the Sahara, Morocco

View from the bus to the Sahara, Morocco

Morocco at Ramadan

Entrance to Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

Entrance to Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

Unwittingly, my trip to Morocco coincided with the start of Ramadan. I wasn’t really sure what to expect – Would many places be closed? Would it be difficult to find food? Could I not eat or drink in public during the day? Many many questions.

When I got to Marrakech, I discovered that Ramadan doesn’t make much of a difference for tourists. Many sites have shorter hours, and restaurants are closed around sunset so that the workers can break their fast. For the most part, locals don’t mind if tourists eat: restaurants and markets stay open, and people still eat on outdoor patios and terraces.

However, you can sense that tempers run a little short during the day, when the locals who are fasting (which are the majority) are hungry and thirsty. I passed at least one fist fight that broke out behind me on an already chaotic street. And haggling comes with a little more tension than usual. A friend from the hostel countered with 30 dirhams for an item that started out at 300 dirhams, and he was told very curtly to put the item back and to “be careful, sir, its Ramadan.”

One evening in Marrakech, I went to check out the central mosque, Koutoubia, with a few friends from the hostel. On previous nights I heard broadcasted prayers, so I wanted to see if there was a ceremony of some sort at the mosque. However, the official sunset time of 7:31 came and went, and the mosque stayed empty and quiet. There were lots of mats laid out outside, though, so we gathered that something probably goes on here.

Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

We found a restaurant with a terrace right across from the mosque for dinner while we waited to see if something might happen later. There were surprisingly only two or three, even though it was the central tourist area. At around 7:39, less than 10 minutes later, a series of calls came from the mosque, signaliing that it was time to eat.

But the main event came an hour or so later. Around 8:30, people started showing up at the mosque. And then before we knew it, a seemingly unending stream of people started pouring in. Some went into the mosque and some filed into the matted area outside, until it was basically filled. And still they came.

Evening prayer at Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

Soon, the prayers began. In sync, the entire mass of people bowed again and again in the direction of Mecca. According to a local at the restaurant, the prayer goes on for 2 hours and happens every day during Ramadan!

Such immense dedication! Coming to an Islamic country during Ramadan is definitely a unique experience and good chance to learn about Islam. I’m embarrassed by how very little I currently know, but I’m aiming to change that!

Cooking Class at Amal Women’s Center in Marrakech

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

What better way to learn about Moroccan cuisine than to cook it?

Online I found several cooking classes offered, but I went with the Amal Women’s Center because it benefited a nonprofit organization. For 300 dirham ($30), we would learn to cook and later eat a Moroccan meal of chicken tagine, Moroccan salad, and Moroccan mint tea.

The facilities of the Amal Women’s center were beautiful:

Cooking class at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

They had all of the ingredients prepared for us, all we had to do was put it together.Though the chicken tagine involved multiple spices, the recipe is surprisingly easy. Honestly, all we did was chop onions (under pretty close scrutiny, because there were about 4 kitchen helpers for just the three of us in the class) and spoon ingredients in the amounts specified. We were done in about 10 minutes.

Cooking class ingredients at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

We covered our tagines and took them outside to little individual charcoal grills. They had us use bellows to get the fire going – these things are quite effective! A few spurts of air, and you get a little crackling fire.

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

The chicken cooked for about an hour or so, with two breaks in between: one to flip the chicken and put the oil in (it goes in later so that the chicken has a chance to absorb the spices), and another to add some more water.

While we waited for the chicken to cook, the staff told us a bit about the women’s center and the work that they do:

Amal Women’s center

The mission of the women’s center is to empower women by training them for and helping them find sustainable employment. Kitchen jobs are the target, a big industry in Marrakech and an easy transition for women as they likely already have cooking experience. For six months, the center trains the women in technical skills and soft skills like punctuality and cleanliness, and then they are responsible for helping the women find a kitchen job after the program. But their main goal is to teach and show the women that they can be independent; they don’t have to be dependent on anyone.

They primarily focus on women from four disadvantaged groups:

  • Single mothers: often ostracized by society and even kicked out by their families for having premarital sex
  • Widows
  • Divorcees: divorce is still not very common, and it is frowned upon. Women legally have the right to get divorced, but few exercise it. And if a man divorces a woman, it means that she was a bad wife.
  • Orphans: receive help from the state until they are 18, but then afterwards they are on their own without much support.

While women in morocco legally have a lot more rights than they did before, culturally and socially, they still face a lot of issues that hold them back. It is undesirable for a woman to seem too independent, and there are problems with education.

There is no sex education, so many women do not even know the basics about their bodies and sex. Some women who already gave birth to children don’t know what it was that made them pregnant – it sounds ludicrous, but if nobody tells you, how do you know? Abortion is also illegal, and some women die because the try to abort the baby themselves. Alternatively, their family might take them out of the country, where they have the baby and leave it there. But some men still abide by the age-old test of checking if the hymen is intact to determine virginity.

Anyway, a very good cause!

And a very good meal:

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to reproduce the meal on my own, even though I have a recipe list. But I got more than just culinary knowledge from this class. Thank you Amal, and keep doing the good work!

I also learned a neat tidbit: locals serve Moroccan mint tea by lifting the teapot high while pouring, and there are a couple of reasons for this. (1), it cools the tea a bit on its way to the cup. (2) the more sugar there is in the tea, the more foam there will be when you pour the tea up high. Sugar was a precious commodity, so this was a way to demonstrate to guests e was sugar in the tea before they even tasted it.


Chicken and Preserved Lemon Tagine:

Ingredients:

1 1/2 tsp ginger powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley and cilantro
1 pinch saffron
1/2 tsp ras el hanut
1/4 preserved lemon pulp
1/2 lemon juice
1 small oninon, finely choped
2 chicken breast and legs
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 handful olives
1/2 preserved lemon peel, thinly sliced
water

Instructions:

  1. Combine all spices into mixing bowl
  2. Place chicken into mixture and coat well
  3. Spread onions evenly in tajine
  4. Place chicken on top of onions
  5. Pour rest of spice mixture over chicken
  6. Cover tajine and place on low heat for 1 hour
  7. After onions have browned, pour oils
  8. After 10 minutes, pour water in tajine up to lid line
  9. Check periodically to add more water to the lid line
  10. 10 minutes before finishing cooking, place olives and lemon peel on top of chicken

Moroccan Salad

Ingredients:

4 tomatoes
1 cucumber
onion to taste
2 tbsp parsley and cilantro
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

  1. Chop everything
  2. Mix!

Palaces, tombs, and gardens in Marrakech

Saadian tombs in Marrakech, Morocco

The largest sites in Marrakech are concentrated in the Medina, so they are easy to get to (or stumble upon when you’re lost). They’re also almost all very cheap to visit, with a ticket price of just 10 Dirham ($1).

The only problem is that there isn’t much explanation of what the sites are or what you’re looking at. It appears to be pretty popular to go into the palaces and tombs with a private guide who can share the history and explain the context. I opted to go without, so many thanks to Wikipedia for the below content.

Ben Youssef

A famous Islamic school founded in the 14th century. It is one of the largest in North Africa, with a large area for dorms and second floor.

Courtyard of the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech, Morocco

Inside the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech, Morocco

Saadian Tombs

These 16th century tombs house about 60 members of the Saadian Dynasty. There are tombs inside (the royal family) as well as outside (for soldiers and servants).

Saadian tombs in Marrakech, Morocco

Saadian tombs in Marrakech, Morocco

El Badi Palace

El Badi Palace was originally funded by a ransom paid by the Portugese, who the Saadian sultan defeated in battle at the end of the 16th century. It was a splendid palace, but it declined after the fall of the Saadians, and now all that remains is a ruin (topped with many birds’ nests).

El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Walking through, I couldn’t help but notice all of the holes in the wall…were they intentional? Or did the walls all just deteriorate that way due to the construction? Of course, it’s a question that’s been asked on the internet before:

When they were building the walls, they inserted wooden blocks into the walls so that they could climb on them as the walls got higher. Once the walls were complete, they took them out, leaving the holes. The holes then act to prevent the walls from cracking with the changing temperatures by somehow absorbing some of the expansion and contraction.

At El Badi palace, I paid an extra 10 dirhams ($1) to see the Koutoubia minbar. Mostly because I wasn’t sure what a minbar was. But now that I’ve seen it, I would say don’t. It does have beautiful, intricate carvings, though:

Koutoubia minbar at the El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Koutoubia minbar at the El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Bahia Palace

Not to be confused with El Badi Palace, Bahia Palace was built in the 19th century, housed noblemen and not royals, and is still in good condition.

Room in Bahia Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

I couldn’t get enough of those roofs…

Roof in Bahia Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Roof in Bahia Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Dar Si Said Museum

I stumbled on the Dar Si Said museum completely on accident, while searching for a hammam (turkish bath) place. It’s not as grand as the other palaces, but still worth a visit. It also used to be a nobleman’s home, but has since been used as a museum for cultural artifacts from around Morocco.

Dar Si Said museum in Marrakech, Morocco

Dar Si Said museum in Marrakech, Morocco

Mejorelle Garden and Berber museum

The Mejorelle Garden is one of the top destinations in Marrakech. It was the private garden of French painter Jacques Majorelle, who built it over the course of 40 years. Once he died, it was preserved by Yves Saint-Laurent (yep, that one) and Pierre Berge, and has been opened to the public since 1947.

Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, Morocco

Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, Morocco

It also one of the most expensive at 70 dirham ($7) for the gardens and an extra 30 dirham ($3) for the museum. Online reviews said that it was small, but a nice quiet oasis. And that’s exactly what it was. Would I go back again? Probably not (especially since the Yves Saint-Laurent memorial was literally an unassuming rectangular rock). But the Berber museum inside was very well-done (albeit also small), and I think that was worth the trip in and of itself.


I got along fine without a guide in Marrakech, and had fun exploring the sites myself. But if anyone wants to bring the European free city tour model to Morocco, there’s an open market!

The streets and shops of Marrakech Medina

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Even if you’re not heading anywhere specific, just a stroll through the souks (alleyways) of the Median itself is quite the adventure. But before you head outside, make sure that you are mentally prepared!

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco
Whether it is by shopkeepers, restaurant owners, women selling henna, men with moneys on chains, taxi drivers, or even the occasional young lad looking to make a buck, you will be accosted. Sometimes physically.

Calls of “hello!” “excuse me!”, “excursion?” and, in my case, “Nihao!” “Arigatou!” and “Japan? Korean? China?” come flying from every angle. Most of the time, people are beckoning you to look at their services/shops. But often times people will appear to be helpful by trying to direct you (“Square? Square? Is that way!” As if there’s nowhere else I could potentially want to go besides the square) or offering unsolicited explanations. All for a little fee at the end, of course. If you wave them off, they sometimes get angry at your “rudeness.” I like to smile at people I pass on the street, but I quickly realized that the best way to respond was to either ignore them or give a curt nod and smile but keep walking.

The streets are really narrow, perhaps just large enough for a standard sedan to go by, and not without difficulty. In both directions, bikes and scooters zoom by without warning. As far as I can tell, it’s the responsibility of the pedestrian to get out of the way as fast as s/he can.

There’s never a dull day on the streets of Marrakech, that’s for sure!

Jeema El Fna

Jeema el Fna is the large central square, filled with fruit juice stalls and merchants with carts. There’s a long line of horse drawn carriages. You’ll also find snake charmers and men holding monkeys on chains, asking if you want to take a picture for a fee.

It’s quite beautiful at night:

Night market on the streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Street-side stalls

All of the streets are lined with people selling clothing, ceramics, jewelry, beauty products, and any knick knacks that you can think of.

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Market stall in the streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Some stalls have pastries that look delicious, but they’re simply COVERED with insects. See those little dots? All bees (hopefully not flies!).

Pastries on the streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Lessons from Spain

Lessons from Spain

1. Take it nice and slow

Since starting my travels, I’ve mostly followed the rule of staying in one place for at least 3 nights before moving to the next one. This gives me time to get to know the location a little better and means that I don’t have to squeeze all the sights and scenes into two full days, but I’ve come to discover that even 3 nights isn’t enough.

In Spain, I slowed it down even further to 5-6 nights in each location. While this seemed long before, it feels perfect now. With 4-5 full days, I was able to see just about everything that I wanted to and comfortably take day trips. However, it still wasn’t enough time to see Barcelona (I was so busy running around that I never made it to the beach) – guess I’ll have to go back and spend 2 weeks there next time!

2. Enjoy life a little bit

Spain is a place of leisure and pleasure, two things I’ve never quite been able to embrace. To me, any second that isn’t productive is wasted, and “fun” is an item that is usually scheduled (in between events of adequate productivity). Ironically, even though I no longer have a full time job, I still have a perpetually full todo list.

In Spain, however little, I learned to relax a bit. It feels good to have a sangria or a refreshing tinto de verano with a meal. It’s not a bad idea to go back to the hostel to escape the heat of the day (though I haven’t quite begun cultivating the nap yet). For the first time, I miss the makeup and non-conservative quick drying clothes – just a little bit. And all of it is okay.

3. Take fewer pictures

Even though I don’t believe my photography habits changed, for whatever reason, sorting through and editing pictures took a lot longer in Spain. Did I take more pictures? Were the pictures just crappier (meaning more photoshop)?

I’m not entirely sure, but I had enough and vowed to take fewer pictures. Even though taking another digital photo just means a few extra pixels, sorting and editing still means that each photo comes at a price: time, the most priceless thing of all. So, take fewer photos! It also means that I can be in the present and enjoy the sights in front of me a little more.

4. Don’t force yourself into a lifestyle

When I first got to Barcelona, I was lured by the party lifestyle that permeated the entire city (it probably didn’t help that I stayed in a party hostel). In the previous four months in Asia, I could count the number of drinks that I had on one hand, and I just about never went out. I only had conservative India-appropriate clothing with me, but I figured it would be a shame to go to Spain and not experience the infamous night out that starts at midnight and ends at 6am.

So on my last night in Barcelona, I joined the hostel pub crawl. We went to three bars and ended up in a club. It felt pretty much the same as nights out in college, except it went a lot later and involved more Spanish music (an improvement, if you ask me). The dancing was fun, but nowadays I’m less fond of meeting strangers in clubs and would prefer to wake up early and hydrated. The party lifestyle is no longer for me. I’m glad I went out at least once, and I no longer had fear of missing out after.

5. Just speak Spanish

Even though I haven’t practiced Spanish at all in the past 10 years, I did take about 6 years of it in school. I was surprised at how much of it I actually retained, but I was too shy to try to speak it. Most of the time when I tried, the shopkeepers patiently sat through my stuttered broken sentences and then just replied in English to put me out of my misery.

I wish I could tie it up in a rosy way by saying that I conquered my fears and unleashed a fountain of ever more fluent Spanish, but unfortunately it’s still something I’m working on. This is one of those lessons that I understand in theory but am still trying to put into practice!

6. It’s good to have work

In Spain, for the first time since I left, I started to feel an urge to go back to work. It’s not for financial reasons (though my pockets are definitely emptier than when I started), but rather a need to do something productive – not just for me, but for others. After 5 months, my travel itch has been mostly satisfied, and I’m in a place where I’m once again excited about work!