It’s ALL About the Food AND Family

During the drive throughout Morocco the past 12 days, Moha, the Dude (aka dad) and I have gotten to know each other rather well. In addition to Moha providing background on the sites we were visiting, we have spent hours upon hours talking about our families, values, movies, hobbies, etc. and with even more time spent on the more taboo topics in America – religion, politics, economics and social issues. Despite our basic differences, Moha and I have SOOOOOOO much in common – down to our love of cooking and food. We had briefly discussed my interest in taking a cooking class while in Morocco, and Moha suggested that Essaouira and/or Marrakech would be the perfect place. As it is high season in Morocco (both from tourists and locals due to spring break), Moha found that most cooking classes in Essaouira were full. However, just as we were pulling into the Essaouira city limits, Moha was able to find an opening at a small family-owned restaurant that also offers cooking classes. The only catch – it was starting 30 minutes after our arrival into town, giving us just enough time to check into the riad (with a hurried reception of “Berber Whiskey”), and to walk through the medina’s maze of streets to the restaurant.

I, along with two French ladies from a small town outside Toulouse, France – a grandmother and her teenage granddaughter – took the class. (The Dude said he was going to support the Berber custom of no men in the kitchen 😜). Despite me knowing very little French and the instructor (and the other two students) knowing very little English, we seemed to understand each other quite well. I became very familiar with Moroccan cooking spices – especially saffron, cumin, and turmeric) and learned to make Harira (soup made from tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas, lamb, and lemon juice), Zaalouk (cooked salad of eggplant/ aubergines, tomatoes, and garlic), Pastilla or B’stilla (paper-thin pastry crust filled dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, and filled with pigeon/squab meat (or chicken), almonds, and eggs spiced with saffron, cinnamon, and fresh coriander), and Tagine (stew, consisting of meat and vegetables in a rich broth, cooked and served in a round earthenware dish with a conical lid). While I was taking the class, Moha took the Dude around his old stomping grounds and to meet some of his friends, and occasionally peeked their heads in the class.

tastes... TASTY- quite the understatement!

tastes… TASTY- quite the understatement!

Although we only made enough food for us students to eat a nice-sized meal, the restaurant owner extended a complimentary dinner invitation to the Dude, Moha, and the French ladies’ family – a total of 6 extra people – all who coincidentally appeared when all of the food was finished cooking 😋. We were ushered to the restaurant’s rooftop terrace to taste our creations (along with a few that the chef quickly prepared to provide a filling meal for the additional guests). This is where I got my first glimpse of Essaouira’s PHENOMENAL views of the Atlantic Ocean, and right at sunset. Who could ask for a better way to dine and with better company than the Dude and Moha???

Surprisingly, the restaurant owner adamantly refused to let us pay for the extra mouths. Another instance of the INCREDIBLE hospitality of Moroccans! I was able to sneak money to cover the cost of the extra meals and a generous tip into her apron pocket when she wasn’t looking…

After dinner, the Dude and I wandered the streets of Essaouira with Moha – taking in such sights as the medina, fishing harbor, art galleries, and artisans’ workshops selling all sorts of handicrafts. Essaouira is just as Moha described, a cute, quiet, little seaside town. It’s a walled city, with a maze of narrow alleyways just like many other Moroccan cities but Essaouira has yet to be overrun with tourists. It’s a very culturally diverse city comprised primarily of Arabs, Berbers, Europeans, and Gnawas (West Africans originating from the ancient Ghana Empire of Ouagadougo). Although it is known around the world for windsurfing and kite surfing because of its strong winds and currents, I didn’t see anyone in the water beyond children splashing in the surf and young boys diving off the pier. Maybe the winds weren’t strong enough or the undertow was too strong… Essaouira has seen the likes of Orson Wells (who filmed “Othello” here), Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley as well as many other artists. Every June, Essaouira hosts the esteemed Gnawa Festival of World Music, which is equivalent to Woodstock. The Dude and I might have to check it out on a future visit 😉. Moha has already been asking us about our return date…

sights... sounds... smells... the city SCENE. The streets of Essaouria.

sights… sounds… smells… the city SCENE. The streets of Essaouira.

The Dude and I were originally planning on spending 2 full days in Essaouira and then venturing toward Casablanca, but Moha invited the Dude and I to his house in Marrakech for dinner on what would have been our 2nd night. I felt honored that he would extend another invitation to share a meal with his family. (The first invitation was for lunch, the main meal of the day in Morocco, at his parent’s house in Erfoud (near the Sahara Desert) where we met his mother, father, sister, brother, sister-in-law, young nephew, and baby niece). This invitation was for dinner at his home that he shares with his wife and two small children. (He even offered a cooking lesson given by both his wife and him). I was eager to go as I had heard so much about his wife and children, and even heard the voices of his young boys asking him to come home. His youngest, who is not quite 2, would call his mobile and repeatedly say “back”. TOO cute!! In any event, the Dude and I were DELIGHTED to be able to spend the evening with them.

sights... sounds... smells... the city SCENE. The streets of Essaouria.

sights… sounds… smells… the city SCENE. The streets of Essaouira.

I was greatly surprised that we were directly ushered into the beautifully decorated sitting room (which is typically restricted to family members and very close friends) vs his OPULENT bet diyaf (guest room). Moha explained that now we are family… He, respectfully, calls the Dude – Dad, and me – his sister. The Dude and I feel the same way about him. We have thoroughly enjoyed our time with Moha and couldn’t imagine a better person to explore Morocco with!

Moha turned the TV in the sitting room to an English language channel for the Dude while I was off to the kitchen for my cooking lesson. His lovely wife showed me how to make couscous w/ vegetables and lamb, while Moha instructed me on how to make beef tagine w/ vegetables. Despite being a Berber man, Moha is a wonderful cook! (His mother was concerned that he would never marry – as he seemed more interested in business – so she made sure he knew his way around the kitchen). While the entrées were cooking, I had plenty of opportunity to play with his two young sons. Just like in America, his 4 year old is addicted to playing Angry Birds on his iPad. His youngest, who is a bit reserved and quite shy, surprisingly warmed up to me rather quickly (according to Moha and his wife). My favorite heart melting moment was when he came and sat next to me, scooting as close to me as he could possibly get without sitting in my lap, and then laid his head on my leg 😘. Such a cutie!!

Keeping with tradition, dinner was served at a knee-high, round table in the sitting room. Typically, Moroccans eat from a common dish, scooping up food with the fingers on their right hand and/or bread. For this meal, all of us adults ate more Western-style using plates and utensils, while the kids ate traditionally. I have never seen little ones who loved tea, meat and vegetables as much as these two.  You would have thought they were eating candy… Although both the lamb couscous and beef tagine were QUITE TASTY… Kudos to the chefs 😉!!!

#iluv2xplore #dreamexplorediscover

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Sahara’s Rainbows

I was so excited to embark on our ~500km/300mi journey through the Middle and High Atlas Mountains and the Ziz Valley to the Sahara Desert. The Dude (aka dad), not so much… Over the years, I have learned that he is much more into the destination rather than the journey, but will easily go along with the flow 😊. Moha, on the other hand, was eager to show us Erfoud and the Sahara, where he grew up and where his parents and most of his siblings still reside with their families.

Our first stop was in Ifrane, “Morocco’s Switzerland.” It is a VERY expensive ski-resort town. It is a very clean and quiet city, but I found it somewhat pretentious and rather soulless. Maybe because it is not hustling and bustling with skiers at this time of year… In any event, Ifrane became a rather quick stop – just long enough to walk around for a bit and stretch our legs. We spent a bit more time in Azrou, a tiny little town just outside of Ifrane, known for great trout fishing and the Barbary Macaque, an endangered species of ape that lives in the Middle Atlas Mountains. There was a group of ~15-20 of them playing in and around the forest of cedar trees along the side of the road. From there, I can’t recall the cities but will forever have the landscape etched in my memory. The diversity of scenery was UNREAL!! I still can’t believe my eyes and glad that I have photos as proof 😉. Out of the left car window were forested mountains and lakes in cool color shades of greens, blues, and greys, while out of the right car window were barren rock mountains and an occasional oasis in warm color shades of oranges, yellows, and browns. Both scenes had snow-capped mountains in the background. Unbelievably BEAUTIFUL! I so wish I had a different camera lens with me and more time…

Drive through the Middle and High Atlas Mountains in Morocco

sights… NATURAL Beauty… A drive through the Middle and High Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

Nothing prepared me for what I was going to see and experience in the Sahara Desert. Although having lived in the Arizona desert for almost 15 years, and having spent time this past year in the deserts of Arizona, California, and Utah, I am very familiar w/ desert colors – or so I thought… I had not anticipated a full rainbow of colors in such bright hues. It was like a combination of Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Zion on steroids!

It was so INCREDIBLY peaceful watching the sunset from atop a very large sand dune. I can honestly say I have seen better sunsets… (3-January-2015 in Sequoia National Park was the best I have ever seen while 2-May-2012 in Negril, Jamaica and 5-May-2012 in Negril, Jamaica  were a close 2nd). I think it was the overall experience that made it such an AMAZING moment… Being in Morocco – a place that I had spoken about infrequently since my youth but never really had a plan to go… With my father – the only parent I have left… Celebrating his birthday – a big one, although he claims to be 39 and has since I was born 😁… In the Sahara Desert – a place that I imagined to be VERY tranquil but a place my sister really did not want me to visit because of its proximity to the dangers in Algeria – a mere 35km/20mi away – and the continued struggles in the Western Sahara Desert. Surprisingly, there was a stillness in the air. Even the camels ceased their moans, squeaks, groans, and roars and sat silently as the sun crept out of sight.

The Sahara Desert in Morocco.

sights… NATURAL Beauty… The Sahara Desert in Morocco.

I so wish I could have spent many more days just exploring the Sahara Desert but I think the novelty of the desert with the Dude was quickly wearing off 😁. He loved the surprise birthday party that Moha planned but was ready to explore something different. Had I been with some of my more outdoorsy friends and had more time in Morocco, I would have asked Moha to arrange for us to stay deeper in the desert and for much longer. He has promised to arrange that when I return.

Much to my surprise, even the Dude, who is a city boy and not really into nature, said the Sahara Desert was WONDERFUL!! His favorite experience thus far. And that means a lot coming from him…

#iluv2xplore #dreamexplorediscover #naturalbeauty