Morocco – Part 1

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On Monday September 9th, I take a taxi to Charles De Gaulle to catch an EasyJet flight to Agadir. A quick word of warning; these low cost airlines have very strict weight restrictions on luggage. I had to pay an extra 70 euro to get my gear to Morocco, which changed the meaning of affordability for me. I arrive to the airport at 3:30AM for an early flight. After begrudgingly dealing with my baggage I cleared security and stopped at the first cafe I could find for a drinkfast. I order a beer and croissant. My body can’t figure out if it wants to have a night cap or start the day. After a quick stop to the Duty Free store for some Jack Daniels and Bombay Saphire it’s off to Agadir!

The plane lands three hours later on a dry, hazy runway outside of town. I clear immigration quickly once I was able to find a pen to fill out some documentation. After passing customs I spot my sister and rush in her direction. We flag down a cab and my sister beings the Middle Eastern art of negotiation. I am immediately captivated by her command of Arabic and a local Berber dialect. She doesn’t hesitate to make sure we’re getting the best possible deal. The driver of our Grande Taxi is not amused by her insistence nor is he used to a woman managing the finances but I make it clear he has to convince her before we were going anywhere. We settle on a price after three other spectators are consulted. Finally, we are on our way to the town of Ouled Tamil where my sister has been living for 7 months on a Peace Croup assignment. She works in the local Nedi Neswi (womans center) and occasionally at the Dar Chebab (youth center).

Southern Morocco is generally more conservative than the North. Many woman wear layzars, which are large beautifully colored sheets of fabric wound around the body; once you leave the tourist towns you’ll rarely see someone in western clothing. Most men are dressed Jallabahs. In this town there aren’t any westerners so the arrival of a new face is noted. Frequently my sister’s guests have to register with the police. The main street is filled with small shops with men sitting in cafes drinking mint tea and smoking cigarettes. When we arrive in town we switch to a petit taxi and commute another 5 minutes to her apartment located near to a dirt soccer field, neighborhood mosque, and cemetery. It’s also a block away from Camel Corner. My sister Tatiana, lives above her landlord in a really nice home, even accounting for the cockroaches we crush with extreme prejudice.

After evacuating my bags in a typical backpacker explosion I gift my sister a new Kindle, an iPod, some kitchen spices, and a new pair of sandals I’ve been carrying from Seattle. I’m getting a bit hungry so we decide to head off to the market. We walk across the soccer pitch and back toward the main road. We head into a covered market and walk through to the other side where the vegetables are sold. We stop and visit with a man who sells carpets. He kindly invites us and we join him for some hot mint tea. It’s customary to pour the tea by lifting the pot high above the glass to enfoam the liquid. It is then placed back into the tea pot up to five times to ensure a frothy pour. I watch this ritual with keen eye. After nearly an hour we make our way toward Tatiana’s favorite vegetable vendor. Mustafa greets us enthusiastically. We spend ten minutes picking out several kilos of everything he has. We can’t decide what we’re going to make for dinner so we compromise and purchase a bit of everything. Mustafa makes sure we get only his best and busily works his way through the produce to make sure we have at least 3-4 times as much as we need. He invites us for coffee and summons his deaf brother to go brew some for us. We wait behind his stall and watch the flow of customers pass by. Every few minutes someone makes a sale. Mustafa’s brother returns with several coffees and a box full of cookies. One thing has become very clear to me; Moroccans love their sugar. Everything is as sweet as honey.

Mustafa’s vegetable stand is right next to the mint-man who is busily cutting and sorting through huge stacks of fragrant branches that waft past us. Mustafa disappears again. We lazily finish our coffees. When he comes back he returns with a beautiful blue Jallabah for me. I immediately put it on. He decides it’s a little long and grabs me by the arm to take me to the tailor. I jump over piles of tomatoes and dodge small motor bikes spitting black exhaust. Three stalls down is the tailor, who quickly sizes me up and marks off his adjustments.

I head back to the vegetable stall where my sister is sitting contently in the hot Moroccan sunshine. She’s eating some sticky dates she picked. A few minutes later Mustafa returns with a perfectly fitting Jalabbah. I thank him profusely. We ask him how much we owe and he insists that there is no cost but we insist on paying him. My sister hands him some money and he uncomfortably takes it, makes some change, and stuffs most of it back into my sister’s bag. He loves playing little tricks and I think he finds us amusing. I don’t like feeling indebted to anyone so I plan to find something for him before I leave Morocco. We move on because we decide we need to get some turkey meat. We’re now carrying a 20lb bag of vegetables for precisely one meal.

As we head back toward Tatiana’s apartment we decide to visit her original host family. We’re quickly invited into their home. It’s customary to always take your shoes off once you enter a carpeted surface, but otherwise you can keep them on in the hallways. We’re served more diabolically sweet mint tea and spend half an hour visiting. The host mom disappears and before we know it she’s busy preparing the lunch tagine. I head into the kitchen to observe this important culinary art. A tagine is both a cooking device and a dish. It’s basically a round crock pot with a short rim that you place a ceramic cone over to steam the contents. Today, we’re making a chicken tagine:

You will need:

  • 1 whole chicken (or 5-6 thighs).
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons of oil (vegetable or olive)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon peper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon tumeric
  • 1 teaspoon chili power
  • 1 small minced onion
  • 1 or 2 minced garlic cloves
  • A pinch of saffron
  • Some green or black olives to taste (combine after cooking)

Begin by covering the bottom of the tagine with oil on high heat. Place onion in the pot. Cook until translucent. Add chicken. Cook on each side for 3-4 minutes (browning). Add all the spices and garlic. Sauté briefly. Add enough water to cover half the chicken. Turn the temperature down, cover for at least forty minutes, and go have some mint tea with lots of sugar. Remember to take your shoes off when you get to the living room.

Tagine is typically served with a soft bread which is actually the delivery device (no forks here). Everyone gathers around the steaming plate and digs in. Finally, most Moroccan meals are finished with a plate of fresh fruit.

Around three in the afternoon we wander back home, satiated and tired from the afternoon heat. I promptly collapse on a Ponge (basically a couch mattress that sits on the floor) — it’s time for a nap.

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