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What’s Cooking in the Baths of Marrakech?

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I’m loathe to admit it, but I must be only moderately attractive because he obviously wasn’t aroused when he showed me his … you know … stuff.

OK, raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself sitting naked except for your Hanes’ boxer underwear on a hot, wet, polished cement floor, surrounded by men, young and old, who speak only Arabic.

Then one well-proportioned young fellow looks directly at you, right at YOU, and discretely lowers the band of his shorts displaying his junk with a come hither look.

But seriously, this was the admittedly surreal vision in front of me as I sat in a traditional Moroccan “Hammam” (Public Bath) within the Souk of Marrakech.

Let’s move on, we can come back to this later.

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A Day’s Journey

Our day began bright and clear, the temperature sitting at perhaps 6C or 7C in Fez as we headed out with an early start.

The full-day driving journey from Fez to Marrakech took our group of 5 Canadians, Moroccan guide Redouane, and driver, Fouad, over the Middle Atlas Mountains through a schizophrenic set of agricultural fields and orchards. Our trek morphed from huge lush green fields of hay and orange orchards, to dry scrub land with prickly pear cactus in abundance.

As we climbed the grey morning hills, the air grew cooler and cooler, and then … surprise, we were in snowy terrain.

Maureen looked out the van windows and pointed out to us the spray of almond blooms hanging pretty pink, like delicate earrings in the trees, with white snow clinging to the branches and as a backdrop. Well constructed, rocky fences surrounded fields almost as if we were in the highlands of Scotland.

We stopped for a short break of cafe con leche in a white-enshrouded alpine town called Ifrane. Some of us frolicked, and froze our unprotected hands in a cold and wet impromptu snowball fight and then participated in the classic Canadian winter ritual of pushing a powerless car down a hill for a jump start.

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Not a scene we had anticipated in Morocco …

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Moroccan guide Redouane and I get our morning workout!

Within 15 minutes of leaving Ifrane, we were back into the green, sumptuous farm land we were more accustomed to – and had expected– in Morocco.

Sometimes small, often enormous flocks of sheep, scattered either side of the road, always, always, always accompanied by a solitary shepherd. One flock, one shepherd.

Concave, concrete water flumes, like the ones used years ago in our Okanagan Valley here in Canada, lined the fields for irrigation.

We were surprised to encounter our one and only visit to squat toilets at a fueling station along the day’s journey. My expectation in travelling to Morocco had been that the “western” porcelain toilets would be the exception, not the rule. And I admit to you, porcelain was a pleasant surprise for this comfort-seeking westerner, especially so for the women!


It was a full day of driving in the Mercedes van over good quality, but mostly winding two-lane roads that brought us into the early evening sunset and heavy traffic of Marrakech, the hometown of our eager young driver, Fouad.

Warm, Moroccan sun beamed bright orange through the front window of the van as we pulled up to the elegant entry doors of the hotel in the central modern core of this city.

Across the street was the impressive Gare, the train station. Far off in the western distance there was a hazy view of the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains, looking very Rocky Mountain’ish.

Pleasant, dry windy gusts blew warmly as we edged stiffly from the van after the long day’s drive. Tall, friendly palms waved as the sounds of busy traffic motored past on the spacious boulevard at front. I fondly remembered how special and exotic palm trees looked to me when I flipped through travel or National Geographic magazines as a kid (see, I noticed more than the naked Black women!).

As in each of our nightly stops in Morocco, the hotel was large and modern, like any 4-star European hotel. Even though they all lacked some small’ish detail such as functioning heat and air control systems, or occasional leaking bathroom fixtures, the beds were good, and the rooms were clean and well-appointed.

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Marrakech in the early evening sun with High Atlas Mountains in the distance…

Now We’re Cookin’!

The temperature when we awoke the following morning was warmer than we had experienced so far in Morocco. It was a delight to feel the sun and the low 20C temperatures, rather than the low- to mid-teens.

Maureen and I stood in front of the Cafe de France in Marrakech’s spacious main Jemaa el-Fnaa Square as carts of supplies and local trucks and vendors whisked in all directions to set up the small stalls for the day.

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Congestion in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square…

We waited, taking in our surroundings for a few moments, then a young woman approached and introduced herself.

Karina, dressed in jeans and blouse, jacket and knit scarf, was to be our Moroccan shopping and cooking instructor, charged with imparting the techniques of tagine cuisine to just us Canadians. On some occasions, she has conducted a class grouping of 18 people, but today, it was a private tagine session.

Oh, sorry, if you didn’t know already, tagine is an historically Berber dish from North Africa that is named after the type of earthenware pot in which it is cooked.

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Tagine cooking pots in Marrakech souk …

After our introductions, we walked out of the main open square and entered the souk, or marketplace. Much like the crowded and buzzing Fez Medina, but not so claustrophobic and tight, we zigged and zagged along the huge avenues of stalls and little foundries of metal workers pounding silver and tin over anvils and smoking coal fires.

Shortly we entered the “food” section of the souk. The first small stall we approached had a high glass-fronted counter – in behind were cages filled with live, clucking chickens.

Karina spoke to the small man behind the counter in Arabic. The fellow nodded, opened a cage door and grabbed one of the squawking birds and retrieved it and placed it onto the white surfaced weigh scale sitting just in front of us. Karina shook her head NO … too big!

He put the bird back in its cage and pulled out another, laid it on the scale where it sat pathetically and limply resigned. This time Karina was satisfied, and gave him the go ahead nod of her head. She turned to us and explained in English that a 1 kilogram bird was all we needed.

“We can go get vegetables and come back and it will be ready in a few minutes.”

Within eye-shot we spotted a vegetable “stall”, a patch of open ground on the side of the pathway where a selection of fresh produce was laid out.

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Karina grabbed a plastic basket from the shopkeeper man and asked us to begin selecting good tomatoes, onions, green peppers, lemons, oranges, coriander, and parsley. Rubbing elbows with a few elderly ladies, we chose a selection of produce, paid for it with just a few Moroccan dirhams, then returned to the meat stall for our now freshly killed, eviscerated and plucked chicken friend.

The butcher tossed the fowl into a plastic bag and we continued onwards for a couple more stops where we purchased some typical Moroccan flat breads, fresh mint, olives, bottled water, saffron, and olive oil.

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Paying for the just-selected live chicken …

Now, fully loaded with everything needed to make a chicken lemon tagine, we walked 2 or 3 minutes more to a riad (traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) on the edge of the souk.

Along the souk’s passageway we came to a beautifully-carved wooden door- the entrance to the riad.

We crossed the threshold into a bright hallway lined with framed photos of typical Moroccan scenes that led to a terra-cotta tiled courtyard. The inner courtyard was open in the centre to the sun and blue sky above.

Around the edges of the main patio radiated a large dining section, some stairs leading to upper floors, a smaller dining area with a square table and bench seating, with a small galley-style kitchen to its left. At one other side of the courtyard was a small, deep pool, like a fishpond, but empty of water and filled with potted plants for the winter months.

Karina led us into the kitchen with our fresh supplies where she had us cover up with pressed and pristine white aprons, and then set each of us up at a small workstation with a cutting surface and a short, sharp knife.

Karina chatted happily away in well-honed English about her single Moroccan woman’s life and a young man she was corresponding with in England whom she hoped would become a more serious connection someday soon.

But before we got down to serious cooking work, we returned to the dining table where Karina showed us the preparation of sweet mint tea. We had seen many small cafes in our Moroccan travels where tables filled with men (yes, never women) sat, facing the street, and sipped mint tea as the drink of choice.

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Karina prepares the mint tea …

We went through the multi-step process of making the traditional tea using loose green tea, a large handful of fresh mint and two sizable chunks of white sugar. Soon, Karina began pouring the steaming hot liquid into small glass cups from-on-high style. We sipped the final result and enjoyed the sweet, hot, spearmint flavour.

Tea time over … back to the kitchen.

The orange-clay tagine pots sat before us and we began chopping vegetables and piling the chicken and vegetables into the flat centre of the container. With each ingredient we chopped – just as she had in the souk – Karina had us learn the Arabic word:

Tomato- matisha, onion – basla, chicken – djaj, saffron – zaafron, olives – zitoun, lemon – hamed.

What probably surprised us most in making the tagine dish was the sheer volume of spice added. For each of our small, one person tagine dishes, a full teaspoon each of pepper, coriander, cumin, ginger, and salt were ladled into the mix. Finally a 1/4 teaspoon of saffron, a handful of olives, fresh and preserved lemon, a few tablespoons of pungent olive oil and then a careful turning and mixing of the entire blend completed the dish.

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A work of pre-cooked art …

It surprised me further when we placed the tagine pots directly over the stove’s propane flame for the dishes’ 1 hour cooking.

While the tagine heated, we moved on to the prep of a Moroccan salad.

Each noon meal we’d had on our Moroccan journey consisted of a collection of extremely-fine chopped salads. Today’s salad would be no exception.

Karina had us mince garlic and red onion and tomato so that it appeared almost like a Mexican salsa in consistency. After charring a couple of green peppers directly over the stove’s flame burner, we removed the blackened skins and minced the soft inner flesh as well. The spice blend was lemon and garlic and mint.

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Our salad creation…

In my own personal cooking style, I have a tendency to freelance and use a recipe only as a general guideline. A splash of this, a dash of that.

But today I was in a room of pragmatists, and as I added my spices just a bit haphazardly, Karina sweetly and playfully reminded me that, “You must respect the recipe”.

“You Must Respect The Recipe.”

When the words came from her mouth it sounded like a much deeper life lesson somehow. I’ll have to ponder that over a glass or two of wine someday.

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Karina and Larry “Respecting the Recipe” !

We laughed and joked in English, sometimes in broken French, but always sharing in the fun of a cross-cultural experience with a woman who lived in a Muslim world that bridged a historic past and a western-influenced future.

The scent of the cooking tagine enveloped the riad and the mix began burbling over the clay lip of the pot so Karina tilted the lids to allow steam to escape as if we were boiling potatoes on the stove.

Finally, she declared the tagine meal fully-cooked and sent us off to wait at the dining table that she had set with placemats, a flower, and a small plate filled with the round flatbread that we had bought earlier in the day.

Moments later, she carefully placed our individual tagine pots in front of us, steaming and smelling exotically fragrant. We raised a glass of water to toast (alcohol wouldn’t have been appropriate in this Muslim culture) our creation and then settled in for the tasting.

I could describe the character and quality and the impressions of the dishes, but instead I’ll just let you use your own imagination to absorb and enjoy the complex blend of flavours of our wonderful tagines.

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A Visit to the Hammam

Alright, it’s time we returned to the Hammam, the Moroccan public bath, I mentioned at the beginning of this story.

The hammam is found deep within the enclaves of the souk marketplace, and could be easily missed if you didn’t know what to look for.

Redouane, my Moroccan guide, showed me the small, open hole-in-the-wall where I would enter. He came inside the front entrance with me to negotiate with an old man in Arabic, the terms of my visit. I paid about $8 Canadian and was assigned a young “assistant” (I’ll call him Akeem) who spoke no English and only the tiniest bit of French.  From there on, it was just me and the Hammam.

As instructed earlier by Redouane, I took off all of my clothes except for my jockey shorts, hung them on hooks on the side walls of an open room and then was led forward by Akeem.

The hammam was old and steamy. We passed through two tiled rooms with domed ceilings, filled with nearly-naked bodies of Muslim men, young and old. In the third and final room we found some floor space, and Akeem gestured with hand signals for me to sit on the floor.

I gazed around, feeling the warm and wet polished concrete floors, looking up to the grey-white plastered ceilings arched 20 ft above, stained with brown rivulets of who-knows-what.

Lining the walls were long blue and red painted pipes, insistently dripping with piping hot or cool water from which he filled a bucket from the cool pipe and placed it in front of me.

Hammam Fez

It kinda looks like this inside the Marrakech Hammam…

He looked at me, said “dix minutes” (10 minutes), turned and left the room.

I sat there, trying hard and failing miserably to look inconspicuous as the only obviously white westerner. I was growing warm quickly so I started to slosh bits of the cool water from the bucket over myself, much like some others were doing.  I took a few yoga-type breaths and relaxed, feeling the humid heat, letting it penetrate my pores for what seemed like a long, long time.

It was during this heating period that my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this story showed me his private parts.

I had been aware in my peripheral vision that he had been sitting about 6 feet away from me, washing and scrubbing a little and glancing over frequently. Finally, when I turned to look directly at him, he extended his personal invite.

OMG! I instantly shook my head in refusal.

It’s funny, but it took a few minutes for me to absorb the nature of the little interaction. Initially, I thought he was just a friendly, slightly horny young fellow who found me attractive in a sexual way.

But quickly I came around to the more probable truth that meant a single westerner in a hammam might just be seeking out male prostitutes to have some exotic and inexpensive fun. DUH!

My little naive mind grew up quickly.

He wasn’t persistent, but I was casting a closer eye on all of my fellow sweaty roommates now, even the ancient, elderly guy with the torn, old underwear and the sadly sagging scrotum that protruded through the rips.  And now I was getting a tad nervous about the next stage in the hammam experience.

Ten minutes and more had passed before Akeem returned in his tiny, tight little shorts to do the hard part of exfoliating my skin.  He led me into a slightly cooler second room and then gestured that I should lie flat on my back, and he prepared to start with my arms.  I closed my eyes, trying to pretend there was no one else in the room, and determined to enjoy being washed and scraped, only to have them fly open again in shock when the scrubbing began.

This little guy put on the Kessa abrasive glove and started in – it felt as though he was rubbing me down with coarse sandpaper!  After a long few minutes I got used to the pressure and pain, and actually started enjoying it. I was a little mortified at how much dead skin he was stripping from me as he scrubbed every single inch of my flesh outside of my protected shorts area till it was red raw. But he didn’t seem surprised or bothered, so I tried to stop worrying and just enjoy. Plus I figured with all of that skin gone, I had discovered a tried-and-true way to rapid weight loss!

Once my front was done from top to toe, he had me flip over and repeated the process for my back and sides, using black olive-based hammam soap.  He even scoured my face and almost ripped out my eyes, and I was certainly radiating pink all over by the end. At one point he leaned his knee into my lower back and lifted my arms into a painful stretch as a bit of a massage.

Finally, with wads of skin on the floor and lots still clinging to me, he took me to one last room where he scooped little ladles of cool water all over as a final wash.

I exited the hammam with a tingling all over, mostly from the scrubbing.

But maybe, just maybe, a little bit of nervous tingling too, came from the unexpected encounter with a young man who had hoped to make a few extra dirhams in the hammam that day.

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Our Moroccan/Canadian group playing in the snow…Redouane (guide), Fouad (driver), Larry, Sydney (Toronto), Maureen, John (Half Moon Bay, BC), and John (Toronto)

The Beauty and the Beastly Smells of the Fez Medina

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(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :

http://www.travelblog.org/Africa/Morocco/F-s-Boulemane/Fes/blog-828790.html)

There is mystery and music and intrigue for me in the names Fez and Marrakech. They sound exotic and foreign and romantic. Maybe even a touch dangerous or threatening.

I feel some excitement at the thought of seeing, feeling, hearing, even tasting the experience of locales that have only been names until now.

Both of these Moroccan cities have been immortalized in popular songs of my era:

• “The Fez” by Steely Dan in the 1970’s which is actually using fez as a slang term for condom,

• and Crosby, Stills, and Nash 1969 song “Marrakech Express“, written by Graham Nash after a 1966 train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech.

And so I arrive in Fez with a mission – to acquire a “fez”, the round red hat with the flat top that you’ll see Shriners wearing in parades and festivals.

The first morning in Fez – our guide and driver Redouane and Fouad meet us early at our modern hotel and we start with a couple of quick stops high above the massive white and tan-coloured city to get an overview.

The next visit is at a local pottery school. There, a young worker convinces me to try my hand at molding and kneading the stiff, grey clay, laid out in a big wet lump on the floor, next to the artists spinning their wheels producing tagine pots. The skin of my palms becomes greyer than the hair on my head.

By the time we finish there, I walk out with a beautifully painted tagine pot in my possession. I figure that this is just part of my early preparation for a tagine cooking class we will be taking a couple of days later in Marrakech.

And now, here we are in the entryway to the Fez Medina (walled city) that transports a person back in time into a remarkable marketplace that has been the lifeblood for dozens upon dozens of generations of Moroccans. There’s a touch of Alice Through the Looking Glass entering the hole, the tunnel that may or may not let us out of its grip.

This morning as our group prepares to enter the medina, Redouane, once again dressed in his cloak-like djillaba, introduces us to a young fellow. Aladdin, an unemployed, yet well-dressed local man, will accompany us through the labyrinth to ensure that none of us becomes lost in the narrow, twisted alleys.

Within seconds of leaving the open square and entering the medina, an acrid, pungent smell hits.
We are surrounded by hustling, rushing people pushing their way through cramped, narrow corridors. There are scattered bits of overhead roofing some of the time, although the passages are so narrow, it feels as if we are indoors the entire time.

The first market stalls we encounter are laden with animal carcasses, mostly lamb, sheep and beef, and some wicker baskets filled to the brim with live shrimp or tai-chi slow moving snails in their shells. There are dozens of snail baskets stacked back deep into the shops. These are obviously a popular local delicacy, and something we’ll see a lot of little stalls selling later, hot and prepared in the souk of Marrakech.

The pinched passageway rises up and down and bends around corners, the floor sometimes smooth, but more often bumpy and cracked. Every 10 or 15 seconds a push cart or scraggled donkey heavily laden with food or fabric or animal hides – cement even – approaches from behind and the Arabic word “belek” is shouted…”move aside”.

There is constant movement and interaction between the sellers and the men, women, and children who live their lives inside this encapsulated city.

Small emaciated cats sit amusedly or run hither and thither, collecting any tiny stray scraps of meat or white bits of fat dropped to the ground by merchants. In the Muslim world, cats are considered clean and can be touched and held, whereas dogs are believed contaminated, and after touching one, it is important to wash and cleanse oneself, almost as if you were entering a mosque.

Some of the shops appear to be long ago dug into the dirt hillside, dark and primitive, while next to them, others have lovely ceramic entryways and bright lights. Still stranger are the doorways that open into a modern looking bank or a restaurant, a mosque, or even the world’s first university.

This is a place of huge diversity, with a whole lot of curiosity; for example, when we entered a leather tannery factory.

At the dark, claustrophobic entryway, a small, old, bearded man hands each of us a branch of fresh, leafy mint. Nice smell, OK.

We climb two flights of cramped wooden stairs where we are greeted by a middle-aged semi-toothless fellow who speaks English with a southern twang, who ends his “s” words with “sh”…”Welcome to Fesh”.

It’s hard not to stare at his yellow-mottled, peg teeth as he tells us he once lived in Cold Lake, Alberta, flowering us with compliments about Canada. Then he launches the tour of the tannery factory inside the Fez Medina.

Leading us one floor higher, we walk into a sizable, dull wood-floored room with a long opening on the far side looking out over the Medina. When we approach the edge to peer out, it’s as if a scene from Dicken’s industrial age is laid out before us.

Far below is a huge square filled with perhaps a hundred round, concrete vats, each maybe 6 or 8 feet across looking like small hot tubs. They’re filled to the top with dye liquids of varying colours.

Dozens of grizzled men work around and inside them. Some are carrying heavy loads of raw, untreated hides that they toss into the “baths”.

Others are swimming in the vats up to their waist in dye water, mixing the hides to take on the stain: the yellow, the brown, the black, the red and many more. All to make the coats and purses and leather briefcases we find in our houses somewhere in the world. Some of the men walk about with legs tinted the same colour as the coats we admire later.

Immediately, it’s obvious why we were handed the mint. The stench is overwhelmingly nauseating in the way it burns into your nostrils and lungs. Holding the mint to your nose helps to lessen but not obliterate the rotting, putrid smell.

There’s a constant flow of hides entering and leaving the area; the tan or white hides coming in flung over the shoulder by the dozen, and dripping wet, coloured hides carried away for the next stage in the process.

After observing the trip back in time for a few long moments, we’re taken the standard tourist route through the many displays and showrooms of all of the leather products: coats, handbags, valises, suitcases, belts.

Sydney, one of our Canadian co-travellers shows an interest in a handbag, if it’s not too expensive.

An hour later and after intense negotiations that could have bought and sold a major Canadian corporation, Sydney sheds $300 on a handbag and a red leather jacket, bargained down from the $700 starting point. Maureen was brought in to the negotiations partway through to lend some supportive, female strength, and then later, Sydney’s husband John was dragged in to approve the final purchase.

Tired, dehydrated and hungry, we all shuffle off for lunch, stumbling along the snake-like passages and then abruptly swinging right through a doorway. Down some rickety stairs, a high ceiling-ed chamber opens up before us – the room is filled with diners settled at round, wooden tables surrounded by benches lined with bulging, over-stuffed cushions.

It is dimly lit, and had it been filled with smoke, we might have thought we had entered a den of iniquity from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Our group settles in and soon has a table filled with multiple plates of finely chopped Moroccan salads, followed closely by a chicken tagine mixed with our first sampling of couscous. No alcohol is served here in the midst of the Muslim surrounds, but lots of hot, sweet mint tea washes down the spicy dishes. A final course of fresh bananas and mandarin oranges leaves us recuperated and refreshed for further medina meanderings.

Getting out of the restaurant is as difficult as finding our way through the rest of the medina.

A few of our small group are held up by the other 3 of us who take a wrong set of stairs and begin climbing upwards, and then more upwards, attempting to find an exit. “Funny, I don’t remember passing this office room when we came in here.”

Finally, a kind server of the restaurant escorts us few lost sheep to the correct staircase that leads us back to the twisted paths of the actual medina. We carry on visiting other alleys and shops, and small factories until our feet are sore from the ups and downs and all arounds.

Like the 19th hole of a golf course, or the sports bar after the hockey or football game, our group returns to the hotel where we gather later for dinner and relive the day that has stimulated all of our senses with the sight, sound, touch, taste, and yes, especially, smells, of life behind the walls of the medina in Fez, Morocco.

In the next blog post, we’ll take you through the Moroccan countryside and to the exciting city of Marrakesh and its Souk (market), a tagine cooking class, and a visit to a Hammam (traditional Moroccan public bath). You won’t want to miss it!

Play It Again Sam … Casablanca to Fez

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(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :

http://www.travelblog.org/Africa/Morocco/Grand-Casablanca/Casablanca/blog-827033.html)

The Moroccan policeman has a smile on his face that looks pasted-on friendly but it’s pretty clear to us all that there’s serious intent as he reaches forward and touches my arm over and over.

Even our ever-smiling guide Redouane (“Red-One”) has lost the happy light in his eyes. But that’s not important just yet … let’s go back just a bit.

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RABAT, Morocco

It’s like a symphony performed with the lights turned out.

The sounds float on the cool pre-dawn air into our hotel room through the window left open to allow fresh air that won’t come from the non-functioning A/C unit.

First, the sweetly lyrical but haunting chant crying out through the loudspeaker that calls the Muslim faithful to the first of their 5 times daily prayer.

Then a pleasant woman’s voice emanates from the train station across the street reciting a list in Arabic, French (the 2 main languages spoken in northern Morocco, Berber is spoken more in the south), and English, of destinations for the next train arrival.

Soon after, the squealing sound of a train’s wheels incite dog songs to begin the baying chorus of their ancestors.

Finally, a child’s quiet cries intrude through the background to end the symphony.

This is how the day started in this Muslim city just a bit north of Casablanca in the Monday morning darkness.

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Breakfast in the white table-clothed hotel restaurant is filled with a gaggle of brown-skinned, mustachioed and tuxedoed Moroccan male servers hustling here and there and yet serving very few guests. It’s clearly mostly busy work, but they’re very good at giving it a realistic feel of useful activity.

The serving tables are replete with large platters of just-made crepes and steaming French toast, all manner of fruit, eggs, salad vegetables, and finally, tall spindled serving trays of… shall we say…dry enough to choke a camel, almond-infused sweet goods.

The night before, at a different table in the same restaurant, all of us 5 Canadian travelers-on-tour brought out our tourism six shooters.

In a game of oneupmanship, one by one we fired off an impressive-to-us list of previous travels and exotic adventures. When one of us finished, the next began and raised the ante. China versus Nepal versus Galapagos versus Iceland and so on.

It’s not a contest I enjoy, but my competitive side wouldn’t let me escape and be quiet. Embarrassed at myself, I fired back with my travel credentials. Take that … bang bang!

After arriving on a late night flight from Madrid, the first tour day had been a whirlwind of exploring sprawling Casablanca (population 4 million) with the main Hassan II Mosque and its enormous 200-metre high minaret, the highest in the Islamic world. We removed our shoes to enter with respect and took in the enormity of the marble and cedar shrine to Allah.

The dark, cloudy day was accompanied by large Atlantic Ocean waves smashing into the beach front behind the mosque, giving the scene a roar for the ear and an ominous look for the eye.

Leaving Casablanca, we began the driving loop through northern Morocco’s varied history and landscapes and flavours.

 

The Road from Rabat to Fez

On the smaller Moroccan highways, there are police roadblocks each half hour to hour along the way.

We approached the very first of our journey shortly after a lunch break of delicious chicken tagine (moroccan stew), and little triangle-shaped pastries that mixed a savoury inside (chicken, ground almonds, and egg) with a sugar-dusted outside, in the old university town of Meknes. I’ll be looking for a recipe for those pastries!

Two sour-faced and officious cops waved our 7-seater van to the side of the two-lane paved highway. It was a stretch of road surrounded by lush green fields of fava beans, gentle, verdant slopes rising on both sides.

We had passed alongside huge wide swaths of olive orchards in their silvery grey hues, although the trees were empty of olives for now. On the other hand, the almond trees had been in full pink blossomy splendour and from time to time we had seen bitter orange trees with large ripe round fruit hanging from their branches.

It was as lush an agricultural area as I had ever experienced.

It was also as lush a police hustle as I had ever encountered.

In the driver’s seat of our van sat Fouad, a slender, mid-twenties fellow with a slight resemblance to a young Barack Obama, a big infectious smile and a happy demeanor.

In the passenger seat was Redouane, our handsome, thirty-two year old guide for the journey.

We five Canuck journeyers in the back, sat quietly eating local mandarin oranges, and watched with interest as the discussion went along in Arabic between the officer at the window and our two guides. Eventually both Redouane and Fouad were asked to get out of the van and join the police at their vehicle behind.

Five minutes passed and then 10 as the discussion went on with no resolution; at times it looked like there was some heat in the words of one of the cops and once in Redouane’s face.

But I wasn’t satisfied with watching and waiting as Redouane and Fouad argued and cajoled the police officers. Despite an ongoing discussion with our fellows, the police managed to multi-task and continue to pull over other truck and van drivers, apparently fleecing a few hundred Moroccan Dirhams from some, the equivalent of maybe 30 or 40 Canadian dollars.

Finally, foolishly … stupidly … impulsively … I stuck my head out of the van door, aiming my camera towards the excitement occurring between the police and Redouane.

I snapped a photo of the back-and-forth 15 metres away, pleased that I had been so discrete, and no, I didn’t use a flash.

Climbing into the back seat area, I reached over the back of the seat and took a second shot through the rear window of the van.

I sat back in my van seat, proud of my photojournalism skills.

But, unfortunately, I HAD been caught “red-camera”-ed.

I could hear the crunch crunch crunch of approaching footsteps on the soft shoulder gravel and then the head police guy’s face peered in through the open van door. Redouane looked worried behind his shoulder. The police officer smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile.

Redouane spoke over the cop’s shoulder:

“You must erase the picture you just took and show the policeman while you’re doing it.”

The cop reached in towards me and touched my arm while I turned on the camera. I was way too timid to resist and insist on freedom of expression or whatever might show true courage.

Everyone else in the van sat in stony silence.

I’ve never deleted a photo on this Canon SLR camera and so Maureen and I fumbled over and over, pushing this button, then that, then another. Nothing seemed to bring up an erase screen.

The cop continued looking at me and touching my arm each time it was clear I hadn’t erased anything. Then he pulled out a small flashlight and held the light on the camera’s back.

Quickly, I spotted a garbage can icon – YES!! This had to be it.

I touched the button beside the icon and the word ERASE popped up on the screen.

The beads of sweat on my forehead began to cool and when the button was pressed, the cop could see the photo disappear. I hoped that he wouldn’t look at the screen and notice that there was a second photo of the scene. But he was too skilled at this scenario and immediately he signaled to me that I should erase the next photo as well. I hit the garbage can icon and it was … gone.

The cop looked up at me, smiled, touched my arm, then said in broken English, “Enjoy your stay in Morocco”. OK…

Redouane refused to pay a cash bribe to the cops, insisting on a written fine so that there would be a record of his “crime”. The travel company would pay the cost of the official fine later for the burnt out taillight that couldn’t possibly have been seen by the cops prior to pulling us over.

…………………………………………….

Off we continued; we passed through a dozen more road blocks in the next day or so without incident – just a collective holding of breath and nervous laughs each time by the 7 inhabitants of our van.

Darkness descended as we finally pulled into Fez for the night. The evening air was cooling to about 6 or 7 C when we hopped out of the van and checked into a beautiful 5 storey Barcelo-branded hotel and prepared for a visit to the famed enormous Fez Medina (old walled city) the following morning.

The delights of Fez and Marrakesh will be the next stops on this blog’s journey. More surprises to come!!