Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Adventure in a Moroccan Hammam

Hammams are communal baths which are found throughout Morocco. There is one near the hotel we're staying at here in Essoaira and this afternoon I went for a visit. I'm still reeling from culture shock! First walking around the streets of Morocco I've only seen women veiled and draped...and suddenly in the Hammam, my eyes do a double-take as I walk into a world in which the children are completely nude and the women are wearing just panties. Altogether it seems that Moroccan women actually have a greater degree of comfort with their bodies than most Western women! I was guided into a room in which most of the women were either scrubbing themselves or their children. Being new at this I was assigned a washing assistant. First I was handed a slimy piece of brown soap and instructed, in sign language, to lather myself up. Then buckets of water were poured over me.

Next my assistant put on a very abrasive glove and began to exfoliate my arms, legs and feet. She was really rough and at moments I would motion for her to stop. Then she began scrubbing areas I've never scrubbed before like the sides of my neck and under my arms. No parts were left untouched as she grabbed at my breasts and well under my panties..

Then my hair was washed and combed into a Berber style with a plastic head massager. Finally I was led into another room and told to lie on my back. She virtually got on top of me and started to pull at my arms. This was part of a massage which included lots of pouncing and grabbing, smacking and twisting. In that no one seemed to be concerned about what she was doing to me, I figured it was all standard behavior. Eventually she began pouring pitchers of water on me--I joined in and poured water on her...I was almost tempted to slap and pull at her, too--just to get even!

I left in a culture-shocked daze...

Extracting Argan Oil

There are many women's cooperatives which engage in the labor-intensive practice of processing the argan nut. Argan primarily grows in Morocco and Mexico, but it is only in Morocco where there is a nut/seed. The nuts are harvested, cracked open to harvest the oily meat (which has a decidedly bitter taste) then toasted (or not) then pound with a stone and then run through this hand-crank extractor to access the oil. The oil can be used for cooking as well as for a range cosmetic creams, soaps and oils.

Inside a Berber Village

We visited the High Atlas mountains and I wandered through a Berber Village. Being on the edge of a river bed, the houses were made from stone rather than clay. (I was charged a couple of dirham for the right to photograph the cute cow...)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Learning to Make Tangine

Our teacher shows us how she selects the meat

This is the finished stew

It's cooked in a ceramic casserol dish with a cone-shaped lid over a low fire.

Some of the many flavors that can go into seasoning a tangine--pictured here are ginger, pepper, salt, cumin, coriander, garlic and saffron

Taking in Beautiful Morocco

Driving through small towns

After we left the Sahara Desert we drove through a number of small towns each with particular cultural ane religious practices: in one, women appeared in public wearing full black veils wherein only one-eye could nakedly engage the world. I'd seen pictures before but it was quite chilling to to actually witness the practice. Later we stopped at a local market and I just mingled among the other shoppers. At one moment a gregarious Moroccan woman extended her hand to shake mine. My right hand was full and so I offered her my left. She refused it, laughing as she reached for the proper hand. I laughed along with her, considering what a cultural misfit I must be! Then I went over to a vendor who was selling scarves and I selected four pretty ones...

Moroccan Donkeys

Donkeys are used both in the countryside as well as the cities for transport as well as for hauling stuff.

Monkey Finger Rock Scape

This range in the mid-atlas mountains are referred to as monkey-fingers...

Dogs of Morocco

Basically they are mid-sized, free to roam and in good shape.

Todra Gorge

After the desert we headed off into the mountains and spent the night at Todra Gorge with a rushing river and huge rock faces that draw climbers from all over the world. After dinner we walked down the canyon and took in the blazing stars.

The Sahara Desert Camel Experience

I ride a camel

Riding camels (actually dromedaries in that they have only one hump) is primarily a tourist activity. Nonetheless it was super picturesque. We set off around 5 in the evening and rode for a couple of hours and then stayed at a Berber-like camp amongst the Sahara Desert Dunes. We were fed tangine (traditional Moroccan stew) and fell asleep watching the stars. It was an absolutely beautiful night!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Morocco's Gender/Dress Divide

My tour guide Hussein wearing traditional Berber Dress, other days he wears jeans and t-shirts.

When I first arrived my eyes kept landing on the veiled women. And I kept wondering what makes a woman decide to veil herself. Does she gain safety? Respect? Does the covering of her skin add to her allure? Do veiled women feel restricted?

Moroccan culture is actually very varied: There are Arabs, Jews (though most have left for Israel), Berbers (with many distinct tribes) and tourists and business people from all over. There is complete tolerance of self-expression through dress. Some days a man might wrap scarves around his head and wear a full caftan while other days he might wear jeans and a t-shirt.

Shopping in Morocco

Shopping Carts at Marjane, Morocco's Costco-like Mega Market

At Marjane one can buy everything from dried fruits and nuts to western clothing and furniture and alcohol (which is not widely sold due to Muslim prohibitions).

Nonetheless, the local markets serve the masses, here are how goods are displayed:

What's for Sale...

While I've been hit on to buy carpets, silk and leather goods, here's what's being sold in local markets...

Walk Street of the Rabat Medina

The Medina in Moroccan towns refers to the old city-centers where the streets are so narrow that people must walk single-file!

Moroccan Cats Big and Little

On the edge of the Atlas Mountains there are some winter ski chalets where the big cats are featured in a garden. And now is the season for a zillion feral kitties...

Moroccan Macaques

Cute and reasonably friendly!

Volubis--Ancient Roman Settlement

Important in Roman Times, too!

Fish Mosaic

Always Drama...

Triumphal Arch

The Centerpiece

We explored the ancient Roman Ruins in Volubis which was a principal city through the 3rd century. (It was destroyed by an earthquake in the 4th century). Prior to the Roman habitation (replete with mosaics and baths) it had been a Carthaginian settlement.