Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Moroccan Travels.. Off the Beaten Path

And by off the beaten path, I mean really off... about 230 miles south of Marrakech, in an area known for its winding and barely paved roads and steep mountain passes (over 7500 feet above sea level)! 

Justin and I were very excited to have our friends Emily, Chris, and Jeremy come to visit us in Morocco. Emily is Justin's oldest friend; they have known each other since they were 2 years old! Chris is a seasoned Morocco traveler (he knows an amazing amount about Jewish history and music in Morocco, which you can read about on his blog). And Jeremy is a Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Cambodia from 2009-2011. Emily and Chris rented a car, which was a huge luxury for us because we're not allowed to drive in Morocco, and there are many parts of the country that are not accessible by train and require days upon days and multiple means of transportation. So we spent our time together catching up on old memories, talking about the Peace Corps, and most importantly, exploring some very exciting parts of Morocco!

To start... on the road to Tafraoute, we passed quite a sight, which I mentioned in my last blog post. The famous tree-climbing goats! This is an argan tree, with tasty fruits that entice the goats to climb up and eat them. In the middle of the argan fruits are large nuts, and contained within each nut are 1-3 kernels rich in argan oil which can then be extracted for use in many cosmetic and culinary products. Now here's a slightly graphic detail - Historically, in order to extract argan oil, people would collect argan pits from the waste of the goats (yes, waste) and then press them to extract the oil. Today, this doesn't seem to be as common, but it's still a fun story to tell!

After Tafraoute, we visited Aït Mansour, and I truly understood what the word "oasis" means! As we drove amongst endless dry stone deserts and huge towering rocks, all of a sudden, a valley appeared with a long flowing river and a trail of palm trees. One of the most beautiful sites I have seen in Morocco! And since we were down south, we saw a lot of Imazighen (Berber) people and artwork (I talked a bit about the history of the Berber people in this blog post). 

The next day was a long drive to Aït Benhaddou that was rewarded with a wonderful couscous dinner and some amazingly beautiful sites the following day. Aït Benhaddou is a famous ksar (a fortified city) that was once an important trading stop for merchants traveling between the Sahara and Marrakech, and some buildings date back to the 11th century. The ksar boasts a long list of movie credits due to its size and preservation - a few that you might recognize are Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977). It was truly stunning.

On our final leg of the trip, we took the Tizi n'Tichka pass, which winds through the High Atlas mountains and roads that Peace Corps Volunteers will only mention in the same sentence along with the word "dramamine." Motion sickness aside, it was a beautiful drive and we were also able to stop in Telouet to see the Glaoui Kasbah, with ruins on the outside and an unexpectedly beautiful salon on the inside.

It was an awesome trip, and we are so grateful to Emily, Chris, and Jeremy for their wonderful company, for all of their travel research, and for giving us a way to see some places in Morocco that we might never have gotten to otherwise! The final highlight of my trip made it into our lunch on the road back to Marrakech. LOUISIANA HOT SAUCE!! Just a little piece of home 3,000 miles away :)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saying goodbye to Ramadan

Eid Sa'id – Happy Eid from Morocco!

Last Monday, we concluded the month of Ramadan with Eid al-Fitr, the day of festivity that commemorates the breaking of the Ramadan fast. On this day, Muslims do not fast (some continue fasting for several days following Eid, but on this day everyone eats). In our community, families celebrated with a festive breakfast consisting of VERY sweet foods, followed by visiting family and friends, partaking in tea and wishing each other a happy Eid. Justin and I joined in the festivities by baking a cake for breakfast (yes, cake for breakfast - we deserve it, we've been fasting!) and celebrating with our host family. A few food and family shots here:

The Eid spread - cookies, cakes, and lots of fried breads!
Justin, our host mother, father, sister, and a friend.
Close-up of our cake - 3 layers chock full of butter and sugar ;)

The afternoon of Eid, Justin and I left our community for a few days of traveling in Morocco with friends from New York: Emily, Chris, and Jeremy. We had the luxury of being driven around in their rental car for a few days (Peace Corps doesn't let us drive in Morocco) and learned that having a car in Morocco allows you to visit some amazingly beautiful sites that are quite difficult and time-consuming via public transportation. As an example, check out the below photos taken along our drive:

Yes, these are goats, and yes, they are climbing in trees! This is the beginning of how argan oil is made, and it's quite a site to see in person. I think you will all enjoy my next blog post, which will be FULL of photos from these and other adventures on the road.

Now, we have returned from our travels and are settling back into post-Ramadan life in Tiflet. It's interesting to see how the community has totally shifted from last month's nocturnal schedule - whereas before the town was dead quiet until about 4 PM, now I hear children playing outside in the mornings and the markets and streets are filled with people throughout the day. As wonderful as the Ramadan experience was, I have to say that I'm happy to be back into a more regular routine. Schools will begin in mid-September, which means that soon Justin and I will be setting up a schedule for our English classes and beginning to plan fall programs for youth in the community. Hope everyone is enjoying the last few weeks of the summer; I know we are!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Today is my birthday!

I am celebrating my (gasp) 30th birthday today in Morocco! 

I have been reflecting on the past year and how very different my life has become, and for sure the hardest thing about this birthday is not being able to celebrate with friends and family back in the U.S. But I feel so fortunate to have Justin here with me, and that we've been given the chance to build friends and family here in Morocco. And while it is undoubtedly very difficult for me to be away from friends and family (this day more than ever), I think that it is just as hard for those back in the U.S. It's not as easy as just picking up the phone, dropping a card in the mail, or meeting up after work to catch up... these days we have to arrange for Skype dates instead of simple phone calls, allow several weeks for mail to make its way here, and correspond via email and Facebook instead of chatting together over dinner or at the office. 

To all of my friends and family, please know that I am so grateful and thankful that you have adjusted your lives to keep me a part of them. Sending lots of love across the ocean today and on all days! xxooo

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Back in Morocco!

After 2 weeks of traipsing through the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, Justin and I are back safe and sound in home sweet Tiflet. It was a wonderful trip, with so many things to do and experience! But by the end we were happy to return to Morocco and get back to our lives here.

We're now back into the Ramadan routine, fasting during the days and breaking the fast with our host family or friends in the evening (if you missed it, you can read more about Ramadan in my post here). Ramadan continues for another 7 or 8 days (depending on the moon) and then concludes on a holiday called "Eid al-Fitr" (literally means Festivity after Completing the Fast). I don't know too much yet about the traditions associated with this holiday in Morocco, but I'm sure I will be reporting more soon!

More to come over the next week (a big day is coming up on Thursday, blog post forthcoming) but for now, enjoy some of my favorite photos from our trip! To see my full album, you can click here - It's a public album on Facebook, so as long as you have an account, you should be able to view it.

"I Amsterdam" sign in front of the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, of course!
View of the Anne Frank House and an Amsterdam canal
from the tower of Westerkirk (translated "Western Church").
The beautiful Tuschinksi Theater in Amsterdam.
The House of Bols experience in Amsterdam, where we learned
how smell affects taste - really beautifully designed!
In Kinderdijk, with the largest concentration of windmills in the Netherlands.
Portrait of a beautiful windmill!
At Aalsmeer, the largest flower auction in the world, 
where over 80% of the world's flowers come from!
Justin tries to model a famous MC Escher work at the museum in Den Haag.
Smiling on a boat cruise in Prague.
Breathtaking stained glass windows 
at the St. Vitus Cathedral at the Prague Castle.
Inside the church at the Vysehrad National Monument in Prague. 
Beautiful art nouveau designs.
Prague by night!

The famous Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, an old mining town. 
Estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, 
whose bones have been artistically arranged to form decorations 
and furnishings for the chapel. Creepy but beautiful!
In a prison in Terezin, which was used as a holding camp/ghetto for Jews 
during World War II before they were sent to concentration camps. 
This says something like "Work will make you free."
Amazing Dutch cuisine! Here are meat dumplings with cabbage and beets.
More Dutch cuisine - beef goulash (so good!) and more dumplings.
The beautiful Karlstejn castle, outside of Prague.
A band playing at Konopiste Castle, also outside of Prague.
Lots of hunted animals on the walls behind them, which filled the castle!
The beautiful Spanish Synagogue in Prague.