Weekly Fireflies - Essouira

I know I just posted a couple of days ago, but I am going to make an effort to post weekly, so here goes. Catching up! Essaouira

I-swear-a it’s a good place (hehe, I love turning city names into phrases). This laid back beach town is a craft-lovers dreamscape. It seems everyone is an artist in their own right – whether it’s the inlaid woodcraft, silver filigree, weaving or stitching, this place not only is downright beautiful in and of itself, but it’s full of beautiful things. I can see why it’s a popular vacation spot for Moroccans and foreigners alike.

The food in Essaouira is also particularly good. Jon talked a bit about it in his recent post – but we’ve had a great time sharing meals with our AirBnB host, Hamid. Every night we’ve gone to the souk, picked out our meat of choice, visited Hamid’s favorite spice guy, his preferred vegetable vendor and we were on our way to the best meals we’ve had in Morocco. It drove home the point that home cooking is where it’s at here, and I’m so glad we were able to do the airbnb thing and stay with Moroccans.


One of the most fascinating opportunities we’ve had has been to travel overland from Mali to Senegal through Mauritania and up through Morocco. To experience cultural shifts and changes and to see qualities that are similar has been such a wonderful learning experience. Things as simple as the tea service that has gone from a multi-hour super strong syrupy green tea in Mali, to the even sweeter but minty-er brew in Senegal, to the very light even more minty tea of Mauritania to tea that is served in every café on ever corner in Morocco – this is something in which nearly everyone in this region of the world partakes.

It’s been fascinating to watch mannerisms change from the kind and gentle but indirect communications of Malians to the abrasive, loud and argumentative ways of Mauritanians. We’ve seen the similarities and differences in how people negotiate for prices, and how plumbing does and doesn’t work and just what service and hospitality means to different cultures.

Pan-African Health

It apparently is hard to stay healthy! I realized today that between the two of us, Jon and I have had some sort of ailment since week 2 of this trip. Wowza. Here’s to good health!

Being a woman in Morocco

Gender has been a topic of discussion often between Jon and me, mostly because my experience when doing something alone is entirely different from when we’re together. In Mali I could walk around safely and unbothered just about anywhere. In Senegal I knew the culture well enough to know how to deal with just about anything that came my way. In Mauritania, I covered up and hung back quietly.

Morocco has been the most complex and challenging for me, as this is clearly a country that has a conservative and traditional past for women, but whose position is rapidly changing. In 2004 the new king passed laws giving women more equal rights, abolishing polygamy and paving the way for women to have more choices. But it’s still awkward and difficult for me to go to a café alone, walking in a souk by myself warrants unending cat calls and hassle, and conversations with Moroccans about the egalitarian nature of my marriage confounds most. What’s also interesting is that it’s challenging for Moroccan women as well. Many experience the same hassle as I have, and I imagine that many young independent women feel pressures from family and potential husbands to adhere to certain cultural norms. All I can do is be grateful for the opportunity to experience these cultures and understand a world different from my own.

Transport Tally

One thing’s for certain about our first 2 months of 2013 – we did a lot of moving around. After final tally and some guesswork, I figured out that we took about 85 different types of transport trips. Here’s how we got around from leaving Portland, getting to Belgium, and moving through Mali, Senegal, Morocco and Mauritania:

  • 10 Buses
  • 5 Airplanes
  • 4 Bush Taxis
  • 2 Taxi Clandeau (shared inner city taxis)
  • 5 Trains
  • 2 Ferries
  • 1 Pirogue
  • 3 Car Rapide
  • 4 Metro/Subways
  • 2 Rental Vehicles
  • 1 Mini Bus
  • 1 Ride with Mom (that would be Jon’s, thanks for getting us to the airport Sheryl!)
  • Approx 45 taxi rides (I had to guess, we really weren’t counting)

Phew! No wonder we’re tired. By the way, I wished I started taking photos of the taxis in every place we’ve been. Taxis in Bamako are all yellow. In Senegal, always yellow and black (except in the Casamance where they spray paint some blue stripes on a car). In Mauritania, I have no idea, they aren’t identifiable – like so many other confusing things about that place. In Dakhla and on the Moroccan coast, white with a blue stripe, or all blue with a white top. In Agadir, bright red. Finally, in Marrakesh – tan or..mud brown/yellow – not attractive.

Not wanting to go to France – um, what?

I never thought I’d say that I don’t want to go to France. Jon and I are leaving Morocco today to head to a small village outside of Lyon. We’ll be in France for six weeks working for a camp that teaches English to French kids. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had a steady job in 3 months, or because I just like waking up at 10am every day, but I’d really like to just head back to the Dades Gorge and hang with our friend Ismail. My perspective on life must be really off when my choices are spending 6 weeks in France or skipping out on responsibility and immersing myself in a lush green valley tucked in a range of snow-peaked desert mountains.

Well, its been a nice ride…


…no, I’m not referring to the terrifying journey across the Middle Atlas Mts by bus in which Jess and I were certain we would careen off the cliff (more on that from Jess’ post); it is almost time to leave Africa for France for our summer camp jobs (we're teaching english to french kiddos for 6 weeks). Tiny Jon in the Dades Gorge

A week or two ago I would have welcomed a night in France and the extra income, but it will be damned hard to leave Morocco. I finally feel like Jess and I are getting the swing of things here and starting to have some qualitative experiences with locals. We met an awesome guy in the Dade’s  Gorge and didn’t want to leave (again, more on this from Jess’ post) and are now in Essouaria at a riad-home of another cool Moroccan. We are definitely not having our best experiences in cities, and I’m glad we decided to have our last stay in Morocco in a smaller place than Fez or Meknes. We hope to get back to Morocco after we get back to France in May, after Jeremy’s (Jess’ brother) wedding.

Essaouira Riad

Upon arrival to our current Riad, we were invited to dine with our host and he taught me how to cook using the tangine.  I’ll practice a few more times and write another blog post on the details :). Another awesome thing is that since the rare rain in Morocco the last few days, Essouaria fisherman could catch lungfish for a short while, which we used in our tangine. The fish was amazing…it was very tender and creamy like eel but with a very light fishy taste. In the tangine with onions, garlic, tomato, preserved lemon, a medium pepper, olive oil and a chili spice mixture for fish, it was one of the best things I have had in months. I’m amazed at the depth of flavor we got with very little fat, zero stock, a pinch of salt, and lovely local veggies and spices.

Looking into our Essaouira Riad

Jess and I had a walk through the souk here and it is a wonderful gathering of color and smell. I feel like this is the experience I was hoping for in Morocco. The medina (usually the old fortified space in a city) seems vast and one can easily get lost, but unlike what we experienced in Marrakech, it is fairly easy to navigate. I’m hoping to get some pigeons later and make tangine again with our host. I might even see if the butchers can find some camel for us!

Only three more days! I’ve gotta get back to it and make the most of the freak’in awesome town and country. More soon!

Marrakesh to Ait Ouffi

My first attempt at creating a weekly blog post has quickly failed. Sorry. But in all fairness the last 10 days have been a wild ride – from arriving in Marrakesh which is so different from what we expected it to be, to getting lost in the Medina, to getting sick to taking an adventure up and over the Atlas Mountains and somehow landing ourselves in the most beautiful chateau-like house by the good grace of a new friend, it’s been a long week! On the way to Marrakesh

Marrakesh = Maz’ll catch ‘ya

We arrived in Marrakesh on a Monday night (I guess that was Feb 25), expecting to land in the middle of a crazy large, crowded city with tall buildings that felt super urban. Instead, we drove into an area that appeared out of a rural agricultural land, with buildings not more than 4-5 stories high, palm and olive trees everywhere. The snowpeaked Atlas Mountains rise sharply in the background, reminiscent of Denver, although the mountains are much closer, and the call to prayer ringing out from the mosques is a stark difference.


The Grand Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh

For Morocco’s main urban draw, Marrakesh is a puzzling place. It’s urban and the traffic stinks, but it’s incredibly green and lush. The Medina, with its 7km of walls, separates the Nouvelle Ville (the new city) that was built by the French.

Our single day wondering in the Medina left us with a frequent, “Aannnd, we’re lost” refrain. Winding-unnamed streets lead one to easily lose any sense of direction. And this is just a warm up to Meknes and Fez! Oy. But the Djemma el Fna is exciting – an open air circus, and we certainly didn’t shy away from being tourists. There are snake charmers (see exhibit A), monkeys, dancers, storytellers and anyone and everyone trying to sell you something (or rip you off, depends on how you look at it). Marrekesh is fun, but we had our sites on the High Atlas, and the oases towns on the southern side of them. A fever and bad bout of digestive troubles for me threatened to ground us again, but I’m working on being the winner in that battle.


The High Atlas

Up and over the mountains

It takes no time at all before you’re out of the city and into the country. It took us only 2 hours on a big bus to climb high up (on the most windy, tiny roads you could imagine a big coach fitting, but they do) and reach the pass through the mountains. Squarely in Berber country, the people look weathered, but are so incredibly friendly.

Berber Music

Coming from the cafes and grillades (places where you get grilled meat – whatever’s cooking is hanging outside) I’m serenaded with Berber music – the boutique owners are kind to give me the musicians name and album so I can find it. Love.

Mountain Cafe

$50 for Independence

This excursion to the mountains was our ‘splurge’ trip. We decided to rent a car and stay 2 nights in a nice hotel for some pampering. It’s amazing what a different feeling it is to have your own means of transportation. For $50/day we had our own little car that can take us wherever we please. So nice. With no understanding of how many litres of gas to put in the car, we filled it up (gas is REALLY expensive here) so we had a mandate to drive as much as possible. FREEDOM.



Our little car!

Budget Traveling 

We suck at it. Not only do we suck at finding good deals, but we suck at being ok with it. Since St. Louis Senegal, every place we’ve stayed has had some plumbing problem, or something essential that hasn’t worked. Thus the pamper trip. Oh well. But it seems that just a little more $$ gives you a lot more value more. It doesn’t always happen that way (hello everything Mauritania), but in our High Atlas adventure it worked.

Dadès Gorge

Is truly Gorgeous (yes pun intended). Our bus from Marrakesh took us to the town of Ouarzazate, and from there we drove through the Valley of the 1000 Kasbahs into a canyon. I can’t get over the contrast of the deep terra cotta red earth and the vibrant green gardens that are tiered along the river and up the sides of the canyon. Ancient crumbling castles are perched on every high places, tucked into villages and built right into the rock. The valley of 1000 kasbahs is also home to the Valley of the Roses – thousands and thousands of Damascus rose bushes make this area a pink carpet in May and rose products are sold everywhere. Throw in some happy goats meandering the hill sides, plus the almond and peach trees that are blossoming and it’s a perfect high desert paradise.

We rocked the Kasbah

Our wonderful friend Ismail

Upon arrival at our fancy hotel (Auberge Chez Pierre, you must stay here if you go), we exclaimed, “oh we’re so tired” and had a nice tea and chat with the owner, Ismail. I was still recovering from fever-meets-digestive-problem and we must have looked really pathetic because when we showed us our room he said, “You stay here tonight and then tomorrow I take you to the riad, it’s quiet, and there will be families and children here, so you must relax.” We kinda saw this as an inconvenience, until we saw the “riad,” which we’ve now named our own Kasbah. “It’s for making the babies!” exclaimed Ismail and pretty much the entire staff at the hotel. Um… (that’s all I have no response).” How on earth we were blessed with such fortune I have no idea. We planned to stay 2 nights and stayed 4, and I’m still bummed we left. I'm campaigning for our return in June.

We got rocked by the Kasbah

We went exploring through the nearby villages and walked into an ancient Kasbah. All was well, minus the animal stench, until we were climbing the stairs and noticed the gaping holes in them. Time to turn back! I don’t want to die in a crumbling mud structure. Apparently in the old days the way to conquer a Kasbah was to divert the water from the river and just wait until the Kasbah dissolved. You’d think for citadels they’d come up with a better protective solution…?

Desert Rain

Makes everything crazy beautiful. One of the reasons we stayed an extra day was because it rained (apparently for the first time in 4 months). There’s so much silt and clay that when it rains it seems like the mountains come down on themselves and the roads get blocked. On the plus side, the reds become more red, and the greens become more green. It’s beautiful. I don’t know if the Moroccan flag is green on red because of the colors of the land here, but it would make sense. The red of the earth is SO red and the green is SO green. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even the water running off the mountains is deep red.

We almost died – no really.

We’ve taken a lot of bus rides in Morocco. I mean, I don’t know how many kilometers we’ve traversed but it’s well over 2500 since crossing the Mauritanian border. The buses here go REALLY fast, and feel like a rocking freight train hell bent on getting to its destination as fast as possible. Hairpin turns on crazy mountain roads that plummet hundreds of feet into nothingness don’t stop bus drivers from taking blind corners quickly – while passing – all while the driver is happily singing along to the music. Yeah, we almost died while rounding one of those corners when a truck came around the bend. We actually hit the side of the mountain, swung out towards the pathetic excuse for a guard rail and stopped. I realized my final thought would have been, “Really??!!” Jon’s was, “You’ve gotta be f#$^in kidding me.”

I am so grateful that we were able to spend four days in the Dades Gorge. Our friend, Ismail, made us feel so at home in such an incredibly beautiful place. I almost don’t need to go anywhere else. I’d be happy hunkering down right there the mountains, surrounded by lush green wheat gardens, snowy-capped mountains, red, wind-swept earth and people with the kindest faces. Tanamirit Morocco (that’s Berber for thanks, Morocco).

Sidi Ifni & Weekly Fireflies

I’ve decided to start a new weekly wrap-up, which will hopefully encourage regular blogging on at least my part (I can’t speak for Jon). So this first ‘weekly’ is a recap of our last few days in the former Spanish enclave of Sidi Ifni, and some impressions and observations from the last week. Departing from Dakhla was a welcomed move – not that Dakhla was unpleasant by any means, it’s just a very sleepy coastal town that presented itself with a mixture of West African/Mauritanian and Moroccan/Arab/Berber cultures. In other words, not really having a grasp on any of those cultures at this point, we were mostly just confused. Personally, I was also ready to move beyond the vast stretches of bleakness and see some landscape. I’ve read and heard that Morocco is a dramatically beautiful country and I wanted to see it for myself.

A 9-hour bus ride brought us to the city of Laayounne – home to about 200,000 Moroccans. Not much to say about it, other than it was refreshing to be in a somewhat urban environment. This fashionable town even has a Vegas-style neon-lit fountain. Cool. We spent one night there and boarded a bus at 7:30am Goulmim – described by our Rough Guide as a ‘drab administrative town.’ The bus ride was the most interesting yet (excluding the beautiful dunes of Mauritania), with the desert giving way to sweeping plateaus, plunging cliffs into the sea, and lush inlets carving valleys from the sea into the desert. The 7-hour ride brought us to Goulmim in the early afternoon, with an easy change to a ‘grand-taxi’ (bush taxi) for the hour-long ride to Sidi Ifni.

Moving north towards Laayounne


Not more than 15 minutes out of Goulmim we found ourselves winding through the colorful hills and lush valleys of the Anti-Atlas. Such topography! I was stuck again on the middle seat of a car filled with too many people (there were 4 of us in the back seat of a regular Mercedes sedan – one of whom was a…well-proportioned woman). An adventure!

Road to Laayounne

The Spanish built up Sidi Ifni as a military garrison in the 1930’s when they colonized the area. The town is set high above on a cliff, with a nice beach and steep stairs leading down to the water. It’s famous for its art deco architecture – which honestly not knowing much about architecture doesn’t seem very impressive (I think I got spoiled in Greece!) – but it must be unique to Morocco. It’s lovely nonetheless. We opted for a hotel on the beach, rather than up high, which has essentially given us the chance to get a nice workout every time we want something (food, water etc).

Jon’s healing another wound, similar to what was on his feet, so I took the day Saturday while he tended his wound and headed 10km north to the beach of Legzira. Just a few hotels nestled into the cliff, Legzira is a rocky beach famous for the red archways carved away by the sea. It was nice to find a private little cove where I could sunbathe, and then explore the rocks. I had planned to walk the 10km (6 miles) back to Sidi Ifni, but the tide never really went low enough to cross one of the rocky sections. Luckily I didn’t get too far before figuring this out! A kind Englishwoman and her Moroccan husband gave me a lift back to Sidi Ifni, thankfully before I felt too dejected walking alone on the hot, exposed road back to town. It was nice to have a little solo adventure for the day. A non-date-day as a friend recommended – nice for coming back and sharing stories with your travel partner.

Staying an extra day here allowed us to check out today’s Sunday flea market – the produce section of which made the Portland Farmer’s market pale in comparison, at least when it came to quantities of things. I’ve never seen bigger piles of oranges and carrots! It also allowed us to enjoy the phenomenon that is Saturday night in Sidi Ifni. Apparently everyone gets dressed up to walk the town starting around 8pm – who knew there were actually so many people here!

Tomorrow brings an 8-hour bus ride to the grand city of Marrakech! Very exciting.

Here’s some other weekly thoughts:

Are they arguing or just talking? I may not know a lot about this culture, but one thing I’m convinced of is that Arabic is a language for making one’s self known. People are always talking loudly, and very unabashedly in the presence of others. Whether it’s on the cell phone, or like the larger woman and her young son who talked over each other the whole way to Sidi Ifni – I’ve decided that the most important thing when learning Arabic is to speak forcefully. Maybe they’re just talking about puppies?

Solo vs Couples Traveling: My non-date-day solo adventure to Legzira highlighted the stark contrast in the experience one has as a solo female traveler vs a couple traveling together. From taking breakfast in a café where I was joined by a kind gentleman who gave me a lift to Legzira (yes, I’m very trusting…); to the willingness of anyone to talk to me – it was interesting see how people treated me differently without Jon there.

“Camping Cars” – French for Retired RV Tourists: There are lots of them – easily over 100 are parked in the two ‘camp grounds’ right next to our hotel. They are all French. Not much else to say, it’s just curious.

Coffee: FINALLY good coffee, freedom from Nescafè. Give me a noss noss (Arabic for half half – half coffee half steamed milk) and I’m a happy girl.

Olives, dates, oranges and argan: The presence of any of these during a meal is fabulous – and this is where argan oil comes from – a highly prized oil used in western beauty products. Here it’s mixed with almond butter and honey for a delicious bread dip. Yes please.

Cliffs: I can now safely say that the majority of the entire Saharan coastline is a very steep cliff. We saw everything from Nouakchott to Sidi Ifni – it was far.