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Monday, July 21, 2014

An Exotic Trip to Morocco: 10 Things to Do

"The more you learn, the less you fear."
We set off to Morocco with trepidation. After all, it had a terrorist bomb in 2011, friends gave advice like "trust no one", "bring diarrhea pills", and "don't go out at night".

We booked transport from our raid and lucky we did or we wouldn't have found the hotel. There isn't any signboard and Raid Lapis was hidden in one of those holes in the wall! As our black van squeezed into the alleyway, dark characters hung around the streets aimlessly, leaning against the wall, their eyes peering into the van. I gripped my bag, despite being safe inside the van. Our adventure begins....

When we pushed open the doors of Raid Lapis Lazuli in Marrakech, we gasped. It was silent, with the sound of water trickling, the interior bathed in a blue glow. Decorated with Arabian lamps and richly coloured and patterned rugs likely from local cooperatives, i felt like i am Jasmine in Aladdin.

Raid Lapis has only 9 rooms, so it was a very intimate stay. It looked so luxurious, with its royal interior design, but only costs less than SGD 70 a night.
Without a sharp eye, you would totally miss the entrance to this hideout!

To sum up this exotic trip, here're my takeaways:

1) Enjoy the Sun
You need to enjoy the sun, otherwise it would be miserable complaining about the heat all the time. I thought for a conservative, arabian country, i should cover up. It isn't necessary in Marrakech as it is mostly tourists. The locals are used to seeing skin on the tourists so you wouldn't feel uncomfortable. However, it is good to be culturally sensitive and not wear clothes that reveals deep cleavages, butt cheeks or cracks. A hat and constant application of sunblock will be needed.

Drained from the heat
2) Get Lost in Medina
Don't expect to find your way back the first time round, especially if your hotel is embedded in the Medina. Thus, make your way back a good 2 hours before sun sets so you can be confident and not afraid. It was a little nerve wrecking for us when dark fell and we were still walking in circles. Everyone wanted to "help" us but we were warned by our raid on arrival "not to trust anyone".

Otherwise, the Medina is an exciting place to spend afternoons just winding in and out of the alleys, checking out nooks and crannies. It is chaotic and can get unpleasant if you let the incessant touts get to your nerves. Keep calm and avoid eye contact. 
With an open mind, you'll discover many odd items for sale!
Loose teeth and dentures for sale!
Keep spare change in your pockets as every thing you photograph, if attached to a human, the human'll hound you for payment. Best is to press 1 EUR into their outstretched hand and quickly scurry away if you snapped a picture. This guy with the monkey was quickly approaching me like a debt collector.
The touts will try to wrangle up to 20 Euros from you for a picture, so indeed it is wise to only keep small change in your pocket. So you could pull out your pockets and shrug "that's all i have, man". We got away with plenty of pictures in our camera with the SAME expression (because we froze in fear) for 10 Euros, which in our opinion was abit too much but ooookay (shrugs).
Snake Photobomb.
Once you get accustomed to everyone in the Medina extorting money from you, you will actually enjoy the Medina. The ugliest characters are at the Snake Charmers Square where they can incessantly bug you. However, when sun sets on the square, elaborate food stalls set up shop and evening games and performances happen.
Stand around for tea and date cake
Move away from the square, you find souks selling to locals and tourists all sorts of local produce as well as Arabic fashion items and souvenirs.
Move even further away, you'll find the koran school for some culture immerse. Get lost and you'll see the local life.
Koran school.
The barber

Roadside "glue"
A word of caution: Just as we stepped out of the Koran school, a local greeted us and told us there is a 1 day festival that is going on right now at a short distance away. He asked us to check out the Berbers selling their ware at this festival. It is only once a year that they make their way down to the city. We showed interest and this man suddenly called out to another man who was passing by pushing his bicycle and said, "You're in luck! He's on his way to his work and he'll pass by the festival, he can lead you there!" Then he spoke in some other language to the bicycle man and we began to follow. We kept our distance from the bicycle man, all the time discussing behind his back if this feels right. The bicycle man who was supposedly on his way to work was very cautious that he doesn't lose us. That's when we felt it didn't look right and we made an attempt to ditch him. He actually came chasing after us, persuading us it is worthwhile to go check this "festival" out.

We later asked other tourists along the way if there was a festival in that direction they came from, they said no, but a tannery is in the vicinity. We later counter-checked with our hotel, there is no such "festival" and usually the tactic of these tanneries is that they lure tourists there and they coerce you into buying some expensive fabric before allowing you to leave.

3) Eat Couscous
Because we were advised not to take salads (because of the unclean water that might give diarrhea), the only way to get some vegetables is couscous. It is the staple of Moroccan cuisine, you'll find it everywhere.

4) Try Tanjia
Only in Marrakech, Tanjia is meat stewed in a clay jar like the picture below.  Don't mix it up with the other popular favourite Tanjine.
Balancing a cow's head

The meat is super tender and all that gravy from the meat (and nothing else) is so flavorful! The Tanjine can be easily found in all restaurants, perhaps catering to the tourists. Leaving the Tanjia to be found at the local food stalls. We did the cautious tourist thing, which is to stay off street food but we gave in one evening. After analyzing the surroundings, the people at this make-shift stall and got convinced by the friendly tout.
We picked Stall 20 at the Snake Charmers Square and it was a delightful meal! At a 1/3 of what we usually pay at restaurants. We waited jittery for a stomach upset but nothing happened! Relieved and wishing we had ate more at street stalls to save money.

5) Eat Tanjine and Drink Tea
This, is the Tanjine. A typical Moroccan dish. It tastes quite like the Tanjia. Both are equally good. Having tried Tanjine all over Marrakech, i must say our Riad Lapis Lazuli serves the BEST tanjine! You don't have to be a hotel guest to dine there, but reservations are necessary as they are made to order.
Chicken tanjine with prunes for a sweet tender flavour
For an authentic experience, you have to drink tea. All.The.Time.

Moroccan tea, with mint and 3 sugar cubes (they don't understand "make it less sweet please") is the recipe to the infamous after-meal drink. Tradition has it that, the man of the house serves the guests tea as a code to non-verbally signify how important this guest is. The higher he pours from the kettle, the more foam it creates in the cup. The more foam there is, the more important this guest is.

6) Visit a Hammam
Want to know what it feels like being sandpapered? Not to be missed for an authentic experience. Read my very descriptive review and get a hammam address here.

7) Travel with a Berber
We took a 3 day 2 night package from Marrakech to Fes through the Sahara with Morocco Excursions and that truly completed the experience. Initially, we found 350 euros each for the excursion (accommodation, transport and selected meals are included) was pretty hefty. Furthermore, i was a little miffed that the meals (all but one in the desert camp) were medicore, with extra small charges here and there (attraction entrance not included), and sneaky visits to spots we feel obliged to tip (the aegan oil cooperative, well dwellers). However, reasoning the distance traveled while we slept in peace while Omar drove for hours straight, the amazing insights he could give us as a local guide and the convenience and flexibility of having our private vehicle and tour, every cent was worth it. Besides, after seeing the area, i was happy to be able to contribute to their livelihood with the minimal tips we gave. The extra charges were unavoidable and it wasn't like the agency and Omar were trying to rip us off.

He endearingly calls us Mohammad and Fatimah, enthralled us with many local culture stories like arranged marriages, proposals and the likes.
With Omar our guide and the epic winding roads.
Camel crossing.
Camels are used in marriage proposals and can be the deal breaker. Thus Omar needs to save up for camels before he can propose to his girlfriend of 3 years. Each camel is worth 1500 euros, compared to a goat at 100 euros. When Omar's sister got married, the family received 5 camels. 1 camel can feed a family for slightly more than a month. Camels are akin to the Chinese's abalone, bird's nest and all that expensive stuff.
Ignorant me didn't know Atlas actually exist. I always thought it was the fancy name of my Geography textbook. The picture above is me and yours truly. 
Fossils for sale
We make many pit stops throughout the High Atlas mountains for photo taking and visiting UNESCO site Ait Benhaddou Kasbah. 

8) Encounter a Desert Trader
The Berber Kasbah, used by many international film makers, was also one of the more important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road where caravans brought slaves, gold, ivory, salt and silk from Saharan countries to Marrakech and beyond.

We had the luck to meet one of the traders! 
He graciously invited us into his musty shop, filled with all sorts of trinklets. We knelt down on a rug as he enthralled us with stories of his travels. 
The Southern Cross
Want to know how to find your way in the desert? This is a typical Berber jewelry that doubles up as a compass in the desert!
An ancient compass
Ancient jewelry
Not looking very expensive to me, not shiny nor glittery but it is supposedly valuable. Used as dowry for brides. 
His shop has hundreds of trinkets, that he was expecting us to fancy at least one. Unfortunately, while they were all super interesting with stories that surely will be dinner time conversation, they were either too big, not my style or contains designs that look suspiciously religious. Not to say, they aren't exactly cheap either. We didn't have much cash with us (waiting to get an ATM), so it was very difficult to make an offer. He was desperate to make a sale, to the extent of asking us to search our bags for anything to trade! Medicine or chilli even!

It was like history come alive, with an encounter with one of the desert traders. 

9) Live in the Game of Thrones
Because our tour with Morocco Excursions is private, we could customize the itinerary and made a request to stop by the Atlas Studio where films like Hills Have Eyes, Cleopetra, Asterix and more have been made.

It's the Hollywood of Africa as it is a cheaper destination for film making. Its like a ghost town, but all the better for photography! I love film sets because they look SO real despite all of it is styrofoam and empty shells. 
A film set for a BBC documentary set in ancient times
10) Ride a Camel, Eat a Camel & Sleep in the Desert
You can't go to the Sahara without getting a desert  experience. Initially, i was a little disappointed that we weren't trekking half of the journey towards Fes on a camel. I was glad the tour agency knew better and got us a 1 hour camel trek to the desert camp where we stayed a night before returning the same way.
Riding a camel in the Sahara for an hour was just right. We were fortunate the sun wasn't scorching but the sky was overcast that day. It wasn't too comfortable for males, but it was ok for me. I wasn't quite used initially to see sand dunes as "scenery",  i wished there were colours to make a postcard picture. However i soon got used to this atypical beauty and became humbled by Creation, how incredible it is to live.
Dinner at the desert camp was surprisingly DELISH! For a camp that is in the middle of the Sahara, with no proper supply of water or fire, the Berbers certainly cooked up a feast that was SO SATISFYING.
Fellow tourists as companions for the night
It was a pretty rough and tough experience, with no showers but with passable toilets (stinking, no less) and sink. Most of us woke up in the same clothes we went to sleep in. The "room" we slept in were heavily cladded with rugs that makes it wind and sound proof. It was pretty difficult to fall asleep because it was musty and stuffy. When i eventually did, it was time to wake up to catch the sunrise. Hardly an accommodation to get sexy, but a memorable experience to do at least once.

The Berbers made up for the tough sleeping conditions with lively music with local instruments and cajoling us to sing-along after dinner.

Finally, before leaving Morocco, i had to try camel meat. It wasn't too expensive, i was expecting it to be after hearing it as a prized asset. It tastes like beef, but humptier. Ordered it as tanjine so it was super tender.
Morocco, for anyone with a sense of adventure.


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