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Morocco May 14, 2012

I Hate It, I Love It – How Morocco Makes Me Bipolar

Morocco

Whenever someone asks me about my favorite countries I’ve visited, Morocco somehow always makes it up there on the list. Which is kind of funny considering that I left Morocco completely exhausted. Exhausted by the constant hassle, the rough intercity travels, and by its overall intensity.

But to me that pretty much sums up what Moroccos is all about. A country that evokes such a contrast in emotions. I went from loving it, to hating it almost on an hourly basis.

The Traveler in me

Hates Morocco

The constant hassle, the cheating taxi drivers – they leave us harried and exhausted at the end of the day as we escaped into the relative peace and quiet of our riyad.

Morocco’s famous touts might not deserve their past notoriety but they’re there, and for those not prepared it can get very overwhelming. I’d suggest layering up a good sense of humor and a thick skin when getting off the bus and walking around the souks. It might sound like you’re being rude, but responsing to every single ‘Hi, how are you?’ means you’ll never get to go anywhere.

Worst hassle encounter: Essaouira, Fes.

Loves Morocco

Morocco has everything! Beaches, mountains, deserts and it’s relatively easy to get around. The buses are not the best, but thankfully the small size of the country means less long distance bus trips you have to take.

Morocco is exciting, it’s exotic. The architecture is different, the people look different. The diversity of its people mean everyone speaks a little bit of everything: Spanish, Berber, Arabic, and French. The old town, the medinah of Morocco is compact, walkable, and to me the kind of towns I love: I can walk everywhere and there are things to see whereever you lay your eyes on.

Stepping into Morocco’s old towns does feel like stepping back in time.

Must visit Moroccan cities: Essaouira for its overal charm, Fes for its souks, Chefchaouen for its blue medina.

Chefchaouen medina in blue

The Animal Lover in me

Hates Morocco

There are so many stray cats in Morocco it’s heart breaking. I saw a black kitten covered in flies, its chest moving occasionally, erratically until it stopped altogether. That kitten died in front of our eyes in front of a busy mosque – and nobody else seemed to care. It still haunts me to this day. I had never felt completely, utterly helpless.

Worst cat problem: Rabat – too many skinny cats

Loves Morocco

Most of the street cats in Morocco look well-fed. Do you know the signs of well treated animals? They’re not afraid of humans and Moroccan cats are anything but shy. I can tell they’re used to being fed and petted, or at the very worst ignored.

Essaouira fisherman and one of the street cats

Essaouira fisherman and one of the street cats

Compared that to the scraggly stray cats of Jakarta who run away when approached.

Then I saw signs of random kindness towards animals:a makeshift cat shelter in Fes, fishermen feeding scraps of fish in Essaouira, a lady giving out milk to the cats in Rabat and I thought – there’s hope. There are those who care.

Best place in Morocco if you were a cat: Chellah in Rabat and Essaouira.

The Feminist in me

Hates Morocco

Jack describes the medinas of Morocco as ‘one big sausage fest’ – and I have to say it’s somehow apt. Men, men everywhere you see. They man (pun intended) the stores in the souks, they congregate in large numbers in coffee shops – which just killed my desire to do what I usually like to do: go to a coffeeshop and watch people. It was just too weird being the only woman in the place.

Now that I look back, except for the scary lady in the hammam in Marrakesh, we dealt only with men in hotels, restaurants, and shops.

Loves Morocco

I bumped into a group of Moroccan students in Chefchaoen. They belong to an organization that fights for equality for gays and women in Morocco. We became friends and still talk on Facebook occasionally. The organization is fighting a tough battle but it warms my heart knowing that yes, things are changing – slowly, but more importantly, these are changes the come from within Morocco itself.

The Photographer in me

Hates Morocco

I don’t think you can afford to NOT like Morocco if you’re a photographer.

Loves Morocco

Morocco is the most photogenic country I’ve ever been. I took more photos in Morocco than anywhere else I’ve been. Everything was fascinating: the hanging camel head in Fes market, the colors of Moroccan slippers, the people, the madrassas…

I was mesmerized by everything.

The detailed wooden and plaster carvings that cover the walls and ceilings of madrassas will blow your mind. As it did mine.

Details of Marrakech, Morocco

Details of Marrakech, Morocco

My favorite things to photograph in Morocco: the souks, the plaster carvings in madrassas, fountains, and the port in Essaouira. And Moroccan cats, of course.

Moroccan cats - Marrakesh


There has never been another country that made me feel this way.

Morocco was everything I imagined it to be but so much more. I was charmed and repulsed, I was loved and abused, I don’t want to go back but at the same time, I sort of do.

Did you ever feel the same way about a country?

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia April 9, 2012

Tips for Traveling to Ethiopia

Traveling to Ethiopia? I got some tips for you. I left Ethiopia with plenty of stories to tell; stories about bag slashers and pickpockets, about rabid dogs, and about life in Ethiopia in general. There are also stories about crazy landscapes and unbelievable marvels.

Fes, Morocco January 11, 2012

Moroccan Souks – Crazy and Beautiful (Plus Sanity Tips)

Morocco

One of things I was most looking forward to on our visit to Morocco was exploring its famous souks. I’ve seen pictures and they always seemed so exotic. So foreign! People in strange dresses and stores selling strange things. I knew right away I’d love them. I’m glad to say that Moroccan souks managed to live up to a pretty high expectation.

A souk is the part of the medina (old town) of an Arab city where most of the stores congregate. A market if you will. It’s often informally divided into sections based on what’s being sold: leather goods, Berber traditional medicines, so on and so forth.

They’re almost always crowded, almost always run by men, and they’re always fun to explore. Each souk has its own personality and I got along with some of them better than the others. The funnest souk I went to in Morocco was in Fes. Followed by Marrakech, than Essaouira.

Marrakech souk feels more ‘airy’ – it has wider alleys and more tourists clogging them. It feels less threatening. The merchants ignore you more in Marrakech which makes window shopping in Marrakech a less-stressful affair. Relatively speaking.

The entrance to the Moroccan souk.

The entrance to the Moroccan souk

While Marrakech’s is deservedly popular, my heart belongs to crazy Fes. Fes and its maze of alleys, so narrow that at any given time the buildings around them cast a shadow over the cobbled lanes.

Fes medina

Fes

I love Fes because it’s everything I imagined Morocco to be: chaotic and overwhelming. Bright colors, weird smells, and foreign sounds. Skinned goat carcasses and camel heads. Donkey poo and urine stench.

Fes is mysterious. Fes is dark. It was the first time I felt out of the element, it was the first time I felt I was truly in a ‘foreign’ place, and it was the first time I felt that I had had inadvertently stepped back in time – however cliche it sounds.

Maybe it’s not so much I like Fes better, but Fes being the more memorable of any other souks we visited. It surely gave a whopping punch of first impression.

Djemaa Al Fna, Marrakech, Morocco

Djemaa Al Fna, Marrakech, Morocco

My favorite type of store to oggle and photograph in a souk is the leather slipper (or babouches) stores (by the way, don’t miss out on the tannery in Fes!). Arrays of brightly dyed sandals glimmer and sparkle under a dim lightbulb. Some can be quite detailed in its designs. I didn’t get any and I’m kind of regretting it right now. They’d make great souvenirs.

Not to mention they’re so purrrty!

Leather shoes at the souk in Fes, Morocco

Leather shoes at the souk in Fes, Morocco

Shopping in a Moroccan souk

Shopping wise, going shopping in Morocco can be an amusing experience. How can one not be amused when an opening price of 100 Dirham ended up in a final price of 12? All in about 30 seconds of haggling?

Haggling is an extreme sports for these Moroccan merchants. At least that’s what it seemed like. They like to start with as ridiculous of a price as they can get away with. Whatever else you do, just laugh at whatever price they first tell you and aim for 1/4 to 1/5 of that. The shock on their face is a well-practiced reaction.

Shopping in Morocco is not for the faint of heart, I’m telling you.

Tip on haggling in Morocco

One tip is take note if other stores sell the same item you’re interested in (most likely they will), and use the first store to get a gauge at how low they’re willing to go. All you have to do is walk away and they’ll quickly shout back a lower and lower price.

Trinkets sold at Moroccan souks

Trinkets sold at Moroccan souks

Horror stories

I’ve heard stories about people being overwhelmed and frustrated when navigating Moroccan souks (to the point they just pack up and leave the very same day). I can so totally see that happening. People call out to you all the time and they often don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Not the first ‘no’, nor the second or third.

But don’t let these stories scare you. I was terrified to step foot past the main gate of Fes only to feel mildly disappointed that nobody paid us any attention. No carpet sellers tried (too hard) to get us to buy their carpets. No mint tea offered. Wth?

Having said that, we still found Morocco to be an exhausting country to travel. We were told that Moroccan touts have calmed down a bit in the past years. We find it hard to imagine what it must’ve been like years ago.

A Berber pharmacy, Morocco

A Berber pharmacy, Morocco

Tips on Enjoying Your Moroccan Souk Experience

Ease yourself to it. The souk in Rabat and Essaouira are relatively laid back compared to Marrakech and Fes. So start there. While between Marrakech and Fes, the latter definitely has the higher ‘crazy’ factor.

Ask before taking pictures of displayed merchandise. Surprisingly about 1 in 4 people would actually NOT allow you to take pictures – either of themselves or of their goods. So, always ask and if they say ‘no’, smile and walk away.

If you get lost, ask someone who has a ‘job’ – someone working in a restaurant, a store owner, or a woman (not to be sexist, but Moroccan women always seem so busy they probably won’t have time to try to mislead you).

Stay in a riad. Many of these old palaces with inner gardes or courtyards have been converted into boutique hotels. It was such a nice feeling to end a hectic day in a private and quiet comfort of a beautiful courtyard.

If pressured to offer a price for something you innocently pick up but not necessarily want – screaming “Name your price! What’s your budget?! TELL ME!!” while blocking the entrance – as happened to me in Marrakech, just name something ridiculously low. So low that he’ll most likely get offended and shoo you away from the store. Offer him something close to reasonable, and you’ll most likely walk out with an item you don’t really want.

But more importantly, don’t feel pressured to like the experience. When it gets too much, go back to your hotel to take a breather, hang out at a restaurant to people watch, or go check out the local hammam. Morocco is so much more than the souks of Marrakech and Fes.


I love markets and I make a point of visiting the main market in every city, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for these Moroccan souks. I think it’s the closest thing to a true adventure in an urban setting.

Arm yourself with a healthy sense of humor and resilience, and be prepared to be charmed and exhausted at the end of the day.

Tell us:

How do you think you’ll like a Moroccan souk? Threatening or intriguing?

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia January 4, 2012

Vegetarian Guide to Ethiopian Food – More than just Shiro

Ethiopia

Coming to Ethiopia as a vegetarian, I knew that eating would not be a problem. I can tolerate injera – crepe like thing of the color and taste of a washcloth – which Ethiopians seem to eat with everything (they even eat injera WITH injera).

Vegetarianism itself is not such a foreign concept to Ethiopians even though they don’t necessarily call it by that name. The majority of Ethiopians are Orthodox Ethiopians and they don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. On these days, non-meat fasting food can be found easily in restaurants.

But even on non-fasting days, any restaurant can be asked to prepare Shiro (pureed chickpeas in Berber sauce) at a moment’s notice.

Eating Shiro every day does get old every day though (and after a week of it, it can start to look like… nevermind). This is where Bayenetu comes in.

Bayenetu is a collection of meat-free dishes served over a plate of big round injera. Think of a sampler plate. What those dishes are depend on the restaurant. Each prepares it slightly differently:

Bayenetu

Bayenetu from Habesha Restaurant, Addis Ababa

Bayenetu from Unique Restaurant, Lalibela

Bayenetu from Unique Restaurant, Lalibela

Some dishes regularly found on Bayenetus include:
Aterkik Alitcha – yellow peas in sauce (my favorite!)
Atkilt Wot – cabbage, carrots, potatoes in sauce
Gomen – collard green cooked to perfection with spices
Misir Wot – pureed red lentil in berbere sauce

One thing they do have in common: shiro is always one of the dishes found on a Bayenetu. So yeah, you can’t escape Shiro altogether.

By the way, a fun thing to do in Addis Ababa is to go to Habesha Restaurant for dinner. They make the best Bayenetu I had in Ethiopia which goes so well with the house’s super strong Tej. Tej is Ethiopian wine made of fermented honey. It’s often served in glass beakers that look like they should belong in a Chemistry lab. Watch out. It packs quite a punch.

Habesha Restaurant, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Having Tej at Habesha

But the best part of going to Habesha is that you get to see a performance of Ethiopian dances every evening. Audience participation isn’t only encouraged, it’s practically mandatory. Check out the video to get a taste to Ethiopian music.

As a very last resort, spaghetti with tomato sauce is also very commonly served in Ethiopia. Expecting a sad looking pasta drenched in ketchup like sauce, I was constantly surprised. It might be a culinary skill left by the Italians during occupation decades ago, but I had some of the best spaghetti sauce here in Ethiopia. No kidding.

The sauce is always freshly made, a little spicy, and the pasta is always al dente – the way it’s supposed to be.

Fruit wise, I wasn’t too impressed by the varieties (I guess I’m spoiled). Juice of avocado, mango, strawberry, guava can be found in many restaurants. Try a mixed version of everything. It’s colorful and it’s really good. You don’t even need to tell them not to add sugar. Which I did and got a blank look from the waiter as a result. I know what he’s thinking too – ‘Duh, it’s fruit. Why would you add sugar?’ Thank you. Exactly. Can someone tell that to South Americans?

As a vegetarian traveling in Ethiopia, you won’t starve. But the lack of varieties can get to you after awhile. Thankfully, rumor has it Addis Ababa does have a few international restaurants like Thai (unable to find it), Indian (still an uncorroborated rumor), and I even saw a sign once for a Japanese restaurant (on Haile Gebrselassie Rd towards the airport if you’re so inclined to look for it). Finding them is a different matter.

(They don’t use street numbers, you can have to go by landmarks which makes finding anything feel like a treasure hunt.)

An unexpected side-effect of too much Ethiopian food?

I woke up one day and all I could think about was how to get my hands on a basket of fish and chips. Afterwards, I drooled at the thought of Mc Donald’s Egg McMuffin and hashbrowns. Then I thought of pizzas. I don’t even like pizzas.

See, Ethiopian food seems to be so low in fat and salt that after 2 weeks I craved for something just completely the opposite. The greasier the better. Thankfully, it was easily fixed by a quick stroll to Kaldi’s Coffee (Ethiopian version of Starbucks).

French fries and tiramisu never tasted sooo good. I even went for seconds. I guess there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing after all.