Saturday, September 26, 2009

Getting to Essaouira OR The Part When I Become a Tourist

September 19, 2009

Our travel plans: Ten of us new teachers from the school decided to travel from Casablanca to Essaouira for the 4-day Eid weekend (a Muslim holiday). We took at 4:58am train to Marrakech. From the train, we enjoyed a sunrise over the dry, rolling hills of Morocco. We see giant cactus plants that serve as fences, stone homes, shepherds with sheep.

Left to right: Jim, Jenny, Philippe, Rohan, Linda, Tom, Will, Pauline

In Marrakech, we waited in a slow line only to find that the daytime busses to Essaouira were too full for ten of us. So, Philippe haggled with a cab driver to get us a ride; this included walking away “angrily” to consult with the group. We ended up paying a reasonable price for the 2½ hour drive, and crammed 5 people each into cars that by Moroccan standards, should hold 6 plus a driver. (By US standards, that would be 4 plus a driver).

As we drove, the street traffic changed. Donkeys carried people and wide basket loads. Horse or donkey-drawn carts held people and goods. Venders sold Moroccan lamps or fruit on the side of the road. You could see any type of person on the side of the 2-lane highway, from boys carrying baskets to old ladies hobbling on canes.

We approached the Argan trees that I have been curious about. The Argan trees only grow in Morocco; they survive despite the harsh climate. When the trees’ nuts are in season, goats climb up the trees to eat the nuts. After the nuts have gone through the goats’ digestive system, they are ready for human use. Argan oil is among the rarest oils in the world, and here we use it for eating and for the skin. Tom and I enjoy buying Argan oil mixed with honey and almond butter- it is called Amrou and is delectable.

The taxi driver pulled over, and we got out of the car to see three goats in an Argan tree. Mind you, the men trying to make money off of people like me put them there, but I couldn’t resist a photo opportunity…

There are many women’s co-ops in the area for producing and selling Argan products, and we stopped at one such co-op. The women let me photograph them working, and one woman was so kind as to offer me a gift of nuts and let me try to break them apart with the rock. My Argan-cracking skills are poor, but she was nice to me anyway.

Our first evening in Essaouira was pleasant. After a 25-minute wander through the medina trying to find our apartments, we spent the rest of the evening enjoying a sunset from the roof.

A bit of history: Essaouira is also known as Mogador (as named so by the Portuguese). We are told that hundreds of years ago, shipwrecked victims were held for random at this central location. Different groups of people since the 7th century BC have called the location a base, port, and spot of trading. The city was built in 1760 by a sultan and designed by a French architect. Remnants of Spanish cannons and Portuguese structures are everywhere. The old architecture, the comfortably-planned medina, and the Moroccan locals combine to make this a fascinating place.

Boys fishing in the port

A view of Essaouria from the Port

Tom in a Medina. The walls are crooked! We loved the architecture here- no standard sizes for doors, windows, or stairs.


Fish, Bartering, Turbans, and Camels

September 20, 2009

I love Essaouira! It is the perfect town for relaxation, full of delightful restaurants, unique shops, the ocean breeze, and adventure. Lunch today brought us to the pier where for about $7 a person, we enjoyed platefuls of sea urchin, squid, shrimp, sole, and a fish I don’t know. I was NOT a fan of the sea urchin- it was raw, slimy/crunchy, and fishy.

Left to right: Rohan, LuAnn, Jim, Philippe, Linda, Tom

You can’t walk by someone’s shop without them urging you to come in, sit down, and start talking about the wares. We first enjoyed the marquetry shop where a single man handcrafted beautiful items out of Thuya wood.

The man pictured below invited us into his shop, sat us down, and pulled out beautiful beaded and silver jewelry from around Morocco. We were enthralled to learn about the circular symbols found in Nomadic jewelry and the bright stone colors found in the Atlas Mountain Berber jewelry. Of course, he knew we were enthralled, so the bartering was on. 600. 200…. And I was beginning to feel guilty for trying to cheapen things so beautiful and full of story. Eventually, we came to a fair price, I’m accessorized with a Berber bracelet and nomadic necklace, and I was able to take this wonderful portrait.

As if our day wasn’t full enough…after a morning of bartering, we headed to our camel-riding appointment. Tom realized that he had forgotten to bring a hat; one thing came to another and we were all in a shop having turbans put on us! The turbans came in useful as we rode our camels along a sandy and windy beach for two hours.

This shopkeeper was happy to put a turban on for Tom

Left to right: LuAnn, Jenny, Me, Pauline
Stylin' in our Turbans! :)

I tried to get Tom to get closer...

Camel Portraiture



Quads, Spices, and the Ocean

September 21, 2009

On our third day in Essaouira, Ramadan ended. For us, this meant that we could now eat in public without feeling rude; we welcomed this after a month of Ramadan!
The picture below is of me driving a quad on the beach for three hours. These are mild; the dunes were too sandy for the photos. It was fun!

After Quads, we were exhausted, but went anyway to the spice souk, or the spice market. If you ask about a spice, the man brings the jar, lets you smell its wonder, and bags any amount you like. The process also involves sitting down for a glass or two of tea after spending an hour or so picking out spices. The spices were varied and fresh; I bought some Moroccan tea, paprika, ginger, saffron, blends for fish, chicken, and couscous, to name a few. At the end, the spice guy gives you a “gift” for shopping at his shop. My gift a bit of closet perfume- very delightful smelled. Below are some pictures- to be there feels like going back in time, or like going into a witch's closet.

Spices! The bottom right one is "powder to make your grandma climb the walls. I kid you not.

The spiceman

We spent at least an hour in this tiny space

A very special kind of tea...

I wanted to share with you some other wonderful sights of Essaouira. I hope you enjoy!

A boy plays with dogs early in the morning

Dusting off pottery so I can see the patterns and colors

On the Squala de la Ville

A Man cleans his boat on the Port

A nice place to just hang out

Enjoying our last day in this beautiful place


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Learning to Barter

There are places in Casablanca where the prices are all set, but in the big markets where the local artwork is sold, the same piece of pottery can cost one person twice as much as it would another. The price is however low you can get it by haggling with Moroccan shopkeepers, who are seasoned veterans at selling their crafts for as much profit as possible.
Our first buy was two decorative plates, brightly colored, hand carved, and painted with intricate designs. Our shipment of boxes sent in April with our photographs were still sitting in port two weeks after we had arrived while the school tried to bribe them out from the hands of the port authorities, and so our walls at home were blank and white. We figured that the plates could help add a splash of color.
The setting of our first friendly battle with the salesmen was in the sprawling market just inside the boundaries of the old medina of Casablanca – a two-hundred year old section of town with winding crisscrossing alleyways and tall white plaster-looking walls of buildings that all connected to each other at strange angles. It is place I wouldn’t go deep into without a tour guide, because it would be so easy to get lost. But on the edge of the medina with four friends from the American School, we felt ok joining with the crowds to shop a little.
The bartering process started as soon as we paused from our walking to look at one of the wares on display. The shopkeeper quickly intercepted us with a “bonjour,” assuming that we were French like the average white person in Morocco. He also spoke English, and so he began offering to hold up various plates that we looked at, telling us how good our taste was and how we were looking at the best colors…buttering us up as much as possible.
When we found the two plates we liked best, we asked how much they were. The shopkeeper said because we were looking at two, he would give us a “really special discount” if we bought both. 500 dirhams he said (about $70US). I told the guy that it was too much. I had no idea what the going price was, and so had no idea how much he had marked up the price to start the bargaining. I responded saying that we’d pay 350, at which point he started going on about how there was no way he could sell them for that – that he couldn’t just give them away… all very dramatic. He offered to take the price down to 480. Looking for advice I went to our Sri Lankan friend from school, Ranmali, who had been in Casablanca for a year and had bought art all around the country. She said the price was definitely too high, as the shopkeeper was following me, telling me what a deal he was offering. I told him I would pay 380, which he complained was still way too low.
I said no thanks, and began walking away with Karissa at my side (we agreed that only one of us would try the bargaining at a time and the other follow the lead, in order to keep it a little simpler). “Wait, wait!”, the shopkeeper yelled and stopped me, agreeing with a handshake to sell the plates to me for 380, telling me with a big smile what a hard bargainer I was.
As we were walking off, I asked Ranmali what I should have paid, and she told me around 300 dirhams. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about paying almost a hundred more than a good price. I had given it my best shot, and without knowing the price of things, I’m not sure I could have done much better. And though I paid about $10 US more than I had to, in the U.S. I probably never would have gotten two big pieces of hand carved, hand painted pottery for the price we ended up paying. At least that’s how I justified to myself losing badly to the market hagglers. I like to think that my bartering performance was somewhere between what a complete sucker tourist and what a native Moroccan (or my mother the master bargainer) would have done. And in the end, we really, really liked what we took home.
To top the night off, we bought some piping hot Moroccan flatbreads straight off of the market grill, drizzled them with Moroccan honey, had some drinks at Ranmali’s place, and ate a homemade dinner of Pakistani curry with a Sri-Lanken salad. We ended very happily, and only slightly ripped off.


Hopeful Beginnings

My big musical goal for my time in Africa is satisfied! On Saturday, we piled into three cars and drove out of the city (first time since we got here) to a farmhouse where we planned to drum for several hours. Jean-Claude (a parent of one of my students) organized the drumming event along with Mahesh (my coworker). We met up with a French teacher/composer who proceeded to teach us West African drumming, including ensembles from Mali, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. Jamming on polyrhythms, joining in after "the call" (a set drum rhythm to tell us to begin), and listening to our teacher improvise on the djembe was a marvelous experience for me. I will likely take lessons each week and improve my djembe skills!

From Left to Right: Louis, Deanna, Me, Jean-Claude, Melek (whose parents' property we were on). The drum on the far left 
is a djembe. The drums on the far right are from Mali, and have a bass tone.

In addition to plotting my musical adventures, we spent the day planning for next weekend's holiday. We plan to take a
train to Marrakesh, then hop a bus to Essouaira. After about 6 hours of travel, we will be in a place of artists and
windsurfing. Tom already plans to race a camel on the beach, and take a 4-wheeler into the dunes. Pictures to come!

Buying tickets at the train station

Taking a Taxi home in Casablanca (LuAnn is on the left, Linda is on the right)

We walk by lots of mosques. This guy was standing outside, looking grumpy. I took a photo, I think without him noticing.
(Usually people are warm and friendly to us here- this guy is a phenomenon!)


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Breaking the Fast

A week ago, a bunch of us went out for dinner at a horrible Thai/Japanese restaurant.
(Great atmosphere, but the curry was more like gravy).
Some street performers came by to serenade us.

Weekend in Casablanca

I wanted to take some pictures of our daily life here in Casablanca, and had a chance to today!

Below is a Casablancan Dump Truck. A man was piling produce into this donkey-drawn cart, and I just thought the donkey was so cute. So, I started taking pictures. The man laughed at me, invited me to take some more, so I was able to get pretty close. I suppose everyone around thought, "why is that white girl taking all of those pictures of trash??"

From Morocco 2

From Morocco 2

Sorry this one is blurry- I was walking when I took this shot. There are many people on the street here, begging or just sitting. I'm not sure if this guy was actually as blue as he looks, but he captured my curiosity and my sympathy.

From Morocco 2

This is our street, Rue Fourat. On the left, where the people wearing white are standing, is the entrance to our building. Kids often play soccer in the street.
From Morocco 2


Prayer (Salat) at the Mosque

On Friday night at about 8:30pm, a group of us new teachers walked across town to the Mosque Hassan II (see pictures from a previous post). We were delighted to find that a prayer was in progress. Thousands (we were guessing about 50,000) of people were inside and outside the mosque, praying along with the singing Imam (sp?). His voice wandered around a marvelous scale I had only heard in recordings, and at times I couldn't anticipate, thousands of people would kneel, or stand, simultaneously. It was amazing, spiritual, and mysterious.

I didn't get close to those praying, but I did take a picture of the mosque at this evening hour, capturing the light and the people who came.


From Morocco 2


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thoughts from the First Week of School

This is the first week of school, and I get to teach 2nd and 5th grade for the next four weeks. The first day of school was quite an adjustment for me; the culture and the language prove to surprise me with new challenges and different student behaviors. I have adjusted, and will continue to adjust. I’m thankful for the chance to learn to teach English Language Learners and students of a culture other than my own.

My students are kind. Little girls give me lots of hugs, and all students are helping me learn their names and laughing when I mess them up. MAN! Do I ever butcher those names! Naser-Allah, Abdurrahman, and Chadi are especially hard for me to pronounce. The kids are happy music students- they LOVE to sing (they are very good at it) and have been inquisitive and enthusiastic about what I’ve got up my sleeves. The teacher before me has prepared them well.

I am working hard at writing the music curriculum and my classroom integrations. The learning benchmarks are up to me to revise, and my formal unit plans go onto a formalized curriculum. I’m excited to use new knowledge from my Master’s degree.

Well, it’s time to rest so I am ready for tomorrow. I’m sure I will have some good stories to tell in the near future.


Living within Ramadan

I must begin this entry that the information I provide is from my experiences, cultural lens, and conversations. I did go to one website: for some information that I needed to check. I do not claim to have a strong understanding of the religious and cultural practice of Ramadan- my point of view is obviously biased.

When I ask my colleagues about the purpose of Ramadan, they tell me something inspiring: Ramadan is a time to remember and reflect that God, Allah, provides all through the year. By fasting and praying, people remember to be generous to the poor, and to give thanks for what they have. To do this, they are required to fast (from food, drink, and sexual activity) from sunrise to sunset. Some seem to take this very seriously, others seem to resent the fasting. (You see, one cannot choose to not be Muslim if one is Moroccan).

When sun sets and it’s time for the Iftar (the breaking of the fast), a man sings on a loudspeaker that we can hear from our homes. People gather and enjoy huge meals together. Some stay up late into the night.

What’s fascinating to me is what it’s like to live surrounded by fasting and praying people:
• There are more beggars on the street, and people seem to give generously.
• We tip our maids and our guardians with money, sugar, or oil.
• The streets are eerily empty of all but criminals during the Iftar (interestingly enough, this is also when my internet speeds up), and become very busy at about 9:00pm- this is the time to do one’s shopping, get around town, etc. Tom and I went on a walk on one of these evenings, and noticed a large group of people praying in the street outside a mosque, to the sound of a man singing on the loudspeakers.
• People are more tired and grumpy, for obvious reasons. My staff lounge has become a place to nap. Offices, students, everyone slows down in the afternoon. Traffic getting home from work is insane, with more honking than usual as people are trying to hurry home to get ready to eat.
• Indulgent breads and sweets are made fresh everywhere at about 5:00, meant for the Iftar. I especially enjoy the fried honey bites (I don’t know what they’re called) and the Moroccan flat breads.
• Some women and men dress conservatively, often in Djellabas, any time of the year. I notice more Djellabas on the street close to Iftar, worn particularly by women. I asked a non-Muslim co-worker about them today, since she was wearing one. She mentioned that if one goes to a nice meal (such as the Iftar), it is appropriate to wear one.

I’ve learned to live with the Arabic expression Inshallah, which means “If Allah wills.” Whether this expression gets abused is another conversation, but I’ve learned to mix frustration with humor when things don’t go as planned. We still wait for salary advances (promised 2 weeks ago), the boxes we shipped in April (which should be here tomorrow); we laugh as our friends receive furniture deliveries at midnight.

As I write this, I can hear my neighbor snoring.

Salaam, peace be upon you.