Five Priceless Possessions for Traveling like a Local

 

Last month, my family and I took a long-awaited and highly-anticipated journey to Ethiopia, visiting Addis Ababa, Harar, and Negash.  While we were riding high on the hype of an enriching historical journey, we had to come to terms with the poverty we would face in a developing country.  The tourism industry is booming in Ethiopia and there is a conscientious effort to move beyond the image of a starving, famine-stricken country, towards a prosperous and worldly society.  As with progress in most developing countries, change comes with a cost and you more than likely will feel it in your own pocket.  In spite of the rising cost of living and travel, these are five invaluable allies that helped us move through the country  “with the people”.

 
1. Useful Information
While knowing the population of a city or historical facts are useful, save some time for researching what’s going to count in your day-to-day travels.  Admission fees, taxi fares, and tipping customs can be extremely variable in some parts of the world.  If you’re not careful, you can be paying double, triple, or quadruple of what’s appropriate.  Be prepared to talk down prices that are negotiable and refer to the great bartering tips shared by others.  If you can talk numbers in the local language, peppered with the lingo and mannerisms of seasoned locals, then you have yet another advantage in securing a reasonable price for whatever you’re pursuing.
2. Loose Change
Keeping small bills in your wallet is useful for making donations to charities or individuals, as well as hand-to-hand business transactions in your travels.  We lost a few bucks here and there after giving a large currency note to pay a tour guide or a guesthouse and not receiving any change.  Save the big bills for large establishments and fixed fare transportation, where you’re more likely to have your change returned. Keep the small bills handy for everything else.
Depending on how much cash you feel comfortable carrying, try to avoid using your debit or credit card internationally.  More than likely you’ll be paying transaction fees on both ends, so travel with large currency bills (dollars, euros, etc.) and exchange them after exiting the airport.  Airports are notorious for pitiful exchange rates, so consider using a bank or other exchange services.
Side Note:  Don’t forget to inform your home bank about your travels so they don’t assume your account is being used fraudulently!
3. Local Connections
Use your common interests to connect with others.  Tap into clubs, groups, and societies, where you can make authentic connections on topics other than tourism and make plans to connect while you’re in town.  When researching vegan travel tips, we came across the Ethiopian Vegan Association and connected with Ethiopians who had a common interest and were keen to answer our inquiries and give us travel advice, without a fee.  One member became more than just our unofficial guide in Addis Ababa but has become a true friend.  He weaved us through the capital on a shoestring budget, with the added benefit of seeing how others live, work, and move through the bustling city.  We also found great places for delicious local food that were way off the beaten path and even further from the pages of a guidebook.
 

4. Good Health

After touring a good bit of Addis Ababa carrying my toddler daughter in a sling, I was grateful for being in good shape.  Long walks and cramped minibuses were bearable and we spent about a tenth of what it would cost to ride taxis all through town.  Similarly, we took an entertaining long distance bus which was also about a tenth of the domestic flight cost.  Being able to carry your own bags, walk comfortably, and withstand a long bus or train ride can save you the expense of private transport, tipping bellboys, and door-to-door service for your entire journey.  A habit of daily walking and exercise is not only great preparation for travel but great for healthy living in general.

5. Good Attitude
Last-minute delays, cancellations, and changes to your itinerary can be frustrating.  If you can breathe through the irritation, you’ll more than likely find a helpful hand, a kind word, or a brilliant back-up plan to keep your itinerary moving smoothly, in spite of the detour.  The angry, belligerent tourist may not be able to move beyond their disappointment, making rash decisions that spoil a good trip for everyone.  However, the patient, flexible tourist can “go with the flow”, embrace their circumstances, and ride the waves of whatever travel brings their way.  Instead of being fixated on what you “missed” and trying to buy it back at all costs, you may find a Plan B that is equally (if not, more) satisfying at a lower cost.  We had our hearts set on visiting a town that sounded great online but, to Ethiopians, was not as spectacular as we thought.  We saved some time and money by changing our plans and it was the best decision we could’ve made.  Be open to the possibilities and travel safely!
 
This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

What We Will and Won’t Miss about Casablanca

Dar Bouazza, Casablanca

Our departure from Casablanca is on the horizon.  Are we sad and weepy?  Hardly.  Are we elated and anxious?  Totally.  Even though we haven’t fallen in love with our home for the last five months, our stay wasn’t all bad.  We met a handful of good folks that we will miss and hope to visit in the future.  There are also a few more cities in Morocco that we didn’t have the chance to explore, so there are reasons to look forward to a return trip.  But for now, here are a few things we will likely miss and not miss about life in Casa.

WHAT WE WILL MISS:

Fresh Produce:  While we can’t vouch for all of the produce here as being organic, we enjoyed some really great local fruits for cheap.  Our absolute favorites were mandarins, avocados, and pomegranates.

Having an address:  As silly as that may sound, we haven’t had a personal address since we left the United States in 2008.  We’re not exactly thrilled to receive our bills every month but to live in a city with street names, avenues, and building numbers to locate your residence as opposed to landmarks and counting streets was quite nice.

Riding the tram

Riding the trams and trains:  Without a car, we relied heavily on taxis to get around town.  When possible, we rode the tram which functions surprisingly smooth and efficiently.  The well-connected train system between major cities was also quite impressive and made long-distance travel so easy.

Respectful Titles of Address:  When a stranger is addressed, you might here the terms Hajj/Hajja (Pilgrim), Shareef/Shareefa (Honorable), Khoya/Ukhti (my brother/sister), and the like.  These terms convey beautiful meanings with respect and dignity and are used by the old and young alike.

Djellaba : Our absolute favorite traditional Islamic dress is the hooded Moroccan robe.  We love how it elegantly drapes both men and women, creatively displays various colors, textures, and embroideries, and functionally provides a hood for extra cover.

WHAT WE WON’T MISS:

Frenchy-ness:  No disrespect to the people of France or their language, but the saturation of French culture here in Casablanca is a bit of turn-off.  To live in a Muslim land and hear greetings of “Bonjour” and cheek-to-cheek kisses across genders was a bit startling.  Seeing the hours that young men spend passing time in café shops smoking with tiny glasses of espresso seems pretty pointless too.  It’s a shame to see the current generation becoming so francophone that they are losing or have lost their Arabic or Amazigh tongue completely.

Sports Fanatics:  Almost every Sunday, enthusiastic youth march down my street en route to the stadium.  I have no problem with their hobby but I will not miss their loud chanting and disruptive behavior while walking through the neighborhood.  Save all of that for the stadium, if you don’t mind.

Abandoned Playground

Lack of recreation:  A constant frustration has been the lack of playgrounds and parks.  There are urban green spaces where you can sit on benches under trees but in many cases, you’re not allowed to walk in the grass and there is nothing for a young child to actually do.  A few private playgrounds and play centers charge admission which takes away their appeal.

Grand taxis:  Ah, the misleading misnomer known as the grand taxi is not grand in the least.  While the vehicles are larger in contrast to the petit taxis that only take three passengers, they are hardly double the size to warrant six passengers.  Two people share a single front passenger seat while four share the rear seat.  Grand taxis are generally a cheaper way to cover long distances but they are not well-suited for the portly or claustrophobic.

Lack of community:  More than the inconveniences and nuisances we’ve faced here, the hardest challenge has been lacking community.  Other expats have told me that it takes years to find your community in Casablanca but that’s not time we have to spare.  Having friends and like-minded families to meet and fellowship with would have certainly smoothed out our stay but probably wouldn’t be enough to keep us in this city anyway.

Review: La Flamme d’Istanbul in Casablanca

La Flamme

Casablanca has a strong consumer culture.  If you love shopping and food, you can have your heyday in this city.  New restaurants are the talk of the town, and the opening of La Flamme d’Istanbul was no different.  Plastered on billboards, delivery trucks, and Facebook, the new Turkish restaurant was well-marketed and their Turkish chefs became local celebrities.  We stumbled on its location during a morning stroll and I couldn’t help but grab a menu.  With my limited French food vocabulary, I successfully identified a handful of vegan dishes and was anxious to try them since I’ve always enjoyed Turkish cuisine and hospitality.

One very special friend of mine was in the neighborhood, so we planned to meet at La Flamme for lunch.  We both were riding high on anticipation and couldn’t wait to add our impressions to the growing list of rave reviews.  The sleek modern décor with colorful, hanging lanterns was inviting.  Our waiters didn’t don their red Fez hats that day but they were cordial and attentive.

Before placing our order I had two inquiries to make:  Was the lentil soup of the day vegan?  Can I have my hummus without Turkish yogurt?  Disappointingly, the soup had chicken in it but the hummus didn’t have yogurt as the menu indicated, so I proceeded to order the latter.  Lil’ Z had her heart set on French fries—a rare treat– and I added baba ghanoush to our order.  For meat-eaters, the offerings are abundant but the plant-based options were limited.   Nonetheless, I looked forward to tasting the familiar staple dishes I’ve always enjoyed.

Fries, Hummus, and Baba Ghanoush

The French fries were served in the cutest little fry basket with small dishes of ketchup and Dijon mustard.  Both the hummus and baba ghanoush looked appetizing alongside the warm, baked rounds of bread.  Once my friend’s meal arrived, we started eating and casually chatting.  As usual, our conversation was rich but at some point I realized that the food was lacking in flavor.  I would taste again and again searching for the familiar delight of Turkish cuisine but found it absent.  Though we haven’t made it to Turkey yet, we’ve enjoyed their cuisine as one of our favorites in Oman.  How could La Flamme be so off?  My friend agreed that the hummus was bland but assured me that the meat she ordered was pretty good.  “Perhaps their specialty is all things meaty”, I suggested to her while debriefing our visit.  The most satisfying part of my meal was their baklava which was lightly sweetened, filled with cinnamon and walnuts, and topped with ground pistachios.  It was the best I’ve had in a while and the only dish I would return for in the future.

Baklava

Free Art in Casablanca

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Our daughter is an artist.  It used to sound strange coming from her pint-sized frame but now, we are totally convinced.  She doesn’t need a studio, gallery, or exhibit to validate the title–she is an artist.  Drawing is not an innate talent or gift of hers, it is a craft that she practices with passion and persistence.   She has annihilated magnetic writing boards, forged through a small forest’s worth of scrap paper, and filled notebooks with characters, scenarios, and stories.  Art is how she processes the world and unravels the kinks from her day, and we’ve learned to give her the time and space she needs to do just that.  Hopefully, one day we can provide her with a small studio space with high quality art materials, sunshine, plants, and quietude but until then, a small shelf with paper, crayons, markers, paint, pencils, an easel, a smock, and our encouraging support is what we have.

To nurture our little artist, we have found frame shops, art galleries, and graffiti to admire but our most recent discovery is the Villa des Arts where small exhibits are displayed to the public for free.  The current exhibit was a bit too abstract for our taste but I think the upcoming “Street Art” display will be right up our alley.

Friendships Abroad: Four to Make and Four to Break

The folks you meet living abroad can be a mixed bag of nuts.  Most are sane and sober, fun to be around, and generally good company.  Others have issues, are clearly fleeing from their past demons, and make you wonder how they ever passed a background check.  Meeting all of them, in all their various shades and personalities, is part of the experience of life abroad which should not be neglected.  Being a hermit is no fun but if you happen to be abroad, take note of four types of friends that are worth keeping and four others that might be best left behind.
FOUR TO MAKE
Veteran Expat
Meeting someone who was once in your shoes but navigated their way through the expat transition is a great resource.  They’ve been inconvenienced by the fine print you failed to read and generally have realistic expectations about life in your new home.  Whether you want to get a local driver’s license or find your favorite treat from back home, they are usually the go-to person and can show you the ropes in the process.
Local/Near-Local
Everyone needs a local resident friend for a variety of sticky situations you may encounter.  Sometimes, the job is simple, like needing a translator or negotiating a reasonable buying price, but more than this, a friend who is a native of your new home can introduce you to a world that can be difficult to access without them.  Invitations to their family or communal gatherings can give you cultural insight and teach you how to relate to your new neighbors.  Many sincere people with good intentions have offended others or embarrassed themselves in cross-cultural interactions, and a reliable local friend can help to keep both to a minimum.
Nurturer
Whether you’ve suffered a headache or heartbreak, a nurturing presence can help you make it through.  They bring you soup when you’re sick or pick up small gifts to make you smile and generally brighten your greyest days.  After birthing my first child abroad, I was grateful to have stand-in family members visit me with gifts, cook food for our family and offer to clean our home.  Their gestures helped smooth out a challenging transition, and these are the kinds of friends everyone needs in their life.
Kindred Soul
Finding a companion to enjoy your favorite hobby, pastime, or quirky indulgence with is a great ally in living abroad.  While nature lovers almost always want a buddy to hike, climb, or snorkel with, even introverts can appreciate a friend or two who shares the same interests like reading, cooking, or watching episodes of your favorite sitcom series.  In my little town, we’ve formed a Raw Food Club.  We meet monthly to share new raw recipes and enjoy a raw meal together.  While some of us have nothing else in common with each other, it’s still great to have a common point of connection that we all benefit from.
FOUR TO BREAK
Pessimist
This is the grumpy expat who has nothing positive to say about anything, ever.  They complain about work, the weather, and everything in between.  They don’t like locals or expats, going out or staying in.  They can’t be pleased, and they’ll only bring you down with their gloom-and-doom outlook on life.  Living away from home is difficult enough without the perpetual grey-tint the pessimist will add to the sunniest of days.  Try to keep them at a distance, unless you’re planning an optimistic intervention.
Parasite
Oh, the dreaded parasite.  Even when you don’t have money, fame, or resources that anyone would want to extract, the parasite will mine your very being, draining your emotional and spiritual reserves bone-dry.  They are always taking and never giving in their presence and will ultimately leave your battery empty.  Watch for them carefully and don’t let them sink their fangs into your skin.  The Middle Ages are over and blood-letting by leeches is no longer the cure-all, okay?
Trouble Maker
This special somebody is always plotting something.  They can’t seem to follow the rules, no matter what the circumstances may be.  If this rabble-rouser wants to keep your company, be prepared for a penalty:  a night in jail, being kicked out of an establishment, or public shame.  Even silly, innocent pranks have turned into avoidable melees.  They get a kick out of telling outrageous stories, taking taboo pictures, and just generally being a nuisance. If you want to keep your image and repute in good standing, let the risk-taker paint the town red without you.
BFF Seeker
Unlike the Parasite, the BFF seeker is not trying to drain all that you’ve got but rather trying to bond the two of you in permanence.  They make clever suggestions like matching tattoos, becoming roommates, and opening IRAs together.   They’re usually innocent in their pursuit, but if you’re not in the market or on the market for being that one soul-mate-type friend that has to be anything and everything the other friends wants and needs, you might be in trouble.  Research suggests that it’s harder to find a best friend after your twenties.  Mostly because people become more settled in their values and views which makes them more selective about who they befriend. Also, your time and energy may become consumed by familial relationships and obligations.  This is all perfectly natural, which is why cultivating a network of friends to serve as a composite best friend may be a more efficient way to build friendships.

The nature of life, especially life abroad, is very transient.  People come and go, sometimes without notice, so consider cherishing the friendships you have and what they mean to you at that given time, without a binding condition that the relationship must last ad infinitum.  If you do find a friend for life in your travels, that’s great, but be prepared for friendships that may only last for a given season, circumstance, or country.  Be open to the dynamic nature of life and let people flow in and out as needed.

 This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

Review: Bombay Palace in Casablanca

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Finding Indian food is always a guaranteed satisfying meal for us.  We have yet to eat a bad meal because the ingredients and flavors are always so agreeable.  Back in Oman, there were an abundance of Indian restaurants ranging from high-end, five-star dining to small-scale, budget-friendly eateries.  We could always eat our fill without busting the bank.  But here in Morocco, as was the case in Algeria, the Indian food selection is limited and a bit pricey for the proportion sizes we generally eat.  Nonetheless, a traveler passing through Casablanca wanted to meet for lunch and I figured that after backpacking around Morocco and camping in the desert, she might be tired of the typical couscous and tajine fare.  Indian food was a welcomed change for her and a treat for Lil’ Z and I.

Papadum

Being my third visit to Bombay Palace, I already had an idea of what to expect from their menu and service.  A singular papadum fried cracker to share for the entire table, deliciously seasoned vegetable samosas, and the only legume-based entrée, a satisfying yellow split-pea dhal.  Even though the menu reads “dhal makhani”, it is not the black lentil and red kidney bean stew one would expect but a typical yellow dhal fry.

Dhal, Baingan Bhartha, and Basmati Rice

The lunch specials offer good value though portion sizes are petite.  It is especially surprising to see how small the dhal serving is because, as everyone knows, there’s no cheaper protein than legumes.  I often order an additional eggplant curry dish, baingan bhartha, just to sop up the mound of basmati rice and plain naan bread included in my meal.  My guest enjoyed her chicken tikka, shrimp masala, and cheese naan bread but needed to request pepper sauce as a condiment.  Their dishes are surprisingly mild and would be a total disappointment to the Indian palate.

Plain Naan

As for service, I wish I had more good to say.  The owner always seems perplexed by our family’s presence.  Perhaps he assumes like most other Moroccans and West African immigrants, we should speak French.  For us to be brown and Anglophone might be conflicting to him, as it has been to many Moroccans that we’ve met.  He takes our order in English but never offers the endearing warmth that other Western diners speak of in their raving reviews of the place.  When I ask for additional papadum wafers, he reluctantly gives us a second piece, as if I didn’t notice him serving a table of French businessmen one piece per person.  I don’t nitpick, but Lil’ Z loves those spicy little crackers and her little tummy can pack away at least two or three pieces easily.  While I’d prefer to go elsewhere, the only competing restaurant I know of is Indian Palace.  We ate there the night we moved to Casablanca and found their food to be tasty and their service excellent.  However, it is a bit more expensive and they serve alcohol, so we continue to frequent Bombay Palace but look forward more authentic cuisine and better service elsewhere.

Restaurant

Our Mystery Flight to Mauritania

Local Laundry Service

For the first time in nearly five years, I live on the same continent as one of my relatives.  Not just any relative but my older brother who has been living abroad since 2001.  Our time together is usually scarce, so to live in a neighboring country and not visit him was not an option.  We booked the cheapest flight we could find online on an airline that we couldn’t even pronounce.  Initially, we were just relieved to score a good flight deal, but then we inquired about the airline.

We researched the mystery airline listed on our itinerary as Tbilaviamsheni and found that it was a Georgian airline consisting of a single plane in its fleet.  When I asked on a popular travel group, members assured me that it is the Brazilian-based TAM Airways but this was not so.  Then I called the online booking company for clarity as our departure drew near.  CheapOAir.com similarly couldn’t find any contact information for our airline –no phone number, no website, no office address– and could only suggest that we show up early to the airport.  After hearing horror stories of passengers stranded at the airport awaiting departures from Casablanca, we started to get nervous.  I found a flight schedule online listed under Mauritanian Airlines and wondered if our flight carrier was changed.  The confusion was dizzying.

On the morning of our afternoon flight, I checked the Mohammed V Airport’s website for a list of their scheduled departures and saw not a single flight to Mauritania.  With a confirmation number and ticket numbers, we proceeded to the airport in hopes that we wouldn’t return home defeated.  I combed the flight listings on the first screen I saw in the airport and scurried to an information desk in a panic, asking about the absent flight to Nouakchott but she pointed out that I was looking at a list of arrivals and directed me to the departures screen.  I anxiously found the screen and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw our flight listed on time via Mauritania Airlines.  Then, the sight of full-figured, melafa-clad women draped in colorful pieces of fabric, followed by slender men wearing the dera’a, a traditional Mauritanian overgarment, gave me tremendous comfort.  I knew we were on our way.

Our flight was delayed by about an hour, but we didn’t mind.  We were en route and that was a relief.  We were pleasantly surprised when we saw uniformed flight attendants proceed us in boarding the Mauritania Airlines aircraft.  Once we boarded, there were in-flight magazines available and meals served.  Unfortunately, they had not a single vegetarian meal on board and tried to offer us chicken sandwiches.  Instead, a platter of bread, breadsticks, and crackers were our only recourse.  With only a short two and a half hour flight ahead of us, we hoped that our family would have food waiting for us and they did.  Along with the bright smiling, welcoming faces of my nieces and nephews, we had found our resting place for the week and savored every moment of our stay.

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Marrakech Adventure

 

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For our first trip to the Marrakech, also known as the Red City, we came up with an itinerary that included visiting ethical organizations, organic farms, and vegan eateries.  There were museums we missed out on and palaces we bypassed, but for our intents and purposes, our trip was complete.  Starting with a three and a half hour train ride down from Casablanca, we stopped for Lebanese food for dinner and checked into Riad Janat Salam.  After a night’s rest, we were ready to get started on our journey.

Day 1

After a very typical Moroccan breakfast of bread, orange juice, tea, and more bread, we caught a taxi to Amal Association for our cooking class.  We spent a lovely morning cooking and a tasty afternoon eating, then took a long stroll to the Majorelle Gardens and the on-site Berber Museum.

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The aesthetic landscaping and architectural hues were warm and welcoming.  Seeing the Amazigh artifacts and textiles was an interesting glimpse into the cultural past of Morocco’s indigenous people.  We walked the grounds several times and finally decided to exit.  Still quite full from our lunch at Amal, we went to the nearby Kaowa café for smoothies and browsed their adjacent gallery boutique for creative souvenirs.

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Day 2

On this exciting morning, we hired a driver and 4×4 for a tour of Ourika Valley just outside of Marrakech.  Our first stop was the Le Paradis du Safran, home and business to a Swiss expatriate.  Impressively, in only a few years, her and her team transformed a largely barren plot of land into a productive saffron farm with a variety of flowering herbs and tropical fruits.  Her little paradise is now an informative tourist attraction that teaches you everything you need to know about growing, identifying, and using high-quality saffron.

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Following our saffron information session, we were taken for a tour of the farm and given small envelopes to store collected herb clippings.  Then, we had a barefoot walking tour along different textured surfaces like smooth pebbles, date palm husks, and fine sand.  The walk concludes with a foot wash in vessels of water filled with different herbs, a salt rub, and then a hot water rinse.

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Leaving the saffron farm, our next stop was a Berber village in Seti Fatma where we toured a traditional home and flour mill.  Housed in the compound was a cooperative marketplace where more than 30 families sell their handicrafts and wares directly to visitors.  While there, we met a family of New Yorkers who were enjoying the first trip to Morocco, and we all laughed at the irony of crossing paths so far from home.

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Our next stop was a women’s argan oil cooperative.  After learning about how the Berber beauty secret is traditionally harvested, we were offered samples of argan oil and its products.  My favorite of them was amlou, a paste made of roasted almonds, argan oil, and honey.  We also tried a wide array of skin care products made from argan oil too.

Our next and final stop on the tour was Marrakesh Organics, an organic olive farm.  In spite of hosting a Permaculture Design Course, the owner graciously accepted our visit and had a delicious vegan lunch prepared for us while telling us about his farm.  This family farm had laid barren for some time and the current owner returned after study and travel abroad to revive his family’s farm and start an organic produce business.  He shared his ambitious vision with us and invited us back in the future.  After praying and thanking our hosts for their hospitality, we made a swift exit for our return to Marrakech.

Naturally grown goodness

Back in Marrakech, we needed to stop for dinner and settled on the infamous Earth Café—the only dedicated vegan and vegetarian eatery we know of.  Some eateries in major cities are very veg-friendly but this is the only meat-free restaurant we’ve found and we had to give our support.  Connected to an organic farm outside of the city, Earth Café’s simple menu has just a few options that heavily feature their veggie harvest.  Urbndervish and I opted for the veggie burger which had more vegetables than plant protein as a base.  Lil’ Z ordered the lentils and rice but again, the lentils were dwarfed by the rice and vegetables on her colorful plate.  My cousin opted for a goat cheese and pumpkin wrap and a beet drink.  The presentation and overall vibe of the place compensated for what the meal lacked.

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We sat for a while and eventually rose to weave our way through the cacophony of snake charmers, hustlers, and street vendors in Djema al Fna square. We decided to turn in for the night and prepare for our last morning in Marrakech.

Day 3

Before returning to Casablanca, we had two last agenda items:  shopping and henna.  Shopping was quick and easy without haggling and bargaining in the quiet morning hours.  For henna, we came across the Henna Art Café and I was thoroughly confused.  I had read about the Henna Café, a non-profit that funnels their revenue into development projects like free language and business classes for Moroccan women and youth.  So, when I saw Henna Art Café, I thought they must be the same.  A glance at their nearly parallel menu confirmed my suspicion but still I was wrong.  We didn’t have time to find the Henna Café, so we stayed to have henna done and concluded that this newer business was not the original we had intended to support.  Nonetheless, my cousin and Lil’ Z were beautifully adorned with henna and it was time to grab our bags and continue to the train station.  For lunch, we visited the Lebanese restaurant once more and caught our train back to Casablanca.

With special thanks to Discover Hidden Morocco Tours

for helping us plan our Ourika Valley trip!

Review: Amal Association in Marrakech

Lunch at Amal

After ten consecutive weeks of teaching in Casablanca, we were itching to get out of the city.  We had seen Fez, Meknes, Rabat, and Salé but were ready to venture further than an overnight journey.  Our two-week break in December was the perfect opportunity to venture southward and take my visiting cousin along for the ride.  With so many cities and towns to discover, it was hard to settle on a destination but the opportunity to finally visit the Amal Association made the choice clear.

Before moving to Morocco, I searched online for blogs of like-minded individuals that could help me paint a mental picture of life in al Maghrib.  One such blog was that of Nora Fitzgerald, the daughter of Californian parents who migrated to Marrakech almost 40 years ago.  Initially I was intrigued by her experience as an American raised in Morocco and all the cultural nuances that come with raising a “third-culture” family.  But later I was inspired by her vision to help disadvantaged women become self-sufficient through training in the culinary arts.  We had to make our way to this institution and support it in one way or another.  Instead of just having lunch at Amal Association, we opted to attend their cooking class and work with their staff to prepare a delicious Moroccan meal instead.

Cooking

Our host Sasa, the Communications and Public Relations Officer, graciously welcomed us to Amal and introduced us to their mission before a tour of their facility.  Then, we met all of the trainees and cooks who were diligently preparing food for the day’s menu.  In spite of their workload, they were all pleasant and took the time to show Lil’ Z, their youngest cooking class participant, lots of love.  The head chef took a special interest in our little VIP and offered us molten, chocolate lava cake and spring rolls prepared from freshly made phyllo dough.  In addition to these bonus goodies, my cousin, Lil’ Z, and myself were patiently guided in the art of making vegetable couscous and tajine.  Every ingredient, spice, and technique was carefully explained by our cooking teacher Ms. Fatiha and clarified by Sasa.  We spent hours cooking, chatting, and laughing like old friends in a familiar kitchen.

Lil' Z with the Head Chef

As lunchtime approached, the center was abuzz as guests started to fill the outdoor courtyard.  While other staff members busily took orders and served around us, we never felt like we were a nuisance to their flow of operation.  On the contrary, they served us tea while we waited for our meal to finish and never pressured us to give up our coveted table in spite of the full house.

Lil' Z cooking

Our meal was finger-lickin’ good.  Our couscous was steamed several times before it fluffed to perfection.  My cousin hand-rubbed the couscous between steamings like a hard-core Moroccan while our vegetable stew simmered for hours.  Lil’ Z and I fanned the charcoal flame heating our tajine as it sizzled in the clay pot that the dish is named for.  Every step of our meal, we were all actively involved and the staff made every effort to give Lil’ Z manageably safe tasks that were useful and meaningful.  Urbndervish was on deck to keep her occupied but even in the face of chocolate cake, she persisted in her work without interruption.  Maria Montessori would’ve been proud.

Chocolate Lava Cake

We lingered behind after our meal, enjoying the ambiance and lively atmosphere.  Though the day was satisfying on all fronts, I had one last request—to meet Nora, the founder of Amal Association, but there was no guarantee.  She’s a busy entrepreneur, wife, and mother with her hands abundantly full.  Sighting her on any given day would be rare.  However, the day of our visit happened to be her birthday and the staff had lured her in with a spectacular cake.  Sasa thoughtfully brought Nora to meet me and I was able to meet her and gush over her to my heart’s content.  Urbndervish and her husband, Hamza, had a chance to chat as well and found more than a few shared interests and mutual friends between them.  After they exchanged contact information, we said our parting words and left still savoring the delicious food and good company of the Amal family.

Rumi

Review: Shi Shang in Madrid

Shi Shang

After three months in Morocco with no residency visa, it was time to make our first run for the border.  We needed a new 90-day tourist visa and had the option of driving about five hours to the north of Morocco to a Spanish territory or flying out of the country on a cheap budget flight.  We opted for the latter which is how we ended up having lunch in Madrid.  We only had one day to spare for our adventure, so we needed a hotel with a free airport shuttle and a comfy bed, as well as a scrumptious meal to fulfill our vegan longings for the coming months.

Though I felt some guilt about going to Spain for the first time and not trying vegetarian Spanish cuisine, there was no room for churros or paella.  We didn’t have time for fluff and had to cut straight through to the vegan meat of the matter.  Ethiopian food was another tantalizing option but just the thought of an entirely vegan Asian buffet caused us to salivate.  We opted for Shi Shang with no regrets.

The Lion King

Because of our tight flight schedule, we planned to arrive just as the restaurant opened.  Their website mentioned opening at 11:30am, but the sign posted to the left of their closed shutters indicated 12 noon.  We strolled to the Plaza de España and sat for a while, reflecting on our very first trip to Europe.  Some of the brownstone buildings reminded us of Brooklyn but the Gothic architecture, statues, and fountains were what we expected to find in a major European city.

Don Jamon

Returning promptly at 12 noon, our hearts sank as the shutters were still down.  Would our highly anticipated meal fall flat?  We walked around looking for alternatives.  Don Jamón?  No, gracias.  Major fast food chains?  Not likely.  The Happy Buddha started to look enticing but we decided to give Shi Shang another few minutes to get their act together.  Confusingly, when we completed our lap around the block, the shutters were up but the lights were off.  One gentleman answered the door and indicated that the empty buffet tables would not be filled for at least another hour.  Our schedule couldn’t afford us an hour to spare, so we opted to order à la carte instead.

Why go veg

After receiving our menus, our brains retrieved some dormant Spanish vocabulary and we quickly decided on appetizers and entrees to get our meal going.  The staff busily mopped, folded napkins, and set tables around us while we sat content waiting for our order and hoping that we would finish in time to catch the metro rail to the airport for our 3:30pm flight.  But as we waited, we watched the buffet table start to fill up and began to wonder if the buffet would be ready before our own dishes.  The waiter assured us that the buffet would not be open until 1pm and brought us tofu salad as our appetizer.

Tofu Salad

At around 12:30pm, Urbdervish’s veggie fried rice reached our table first, followed by Lil’ Z’s veggie rice noodles and her single drumstick.  She was impressed by her vegan fried chicken but even moreso by the sugar cane “drumstick” in its center.  Last but not least, my sesame soy chicken and Urbndervish’s curried soy chicken came out and our order was complete.  Each dish was uniquely flavorful and freshly prepared.  We still lamented that we missed the buffet option but resolved that we would’ve been more prone to overeat and/or overindulge in the fried appetizers.  Also, the buffet didn’t finally open until 1:15pm and by then, we were out the door and on the way to the airport.

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Our brief waltz in and out of Madrid was fun.  The cleanliness of the streets, adherence to traffic rules and efficient public transportation options were a welcomed break from Casablanca, but now we are back until travel whisks us away once again.