Tag Archives: Berber tea

Peace Corps Days

Perhaps the best days we had in Morocco came thanks to a Peace Corps Volunteer who was also a classmate of Anne-Claire’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Christine lives in a town called Khenifra in a valley in the Middle Atlas. The ‘bowl of heat’ where Khenifra sits keeps it well off the tourist trail, especially in mid July.

For that reason, we enjoyed strolling the streets as Moroccans went about their days rather than trying to get us to buy something. Anne-Claire even went behind the counter at a schpeckia (forgive my spelling for these delicious pieces of thin, fried dough covered in honey and sesame seeds, often a treat during Ramadan to break the daily fast) shop and helped the workers there to their delight. We left loaded down with far too many of the sweets to eat ourselves.

Our second day in town, Christine needed to have some paperwork completed for a boy she’d gotten into a USAID-sponsored summer camp. He lives in a village a few hours up into the mountains, so we set out early of the first of two taxis we needed to take to get there.

In Morocco, these ‘grand taxis’ are a bit better than the bush taxis you’ll find further south in West Africa, but only just. They’re usually wide, boxy Mercedes a few decades old, and drivers use the extra space added before fuel consumption was much of a concern to pack 4 people in the back seat, and three across the front, including the driver.

Wedged in against the door I gradually got a little more room, the car’s other passengers settling like the contents of a bag of potato chips as the car trundled around the mountain roads. We arrived in Kerrouchen just after two in the afternoon. The town is stunningly situated on a dusty, sloping plateau with the jagged peaks of the Middle Atlas rising around in every direction. The family that Christine had lived with met us at the taxi stop and took us back to their house.

Like every family who has hosted us on our journey, they pulled out all the stops for us (no doubt due to the excitement of seeing Christine again), beginning with this deliciously sweet sesame paste (the name of which I can’t remember). We had a Moroccan salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, followed by pasta, two whole chickens (one fried and the other cooked with saffron), and dessert of water melon, in addition to some mint tea, of course.

Afterward, we relaxed with the family, especially enjoying Rachid’s two-year-old daughter, Souhaila. Their neighbor joined us for part of the meal. He’s a mountain guide, and it’s his 14-year-old son that Christine is getting into the summer camp. Tanned and sinewy with clear blue eyes that reflect the region’s Berber roots, he comes off as no-nonsense, so much so that it was difficult to get him to accept our polite refusal to stay the night at his house.

Alas, we knew we had to keep going. Before leaving the village, we visited a couple of women’s cooperatives on the edge of town. Both groups produce beautiful textiles, and they greeted us warmly. The second group of women was particularly excited to see us. They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall in what felt like a large school room, with giant weaving looms sitting in front of three to four women each. Their chatter was punctuated by the thump, thump, thump as they smacked the threads into place.

As soon as we entered, a few of them hopped up and offered us tea, this time the more potent green tea similar to what the Tuaregs drink in Niger. Their hands were gnarled from decades of hard work, and their faces – creased by birthdays and children and husbands – testified to the diversity of the Moroccan people and its age-old importance as the gateway to Africa. You might expect to see their light skin and rounded noses in Eastern Europe, but here they were, blue eyes and all, on the edge of the dark continent; only the tattoos that the older women have on their foreheads signal the vast difference in cultures.

Most younger Berber women these days don’t have the tattoos, but the legend behind them demonstrates the cohesiveness we felt standing among the women at the cooperative as we laughed, drank tea and admired their handiwork. Long ago, some Berber women were taken to Europe as slaves, and they were given these tattoos to denote their lowly status. When a few of the women escaped and returned to their homes, everyone knew they’d been slaves because of the tattoos. So that these women wouldn’t be ostracized as damaged goods, the other women decided to tattoo themselves as well, making it impossible to know who had been a slave and who hadn’t.

After a lengthy goodbye, we headed back toward the taxi stand and eventually started the drive home, accompanied by a beautiful sunset. Peace Corps service is full of ups and downs, but it’s days like this you remember – time spent sharing food, laughter and simply time with others. I left my service in 2006 believing that the best part of Peace Corps is the exchange between two vastly different cultures, and I remain convinced of that. More often than not – as was the case this day in that little town in Morocco – I was on the receiving end of the generosity toward visitors that pervades cultures all over the world.

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This is Africa

So, I’m caught up on our time in Europe…just as we’re about to leave Morocco. I posted a few pictures last week of our first stop, Chefchaouen, a little town in the Rif Mountains. We took the boat from Tarifa in Spain to dusty, sun-soaked Tangier, and thanks to Morocco’s efficient bus system, were able to get all the way to Chefchaouen by mid afternoon.

We haven’t been too thrilled with the information in the Lonely Planet Morocco book. The latest edition was published in 2009, so prices have changed, ticket offices have moved, hotels and hostels have fallen into decay. Plus, it lacks a singular voice in its recommendations, and consistency suffers in both facts (e.g., prices of travel, visas, etc.) and opinions on what to see.

A glaring exception, however, is Hostal Gernika – recommended highly by the guide’s authors. The Spanish woman who runs it made us feel at home right away, and to call it a hostel when each room has a bathroom and shower isn’t really fair. We had a comfortable room right beside an immaculate rooftop terrace, perfect for enjoying the hostel’s great breakfast and escaping the late-night heat of the narrow streets below.

The city itself is built into the side of Jebel El-Kelaa, a peak in the Rif that, we were told, gets snow in the winter. That was hard to believe, as temperatures were in the 40°C range (100+ in Fahrenheit). But mitigating the heat are the winding walls of the medina, painted cool blue throughout the entire old part of the city. Aside from getting stung by a yellow jacket when I disturbed a nest that was under our dinner table, our first night was pleasant enough.

The next day, we took the obligatory tour of the former royal palace in the center of town and admired the parallels between the architecture and decoration here and those in Sevilla. In fact, Chefchaouen used to be a Spanish outpost until the early 20th century, and to this day, when you’re recognized as a foreigner, you more likely to be spoken to in Spanish than French.

By midday, the sun was hot, with few clouds to make the temperatures more bearable, so we headed to Ras El Maa, a waterfall at the base of El-Kelaa. As waterfalls go, it’s not tremendously impressive, but it does attract a lot of local folks looking for respite from the heat, and if they need to wash some clothes or a rug. On either side of the stream, the town had built chutes that led to perhaps a dozen wash basins. Moroccans seemed to have perfected the art of moving water to suit their needs. Driving through some of the driest parts of this country, swaths of green will suddenly burst from the rocky hardpan – the result of leveraging mountain streams and rivers via expertly engineered, cement-walled irrigation ditches that flow through nearly every town and in some cases right through houses themselves. So while kids played in the ankle-deep spillway in the stream, men and women washed clothes or used the continuously flowing water to help them in soaking and beating the dust out of their massive area rugs.

We spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, stopping at nearly every fresh-squeezed orange juice stand that seem to price a glass of the beverage on a sliding scale – the more you look and talk like a Moroccan, the less you pay. Our American-ness also earned us a few false friends in the form of carpet sellers, who have learned to leverage Western guilt by learning copious amounts of English, talking really fast, and accusing you of prejudice if you don’t join them in their shop for a cup of tea. “No pressure! No pressure,” they say. “This is not Marrakesh. This is Chefchaouen. We are friends here.”

With no intention of spending a hundred dollars or more on a rug, we nevertheless were lured in by a plump diabetic Moroccan who speaks better English than I do (learned from the 500 channels he gets with his satellite dish) who served us tea (his without sugar) and threw out en vogue clichéd phrases to indicate he was a businessman of principles like “This comes from a women’s cooperative” and “We pay the mountain people a fair price for this.”

We didn’t buy anything, and he seemed to take it well, though that did little to assuage the feeling that we’d just been taken for a Moroccan pony ride. We did however stumble on a random square with few tourists and a café with lots of men watching soap operas and playing dice-based games. For less than a dollar, we sat and drank a couple cups of mint tea while several boys played soccer on the cobblestones in front of us, stopping every so often for a drink from the spigot in the middle of the square.

For all its modernity – electrification and running water seem to be seen as a right rather than a luxury, as opposed to less-developed countries – its big cities that hum with traffic and hold both some of the newest and oldest vestiges of civilization, and the genuine belief on the part of the occasional Moroccan you meet on the street that they’re really more a part of Europe than Africa, our first few days in Morocco made clear in my mind which continent I was on. From our rooftop terrace, I watched the streetlights come on just as the slightest chill brought on by darkness began to stir activity. The smell of cooking fires and occasionally burning trash – two scents I’ll forever associate with my time in Niger – swirled skyward. And the chorus of prayer calls began, one after the other, from the five mosques visible from where I stood, the disjointed round leaving little doubt that this is Africa.