Thursday, July 30, 2015

Moroccan Adventure: Camels

We really only had a day in Marrakech so decided to get tickets on the Big Bus tour with hop on/ hop off option so we could see as much as possible in our limited time. One of the areas we visited was a bit of dessert near the posh golf course resorts that offered camel rides. We didn't ride but were allowed to take some fun photos.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Moroccan Adventure: Getting hassled in the Market

The markets are probably what most people think of when they consider Morocco. A picture of snake charmers, colorful textiles and brass lanterns come to mind. And all of that is there and more. It's also a very aggressive market - especially as Marrakech is teeming with tourists. Hawkers on all sides asking you to "take a look", "good price" which then degrades to "why don't you just look?" and "what are you so angry madam?" as you try to walk past without making eye contact. Because our Riad was in the middle of this, we 'walked the gauntlet' a few times a day.

The worst encounter was a woman offering henna, which is the traditional skin 'painting' that is very popular in the Middle East and North African regions. I politely said no and she said, "maybe later?" I agreed maybe later and the she grabbed my hand and started drawing a henna flower on it. I laughed nervously and tried to pull away saying no, no, but she held fast and was very quick with her art. She chattered on the whole time with, "a special flower for you today madam . . . blah blah blah." I finally was able to pull away and started walking. That's when she siddled up to Brian and said that he must pay for the beautiful flower she just gave his wife. He tried saying no and I said that I had never asked for the flower. Eventually Brian gave her the equivalent of a quarter as it was easier than continuing to argue. Let's just say I kept my hands close to my sides after that!

The country is quite poor so prices are cheap, but the aggression is a bit overwhelming . . . maybe we're just out of practice, but we thought they were some of the most aggressive we've run into in our travels. I think because we had to walk through there every time we left or returned to our Riad, it really started to get on my nerves.

The photos below are from another market that is much more open and spacious. I couldn't really take any pictures in the crowded market outside our Riad . . . at least not without getting hassled even more and probably run over by a motorcycle!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Moroccan Adventure: Getting to Marrakech

Back in May, we took a short weekend trip to Morocco. We were supposed to have a 3 day weekend holiday, but that changed last minute as can happen here when the holidays are based on the lunar calendar. But we had our tickets and our plans so we went ahead and took the vacation days. Our goal was Marrakech, but the airline I work for only flies into Casablanca so we decided to take the 3-hour train from Casablanca to Marrakech, spend a day and a bit in Marrakech and then fly back to Casablanca for our flight back to Abu Dhabi.

The flight to Casablanca was great as always (business class perks are so nice!!). We managed to get some good sleep, which was helpful. It was an 8 hour flight from Abu Dhabi and left at 3am. We arrived in Casablanca around 7:30am or so and then got on a 10:00 train to Marrakech. The train itself wasn't that great but it was nice to see the scenery along the way. A bit hard to get a good photo, but here are a few shots.

When we arrived, we headed to our Riad, which is the local traditional accommodation. They are original houses that have been converted into B&B type lodging. Getting there was an adventure as we couldn't be sure who to trust and who was trying to get some money out of us! The Riad was in the center of the market area so lots of pushy vendors selling all kinds of stuff. And of course, we look like gullible rich tourists so we were hassled A LOT. We asked for some directions, which was our first mistake, and then were followed all the way to the door where the man asked for money for being our 'guide'. Our first rude awakening that we weren't in polite, respectful Abu Dhabi anymore.

But then we entered the tranquil central courtyard of our Riad, were served some fresh strawberry juice and a few snacks and all was well again. Here are a few photos of the Riad.

Our room for the weekend.
The bathroom tile and metal sink were amazing
Too hot for sunbathing, but a cute little area on the roof
A view of the inner courtyard
My favorite spot on the roof where we had breakfast each morning.

Friday, July 24, 2015

My first true Iftar

Well, another Ramadan season has come and gone. As a reminder for those not familiar, Ramadan is the holy month in Islam where Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and then break their fast with what's called an Iftar. It's a reverent and very special time for Muslims and a bit of a challenge for expats in UAE as we are not allowed to eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in public places.

This was our 5th Ramadan, I can hardly believe it! It was made special this year by an invite to an Emirati family's home for Iftar one night. One of my colleagues from work invited a few of us to share Iftar and dinner with her and her family which provided a whole new level of experience and understanding.

We arrived at her house and were greeted warmly as expected. What I wasn't totally prepared for was how different she looked without her Abaya and Shayla. I had never seen her hair as she wears the tight fitting hijab that fully covers her hair at work and, of course, had only seen her in black from head to toe. This evening she was in a gorgeous teal colored jalabiya which is a full length, long sleeved gown of sorts - very pretty and looks very comfortable. All the female family members were wearing them so the whole evening had a comfortable but very elegant feel to it. They look a bit like the photo below.

We were welcomed into the majlis of the house, which is like a formal living room just off the front entry - in fact, the front of the house has a main door into a grand entry and a smaller one to the left into the majlis. The majlis itself was a largish room with very nice couches around the outside against the walls. The floor in the middle is left open (gorgeous carpets of course) and this is where a cloth is laid out on the floor with the food for the iftar.

It's very common to find extended families living together in the same household. In this family, there were multiple brothers and sisters living together, along with one brother's wife and a few children. Grandparents lived just a few doors down the road and the family was planning to head over there after dinner for the final evening prayer (after we had left). Family is central to life for Emiratis and they prefer to live very close and often in the same house. Typically, the wife would go to live with her husband's family after marriage.

Guests are separated male and female in most Emirati households. We met all the female family members of the household as well as a number of cousins who live close and were breaking fast in this house. We didn't see any of the males as they ate upstairs in a separate room. This is traditional when guests are present, otherwise, the family would have Iftar and dinner together.

We chatted until sunset which the family was monitoring with the internet and when the official time was reached, we were invited to take a seat on the floor to break fast. The Iftar is technically separate from dinner. Iftar is a simple affair (usually) of dates, milk, juice and water first and then some simple snacks. The idea is to introduce food slowly to avoid indigestion. After a few bites to take the edge off, the family goes to pray. We weren't invited to pray of course so chatted a bit while we waited for the family to return - maybe 10 minutes. We then ate a little more, talked a bit and then cleaned things up to move into the dining room for dinner.

Dinner was as you might expect, soup, mains, salads, juice - really nice food and lots of it! Our friend's mother loves to cook and loves even more to cook for guests so she went all out to impress us with a number of emirate dishes. She then made sure we had enough to take home to feed a small army (I felt right at home with that! ;)

After dinner we talked and visited some more, ate some delicious desserts and drank some tea back in the majlis. We were also each offered some Oud and perfume to top off the evening. As I mentioned in my post about the Emirati wedding, sharing scents is a traditional practice. They had an incense type of burner that burn the Oud, which is a scented type of wood (I think) that produces scented smoke. One of the girls brought it around to each of us and we were to wave the smoke through our hair to catch the scent. We were then also passed a bottle of traditional perfume to dab on our wrists. Again I thought of the comfortable elegance of the evening. The photo below give you an idea of the Oud burner.

By this time it was after 10pm and the family was just gearing up for a night of visiting with the rest of the family and the final evening prayer. Since it was a Thursday evening, no one had to be up early for work the next day so the plan was to stay up most of the night and sleep in the next day. Since the morning meal has to be eaten before sunrise (called Suhoor and about 4am this time of year) this made a lot of sense.

I, on the other hand, headed home as it was getting past my bedtime.