Easy and Breezy in Essaouira

The soaring and screaming of the seagulls accompany the melody of the sea. Inside the medina, white are the walls and majorelle blue are the old windows and wooden doors we see. The air is fresh, the pace is slow, the colours are soft and the people are hassle-free.

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Essaouira is a small fishing town located in the western coast of Morocco. It is inhabited by Arabs, Berbers and Gwanas, giving a rich cultural mix to the town. The bay is partially shielded by the island of Mogador protecting the peaceful harbour against strong winds coming from the sea. The medina, wrapped around with white ramparts, is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city making the town a must to add to your itinerary.

Shopping the tranquil alleys of the medina is a great option for souvenir hunting. The non-agressive vendors make it for a nice and peaceful stroll, giving you the proper time to shop stress-free. Follow the aroma of spices floating in the damp sea air. Search for argan oil, natural medicine, Thuya crafts or maroquinerie while shopping in a mellow atmosphere. The prices are already low, but there is always room for bargaining.

There are several restaurants offering Moroccan cuisine, although a lot are also serving European meals, such as pastas, pizzas, sandwiches and fries. Most riad will include Moroccan breakfast with the stay. Most will also offer a homemade dinner, at a fairly good price. Eating at the riad is a very attractive option. While dining in the comfort of your hotel, you will taste authentic dishes made out of fresh local ingredients (purchased on the same day). If they don’t sell alcohol, they will most likely let you bring a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner. It is a cheap, convenient and delicious option!

Feline strollers seem better nourished and healthier than other Moroccan cities. Volunteers come twice a year to fix the females. Restaurants also spoil the furry companions with left-over foods and fresh water.

People don’t come to Essaouira for a sun vacation. Even though it is shinning here most days of the year, the town holds strong marine winds that could make some visitors unpleased and bothered. With an approximate 25km/h wind everyday, the town is known as the character wind city of Africa and has grown in becoming one of the best place to come windsurfing. Hundreds are seen defeating the wind, jumping the waves, and racing the gulls. I won’t suggest having a picnic on the beach with that kind of air current, unless you like crunchy bits in your sandwich. However, a few restaurants offer a good break from the wind, offering comfort food and refreshings.

At the end of the beach, camels and horses are found, ready to provide you with a scenic ride along sand dunes while admiring the sun setting over the ocean. If the idea doesn’t attract you that much, the images of these gorgeous animals strolling in front of the sunset make up for great pictures.

Essaouira is a purely tranquil holiday. Stroll the hassle-free medina, eat the catch of the day on the quay, have a mint tea on one of the terrace watching people go by, take culinary lessons with the cook at your riad, take a walk on the beach, admire stunning sunsets while sitting on a camel back. This little fishing town is a perfect retreat by the sea (and a natural exfoliant).

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Photo taken by my beautiful mother

Celebrating Eid Al-Adha in Morocco

Warning: This blog post contains images and descriptions that might not be suitable for vegetarians, closed-minded or fragile readers. Some may find the content disturbing. If you do read, please have an open mind and the ability to understand a different culture. Thank you.

Every year, on the 10th day of the Islamic calendar’s last month, falls one of the two Muslim feast holiday: Eid Al-Adha. This Festival of Sacrifice is to honour the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of compliance to command. When the son accepted and the sacrifice was about to be performed, Allah stopped to provide Abraham with a lamb to kill instead. Muslim families from all around the world will sacrifice a sheep or a goat every year on that special religious holiday.

Today, on October 16th, 2013, I witnessed with my own eyes such an intimate and important religious ceremony.

My host family have been preparing for the feast all weekend. They made and baked the mkhamer (bread), dried and chopped the herbs, prepared side dishes of backoula (spinach salad), zarlouk (cooked eggplants) and khizou mchermel (spiced carrots). They sharpened the knife. They got the sheep.

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Sheep pushed in carts have been circulating all over town the past few days. Each Muslim family purchased a sheep or a goat and kept them on their outdoor terrace or home for a few days prior the sacrifice. The bleating of sheep was added to the sounds of prayer chanting at night.

Earlier this morning we went to the grandmother’s home where all the rest of the family reunited. Aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody was present as well as 2 students from Senegal. There were also 3 sheep, one for each small family.

Being part of the sacrifice was never planned. I didn’t research well prior my arrival and was unaware of this important holiday. When it was mentioned and described to me, I was put into a strange blend of anxiety and excitement. I’ve never witness death before, therefore this unique opportunity had to be taken with arms wide open. I am not a vegetarian back home, but I always prefer vegetables and fish over meat, by taste preference at first, and also because I don’t know where my meat comes from. It is not for health reasons, but rather for animal cruelty concern. I don’t agree with our meat industry and wished people would realize how much abuse is made towards animals. Being part of the sacrifice was going to be hard, but also a massive eye-opening experience.

Salt was thrown over the drain in the outdoor terrace. The first sheep was brought out. The butcher, after doing his prayer, put the ram on its side and caressed his back. With a sharp movement, he cut the throat. The blood sprayed out its vein. It died immediately. However, its legs shook as the blood tried to rush to the brain, and back and forth. Agony. I found myself in the mix of emotions and placed my sunglasses to hide the tears accumulating at the edge of my eyes. The blood squirting was overwhelming. The scene was perturbing. The death of a living was heart aching. But I held on. I was so fortunate to be there.

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The butcher chopped the head off. And then came the hoofs. He sliced the bottom of one leg and blew air into the skin. The inert animal blew up like a balloon, making it easier to lacerate the skin from the muscle. When completely removed, the skin and wool is kept aside to later be cleaned and used as praying mats. The animal was then hoisted by the back legs. It was time for the belly to be carved. He removed the organs and placed them into a plastic basin. They were put aside for today’s BBQ and dinner.

The women took their shoes off and danced barefoot in the bath of blood. They then brushed and hosed the ground, the walls and the doors. We were ready for the second sheep…

And the third…

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Saving the most savoury part for the Friday’s cousous

A cousin grabbed my hand and hurried me inside the house. The Royal ceremony just started and was displayed on TV. The King performed a Sunnah prayer followed by a sermon. It was to Mohammed V, the King, to sacrifice the first sheep (the one for his palace). Then the butcher did the second one (for the country). Celebrations at the palace followed the sacrifice.

The smell of the charcoal burning under the grill dragged us outside.  I helped the younger ladies wrap the belly fat around pieces of liver and stab them on sticks to make kotbane (shishkabobs). The women marinated the lungs and the rest of the liver for the dinner later. As a tradition, the organs are eaten on the day of the sacrifice, the meat in tagines the next day and the head on the Friday’s couscous. 1/3 of the meat is kept for the family, another 1/3 to trade to neighbours and family and the rest goes to the poor and needy. From head to hoofs, nose to tail, everything is eaten.

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Tasty liver shishkabobs, charcoaled liver and heart and delicious couscous

The table was set outside with Moroccan blankets wrapped on its side to diminish the heat of the midday sun. Everybody grabbed a dish and placed it in the center of the table. We gathered for the feast. We laughed, smiled, spoke a mix of Arabic, French and English. A multi-ethnic lunch with various conversation from history to religion to simple joy talks. We spent the afternoon dancing on the rhythms of Arabic music. From the younger son to the grand-mother, everybody showed their moves on the living room floor. There was no time to sleep or be tired. It was time to celebrate.

More than 25 billion animals are killed by the meat industry each year. As soon as they are born, they are put in overcrowded cages, crates or stalls. They are deprived from exercise, sunlight and care. The average American meat-eater is responsible for the death of about 90 abused animal per year. Today I witnessed the raw death of 3 animals. However, these creatures had the best life a sheep could have. They were found in the mountains after living a life of running wild and free. They were brought to a home where they were given respect and care. They were killed quickly and efficiently. Yes, it was hard to see. But I’m glad I did.

This unique experience was given to me as an opportunity to open my eyes not only on another religion and culture, but also on mine.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

-Gandhi, Indian spiritual leader

Insha’Allah!

Peacefulness in Chefchaouen and the Rif Mountains

The 5 hour bus ride from Fes to Chefchaouen allowed me to peacefully rest while finding comfort in the sound of music from my iPod. Songs that reminds me of home, of my friends, of a fantastic summer we just spent. Don’t worry, I am not homesick yet, but it is nice to sometimes feel close to home.

10 years ago, I moved solo to the mountains of Whistler. My comfort, my family, the place I always look forward to return after trotting the globe. Home. I couldn’t be there to celebrate this decade however, I managed to travel to the mountains, here in Africa.

Chefchaouen

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Chefchaouen is a peaceful town centrally located in the Rif mountains in northern Morocco. The blue painted walls of the medina offers calmness to all who stroll its alleys. We enjoyed getting lost in the non-hassle pathways, slowly walking through serene alleys. Stalls of colourful clothing, wool products and powdered paintings are found every corners with passive merchants.

Here, goats are a popular purchase for the Eid, considering they live right here in the mountains and are a leaner meat than the sheep.

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I couldn’t stop but admiring the soft contrast of women wearing colourful djellaba against the blue of the walls. Cats make up for great pictures too.

The main square houses a few restaurants, offering dirt cheap dinner option. Bright and colourful rugs for purchase hung on the central bench under the afternoon sun.

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Chefchaouen is known for its wool, its pure mountain water and the popular kif (cannabis), the town’s own perfume that is enjoyed by everyone. Men in back alleys are also spotted drinking mint tea, smoking kif and watching futbol. A persistent smell of goat is also added to the air.

The Rif Mountains

About 350,000 people reside in the province of Chefchaouen. Only 36,000 currently live in the town, while the rest is spread in the mountains. The mountains are divided by 33 rural communities, each housing up to 60 villages inhabiting up to 1,000 people.

Our host at the riad recommended us his childhood friend, Lofti, to guide us through the back mountains. We left in the afternoon for what was expected to be a 2 hour hike.

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As we hiked up, we sought three women cutting the oak for the goats. On the road, a minivan filled, in and out, of farmers and their kids came back from the Monday market in town. We passed beds of purple-pink flowers on rocky surfaces, donkeys feeding on bark, rosters hanging out. An old man on a slim donkey returned from the market. A young man attempted to show off on his motorcycle. The funny part was to watch him run after his hat, once it blew in the air.

We arrived at an open space, at the foothills of a high mountain. Boulders that once rolled down are scattered on the ground.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and the trek was very informative. When we stopped for a break, he introduced us to cactus fruit. I didn’t have the choice then to try and chew the excessive number of seeds that contained this little fruit.

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We arrived at the village of Kalaa.

We sat under a fig tree to enjoy a rewarding cup of mint tea. The scent of kif perfumed the fresh mountain air. Local men played board games on balconies smoking and drinking afternoon tea. Kids returning from school enjoyed their liberty in the surroundings.

On our way back, we walked through small villages. Cats, sheep, donkeys, horses, all were there to greet us with a stare. Kif dried on a roof.

The sun setting behind the mountains on the way back left a soft pink light over the blue city. The view was stunning, the breeze refreshing and the smell of pine trees comforting.

The moon replaced the sun in the sky, lighting us the way the back to the medina. This 2 hour hike ended being a wonderful 6 hour trek. We are exhausted.

Good night Chefchaouen.

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IMG_9196*I highly recommend to hire Lofti. If it is for a tour of the medina, a couple hour hike, or a few day trek in the Rif mountains, I assure you Lofti will make it worth it. He works for himself and charges extremely cheap rate (I ended up giving him twice his offer), so make sure you treat him right. He speaks both French and English. To contact him: guidrural_lofti@yahoo.fr