Tuesday, 29 April 2008

My Hero

Meet Erin McKean. This lady is amazing. She's a Lexicographer who's got a very Sociolinguistic view on language and dictionaries. She rocks. You've got to check out why I nominate her for the title of My Hero. (Thanks to Mithi for pointing me in her direction.)

Morocco Part 4

The Argon Forest, outside Taroudant, was once a space teaming with life, and overflowing with vegetation. 5 years of drought and centuries of overgrazing, however, has left it a collection of scraggly trees. As a result, the locals have developed an alternate form of grazing for their goats. They get their goats up into the trees! And not just into the lowest bits. Right up into the top! It was the most amazing thing! Funnily enough, about two weeks before I went I saw an HSBC advert about "What do trees mean to you". One of the responses was, "Grazing". I totally thought it was fake! And then, one of the very first things I saw upon arrival in Morroco was . . . Goats in trees! Totally cool.

The Argon Tree is very interesting. It produces a nut which kind of looks like a rounded Almond on the outside. However, when you break it open, it's got two sides, with a husk dividing it in the middle. Naturally Morocco has helped several groups of women start a couple of different cottage industries and co-ops. In this case, it's a women's co-op to extract and process Argon oil. The ladies sit on the floor in a tiny little room, cracking the nuts. They put the nut end up on an anvil stone. Then they take a rounded oblong stone and smack it on the nut. This results in the nut splitting open. So then they pick out the meat from the husk, flip the meat into the waiting basket, brush the husk off, grab the next nut, and begin again. And they're so fast at it! They invited me to have a go, so I sat down next to one of the ladies. Just about crushed my finger the first time! But after a few tries, I more or less got the hang of it. No where near as fast as those ladies, though. Lois had a try after me, and she did a very credible job. She's the better nutcracker, apparently. Must be all that time doing fiddly sewing bits!

After our visit to the Argon Oil Co-Op we headed out to a Palmery in an Oasis to have lunch. The oasis is just a green blip in the middle of the desert. The Palmery refers to the area right by the water where families have an allotment for a bit of a garden. Many of them actually have Palms! However, mostly they grow barley and alfalfa. They can get 5 crops of alfalfa out of one planting! It's quite amazing, really.

I discovered that if you sit next to the irrigation river, in the shade, it's really quite cool and pleasant. Our guide took us up to the old Kasbah that's been redone now, opened as a big restaurant (we didn't eat there, just went up for the view.)

Friday, 25 April 2008

Morocco Part 3 - Taroudant: "Little Marrakech"

The agency we booked our holiday through is called Naturally Morocco. It only does Morocco, nothing else. So they really know their stuff. They have an in-country base in Taroudant. The staff there are so lovely. The house is run by Latiffa, and the outings are supervised/organised by her husband, Said. Latiffa has a degree in English and Arabic Literature. Said has one in Geology and one in Biology. Everywhere we went with Said he spotted birds. He would spot these things way off, whislt driving. It was amazing.

We were in Taroudant for 6 days. If you're thinking of heading to Morocco, I definately recommend skipping all the regular stuff and heading to Taroudant. You can fly into Agadir or Marrakech. They're both big cities with little charm. Taroudant, however, was full of charm.

Perhaps the most charming bit was the souk. Most Westerners have a strong dislike of bartering and haggling. It's no longer part of our world, so we're not really taught how to do it. However, once you get your head round the thing, it's not so bad. What I dislike about the process is not the actual haggling itself. I dislike being badgered as I walk through the market. If they'd just leave me alone to look around and not pester me, I'd probably buy more! Fortunately the souk in Taroudant is more subdued than that of Cairo, where I'd done most of my bartering before. Chalk up another point for visiting Taroudant!

Said took us through the souks to make sure we went to reputable people. There are all sorts of different qualities available in the souk. It definately helps to have an insider who knows who sells the quality stuff and who doesn't. We started out in the Berber Market. That's where all the locals go to buy household and everyday sorts of items. We saw all sorts of things being sold there. One of the coolest, and saddest, things we saw was a Senegal Chameleon. We had two Senegals as children: Gucci (leather that costs that much had better be Gucci) and Rascal (he lived up to his name). We therefore recognised this little guy right away. I just happened to see him as we rushed past the shop. He was in a little cage with a couple tiny tortoises. I stopped, being rather surprised to find a Senegal here, and the shop keeper came out and opened the cage and handed him to me. He really liked Lois . . . guess she was warmer than me! He 'growled' at me (lizards growl by sticking out their dewlap -- the bit of skin under their chin -- and opening their mouths threateningly). Said told us that they're sold for magic spells. So sad, since they're killed for the spell. And of course it doesn't work. But fun to play with for a moment!

Of course, no visit to Morocco is complete without visiting the spice market. That was the reason we were in the Berber Market to begin with! The spices are all piled into cones and the merchant scoops out what's needed and puts it into a little bag, or bottle, if you've brought your own.

You can buy the spices ground or whole, mixed or individually. It's all sold by the weight.

They also sell Henna and an olive oil soap. It's super soft, so they can't sell it in bars, but rather in scoops. The henna in this photo is the green-ish bit, and the soap is just behind, sort of an orange-y brown colour.

Saffron, however, is special. It too is sold by weight, but it's not kept out in great heaping piles. Literally worth its weight in gold, it's far too valuable to be left where just anything could happen to it. It's kept in a box behind the counter. Then, when you ask for real Saffron, they take out the box and sell it for 20 Dh per gram. No haggling. We each bought 2 grams. You know they used to grow Saffron here in Essex? Up near Cambridge there's a town called Saffron Walden. They used to grow Saffron up there.

The souk was full of things that I would loved to have photographed. Sometimes I couldn't get the shot because I didn't see it in time. The one that I wish I'd got was this little old man sitting on the side of the market selling shelled walnuts. He looked like a walnut himself! He had this tanned craggy face all wrinkled and really did look like one of his walnuts. I didn't see him till I'd already past, and I was trying to help Grandma keep her balance, and Said was up ahead, and all in all, I couldn't stop easily at that point. The other inhibitor to photographing in public is that people will come up and demand money for taking photos. Now, that little walnut seller I'd have happily have payed, or bought some of his walnuts off him, but when you're just photographing the general scene, it's kind of frustrating! So I didn't get some of the photos I wish I would have. Never mind. I did get a lot of good ones. One of my favourites is this one: It was meant as a photo of the date stall. But what I caught in the background was this: A woman dressed in the traditional wrap in the traditional colour of Taroudant. Each area has their own colour. It's more or less a long strip of cotton that a woman wraps around her from head to toe.

Taroudant's colour is a gorgeous dark sky blue. Many times the clothes they wear underneath these wraps are quite modern. It is falling out of favour, though. Kind of sad, but you can understand. It's quite a lot of work to keep everything together, and then you don't have hands for anything else. However, it does keep the sun and dust off.

Lois was quite keen to get some beads. Africa is well known for making interesting beads. Especially those beads which were historically the form of African currency. Known as African Trade Beads, they now are collector's items. There are many different versions of the beads. Some are modern imitations. They're often glass with a speckled glass patina on the outside. 'Real' African Trade Beads were hand painted, and are quite expensive. So Said took us to a bead seller. Entering into his domain was a bit like entering Aladdin's Cave or finding the stash of Ali Baba's loot. Beads hung from every wall, and even the ceiling. You had to be careful where and how you moved, because you might upset a basket full of loose beads or knock a string of them off a hook. Or maybe catch some in your hair!

Our host, the stall's owner, showed us how the Berber jewelery works. You get these enormous earring things that I'd been seeing in various places. I kept thinking, how on earth could you possibly wear something like this? It would be so heavy it'd just be too painful to wear. Our host showed us the trick. And yes, there is one. The hoops don't go through the earlobe, it goes around the whole ear! And then there's a chain that goes up the cheek into the hair, where there's another hook thing that grabs into the hair to help support the weight of the jewelery. Pretty slick! And it looks so cool on. He put it on as he explained it, and I asked if I could take his photo. He said, 'Well, it's supposed to be for a woman, but . . . go on, then!' So I took his photo just as he finished speaking, as he started to laugh. Turned out to be one of my favourite photos of the trip.

So Lois got down to business choosing out the beads she wanted. I was so overwhelmed by all the beads, I'd never have been able to do it! Have no idea how she decided which ones she wanted out of all those available!

But she somehow did. Then she had to do the dreaded bargaining! Because the African Trade Beads are not uniform in size and shape, they're not sold as an individual bead price, or even a strand price. They're sold by weight! Just like the spices. But they're not weighed on these newfangled electric scales. Nor even on a scale which rests on a table. Instead, it's one of those scales that hang. I'd seen hanging scales before. Most people have I suppose. But I'd never seen anyone actually use them!

Welcome to the world of Moroccan Souks!

Tuesday, 22 April 2008


I smashed my finger last night, in the car door. Really painful. The nail is purple in the lower left hand quarter. Purple and painful! I vote not doing this again.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Morocco Part 2

So, after our lovely day in the Auberge, we clambered in an old Mercedes Taxi. This taxi took us up into the High Atlas. The whole time we were in Morocco we kept remarking on how similar it was to the SouthWestern part of the United States.

About an hour into the drive to Taroudant we came up to this big building perched up on the top of a hill. We wondered what it was, so Grandma asked. Turns out it's a 12th Century Mosque which is being rebuilt. It's still used, but because it's a ruin, they let tourists visit. So we went up. It was really beautiful! The carving in the plaster and wood were amazing.
The arches were really lovely, also, even the ones which weren't carved. There were row after row of them. Kind of reminded me of Cordoba.

The old Mizhab (the fancy bit in the wall that faces Mecca) was not as ornate as some I've seen, but had an elegance that sometimes gets lost amongst the glitz and glamour of the more embellished models.

Back on the road again, we headed up into the serious roads of the High Atlas Tiz'n Test Pass. (Actually, that's redundant. Either Tiz'n or Test means Pass, but I forget which one.) We climbed and climbed and climbed, which, won switchback roads, flings you around pretty well. Eventually we got to the top of the pass and . . .glory be. . . stopped for some lunch! It was a beautiful view of the whole valley below. Lunch was Berber Omelet (which is egg and stewed vegetables all steamed in a Tagine. Really nice) and Berber Salad (bunch of bell peppers, tomatoes and onion chopped real fine and mixed up). And

Mint Tea. The Ubiquitous Mint Tea. Kind of nice up at the top of that pass. The elevation was such that it was cool, plus the wind was keeping things brisk. We were huddled into our jackets to keep warm.

Right. Onwards and Upwards. Er . . . Downwards!

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Woman's Flaw

By the time the Lord made woman,
He was into his sixth day of working overtime.
An angel appeared and said,
'Why are you spending so much time on this one?'
And the Lord answered, 'Have you seen my spec sheet on her?
She has to be completely washable, but not plastic,
Have over 200 movable parts, all replaceable
And able to run on diet coke and leftovers,
Have a lap that can hold four children at one time,
Have a kiss that can cure anything from a scraped knee to a broken heart
-And she will do everything with only two hands.'

The angel was astounded at the requirements.
'Only two hands!? No way!
And that's just on the standard model?
That's too much work for one day.
Wait until tomorrow to finish.'

'But I won't, ' the Lord protested.
'I am so close to finishing this creation that is so close to my own heart.
She already heals herself when she is sick
AND can work 18 hour days.'

The angel moved closer and touched the woman.
'But you have made her so soft, Lord.'

'She is soft,' the Lord agreed,
'But I have also made her tough.
You have no idea what she can endure or accomplish.'

'Will she be able to think?', asked the angel.

The Lord replied,
'Not only will she be able to think,
She will be able to reason and negotiate.'

The angel then noticed something,
And reaching out, touched the woman's cheek.
'Oops, it looks like you have a leak in this model.
I told you that you were trying to put too much into this one.'

'That's not a leak,'
The Lord corrected,
'That's a tear!'
'What's the tear for?' the angel asked.

The Lord said, 'The tear is her way of expressing her joy,
Her sorrow, h er pain, her disappointment, her love,
Her loneliness, her grief and her pride.'
The angel was impressed.
'You are a genius, Lord.
You thought of everything!
Woman is truly amazing.'

And she is!
Women have strengths that amaze men.
They bear hardships and they carry burdens,
But they hold happiness,
Love and joy.
They smile when they want to scream.
They sing when they want to cry.
They cry when they are happy
And laugh when they are nervous.
They fight for what they believe in.
They stand up to injustice.
They don't take 'no' for an answer
When they believe there is a better solution.
They go without so their family can have.
They go to the doctor with a frightened friend.
They love unconditionally.
They cry when their children excel
And cheer when their friends get awards.
They are happy when they hear about a birth or a wedding.
Their hearts break when a friend dies.
They grieve at the lo ss of a family member,
Yet they are strong when they think there is no strength left.
They know that a hug and a kiss can heal a broken heart.
Women come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
They'll drive, fly, walk, run or e-mail you to show how much they care about you.
The heart of a woman is what makes the world keep turning.
They bring joy, hope and love.
They have compassion and ideals.
They give moral support to their family and friends.
Women have vital things to say and everything to give



Morocco Part 1

This is going to be a long, ongoing process. There are just too many photos to dig through all at once. So I'm going to do this in stages. Here's the first installment.

When we arrived in Marrakech, we jumped straight in a taxi and drove out to a tiny little town about 3 hours South. When I say drove . . . I don't mean we meandered through the lovely countryside and arrived unshaken at our Auberge. No. I mean that the driver took the single lane, mostly mountain roads at 60+ miles/hour. I was in the back of the mini-van, and there were no seat belts, so I was being tossed about to and fro, up and down. I swear I hit my head on the ceiling at least 3 times! And the driving style in Morocco is different, too. When you come up behind someone who's going slower than you, it's not your responsibility to patiently wait till there's a clear bit and you can pass. Nope. You honk your horn, and THEY have to get out of your way! It was one of the strangest rides I've ever had in my life.

We arrived to our Auberge in the late evening. So we threw our stuff into our rooms and ran off to dinner. The menu was in French. No English. Nothing but French! So we struggled through, me looking for similarities to Spanish, Grandma pulling out her old University French Vocabulary. Eventually we managed to order. In Morocco the most common type of dish is called a Tagine. A Tagine is a conical pot where the bottom is a disk and the top is a cone that sits down on top. You put the meat and any long cooking veg in there, cover it up and set it on a coal burner for 1.5/2 hours (depending on the meat). Towards the end of said time, you add the softer veg that doesn't need to be cooked as long. Then you put out flat (or flat-ish) bread, no silverware, and the Tagine (minus the conical lid). Everyone at the table then more or less digs in with the bread, scooping it out Mexican Tortilla style. Pretty good, but takes some practice. Fortunately for those of us without the manual dexterity required to eat with bread, they do give tourists forks and knives. Lois and I got the hang of it, but Grandma decided that eating with your hands was for the birds, and used her fork. Really good food, but (and this became the mantra of the trip) too much food! They gave EACH of us our own Tagine! There was no way on Earth that we were going to eat an entire Tagine each! Oh well, at least we didn't leave the table hungry.

The next day we just took things easy and recovered from the flight. Stayed by the pool, read books, played Phase 10 and Yatzee (Thank you Lois for thinking to bring games!), sat in the sun, that sort of thing. Lois and I went on a walk of the Auberge:
It's laid out like a big garden, with a large vegetable patch on one side. Pretty cool. I was being very careful to not stay in the sun too long, because I'm so pale I crisp rather than gently tan. Lois is the same. But at Lunch they had us outside, and the umbrella was just not big enough. My right arm was definitely getting toasted. Eventually I swapped over with Lois, who was in full shade. But the damage was already done. My right arm was fried. Lois got a touch too much on her arms as well. But that's what you get when you're as pale as we are!

Friday, 18 April 2008

Back from the Road To Morocco

Phew! It was hard work! My French is bad enough to make a cat laugh (just ask my friend Stephie -- She's French -- She's TRIED to teach me!) and my Arabic is, naturally, worse. Between my Spanish and Portuguese, I just about was able to get the gist of most of what was going on, but it was hard work.

I'm going to be uploading and blogging the photos, but it's going to take a while. Have a LOT to get through! Only want to show the best of the best, you know how it is.