Morocco on My Mind

(Note: I wrote this post in January in a notebook but my computer broke and I couldn’t post it until now. Please assume that this was posted in the last week of January)

I’m writing this on the flight back to London from Marrakech. In the last six days, we toured Marrakech, gone up to Ourika Valley in the Atlas Mountains, and driven across the Atlantic Coast. And althought I have been captivated by its breathtakingly beautiful landscape, I have found that Morocco’s magnetic appeal lies largely with its people.

Anwar (aka my handsome husband/father of my trouble makers/soother of my soul) is sitting on my right peeling succulent tangerines from Marrakech and popping them greedily in his mouth. The kids and my dad are on my left, playing simple tabletop games and laughing. Life does not get better than this at 30,000 feet above sea level.

courtyard at Koutoubia mosque

Six days ago as our plane was making its descent into Menara Airport, Marrakech, I peered out my window and stared with wonderment into the snow peaked Atlas mountains gently giving way to large sweeps of desert sand. Marrakech, its terracota-coloured buildings a stark contract against the clear blue sky, spoke of mysteries waiting to be uncovered. As soon as we landed and stepped out of the plane, I l raised my face upward and soaked in the gentle morning sun rays. After what seemed like endless months of grey winter weather in England, the sun felt glorious.

The airport was clean and organised, with beautiful geometric mosaic patterns adorning the walls and see-through glass ceilings bathing the space with bright natural light. There were large, colourful posters plastered along several points of exit at the airport reminding us proudly that Marrakech was host to the UN Climate Change Conference in 2016.

As we made our way to the car park to find our rental car, we were surprised to find that Mourad, our AirBnB host, had been waiting for us outside to welcome us and to drive us back to our accommodation. The pickup was not part of our AirBnB arrangement-Mourad did it just out of courtesy, a welcoming gesture that we would soon find out was common among Moroccans.

This was a promising beginning to our Moroccan adventure.

Marrakech

The bulk of our trip was concentrated on exploring this fort city. Our AirBnB flat was located outside the medinah in the quite suburb of Maatala. It was the perfect respite from the cacophony of the city center.  Local amenities were within walking distance and it didn’t take long for us to settle into domesticity. We fell in love with a small, unassuming cafe that served wonderful chickpea, lentil, and tripe stews for breakfast for pennies, we bought fresh bread every morning from the shop downstairs, and my husband and father (both huge football fans) watched several African Cup of Nations matches at the nearby Cafe Majid over copious amounts of bitter coffee. One evening when Morocco was playing, the entire neighborhood went up in a uniform roar when their country scored a goal. Thanks to our flat being in a working class neighborhood, I felt like I was part of the community and not a mere spectating tourist.

A few hours after landing in Marrakech we visited Djemaa al Fnaa, the city’s famous market square, in a move that later proved to be a mistake. Unrelentingly chaotic, this city square lived up to its reputation for being the center of a cacophony of sounds, smells, and sights.  What first started out as a quest to find lunch quickly turned into a walkabout in a maze that seemed to have no end. Piercing flutes from snake charmers, drums from folk musicians, wails from monkey performers, calls from juice and food vendors, shouts from stall owners; all these added up to one big headache. When we finally found sanctuary in the Koutoubia mosque across the main street from the square, I didn’t want to leave. The mosque was an oasis of calm and quiet in the middle of the sea of frenzy, and it’s green courtyard provided a cool heaven of rest from the outside world.

Koutoubia mosque

The next day, with a plan in hand this time, we visited the splendid Bahia Palace and marveled at its interconnected rooms painted with beautiful mosaic patterns, its central courtyard of blue tile, and its interior garden complete with lush green oranges trees, date trees and fragrant flowering bushes. The kids loved the palace as much as the adults did and we were reluctant to finally leave the palace gates.

beautiful geometric art throughout the bahia palace

When we left, we had some mint tea at a little restaurant by the palace called ‘Menara Cafe’.  Its owner, Abdulraheem, was a gregarious fellow with a mischievous smile on his face.  He hit it off with my dad immediately.  His sister, Sameera, the quieter but no less friendlier of the two, took care of the food preparation. When I asked them where we could get couscous, Samira offered to cook some especially for us the next day. When we showed up the following day, we were treated to fluffy couscous and beef tagine served in individual sized clay tagine pots.  Abdulraheem and Sameera even gave me a tagine pot to take home the leftovers in, a gift for me to remember them by.

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the tagine that would soon be mine

We spent the rest of the day exploring the souk. We sampled a wonderful tea of roses and herbs, ran our hands over embroidered dresses and scarves, discovered piles of beauty and health tonics and mixtures, and drank freshly pressed orange, kiwi and pomegranate juice. Later, we ate spicy grilled meat and bread dipped in creamy spinach and bought harisa (a chili paste), olives and souvenirs.

Ourika Valley

Day 3 saw us driving us up into the Atlas mountains, a welcome relief from the city. We drove on a winding road up the mountains and stopped three times, the first to take pictures and haggle over crystals, the second to drink some coffee, and the third, to pray. The third stop was at Sitti Fatima and inspired the quiet of the mountains, we decided to have a quick bite that turned into a 3 hour lunch course. Sitting on plastic chairs by a gentle stream with the majesty of the mountains around us, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment.

The kids threw pebbles into the stream for hours and they let screams of delight as the pebbles hit the water. They were laughing from unrestrained joy and as I looked on to them, I remember thinking to myself “Heaven must look a lot like this.”

Essaouira and Agadir

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view of Essaouira

On day 4, we made our way to Essaouira, a quaint beach town about 3 hours west of Marrakech. The day was grey and wet. We only had enough time to walk through the main market housed within the fort walls, but a few hours was all it took for the town to win us over. We arrived at lunchtime and when we asked a Ismail, a short souvenier seller with thick glasses and curly hair with an air of worldiness, for recommendations, he pointed us to the fish stalls. “Go buy fresh fish from there, then take it to any restaurant and ask them to grill them for you.”

Dad’s new friend, Ismail

His recomendation did not disappoint. We made our way to an unassuming cafe with a dark interior and plastic seating.  It looked like it was closed for the day, however the chef popped out of nowhere just as we were about to leave. He instructed his waiter to accompany  Anwar and my dad to the market to buy raw materials for our lunch.

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shopping for lunch

Fresh fish and vegetables in hand, Chef Kareem whipped up a succulent lunch of grilled fish and platters of fresh salad. Anwar, not usually inclined to emotional displays of excitement, nearly wept from pleasure.

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colourful local produce

Unfortunately a small bone that got stuck in my throat temporarily ruined lunch for me, but I was happy to see the rest of the family enjoy their food.

As the evening sun set in, we jumped back into our car and made our way south to Agadir.

We spent the night in Agadir and spent the following morning (day 5) at its market, the largest in Africa.  The market had almost everything you could ever want but my favorite section was the fresh food stalls. I spotted the most gorgeous pile of artichokes that I have ever seen anywhere. We bought some pickled chillies and bottles of olive oil, and large punnets of possibly the world’s sweetest strawberries.

souk delights
biggest artichokes I’ve ever seen

After a quick lunch, we made drove back to Marrakech to get ready for our early morning the next day.

Final thoughts:

We’ve driven across three cities and villages in between; we have seen majestic landscapes of desert, mountain, and sea; we’ve feasted on delicious and locally grown food; and we have met truly some of the kindest people in the world. As a woman, I was relieved to find that I always felt safe.

Morocco has given us happy memories that will last a lifetime. I look forward to visiting other Moroccan cities and villages on our next family trip.

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Escape From the City: Bath & Stonehenge

Oh, Bath, how I love thee….

 

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A view of the Roman Baths across the River Avon

 

My brother and sister-in-law recently visited me from the States so I decided that a trip to Bath and Stonehenge would be a great addition to their London itinerary.  We booked a bus tour and the next morning, we headed out from Victoria Station.

As soon as we drove out of London, I could literally feel my shoulders relaxing just so. London, I love you, but the grind can wear one out after a while.

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As we approached Bath, the tour guide gave us a detailed history of the city. I’ll spare you the history lesson but I should mention that Jane Austen’s novel ‘Persuasion’ was set in this city. Right…. moving on.

 

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Gorgeous sunny day at the riverside park

 

Once we arrived in Bath, I was surprised to see how architectural the city actually was. There were magnificent old building all around and they were set in the most picturesque surroundings. We had two hours for walking around so I tried to take as many pictures as I could.

 

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Mystics waters..

 

 

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Bath Cathedral

 

Later, we dug into some luscious mussels and chunky chips at the charming Riverside Cottage right by the River Avon. The food was so delicious and the view was overwhelmingly beautiful.

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Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to visit the famous Roman baths; which actually makes the perfect excuse for me to re-visit this gorgeous city.  I must admit though that next time I go, I will go by train or car and make an entire day trip of it. Two hours are barely enough to scratch the surface of Bath.

After Bath, we made our way to Stonehenge, one of the wonders of the world and the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe. It was an interesting ride and we got to see quaint little English villages along the way. The sun was beginning to set so by the time we got there so we didn’t have much time to take good shots of the famous stones. Here’s one I managed to get. img-20160923-wa0046

Most of the tour party was exhausted by the time we pulled out of Salisbury and even the noisiest chatterboxes kept quiet on our way back to London. It was already 8pm by the time we arrived back to the capital and although we were knackered to the bone, we were happy.

Was it worth it?  Yes!  I’ll definitely (God-willing) go back to Bath soon but I’ll probably save Stonehenge for when the kids are old enough to understand the significance of these historical stones.

(Pictures taken on my humble Samsung S6)

Do you have an un-bucket list?

Have you ever seen the movie, The Bucket list, in which the characters played by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson make a list of all the things they want to do before they die? I watched it a few years back and was hugely inspired by it.  I made my own bucket list- a very long list of fantastically adventurous things to do, places to visit, new things to try – until reality hit me on the head and I realised that I didn’t have nearly enough money, time, or energy to do half the things on that list. This is my problem with bucket lists: more often than not, they focus on the failure of the things that I haven’t done and often leave me with a sense of anxiety for the future.

Instead of sharing with you a list of the things that I haven’t done, I’ll share with you a list of the things that I have accomplished in the last year or so. Welcome to my un-bucket list:

  1. Quit drinking soda-I challenged myself to quit soda right before I started fasting for Ramadhan last year.  I’ve been drinking water and very occasionally, fruit juice. These days, I won’t drink soda even if it comes free with a meal.  My clothes fit better and my skin feels more hydrated.
  2. Turned my wardrobe into a ‘joy’ only zone-I went through an intense purging period where I got rid of clothes that didn’t fit well, didn’t look good on me, or that I just flat-out didn’t like. I read about Marie Kondo‘s philosophy on surrounding yourself with only things that ‘spark’ joy, and I have slowly started cutting out the joyless stuff out of my life. Which brings me to….
  3. Picked my battles-This is another big un-bucket item. I try very hard to allocate my time and focus on people that fill my life with beauty and laughter, and really, really try to stay away from anything that will make me angry or sad. There are always the inevitable sad/angry situations of course, but I intentionally keep these to a necessary minimum. When confronted with a conflict, I tend to ask myself “will this matter in 5 years time?” and proceed accordingly.
  4. Explored my city-Remember how I mentioned that bucket lists often involve significant chunks of money, time, and energy? This specifically relates to travel. As a working mother with two active toddlers,  I have little of those three resources to spare. I haven’t been travelling to many new countries, but I have been a very busy local tourist.  I make a point of visiting a local attraction at least once every week. London has many fantastic free attractions like museums, parks, gardens, and events. I pack a lunch and snacks for the road, load up the kids in the stroller, and off we go to explore the city. It’s so much fun!
  5. Started a library-This is probably the biggest un-bucket item on my list. Since childhood, I’ve always enjoyed reading immensely (I talked about it in this blog post). One of my dreams was to start a library in the coastal region of Kenya, where literacy rates are so low compared to the rest of the country. In late 2014, this dream came true. The library started out with a collection of a few donated books and now has grown so big that we are running out of space! You can read more about the library here.

How about you? What’s in your un-bucket list?

My current tea-rapy: ginger tea

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There are very few things that bring me greater comfort and happiness than a nice warm cup of tea.
My lovely longtime friend recently visited me from Tanzania and brought me this gem. I absolutely love drinking this tea at work in the afternoons- a perfect pick me up right when the midday slump hits. It is so soothing and relaxing. I particularly enjoy it with a slice of lemon and a small drop of wild honey.
What kind of tea do you love drinking?

A (romantic) day trip to Kew Gardens

A few days ago, my ever so thoughtful husband surprised me with a visit to Kew Gardens.

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Kew had been on my London bucket list for a few years so this trip was the perfect surprise.

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Spread over 300 acres of land, Kew boasts a variety of Gardens and glasshouses and has over 30,000 different kinds of plants. There was a spice tour when we went so each exhibit has specially marked spice-producing plants.

After walking for more than 6 hours, we had only covered only 10% of the grounds!

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Visiting Kew Gardens was a wonderful experience for me. It was peaceful, beautiful, exciting and I cannot wait to go back again.

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Next time, I’ll make sure to wear more comfortable shoes.