Finding where it hurts!

In the souks of Fes:

Vendor: 60 dirham!
Me: This dirty little thing? It’s even got a crack in it! 5 dirham!
Vendor: Tsk tsk. OK. 50 dirham!
Me: 10, final price!
Vendor: No. 15.
Me: Two for 20.
Vendor: Keep looking.

I finally found my haggling groove back.. it’s only taken almost two weeks. I admit I’ve gotten a kick out of hearing the following:

– “You are killing me!” (younger man with better mastery of colloquial English there!)
– “Please. You are hurting my family.”
– “You are my first sale. Insha-llah! 10 more dirham”
– “You are a tough woman” (got that right, mister!)

ps: 5 Moroccan dirham at time of haggling was about US $0.61. Heh. I really wasn’t that interested in it. I wanted to find that bottom line. Looks like I found it.

I do have a weak spot though. Men old enough to be my grandfather… my traditional roots show. In my upbringing, they should be taken cared of by their families, not dragging out their wares day in and day out. I am well aware some of them do so by choice, whether it’s the life they know and want to keep or for the company they have around them, but that particular demographic is my Achilles heel.

Middle-aged and young vendors? Bring. It. On.

Summit: Jebel Toubkal, Morocco

Some of you may remember: I made a personal resolution on a milestone birthday to climb a mountain a year. A recap of some previous climbs:
Jebel Catherine, Egypt, 8,625ft  or 2,629 m
Mount Fuji, Japan, 12,388ft or 3,776 m
– Harney Peak, USA, 7,244ft or 2,208m
– Schiehallion, Scotland, 3,553ft or 1,083m
Cadair Idris, Wales, 2,930ft or 893m

Now I get to add:
– Jebel Toubkal, Morocco, 13,671ft or 4,167m

I almost didn’t fit one in. It’s December before I even made my first trip to any mountain this year.

And, boy, did I get my bum kicked with altitude sickness. I underestimated it. I didn’t realize until I looked up the numbers of previous summits for this post that this is the highest I’ve ever gone, at least on foot. Well, good thing I know now.

The landscape changed drastically. The bottom of the valley was lined with trees, changing into autumn colors. The season was technically going into winter, but the milder climate had the trees clinging into their foliage just a little bit longer. On our return, we passed many piles of wooden crates used for the apples from the orchards. We passed a couple group of men sorting their harvest.. had I not been with a group, I would have been so tempted to stop and take a bite.

Somewhere just above the villages, the tree line stopped and the mountains were rocky faces looming over us. The face of the mountain looked bare without the colorful trees. I couldn’t shake the sense of leaving civilization behind as we forged upward.

The trails were created by mules. All these generations, mules continue to be the primary mode of moving and sending supplies through these mountains. I was pleased to see how healthy the animals generally are, that despite the hard work, they are fed and well-cared for, unlike their peers in the city of Marrakech. Over my years of travel, I have started to see a correlation between how societies that treat their children, elders, women, and livestock be a reflection of how they value life.

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We stopped at Sidi Chamarouch for lunch on our way up. From that point was there I started to feel the altitude. I wasn’t alone. Another fellow climber started to struggle. I thought I’d give him company but found even his pace too leisurely for my impatience. I found myself following in spurts of catch up with the rest of the group as I stopped briefly but frequently.

We stayed at a mountain refuge, a base camp, if you will, on Mount Toubkal.The lodge was much larger and better equipped than I expected. I had imagined something similar to the mountain huts on Mount Fuji. Instead, the refuge was an enormous mansion, with a large open central area, as is typical with Moroccan buildings. No one ever lingered, though. Only two rooms have wood burning fireplaces, a sitting room and the dining area. We were staying at one of the newer refuges, where, on the upper level were dormitories, each trekking group sharing one. While not luxurious on Western standards, it was nice to have separate rooms by group, as the various treks all had different schedule. Our “beds” were two levels of platforms with thin mattresses and pillows.

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While I said the refuge wasn’t luxurious, it was far more than I expected and could have asked for. I have no doubt in my mind it was luxurious in many local standards. A solid building, with windows, and roof over our heads. The pleasure of fireplaces even in just two rooms. Flushing toilets and running cold showers. They even collect the trash, when I was expecting to have to carry it all back down. They even afforded to lay out some blankets, which were a godsend over our sleeping bags. I am admittedly too pampered to live in this cold for long, but three days, I could muster the wherewithal and actually enjoyed it.

We got up early for our summit. I didn’t quite understand why we had to get up so early, in the dark, but was glad to make it back in time for lunch. I would not have done well starving while climbing. I ended up taking a really steep route to avoid the ice patches on the inside of the ridge, a move that I actually reveled in as it brought back memories of the rock climbing we did in Scotland. I wasn’t so pleased when we were descending, though. I slipped and fell hard quite a few times, several jarring my bones enough to remind me that I no longer have the bounce of the youth when they fall.

The ascent I would describe in four phases. First was the climb of the rising wall behind the refuge. As it was pitch black when we started, I was focused on what my head lamp illuminated, my head down, eyes intent on the individual rocks I could see on the ground. I didn’t realize it was a pretty diverse route until my return, first a swish back path amongst boulders that leveled out into ice patches before we rose over the first saddle and lost sight of the refuge.

The boulders flattened into a field of rocks. Sometimes it was a spread of larger rocks the size of my fist with relatively smooth faces to just walk over. Other parts cleared into loose gavel-like deposits that made for a loose footing. The light has come out and we could see the golden sunshine peeking over the top ridge line. The face of Toubkal made me feel like I was standing inside a crater, and that I was at the base of the hallowed cone inside a volcano. The scree got really steep as we start climbing our way to the ridge. More often than not, I was scrambling over rocks. I could handle that better than a loose dirt path on extremely steep gradient, proved later when I couldn’t walk down without falling. We made it to the inside of the ridge, and hovered around the ridge wall towards the summit point.

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The summit was on a flattened top, almost like a hilltop, a cruel joke after all that work.. by the time I saw it, I was so shattered and altitude sickness threatened to take over my sense of up and down. I barely dragged my feet to the summit. I couldn’t even muster the energy to quicken my pace. I was so relieved to reach the summit I forgot how to really celebrate.

The metal triangle marker has got to be the strangest summit marker I have ever seen.

I was startled to hear how much walking we did, both just to get to the refuge and roundtrip overall. I beat myself up for the return trip, wondering why I, as active as I am, had so much trouble with the climb. It wasn’t until today, when I looked up the elevation numbers that I found out this is the highest summit I made on foot. Next time, I’ll give myself more time to acclimate to the altitude before making my summit attempt. I’ve been living in the low elevation countries for too long!

Two days later, the soreness has fully set into my legs.. and to add insult to injury, I find myself facing the following in my guesthouse (riad) in Fes.

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Four flights of this. I’m on the top floor. I could cry…

Great many thanks to Toubkal Guides for the wonderfully managed trek in every aspect from the crucial guides all the way to the individuals ensuring the smooth transfers.
Special kudos to:
– Our trek team: Mohamed, Ibrahim, Abdul and Khalid
– The Refuge Toubkal des Mouflons staff for being so hospitable, feeding us well, and giving me that bottle of hot water to warm my sleeping bag!
– Jamal for such a well oiled management of the trek.

My belated Thanksgiving

My day of food appreciation came late. I usually am sure to treat myself to a nice Thanksgiving meal whether I am home or on the road. But I somehow lost track this year, despite it being my favorite holiday.

I made up for it, though. I took a cooking class a couple days later. Morocco cooking seems to be the vogue in the Western world lately. How better timed than this trip and a cooking lesson?

The truth is tajines are easy to make. No real special cooking technique that any regular home cook can’t figure out between all the online resources of recipes and videos to search through. But, after a couple days of being inundated with aggressive vendors and being catcalled at to get my attention as if I were a call girl, being driven out to the edges of the countryside and surrounded by fellow food lovers was a lovely reprieve.

The kitchen, Faim d’Epices, was in a studio in the far reaches of town. Pretty much into the countryside. It was a gorgeous red concrete building, as is typical of the area. Inside, was a large kitchen for the staff, and an open area with a ring of cooking stations, and the teaching counter on one end. There was also a separate bar counter used to demonstrations where we would gather up close.

The business is owned and run by a French expat, Michel. I feel I’ve met more French in Morocco than any of my trips in France! Michel clearly has a passion for his job, and a sense of corny humour that never seems to go out of style. Who knows how many times he’s said the same jokes to each of his classes, daily. But as we are more often than not one-time clients, it never got old.

As soon as we arrived, we were welcomed as if we have visited him personal home. Shaken hands the moment we step off the car, served tea or coffee while we did introductions. After the hustle and bustle of Marrakech medina, the quiet countryside with such sincere friendliness was refreshing.

I also lucked out in having such a friendly group of classmates. We all had a lot of the same questions and complaints from our experiences in Marrakech. How to shop in the souks, how to find haggle when we didn’t care enough to bother, how to know when we were buying a true product.

The class included a spice smelling quiz, wearing blackened fake purple plastic Ray Ban sunglasses that made us chuckle as we put them on. It occurred to me later that I should have checked the mirror to make sure I don’t walk out with raccoon eyes from any residual black markings. But I didn’t see any on anyone else so I figured I should be OK. By the way, I would have failed the spice test miserably, were I graded.

We were given a demonstration on making bread, salad and crepes. I was especially delighted to be able to give it a go in kneading my own bread. A lot of work for something I would consume in 5 minutes, but making bread has been on my to-do list for a while in my venture into cooking.

We tossed together our tajines without much fanfare. The spices were already laid out in individual little bowls. All the effort it took was to split the portions into two and scoop them into a bowl to mix and marinate before cooking. As I said, nothing technical and nothing that couldn’t be looked up on the Internet. The tajine chicken marinated for about half and hour, and cooked in its container for about 45 minutes. The flavors were added on top of the marinade for the last 30 or so minutes, in our case, lemon peel and olives.

The main Moroccan spices are: parsley, coriander, ginger, turmeric, and a touch of saffron. For the sweets, cinnamon as well. I will need to decide if I want to bother with preserving lemons or curdling butter at home.. I have the sense I already do that unwittingly each time I travel anyway :)

We ate our meals outside on the patio to the side of the building, protected by the building’s shadow and some canvas awning above us. Yummy, I must say.

As Michel offered us wine to go with the meal, I sat back, reveled in how full I was and what a lovely sit down meal I was having. It then struck me: this *was* my Thanksgiving meal. Even if there weren’t any other Americans around me, and I had met these people only four hours earlier, I was sharing a happy meal, grateful for my company, and reveling in my good fortune as a whole.

I was so full from the mid-afternoon meal, I really didn’t need dinner. I took that lack of hunger as an opportunity to venture and try one of the delicacies of Marrakech street food: la tete du mouton. Yep, sheep’s head. I figured if I was totally grossed out, I could just walk away and not worry about searching for more food that may not go down well.

If I hadn’t watched the meat being pulled off the skull right in front of me, I would have thought it was just any pulled meat stew. It was served with bread, and an extra plate of simmering stock and sauce. We could get more sauce or bread if desired. Whooping 60 dihram, plus another 2 if you want to down the meal with a cup of mint tea, unlimited refills. Despite my not being hungry, I polished off the entire plate, eating with my bare fingers and getting my hand all soppy with oil. It was probably the best dish I’ve had in Morocco. I suspect the vendor was both amused and impressed by both the Italian tourist next to me and me.. we practically licked our plates clean.

Belated Happy Thanksgiving, world. I am reminded how lucky I am to be able to see and taste so much of it.