Saturday, August 12, 2017

the red earth

The drive from Rabat to the nearest Saharan dunes in Merzouga is about eight and a half hours— if there aren't any slow trucks, accidents, or anything else that can pop up unexpectedly. Moroccan highways are smooth and quick, but the winding roads through the Middle Atlas can take quite some time, and it's always best to expect to add a minimum of two extra hours to your roadtrip.

Last October, Pedro and I were lucky to have one of our dear students from Nepal visit us. Tsewang was studying abroad on a scholarship to finish up high school and his hosts kindly offered to send him our way for a holiday. We had a week to show him his first glimpse of an ocean, a desert, and of course, as much of Morocco as possible. We plotted our route to the Sahara through the mountains of Ifrane, the high plateau of Zaïda and the oasis of Tafilalt.

The rain fell on the red earth of Zaïda, forming pools of pale blue sky. We spied our first houbara hiding among the clumps of thirsty vegetation, an ancient-looking bird that seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see her.

leaving fès

And now we leave the twisted alleys and sun-bleached rooftops of Fès for the most beautiful orange. Let's run our fingers through the finest sand and watch the sun rise over the Sahara...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

mint and leather

With a bouquet of fresh mint under my nose, I squinted my eyes at the vats of dye below, the sun reflecting off the quicklime and pigeon guano used in making soft leather out of tough hides. The scent of the guano, bovine urine, and other assorted nasties was overwhelming— even more so for the pregnant olfactory system— however, having been told how wretched it would be, I was expecting worse.

The drying hides below are getting ready to be transformed into the traditional babouche, a pointed leather slipper, typically in a brilliant yellow for men. Tourists are told that all the dyes are natural— the yellow is from saffron, green from mint, red from poppies... Though I know little about leather dyes, I am sceptical of this as I have never seen mint dye anything, and saffron is quite expensive. In any case, the rainbow of colours that the tanners are able to create is gorgeous.

The 11th century Chouara Tannery is hidden among the clustered geometric buildings of Fès' medina, its levels of stinking vats in various shades of celadon, red and brown. The tanners who wade through the noxious pools in the blinding sun to work the hides wear anything from wellies to flip-flops on their feet, some with nothing at all. I can only imagine how hard their days are, how their muscles and heads must feel at the end of the day— it certainly gives me a deeper appreciation of the work behind my leather bags and babouches, which though bought in different parts of Morocco, all trace back to Fès.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


While wandering the alleys of Fès' medina, I began to notice nails wrapped in coloured thread jutting out from the old stone walls— some nails entirely cocooned into soft balls. I remembered climbing the hill to an orthodox church on Büyükada shortly after Easter once, where the devout had tied threads from the top to the bottom of the hill in prayer, wishing for the things we often wish for— good health, fortune, love... My mind then travelled to the Fates, weaving our lives into a vast tapestry, then to the many knotted bracelets my students in Nepal tied around my wrists.

Though I suspected the reason for these pretty bursts of colour was more banal, I still hoped to find something special at the end of the threads that extended beyond their cocoons. Stretched across buildings and down the alleys, a multitude of colours were being twisted into threads which were wound around spools by quick and elegant fingers.

To think of what these threads would someday make— someone's favourite scarf, or the embroidery on a well-worn djellaba— a gift of a blanket, to be wrapped around a loved one...

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

declarations of love

I often wonder about the outcome of these declarations of love on walls, doors, and trees. I imagine one of the two scrawling or carving away in secret, unveiling their feelings to the other, hoping for approval... Were they impressed by this act of vandalism? Did they shy away in embarrassment?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

the yellows of fès

Somehow I thought lugging my eighth month swollen belly around a medieval city under the bright North African sun was something that I would enjoy— and I did, mostly. I say mostly because after a morning of sightseeing my feet and ankles had swollen to an uncomfortable degree, and the heat had me nearly seeing stars. We had been saving the large, popular tourist cities like Fès and Marrakech for when we had visitors, and with Pedro's family in town at the time, Fès became our first stop.

Apparently the medina of Fès is the largest pedestrianized urban area in the world. I had been warned that you can lose yourself in its labyrinthine alleys without a guide, but to be honest, we had a guide for a morning and I not only found him to be a bore, I thought a good map would do just fine. Fès is one of Morocco's four imperial cities (the other three being Meknès, Rabat, and Marrakech), and served as the country's capital from the 9th Century until 1912, when it was Rabat's turn.

Part of me dreaded going to Fès— I expected a noisy, smelly tourist trap where I'd be hassled at every turn, but I was happy to find stunning architecture, nice people, and so many shades of yellow. Yes, the amount of tourists clogged some of the smaller alleys to a standstill, but it was April. Perhaps a return in November would be a quieter (and cooler) experience— the next time however, will be with Baby being carried on the outside of me!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

back into the belly

The first month of motherhood has been a surreal blur of dirty diapers, tears, sleepless nights, and the wonder of having a little one that was once poking around in your belly staring up at you with big, curious eyes. I doubt I'll find much time to blog in the next while, but as I have a moment right now (and don't need to eat, shower, go to the bathroom, or sleep), I thought I'd take you back to a time when Baby was eight months inside me, and the three of us were wandering around in a sweltering Fes. So, if you are ready and patient, I've got some things to show you!

Friday, June 16, 2017

between naps and nappy changes

So this has been my little secret for the past nine months. I was torn between writing about my pregnancy and keeping it for myself, and though I was thrilled to be growing this tiny human in my belly, I decided to revel in it privately. I was lucky to have had an easy and joyful pregnancy, all the way up until the last couple of weeks (which were admittedly much tougher on the body). It didn't stop Pedro and I from travelling across Morocco— eating seafood in Tangier, birding in the Western Sahara, sketching palm trees in Figuig, riding camels in Merzouga, and visiting the tanneries in Fes.

I still intend to keep posting about my adventures (and eventually some of the drawings I've been working on), but it will now have to happen between naps and nappy changes. There's still so much to share...

A heartfelt thank you for all the kind words and well wishes!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

the humble mule

With the steep and rocky terrain, mules are the preferred form of transport in and around Imlil, and goats the chosen livestock. Some of the mules were decked out in colourful harnesses and striped blankets, while others were a bit less flashy— all seemed well looked after and healthy, which made me happy.

Monday, May 29, 2017

etched into stone

On the way to Oukaïmeden in Jabal Toubkal National Park, there's a fairly large rocky area surrounded by grazing pastures that has some curious etchings. The sign at the site claims that the etchings were created 2000–3000 years ago by the original inhabitants of the area. As the etchings are not marked with any sort of roping or protection, you have to resort to walking on the rocks to find them. We were able to find a female figure, a make with a bull, another bull, and a shield of sorts with a bird.

Erosion from snow, wind and water also left some interesting marks of its own:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

tajine and tea

As we wandered around Imlil in search of food, we were confronted with two options at that particular time of day: a touristy restaurant with a bunch of excited Europeans, or a local joint that seemed to be attached to a butcher shop. The latter had an enticing row of steaming tajine pots cooking their contents away on braziers, and a fair amount of locals dining away. Needless to say, we greeted the friendly gent manning the coals, and climbed upstairs to the terrace where we ordered a chicken tajine to share, mint tea, and a Coke for Pedro.

Chicken tajines from what I have experienced so far, are mainly composed of various chicken parts layered underneath a pile of potatoes and various vegetables, flavoured with preserved salted lemons and olives. The acid from the lemons is cut by the earthy potatoes, and overall, it's a pretty nice dish (though I prefer the meatball tajines). There's usually a good amount of drippings left behind for your bread to soak up— my favourite part.

I had to include this last photo— I love the way Coca-Cola is written in Arabic!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

stone villages

The stone villages we hiked through around Imlil reminded me of some of the Nepali villages I've seen. Humble rectangles, earthen-coloured, with bits of pink, blue, and red from clothes drying on a line. Goats braying, shy eyes peering behind windows, some shuttered, some barred.

As in Nepal, it seems as though cement is quickly replacing stone and wood.

taking a hike