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Published: March 9th 2014
I'm loathe to admit it, but I must be only moderately attractive because he obviously wasn't aroused when he showed me his ... you know ... stuff.
OK, raise your hand if you've ever found yourself sitting naked except for your Hanes' boxer underwear on a hot, wet, polished cement floor, surrounded by men, young and old, who speak only Arabic.
Then one well-proportioned young fellow looks directly at you, right at YOU
, and discretely lowers the band of his shorts displaying his junk with a come hither look.
But seriously, this was the admittedly surreal vision in front of me as I sat in a traditional Moroccan "Hammam
" (Public Bath) within the Souk of Marrakech.
Let's move on, we can come back to this later.
A Day's Journey
Our day began bright and clear, the temperature sitting at perhaps 6C or 7C in Fez as we headed out with an early start.
The full-day driving journey from Fez to Marrakech took our group of 5 Canadians, Moroccan guide Redouane, and driver, Fouad, over the Middle Atlas Mountains through a schizophrenic set of agricultural fields and orchards. Our trek morphed from huge
lush green fields of hay and orange orchards, to dry scrub land with prickly pear cactus in abundance.
As we climbed the grey morning hills, the air grew cooler and cooler, and then ... surprise, we were in snowy terrain.
Maureen looked out the van windows and pointed out to us the spray of almond blooms hanging pretty pink, like delicate earrings in the trees, with white snow clinging to the branches and as a backdrop. Well constructed, rocky fences surrounded fields almost as if we were in the highlands of Scotland.
We stopped for a short break of cafe con leche
in a white-enshrouded alpine town called Ifrane. Some of us frolicked, and froze our unprotected hands in a cold and wet impromptu snowball fight and then participated in the classic Canadian winter ritual of pushing a powerless car down a hill for a jump start.
Within 15 minutes of leaving Ifrane, we were back into the green, sumptuous farm land we were more accustomed to - and had expected
- in Morocco.
Sometimes small, often enormous flocks of sheep, scattered either side of the road, always, always, always accompanied by a solitary shepherd. One
flock, one shepherd.
Concave, concrete water flumes, like the ones used years ago in our Okanagan Valley here in Canada, lined the fields for irrigation.
We were surprised to encounter our one and only visit to squat toilets at a fueling station along the day's journey. My expectation in travelling to Morocco had been that the "western" porcelain toilets would be the exception, not the rule. And I admit to you, porcelain was a pleasant surprise for this comfort-seeking westerner, especially so for the women!
It was a full day of driving in the Mercedes van over good quality, but mostly winding two-lane roads that brought us into the early evening sunset and heavy traffic of Marrakech, the hometown of our eager young driver, Fouad.
Warm, Moroccan sun beamed bright orange through the front window of the van as we pulled up to the elegant entry doors of the hotel in the central modern core of this city.
Across the street was the impressive Gare, the train station. Far off in the western distance there was a hazy view of the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains, looking very Rocky Mountain'ish
Pleasant, dry windy gusts blew
warmly as we edged stiffly from the van after the long day's drive. Tall, friendly palms waved as the sounds of busy traffic motored past on the spacious boulevard at front. I fondly remembered how special and exotic palm trees looked to me when I flipped through travel or National Geographic
magazines as a kid (see, I noticed more than the naked Black women!).
As in each of our nightly stops in Morocco, the hotel was large and modern, like any 4-star European hotel. Even though they all lacked some small'ish detail such as functioning heat and air control systems, or occasional leaking bathroom fixtures, the beds were good, and the rooms were clean and well-appointed.
Now We're Cookin'!
The temperature when we awoke the following morning was warmer than we had experienced so far in Morocco. It was a delight to feel the sun and the low 20C temperatures, rather than the low- to mid-teens.
Maureen and I stood in front of the Cafe de France
in Marrakech's spacious main Jemaa el-Fnaa Square
as carts of supplies and local trucks and vendors whisked in all directions to set up the small stalls
for the day.
We waited, taking in our surroundings for a few moments, then a young woman approached and introduced herself.
Karina, dressed in jeans and blouse, jacket and knit scarf, was to be our Moroccan shopping and cooking instructor, charged with imparting the techniques of tagine cuisine to just us Canadians. On some occasions, she has conducted a class grouping of 18 people, but today, it was a private tagine session.
Oh, sorry, if you didn't know already, tagine is an historically Berber dish from North Africa that is named after the type of earthenware pot in which it is cooked.
After our introductions, we walked out of the main open square and entered the souk, or marketplace. Much like the crowded and buzzing Fez Medina, but not so claustrophobic and tight, we zigged and zagged along the huge avenues of stalls and little foundries of metal workers pounding silver and tin over anvils and smoking coal fires.
Shortly we entered the "food" section of the souk. The first small stall we approached had a high glass-fronted counter - in behind were cages filled with live, clucking chickens.
Karina spoke to the small
man behind the counter in Arabic. The fellow nodded, opened a cage door and grabbed one of the squawking birds and retrieved it and placed it onto the white surfaced weigh scale sitting just in front of us. Karina shook her head NO
... too big!
He put the bird back in its cage and pulled out another, laid it on the scale where it sat pathetically and limply resigned. This time Karina was satisfied, and gave him the go ahead nod of her head. She turned to us and explained in English that a 1 kilogram bird was all we needed. "We can go get vegetables and come back and it will be ready in a few minutes."
Within eye-shot we spotted a vegetable "stall", a patch of open ground on the side of the pathway where a selection of fresh produce was laid out.
Karina grabbed a plastic basket from the shopkeeper man and asked us to begin selecting good tomatoes, onions, green peppers, lemons, oranges, coriander, and parsley. Rubbing elbows with a few elderly ladies, we chose a selection of produce, paid for it with just a few Moroccan dirhams, then
returned to the meat stall for our now freshly killed, eviscerated and plucked chicken friend.
The butcher tossed the fowl into a plastic bag and we continued onwards for a couple more stops where we purchased some typical Moroccan flat breads, fresh mint, olives, bottled water, saffron, and olive oil.
Now, fully loaded with everything needed to make a chicken lemon tagine, we walked 2 or 3 minutes more to a riad
(traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) on the edge of the souk.
Along the souk's passageway we came to a beautifully-carved wooden door- the entrance to the riad.
We crossed the threshold into a bright hallway lined with framed photos of typical Moroccan scenes that led to a terra-cotta tiled courtyard. The inner courtyard was open in the centre to the sun and blue sky above.
Around the edges of the main patio radiated a large dining section, some stairs leading to upper floors, a smaller dining area with a square table and bench seating, with a small galley-style kitchen to its left. At one other side of the courtyard was a small, deep pool, like a fishpond,
but empty of water and filled with potted plants for the winter months.
Karina led us into the kitchen with our fresh supplies where she had us cover up with pressed and pristine white aprons, and then set each of us up at a small workstation with a cutting surface and a short, sharp knife.
Karina chatted happily away in well-honed English about her single Moroccan woman's life and a young man she was corresponding with in England whom she hoped would become a more serious connection someday soon.
But before we got down to serious cooking work, we returned to the dining table where Karina showed us the preparation of sweet mint tea. We had seen many small cafes in our Moroccan travels where tables filled with men (yes, never women) sat, facing the street, and sipped mint tea as the drink of choice.
We went through the multi-step process of making the traditional tea using loose green tea, a large handful of fresh mint and two sizable chunks of white sugar. Soon, Karina began pouring the steaming hot liquid into small glass cups from-on-high style. We sipped the final result and enjoyed the sweet,
hot, spearmint flavour.
Tea time over ... back to the kitchen.
The orange-clay tagine pots sat before us and we began chopping vegetables and piling the chicken and vegetables into the flat centre of the container. With each ingredient we chopped - just as she had in the souk
- Karina had us learn the Arabic word:
, onion - basla
, chicken - djaj
, saffron - zaafron
, olives - zitoun
, lemon - hamed
What probably surprised us most in making the tagine dish was the sheer volume of spice added. For each of our small, one person tagine dishes, a full teaspoon each of pepper, coriander, cumin, ginger, and salt were ladled into the mix. Finally a 1/4 teaspoon of saffron, a handful of olives, fresh and preserved lemon, a few tablespoons of pungent olive oil and then a careful turning and mixing of the entire blend completed the dish.
It surprised me further when we placed the tagine pots directly over the stove's propane flame for the dishes' 1 hour cooking.
While the tagine heated, we moved on to the prep of a Moroccan salad.
Each noon meal we'd had on
our Moroccan journey consisted of a collection of extremely-fine chopped salads. Today's salad would be no exception.
Karina had us mince garlic and red onion and tomato so that it appeared almost like a Mexican salsa in consistency. After charring a couple of green peppers directly over the stove's flame burner, we removed the blackened skins and minced the soft inner flesh as well. The spice blend was lemon and garlic and mint.
In my own personal cooking style, I have a tendency to freelance and use a recipe only as a general guideline. A splash of this, a dash of that.
But today I was in a room of pragmatists, and as I added my spices just a bit haphazardly, Karina sweetly and playfully reminded me that, "You must respect the recipe"
"You Must Respect The Recipe."
When the words came from her mouth it sounded like a much deeper life lesson somehow. I'll have to ponder that over a glass or two of wine someday.
We laughed and joked in English, sometimes in broken French, but always sharing in the fun of a cross-cultural experience with a woman who lived in
a Muslim world that bridged a historic past and a western-influenced future.
The scent of the cooking tagine enveloped the riad and the mix began burbling over the clay lip of the pot so Karina tilted the lids to allow steam to escape as if we were boiling potatoes on the stove.
Finally, she declared the tagine meal fully-cooked and sent us off to wait at the dining table that she had set with placemats, a flower, and a small basket filled with the round flatbread that we had bought earlier in the day. Moments later, she carefully placed our individual tagine pots in front of us, steaming and smelling exotically fragrant. We raised a glass of water to toast (alcohol wouldn't have been appropriate in this Muslim culture) our creation and then settled in for the tasting.
I could describe the character and quality and the impressions of the dishes, but instead I'll just let you use your own imagination to absorb and enjoy the complex blend of flavours of our wonderful tagines.
A Visit to the Hammam
Alright, it's time we returned to the Hammam, the Moroccan public bath, I mentioned
at the beginning of this story.
The hammam is found deep within the enclaves of the souk marketplace, and could be easily missed if you didn't know what to look for.
Redouane, my Moroccan guide, showed me the small, open hole-in-the-wall where I would enter. He came inside the front entrance with me to negotiate with an old man in Arabic, the terms of my visit . I paid about $8 Canadian and was assigned a young "assistant" (I'll call him Akeem
) who spoke no English and only the tiniest bit of French. From there on, it was just me and the Hammam.
As instructed earlier by Redouane, I took off all of my clothes except for my jockey shorts, hung them on hooks on the side walls of an open room and then was led forward by Akeem.
The hammam was old and steamy. We passed through two tiled rooms with domed ceilings, filled with nearly-naked bodies of Muslim men, young and old. In the third and final room we found some floor space, and Akeem gestured with hand signals for me to sit on the floor.
I gazed around, feeling the warm and
wet polished concrete floors, looking up to the grey-white plastered ceilings arched 20 ft above, stained with brown rivulets of who-knows-what.
Lining the walls were long blue and red painted pipes, insistently dripping with piping hot or cool water from which he filled a bucket from the cool pipe and placed it in front of me.
He looked at me, said "dix minutes"
(10 minutes), turned and left the room.
I sat there, trying hard and failing miserably to look inconspicuous as the only obviously white westerner. I was growing warm quickly so I started to slosh bits of the cool water from the bucket over myself, much like some others were doing. I took a few yoga-type breaths and relaxed, feeling the humid heat, letting it penetrate my pores for what seemed like a long, long time.
It was during this heating period that my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this story showed me his private parts.
I had been aware in my peripheral vision that he had been sitting about 6 feet away from me, washing and scrubbing a little and glancing over frequently. Finally, when I turned to look directly
at him, he extended his personal invite. OMG!
I instantly shook my head in refusal.
It's funny, but it took a few minutes for me to absorb the nature of the little interaction. Initially, I thought it was just a friendly, slightly horny young fellow who found me attractive in a sexual way.
But quickly I came around to the more probable truth that meant a single westerner in a hammam might just be seeking out male prostitutes to have some exotic and inexpensive fun. DUH!
My little naive mind grew up quickly.
He wasn't persistent, but I was casting a closer eye on all of my fellow sweaty roommates now, even the ancient, elderly guy with the torn, old underwear and the sadly sagging scrotum that protruded through the rips. And now I was getting a tad nervous about the next stage in the hammam experience.
Ten minutes and more had passed before Akeem returned in his tiny, tight little shorts to do the hard part of exfoliating my skin. He led me into a slightly cooler second room and then gestured that I should lie flat on my back, and he prepared
to start with my arms. I closed my eyes, trying to pretend there was no one else in the room, and determined to enjoy being washed and scraped, only to have them fly open again in shock when the scrubbing began.
This little guy put on the Kessa
abrasive glove and started in - it felt as though he was rubbing me down with coarse sandpaper! After a long few minutes I got used to the pressure and pain, and actually started enjoying it. I was a little mortified at how much dead skin he was stripping from me as he scrubbed every single inch of my flesh outside of my protected shorts area till it was red raw. But he didn't seem surprised or bothered, so I tried to stop worrying and just enjoy. Plus I figured with all of that skin gone, I had discovered a tried-and-true way to rapid weight loss!
Once my front was done from top to toe, he had me flip over and repeated the process for my back and sides, using black olive-based hammam soap. He even scoured my face and almost ripped out my eyes, and I was certainly radiating
pink all over by the end. At one point he leaned his knee into my lower back and lifted my arms into a painful stretch as a bit of a massage.
Finally, with wads of skin on the floor and lots still clinging to me, he took me to one last room where he scooped little ladles of cool water all over as a final wash.
I exited the hammam with a tingling all over, mostly from the scrubbing.
But maybe, just maybe, a little bit of nervous tingling too, came from the unexpected encounter with a young man who had hoped to make a few extra dirhams in the hammam that day.
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