Sunday 25 March 2007

Morocco - Shopping at the Souks

Shopping in Morocco is not for the faint-hearted. Everywhere you go, people are eager to bring you in to their shops and sell you a wide variety of goods that you didn't know you wanted.

For someone such as myself, a pretty hesitant shopper at the best of times, and happiest when I can browse anonymously, visiting the souks promised to be a daunting experience and it's true to say that there were moments when I found it overwhelming. Still, once you begin to develop a little more assertiveness and avoid getting drawn into the hard-sell conversations, you can have a very enjoyable time wandering through the very colourful streets.

It's hard to know what area the main souks cover. The map cannot begin to represent the maze of tiny streets, and was often misleading, completely omitting all the twists and turns. The goods available cover everything from carpets to musical instruments to food, and it's a little alarming to happen upon a poutry stall, where the chickens are plucked straight from cages at the back and plonked onto the weighing scales, legs kicking. Next to the chicken stalls are those selling fresh eggs - crate upon create piled up and often delivered on the back of a bicycle. We regularly saw cyclists carrying 10 or 20 crates of eggs!

One part of the souks that nearly eluded us altogether was the olive souk. The description in the guide book promised us stalls heaped with olives and preserved lemons and Mum and I were determined to find it. After separate attempts on two different days, and five circuits of the same set of stalls, we were just about to give up when we rounded a corner and happened upon it. True to the descriptions, we found a collection of stalls stocked with a variety of olives, and the preserved lemons which are a feature of many Moroccan recipes. The stallholders were happy to let us test the different olives, and perhaps a little surprised when we also requested 12 of the lemons to take away with us.

Morocco - The Ubiquitous Mint Tea

Mint Tea certainly seems to be the official drink of Morocco. Armed with the Lonely Planet's advice that to refuse it is a great social insult, Mum and I drank rather more of it than we would otherwise have chosen whilst we were in Morocco.

Our first mint tea experience was with an elderly apothecary, determined to sell us spices and cosmetics. Whilst he was preparing the tea, adding block upon block of sugar until the taste satisfied him, he dazzled us with a bewildering array of products, the descriptions of which I had to try and translate from French for Mum.

The apothecary, like most of the storeholders in the souq, was set up with a little gas bottle which can be used as a stove for preparing stews and most importantly, the mint tea. The tea is prepared from a mixture of dried green tea, fresh spearmint, which you can buy by the bundle from special herb stalls, and (extremely) large quantities of sugar. The tea is generally served in small glasses, but you're lucky if you can escape with only drinking a single glass.

Friday 23 March 2007

Morocco - Essaouira

Whilst we were in Morocco, Mum and I made a day trip to Essaouira, a fishing town on the Atlantic Coast, about 175km from Marrakesh.

Unlike Marrakesh, where the overriding colours are reds and browns, the first impression we had in Essaouira was of the whitewashed buildings and blue paintwork.

Wandering the streets of Essaouira was more relaxing than in Marrakesh. Although there were many shops catering to the tourists, the owners were, on the whole, far less pushy, giving you the opportunity to browse a little more. By and large, though, we saw the same selections of goods - carpets, slippers, spices. The fish market, in the centre of the town was a haven for local cats and seagulls.

Like Marrakesh, it is easy to lose yourself in the maze of little alleyways, once you leave the main thoroughfare. At many points, the sound of the sea was tantalizingly close on the other side of the city walls, but it was impossible to find an exit point. Eventually, those we were able to climb up on to the walls, where there was a fantastic view of both the outer streets of the city, and the waves crashing below us.

Lunch was a delicious selection of freshly caught and grilled fish, eaten outdoors with the accompaniment of a trio of Moroccan musicians who seemed to only have one (rather dismal) piece in their repertoire. Afterwards we wandered along the harbour, to see the rows of traditional blue boats being prepared for their next fishing trip, and a boatyard where large fishing boats were being built.

Wednesday 21 March 2007

So here we are in Marrakech

Its Wednesday afternoon and Mum and I arrived in Marrakech about 5 hours ago. It's quite a culture shock, and we've already had to do battle with a most uncharming snake charmer (cobra and all).

Our riad is in the heart of the old town of Marrakech - a hair raising taxi ride through the winding alleys, narrowly avoiding shopkeepers, pedestrians and motorcyclists, but never slowing down. We had to walk the last 5 minutes to the riad, trusting a young lad who the taxi driver found to show us the way - quite an unnerving experience as all the alleys look very similar. The riad itself is a traditional building surrounding a courtyard with a palm tree growing up through the open roof. We were welcomed with a glass of mint tea up on the roof terrace, where we enjoyed the warm sun and beautiful cloudless sky, listening to the mingled sounds of the birds and the life on the streets outside.

So far we've managed to find our way to the Djemaa el-Fna, which is the main square, and after a potter around, our first purchase (almonds) and a spot of lunch (tagine) we're now heading off to the bus station to try and organise ourselves a day trip to the coast.

Studying Mammals Result

Just logged into the OU website to find my result for the Studying Mammals course - 82 percent. There would be a percent sign but punctuation is quite a challenge on a Morroccan keyboard. Anyway, Im very pleased.

The Final Countdown

After a 2 day trip to Munich (in the snow, no less), I just flew into Manchester where Mum and I are on the final countdown to our trip.

She still doesn't know where she's going, and some last minute packing advice seems to have completely thrown her... 5 hours from now, we shall be back at the airport and all shall finally become clear!

Saturday 10 March 2007

Another bad day for Sharks

Home to the UK last night, and straight to the rugby match from the airport - Sale Sharks vs. Worcester Warriors.

It was a disapointing match, with the Sharks only coming to life near the end. In the final 5 minutes a try looked finally to be a possibility, but they threw away every chance. The final score was 12-18, continuing Sale's losing streak. Indeed, they haven't won a premiership game since I watched their last minute triumph against Gloucester in January.

Thursday 8 March 2007

And after Molecules, Medicines and Drugs comes ...

... SK195 - Human Genetics and Health Issues.

The current course is going so well that I already made the choice to sign up for the next one! Have also heard about some new up and coming courses such as Forensic Science which sound really interesting. I think the OU can keep me out of mischief for plenty of years to come at this rate.

Sunday 4 March 2007

Accomodation Booked

Despite a few linguistic hiccups along the way, I believe I've managed to book accomodation for Mum and myself at our mystery destination.


Yesterday I went with a friend to the Beurs van Berlage (the old Dutch stock exchange) in Amsterdam to see The Bodies Exhibition.

The exhibition gave a fascinating tour of the human body, with preserved specimens dissected to particularly illustrate features such as the muscles and the central nervous system. It sounds perhaps a little squeamish, but in fact wasn't at all.