But someone has to do it. The all too summer break is all but over, in fact as you read this the "team" and I will be back on the road kicking off the Autumn - Winter-New Year and Spring schedule. That's because from now [September] until May next year we are touring Morocco every month.
It starts with the present "Footsteps of the Moors" tour, a combined combination of both Andalusia and Morocco, then as I say running through 'till the end of Spring next year ending with another Footsteps tour.
To be honest bookings for next year [as well as 2015] did start a little slow, but have now returned and have exceeded predictions .......... several 2014 dates are already FULL with most tours already heading that way. If you book NOW for 2014, you can secure a vehicle place at this years price ....... can't be bad!
September sees us on our first official Amazigh Safari tour, running [Eastern Morocco/Algerian border] ...... look back on the blog for earlier recce pieces and photos and watch out for the future tour pictures.....
Anyway, I have left 'admin' a batch of topics to be loaded ........ If you are reading this they have done the job ......... if not!!!!!!!
MOROCCAN FUNNY MONEY ............
Although Moroccans have an official currency, the Dirham, they also have an informal currency, the riyal, so buying vegetables or fruit in a Moroccan souk can sometimes be extremely confusing, even for people who have spent a lot of time in the country and understand the local language.
Although not initially apparent or in fact unlikely to impact the "tourist/traveller" it may surprise some to know that there are in fact two currency systems used in Morocco. One is the dirham, the other currency is the riyal; an old Moroccan currency which no longer exists, but is still used by many Moroccans to value purchases both small and large ........ 1 dirham is equal to 20 riyals.
In other words, the riyal is to the dirham, as the nickel is to the dollar and pennies to the pound. Only, imagine that nickels/pennies no longer existed in reality, but stayed in our minds as a way to describe the prices of things. So, the money in your pocket would be dollars/pounds, and you would use these to buy everything, but you think of prices in your mind in nickels/pennies/dollars/pounds ............ and let's not even go down the road of the Euro ................ Confused? You will be.
Understanding the relationship between dirhams and riyals is the key to making sense of Morocco's market places. Knowing that sometimes the prices you hear are riyals and not dirhams can save you both money and frustration.
Yes, I guess you are confused ...... I was at first ...... trust me, this is for real and I see it in operation everyday when I am in Morocco. Try this as a universal explanation .... If the riyal were American and explore the alternate reality described above a little further.
Imagine that when you go to the store, the prices are listed in dollars but in your head you value everything in nickels. When you see the label on a 3.50 dollar for a gallon of milk you think, "that's worth 70 nickels". In your mind 4.00 dollars for a loaf of bread is 80 nickels.
At a shop, you ask how much a pair of jeans costs. He tells you it is 600 nickels and you check the tag which reads 30.00 dollars. Every month your mobile phone bill is 1600 nickels and your gym membership membership costs 1000 nickels. You get a great price on your new Prius, only paying 440,000 nickels. You live in Colorado and cannot believe that your friends pay 36,000 nickels a month for a one bedroom apartment in say Brooklyn. Switch that to the UK or Euro land if you wish! This is exactly how the riyal exists alongside the dirham in Morocco, and they are used in such a way in some of the same situations described above.
When riyals are used instead of dirhams: Buying fruits, vegetables and other foods in the souk, especially foods sold by the kilo. For example, while the price of potatoes might be listed on a sign as 6 dirhams a kilo, the vendor may state the price as 120 riyals. For example you see a sign saying pomegranates are 15 dirhams a kilo. You ask for a kilo and the stall holder says that will be 300! What he has done is quote the price in riyals, rather than dirhams. The fact that riyals do not actually exist anymore is not important, but that people think in them. To make matters more confusing, you can also be told a price in Francs.
Buying used clothing and other used goods in the souk. Walking through a used clothing market you frequently hear prices in the hundreds. A pair of jeans might be 600, a sweater 400. But those are riyals not dirhams.
For small purchases whose totals are less than a dirham or include change. For example instead of saying something is 1.50 dirham one would say 30 riyals.
And it you are still confused imagine how I feel, trying to explain and write about it!
Anyway, don't worry too much as you are unlikely to encounter any real problems while touring.
What is worth noting is the recent re-issue of Moroccan paper currency. All four denominations feature a portrait of King Mohammed VI and the royal crown. Each also shows a Moroccan door to the left of the portrait, demonstrating the richness of the country's architectural heritage, and symbolizing the openness of the country.
The general themes of the new series are development and modernity, solidarity, diversity and openness. The 20 dirham note depicts Rabat and Casablanca. The 50 dirham note depicts a tree and Ouzoud Falls. The 100 dirham note depicts camels on a desert. The 200 dirham note depicts a lighthouse in the Mediterranean port of Tangier.
A SIMPLE TWO COURSE MEAL ............
Now that you are all in a spin with the money just sit down and think about what's for dinner tonight.......... Better still, I've done the thinking you just need to cook this simple3 course and impress your guests.
LAMB MECHOUI WITH MINT AND YOGHURT..........
When in Morocco the Mechoui we would normally prepare for a client group would be a whole section of Lamb to suit group members and roasted over an open fire, but this can of course be adjusted for a smaller group and perhaps cooked over a barbecue. Cooking the lamb in the oven first then flashing on the BBQ is effective. Whatever, it's a simple and tasty dish.
Ingredients - Serves 2
4-6 lamb chops or a cut of your choice
2 tsp ras el hanout [or 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cadamon, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp turmeric]
FOR THE MINT YOGHURT
90 ml Greek Yoghurt
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 handful fresh mint finely chopped
Sea salt and black pepper
GARNISH - 90 g watercress
Method ...... Pre heat the oven to 180C. Mix the mint yoghurt ingredients together in a bowl. Grind the spices in a pestle and mortar. Rub the chops with salt, then butter and roll them in the spices so they are evenly coated. Set aside for 20 mins. Roast in the oven for 30 mins [if you like your lamb pink] and baste twice throughout the cooking with the butter or use more butter if there doesn't seem enough in the baking tray. Flash cook on the BBQ if you wish.
Serve with the mint yoghurt covering or on the side and garnish with the watercress.
ADD SOME SPICED POTATOES.........
Ingredients - Serves 4
1 Onion sliced into thin half moons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
70 g waxy potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 2.5cm chunks
5-6 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste or concentrated tomato puree
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
2-3 tsp pul biber or mild chilli flakes
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Method ...... Toss the onions with a pinch of salt. Par boil the potatoes for 10-12 mins until just tender. Drain and leave to stand for a few minutes to dry off. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a pan over a low heat and soften the onion for 10 mins until translucent but not browned. Add an extra 2-3 tbsp of oil and the potatoes. Cook for about 15 mins or until soft and beginning to turn crisp and golden brown, stirring frequently. Finally, add the tomato paste and cook for a futher 3 min. To serve stir in the parsley and chilli flakes and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.
TURKISH MELON SORBET.........
Ingredients - Serves 4-6
2 kg Melon
1/4 tsp salt [or to taste]
2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice [or to taste]
3-4 tbsp caster sugar [or to taste]
Method......... A bit of timing needed if serving with other course. Cut the melon into wedges and remove the skin and seeds. Chop the flesh into 2 cm chunks. Place on a baking sheet and freeze over night. At least 3 hours before you want to serve the sorbet, place the frozen chunks in a blender and blitz to a puree, you may need to do this in small batches depending on the capacity and strength of your blender. Taste and add the salt, lemon juice and a little sugar, all to taste. Scoop the mixture into a suitable container. If it seems to stiff, add a splash of water. Whisk with a fork to mix and then return to the freezer for two hours. Remove from the freezer and whisk thoroughly again, then re-freeze for a further hour and serve.
MOROCCO'S HUMAN BEASTS OF BURDEN.........
As we approach the Spanish-Moroccan border crossing from Ceuta you cannot help but notice the mayhem and confusion in the lanes and at the gates allocated for the "locals" i.e. Moroccans. Most are on day crossings to purchase or collect goods from the Spanish side, then back into Morocco. Physically carrying goods across the border between Morocco and Spain means there is no duty to pay. But it is crushing work, mostly done by old women. It is the same story along the coast at the Spanish enclave of Melilla ..... where this story comes from.
It was early morning when Safia joins the hundreds of other women at the narrow blue turnstiles that separate the Spanish town of Melilla from mainland Morocco. Like Ceuta Melilla is a tiny port that whilst located in North Africa it is actually Spanish.
The women, most of them elderly, are heading for the many warehouses in Melilla to collect goods for "importation" into Morocco. After unloading their cargo they would head back to the traders who hired them for another load.
They carry each load, up to 80 kilograms, on their backs. On a good day, after making three round trips, they could earn as much as 15 Euros ......... Yes, just 15 Euros!
But something went horribly wrong that morning. As the Moroccan Police opened the barrier, and the women surged toward the turnstiles, Safia fell.
She was crushed to death in a stampede. Later an autopsy confirmed that the 41 year old had died to a pulmonary hemorrhage caused by a violent chest compression.
The loads these women carry are the property of the traders, who would have to pay a tariff is the goods were to pass officially through customs, in trucks or containers. There is no duty on "personal baggage" entering Morocco from Melilla, hence the use of these so called "porters".
The combined total of goods carried by these women every day is estimated at around 300 tonnes ....... heart breaking to see and actually inhuman. The heavy burden means that most women involved suffer from muscular skeletal disorders .... apparent if you see them much later ....... unloaded, after work!
At noon the sun is at its peak and it is unbelievably hot, a woman leans against a railing, exhausted, gasping for breath, unable to lift her head for air ....... After just a few moments she walks, no ...... staggers ..... with difficulty toward the turnstiles, back past where Safia died.
She stops for a moment and says in broken Spanish: "early tomorrow ... the same again".
A VERY BIG WEDDING..........
Every year, during the summer holidays, a collective wedding ceremony is held along with other annual festivities of Tifawin near Tafraout. There could be many more couples but on the basis of a few conditions only ten are selected for the ceremony ....... although the number of people attending to help celebrate this exotic and cultural ceremony is hugh.
There are other "mass weddings" in other regions but the most remarkable and interesting aspect of the Tafraout event is that those getting married can take advantage and not just marry for free but also receive a sum of money to support themselves during the first three months of their married life. The initiative was mainly aimed at encouraging and motivating the unmarried youth to marry.
So far, the initiative has proved a great success and it has been warmly hailed by many key regional figures, because of the social and cultural dimensions pertaining to the ceremony. For example, at the social level the initiative targets the needy of the region through strengthening the social ties of their everyday lives. At the cultural level, the initiative has been meant to contribute to the eradication of some dangers of sexual relations among youth, a recently growing phenomenon in Tafraout. Also, at a time when destructive signs of modernization are permeating every corner of this conservative region, many believe that the initiative of the collective wedding is the solution to alleviate many negative behaviors. Among the latter are get-togethers that men and woman traditionally hold in Tafraout.
Lahcen Hssaini, president of the Tafawin Festival Association said "this is a golden opportunity of our youth to start their families. It is our duty to support them financially and morally. It is also an opportunity for us to expose to the world our exotic wedding traditions that are characteristic of the region".
If you qualify and make the wedding you will be awarded 10,000 dirham and coverage of the marriage contract expenses. But I did say there were several conditions to be met:  One of the spouses must originally be from the region of Tafraout.  The marriage contract must be signed on the day of the wedding.  Submission of some administrative documents, such as the celibacy certificate, marriage permission, medical certificate, birth certificate and a copy of the national identity card.
Thinking of popping along to take advantage? What a shame, you have just missed it .... This year's mass wedding ceremony took place on August 18th.
For those keen on joining something a little bit different why not join one, or both, two interesting bike races in Morocco that will be staged in Morocco, 2014.
First event is the multisport raid "La Transmarocaine", which is now in its 9th edition. This will take place from 22rd till 30th March and will start from the beautiful port of Essaouira on the Atlantic Coast. From there it runs into the Atlas in the region of Tahannaout and will finish in the streets of stunning Marrakesh. The event welcomes entries from 50 teams of 2 competitors. Total event length is about 250 km run over 5 stages.
There is no need to be a high-level sportsman to participate in this friendly and different “race”, so why not get the bike off the rack and give it a go.
You can find all the information on the race website at; www.transmarocaine.org or contact the organiser Jean-François by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or, a little later in the year the same organisation is stageing the 2nd edition of the Morocco Tizi N' Trail which will take place from April 26th till May 2nd, 2014 following a "mountain" course around the city of Ouarzazate with 4 stages from 25km to 35 km a day.
This event is staged jointly between the association of the Raid of Mercantour and Looping Event Morocco, who confirmed their organization ability last year by the quality of the routes and their irreproachable organization.
Registrations are limited to 120 entries and the organizers have already announced around fifty subscribers. So again, unload and dust-off your bike and have a go……You never know, Desert Detours are in the area during both events……so look out for me, waving, from the sidelines!
You can find all the information on the race website www.morocco-tizintrail.com or contact Jean-François by e-mail on email@example.com
ALOOF……….. A poem By Loubna Flah
Ruins and dust
Cold and frost
Arid lands and dunes
No distant echo, nor tunes
Nothing found, everything lost
I am the solitary nomad
Thirst, fever, aloof, barefoot
Sensible enough to be often mad
No abode, no whim, no roots