The Moroccan Hamam Experience.

I enjoy a good massage from time to time, and I like going to a Sauna to sweat away the stresses of the day.  So I knew that I wanted to go to a typical Hamam during my visit to Morocco.  Hamam literally means Steam Bath, and a visit to one is as much a social event as a place to get clean for many Moroccans.  Historically, homes did not have running water and certainly not hot running water, so the Hamam was a place for men and women to go on a weekly basis to take a bath.  Even though most homes in Marrakech now have running water, the Hamam is still a place to go meet friends, socialize and take a bath.  After a brief internet search I learned that there are many “Hamams” in Marrakech that appeared to be geared more toward tourists and not locals.  Prices ranged from 200 to 400 Dirhams, about $25 to $50 USD.  I knew that the locals were not paying that much money to go to the Hamam.  During my 2-day excursion to the Atlas Mountains my driver, Rachid, described the “hamam” he goes to and recommended I go experience it. I knew I wanted to go to one the locals use and not one for tourists but my only fear was that I wouldn’t understand what to do and I didn’t want to offend anyone.  Rachid had invited me to visit his home and join him for a traditional “Tagine” dinner.  He thought that a visit to the Hamam near his home before our dinner would be a great way to start the evening.  Unfortunately, he had a call to pick-up clients at the Airport and couldn’t join me but before going to the Airport, he took me to the Hamam and made sure his friends knew I was a non-Arabic speaking visitor and asked them to look after me.  Rachid, left me with instructions to meet him at the coffee shop next door after my Hamam experience and we would then go to his house for dinner.  The Hamam of course had separate bathing areas for men and women. At the front door, there was a middle-aged gentleman, who took the money and sold soap and exfoliating gloves etc…  The price to enter the Hamam was only 12 Dirham, about $1.50 (that’s one dollar and fifty cents, not $50.00 like some of the Hamams advertised on the Internet).  I needed to buy the exfoliating glove and some of the thick black, paste-like soap that was necessary for a proper Hamam experience.  I think the glove and the soap were an extra 6 dirhams, about .70 cents.  I brought my own towel, shower shoes and shorts.  Yes, you stay covered-up in the Hamam, modesty is an important virtue in the Hamam.  Once inside there was an area to dress and undress.  That’s where you leave your cloths with an attendant for safe keeping.  I was given 2 large plastic pales and with my shorts and shower shoes on, my towel over my shoulder, I was led into a long room with an arched ceiling.  The room was very warm but not filled with steam like I had anticipated.  There were 3 similar rooms all next to one another, and each occupied by 3 or 4 patrons.  I watched what they were doing and followed as best I could.  First you fill the pails with hot water, then you soap up and splash the water on yourself to rinse off.  A few patrons, laying face down on the tiled floor were getting worked over by a guy with the dreaded black exfoliating glove.  They seemed to be under no distress, so I was not afraid to give it a try if the exfoliating guy came my way.  At this point I didn’t know what Rachid had pre-arranged for me? After about 3 iterations of the self-imposed wash and rinse cycle, a gentleman in his mid 50s, wearing shorts, showed up and gestured for me to lay on the floor face-down.  Wanting to be a good guest, I followed his instructions carefully.  He filled the pails with hot water, took the black glove I had purchased and began to work me over, exfoliating first my back side.  All is well at this point,  the exfoliating was firm but not overly painful….. that was until I was instructed to roll over onto my back.  While facing up, laying on my back, the kind gentleman proceeded to exfoliate my chest with such pressure that I thought he was trying to remove my nipples….. I’m thinking you little pansy, all these other guys are getting it done and they are not whimpering, the pain must be just because it’s my first time. Right… Not knowing how to say “uncle” or “please leave my nipples in place” in Arabic, I let the exfoliating session continue.  After about 30 mins total, he slapped me on the shoulder and gestured for me to sit-up.  I briefly looked down at my chest to make sure my nipples were still in place… yes they were! God is great!  He then mixed-up some soapy water in a pail and washed and rinsed me again.  I would have to say, that was the cleanest I have ever been in my entire life.   I’m sure he removed the top 7 layers of skin, but I was really squeaky clean.  After drying off, I headed back to the dressing area where a glass of mint tea and my bag of clothing awaited me.  I was instructed to take my time, I assume to cool off before I re-dressed and slowly drank my tea.  Rachid had instructed me to tip the exfoliating guy a few Dirhams, I gave him 50 and he seemed quite happy.  He even dressed and escorted me next door to the cafe, where I awaited for Rachid.  After about 30 mins, Rachid showed up and we went to his home for a wonderful evening.  I felt very fortunate that he had invited me into his home to meet his family and dine with them.  It’s one of those great travel experiences I will never forget.  His children, a 3 year old boy and an 18 month old girl were like kids anywhere in the world, very happy to see their Daddy and interested in the new guest he brought home!  Rachid was a wonderful host, we ate an incredible Tagine dinner and his family was very kind and gracious… Thanks Rachid for a wonderful time!   

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52 Days to Timbuktu……..

Above, in the center of the town of Zagora is a sign that reads…. 52 Days to Tumbuktu.  It was said that from that point it was a 52 day walk to the northern trading city, Timbuktu!


Above, one of the many picturesque Berber Villages I visited during my journey through the Atlas Mountains.


After a few enjoyable days in Marrakech, I decided to see a little more of Morocco and hired a car and driver to take me south east over the High Atlas Mountains to the gateway city to the Sahara, Zagora.  About 60 kilometers outside of Marrakech, we reached the foothills of the Atlas Mountain Range.  The Atlas run from Algeria in the north east all the way to the Moroccan City of Agadir in the south west, reaching the Atlantic Ocean.  Historically mountain ranges have played an important role in dividing peoples and ultimately nations, here in Morocco it’s no different.  The Atlas naturally separate Morocco and Algeria. The Mountains are home to the Berber people, the real indigenous people of Morocco.  I must admit I didn’t know too much about the Berbers before this visit, but I am intrigued by what little I have learned in a short two day visit to some of the Berber towns.  A rugged, diverse people, they have inhabited the Atlas Mountains for as long as history has been recorded.  It was interesting to see that some Berbers were black and others were almost Irish looking, fair skinned and red-headed!  Everyone I met was very friendly and tried their best to be helpful in answering my questions even with a language barrier.  Unfortunately my French is very limited, my Arabic even worse, and I don’t speak a word of the numerous Berber dialects.  Full of life, ever village we passed was a buzz with activities.  Donkey powered carts carried people and materials every which way.  Young boys, maybe no more than 5 years old, helped their mother’s load donkeys with containers of water and perhaps goods destined for sale at the local markets.  I was impressed by how independent many of the young children were, often walking alone, along busy roads, carrying heavy bags.  Many appeared to be on a chore for their parents, not just playing in the streets.  Another surprise to me was to see many people, even women in small groups, hitch-hiking.  They never seemed to wait long before someone would give them a ride to the next town.  Even on mopeds, it appeared that young people often gave rides to a friend, or perhaps a stranger in need.  There seemed to be a level of trust between the Berber people I met.  They helped one another without hesitation.  Perhaps the reason they have not only survived, but also thrived in difficult conditions is because they have worked together and helped one another.   The Atlas Mountains I visited, reminded me a lot of parts of central Arizona, rocky, sparsely vegetated and often red with iron.  The peaks were covered with snow and small rivers snaked their way down the steep hillsides, cutting deep gullies along the way.  The red clay brick homes of the Berbers popped up every dozen kilometers or so, clinging to the sides of the mountains.  On the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains we crossed, we descended into beautiful green valleys, bursting with date palms.  Literally hundreds of small stands were set-up just feet from the road, selling handicrafts, rocks, fossils and of course dates.  In one small town, it was market day.  Hundreds of farmers were selling their boxes of dates to the middle men with large trucks, ready to deliver the them to Marrakech or other large cities.  My driver, Rachid, was from the fairly large city of Ourzazate, on the eastern side of the High Atlas Range.  Ourzazate is home to Africa’s version of Hollywood.  It’s a great location due to its proximity to both mountains and the beautiful sand dunes of the Saharan Desert.  I visited the Film Studio Museum and was surprised to see that parts of the movies Gladiator and the Mummy were filmed in Morocco.  Numerous stops along the way involved the mandatory mint-tea or coffee break.  My driver knew someone at every stop and looked genuinely happy to see them and would always visit for a short while.  During the 2 day excursion, I think I ate Tagine (the delicious clay-pot, oven cooked dish with meat and vegetables) at least 4 times.  Each time it was a different version, beef, chicken, meatballs or just vegetable.  After a full 7 hours of driving on the first day, filled with numerous stops, to see sights and drink tea, we arrived in Zagora, some 60 miles from the border with Algeria and the gateway city to the Moroccan Sahara.  We only had about an hour before sunset, so after checking into our hotel, we headed for a visit to the sand dunes.  They were not the huge rolling sand dunes one often sees in the Hollywood movies but rather smaller ones that were at the end of the line, the ones that give way to the mountains to the west.  They were pretty nonetheless and the star-filled sky, in pitch blackness of the desert it made the drive back to the hotel very enjoyable.  After a meal of tagine, of course, I headed for bed and a good nights rest.  The next morning, we started our journey at 8:00, we had a lot of driving ahead of us, and Rachid wanted me to see many sights along our return trip to Marrakech.  On the way out of Zagora, we stopped in the center of the city to see a sign that read, “Timbuktu 52 days.”  Evidently, the town is located 52 days walk to the Trading Center in Mali, know as Timbuktu.  West of Zagora we stopped at a number of wonderful Casbahs, or fortresses, dating back hundreds of years.  They were wonderfully picturesque with their red mud-brick walls in front of a backdrop of rocky mountains.   The Casbahs are no longer strategic to the defense of the cities but are still home to many people and often the center of the town’s activity.  We did not take the exact same route back to Marrakech, instead we went up another valley to see a slightly different landscape.  With more water in the valley, more vegetation came with it and more villages, more life…as we all know, water is life!  Darkness fell on our journey the second day and as were came out of the Atlas Mountains heading west, we could see the lights of Marrakech off in the distance, one last stop at a roadside cafe to drink some tea and then a short drive to my hotel in town.  I had a great first visit to the Atlas Mountains and the many Berber Villages along the drive.  This trip made me more interested in the people of the region and their culture, I will definitely come again, for a slower, more deliberate visit.  

Below, a few pictures from my visit to the Atlas Mountains and home to the Berber People.


Below, Rachid my Driver for two days, purchased some meat to take home.  He said the quality and price were much better in the country than in Marrakech.

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Marvelous Marrakech 2012.

After two days of walking the streets of “Marvelous Marrakech,” I am suffering from visual overload.
I will try to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.  They say a picture paints a thousand words….     One can easily get lost in the “Medina,” and boy did I… more than once!  But it’s a good kind of lost… the kind you don’t mind…. the kind that is actually pretty fun!  The sights, sounds, smells, everything is amazing!
Before I arrived, I read some reports on-line that some people felt pressured in the Medina by overly-aggressive shop-keepers.  I have had nothing but a positive experience.  Remember that you are under no obligation to buy anything, if you are not interested in a shop simply look the gentleman in the eye and say “no thanks.”  Try to be friendly, smile and just say “no.”  I have found that the people are usually very friendly in return.  Remember that they make a living selling to tourists so some might try to put the hard sell on you.  Also don’t forget to bargain,  I start at 50% of the original asking price and try to get it at a little above that.  It’s kind of a game for the vendors, they will often offer you mint-tea as the price negotiations go back and forth.  They will not sell for a loss, otherwise they wouldn’t be in business for very long!  So be firm on your price limit, if you walk away, they will either let you walk or offer you a better price.  But remember, never get angry, and be polite.  There are lots of shops selling the same things so you should shop-around!
The Medina is busy all day, motorbikes will race-by you, swerving around carts with donkeys, young boys are running errands for their fathers, often delivering a plate with glasses of mint-tea and bread.  The locals will go about their daily activities of visiting with friends, having lunch and all the while, selling their goods.  It’s a maze of activities that seems chaotic at first but the longer you observe life in the medina, you see that there really is some order to the place.    

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Marrakech, “The Red City” of Morocco.

What an incredible first full day in Marrakech, “The Red-City.”  I’m in visual “overload” for sure….

I did a lot of reading before I arrived in Morocco and saw many people comment on how beneficial it was to book a tour guide for their first day to show them around Marrakech and provide tips for follow-on days.

I decided to do just that and found a great tour guide, “Youssef Kharroubi,” on the internet.

His website address is,  (www.marrakechtourguide.com). 

Youssef was worth his weight in gold today, he is extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of Marrakech, the people, history, culture, all topics he was well versed.  He was a wonderful ambassador for his city Marrakech and more importantly the Moroccan people!

I highly recommend Youssef Kharroubi as a tour guide for anyone interested in a visit to this captivating city!   Thanks Youssef!

Above, probably the best tour guide in Marrakech, Youssef Kharroubi, was worth his weight in gold guiding me through for my first day in Marrakech!  I like to recommend things that I consider great, and Youssef was certainly a great tour guide!

Above, I pause for a picture in the Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakech.  The Medersa is no longer a school, closed since the 1960s, it is now a tourist site and well worth the visit. 

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The Marrakech “Christmas” Express, 2012.

Not being one to wait for disaster to happen, I decided to chose a new place to visit in the event that the Mayan Prophecy is true and the world ends today…. I mean why wait for the flaming-asteroid to completely destroy the small island of Bioko.  I decided to take higher ground in a place I have never seen before, Marrakech, Morocco!  I’m kidding about the ‘end of the world’ but not about wanting to see a new place and have a new adventure.
I departed Malabo and took a flight to Madrid, changed planes and landed in Casablanca yesterday at noon.  I made my way to the train station where a young Moroccan man from my flight was kind enough to help me purchase the correct train ticket to Marrakech.  I boarded the Second Class Car on the “Marrakech-Express” at 12:50…. direction, south-west and the enchanting city of Marrakech.  Despite the train being full, it was a very pleasant trip indeed.  The Moroccan county-side offered beautiful views of patchwork-quilt-like green pastures, rocky-rolling hills and sheepherders on mobile telephones, whacking their flocks into formation with 2 meter-long sticks.  Donkeys appear to still be a main form of transportation for many people in the country.  Loaded to capacity, the four-legged beasts of burden, heads-down, trotted down dusty trails knowing exactly where they were going.  In one small town, a teenaged boy was running in circles, waving his t-shirt above his head, after scoring a goal in a pick-up game of “futbol,” with his schoolmates.  The theatrics were probably for the benefit of us watching from the passing train, Lionel Messi would have been proud of the youngster!
All too quickly, after about a 3 hour journey, the train tracks ended at my destination, the town of Marrakech….. I’m excited for another adventure to unfold!

 
Above, the end of the line for the “Marrakech-Express” at the Gare de Marrakech, Morocco!

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John Beecroft, 1790 – 1854, British Explorer

The history of Africa could not be told without mentioning the adventures (or mis-adventures) of countless European-Explorers.  John Beecroft, a British explorer, was one of those “adventurers” who greatly impacted the Island of Fernando Poo, now called Bioko, over 150 years ago!
In 1830, the island of Fernando Poo belonged to Spain but was being used by the British as home-base for anti-slavery operations. At that time, John Beecroft was “master of works” on the island.  He was said to have been a great “negotiator” with the local population, and was appointed “Acting Governor” of the island by Spain and appointed to the rank of Lieutenant in the Spanish Navy.  The British left Fernando Poo in 1833, realizing Spain would not secede the territory, but Beecroft stayed on as “Acting Governor” and was officially appointed to the position in 1843 by Spain.  The British realized his usefulness and appointed him “Consul of the Bights of Benin and Biafra” in 1849, a position he held, along with that of Governor, until his death in 1854.  During his time on Fernando Poo, John Beecroft participated in numerous expeditions aboard steam ships, up the Niger, Cross and Benin Rivers.  Beecroft succeeded where official British Expeditions had failed because he used locals as crew members.  He understood they were much more resistant to the many diseases, such as malaria.  Beecroft was instrumental in opening the Niger Delta to European trade in the mid-1800s.  I often wonder what life was like for adventurers like Beecroft, on an island so far from home and so different from his native Britain.  I can’t imagine the difficulties he faced and the challenges he over-came.  One thing I can understand is how the longer you stay on Bioko, the more it gets ahold of you…. the more it becomes a home away from home!

Below, in Malabo, a monument recognizing the contributions John Beecroft made to the island of Fernando Poo are remembered by the island’s inhabitants.

Below, the plaque on the monument is pictured in close-up, the text is translated below.




John Beecroft
Here lay the remains
Of
John Beecroft
Spanish Governor of the
Island of Fernando Poo and His
British Majesty’s Consul of the Gulf of Biafra
Died the 10th of June of 1854
At 64 years of age
this monument was erected by
the inhabitants of Clarence Colony
as testimony of the gratitude for
the many years of paternal attention and
selflessness towards their welfare and interests and
for his tireless effort
to establish the happiness
of the African people.

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“The Lush Green Jungle”

I remember watching the movie “The Emerald Forest” from the mid-1980s.  It was set in the Brazilian Rainforest, beautiful lush green vegetation and fresh water everywhere.  I remember thinking to myself as a 21 year old college student, “I wanna go there.”  I want to get into a dug-out canoe and paddle down the Amazon River.  Meet a tribe of indigenous people and learn their ways of jungle-life!
Little did I know over the next 25+ years, I would actually visit some of the most dense jungles in the world…. The Brazilian Amazon, Luzon Island in the Philippines, Western Cambodia, Okinawa and now in 2012, Equatorial Guinea on the western coast of Central Africa.  Many of the historical documents I have found concerning this corner of Africa, refer to it as “White Man’s Grave.”  It was said to have been one of the “least favorite” duty stations for the sailors of the British Fleet stationed here in the early 1800s while conducting anti-piracy operations out of Port Clarence.  Yellow Fever, Malaria and often “unfriendly” locals made this region less than “ideal” for the “European Visitor.”
I am happy to report, that the locals are now quite friendly and the British Fleet is long gone… but a simple “Walk in the Jungle” allows me to imagine what life must have been like 100 years ago.  Back to a time when life was much less complicated, no cell phones, no apps to update, no flights to catch.  When your main task for the day was finding your next meal.  I still love the jungle, its many exotic sounds and smells, the fresh water and the visual overload of the color green.
I want to keep exploring, what’s around the next bend in the trail?  What’s over the next rise in the trail…. Let’s see……. Life is an Adventure…….

Below, a few pictures from a “walk in the jungle” this past weekend on Bioko Island.

Above, a gentle flowing river meets the tidewater of the Atlantic Ocean in south western Equatorial Guinea.

Below, the lush green Equatoguinean jungle engulfs me as I follow a narrow footpath.

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“Freed Cuban Slaves on Fernando Poo.”

Everyday, as a walk from my hotel along the road over-looking the Port of Malabo to the downtown area, only a short distance away, I pass a small monument dedicated to “Freed Cuban Slaves.”  I often stop to read the engraved stone and practice my Spanish translation skills… but never did I give the monument too much thought.  Well this week, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to do a little research.

I knew slaves were forced to board slave ships in the port and were eventually sent to the Americas, but how did freed slaves become part of the island’s history over 100 years ago?

When you mention slavery, most people will think of the forced oneway trip many African’s took from Africa to the Americas hundreds of years ago.  Few people are familiar with the trip many freed slaves took in the 1800s from the Americas, back to Africa.  The Island of ” Santa Isabel,” later called “Fernando Poo,” and currently called “Bioko,” played an important role in the history of the slave trade, both in supporting it and eventually in helping abolish it.  When slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the early 1800s, the Royal Navy needed a port from which they could begin to interdict slaving ships.  The strategically well located Island of “Bioko” would become the ideal home port for the British Fleet.  The Port City would briefly become known as “Port Clarence,” now called Malabo.  From Port Clarence, the British Fleet could re-suppy their ships involved in stopping the slave trade.  The Island also became an important stop for many freed slaves from the Americas on their way back to the African Continent in the 1800s.  Many of the freed slaves eventually stayed on the Island and now make up part of the diverse population of Bioko Island.

Below are a few pictures of a small monument erected by the Cuban Embassy in memory of the freed Cuban Slaves that returned to the Island of Bioko in the 1800s.  The monument overlooks the Port of Malabo, formerly “Port Clarence” when the British Fleet used the port to support its anti-slavery operations.

Above, the inscription reads;

“In memory of the Cubans deported in the 19th Century
to the Island of Fernando Poo
28 May 1869
The Cuban Embassy in Equatorial Guinea

Above, the small monument over-looks the Port of Malabo.

Below, the Port of Malabo.

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A Day at a Former Cocoa Plantation, 2012

I spent today in the Jungle at a former “Cocoa Plantation” on the South West corner of Bioko Island.  It is said that Equatorial Guinea produced some of the finest “cocoa” in the world no more than 45 years ago.  The cocoa still grows wild throughput the island, and rumors are that someone is attempting to revive the industry.  The discovery of oil, about 15 years ago, has probably not helped speed the development of other industries like cocoa or coffee on this small island nation.  Like so many places, oil is king for the time being!  The jungle farm we visited today still bears evidence that is was once “cocoa” that the world wanted and not “oil.”  The worker’s small brick and zink-roofed homes stick out of the jungle like tombstones in an over-grown cemetery.  The stories of the current plantation caretakers along with old-rusted farm equipment help reconstruct what life might have been like on a ‘cocoa-plantation’ almost 50 years ago, before the departure of the Spanish and the collapse of the “cocoa-industry.”

Above, I stand in the doorway of a small brick and stucco house that was once home to ‘cocoa’ plantation workers.

Above and Below, this home is currently occupied by one of the ‘caretakers’ of the plantation, he lives today with no more luxuries than the workers had 50 years ago on this small plantation.

Above, this row of plantation workers homes is being given back to the jungle.  That which man does not maintain quickly becomes consumed by the forces of nature.

The evidence of a possible ‘pastime’ of the former plantation workers is everywhere, wine and whiskey bottles litter the ground outside the small homes.

Below, the Plantations were often located near the water so the raw “cocoa beans’ could easily be loaded onto ships and transported to Europe for processing.  This Plantation even had a narrow gauge railroad to get the ‘cocoa’ to the water’s edge.  Once refined and added to sugar, the cocoa-beans produced “European” chocolate.

Below, this cocoa tree still produces the “gold” of yesterday, cocoa pods.

Above and Below, no walk through the jungle would be complete without a visit to the nearby beach.

Above, as you can see, this beach is not exactly barefoot-friendly.  The evidence of the island’s volcanos is obviously underfoot!

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