Lost in the Souks

Lost in the Souks

As I dropped Jane and Tricia off at the spa for their pedicure the young man at the door said with a grin, “I’ll give you 20 camels for your daughter!” Oh crap, I thought, not another session of haggling!

Not my daughter I said.

Oh, no problem, then 20 camels for her and 20 camels for you.

Great, I have nine more like her! I’ll be back later.

We shook hands laughing and parted ways. Such is the life in the Marrakech markets. For the record, I’m just kidding Angel, Jenna, Meredith, Meredith, Tricia, Rachel, Erika, Olivia, Katie and Emma! I would hold out for at least thirty camels a piece.

The women are worth 200 camels, I don't know what I'll do with the

Joking aside, traveling with 10 “daughters.” did present a few challenges. Before we left, we had discussed with the students that Morocco has not come as far in the area of Women’s rights as the United States and many other european countries. This was hammered home for us as we drove into Marrakech and our guide told us breathlessly that in Marrakech we would see something new and very different... (long pause) Women on motor scooters!

Before we left we told our “daughters” that it was important to adopt a more conservative style of dress for this trip. Cover your shoulders, no tank-tops and no short-shorts we said. And they all followed this, although next time I would explicitly add running tights to my list of items to not wear. We heard a few mutters from our students as we saw female tourists from other countries in revealing outfits. Nevertheless, our daughters stuck out, the long blond hair, and blue eyes (and, unfortunately, the running tights) were a real attraction for many of the local young men.

We learned that sixteen year old boys are idiots no matter where you are in the world. One night a group of boys followed five of the daughters back from a restaurant. Although they said they were not in danger, it was definitely an uncomfortable situation for them to be ogled and followed down the narrow dark streets of the medina by this small group. Other times we all heard the whistles or moans and comments from men of all ages as the group walked by. When you walked in the back of the group it was painfully obvious to watch the heads turn and stare as the group went by. I’m hoping that some of them will write about this from their own perspective in their journals or blogs and that we can have further conversation about this back in Malta.

Today is our last day of traveling with the students for the Malta Easter break. Tomorrow we go our separate directions. The students to Amsterdam, Belgium, Germany, England, Greece and the Czek Republic. Jane and I to southern Spain.

It has been an amazing trip, Morocco is surprisingly beautiful at every turn. We have learned a lot about this country, its history, its culture and its people. The people are cheerful, and as you can see from the exchange above they have a great sense of humor.

Nowhere is that sense of humor more evident than in the Souks, the great marketplace of Marrakech. They say that you haven’t been to Marrakech if you haven’t gotten lost in the Souks. So, we did. There are thousands and thousands of small shops, all arranged in a twisty maze seemingly designed to draw you deeper and deeper so that you have to pass by even more shops to get out.

There are leather shops, wool and agave silk dyeing shops, wood shops, copper and silver shops, shops with tagines of all shapes and sizes. Nothing has a price on it of course, which is what makes the whole thing such an adventure. You have to be careful about even looking too hard at anything or the shop keeper will come up to you and draw you into the store, if you ask the price, you must be prepared for something beyond anything you are willing to pay.

We were offered “student prices,” “democratic prices,” “special price for friends from America prices,” and more. Its all part of the game. leather bags and purses that started out at over one thousand durhams could be had for 250 to 500, depending on their quality and the willingness of the bargainer to simply walk out of the shop and leave the poor shopkeeper looking sad.

We were coached:

I make you a price now you make me a price. What if I don’t want this? Its ok, we will still be friends. Now make me a price.

When Jane came back with an offer that was too low on a purse the shopkeeper was deeply hurt and began to put all of the stuffing back in the purse. “For that you can buy a camel purse.” A few moments later when one of our students volunteered her to come up 50 durham (about \$5), the sale was cheerfully closed, and we were all friends again.

We had demonstrations of quality. Lighters held up to leather, “if this was camel leather it would burst into flames, but this is good cow leather.” fingers were licked and run across the died leather, to demonstrate that the color did not in fact come off when the leather got wet.

We had another seminar on spices and their medicinal properties of varous spices and aphrodesiac properties of various herbs. “Except for you,” she said to one of the young men in our group. “You don’t need this!” This time the seminar ended with extra large shopping baskets being passed out to everyone. Then she started over going through each item again with a chance to purchase. I have a nice package of Nigella seeds that will clear my nose and help my asthma. In addition to some nice Morrocan curry and Harissa.

Jane and I are now in the Marrakech airport. The students are safely on their way, and we have a little longer to wait before we can check in and make our way through security. From here we will travel to Seville then Malaga where we will meet our guides for our bike trip for the next few days.

A visit to the Kasbah

A visit to the Kasbah

Sometimes when you are travelling it is the unplanned things that can surprise you the most. At dinner last night we decided to stick around town this morning and visit the Ksar (fortified city). At breakfast, Mohammed, the owner of the Hotel Bagdhad Cafe was happy to line up a guide, also named Mohammed, for us at the last minute, giving him an unconditional recommendation as the best guide in town. As it turns out he may very well be. Mohammed is part of one of eight families that still live in Ksir Ait Ben Haddou, a very old city that is also featured in several movies including Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator.

The houses in the Ksar are made of big clay and straw bricks for the very practical reason that they keep the temperature down to a comfortable level even when the outside temperature reaches 49 degrees C. Remember to convert that to F you double it which is already a warm 98 degrees, but then add 32! The Ksar is built into the side of a steep hill, so as we went up from the lower part of the town to the upper the views became more spectacular.

At about the midway point of our climb our guide stopped outside his own house. “You are welcome here” he said. This is a phrase we have heard everywhere in Morocco from many different people. It is a phrase that our guide has said to us as we enter each new city we are stopping in. It is a phrase I’ve been thinking about all day. It has a much different feel than “welcome to Fez.” it is at once more personal, more authentic, and in a place where we wondered whether we really would be welcome it is is quite comforting.

We had a stop at a local artists studio where he was painting with indigo, Saffron, and “berber whiskey” the green mint tea that you get everywhere in Morocco. The interesting thing about the tea is that it is when you paint with it it acts like invisible ink. You can’t see it until you heat it up. So he paints the picture and it looks like there are pieces missing until he holds the picture over the flame and reveals the finished work. At only \$5.00 a painting many in our group bought a picture to remember this part of the trip by.

Towards the end of the tour we came upon a mosque which is still in daily use. Right next to the mosque was a synagogue, no longer in use. The history of the Berber people is very old, and interesting. At one time the majority of the Berber’s were Jewish, then for a time the majority were Christian, but now they have been Muslim for a long time. We’ve heard a similar story about the Maltese, although they are now Christian. This change in religiion does not happen over night, of course, it happens over generations. The result for the Berbers is that they are peaceful, and very tolerant.

We want to get along with all people our guide told us. He went on, the problems in the world today are caused by three things: money, politics, and crazy people -- Crazy Jews, Crazy Muslims, and Crazy Christians. Most people are good and peaceful people, its a shame the crazy people have to ruin it. Thats a pretty succinct way of summing up the state of things in the world. It was also an echo to commnents made by a previous guide about “idiots in Iraq” destroying relics of their own ancient heritage. Clearly no one religion has cornered the market on crazy people. It seems that during our travels those we have met have gone out of their way to emphasize that most Muslims are peace loving people that don’t have any ill will towards us. I think its the same for me. I’m embarrassed by the crazy Christians as much as they are embarrassed by the crazy Mulsims. The more important question is what to do about the crazies?

In our travels this year we have encountered amazing people of all faiths, Buddhists in Vietnam, and Cambodia, Muslims in Morocco, and Christians in Rome and Malta. It is these people that have made the past months memorable. On this Easter weekend, it is a bit strange to be in a Muslim country knowing the Easter celebrations going on back home.

I wish all of our friends and neighbors far and wide Peace, and a blessed Easter.

A Night in the Desert

A Night in the Desert


“Camel noses!” came the answer from the back of our mini-bus. The question was “what is one memory or thought you would take away from yesterday?” Other thoughts about yesterday centered around the bookends of sunrise and sunset, changes in geography, the orange of the dunes against the blue sky, the beauty of the desert sunset, and the awesomeness of being present in the place and the moment.

Note: This is an expanded version of a post that I wrote for Luther’s Ideas and Creations blog.


So, where were we? We began our day watching the sunrise on the rooftop terrace of our Riad in the ancient city of Fez Morocco. From there we travelled through the Middle Atlas Mountains with stops for a snowball fight and monkey feeding. We descended from the mountains into the plains where we travelled through towns abandoned with the overland spice trade. Ultimately, the plains turn to desert with high plateaus. We experienced the wonder of coming around a bend and seeing a valley oasis, full of Date Palms. We ended our day about 35 kilometers from the Algerian border, at a desert camp site watching the sun set over the Moroccan desert. It was quite a day.

We arrived just after 6pm at the auberge where we met our guides for the night. We tied up our turbans and mounted our camels. This was a new experience for all but one of our group. As we rode out of the hotel area and into the dunes, each camel got a name. We also learned that camels are not the most comfortable beasts to ride. But it was fun, and a great shared learning experience for everyone.

Many of the students shared a sentiment along the lines of “Holy Crap! How did I get so lucky to be here on a sand dune in the middle of the desert?” If you haven’t experienced the quiet beauty of desert sand dunes you should add it to your bucket list. As one member of the group said, “it is just sand, but it is really beautiful.” For me, the word that has stuck in my head throughout our time here in Morocco has been authentic. The leather tanneries of Fez are not selling mass produced goods. The marketplace is a real working marketplace. The dunes are not arranged for our viewing pleasure. You will find no dune gardeners out there arranging things and picking up the trash. The wind and the sand take care of the cleaning. Last night’s footprints were erased by the breeze that came up early this morning.

Desert sunset

After enjoying the sunset at the top of one of the taller (160 feet) dunes, we came down to our little nomadic camp in the valley where our guides, four young men, served us tea. We talked with them a bit about how the recent attack in Tunisia has had very negative impact on tourism in Morocco. It is sad for them, as this is such a beautiful country, and we have felt safe and warmly welcomed almost everywhere. At length, tea was followed by a Moroccan meal. There was a rice salad with tuna and tomato, onion, peppers and oranges. followed by a tagine filled with potatoes, carrots, and beef. For desert, oranges and apples. After cleaning up a bit our guides returned with traditional African drums and played and sang for us.

Jane and I in the setting sun

There were no distractions from this group experience as we had no cell service and no WiFi. They sang some traditional Moroccan songs for us. All of them were Muslim, and at least two of them came from Berber backgrounds. There was a bit of dancing by Jenna and Angel, and drum lessons for a few. When they finished they asked us to sing for them. It was a little bit sad how hard we had to struggle to think of a song everyone knew. The nostalgic part of me thinks that could be because we need more nights of face to face entertainment, and fewer with WiFi. The other parts of me are happy to be writing this post on my iPad knowing I can upload it and all the pictures from almost anywhere else. In the end, Ethan, Ben, and I were the brave one’s and we gave our best rendition of the college hymn, “To Luther.” A bit later the appropriate beat inspired a rousing rendition of “We Will Rock You” with Ben taking the lead and showing a part of himself that I hadn’t seen yet.


This morning, when I got to the top of the dune to watch the sun rise, I found a water bottle left over from a previous group. The wind had blown the sand over and around the bottle leaving a very interesting pattern on the leeward side. A miniature example of the sand dunes and the desert as a whole. I don’t know what the last two days will mean for the students in the long run. I don’t even know how today’s experience will shape my own future. But I know it will, as each past travel adventure has left its mark. It strikes me that the bottle and the dunes are a great metaphor for study abroad and Lutheran higher education. We can lecture for hours, and give them days of homework, but it is these experiences that will shape our students in ways we cannot possibly imagine or plan.

Morocco -- Sensory and Cultural Overload

Morocco -- Sensory and Cultural Overload

As I sit here on the rooftop terrace of our Riad in the Medina of Fez, the sky is turing purple as the sun begins to set. The Minarets have just become active as the call to prayer begins from every direction. I’m trying my best to write down my thoughts now because I’m so overloaded after the day we have just had I want to record my reactions now rather than tomorrow.

Today we smelled and tasted 20 different spices in the spice market, tasted four different kinds of Moroccan flat bread, half a dozen different kinds of dates, more olives than I’ve eaten in my life, Chickpeas with cumin and chile, a dozen different kinds of honey, each with its own medicinal purpose, tea made of mint and absynthe, Fava bean soup, and beef cheeks and tongue. We visited a bakery that bakes everything from bread to stuffed spleen. In the words of one particular Gozotan guide, I must say this was the best marketplace tour ever. The market just seems to go on forever in every possible direction.

It was very interesting, and slightly uncomfortable in the places that we ate. These are very small stalls in the marketplace and in several cases the owner literally kicked out other customers to make room for our entire group. To help you imagine the size of the place I am writing about, imagine a king size bed. On three sides of the bed you have walls going to the ceiling, Leave about a foot between your imaginary walls and a table in the middle of the space. Now take 14 people and get them around the three sides. In every case one or more Moroccans were sent next door in order to make room for all of us to eat together. They didn’t seem to mind, as they seemed happy to observe us and to share their food and culture.

The streets are narrow, no cars are allowed in the Medina, but donkeys and handcarts are! We learned some new words Ballack! Get out of the way. That is especially important when the donkeys laden with gas tanks are coming by. Or when the garbage donkeys are hauling out the trash. Also: Yellah, follow me, Shukran, thank you.

Make way for the donkeys

The mass of people was quite overwhelming for me, shouldering my way through the crowds has never been high on my list. Navigating through streets that are sometimes barely wide enough for one person to walk on, brings it to a whole new level. But, the people here have welcomed us very warmly. They are eager to share their culture and city with us even though we blonde haired blue eyed Lutherans stand out like crazy amongst the many other colors of this melting pot city.

The smells also had a huge effect on me. From the pungent spices, to the citrus smells, to the produce (in all stages of freshness) to the various different meats being cooked and/or butchered. Every time you turn a corner you are subjected to / assaulted with a new smell. Perhaps the best of this was at the spice market. The proprietor gave us a 45 minute seminar on spices and all of their medicinal purposes. The highlight was when he had us all sniff black anise powder. WOW, in terms of a sinus clearing activity you just can’t beat it.

The spice man giving us a seminar on spices and their medicinal

Morocco is primarily a Muslim country, although they pride themselves on being quite progressive and peaceful. One of the most profound moments of the day came as we were visiting a madrasa. Our guide, Achmed was telling us about the training they receive and the importance of incorporating science into their training. In addition to memorizing the Koran having a sound understanding of science is an important part of religious training. In a way, Morocco is the cradle of much of science. When Europe was in the dark ages, scientific studies flourished in Morocco. In a world where many in our own country are all too quick to call climate change a theory, or evolution a fiction, it is fascinating to hear what an integral part of religious training science is in Muslim world. This is especially interesting when those same people are all too quick to paint all Muslims with the same brush.

The group in the madrasa

During our tour, we all did our best to be good ambassadors for the United States, Luther College, and ourselves. This meant dressing a bit more conservatively than some would normally do. It means being polite and greeting strangers in the market with a smile. It means respecting people and not taking their picture without getting permission first. Its amazing how such simple things can pave the way to better relationships with the people you meet.