Tuesday, May 31, 2016

better than peanut butter

I love peanut butter. I don't mean that mass-produced high-fructose corn syrupy paste that dominates supermarket shelves. I'm talking about real peanut butter— the unsweetened crunchy kind that tastes like peanuts. I'm a bit of a snob about it. As good peanut butter can be a challenge to find in some countries, I normally resort to making my own. Now that I have a fantastic nut guy around the corner from me (sometimes it's possible to catch a marvellous whiff of roasting cashews on the wind), I have begun my search for a nice food processor. However...

One afternoon while exploring Apia, a little artisanal goods shop known for its argan oil cosmetics and honey, I came upon this:

Amlou: roasted almonds, argan oil and honey— one of the most perfect marriages of flavour ever known to humankind! The nuttiness of the argan oil blends so smoothly with the almonds, and with just the right touch of honey, the amlou is delicately sweet. It's wonderful on toast, pancakes, and bananas. In fact, it was this amlou/banana combination that powered us through The Big Day and our trip to the Ifrane area.

Until I moved to Morocco, I had never seen or heard of amlou—I suspect this is because culinary argan oil might not be easy to come by on the outside. If you happen upon a jar amlou, or the ingredients to make it yourself, you must try it. Your breakfasts and afternoon snacks will never be the same!

Monday, May 30, 2016

henna attack

Pedro and I took a trip down to Rabat's medina for a wander yesterday— naturally we left the labyrinth of shops with things we had no intention of buying (a set of carved wooden frames and a carpet bag). I suggested we stop by the overpriced tea garden in the Oudaïa before heading back home— it's a pretty place that overlooks the water, shady and cool, with a fig tree in the centre. On the way up to the entrance of the Oudaïa, I was approached by several women in djellabas with syringes who offered to paint my hand with henna for a small fee. I declined as politely as I could, when suddenly a large woman in a pink floral djellaba materialized out of the shrubbery.

"Bonjour madame, une fleur pour vous parce-que vous êtes belle!"

You know when people smile at you but their eyes do not? I did not want this "gift", and tried to be nice about the whole thing but before I knew it, she had my arm in her iron grip and was scribbling all over the back of my hand. I tried to pull away, told her to stop, but it was futile. Once my hand was covered in a mess of lines, she let go, and with a grin, told me to pay up.

"Non! Je vous ai dit que je ne voulais pas!" I was stern, but she insisted that I only pay what I wanted to pay her, and added that she was working to support her many children. I handed her a five dirham coin, which for some reason prompted her to switch to English— no, the five was not enough. What did we have? Euros? She would take that, she could make change. I did not budge. Eventually she relented and sauntered off, her syringe poised for the next attack. Had I actually wanted my hand hennaed, or had she drawn something a little less 'abstract', I would have felt more generous. I really did not appreciate being grabbed and forced into an orange squiggly stain that will last two weeks or more. Oh well. There was mint tea in the shade to think about.

I had forgotten the coolness of wet henna on skin, the spiced smell, and the way your skin itches ever so slightly when it dries and cracks off. I loved marking my hands with it when I was young. I remember once, many years ago in Dubai, my cousin Rania took me to a salon to get the most beautiful, intricate patterns drawn on our palms. The petals and leaves of flowers bled a vibrant red-orange into the lines of my heart, head, life, and fate. I rubbed olive oil into the designs each day, wanting them to last as long as they could.

The ocean brought salt on its breeze, and a waiter dressed in a blue bluer than its depths weaved in between tables, little glasses of amber-coloured tea balanced precariously on a silver tray.

red, purple, green, and blue

lindo burrinho

Morocco is great for donkeywatching. I have had a soft spot for donkeys ever since I was a little girl, ever since one bit my friend on the shoulder in Büyükada. It sounds terrible, I know, but I think I envied her in some weird way. I remember her shoulder shining red from the swelling, and the tears running down her cheek— I remember eyeing that dusty grey donkey, who seemed annoyed with us, wondering if he thought she was a carrot. I liked the idea of being thought of as a carrot.

I was an odd kid.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

feelin' it

With a warm sun, cool breeze, and more ravens than I could ever imagine, I was in heaven. So much so, that I jokingly asked Pedro to snap what we call a feelin' it photo— those cheesy shots of boho adventurers that are supposed to be inspirational and spontaneous but are totally staged. Recently we were scrolling through some photos on Instagram of very stylish travellers, each of whom had at least one shot of them posing with their arms outstretched, walking towards something exotic. I found it so phoney, so silly, but it had me thinking about the way we present ourselves and want to be seen to the world behind screens.

If you are a long-time reader, you surely have noticed the sharp decline in the frequency of my posting and sharing of sketches. I've spent a lot of time in the past year wondering why I keep this blog, and when I moved to Morocco I felt little desire to continue sharing my life online. I was having a difficult time adjusting to my new life, and really didn't have much to say about it. It's hard to pack up and leave somewhere you love, even if you feel that that place no longer exists. Turkey has changed so much under its current government, I scarcely recognise it.

So while I was feeling lost at sea and to be honest, a bit heartbroken over leaving Istanbul, it felt odd posting pretty pictures; I couldn't pretend I was having a great time when I wasn't. That's not to say that I haven't been happy here in Rabat, but these past nine months have been a rollercoaster— and I've had motion sickness. The little trips Pedro and I have taken to Essaouira, Larache, Meknès, and now the Ifrane area, have done much to lift my spirits, and I feel I am on the mend. Truly, there is nothing like a bit of exploring to get the heart back on rhythm.

Although we took this photo in mockery, I actually kind of like it. The moment was light—the air smelled of cedar and earth, and we were laughing.

cedar roses and dung beetles

Little pockets of sunlight illuminated mushrooms peeking through the dark forest floor, flowers glowed in their spotlight, and elegant cedar roses appeared to bloom beneath their trees. I began to collect the rosettes, sniffing them in hopes of catching some scent— and there was— an ever so slight smell of pine sap. We hiked on to the sound of raven calls, the beating of their glossy black wings. In a clearing I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, on the earth beneath my feet. Two formidable dung beetles were battling it out over a perfectly egg-shaped ball of dung. I watched them for a while, rolling over each other, the grooves on their backs rusty with dust.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

the barbary ape

These elegant fellows are the only species of macaque found outside Asia, in the Atlas and Rif Mountain ranges of Morocco and Algeria. They are the same species that were introduced to Gibraltar, and interestingly, they are matriarchal— something I learned after noticing that several of the adults who were holding babies were male. Apparently the males are selected by the females for their ability to care for the young, which they raise collectively.

I'm generally not a fan of monkeys— creepy experiences with them in Nepal have left me suspicious, but these ones were so pretty and had no interest in us. Expecting that a threatened species might be hard to see on our own, we stopped by the Cèdre Gouraud Forest, were a troupe had grown accustomed to loud, selfie-snapping tourists flinging peanuts at them. It was a bit sad, but at least they seemed to be in good health...

Later, while driving down a winding forest road near Kharzouza, we caught a flash of gold crossing the road— twenty or thirty macaques! There they were, minding their own business, picking through the leaves and soil while giving us a lazy side-eye. We stopped for a while to photograph them from the car, not wanting to disturb them.

Look at how shiny and lush this guy's fur is! It looks so soft...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

monkey crossing


If ever I had a spirit animal, the fierce Little Owl would be it. It may be brown and commonplace, but it's my favourite bird. Ever. Just look at that face! Anyhow, I won't be sharing all 93 species of the birds that we saw— just a few nice shots that we both took throughout the Big Day. So, without further ado, I would like to introduce you to the lovely Atlas Flycatcher (looking rather heroic):

And just above: the fabulous European Roller, and a dapper little Serin, singing his heart away... Next, we have the ubiquitous Corn Bunting, a pretty Thekla Lark (which I still can't tell from a Crested Lark), and an inquisitive Mistle Thrush who hopped so close to us I thought she might land on my boot:

Lastly, Seebohm's Wheatear and Moussier's Redstart— two birds that beg to be painted. Behold their bold and graphic beauty:

It's an amazing thing— before Pedro came into my life, I was a bird admirer. I made a small effort to learn some of their names, but really didn't know much. I had never seen a Little Owl, let alone any owl, but now I know exactly how to find The Fierce, and I've seen twelve other species. My world has expanded.

How wonderful it is to learn new things! I see and hear birds everywhere— I know that some of them have particular tastes in trees, I have a general knowledge of some of their habitats, and I've learned about the extraordinary journeys they take during their lifetimes. Birds have since taken me to each of Turkey's borders (except the Iraqi), into an extinct volcano and up the sides of mountains, to forests, deserts, and seas.

I can't think of a more beautiful gift that anyone has ever given me.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

a big day

Last weekend Pedro and I drove to the Middle Atlas to see what we could see as far as birds were concerned; May 14th was this year's Global Big Day, in which bird lovers around the world attempt to see as many birds as possible within 24 hours. The data gathered about what was seen where is recorded on eBird, a wonderful online checklist program created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society in the United States. According to eBird, 15,953 people participated this year in 145 countries— astounding to think about, especially when you are tallying up your totals and realising that while you were freezing your ass off in a Moroccan cedar forest before sunrise, birders in Bhutan were looking through their binoculars too, hoping to catch the movement of feathers. In total, 6263 species were recorded— we saw 93 of them. Pretty good, considering we were exploring a part of the country we had never been to. Pedro did all the research ahead of time, and plotted out our adventure in a series of maps. I made sure the cameras were charged, and assembled a protein-packed lunch the day before, so we wouldn't have to stop.

The alarm rang at four— I think. Foggy-headed, I took the quickest lukewarm shower and got ready, piling on as many layers of clothing as I had brought, believing it would make it easier to adjust to the changing temperature throughout the day.

Our first stop was a dark forest of younger cedar trees (we later learned that cedars take on their distinctive horizontal tiers as they age), European Rollers squawked above, flashing their brilliant turquoise and cobalt through the lace of leaves. Beyond their calls, an opera— I closed my eyes to hear it all, my untrained ears unable to distinguish the singers by sound.

"Do you hear that— the meetsoo meetsoo meetsoo?" Pedro asked. "It's a Coal Tit."

Meetsoo meetsoo I whispered, trying to affix the sound to the little black, white and greyish fluffball in my head. Not long after, we saw the charming fellow flitting about and became distracted by the acrobatics of an endemic Atlas Flycatcher.

My plan to layer up proved to have little effect in the predawn chill, and I shivered my way up the trail with a burning sensation in my fingers. The first golden rays of sunlight felt like a gift; I stood in their warmth like some grateful ancient sun-worshiper.

The rest of the day would take us to coot-dotted lakes, vast grasslands streaked crimson with poppies, and rocky plateaus grazed by sheep. Stay tuned for more!

Monday, May 16, 2016

portrait of a salesman

This gentleman bullied Pedro and I into buying a beautiful cactus-silk carpet in Meknès that we didn't need. I figured he owed me something in return...

It really is a pretty carpet!

Friday, May 13, 2016

new watercolours

I've got to say, painting with Schmincke watercolours is a dream...
Thanks Mom!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

a feast in the sand

Under flapping umbrellas bleaching in the sun, young men with smoking grills shout out the names of fish in any language they think you might understand. It's always "verrry good!" and "très frais!"— and they aren't lying. We picked a faded green umbrella and got down to negotiating a price for a feast. As we settled on something around twelve bucks, a burly man approached us offering a pot of tea for a couple of dirhams. We were led to a plastic table by a boy who vigorously wiped it down, then scurried off in the sand to help with the scaling of our fish.

It's really so simple; fresh fish, a little salt, some lemon... maybe a few oysters or urchins? Wash it all down with syrupy sweet mint tea, and enjoy the sun.