Morocco is a country of Arabic and French. Besides a few phrases of broken French I was able to unearth from my memories of high school, there wasn’t always a way to talk to people. When staying with a family there, one night I was in the kitchen making couscous with the mother of the family. Neither of us was able to speak to each other, besides the odd word in my horrible broken French, but luckily the making of couscous transcends languages. She gestured what she needed me to do as the music on the radio played in the background. Add the water like this, mix it with your hands like that… This pattern between us became almost rhythmic and we soon had a fully formed tagine of couscous and veggies.
Many people I encountered in Morocco, seeing me as a tourist, would ask me to give them a Western name. One of the first people who asked me offered to give me a Moroccan name in return. There is now somewhere a Moroccan named Stephen, and I have the honour of being called Fatima. Friends I made along the way began to refer to me as Fatima, and this continued even after coming home. I’m proud and happy to say that it is a name that has stuck.
Mint tea is a staple in Morocco, so much so that it’s often just referred to as ‘Moroccan Whiskey’. Not only is it delicious, but there is a whole performance around serving it. You have to make sure to pour it with the teapot held as high as possible (some splash back is expected) and to get the right amount of foam on the tea. The Moroccans make it look easy but there is a true technique to it that I certainly couldn’t get on my first try. I felt the pang of its absence when I left, so the only solution was to make my own. I now have nice fresh mint just for that and in true Moroccan style, I always make sure that tea has sugar- lots of it.
After being rubbed red by a stranger with a scrub glove, a shower doesn’t quite seem the same. Hamam in Morocco is a whole cleaning ritual that doubles as a social event and is the place to catch up on the latest news and goings on. Sitting in a hot room in nothing but your underpants tends to invite people to open themselves up to you. When it’s time to lather up, you can either have a friend or someone from the hamam come to give you a vigorous scrub. When you can feel the dead skin cells flying off, that’s when you know you’re really clean.
Want beef? Tagine. Want veggies? Tagine. Want couscous? Tagine. It’s my one-stop cooking pot and everything from it will be amazing. Sprinkle some cumin on there after and I’ll be really set to go. It’s hard to go back to anything else when you can throw all your ingredients into one pot and have a delicious meal waiting for you. Plus, you get some great looks when you bring one home with you on the airplane.
Morocco is full of medinas- winding streets through the cities that create a literal maze to get lost in. My sense of direction is so bad that it’s a miracle really that I have always found my way home. Navigating my way on main streets and paths has been hard enough, but medinas are an entirely different beast. With no map or marked streets, I had to cross my fingers and hope for the best. When every alley looks the same and has the same bustling crowd to press your way through, it is truly like being thrown into the deep end. Remember which way you came and hope the smell of the spice market doesn’t distract you too much…
I know we’ve all had that warning from Mom “Don’t talk to strangers”, and I’m sorry Mom, but sometimes it’s good when you do. Being pulled into a conversation or starting one myself was the best way to learn and find out the amazing things about Morocco. I didn’t know the dance moves the ladies of Agadir pulled me into, but they were happy to show me the steps. I didn’t know how to play the drums, but a man was happy to teach me as he regaled tales of his life as a nomad in the Sahara. If you trust in others, you never know what you might find.
In Morocco, touts are common in a lot of the cities, especially the more touristy areas. Touts are the people who, as you walk by them or their shop, will be very pushy trying to get you to buy something. Sometimes they will even start offering you a service you didn’t ask for and demand you pay for it. Saying “Non, merci” starts to become a reflex. At home, someone shouting at you would be a big offence, but here it’s just part of life. It’s not personal, it’s just business.
Haggling is one of those things that comes with travelling that I’ve never gotten the knack of. Not growing up with it, I always feel guilty asking for a lower price, concerned about accidentally underselling someone or appearing rude. However the more I encountered it, the more it became a game. Merchants would not only encourage me to haggle but some even offered to teach me: “If you offer a price I don’t like it’s okay. I will still have my merchandise, you will have your money, and we will both walk away happy.” Though some would take pity on my haggling and offer me the “student discount”, my skills still came a long way. By the time I left, I had even managed to haggle a rug that was 2500 down to 1000 dirhams- while not a big accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, I was proud nonetheless.
Morocco is full of artists of all sorts. From painters to sculptors, or to Gnaoua- a music festival attracting musicians from around the world- there is no shortage of creativity. In Essaouira Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley’s visits are still talked about, and I even had the pleasure to meet some camels named after them. But it’s not the big names that make up the creative fabric of Morocco- whether it is pots, mosaics, paintings, or even henna- everyone is always creating. One woman I spoke with was telling me about her seven children, who had all grown up and left home to find their own places. She personally made a handmade rug for each of them, and after seeing one of her creations myself I was flabbergasted. I don’t think I could even make one that nice if it were the size of a napkin, never mind a whole floor rug. Every strand was hand dyed, and every thread hand stitched, combined into a beautiful piece of art. It made me determined to step up my game to see what I could make myself.
I don’t know if it’s the sun or the beaches, or just because the bread there tastes so great, but the Moroccans have a positivity that’s infectious. Even the touts who shout at you in the markets can get you smiling. I’ve found that every Moroccan I met had at least one good joke they were itching to tell me. There is a happy energy there that stayed with me long after I left. After Morocco spread it to me, I wanted to do my best to pass it on to others too- a positive outlook was the souvenir I wanted to bring home with me the most.
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The Aztec two-step. Montezuma’s revenge. Traveler’s trots. No matter what you call it, the very words are enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most intrepid globetrotter. Traveler’s Diarrhea (TD) is the most common health-related problem encountered while traveling – and it’s no laughing matter.
TD is characterized by an increase in unformed stools (typically, four to five a day) and is often accompanied by abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, malaise and fever. Such symptoms are enough to spoil any vacation.
This unwelcome malady can be caused by bacteria (i.e. E. Coli, Salmonella), parasites (i.e. Giardia), viruses (i.e. Rotavirus) or fungal infections. Most often, it’s contracted by ingesting contaminated food or water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov), the areas of highest risk for Traveler’s Diarrhea include low-income regions of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Areas of intermediate risk are most of the countries of southern Europe and some Caribbean islands. Low-risk destinations include northern Europe, Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and some Caribbean islands.
Preventing Montezuma’s Revenge
To best prevent Traveler’s Diarrhea, avoid raw or uncooked meat, meat that has sat at room temperature for an extended period of time, food from street vendors, raw fruits and vegetables unless they can be peeled or shelled, undercooked eggs, tap water, ice, unpasteurized milk, unsealed beverages, and ice cream (unless from reputable sources).
Safe beverages, according to the CDC, are bottled carbonated beverages, beer, wine, hot tea, hot coffee, or boiled water appropriately treated by iodine or chlorine. Water should be boiled 10 minutes. If treating with chlorine (4-6% concentration), use two drops per quart or liter and let the water stand for 20 minutes. If you do not know the concentration, use 10 drops.
If treating with iodine (4-6% concentration), use two drops per quart or liter and let stand 40 minutes (use five drops for 2%). In some countries, fish and shellfish may contain poisonous biotoxins. Check with the World Health Organization (www.who.int) before going.
Another source of possible infection is contaminated recreational water — including swimming pools that are not adequately disinfected.
Due to increased resistance to antibiotics, taking them for prophylaxis (to prevent diarrhea) is no longer recommended unless your immune system is compromised or you are severely ill.
Another form of prevention is Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol). Taken in an adult dosage of two 262 mg pills four times a day, it is up to 65% effective in preventing some forms of Traveler’s Diarrhea. It should not be taken for more than three weeks. The medication can turn the tongue and stool dark, cause ringing in the ears, nausea, constipation and adverse reactions in those sensitive to salicylates (the ingredient in aspirin). It can interfere with some medications, so check the label or ask a pharmacist if you are taking other medicines. It is not recommended for children under three.
Those under age 19 should not be given any medicines containing salicylates if they have a fever-causing illness such as influenza or chicken pox. Salicylates have been associated with Reye Syndrome ― a deadly disease affecting all the organs of the body, especially the liver and brain.
In general, the CDC does not recommend Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) due to the many side effects and adverse reactions. Their recommendation for prevention is to avoid food and water that could possibly be contaminated.
TD is usually short-lived. Antimotility drugs (drugs that slow down or stop diarrhea) do not treat the diarrhea, but can help with the symptoms. For treatment of uncomplicated TD, antimotility agents such as loperamide (Imodium), and diphenoxylate/atropine (Lomotil) can be used. In some incidences, these drugs may increase the symptoms of TD. Those with blood in their stools or those with a fever should not use them and treatment should be stopped if there is no improvement in 48 hours. Be sure to check the box for any contraindications. It should not be given to children under two years of age. Check with your doctor before giving it to older children.
Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) mentioned above as a prophylactic can decrease the amount of loose stools and the length of illness.
Antibiotics may be needed for those with blood in the stool, fever, abdominal cramps, and nausea and vomiting. Samples of stool will help the doctor determine if the diarrhea is caused by a bacteria or parasite and what antibiotics will work to clear it up. An antibiotic cannot clear up a viral illness.
Preventing dehydration is essential. It is also helpful to replace some nutrients lost with diarrhea. Gatorade is helpful with this. Also, the World Health Organization offers packets of “oral rehydration salts” (ORS) that can be mixed with water to help replace lost nutrients. This is available in stores and pharmacies. Check the package instructions for proper preparation. Pedialyte makes an “oral electrolyte maintenance” solution for a child that comes in freezer pops or drink form.
Children and infants will dehydrate more quickly than adults and need to be watched closely for signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, decreased or absent tears, decreased or absent urine, sunken fontanels (for infants), and weak or rapid pulse. Obtain emergency medical help if your child is showing these signs.
Call the doctor if your diarrhea lasts more than three days, if it goes away and comes back, is severe for longer than 24 hours, if there is blood or mucous in the stool, if there is severe abdominal pain, if there are signs of dehydration (increased thirst, dry mouth, decreased or absent urine, rapid or weak pulse), or if you have a fever over 101.5 F (38.5 C).
The best way to prevent TD is sensible eating and drinking habits. Remember these slogans:
– “Rule of P — Food is safe if it is peelable, packaged, purified or piping hot.”
– “Boil it. Cook it. Peel it. Or, forget it”
These simple tips can help you avoid Montezuma and enjoy your trip.