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Celia Corbin

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Tagine is one of Morocco’s most notable dishes. It’s aromatic, zesty, and spicy. The cuisine offers a diverse range of ways it can be prepared from more meat-inspired stews to a bountiful display of vegetables. No matter what you order, this national dish is bound to put you in for a delightful surprise. But where can you find the best tagine Morocco has to offer? It goes without saying that you can find the best tagine in homes of Moroccans and not in a restaurant. So when I was invited for a cooking lesson at the home of a Berber family in Merzouga, I was excited to not only learn the ways of making traditional tagine, but also to be able to taste the difference between homemade and restaurant tagine. 

The mid-morning begins in the traditional mudbrick home of Mona and her family. It sits within a compound that her brother and businessman, Hsain, built in addition to the Merzouga Dunes Luxury Camps. I am welcomed in smiles by Mona and her two shy children who peak their heads around the corner to see if I’ll notice them.

While Mona prepares mint tea and snacks for me, the two girls finally gain enough confidence to shy away from the shadows and sit on the couch next to me. They give me a light hug and then we use our hands and facial expressions to communicate. I point to the older girl and raise my hand counting my fingers suggesting they show me how old they are.

I hold up five and the other girl mimics my hand with two fives and then a three. Then I learn the other one is nine.

I’m sitting in their version of a living room. The walls are furnished with long cushioned benches around the room with pillows. It’s always a little cold in the Moroccan homes I’ve been in, so I came prepared with socks and an extra jacket.

Mona takes a seat next to me with a small dish of almonds and peanuts and then sits down a tray with a tea kettle and Moroccan tea glasses. It’s always a little awkward thinking about what we’re going to talk about when there’s a language barrier, but she breaks the ice and pushes the tray of nuts toward me to eat. I grab a small handful of nuts while she pours the tea.

She gets up to bring out a blue plastic bowl of unpeeled vegetables soaked in water. I intently watch her peel carrots and potatoes in a rhythmic motion with a small peeling knife toward her chest. She then starts slicing the carrot, zucchini, potato, and onion in her hand instead of using a cutting board. I was especially impressed when she minced the onion into small pieces in a chopping motion while cupping the onion in her hand. She didn’t ask for my help and I knew my translation would be lost if I tried to ask, so I continued to study her instead.

We move into the kitchen with her two girls and I take a seat on a short one-foot stool next to a very short table. The clay tagine is placed on the table and she adds a little olive oil to the tagine along with a layer of minced garlic. There’s a clear plastic bag of seasoned chicken sitting off to the side that she pulls out and centers in the middle of the pot. 

Tagine looks pretty simple so far. From what I’ve read it should be as easy as a slow cooker.

Mona smothers the chicken with onions and then begins layering the rest of the vegetables in chronological order: carrots, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, and sliced lemon. The children grab some spices from nearby and help sprinkle parsley, paprika, cumin, a green powdered spice, and ground saffron on top.

Mona’s brother, Hsain, returns and helps by pouring a small amount of hot water from the kettle in the clay pot. They cover the tagine, put it on the stove, and let it cook for 45 minutes. 

I thought I’d have some lag time to sit and chat, but instead was asked to follow her outside to a small mudbrick structure. I peak my head in trying not to hit my head and see three other women besides Mona sitting lined up against the wall.

I’m watching from the outside for a couple of minutes until one of the girls moves and points to me and then points next to Mona where she was sitting. I understand the gesture and sit next to Mona, who’s in charge of the fire, getting a pretty good view of the clay oven they use to bake bread.

The three women all had bread pies about the size of a large pizza gathered under the blankets and then handing them to Mona one-by-one.

I meditatively gaze at the bread rising into a big bubble and then watch Mona twirl it in either a clockwise or counterclockwise motion and then pierce it with a stick when the bread expanded too much.

She grabs some flimsy twigs that are used to keep the fire going and then uses her two sticks to pull the bread out. She drops the bread on a nest of twigs that lay next to the oven and repeats.

The bubbly pie flattens on its own after it cools down and the woman to my left picks it up and begins to sweep off both sides removing any dirt or debris before placing the deflated bread in the basket hidden under the blanket in front of her.

After around five pies, Mona moves away from the fire and the girl to my left takes over. I notice she’s a little slower than Mona. She does look young and I imagine she’s still working on her skill set as Mona has probably done for many years already.

We leave the other women and walk back to her home only a minute away. The tagine is still cooking and the two girls left for school. There’s Mona’s third daughter who returned and she looks like she might be the middle child among the three, which I was told is the lucky child to be in a family. She smiles at me and puts on a kid’s sing-along program on their 13” bulky TV. She’s also a little shy in the beginning but then her mother gets her to warm up to me by showing me one of her art projects. She’s painted decorations and dots onto a piece of white fabric about the size of a book.

The little girl then places a drawing of a blue river with an apple tree on the living room table in front of me but runs across the room still a bit shy and sits in a chair on the opposite corner. I notice the palm of her hands are covered in something orange or red and ask Mona.

“Henna.” Mona explains.

Progress! This is the first word Mona communicated that I understand.

Mona leaves back to the kitchen and the little girl comes with her backpack filled with markers and colored pencils. She pulls out a blank notepad and rips the first two pages off. She didn’t like how her paper was torn so she crumbles it up and tries again. Success. She’s now ready to draw and dumps her markers and pencils onto the table.

I pick up one of the wadded pieces of paper and open it up to draw on, but she pulls a fresh piece of paper for me to draw on instead.

I started drawing a dolphin hopping out of the water then moved onto drawing fish with stripes in a very elementary way. She continues to draw another river and apple tree on her piece of paper but this time with a sun on the upper right-hand corner.

Her dad gets home and sits beside her watching her draw.

I decide to add some land to my drawing and draw a brown line above the water and plant a few palm trees to the right. Then I decide to draw sand dunes in the background merging ocean and desert.

It’s missing something. A camel.

How do I draw a camel? The wifi isn’t working so I pull up a video of a camel I saw earlier in the day and put it on pause trying to replicate it the best way I knew how. The little girl curiously and intently watches me draw as I screw it up. It’s not making out to look like a camel so I adjust until it sort of resembles one. She’s miraculously inspired and asks her dad to draw one on her paper.

Lunch is ready.

We set the table and gather around the table.  A small dish of assorted olives is placed on the table along with hand-pulled pieces of warm bread from earlier, and a small dish about the size of my hand filled with chopped green pepper, tomatoes, and onions.

The tagine is centered between us all and the lid is removed lending a zesty and aromatic fragrance to the table. I wait for them to go first so I can follow their lead. Each tears a piece of bread and dips it in the broth. This goes on for several minutes that I’m wondering at which point we eat the food, but I follow along.

Maybe they’re being polite and waiting for me to go first?

I don’t budge and finally see the dad grab a piece of bread, cupping it into his hand, and then using the bread as a utensil to grab some vegetables.

I follow suit and it’s my tagine epiphany moment.

“Whoa! This is so good. So damn good. This is what it’s about. I get it now.” I’m thinking.

The zest from the lemon added the perfect amount of acidity to the dish. The flavors of the spices, citrus, and vegetables had the perfect amount of time to marry allowing different flavor profiles to stand out on their own.

“This is so damn good.” I repeat in my head.

They see me struggling a little to pick up vegetables and come back with a fork and plate to help me. I’m determined to keep trying though, but I did occasionally resort back to my fork.

I am stuffed beyond oblivion but they keep adding more food to my plate as they share from the tagine. I point to my stomach and rub it in a circular motion moving my head from side to side saying no more.

They finally felt like I had enough to eat and then bring out a large bowl of fresh fruit, very traditional for Moroccan dessert.

The little girl grabs a banana and cuts it in half to eat and then grabs a whole one for me to enjoy. Oy, I don’t think I can handle a whole banana.  The dad offers me a tangerine. I’ve become quite fond of the tangerines in Morocco; they’re always so sweet and juicy. The little girl looks at me disappointed I didn’t eat her banana and points at it, so I agree to appease her by eating half.

After lunch, I help clear the table with the little girl while Mona does the dishes. The little girl then helps me find a broom with my sweeping motions I used to ask her. We finish cleaning in time for my ride back to the camp and part our ways.

Having the opportunity to learn how to cook one of Morocco’s most notable dishes in an intimate family setting is always a special experience. I now understand why having a meal in a Moroccan family home is incomparable to restaurants. When you allow awkward communication barriers marinade with something familiar and relatable like family meals, it becomes one of a kind. Can you think of a time you experienced this was true? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Nomad is a word I used to throw around loosely, but after meeting this nomad family, I finally have a better understanding of what it means to move from place to place as a means of survival and not out of having wanderlust.

It’s been 21 days since I’ve been in the Sahara and I really haven’t seen much. I’ve been avoiding much of the tourist attractions and using my time to instead rest, read, write, and repeat.

I’m collaborating with Hsain, a former nomad and current business owner of Merzouga Dunes Luxury Camps. We’ve finally gotten past the formalities of treating me like a guest, I help myself to the kitchen for snacks whenever I want, and now we can engage in deeper conversations about the behind-the-scenes operations of running a luxury desert camp and, what I’m here to talk about today, nomad life.

I’m introduced to Mohammed, an older man with clearly defined wrinkles on his face that looks plenty hydrated.

“This man has four wives. He eats a lot of couscous at night!” Hsain points teasingly at Mohammed.

Mohammed doesn’t understand English, but I assume Hsain translates because Mohammed quickly smiles and then laughs showing me all of his yellow teeth.

Hsain and I walk around the nomad village and he points out one tent that works as a pantry and another used for cooking. There’s a clay oven much like the one I saw during my bread baking lesson only smaller and with tiny stones added.

“When it’s windy, they use this gas stove. When it’s not windy, they use wood fire to cook.” Hsain explains.

I see a little girl with a faux fur lined hood and bare feet running at us from a distance, but my attention is diverted when I see a couple of baby goats. They’re so cute! I know, I’m being a typical girl.

Hsain picks up the brown one and puts it into my arms and I hug it tight against my chest.  He picks up the white one and then tells me to hold them both. My heart is melting when the white baby goat opens his mouth wide in a bleat sounding almost like a human baby. They are only three days old and you could see the dry umbilical cord still attached.

I goat double the love.

Now that I got over my animal fix, we join the nomad family for tea under an open shelter that’s shaded by tarped blankets made from wool and goat hair. I notice many of the ropes are also made from the same fur.

Mohammed pushes a small tray of nut-sized snacks for me to try and then pours each of us a round of mint tea. The tea is less sugary than I’ve had lately. I’m enjoying this cup more than the others I’ve had recently and make it a point to compliment it.

I’m sitting there and listening to my friend speak in Berber without a clue of what they’re talking about. The little girl finds us and finds a place right next to me.

I’m relishing the moment but at the same time I want to ask a lot of questions to understand more about the culture without being too inquisitive. There’s that fine line of being in the moment but also taking advantage of an opportunity to get to learn something new.

At one point in our conversation, Hsain mentions “We have no pharmacy here. The government won’t provide us with one.”

In a way, I don’t know that they need one. I’m reminded that everything they use to treat their illnesses is natural. I asked what pregnant women do when they’re ready to give birth.

“When they’re ready to give birth, they let their people know, and then we get them comfortable and relaxed enough to have one. No hospital.” explains my friend. ‘It’s not like modern [Moroccan] women in the city who have it this way…” he points to his stomach as if he were making a slit for a C-section.

“How are the roles broken up between the men and women?” I ask.

“It’s traditional. Women take care of the house and men work outside. It’s not like modern people. It’s a lot simpler. They don’t have same problems like modern people. “

We might have a lesson or two to learn about nomad culture. Their presence feels like one of a wise man: few words, an abundance of smiles, simple, honest and happy.

“At what age do they start grooming the children to start playing a more prominent role?” I start digging some more.

“Nomad children don’t have an education, you understand? They sometimes have a mobile school come by and will teach what they can, but they don’t always know when that is. The school comes when they can. “

My question wasn’t really answered but I let it go. He did further explain that sometimes there’s an opportunity for the nomad children to leave their families and get an education like he and all his brothers did.

Mohammed continues to refill my tea glass. I’m drinking it much faster than everyone else. This isn’t the first time I notice how quickly I seem to finish my tea next to Moroccans who seem to take their time and sip a lot slower.

Mohammed’s wife sits in silence off to the side and her swaddled baby is now asleep on her back. The little girl is feeling less shy and pokes me. I’m playful back putting my hand high for her to slap and then pulling the ‘down low, too slow’ move.

The ‘down low, too slow’ has a universal playfulness. I don’t know why but kids always seem to get a kick out of it. She then pulls my hand and observes my half-worn red nail polish and then puts my hand back down.

Hsain gets a call from his dad, who is still living his life as a nomad and hands the phone over to Mohammed. Mohammed puts the phone to his ear and begins talking loudly as if the recipient was a few tents away. The phone is on speaker and I don’t understand what’s being said but it sounded like a lot of teasing and a lot of laughing.

“He knew my dad from 40 years ago in Algeria as nomads.” Hsain explains.

Our pot of tea is finished and our little dish of nut-sized snacks is empty so we felt it would be a good time to leave.

We stand up, say our goodbyes, and then I’m huddled together in a group photo with the entire family. One thing I am reminded at the very end is, “Moroccans do not have poor people. Everyone has food to eat.” and this is true. There’s no reason to feel sorry for a nomad for the way that they live. If anything, I think it should be taken as a lesson conceptually as way to live.

Is Mount Toubkal and are the Atlas mountains safe to travel after the recent Scandinavian murders? After having trekked these mountains only weeks after the event as a solo traveling female, I’d argue yes.

I’m only into my second day in Morocco before I heard about the murders of two Scandinavian girls.

“Have you heard about the two girls who were murdered a couple weeks ago? Everyone is talking about it. This is rare though, and these girls were traveling alone without a guide.” says a friend I met up with while in Marrakech.

I don’t bait for more details and leave it at that.

I sign up for a winter trek with a local company and learn there is one other girl who will be joining me. Two girls? Is that enough for safety in numbers?

It’s only one day before my pickup from Marrakech and when I tell a friend abroad that I’ll be going on my first winter and altitude trek in North Africa’s tallest mountains.

“Did you hear about the beheadings?” says friend.

Ugh, I really hate hearing about this news. I view this one isolated event the same way I see the mass shootings we hear about all over the news in the not so scary USA. I say “not so scary” with a bit of sarcasm.

I search the keywords to pull up the article about the two girls and see an image. Immediately I close out and remind myself not to feed into the fear mongering news. I’m NOT going to instill fear in me.

It’s game time, and the other girl and I am picked up Marrakech and on our way to Imlil, the base village before many Atlas mountain treks. There were a couple of opportunities for us to talk to each other about what happened, but she and I were both on code that both of us wanted to remain ignorant of what happened and enjoy our trek.

We are almost up the hill via car to our riad but are stopped for our first police checkpoint. Two police officials approach the vehicle and ask for our guide’s documents and our passports. They ask him a few questions, and we make it to our final destination.

That afternoon our mountain guide takes us on an acclimatization hike, we enjoy a nice lunch on the hill, and then make our way back down the mountain to rest up for our 2-day ascent in the morning. It’s quiet here.

We leave around 9 am to ascend for about 6 hours up Mount Toubkal. There aren’t many people on the trail. My trekking buddy and I continue to avoid talking about it, but then we reach a shack about halfway up, and our guide stops about 100 feet downhill of it.

He points uphill and says, “This is where it happened.” and then proceeds to tell his story. “Nothing like this has ever happened here, and it was not by our people. I saw the girls with my own eyes after it happened and was sick for a week. Everyone cried.”

My guide continues to go into the story in grave detail that I’ll spare you. We walk next to the shack, and my guide points at the dirt near my feet at where it happened. It feels grim and eerie, but no signs of a crime. My guide and trekking buddy begin walking ahead of me, and I sneak in the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in a crossword motion over my face and chest. I’m not religious, but it’s something that we used to do when I was young, and it brought comfort to me at that moment.

There were three other checkpoints on the trail. Our guide had to provide his information, and the police officials were documenting our passports. At least they care, I’m thinking. Hearing my guide’s personal story and the several checkpoints reassured me. We’re still the only two females I’ve seen on the trail.

We’re at base camp now and finally, see other women (though only less than a handful). The rest of the trip feels quite normal. We get to the summit and never felt unsafe with our two nights at the refuge.

On the way back down the hill, I noticed more groups of women and more trekkers making their way up the trail. This is a good sign.

If you’re a solo traveling female or girl traveling with an all-girl group – I’d recommend hiring a guide to go. In fact, I think that’s the only way you’re allowed up the hill now after the incident. Hopefully, this eases some of your concern. If you have any questions, leave me a comment in the box below.

I’m a huge wine lover and my love for sake doesn’t fall short either. I’ve tried sake ice cream, bought sake Kit Kats, and sampled a half-dozen sakes from the local Family Mart and 7 Elevens in Osaka – like literally lined them all up side by side and compared characteristics. I have even gone to sake bars tasting each of their selections until they’ve run out of things for me to try. I began thinking to myself how can I up my game a bit?

Cancun is a lively beach city on the Caribbean side of Mexico filled with white sandy beaches. The city is also known for its many tourist spots such as the El Meco Archaeological site, the Temple of Scorpion, El Castillo, and La Isla Shopping Village. Cancun is not as widely well-known as other international cities (unless you’re American and grew up watching MTV Spring Break – did I just date myself?) But there are a few logistics that you need to know before you go to this breathtaking city.

I recently got a job as a divemaster on a liveaboard in Hawaii and one of my guests told me I absolutely had to dive in Cozumel when I told her about my upcoming trip to Playa del Carmen. Because she and I bonded overseeing dozens of dolphins together along the Kona coast and that she has over 2,000 logged dives – I felt her word could be trusted.

I first found out about Reiki almost five years ago when I lived in downtown L.A. and had a strong desire to want to try it. The idea about removing energy blockages intrigued me and at that time I probably needed it more than I do today.

I have felt so much joy in my life since I quit my desk job and sold everything I owned to travel the world.

Occasionally I’d see a Reiki service pop up but the cards never played out to where I could see what the hype is about.

There are lots of cool holistic style healing activities to do on the tiny island of Caye Caulker that include aura cleansing massages, yoga, and other various types of massages from outdoors next to the beach to an air-conditioned quieter setting in a building.

What to Expect?

I didn’t do any research or reading up on what to expect before I booked a last minute appointment, but I did remember vaguely that for some people they felt a lot of heat coming from their Reiki practitioner.

I didn’t feel any of this so it made me wonder if I had a good Reiki guy. At first, I was expecting a woman so it did throw me off a bit. He also told me to focus on one color or things that were bothering me.

You start off by laying face down on a massage bed. You have about 10 minutes to reflect and then your Reiki practitioner comes in. It started with a bell (one that I never heard before but long echoed in an enchanting way). You can hear it close and near your ears moving.

He then begins the treatment and places his hands on your shoulders, body, and feet. You turn over, slides a smooth rock under each hand, covers your eyes, forehead, and other parts with tiny stones, and he repeats the sessions. I got whiffs of peppermint throughout. Mellow music continues in the background.

My mind is focused on green. All I could visualize was a blank slate of green and then it changed to blue. I had a few random thoughts about the guy last night who tried to hit on me with his girlfriend right there then I kept thinking about my blog and what I recently wrote. Love. Should I make this Reiki treatment about my energy blockages with love?

It wasn’t until at least 15 minutes that I felt my first tingling sensation. I feel like I was slapped with it because it came suddenly. That’s when I was thinking, “Oh! Okay, this is what it’s about.”

It ends with the smell of sage and then a misty spray over your face and body.

After the treatment, my body definitely felt tingly but I wasn’t feeling refreshed or amazing like I thought I would. It made me wonder if I got good treatment. I’m relaxed though and noticed my appetite had returned. I’m thirsty. I’m fatigued and really tired.

I guess that’s not too bad considering I could have had a case of diarrhea instead, eh?

It’s been almost 6 years exactly since my last visit to Playa del Carmen. I was a much different traveler then; a tourist traveler instead of a backpacker. I stayed at the Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya, an all-inclusive beach resort. The beaches were pristine and what I proclaimed as the best swimming beach I had ever been to. The food was meh. The clientele was mostly European. It was a quiet and relaxed former fisherman town with a sophisticated touch.

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