Edventuring in Greece

Edventuring in Greece

We’ve recently returned from the April 2016 Worldschoolers Spring Edventure at the Porto Grana Hub for home educators in Plitra, Laconia, Greece.

So much of our experience was about the sights, smells, tastes and sounds we encountered. How can I capture in words the scent of orange blossom or the pungent smell of olive oil production? Or find a way to translate onto screen the sensory stories of my taste buds? At least the visual element is more easily shared through the many images I collected.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a photo journal of the highlights of our trip. I’ve included commentary to give you some insight into the week’s learning journey, seasoned with links to find out more where you may wish to.

Enjoy!

Orange-picking

orange1.jpg
One of FreeToBeP’s favourite activities of the week

This was such a simple yet memorable activity. The sights, scents and tastes of the orchard as the sun beat down on us was so evocative – if paradise has an aroma, orange-blossom would be it! As if I didn’t already bemoan the quality of oranges in England, now that I’ve eaten one freshly plucked from a Peloponnese tree, I fear the bar has been raised even more.

One intriguing feature of the orchard was an orange-lemon tree – a tree that bears both types of fruit as the result of a successful graft.

FreeToBeP loved being amongst the trees and his orange harvest ensured a week’s very sufficient vitamin C intake for the whole family.

An interesting fact is that the intensive cultivation of oranges in the region dates only from the mid-20th century – prior to that, the delta of the Evrotas river and its tributaries was used as rice fields (a small percentage of EU-grown rice is still grown in Greece).

orangepick

Culture & Tradition

flowerfest
Preparations for the flower festival in Papadianika

We joined local school children in the nearby village of Papadianika as they decorated candles to be lit at the traditional Γιορτη Λουλουδιών (flower festival) on April 30th. Many May Day festivities take place in Greece, of which this festival is one example.

chapel
Greek Orthodox chapel next to Diros Caves

Religious tradition is very evident in Greece – chapels are built in all sorts of places, and the above picture was taken just along from the Diros caves [a boat trip through the caves was part of the itinerary for the week which I was unable to do due to the wants/needs of my children, yet I have it on good authority that it’s worth the €12 per adult / €7 per child].

Wherever you go, you will see numerous prayer boxes along the side of the road, known as kandylakia. I sadly neglected to photograph any. These are shaped like miniature chapels and often include icons of saints, and incense or candles to burn. As well as traditionally being spots where travellers can stop to pray, they are increasingly used to commemorate lives, particularly of those lost upon the road – there is a joke that roadside kandylakia can be seen as unofficial ‘drive with caution’ signs!

Plitra Beach

beachrunWhat a treat to have the local beaches all to ourselves in 25+ degree heat! The beach was a short walk from both the home education hub and our accommodation. Just like our seaside home in the UK, the bay at Plitra is calm, featuring sandbanks and a very gradual decline into deeper waters – a perfect beach upon which families can relax, play and paddle.

As the boys went scouring the rockpools, our host scoured the same area for food – the seashore forage finds were an impressive array of herbs and spring greens that well illustrated how ‘frugal food’ is often about the richness and abundance of Mother Nature.

beach2
Sun + sand + sea = happy children!
beach3
Sun + sand + sea = happy me!

Monemvasia Old Town

monem4
FreeToBeZ enjoying the sun and the sights in Monemvasia
lighthouse.jpg
Restored lighthouse – and a levitating FreeToBeP, apparently

A truly fascinating place for both children and adults, the old town of Monemvasia is an ancient fortified town (now largely restored in keeping with its original style) and it’s worth spending a full day exploring. Our trip wasn’t as lengthy as planned as, unfortunately, the castle and grounds atop the summit were closed to the public due to renovation works. However, there was still plenty to see . . .

monem6

monem7monem8monem9

monem1There was a wonderful vibe of history coming alive upon the peninsula of the old town, complete with quaint little shops and cafés that complemented the town’s heritage. Both architectural antiquities and local flora were prevalent here, and I also appreciated the local bee colonies through the purchase of a very sweet honey wine – indeed, Malvasia wine is historically from the town.

The nooks and crannies of the narrow cobbled streets were a delight to explore and the views were divine. A must-see if you’re in the region!

monem10monem3

castlegate

monem2

Gytheio 

shipwreck
Dimitrios shipwreck

We stopped for refreshments upon Mavrovouni, the longest beach in the region, near to the charming port town of Gytheio. Volunteers observe and protect this beach over the spring to summer months as it is the nesting ground for sea turtles, yet also a busy tourist spot during the height of the season.

As we left the Gytheio area we also spotted the Dimitrios shipwreck on Valtaki beach, where the poor vessel has lain abandoned for 35 years.

Gerakas Port

gerakas2The entrance to Gerakas Port is well hidden, historically making this a safe enclave away from looting pirates. A glorious mountain drive took us up and over the headland to this hidden beauty, where the environments of wetlands and sea merge via a fjord-like approach from the sea. I sense this little gem is best appreciated by boat!

gerakas1

Cyclingpbike

liambikeWe arrived in Greece with two eight-year-old boys who couldn’t cycle and left with two eight-year-old boys who could! You’ll be relieved to hear they weren’t swapped for different children, but gained new skills whilst having free bike hire at the hub and Plitra seafront all to themselves throughout our stay. Three-year-old FreeToBeZ was rather pleased with her attempts too.

bikez

Olive-picking

olivetree2
FreeToBeP harvesting late olives

Although the olive-picking season was officially over, there were plenty of olives left on trees in public spaces – the children made the most of climbing them whilst the late olives were collected from both branch and ground (and are now being salt-cured on my kitchen worktop).

Sixteen-month-old FreeToBeL loved the fresh yet bitter fruits, her young palate open to new flavours in a way our modern sweet and salty diet has scuppered for many of us.

laylaolive
FreeToBeL enjoyed eating the bitter offerings fresh from the tree!
olives
Wild olives collected, cured and preserved (and shared with us!) by the owner of our accomodation (Pansion Amarylia)

Ancient Asopos

asopos1asopos4asopos3asopos5Wow! What finds we made here. The ancient Roman port town of Asopos was destroyed by an earthquake in around 365BC and much of it now remains hidden under the sea.

Much of the ‘beach’ here is made up of broken brick and tile, the remains of buildings which last stood over 2000 years ago. A bathhouse, port and temple are some notable remnants along the shore and a number of large storage urns remain partly intact. Sections of pavements and mosaics are preserved, with areas being revealed or masked as the tides strip back or deposit covers of rubble and sand.

There are so many historical ruins in Greece that not all have been excavated and this was very evident here – on one section of beach we found numerous remnants of ancient Grecian pottery, which really quickened the pulse of the archaeologist in me.

asopos1
Roman bricks and tiles aplenty here
asopos2
Ancient handle – just one of our many finds

Cookery & Food

greeksalad
Authentic Greek salad in Sparta
food
Preparing a traditional spinach pie with vegetables from our host’s garden

FreeToBeP has recently developed a real passion for cooking and has been lucky to have the opportunity to spend time with people who have a true love for good food.

Our host showed us how to make vegan varieties of local dishes (many of which are traditionally made just with vegetables anyway) and the children had opportunity to help out, picking fresh ingredients from the garden and appreciating the food in a new way thanks to doing this.

As much as possible, the food eaten at the Porto Grana Hub is organic, vegan and grown locally or foraged – whilst the hub’s philosophy encompasses both frugality and ethics, we always ate satisfying and delicious meals thanks to our host’s cooking skills and knowledge of local edible plants.

We were surprised with the vast array of foodstuffs that can be foraged for within just a few minutes’ walk of the hub, quite apart from the abundance of olive, orange and lemon trees – wild mountain thyme and edible seaside plants were some of the notable examples, particularly the very tasty kritamo (better known here as rock samphire and something I hope I will, quite literally, stumble over again along the Dorset coast).

And finally . . .

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our busy week in Laconia and heartily recommend a visit to the Porto Grana Hub to other home educating and worldschooling families!

Springtime was the perfect time to go, the country blooming with greenery yet the temperature already reaching 30 degrees during our stay.

Greece is definitely on our list of places to return to – the history, language, fauna and geology captivated us all, and what we managed to explore in our one week was just a small taste of what the country has to offer.

To learn more about our base in Greece – the Porto Grana Hub – read my interview with the hub founder, Evangelos Vlachakis, and/or visit the Porto Grana website.

Oh, and did I mention the animals, playground and family yoga session?

yogagarden4slide

tortoise

laylaplitra

plitrabay

Chicha Morada

Chicha Morada

Chicha morada is a Peruvian beverage and a non-alcoholic take on the traditional saliva-fermented chicha.

The term ‘morada’ is taken from the type of maize used in this recipe – maiz morado or, in plain English, purple sweetcorn.

As part of our Home Ed project on the Inca Empire we decided to host an Incan Feast and chicha morada seemed like the perfect drink to make for it – sweet, alcohol-free and delicious either hot or cold.

Unfortunately, I was unable to source any fresh or dried maiz morado in the UK, but I was able to get hold of some authentic Peruvian purple corn flour. Having found a couple of recipes online that used the flour opposed to the whole cob or dried kernals, I decided the flour was better than nothing – and the idea of purple flour was in itself a novelty!

Whatever the form, I’m always happy to try out new ‘superfoods’ – a title this particular type of corn can lay claim to thanks to its colour; the anthocyanin that produces the colour also acts as a powerful antioxidant.

These are the ingredients you will need to make approximately 2 litres of chicha morada:

2 ltrs water

1 fresh pineapple diced or sliced OR 800g tinned pineapple chunks or slices in juice

2 green apples

3 cinnamon sticks

1 tbsp cloves

150g purple corn flour

6 tbsp honey

Juice of 5 limes

Put all the ingredients except for the flour, honey and lime into a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally.

Chicha Morada

Next, add the flour – the mixture will immediately turn a deep, rich purple. Stir the mixture almost constantly as you bring this to the boil to prevent the flour sticking to the base of the pan and burning, and to get rid of any lumps.

Chicha Morada

Turn the heat down, cover the pan and leave it for an hour to simmer, stirring occasionally. If you want a thicker, smoothie-like drink, the apples can be mashed as they soften.

Once this hour is up, remove the heat and add the honey and lime juice. Stir well.

Find a suitable bowl or container to strain the mixture into. When I first started doing this I was aiming for a thin fluid and began by using muslin cloth to filter the mixture. However, this proved difficult and time-consuming, so I substituted the cloth for a basic strainer and accepted that the consistency would not be as expected.

Chicha Morada

The mixture may need a little teasing with a spoon to get it flowing through the strainer.

Finally, decant your drink into your vessel of choice – straight into a glass still warm for an immediate pick-me-up (this makes a perfect winter warmer), or into a sealable container where it can be cooled and left refrigerated for about a week.

Serve chilled with an extra squeeze of lime juice for a cool fruity refreshment.

Chicha Morada

This particular batch was a thick, smoothie-like drink and delicious both hot and cold. It initially reminded me of a spiced cider and the cinnamon and clove combination harkened to the treats of the Christmas season.

Whilst my attempt may not be a genuine chicha morada, the hallmark of this drink – its glorious purple colouring – was a delight to behold. I also wonder if the consistency makes this particular concoction less a chicha morada and more an ‘api’ or ‘Inca’s Dessert’ (a hot gruel of purple corn and fruit).

One day I hope to get a chance to try a ‘real’ chicha morada made with fresh maiz morada (anyone want to sponsor a trip to Peru?!), but the results of this first experience of something I call chicha morada were satisfying enough.

Quite apart from the taste sensation of this drink, we have enjoyed discovering and preparing new foodstuffs as a family and had the joy of sharing our learning journey with good friends through our Incan Feast.

The Morocco I Love: 10 Things To Be Thankful For

Ben Yuosef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco, architecture, ceiling

I’m conscious of the posts I’ve made so far about our latest trip to Morocco not being particularly practical in nature, and possibly being a tad on the ‘grin and bear it’ side!

I’ve also been very aware of all my blessings since returning home and it’s been easy to complain about the things I find difficult in our ‘second home’. I have a love-hate relationship with Morocco that leaves me feeling conflicted and contradictory.

However, there are a number of things I’m already missing about Morocco. Obviously, I’m really missing seeing FreeToBeZ playing and laughing with her daddy; despite the infrequency of our visits, their bond is obvious and strong, and regularly brings tears to my eyes to witness.

But with the aim of providing some insight into the cultural cultivation that anyone can enjoy during a trip to Morocco, here are the 10 things that first come to mind about the pros of spending time there:

 

1) Embrace the Excitement

Excitement? Ok, read ‘chaos’.

At home in the UK, I could think of myself as a ‘chaotic’ person. My mind is always on the go, I don’t get enough sleep, I perpetually strive for a more organised homelife, and there is always physical, emotional and mental ‘clutter’ (I could use the excuse of children for all of these things – in the spirit of congruence, it’s not just that!).

When I get to Morocco, I don’t see myself as chaotic at all – the external world fulfils that for me!

Arriving two evenings before Eid for our last trip, it really achieved this label: I’d never seen the airport arrivals area so extraordinarily busy (and this was our 10th visit) and there were those people who were more observant of the queuing system-of-a-sort for passport control than others.

Out into the streets and into all the traffic; the constant hooting of car horns, the heightened sense of anxiety as you try to cross a road without being mown down, the people who have less concept of personal space and ‘rights of way’ than I’m used to.

Yet this makes any trip to Morocco immediately tinged with a sense of adventure. Your senses come alive – there is no way they can’t. And if they didn’t, you might find yourself in some undesirable situations thanks to your lack of alertness.

Morocco truly is a place of contrasts – from relaxing on the ponj of a laid-back host who you’ve spent a sedate afternoon enjoying food with, straight into a mêlée of being squeezed along crowded backstreets trying to contain your handbag and your children whilst dodging scooters. I’m sure my blood pressure must rise and fall with interesting frequency when I’m navigating Moroccan towns.

I say this and yet I’m so glad I know this. I’m so glad I’ve seen and experienced this side of the world and have the story to tell. I would urge others to make the trip precisely because of these idiosyncrasies of place.

 

2) Street Life

Every time I get back to the UK, I wonder at what ghost towns we live in. Where are all the people? Mostly stuck indoors or transporting themselves around in cars.

And when there are people forced together out in public – on trains, queuing for various services, in the supermarket – where is the chatter? Whilst I’m hardly one to complain (being someone who is generally shy to start up conversations with strangers), it strikes me that this reluctance to interact is not just personal but cultural; my traits have always felt at odds with my instincts.

Even in the ‘quiet’ suburbs of Marrakech, the streets are alive – there are always children playing and adults casually chatting with the kerb as their seating.

Whilst there are plenty of cars in Morocco, there are also those who travel by mule or donkey or horse and carriage, or market traders who transport their goods using a handheld cart, which enables those people to be more contactable and present with the pedestrians they share the space with.

There are many reasons for this difference that means it’s not a lifestyle easily recreated in the UK. The weather is often a big deciding factor in whether we’re outdoors or not, and yet there certainly used to be more suburban street life in English cities too.

Without going into the politics and cultural changes that have happened in the UK to destroy communities and encourage people to live more isolated lives, I love the fact that I can exit an apartment in Morocco and know without doubt that the street will be vibrant with the sound of children playing, animals braying and the calls to go praying.

 

3) Fresh Food

Between buying fresh croissants and crepes for a matter of pennies from a local patisserie and sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice from the deliciously sweet native citrus fruits, breakfast food here is imbued with an energy and vibrancy that I just don’t get from our usual morning routine involving a box of cereal and a carton of a long-life dairy-free milk alternative.

Combined with the fact that they make bloody good coffee in Morocco, and the start of the day is usually a good one.

Whilst out on the town and for just 4 Moroccan dirhams (about 30p) you can enjoy a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in Jemaa El Fna square – at that price, there’s no excuse not to!

FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)
FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)

There is also an amazing array of different fruit juices and smoothies made to order in many restaurants and cafes that we just don’t find back home unless we were to head for a specialist (expensive) juice bar. And, saying that, I’m not sure I know where to locate one of these in my local area.

Not to forget the figs, olives, almonds and other native foods that are much better in their fresh form than anything you buy in packs at the supermarket.

Whilst it can often be a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that ensures many people here eat fresh produce, there is also less emphasis on the supermarket and more emphasis on market culture and seasonal goods.

Many people in the towns also seem more inclined to go out in the mornings and bring fresh breakfast in rather than expecting shelves, cupboards and fridges to be stocked. And FreeToBeB – brought up eating daily-made bread in the family’s traditional outdoor, earthen oven – is often surprised that I’ll happily eat yesterday’s bread in preference to buying the freshly made breads each day. Even against 24 hour old Moroccan flatbreads, our long-life sliced and packaged loaves just can’t compare.

FreeToBeP in 2011 'assisting' our hosts with the daily task of bread-making
FreeToBeP in 2011 ‘assisting’ our hosts with the daily task of bread-making

Yes, we may be able to buy freshly prepared food in some shops back home – but the ubiquity and low cost of it in Morocco makes it the easy choice there, whilst it may be the more expensive and less convenient choice in the UK.

It really brings home to me how lifeless are some of the packaged foodstuffs that are supposed to sustain and satiate us. The difference is also reflected in the cooking and the sharing of food – this is only a thought, but I’d say that the way in which Moroccan people are proud of their cuisine as they earnestly encourage you to share in their meals (“Koul! Koul!” – “Eat! Eat!”) is a reflection of the true life force apparent in their food resources.

 

4) Retailing the Rainbow

OK, so this is a matter of whether you are in town or country. If I think about the natural environments around me, nothing beats the sight of green, green England as we come in to land after a North African excursion. How fresh and lush and brimming with life it appears; I missed this usual view as we came into land at nigh on midnight earlier this month. I wonder if Moroccan people love their ochre landscape as much as I love my green?

However, take to the high street and the drab, dispirited monoculture of a typical British town is apparent. I don’t care how well a chain store thinks it’s dressed its window, it’s not a patch on the flood of sights that comes with a walk amidst the market of a Moroccan city.

Whilst I’m not a keen shopper and would rather not focus on material goods, I love wandering the souks of Marrakech and being charmed by all the colour and glitter and exuberance around me. Yes, you could purchase something as a reminder of your visit, thinking that the vitality of the items will remain, but – just like the picking of a flower – something of their life-force invariably falls away once they are set apart from their original backdrop.

Every shade of the rainbow is everywhere to see and the beautiful clothing and jewellery makes a feast for the eyes. The joy isn’t in purchasing single items of these delights but in seeing them all together in a jumble of hues and patterns and textures: piles and piles of unabashedly embellished and gleeful garments in the clothing stores, small shops crammed to the ceiling full of shining thuya wood products, ceramic diningware decorated in intense colours and swirling patterns, florid and flowery offerings at the textile merchants . . .

A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech
A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech

. . . Not to mention the scents wafting from spice shops and cosmetic sellers. From the bright and showy pyramids of turmeric and cumin, to the smoke of incense blooming from a stall of hammam products, the combination of the sights, smells and sounds of the souk come together to remind me of the beauty and vivacity of life.

The effect is kaleidoscopic and I could spin myself around admiring it all for hours.

Jewellery, Marrakech, Morocco, souk
A jewellery shop in the Marrakchi souks.

To see more of what I mean, you might like to visit my Pinterest board ‘Morocco’ dedicated to the delightful side of this country of contrasts.

 

5) Mañana

While this can sometimes be frustrating, if you want a peaceful break free of pressure, it’s helpful to take on the Moroccans’ mañana attitude.

It’s a good attitude to adopt for any family break (emphasis on the fact that a holiday should indeed be a rest from the usual daily grind!) and taking it on in Morocco will ensure your increased immunity against impatience at the sometimes slow and seemingly unreliable pace at which things often appear to get done here.

You can be asleep at any point of the day here (or up and about at any point during the night) and it’s perfectly acceptable. This is particularly true during the long, hot summer days.

Things get done when people feel like getting them done, so little does the structured, time-bound mentality of what I would consider a ‘usual’ working day penetrate many people’s lives here. And yet – everything gets done.

In the words of Lao-Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in Morocco just waiting. And often not even knowing what exactly I’m waiting for. Just knowing that in order for the next thing that needs to get done to get done, I must bide my time and trust the process. From a world of appointments and general punctuality (I shall never again complain about the length of wait at a dental practice), I could see this as a con rather than a pro of my time in Morocco – but it’s yet another practice in mindfulness.

I’ve had time to sit and reflect, hence why so much writing comes of my trips. I’ve had time to sit beside my demons of impatience and judgement and talk them into angels of patience and acceptance. I’ve had time to savour the food at my lips instead of rushing the routine of mealtimes. I’ve had time to sit and listen and absorb the social discourse around me, more rather than less intriguing for its unintelligible vocabulary.

And it has taught me that there is time. It is ‘stuff’ that gets in the way back home. Stuff I would rather relegate to the recycle bin so I can sit and just be with my children, sit and just be with my self.

 

6) Moroccan Hospitality

The people of Morocco are famed for being some of the most welcoming, hospitable people in the world. Indeed, a recent study by the World Economic Forum found Morocco to come 3rd in a report of the most welcoming places for foreign tourists to visit.

It’s taken me a while to get over some of my typical British politeness and make the most of this. Indeed, what may be considered more ‘polite’ over here can be seen as a snub to your hosts over there, especially if you refuse a glass of the ubiquitous sweet mint tea whilst everyone else is cheerfully partaking.

Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ's auntie, two of FreeToBeZ's cousins, FreeToBeZ's grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.
Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ’s auntie, two of FreeToBeZ’s cousins, FreeToBeZ’s grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.

That said, there have been times when I’ve been embarrassed by the level of generosity we’ve been shown, especially when it’s been unplanned and I feel we’ve had nothing to give in return.

We once had a really sweet guy named Hicham guiding us around Fez (he was a school teacher on his summer break and was with us as a compassionate companion rather than a guide looking to make money out of us). On our second afternoon with him, he took us back to his parents’ home for a meal. It was an elaborate meal and was followed by their encouragement for us to take a post-meal nap by curtaining off an area of their living quarters so that the ponjs (Moroccan sofas) could take on their alternative use as day beds. So we – strangers to them – passed an hour or so privately chilling out in their living room.

As if this wasn’t enough, before we left, the matriarch of the house (who must have already spent hours preparing food in the kitchen) then insisted on pressing various items of costume jewellery and cheap but pretty bracelets into the hands of myself and FreeToBeZ – even after FreeToBeZ had already broken one such bracelet, tiny beads bursting across the tiled floor. I frantically tried to reject the jewellery in embarrassment (I should be bringing the gifts as a guest!), but our hostess wouldn’t have any of it; smiling and laughing and nodding, she insisted I take her offerings and I eventually accepted as graciously as I could amidst my discomfort.

I also get worried every time I ask to change FreeToBeZ’s nappy in someone’s home. I’m always just looking for a patch of floor that they’re happy for me to change a soggy or dirty disposable nappy upon, and am invariably asked if I wish to give my daughter a full strip wash at the same time, usually accompanied by the lady of the house rushing to find soap and towels.

This in itself isn’t a problem. What is a problem is someone assuming that this is what one wishes to do without both parties having a mutual understanding about what is about to happen . . . But this is a whole other story . . .

However, I will never forget how observant and human some people have been about genuine needs.

For a week during a stay in 2013, we were accommodated by local people in two different cities when all the rooms were full at the inn.

I will never forget the relief of hearing that Halima, a bolshy and outspoken Rifian lady in Al Hoceima, had kindly offered us her sitting room to stay in when it was nearly midnight and we still hadn’t found a bed for ourselves. As she walked home on that hot August night, she saw a family taking shelter on an empty shop floor and spontaneously opened up her home. We paid her more generously than I am generally willing to pay Moroccan hotels – and I can’t even be cynical about her intentions of inviting us (knowing that some people here see a European person and simultaneously see money); for when she first saw us she thought we were entirely a fellow Berber family, and not just because of FreeToBeB’s ability to claim this (it turned out she thought all European women used pushchairs for their infants – FreeToBeZ worn closely to me in a sling was enough for her to decide to distinguish me as a fellow Berber woman!).

Pretty much the same thing happened again just 3 nights later in Chefchouen, and we spent a wonderful 5 days relaxing in the spare living quarters of a kindly older widower.

If anything, it has given me all the more faith in travelling ‘on a wing and a prayer’, not to mention faith in the kindness of humans who have not been jaded by the ‘stranger danger’ mantra so prevalent in Western societies.

 

7) Simplicity

I’m all for a more simple life. It takes a lot of discipline and a big change of perspective for someone brought up in a commercial culture. And, whilst I often complain about how difficult it is to cook on a single ring over a gas bottle or to have a proper wash with just a bucket of water and a jug, in reality it’s only difficult because of all the luxuries I’m used to. There is no excuse to go hungry or to not be clean when you have the means at your disposal.

OK, if I actually lived in Morocco I’d ensure I have a decent electric oven with at least 4 cooking plates and a wet room big enough to install a ‘proper’ bath, but – as with camping – it can be good to get back to the simple life, even if it is just a way to truly appreciate what we take for granted in our own homes in better-off countries.

I tried to embrace the simple things in life as much as possible during our latest visit (see Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation), as I’d previously struggled with it during visits to FreeToBeB’s mountain home.

For all the daydreams of a ‘back to nature’ lifestyle of self-sufficiency in an unspoilt landscape, reliant on community and surviving (literally and economically) on home-grown produce . . . the reality can be harsh. Yes, being amidst the Atlas Mountains and a group of people I was unable to verbally communicate with whilst they clean sheep innards is very different to, say, joining a vegetarian English commune in a field in Devon, but the point is valid: romantic, rose-tinted ideas of ‘the good life’ are naïve and impractical.

In order to enjoy a simple lifestyle, the first step isn’t necessarily about diving into the embodied experience of it but in changing your perspective of what is already around you and slowly forgoing the things that don’t genuinely serve you.

Since returning from our latest trip, my de-cluttering project has resurfaced with a vengeance. There is a tidiness to the simplicity found in Morocco. Not only is the home tidy due to lack of ‘stuff’, but it makes everything else seem tidier – easier. Rough play with the kids becomes an almost anytime possibility when there isn’t a floor full of toys to trip over or various breakables dotted about the living space that douse the fire of playful spontaneity. True presence and communication with the people you are sharing your space with becomes more attainable when one isn’t constantly distracted by the ‘things to do’ that come with living a complex, modern life.

For all the talk of ‘modern conveniences’, many things that are supposed to make life more convenient actually make it more complicated, or at least less fulfilling. We race around partaking in ten quick and convenient habits when – psychologically and spiritually – we may yearn for two more involved jobs performed mindfully.

Honestly: I would rather spend a morning engaged in bread-making with my peers as the children run around together than to spend half an hour in isolation preparing ingredients for and later washing up the equipment needed to bake bread in a machine, potentially in a rush whilst trying to get the kids out of the house for a social ‘appointment’. This concept of making an appointment to pop in and see your friends is something else that is alien in Morocco – again, it comes down to ideas of convenience and inconvenience. And this is why I operate an ‘open home’ policy with my friends (that is, proving this point, rarely taken up) – I never want my friends to see their presence as an inconvenience to me, to think that I might have better things to do alone than could be gained from connecting with another human being.

We’re social animals; and in the vast array of things to do, places to be and material matters to attend to, this basic fact is becoming lost in ‘developed’ nations.

When material possessions that are surplus to genuine needs are set aside, we may actually appreciate what is truly necessary for a whole and healthy life.

 

8) The Joy of Children

In many ways, I can relax in Morocco with kids in tow.

I will soon be posting my top tips of things to take into consideration when travelling with children in Morocco (mainly about the not so relaxing stuff!), but one thing I can say with confidence is that no-one will mind you bringing your kids. If anything, people in Morocco generally take great joy in children and, when I travelled without FreeToBeP this summer, he was very much missed by those who expected him to be with me.

From breastfeeding an infant to having my kids become over-excitable whilst out and about, people here look upon the natural and typical behaviour of young children with endearment and acceptance. I have no fear of any tut-tutting as I breastfeed in public or while my toddler has a loud meltdown. And thanks to the relaxed state of mind that this lack of tut-tutting fosters in me, my children are also more relaxed, ergo I have less fear of my children even having said meltdowns.

Children playing in the streets late into the night is a common sight and sound. On hot days when families have been indoors having siestas, the whole family may come out at night to enjoy the street life, and this fits in well with my own relaxed attitude about bedtimes (whilst we have a routine, we do not have a schedule!).

Many so-called ‘attachment parenting’ beliefs and practices I try to live by are taken for granted here – there is no label, just women doing what they have always done to birth and raise their children naturally (homebirth, breastfeeding, babywearing and bedsharing). These are all things that I instinctively felt drawn to do as a mother that have been overshadowed in Western societies by the medicalisation of birth and the commercialisation of babyhood.

This is not to say that I agree with all the parenting practices that are at play in Morocco. I know that the ‘good’ behaviour of many Moroccan children is less about respect for the parents than fear of The Stick (physical punishment both at home and in school seems to be a socially acceptable tool for eliciting cooperation from a child).

And yet the positive bonds of family and community are obvious – the shared laughter as families gather together in their living quarters during and after evening meals; the acceptance of children as part of the community after the 9pm watershed; the ease with which the people here will pick up and dust off crying children who are not their own; or merely the planting of kisses and tousling of hair performed in the unselfconscious manner of those who are comfortable being around and showing affection towards the younger members of our human family.

 

9) Flora and Fauna

Whether out in the wilds of the mountains or in the centre of bustling Marrakech, there are plenty of sights to see for those interested in animals and plants.

FreeToBeP picking an orange earlier this year
FreeToBeP picking an orange

If you’ve got young children in tow, excitedly spotting horses and donkeys will soon become second nature in both town and country.

Whilst in the city much of what you see can’t be classed as ‘wildlife’ and there is often suspect animal welfare, it can’t be denied that there are novelties to be enjoyed.

In Marrakech alone, there are plenty of intrigues for anyone interested in natural history. Merely taking a taxi into town, budding botanists can spot palm trees (this might be more ‘exotic’ for some than others; here on the Jurassic Coast we’re already quite spoilt for more Mediterranean plants and trees), orange trees, olive trees, Damask roses and various succulents surviving in the arid soil.

If that’s not enough to satisfy your thirst for greenery, Marrakech boasts a number of gardens that can be worth a visit. Whilst I primarily wish to share information about things you can appreciate for next to nothing, I would gladly part with a few pounds again in order to revisit the Majorelle Gardens.

A visit to the pool of Marrakech Manara will grant you a view of half-tame fish which come to the surface to be fed.

Storks roost on the roofs and wide walls of tall buildings, including the minarets of the mosques.

Mules, horses and donkeys are common sights at the roadside and upon the roads, and camels are brought into the cities as tourist attractions (but the obvious thing to do if you want authentic camel memories is to make the journey to the Sahara).

Jemaa El Fna in the daytime can be like taking a trip to the zoo: snakes, monkeys, birds and other creatures are taken for display – you can look at these from a safe distance (safe from being encouraged to part with money that is) or for a small fee can have your picture taken with them.

In the mountains I have seen some beautiful butterflies and huge, sleek millipedes, as well as snakes, scorpions, and the evidence of wild boars.

The mountains can be quite colourful in the springtime with swathes of flowers.

A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains
A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains

The cacti of the prickly pear is also easily spotted along roadsides and around villages – the abundance of them is evident in the amount of fruit that is left unpicked (think of them in terms of the humble British apple tree!). There are also many herbaceous plants which the local women pick in order to use for medicinal purposes.

Moroccan Flora
Moroccan Flora

We have had our curiosity piqued by the array of insects we’ve spotted, all the more enticing to look at precisely because we don’t know if they’re things that could bite or sting us. Judging by the way I’ve seen some of the locals react to the sight of a spider – and assuming they don’t just have tendencies towards arachnophobia – I think it’s probably safe to say that there are resident arachnids that could cause harm to humans. And I’ve already detailed our encounters with cockroaches.

Moth, Morocco
A spotted moth (official name unknown to me!) in the mountains

I also have a ‘thing’ about birds (not sure if this grew from my childhood YOC membership or a more primal, psychological desire to ‘grow wings’) and have noticed many species of birds that I am unfamiliar with. I only wish I could use more informed, naturalist terminology to explain what I’ve seen! (If anyone knows more about the wildlife of North Africa, please do get in touch.)

Thus my next step is to find the Moroccan equivalent of my trusty ‘British Wildlife’ book.

 

10) Sun, Sun and Sun!

Last but definitely not least: glorious sunshine and dry heat is a huge plus point.

In Morocco I can pretty much forget that I’m medicated for asthma. The dry heat is really good for my lungs and barely a wheeze escapes me.

Yes, it can get too hot during the day, but the simple solution to this is that you adjust your expectations about what happens when. During our summer trip we were getting up during early afternoon, having an extremely late breakfast, eating lunch at teatime and then heading out for the ‘day’ when it had cooled down a little (to about 36 degrees Celsius that is) at around 6pm.

Whatever the thermometer may say, I find the dryness of North African heat much more bearable than the humidity of a ‘hot’ day in the UK. In my opinion, a dry and clean 35 degrees is much preferable to a sweaty 25 degrees!

Aside from general sun-seeking and the knowledge that both your physical and mental health are being given a boost thanks to the production of vitamin D and serotonin, the other bonus is in the small joy that is knowing your clothes will be bone dry within the space of a couple of hours after washing them.

Yes: simple pleasures.

 

In writing this, it would seem that the love-hate relationship I maintain with this country really is due to focusing so much on the contrasts and comparisons that a more objective view is obscured. For wherever you are, there are pros and cons, highs and lows. For whatever nuisances and inconveniences exist, there are so many things in this world that have the power to brighten our day.

Looking back on this list, the things that have the power to uplift – the things that really matter – are invariably day to day experiences that cost nothing, yet lend to us a wealth of spirit that can make any place a pleasure.

On this note, I’m off to make myself an avocado smoothie and eat some self-imported Atlas almonds . . .

Food For Thought: Reflections During Ramadan in Morocco

Jemaa El Fna square, Marrakech, Eid El Fitr 2014
Jemaa El Fna square, Marrakech, Eid El Fitr 2014

I tend to have a ‘feast or famine’ experience when in Morocco, and I was pleased that my arrival this time quite literally coincided with a feast.

I arrived during the evening at the end of a day of Ramadan, just in time for ftur (breakfast). I also cleverly timed my visit to coincide with the Eid festivities, the celebrations at the end of a month of fasting (Eid El Fitr being due to take place in Morocco as of Tuesday 29th July, two days after my arrival).

Having not eaten since lunchtime at Luton Airport and it nearing 10pm, both FreeToBeZ and I were impressed with the spread of food that FreeToBeB laid out as a starter whilst he cooked the main meal. I could have taken my fill just with this first course: grapes, fresh figs, prickly pears (the fruit of a cactus that is abundant here), mixed nuts, fried fish, bread and sweet pastries.

FreeToBeZ began devouring the fish, which I also found quite tempting – I usually avoid fish in Morocco, it being something that I’ve known to disagree even with native FreeToBeB, but it’s been one of my pregnancy cravings. Despite my precautionary perusal, I promptly managed to get a small bone stuck in my throat whilst 2-year-old FreeToBeZ continued to carefully stuff her bread with huge chunks of fish and greedily consume it without problem.

Just in time for a 10pm breakfast
Just in time for a 10pm breakfast

Added to the selection for the main course were a bowl of deliciously spiced mixed olives and a dish of chicken and olives cooked in a copiously seasoned tomato and onion sauce.

Moroccan food

It’s a good job a vegan diet is something I just tend to practice from my own home for health purposes and that I can allow myself to be flexible when visiting other people and places. Not that the ethics of food choice aren’t important to me – they most certainly are – but travelling has made me very aware that our ethical choices in Britain are not always practical in other countries.

These choices may also not carry the same moral weight in countries where observing particular etiquette during rituals of eating and drinking apparently say a lot about the sort of person you are – I tend to find it more morally objectionable to be rude to my living host by turning my nose up at their food than to eat part of an animal that has already been killed and cooked. That’s material for a whole other blog post though (and I’ve got lots of pointers on how to retain a healthy vegetarian diet in Morocco).

Following our well-fed arrival, our first full day turned out to lean more towards the ‘famine’ experience, at least until later in the afternoon.

It was the final day of Ramadan and FreeToBeB slept most of it away, informing me that none of the local shops or restaurants in the suburb we were staying in would be open for food. FreeToBeZ and I contented ourselves with a small breakfast of bread and jam, topped off with orange juice – simple but satisfying thanks to the bread and juice being locally sourced and made just the day before.

From late morning onwards, FreeToBeZ had her fill of breastmilk whilst I eventually took stock of the contents of the fridge at around 3:30pm. FreeToBeB had still showed no signs of stirring, yet I was beginning to go slightly stir crazy. I’m not sure if it was hunger or boredom that led me to the kitchen; there’s a certain ennui I always have to come to terms with in Morocco (something I dwelt on a lot during this visit and managed to find the positives in).

In the fridge I discovered the previous evening’s leftover olives, figs and stale pastries and decided they would do as a late lunch, which we ate as we watched a American children’s film on MBC3, a Moroccan kids’ channel. The Standard Arabic subtitles seemed to bear little resemblance to the Moroccan Arabic words I would have used to translate the dialogue into English and, not for the first time, I caught myself up in thoughts of how useful it would be to study Modern Standard Arabic alongside the local language.

I was pleasantly surprised when our host returned from work at around 4pm to announce that he was cooking for himself, inviting FreeToBeZ and I to share.

Ah, yes. FreeToBeB had expressed his disapproval the previous day that he’d spent the day cleaning the apartment for our arrival whilst observing Ramadan, yet our host awoke late and immediately disregarded the fast by finding something to eat and drink.

I’m more inclined to discover what makes people tick than to immediately cast judgement upon them. As we shared the dish of chicken, liver and onions in a pepper sauce (OK, I drew the line at the liver – if there’s one thing I consistently refuse to eat, it’s internal organs), I asked my host if he was fed up of Ramadan or didn’t partake in it at all.

I know God and I don’t need a religion to tell me what to do. It’s hot in Marrakech and if people are thirsty they should drink, said my host.

I agreed with him. I’m not uneducated in the ways of fasting and the spiritual significance behind it – I’ve practiced it in the past in order to put myself into a particular state of mind for rituals I’ve been part of when I was very active in the pagan community. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Ramadan notes that its origins lie in the pre-Islamic pagan culture of Arabia. Fasting is undoubtedly a sign of submission and tolerance and restraint and patience, especially for a whole lunar month during the hottest, longest days of the year.

Yet my host’s reply was something I’d tried to explain to FreeToBeB when he’d been struggling with the fast. I’d told him he should just eat and drink if his body was screaming for it; that no loving God would be punishing a good person for doing something necessary for health and survival. FreeToBeB had responded by telling me to respect his religion – yet my advice had not stemmed from thoughts of respecting or disrespecting any religion, but all about respecting a person’s individual autonomy and physical needs.

I know the pagan doctrine of “And it harm none, do as thou will” is still a driving force for me, despite my lack of identification with any one spiritual path these days. As long as what you’re doing isn’t harming yourself or anyone else, go ahead and do it. Obviously, this could still be read very subjectively – if you believe that what you’re doing (e.g. breaking off a religious fast) may reduce your chances of making it to Paradise in the afterlife, then you would certainly see it as harmful to yourself. Yet, from my point of view, my respect for a loved one and their need to eat and drink will come above my respect for a belief system that I don’t even subscribe to and that I therefore see as having arbitrary rules.

That’s not to say I believe people shouldn’t practice Ramadan. In reflection, there was certainly some way I could have acknowledged FreeToBeB’s struggles whilst supporting him to find the positives in the experience of fasting rather than denying his desire to observe it. Even as I asked him why it was so important to him personally rather than important to his religion that he observed the fast, I recognised my own individualist culture and upbringing in what I asked – for in regards to the spiritual pursuit of selflessness and the solidarity of religious community, am I totally missing the point?

Yet I do strongly believe in people practicing such things as religious fasting through their own understanding of it and a genuine yearning for spiritual union with the divine. Not doing something just because everyone else is doing it, yet may have never even stopped to question the reasoning behind it. Not doing something just because you’re worried about others’ disapproval if you don’t conform. Not doing something just because that’s what your family have always done and because that’s what religious leaders say ‘should’ be done.

I see little substance in things that aren’t practiced from the heart – and if you have a good heart, the thing that I call ‘God’ (Allah, Yahweh, Para Brahman, the divine, the source, universal energy – whatever name you wish to give it) knows this irrespective of whether or not you abide by a specific religious teaching and what is often merely another fallible human’s interpretation of a religious story. Yes, there are certain religious teachings that run through all belief systems that I genuinely do believe are part of the make-up of someone who is tuned into ‘God’, and they are wholesome attitudes to adopt and practice – yet these attributes, such as “loving one’s neighbour”, are things that any decent human being would seek to practice, whether they have a religion and/or a belief in God or not.

I remembered talking to my host and his brother during a previous visit to Morocco and being intrigued to discover that not everyone in what is classed as a 99% Muslim country takes the religion they’ve grown up with at face value – and that some even decide to openly reject it. By ‘openly’, I’ve observed that they seem to have no qualms stating their case to friends – how publicly open they would be is another matter, especially with laws against proselytising. Tourists are generally advised that topics such as religion and politics are ‘sensitive’ issues in Morocco. However, it is thought to be one of the most – if not the most – liberal Islamic countries and I’ve always found a way to talk about my own Sufi-inspired beliefs using Islamic terminology.

Religious freedom, to me, is about being free to deviate and interpret things in your own way whilst allowing others to also make up their own minds. Thus I respect all those Muslims who wholeheartedly take on Ramadan and make the most of the month to connect with the divine, give charity and reflect upon their human limitations. Just as I respect all those atheists who have concluded that there is no divine being to call on or report to, yet whose hearts are imbued with much more goodness and pureness than those who practice hateful follies in the name of ‘God’.

I’d actually spent a fortnight observing the final half of Ramadan during a previous visit in 2011, when I felt the hshuma (shame) of eating when everybody else was fasting. Of my own volition, I felt a need to “When in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do”. Unfortunately, being but an amateur in the ways of Ramadan and failing to get out of bed for the last meal before dawn, I probably ended up eating even less than the locals.

And so much for the pride of martyrdom: I definitely spent more time selfishly thinking about my own evening meal than meditating upon my usual luxuries and praying for those who have no other choice than to regularly go without.

I do, however, remember Eid El Fitr fondly and am glad to have spent a second Eid in a Muslim country.

Happy Eid, Eid Said
Happy Eid

I thoroughly appreciate being in Morocco during such a special time for the people here. Judging by some of the celebratory interludes on the children’s TV channel, being in Morocco for Eid is akin to being in the UK for Christmas.

However, in much the same way as the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is oftentimes lost beneath piles of presents and frantic food shops, I’m left wondering how much spiritual reflection permeates the day to day lives of the people here during Ramadan? How much is just a waiting game for the festivities of Eid and the cheerful resumption of normal eating habits? Being spiritual yet non-religious, am I truly able to take a more objective viewpoint whilst genuinely appreciating others’ beliefs in ‘something greater’, or will any tradition I observe be severely clouded by my own cultural conditioning?

If this post had a point, I suppose I’ve found it. It’s difficult to write about Morocco without writing about its food, yet cuisine was never intended to be a main topic of this blog (as much as I love food and cooking). There are already many resources out there with instructions on how to cook the perfect tagine or how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea.

Tagine, vegetable tagine, Moroccan cooking
A delicious tagine cooked during our stay, courtesy of FreeToBeB

Yet the colourful cultural issues surrounding food are a fascination I can reflect upon as I discover this big wide world, learning at my children’s sides as I encourage them to be open-minded, curious, sensitive global citizens themselves.

I question and discuss not to judge but to discover. Together with my children I can look and learn and say:

What is happening here? Why are people doing this and what do they believe? Why do they believe it? What can we learn from them? Do we already share any of these beliefs? What do we believe?

What do you, my child, believe?

 

Thank you for reading this post. What do you think about any of the issues I’ve discussed above? Feel free to leave your feedback below, I’d be glad to hear other points of view – or just others’ experiences of enduring or enjoying Ramadan and Eid.

 

Help yourself! Birds outside a grocery store, Essaouira, Morocco
Help yourself! Birds on grocery store produce, Essaouira, Morocco