Carpets, Leather, and Spices, oh my! Exploring the Markets of Marrakech

When visiting Morocco, it is essential to stop by the souks to do a little shopping. Morocco’s markets are globally known for their unique artisan products, from argan oil to carpets to leather and more. Most cities have at least some level of market, but the some of the most notorious are in the imperial city, Marrakech. In fact, Marrakech is home to Jemaa el-Fnaa, an incredibly popular market square that has been featured by National Geographic and other big name travel magazines for its unique nature.

In the old Medina

Navigating the souks can be incredibly difficult. They are tightly packed, ever-changing, and full of people who are all going separate directions. Many people will recommend getting a professional guide, but in my opinion it is not completely necessary if you have a bit of prior knowledge.

That being said, I would start with downloading a map of the area to your phone. If you don’t have an international SIM card, losing access to internet and a back up map may result in disaster. Make sure to recognize some key landmarks to recognize your location from any direction as well. For example, in Jemaa el-Fnaa, Koutoubia Mosque is the tallest building in Marrakech and is visible in most locations in the square, giving you a general idea of where you are. After a bit of time, the markets will become more familiar and less daunting.

If you do become completely lost, try to avoid asking directions from young men and instead ask women and families. Rather than a safety issue (Morocco is a very safe country), asking for directions can be risky because many men earn commissions from taking you by one or two vendors or restaurants or may flat out ask to be paid for their guidance. Asking from other people can save you a pretty penny that could be used to buy more goods!

The narrow streets of the Medina

Another thing to keep in mind is to always bargain and never accept anything for starting price. Not only does it save you money, but it also considered customary to do so and insulting if you don’t. To get a sense of prices, make sure to look for the same product with numerous vendors. For a reference, the only thing I ever paid over 100 USD for was a camel hair carpet in Casablanca and I scored a sheep wool carpet, several camel leather poufs (for way cheaper than the knockoffs you can find on Amazon!), jasmine and gazelle fat perfume, and many other items.

For bargaining here are some key phrases in Arabic and French, the two most spoken languages in Morocco:

English ArabicFrench
HelloMarhabanBonjour
How much is this?Bikam haadha?Combien ça coûte?
YesNamOui
NoLaNon
Thank youShukranMerci
GoodbyeMasaalemaAu revoir

Of course learning the numbers is also important and it is easy to use those to negotiate a medium price. Keep in mind that if you decide against an item, you can say no. Some vendors are very talented at making you feel like you must purchase an item, but it not obligatory by any means.

Jemaa el-Fnaa by day

When shopping in the market, it also important to be wary of certain scams aside from asking for directions. Especially in Jemaa el-Fnaa, there are lots of performers that will demand money if you take photos, recordings, or even watch for too long. Around dusk, there are many snake charmers, monkey handlers, acrobats, and storytellers that will use this method. Another classic trick is the women who do elaborate henna artwork. Often times they will grab your hand to demonstrate and the next thing you know, they have completed your entire arm and are asking a high price. While they are incredibly talented and fun to watch, if you aren’t looking for a henna tattoo, try to steer clear.

According to most people I have consulted, pick pocketing and catcalling has also been a problem within the souks. I personally never had any issue with this, nor did anyone in my group so I am not sure if the issue is exaggerated or not. That being said, we still made an effort to dress within social norms and paid attention to keeping knees and shoulders covered.

Watching the streets outside the markets

So with all this information, what can you buy?

Carpets are a very popular buy in Marrakech and for good reason. However, most of the genuine carpets aren’t found in the markets themselves but in the cooperatives. Here, you will be offered mint tea or water and then shown many different types and shapes of carpets. There are Berber, Touareg, and other peoples’ style of carpet made of many materials, from camel hair to sheep wool to agave. Through a process of elimination, you will likely end up finding a carpet you love. Before buying, double check to make sure the co-op has good reviews, otherwise the shipping might take a long time or not happen at all.

Learning how to weave carpets

Leather products are also incredibly popular. Camel, goat, and sheep leather are all used to create purses, poufs, bags, shoes, and much more. Markets are a great place to find some of these items. In the leather making process, the hide is softened using traditional methods (part of this involves pigeon poop) and then stained with oil. This being said, leather may have some leftover smell from the tanning process so try to keep it separated from other fabrics until you can let it air out at home. Once I did get home though, I just left my leather products out in the sun for a few days and the smell went away pretty quickly.

Some of our leather goods

Morocco is also famous for a large number of herbs, spices, and other natural items. Argan oil is infamous for improving hair and is found in plenty of expensive shampoos, but can be found in Morocco in its pure form. Aside from hair care, it is thought to have a number of medicinal properties, such as improving heart health, lowering risk for diabetes, and improving skin as well. In addition to Argan oil, spices from paprika to turmeric to saffron (which is the most expensive spice in the world) are in numerous stalls, often piled in colorful cones. Saffron grows naturally in Morocco, therefore it’s a lot cheaper and a very popular purchase item.

The markets also hold plenty of other natural items. For art lovers, there are lots of natural dyes, including indigo, madder, chamomile, and henna. Some are even ground up and ready to mix into paint, while other come in whole pieces, such as indigo. Many of these dyes are used in the bright Moroccan buildings, such as Jardin Majorelle. There are other great gifts as well, such as perfumes and lotions. Many of the perfumes are made from gazelle musk, which curiously doesn’t smell bad. It’s added to jasmine to create a create deodorant as well. In some places, you can purchase the musk itself, which can serve as a perfume on its own. Honestly, there are so many natural items that are great gifts or items to take home.

Gazelle musk

Overall, the markets in Marrakech are magical. There are so many opportunities to find great buys and see such unique things, from the carpets to spices to leather. Especially with prior knowledge, the markets are the best place to experience Moroccan culture and lifestyle!

Juices in Morocco

Have you been to the markets in Marrakech? What did you or would you buy?

Hassan II Mosque: Casablanca’s Most Gorgeous Sight

On the Atlantic coast, one of Moroccan’s most stunning buildings is nestled in amongst the resorts and office buildings. Finished in 1993, this mosque was the combined work of 10,000 men and boasts both incredible architecture and carefully detailed artwork. It holds over 100,000 people, of which 25,000 fit in the main building and another 80,000 can participate on the gorgeous grounds.

Hassan II Mosque

After the death of Mohammed V, King Hassan ordered the construction of the mosque in order to give the people a beautiful center of worship, as well as help Casablanca prosper as a city of beauty. The King funded the mosque himself, as well as through public donations. It was designed by Michel Pinseau, a French architect and built by highly skilled artists over the course of seven years. Most of the materials were sourced from Morocco itself, except for the chandeliers, which are made of Venetian glass.

Moroccan stone arches

The Hassan II Mosque also happens to be the third largest mosque in the world and the largest in Africa. It also has the tallest minaret at a whopping 210 meters. The total grounds include the mosque itself, as well as a library, madrasa (school), and the visitor center/museum. The mosque is partially built over the ocean, whereas the other buildings remain slightly more inland. When visiting, make sure to stop by all of the buildings, as each are intricately built. The exteriors alone have so much to take in with all the detailed carvings and tile work.

The detail in some of the arches

If you want a more in-depth experience, the mosque offers tours in between prayers that are available in an array of languages. Times vary depending on the time of year and day of the week (make sure to check the website for more information). We took out tour early in the morning, which was a great option as the lighting was phenomenal and it wasn’t overly busy. Keep in mind, if you visit the interior, one’s knees and shoulders should be covered, although a headscarf is not necessary. Upon entry, everyone is asked to remove their shoes (bags are provided for safekeeping) and then everyone is divided into their language for the tour.

Details of the interior

The first stop in is the prayer hall which is a large space with the front facing towards Mecca. Here is where people will gather to worship, led by the imam. The area is incredibly spacious with heavily detailed pillars and ceilings. The stone is all handout and featuring Moorish design. The same goes for the cedar, which was chosen due to its natural insect repellent and resistance to the salty ocean air.

Ceiling artwork

In the center of the room are glass floors that provide a glimpse of the absolution rooms. Towards northwestern side, there are picturesque views of the Atlantic. However, one of the most fascinating parts of the mosque is the retractable roof, which opens to allow in fresh ocean air. It is especially helpful during Ramadan when the mosque reaches its highest capacity. This feature is incredibly unique and with any luck, visitors may be able to see it opened.

The rooftop

Underneath the main hall are the absolution rooms, where people wash before prayer. The area is filled with gorgeous tiles and engravings, including some Arabic calligraphy. The marble fountains are especially gorgeous and beautifully designed.

The tour was ended after the visit to the lower level. Overall, I found visiting this mosque an exceptional experience and a great opportunity to understand the religion of Islam and Moroccan design. Our guide was phenomenal and the sights were stunning, creating a definite must-see in the area of Casablanca to the point where I have to add some more pictures:

Have you ever visited the Hassan II Mosque? Is it on your bucket list? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

A Day in Casablanca

Casablanca was the introduction into my time in Morocco and Northern Africa! Many people fly in and out of the white city on their way to explore the other pieces of the country, such as Fez, Marrakech, Ourrzazate, or Meknes as the flights are usually cheaper. This being said, Casablanca is easily worth the one day trip if you can squeeze it in and here’s how I would spend it:

Casablanca from my hotel view

I would start by first visiting the Hassan II Mosque early in the morning. This Mosque ended construction in 1993 and is the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. It is also one of the few mosques that non-Muslims may visit during times between prayer. Almost all of its materials have been sourced from Morocco itself, which gives valuable insight to the beauty of the country, as well as its natural diversity. Its construction was completed by modern day specialists in each craft, from the tiling to the carving to the painting and collects aspects from Moorish and Islamic design, along with more local Moroccan aspects.

Hasan II Mosque

The mosque leads insightful tours conducted in a number of languages, including English. Our guide was incredibly kind and offered plenty of information on the construction of the building and the religion itself. For instance, she told us that much of the woodwork is cedar, due to its natural insect repellent and its resistance to the salt and harsh conditions from the Atlantic. She also told us that the roof opens (not unlike a car sunroof) to let in natural air and help with crowding during busier prayer days, especially during Ramadan. This was something I had never seen or heard about in any sort of mosque, church, synagogue, or other place of worship and frankly I thought it was pretty incredible.

Details in the ceiling

The prayer room is at ground level and is a large space that may hold up to 25,000 people. The walls and ceiling around the area is heavily detailed with impressive mosaics, carvings, and paintings. There is some view of the Atlantic Ocean as well, which also brings in soft natural light.

Gorgeous mosaics on the outside of the building

Underneath the prayer hall are the absolution rooms where people may wash before going to prayer. The rooms are separated by gender, but both look identical. Like most of the building, much of the room is made with local marble and Arabic calligraphy is be found on the walls.

Calligraphy in the absolution rooms

After visiting the absolution rooms, the tour is over. However, being there early in the morning gives one the ability to take more pictures outside and explore some of the nearby areas, including the fountains and the shore. The place where one buys entrance tickets is worth a second stop to revisit the samples of the designs and overall history of the building.

Beautiful artwork

After visiting the mosque, I would then take the time to stop for lunch somewhere along the coast. Casablanca, while still having common moroccan food just as tagine and cous cous, also has a large amount of seafood. We stopped at a small, quiet restaurant called Restaurant Essaâd (مطعم السعد ير حب بكم) where we enjoyed much of the local twists on tajine and sandwiches. Typically, olives and bread are served as appetizers and mint tea is incredibly common as well.

Restaurant Essaâd

After grabbing a bite to eat, one could stop at the Casablanca Cathedral. Unfortunately some event or construction was occurring when we visited, so we were unable to enter. However, it is labeled a must for visiting Casablanca, even though it stopped being a center of worship around 1956. Be sure to check times and entry prices because they apparently change.

Instead of the cathedral, we went to pigeon park, or Mohammed V Square. There are by far, many more pigeons that I have ever seen in my entire life. They crowd around the fountain and bathe in the waters. Nearby, there are lots of families hanging around and small rides for the children.

Mohammed V Square

Right across the street from the square is a store called Exposition Nationale d’Artisanat (العرض الوطني الصناعة التقليلدية). It has a few different floors full of souvenirs, from poufs to camels to shoes. Not all of it is artisan, nor would I recommend this place for more expensive purchases, such as leather goods or carpets, but it gives an idea of what can be purchased in the markets and what a reason price would be for that product. Also, there are a lot of smaller trinkets that you can find cheaper here than in the markets, such as mini tajines, post cards, and magnets. Either way, exploring here is a wonderful experience.

After that, we went to some more specialized shops. Our first stop was a carpet shop. When we walked in, we were warmly greeted and asked to sit in a large area. There were carpets stacked everywhere I could see. After getting the customary mint tea, the owners started rolling out carpets made of camel hair, agave, and sheep wool of all sorts of shapes and patterns. The man explained how each type is made and different features of them. Once each carpet was explained, we were asked to give a “no” or “maybe,” to each. Both parties in my group narrowed down to a carpet we wanted and then the bargaining began. As is typical, we were given a collective starting price. Unfortunately, I was the only one that ended up reaching a deal and I left with a multicolored camel hair carpet.

Make sure that you aren’t in a rush when visiting carpet shops, as it can take a few hours, especially if you find some you like. Also, from my experience, Marrakech had cheaper options, but Casablanca had more agave carpets if that is what is of interest. My last piece of advice is to certainly not take a starting price. It’s typically considered rude not to bargain and prices are set high to begin with. Even if don’t make a purchase, the experience is very unique to Morocco and worth having.

Carpets galore!

After that I would take the remaining hours to explore the older part of town. This part is the best glimpse of what Casablanca looked like before French colonization. Our hotel, Hôtel Central, was in the middle of the medina, the old, walled part of the city and provided easy access to the port and markets nearby. This area is easily reached by foot and offers excellent views of the ocean and is a great place to visit!

The stairwell at our hotel

Some of the markets have great options for gifts and food. We got so many wonderful items, from a camel leather pouf to a “magic” box that there was a trick to unlocking. There were plenty of clothes, leather products, and souvenirs available. Most of the vendors were friendly and willing to help us find the products were looking for. There are a number of places offering Moroccan street food, including several types of meat and vegetables in the forms of wraps, sandwiches, kebabs, and more. The best part is the fresh squeezed orange juice. There are so many people selling fresh squeezed fruit juices from watermelon to avocado to oranges and more, definitely a must buy.

Overall, Casablanca is a great place to spend a day exploring and taking in the sights. Between Mohammed V Square and the Hassan II Mosque, it is worth the day trip or more if you can make it!

Have you ever been to Casablanca? Or tried tagine? Or explored Moroccan markets?

Going on an African Safari in Tarangire National Park

As a break from our volunteer work in Orbomba, our tiny group hopped on a bus and drove for hours from camp to visit Tarangire National Park. While the Serengeti or Kruger National Park receive plenty of tourists and are exceptionally well known, little known Tarangire has the densest population of elephants, which makes for an exciting adventure. It’s the 6th largest park in Tanzania and has accommodation in and out of the premises.

On our way we drove though Arusha, a city living under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. We stopped at a gas station and experienced drop toilets, which is essentially a toilet where you just squat and go. It was a rather comical experience, since none of us had seen them before.

On our way

On the way to the park are lots of artists showing off their finished works. I wish I had gotten a piece because they were beautiful and brightly colored. The road was gravel but had easy access to the park, making for a nice ride and into to the savannah. When we stopped to get our tickets and everything, there were some cool history kiosks and a tower to look out over the plains. There weren’t many creatures in sight, but one could maybe see zebras in the distance!

local artwork

Actually, one thing we were told before the safari is that you will be bored of zebras. Of course, I didn’t believe this in the slightest, but there are so many that they do become an overly common sight. Their stripes are beautiful and they have a strangeness to them, but they surprisingly do get old after a while. The larger herds were rather cool and we got hung up on a few since they refused to get off of the road.

Zebras

Of course you see plenty of other critters, from antelope to impalas. They mostly kept to themselves, away from the bigger herds. I loved the impalas, they were so skittish but so cute. Aside from four legged, hoofed, prey type animals, there is the opportunity to see baboons (not my personal favorite, they scare me), ostriches (which also scare me), iguanas, monkeys, and other small creatures. The baboons looked less attractive than they do in “The Lion King,” with their bare bottoms and sharp teeth. Their fur is stiff and sticks straight out. The ostriches were much bigger that I imagined, with their pale thighs and puffy feathers. They are surprisingly fast too. The iguanas are super cool, but move a lot less than the ostriches do. I didn’t ever realize they were that big!

A lone ostrich

However, some of the most memorable experiences had to do with the smaller creatures. Where we ate lunch was loaded with monkeys that were highly skilled at stealing food. The inattentive groups lost a few items and they were rather entertaining to watch. The other animal that we saw was the hyrax, which is a little rodent looking thing that is related to the elephant. Our guide, Lekihiti told us that it was his favorite animals and when asked why, he said, “well, it’s my favorite thing to eat.”

At this point, I should also mention the “Big Five” or some of the top animals to see consisting of lions, rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, and leopards. In less moral times, the term was used to define the five most challenging animals to hunt, but now that most of them are endangered or barely existent, it is important to leave it at best five to see, rather than to hunt or harm. Rhinos especially have faced challenges from illegal poaching and hunting in general. Ivory is usually highly desired, putting these animals at a risk. This being said, make sure the tours you choose are ethical and willing to help with preserving the reservations.

Some of the other herds you will spot are wildebeest and cape buffalo. The wildebeest mingle among the zebras and are rather cute, but the cape buffalo scared me a little bit, making it easy to see why they are part of the big five. I believe I read a book when I was younger about how dangerous they are (similar to hippos) and have supposedly have killed more game hunters than other African animals. Honestly, if you google the “world’s deadliest animals” they are likely to come up. That being said, I feared them, but they were amazing to watch from a distance.

Cape buffalo

Besides the Cape buffalo, you will also see some of the other big five. While leopards and rhinos are sparse (I actually didn’t see any at all), you might have a chance to see a lion. They are rather sneaky and hard to spot, but if you are lucky, your guide might spy the top of a mane or some leftovers of a meal, hinting that they could be nearby. We saw one male, but it was pretty tricky to get a full view. Be patient, take your time, and you may have the best luck yet.

Brief tangent: Personally, an animal that deserves to be on the big five list, but isn’t, is the giraffe. These stunning creatures are long and lanky, with a certain amount of grace and a certain amount of awkwardness. They actually fit in surprisingly well to the environment, so it was super exciting when we could spot them hiding amongst the trees.

Our first giraffe

Last but not least, the highlight of Tarangire is certainly the elephants. There are so many of them that it’s hard not to miss them while driving along. My favorite spots to see them was by the watering holes, since here you can find them bathing and then covering themselves in dust. There were lots of little calves that danced behind their mothers and followed the herds around. The bulls were huge and lumbered closer and closer to our van. At one point, he almost touched it!

Elephants!

After all this excitement, we were pretty worn out and ready to return to camp. It was a fantastic park to visit and full of creatures that were carefully managed and cared for. If you are in the area, Tarangire is not a place to miss.

The Moment That Changed My Life

Everyone tends to have some sort of turning point; a moment that changes their perspective on life or even morphs them and their interest. My life has been a roller coaster even though its been comparatively short, I have already had one moment burned in my mind that changed me forever.

During the summery days of June, I sat in Orbomba, Tanzania, awaiting the news of what we were doing today. When we were told that we were participating in a walk to retrieve water, I was excited to get some fresh air, see some sights, and take a break from playing spoons and mafia inside the mess tent. I loved spending time in the savannah, with the wind looping through the sycamores and gently pushing the sand piles around.

The mothers of a local Maasai family joined us to take us to the water hole. They were stunning in their blue and red garb, the traditional Maasai colors. They had the stretched earlobes, a common sign of beauty in the area. One of them looked strikingly similar to my own mother, with the same facial features and different skin color. We even brought out a photo for comparison and the group agreed on how similar they looked. This was translated to the woman and she called me her daughter for the rest of her stay. The mamas gave us jelly jars, which were used to collect the water and before we knew it, we were off.

Me and one of the mamas

On the way, we smiled and laughed, enjoying the fact that we were almost as far away from home as possible. We joked around and pointed out the tracks in the sand from numerous critters. Eventually, we ran into boys, likely no older than ten or eleven, herding massive groups of goats and cattle. We had simple conversations, such as “how old are you?” and “what’s your name?” We smiled and waved goodbye soon after and continued on our merry way.

After a cheerful conversation and mountains of inside jokes, we arrived to our destination. The laughter was silenced, the conversations were muted, the comedy halted as we gazed upon a single sight: the water source. After our long walk, we arrived to little but a puddle. The water was so contaminated that you couldn’t see the bottom, except for the half inch of water before the shoreline. It was a surreal feeling, to see that this mud was their source of life. To further illustrate the uncleanliness of the water before us, the group leaders wouldn’t let any of the volunteers or non-locals touch the water or help fill the cans with water.

To add to the contamination, the shepherd boys had to bring their livestock for a drink. The water we gazed upon was crawling with bacteria from the cows that just waddled in and defecated, filled with sludge from being stirred up from all the life using it. There was no way this water would be considered potable, let alone safe to swim in, if you were going by US or European standards, yet the locals had no problem filling the jars up.

The water source

At this time, our guide took the time to tell us that little is done to purify the water in any way, except for occasionally boiling and mostly just scooping the settled water off the top of a large tank. We were also told that many times in the summer, this pool dries up and the women must walk further for water. Lastly, he gave us an anecdote of a Kenyan group who refused to drink the water from a newly installed well. When they water flowed, they were afraid that the volunteers were trying to poison them, since the only liquid they had seen with the same appearance was kerosene. They were so used to poor water conditions that they didn’t recognize the water that we find in bigger cities.

These facts and the mere situation was a blow to my fragile, “first world” country perspective. And that wasn’t even the end of the walk.

After collecting the water, we had to carry it to the house, which was a few miles away. This task was grueling as the water we toted was in cans weighing about 50-60 pounds when filled. We took turns with a partner to carry them, but the women leading us to their home carried it the whole way themselves. As it turns out, these women not only do it once, but maybe at least six or seven times a day. It is the largest part of their daily routine and is crucial for plants, livestock, cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Of course, this is all in addition to regular chores.

When we arrived to the homes, they were a traditional Maasai house of cow dung and sticks, which provides coolness from the sun and warmth from the chilly nights. The man of the household had six wives and thirteen children, which makes him fairly wealthy compared to the rest of his area, since men do not take a wife unless they can successfully support them.

The children of the family were ecstatic to see us and they loved my blonde hair, camera, and hat. Of this experience, I wrote in my journal: “The kids took particular interest in my camera and swarmed me, wanting to press the buttons and see themselves. They loved my hair and hat and loved to play with it. Even though they knew no English and we knew no Maasai, we were able to understand each other.”

The family

This phenomenal interaction with the families distracted me from the water situation for a little bit, but then reality kicked in. It jolted my life into a harsh reality of how many people in this world must live. The United Nations stated that by 2025, two thirds of the world will face water scarcity and 1.8 billion will have no clean water access. Some believe that the next world war will be fought over water, due to how essential it is to our daily life but also so scarce. This is real life with real people, and this experience drew the veil back from my materialistic, first world view.

The United Nations stated that by 2025, two thirds of the world will face water scarcity and 1.8 billion will have no clean water access.

“Water for Life 2005-2015.” United Nations, United Nations, http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml.

Now over two years later, I still hold this experience dear and remember it daily. It drastically changed my perspective on nearly every aspect of my life. Tanzania ultimately turned my life upside down and fueled my voracious appetite for travel and humanitarian aid. I have since felt compelled to make a difference in the world of water usage, whether large or small.

Before delving into that topic, I must digress. Some people, when I discuss this experience, begin to view Tanzania as only a developing country, which in reality, developing and developed are two weak words often used to describe people that merely live a different life. An example I always go back to are the Romans and Incas, since both civilizations were incredibly advanced and yet Rome always seems to get the credit for architectural wonders. Just because a civilization lives differently, it does not mean that they are simple, developing, or lesser. In fact, many “developing” countries have age old traditions or building styles or art that make them rich and unique. The moral of the story is “to each their own” and only that.

The shepherd boys

However, when it comes to water, some people are unable to have cleaner water that would promote health, reduce waterborne illness, and allow people to meet their goals and careers. It is not the fault of the people; water is a necessity often influenced by politics, economy, geography, and more. People often don’t have clean water because they can’t get to it, not because they are primitive or less civilized.

Now over two years later, I still hold this experience dear and remember it daily. It drastically changed my perspective on nearly every aspect of my life. Tanzania ultimately turned my life upside down and fueled my voracious appetite for travel and humanitarian aid. I have since felt compelled to make a difference in the world of water usage, whether large or small. I feel obliged to help the people that I know and the people that don’t, because this issue resonated with me so much. Its what fueled my blog and my future travels. It’s what fuels me.

And to think, this all started with a puddle of water!

A Day in the Markets of Orbomba

Note: There is current dispute on the value of service projects abroad and the view of the culture that is being helped. My time in Tanzania focused on building a school in a heavily impoverished area, when, naturally, the social status is difference across the country. This was my experience and what I took away from it, but certainly not a generalization of the nation or its people as a whole.

On June 18 of 2016, I experienced the beginning of what would change my perspective on the world forever. Traveling to Tanzania was a dramatic change from my life at home, but experiencing the hardships of poverty was another detail that brought dramatic change to my life. This day was the first of many daunting tasks that put all of us into the trying situations the people we stayed with face on a daily basis.

Upon returning from a morning walk and eating a big breakfast of Spanish eggs, toast, cereal, chai, and fruit, our group was given a task to simulate the difficulties of poverty. We broke into groups and were given 10,000 Tanzanian shillings per team, which at the time was 5 USD and happened to be what the average family in the area lived on per week. The average family also happened to be seven people in size. With the cash, we were given an index card of our family’s scenario. My groups card was the poorest family and our index card required us to buy a jelly jar for water, soap, and food for the family.

The market pens not in use

Along with our instructions, we each paired up with one of our hosts to help the language barrier, as Maa is spoken in the markets and none of us are familiar with the language. Mollel was our guide and he was very helpful. He taught us words such as punguza, subuni, nahindi, and more, meaning less, soap, and maize, respectively. In the simulation, we did the bargaining and price determining, much as the family we were representing would have to. It was pretty tough to find products that weren’t crawling with bugs (especially cornmeal) or seemed clean. When we did find some that fit the criteria, it was usually expensive and almost not worth it. With the money we were given, we managed to divide up our money in the following fashion:

  • 1 jelly jar: 3000 shillings
  • 1 package of soap: 1800 shillings
  • A few kilos of cornmeal: 2500 shillings
  • 2 avocados: 1000 shillings
  • 12 bananas: 1500 shillings

While this seems fairly good for five USD, this is not a healthy lifestyle for seven people over the span of a week. Some families are fortunate enough to have a second form of gathering food, such as their own crops and livestock but not all are that fortunate. Some others are forced to give up food to send their child to school or so on.

One team’s findings

What did we do with the stuff we bought?

The items we bought from real vendors was donated back to the camp staff and community around us to help with their nourishment and other needs. From this same market, we also bought a goat for our camp staff that would be ceremonially slaughtered in the proceeding days, as is a common gift.

So what was the takeaway?

This was the first of many lessons on this trip that taught me to be humble and understand how lucky I am. Having the food I need to have a healthy life (among many other things) is something I am more aware and grateful for having after this experience.

Additionally, I apologize for the lack of photos, but I didn’t take my camera as we weren’t in a touristy area and I wanted to respect the privacy of the people involved. Thank you for reading!

My Experience with the Maasai

Spending time with the Maasai people and their culture underneath the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the best experiences of my life to date. I was first welcomed into their arms during my travels to Tanzania, where I spent time developing a primary school in the rural savannah. As a result of my time with them, I learned a grand amount about myself and the world around me.

The Maasai family I was with

The Maasai people inhabit parts of Eastern Africa, namely Tanzania and Kenya. Their roots reach back to South Sudan, where they then moved south and ended up in their current area somewhere around the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They have traditionally survived on cattle, which provided meat, milk, and blood for them. They were also known as fierce warriors, due to their strength and weaponry. Unfortunately many of the Maasai (about 60%) passed away from disease such as smallpox and rinderpest, which depleted cattle sources. However, their traditions and values still hold true to the people today and were experiences I was honored to experience during my time.

Many current day Maasai thrive off of tourism, yet others still live a traditional lifestyle; I was lucky enough to see both. Since we were there to build we were viewed less as tourists and more as aide, giving us a more authentic experience. Never once did we attend a touristy cultural event, which I was thrilled about, since often times their culture is swapped for entertainment. For a more in depth idea of what these performances are like, I co-wrote an article with one of my closest friends on her experience in Tanzania.

So if my experience wasn’t the entourage of performances many guests to Tanzania see, what was it?

One of my first impressions of their friendliness was when we were welcomed from our bus to camp with a song that lyrics are as follows:

Jambo, Jambo bwana. (hello, hello sir)

Habari gani? Mzuri sana. (how are you? very well)

Wageni, mwakaribishwa, (you are welcome to)

Tanzania

Hakuna Matata ([there are] no worries)

Translation provided by our guides and camp staff
Us with our camp staff

This song, while simple in lyrics conveys the idea of peace seen all throughout Tanzania. This country prides itself on being uninvolved little conflict since its origin in 1961, which is reflected in Maasai culture. Throughout our entire stay I felt treated with respect and care. At many times I even felt they were more welcoming than cultures in my home country.

Although the Maasai we stayed with were more rural, we met people from both urban and rural backgrounds. However, their dress remained consistent. Even though we occasionally saw them in style similar to the United States, the broad majority of people we met were wearing the “traditional” shuka, a brightly colored piece of cloth that is wrapped around their body. While the shuka is typically described as traditional, it actually only became popular in the 1960s, due to more modern technology; before, leather was used. These pieces of cloth are also used as blankets, which we used in our camp. I actually brought one back with me and it is the most useful purchase I have made. It is perfect for hot and cold temperatures and easy for packing around for camping, traveling, or whatever you please. Some Maasai prefer kangas or kikoi, which are one piece garments, sort of like a sarong. These tend to be more common near the coast and in Kenya, which wasn’t where I was staying.

Shuka

In addition to the brights fabric, Maasai are also well known for their bead work. Historically, these beads were made of natural items such as seeds and clay; currently, like the shuka, they are made of more industrialized materials, such as plastic and glass. The beadwork has heavy amounts of importance in the social life of Maasai. Different colored beads mean different things and the type of jewelry can signify social statuses. Some mean a woman is married or unmarried, a man is a warrior or not, or higher or lower social classes. Beading with The Maasai warriors was one of my favorite activities while I was in Tanzania, and I still wear my beads today! One of my history teachers was actually gifted a beaded collar that many of the women wear in celebrations and weddings and it is absolutely beautiful. The work is so detailed and stunning.

Beading with the mamas

Along with beads and shukas, many Maasai actually carry weapons. They were famed for their strength and fighting ability, which is seen in their understanding of weaponry. The Maasai I was with typically carried a machete and a conga or rungu (same item, just two different names), which is a wooden club with a nub on the end to heighten the impact. It is carved from trees in the savannah with a machete, and then softened with bits of glass and leaves from a sandpaper bush. Lastly, they are often treated with petroleum to prevent from damages. These clubs, although seemingly simple, are exceptionally lethal in the hands of a warrior; in fact, they have been used to kill lions.

A rungu is also a beaded club that instead of being a weapon, is a symbol of power and respect. They are given to the elders during meetings and only the person holding the rungu may speak. Along with these clubs, some Maasai know how to make and use bows and arrows. On the last day of our trip, we had weapons training, where we got to throw congas and shoot the bows. None of us could throw them nearly as far as the Maasai; some could throw congas half the length of a football field.

The men and their weapons

A few words of Maa, the language of Maasai, have popped up in this article, such as conga, rungu, and shuka. However, many Maasai don’t know Maa or others speak it and another language, such as Swahili. It is part of the Nilo-Saharan family and for the most part, is only a spoken language. There are some written translations, but I only heard it in conversations. The more rural you are, the more you will hear it, especially in the markets. We had to barter in the market we attended and I loved listening to all the chatter and learning more vocab. I still have all the notes jotted down in my notebook.

As for food, Maasai still consume plenty of cattle, but goat is also super common. In fact, during our trip, we gave a goat as a gift to the camp team and had the opportunity to witness a ceremonial slaughter. To some, this was too gruesome, but I watched for the cultural experience. We ate the goat later that night and I have to admit it was pretty good. Maasai also eat lots of cornmeal, which they cook into numerous types of dishes including Ugali which is boiled cornmeal that is created into a loaf and typically eaten with other foods, including stir fried peppers or others. For families in poverty (which the average family of seven in the area we were in lives on $5 or less a week), a cornmeal porridge is a typical meal. It is bland and flavorless and tends to stick to your throat as you eat it. During one morning, we had to eat an entire bowl as a group and a cup each individually. It was a very unpleasant experience that opened our eyes to reasons that we should be grateful. After plenty of gagging and forced spoonfuls, we finished the bowl with two or three of us, including myself, taking one for the team and eating more than one cup. However, regular loaf Ugali is something I cook for special occasions and enjoy greatly.

Preparing vegetables

Most rural Maasai live in small homes, called an enkaji, that are traditionally built by women. Women of most ages are expected to build these homes, with the exception being those who are pregnant and elderly. The huts are built with nearby materials, starting with wooden poles. From there, smaller sticks are woven together to create an outer frame. Plaster made from mud, cow poop, and sometimes human urine is then used to create a more finished frame. Cow poop also is used for the roof, as well as grasses. This combination makes the hut waterproof and safe from outside weather. Enkaji typically are used for staying in (can hold one or two beds), cooking, and even storing small livestock, such as ill goats. Unfortunately, since there is little ventilation, indoor cooking can cause health issues as the smoke has little place to rise and exit. However, these homes provide adequate shelter from the harsh savannah climate.

The house

The Maasai also have several ceremonies and traditions that are important to their development. The most well known of them all is the circumcision undertaken by young adults as it is the entry into adulthood and crucial for social success. Traditionally, both men and women would be circumcised, but due to many health concerns, female circumcision is illegal in many places. However, it still occurs in rural areas and is prominent among men.

The first step of circumcision is for then boy to state that they are ready for the operation, which is typically just after puberty. They must prove themselves ready, which can be as simple as taking on chores of the adults or enduring other painful tasks, such as branding*. When they are truly ready, they will herd cattle alone for seven days and upon the eighth, prepare for the procedure and be bathed in cold water to cleanse them of past wrongdoings. The other males in the area will cheer for the boy as he approaches the area of operation, but also warn him that if he fails to complete the circumcision without any sign of pain, he will be disbanded from society. During the procedure, which is completed without anesthesia by a respected elder, the boy must not flinch or cry aloud. Any sign of pain shows that he is not confident and brave enough to become a warrior. Afterwards, the boy wears black for several months before assuming his duties as warrior and growing in social status.

Our warrior guides

Staying with these people was an incredible experience that opened my eyes to an entirely different way of life. Their culture and lifestyle was drastically different from my daily routine at home, but despite this, we found so many ways to relate to one another and swap stories. I loved every aspect of what the shared with us, from food to fabrics, and I hope that one day I will be a guest again.

*This was knowledge passed to me from our guides, but is something that may be unique to certain areas since I have yet to see it again on all of the articles and sources I used to double-check myself.