Why Hollywood Hearts Morocco

Film buffs wanting to immerse themselves in the sets and landscapes of their favorite films will face a welcome dilemma in Morocco: where to head to first! The North African country has played host to some of Hollywood’s most iconic blockbusters including the Elizabeth Taylor extravaganza Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and modern pictures such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Inception, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

The incredible diversity of the country continues to offer producers everything from the rippling sands of the Sahara Desert to lush green oases, ancient mountain kasbahs, and stunning coastal stretches.

Hollywood Morocco, OuarzazateOuarzazate

Known as “the door to the desert,” the largest town in Saharan Morocco is 120 miles from Marrakech and has one of the country’s biggest draws for movie enthusiasts: Atlas Studios. The largest film studio in the world by landmass, Atlas Studios has enormous full-scale sets. You need only walk several metres to pass from the Tibetan Monastery of Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film, Kundun, to the Roman marketplace where Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, got sold into slavery in Gladiator. Set pieces and props from many other films such as Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, James Bond: The Living Daylights, The Mummy, Alexander, and Babel also remain and are sometimes re-used in other films or for TV. Most staggering of all is the huge set of Jerusalem from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, which looks impressively real in person.

Hollywood Morocco, Ait BenhaddouAït Benhaddou

The fortified city, or Ksar, of Aït Benhaddou is a popular spot for filming. And it’s easy to see why, as you take in the rich red colour of this giant sandstone city, framed by mountain peaks and palm trees. It’s the ultimate exotic desert city and has 700 years of history behind it. Sodom and Gomorrah, The Sheltering Sky, Jesus of Nazareth, Lawrence of Arabia, and Kundun were filmed here. It was also used in Gladiator as the principal location for Russell Crowe’s training and fighting scenes.

Hollywood Morocco, CasablancaCasablanca

Even Humphrey Bogart was susceptible to the allure of Morocco’s eclectic mix of African and European influences present in Casablanca, but surprisingly enough, the 1942 film noir masterpiece was filmed entirely in Hollywood. That doesn’t stop fans wanting to bring a little style into their lives by sitting back in Rick’s Cafe. Although not an original set, the seaside situated cafe started by former American diplomat Kathy Kaiser in 2004, has masterfully captured the refined luxury of the classic film. Don’t miss the jazz nights, and for a full immersion, the film is played in one of the rooms on the 1st floor. Bear in mind there is a dress code — sneakers or flip flops won’t cut it.

Hollywood Morocco, MarrakeshMarrakech

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 The Man Who Knew Too Much was set in Marrakech. The opening scenes of the film were filmed in the souks of the main square, Djemaa el Fna. A UNESCO Heritage Culture Centre in the heart of the Marrakech, walking though Djemaa el Fna can be quite full on; there’s always a lot happening. During the day there are snake charmers with their undulating cobras, right next to water sellers in colourful costumes and brass cups. There are also magicians, acrobats, monkeys and hundreds of food stalls. The square has been a symbol of the city since the eleventh century, and sometimes, walking through it all really can feel like being taken back in time. Martin Scorsese has filmed two major motion pictures here, The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 andKundun in 1997. The luxury hotel La Mamounia was featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the surrounding gardens were also used in Oliver Stone’sAlexander.

Hollywood Morocco, EssaouiraEssaouira

Based on the Shakespearean play, Orson Welles’ Othello was partly shot in Essaouira in 1949. The production didn’t go to plan at first, as Welles’ European financier went bust just months into filming. Yet using his own money, Welles was finally able to complete his vision, submitting his film to the 1952 Cannes Film Festival under the Moroccan flag, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or. His vision encapsulated historic landmarks of Essaouira, that remain unchanged today, like la Skala de la Ville, a former artillery post. Rising up over the town, it’s a vantage point that gives a stunning view of the surrounding waters. Essaouira is a popular seaside town, just over 100 miles west of Marrakech, which many Moroccans go to in summer to escape the heat of Marrakech and Rabat.

This post was posted by thehipmunk on Hipmunk’s Tailwind blog on Oct. 25th.

FriFotos: places I’ve called HOME around the world! (photo essay)

To travelers and nomads, home is typically a state of mind. However, for FriFotos this week, I wanted to take you on a photographic journey to some of the places I’ve called HOME around the world. From sailboats to hammocks; concrete blocks to tiki huts: ¡Bienvenidos a mi hogar!

Home around the world: FriFotos photo essay

Home around the world, Puerto Rico

My humble home in Puerto Rico. Solid concrete = hurricane-proof!

The beginning and the end: my parents house and neighborhood in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. Closer to the city of Caguas, though!

Home around the world, Puerto Rico concrete houses

The neighborhood I grew up in! A dead-end street with beautiful palm trees and mountains in the vicinity.

Due to hurricanes, most houses in Puerto Rico are made of solid concrete throughout:  including walls inside the home. Only the wealthy can afford intricate homes, as it is more expensive and difficult to build and mold concrete houses. However, if you just want one big concrete box, that won’t be too expensive!

The million-dollar home in Tampa, Florida

Home around the world, million-dollar home Tampa

The pool area, part of a yacht, the lake, and other million-dollar homes in the area.

In the summer of 2010, I was lucky enough to score a housesitting and pet sitting gig in an affluent neighborhood in Tampa, Florida.  For 2 full months, I lived like a rock star!  A yacht, a boat, fun neighbors, great food! I also got to hang out with the amazing family when they were around every couple of weeks. I bonded with my hosts so much that I now call them my American family. I even call the married couple mom and dad!

Whenever I can’t go back home for Christmas, I spend the holidays with them 🙂

Home around the world, American family

My new American family!

Don’t worry though, my first familia will always be in Puerto Rico. I simply call them mami and papi to differentiate my 2 sets of parents 😉 lucky to be surrounded by so many wonderful people—much love indeed.

A hammock, overwater hostel, and a sailboat in Panama

Home around the world, Aqualounge Hostel Bocas del Toro

Aqualounge Hostel in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Only reachable by boat!

Home around the world, Bocas del Toro hammock

My bed for a couple of nights in Bocas del Toro, Panama

While this hammock and overwater hostel in Bocas del Toro were my home for less than a week, I had an amazing time! Great drinking specials, quirky characters, and fun parties.

Home around the world, sailboat Kuna Yala

View of Kuna Yala village from my sailboat cabin

More about this trip: Panama, my last college spring break! (photo essay)

This trip got even better with 4 days sailing down the San Blas Islands—in great company as well. Just imagine this bubbly Puerto Rican, a loopy captain, 2 diplomats from the US foreign service, 2 retired lawyers, and a Kuna Indian fisherman…!

College campus in Morocco

Home around the world, Al Akhawayn University Morocco

The gorgeous campus of Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco (Amina Lahbabi)

In the fall of 2009, I studied abroad in Ifrane, a small town by the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, for 4 months. The American-style college is called Al-Akhawayn University and I had a blast! Gorgeous grounds, architecture, and people. The dorms were even better than in most colleges I’ve seen in the USA, which was crazy!

Home around the world, Moroccan college dorms

One of the dorms! Photo courtesy of Munir Sayegh

I felt most at home in the classroom of my World Religions class with Portuguese professor Jacques, though. Handsome, wise. He taught me so much about unknown cultures, religious traditions, rites, etc. I haven’t been that happy in many other places! Unfortunately, no photo of handsome Jacques available.

 Cluttered roofs and sleeping on an ancient felucca in Egypt

Home around the world, Cairo apartment

Cluttered roofs and dirty apartments — commonplace in otherwise-fascinating Cairo, Egypt

I must have moved about 4 times during my year of Arabic studies in Egypt.  Issues ranged from roommate conflicts to sketchy bowaabs (building doorman)—you name it! And even though my digital camera died within the first week in Cairo, my first flatmate—Natalia—took a good picture of one of the apartments (photo above).

Umm yeah…with my student budget (relying exclusively on a scholarship), I couldn’t afford a maid to keep the apartment dust-free nor a better view than that one. All in all, a very humbling experience. Seriously, cleanliness…one of the many things we take for granted everyday.

Home around the world, sleeping on a felucca

Relaxing morning, sleeping on a felucca!

It goes without saying that where I felt the most at home during my year in Egypt was while drifting down the Nile on a felucca for 3 days and 2 nights.  Absolutely magical.

Home around the world, felucca sunset

Sunset during my 22nd birthday (by Aswan, Egypt)

This photo essay is almost 800 words now, so enough of home for today! 😉

Hope you enjoyed it.

Felucca Sunset Egypt

Yup, that’s me on the felucca once more. Had to save the best shot for last!

Where’s home to you? How many countries have you lived in?

Middle East travel bucket list: Thanksgiving photo essay

Happy Thanksgiving! I know it is not until tomorrow, but by then my Playa Del Carmen adventures will be in full swing 😉 And so today, I want to be thankful for my world travels. This Thanksgiving #TravelBL special will be all about Middle East travel bucket list items I have crossed off already. More inspiration for you, fond memories to me.

But… why a Middle East travel bucket list?

You must be asking yourself this question. There are several reasons…

Middle East travel bucket list, Abu Simbel

Nefertari: we finally met! At Abu Simbel Temple, Egypt

When I was awarded a full $20,000 scholarship to study Arabic in Egypt for a year, it was a dream come true in so many levels. I had been obsessed with Nefertiti, Nefertari and all those majestic temples ever since I first saw them on a history book in elementary school.

My love for travel started this way.

After watching countless of documentaries on History and Discovery Channel, I wondered whether there were other civilizations like this in the world. How big (or small) is the world we live in, anyway? What other wonders are there to see? The more I learned, the more obsessed I became with traveling the world. I always say travel taught me English.

Basically, my wanderlust was ignited by Ancient Egypt and the Middle East.

Middle East travel bucket list, Medinet Habu

colorful wall at Medinet Habu temple – Luxor, Egypt

And since I’m being thankful for my world travels today, I want to pay tribute to this region, which has transformed me in so many levels. Also, most of my world travels were done while living in Egypt and Morocco, so they hold a special place in my heart..

Today, a toast for the Arab world with this Middle East travel bucket list!

Sailed down the Nile River — and on an ancient boat

What most people don’t know is that the felucca is not only a traditional sail boat in Egypt, but the Eastern Mediterranean, comprising the island of Malta — all the way to Iraq. What’s more: The felucca even made it to the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, back in the 19th century! (Wikipedia, felucca article). It is said that the glorified version of the felucca, known as a dahabeya, was also used by pharaohs and even Napoleon himself.

Middle East travel bucket list, felucca trip

Our felucca trip crew! I’m the second on the right

I was lucky to spend a few days sleeping on board. I drifted on this simple beauty, so close to the historic Nile river. I still slap myself, thinking it was just a dream. And what a dream it was — I have never been so relaxed in my entire life. The most sublime experience though was getting to swim in the longest river in the world + actually stepping out of the felucca to visit ancient Egyptian temples. Just wow!

Middle East travel bucket list, swimming in the Nile River

Yes, the Nile River can be THAT clear! Your felucca captain will know where to stop for you to swim safely

Middle East travel bucket list, African sunset

Me and an African sunset from a felucca on the Nile

Spent my birthday in Philae temple, Egypt

While I had already visited the Giza pyramids several times (and they were a sandstorm of disappointments), Philae was the first ancient Egyptian temple I ever visited. And I got to see it on my 22nd birthday too — what a treat!

Middle East bucket list, Philae Temple from the Nile

The Philae temple complex was much bigger than expected. A portion of it may be seen from the Nile River — like right out of a movie!

Middle East travel bucket list, Philae Temple,

Me at Philae Temple — on my BIRTHDAY!

Saw The Treasury and Monastery in Petra, Jordan

While the Pyramids of Giza were a sandstorm of disappointments, the ancient city of Petra was a completely different story. I cried when I saw the Treasury. I remember vividly how I sat at its feet for at least 30 min., staring at its majesty. Even though it is an extremely touristy site, I visited early in the morning. While there were still some foreigners around, my experience was not tarnished — at all. To this day, I still wonder why Petra had such an impact on me. Just remembering the 2 days I spent there take my breath away…! Definitely a huge item off my Middle East travel bucket list.

Read more: The Treasury, Petra: A tear-jerking Kodak moment

Middle East travel bucket list, Petra Treasury

The Treasury, Petra by Bernard Gagnon

Middle East travel bucket list, Petra

Me contemplating The Treasury

The most surprising, unexpected part of my trip, though? I freaking climbed the monastery — like, to the VERY top. No harness, no equipment at all. I remember slipping once and thinking I was going to die. Still, making it to the top was priceless and worth every scary step!

Also read: How I Climbed the Petra Monastery with a Bedouin (photo essay)

Middle East travel bucket list, climbed Petra monastery

How to climb the Petra monastery: Looks easy, but it SO isn’t! The path looks deceivingly easy, when it is in fact extremely slippery and precarious

Middle East travel bucket list, climbing Petra monastery

Almost there! See that tiny Bedouin on the top right? I made it THERE!

Middle East travel bucket list, on top of Petra monastery

“I’m queen of the world! Wohoo woohoo WOOOOO!”

Old Jerusalem: Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

This one was huge: I didn’t get to visit Old Jerusalem once, but twice. There are so many things to do in Jerusalem — I am so lucky I got to experience them at a relaxed pace, on 2 different visits. My first trip was with the group of study abroad students during Eid El Adha — an experience in itself. the second time around, I was embarking on my epic Solo Middle East road trip. Highlights included the Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, and the Church of Mary Magdalene on Mount of Olives.

Middle East travel bucket list, Dome of the Rock Jerusalem

Me at Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem! CLICK on photo to ENLARGE

Middle East travel bucket list, Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Me at Temple Mount: Dome of the Rock on left; Al Aqsa Mosque right behind the arches (CLICK on photo to ENLARGE)

There are many other things from my travels that I am so thankful about. Unfortunately, not much space or time. I will leave you with a few other unforgettable experiences that I got to cross off my Middle East travel bucket list, though!

Experienced the desert — and a real oasis

Middle East travel bucket list, ride a camel


Middle East travel bucket list, visit an oasis

Baharyia Oasis panorama by fellow student Margaux de Borchgrave

Visited “The Athens of Africa” – Fes, Morocco

Fes Bab Bou Jeloud

Bab Bou Jeloud, Fes, Morocco by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Bathed in mud and floated on the Dead Sea

Middle East travel bucket list, float on the Dead Sea

Floating on the Dead Sea! I’m on the far left

Middle East travel bucket list, Dead Sea mud bath

My (muddy) kiss from the Dead Sea!

Want to learn about more about my epic world travels? Check out my lengthy solo female travel photo essay, where I outlined everywhere I went shortly before, during, and after my 16-month study abroad stint in Egypt and Morocco!

What are you thankful for?
What’s on your Middle East travel bucket list?

Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous: Hostel Cooking travel series

Happy Travel Tuesday! Thankfully, this week is looking up. I even came up with Plan B in order to ease my student loan debt depression. Wish me luck 😉 And so! Back to your new favorite travel series Hostel Cooking with an authentic, simple North African dish. Get into the kitchen and try out this Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous today.

Moroccan spice cones, Moroccan chicken recipe

Towering cones of Moroccan spices. I always wondered how they remained erected! (Spacmonster, Flickr)

Moroccan food: Brief background

Yes, I have previously introduced you to Moroccan food and even couscous history. However, we will dig a little deeper today 😉

Moroccan dishes are typically savory and sweet. Spice mixes typically incorporate a healthy dose of some eastern spices (such as turmeric and cumin), in addition to cinnamon and even ginger. Nuts, raisins, and prunes are typically used as toppings as well. The result? A mix of delicate, subtle flavors and notes.

As the Moroccan Tourist Office states, “spice does not mean chili. Spices are beneficial and even possess qualities which help digestion.” So if you are used to chunky Indian curries and other ultra-spicy Eastern concoctions, Moroccan food will (pleasantly) surprise you.

The most popular Moroccan spice mix is known as ras el-hanout. It is used for making most tajine and couscous dishes. Contents vary from household to household, so some ras el-hanout mixes may include up to 35 different spices!

Ras el-hanout, Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous

Sample of Moroccan ras el-hanout by linecook, Flickr

Please note, our Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous is traditional — and not. How so? A formal meal in Morocco usually starts with hot and cold salads (analogous to Arab mezzes), followed by lamb or chicken (by themselves). Then, on the third course, the big couscous plate makes an appearance, topped with even more meat and vegetables.

However, since this is the Hostel Cooking travel series, we thrive to make even the most complicated dishes simple. For this reason, we have marinated the chicken with Moroccan-like spices and cooked boxed couscous within minutes. The taste though, I assure you, took me back back to Morocco instantly! So yes, by trying Josh’s Moroccan chicken recipe, your taste buds will have a little piece of North Africa — no matter where you are 😉

Hostel cooking: Chicken

Serves: 6

Total cost per plate: US $4.00 (based off Tampa, FL)

Total Cooking Time: 6 – 10 hrs for marinade; 30 mins prep and cooking time.

Moroccan chicken recipe with couscous (by Josh Snore)


Chicken, marinade ingredients
Step 1
Moroccan chicken recipe, marinade
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup fresh mint
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoons paprika
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Couscous ingredients
Step 2
Moroccan couscous box
1 cup of instant couscous
1 green pepper, diced
1 sweet onion, diced
1 plum tomato, diced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 oz honey
1/2 cup mint
1/4 cup parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Cooking directions: Chicken
Step 3
Mix the marinade ingredients together in a medium sized bowl. Add the chicken pieces to the bowl and thoroughly coat with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator from 6 to 10 hours.

Then, either cook in black iron skillet or grill the chicken breasts a few minutes on each side, until cooked through. About 5 mins each side. Take care not to overcook, as chicken breasts can easily dry out.
Cooking directions: Couscous
Step 4
Take minced garlic and olive oil and heat up saucepan until garlic is browned. Then add paprika, salt and pepper, and diced green peppers. Be careful not to let the peppers sit too long, stirring occasionally. When the peppers have browned, add the onions until browned.

Separately follow directions to cook couscous, according to your box. Typically though, it will involve the following:

Boil water with 1 teaspoon of salt, and one tablespoon of butter. Add couscous to boiling water, stir quickly, remove from heat, cover quickly, and allow to sit for five minutes.)

Back in the saucepan, when onions are browned add honey, turn off heat, and allow the honey and peppers to suck it up. Then add diced tomatoes, chopped mint and parsley, and stir into mixture.

Add saucepan contents to fluffed couscous. Mix evenly.
Final touches
Step 5
Plate couscous with chicken on top. Garnish with mint leaves and parsley. Bessaha! 😉

Moroccan chicken recipe couscous, simple hostel cooking

The final product! Never thought you could cook Moroccan chicken with couscous in a hostel, did you?

Got a different Moroccan chicken recipe? Share it with us below!

Travel through Moroccan food: A photo essay

Moroccan food: I could not stop thinking about it since I wrote a photo essay last week about couscous history on my Travel The Middle East blog. Those succulent tagines and fluffy Couscous Fridays when I studied abroad at Al Akhawayn University…oh how I miss thee! For this reason, we are Traveling Through Moroccan food on Cultural Tidbits Monday this week 😀


Moroccan food, couscous

One of the many variations of Moroccan couscous: Sweet and savory! (Photo: Khonsali, Wiki)

Known as the National Dish of Morocco worldwide, couscous has even been adopted by the French as a traditional dish. Initially a Berber pasta dish made of semolina, it dates back to the 9th Century. Couscous can be smothered with a variety of toppings, sweet and savory. Combinations include sweet almonds, sugar, and cinnamon to savory lamb tagine on top. However, the most common is a savory-sweet combo, including several vegetables, raisins, tons of onions, and even legumes. Yum!


Moroccan food, chicken tagine

Savory chicken tagine. The top covers the bottom while being cooked (Photo: Boris van Hoytema, Flickr)

Moroccans really love to mix the savory and the sweet. This is also seen on this other Moroccan food staple: Tagines. Another delicious Berber dish, they receive their name from the special clay pots they are cooked in (pictured above).

But, what is the tagine dish about? They are slow-cooked stews usually accompanied by either olives, quinces, apples, pears, apricots, raisins, prunes, dates, and/or nuts, with fresh or preserved lemons (Wikipedia). The spices used make tagines extremely aromatic. Indeed, eating a tagine is a full-sensory experience: All 5 senses are engaged!

I particularly like to eat tagine with bread instead of utensils — somehow, this makes it taste even better to me 🙂 Just so you have an idea of what this flavorful concoction is like: Spices added may be cinnamon, saffron, ginger, turmeric, cumin, paprika, pepper, and the spice blend ras el hanout spice blend (Wikipedia). Moreover, traditional combinations also include chicken or lamb.


Moroccan food, hearty harira

heartier-than-usual harira (Photo: George Wesley & Bonita Dannells, Flickr)

Yet another Moroccan food that I would eat almost daily. Harira is particularly popular during Ramadan in Morocco, as it is one of the first dishes eaten during iftar (“breaking of the fast”), alongside hard-boiled eggs (dipped in salt and cummin) and a plethora of sweets.

Harira is a thick tomato soup with chickpeas, lentils, herbs (celery, parsley, coriander), spices (saffron, ginger, pepper), and sometimes noodles. Typically, small pieces of chicken, lamb or beef are added to the ingredients list as well. And yes, you guessed it: It is yet another Berber dish!

Other Moroccan food favorites: Pastilla, Mechoui, and Merguez

Of course, there’s no possible way I could describe each Moroccan dish on a single post! For this reason, I decided to post a couple of photos of other Moroccan traditional dishes with a short description as caption. Bon apetit!

Moroccan food, pastilla

Pastilla, one of the most unique Moroccan dishes. It is very sweet and slightly salty, stuffed with chicken or pigeon meat, cinnamon and then typically sprinkled with white powder sugar on top (Photo: Mayu Shimizu, Flickr)

Mechoui, Moroccan food

Mechoui, Moroccan roasted lamb (Photo: freecandy13, Flickr)

Merguez, Moroccan food

Merguez, spicy Moroccan lamb sausage (Photo:Andrew Scrivani, Flickr)

Have you ever had Moroccan food? What’s your favorite dish? Why?

Christmas traditions around the world PT 2!

CLICK HERE for pt 1 of Christmas traditions around the world! learn about the FESTIVE customs and traditions of even more countries.

Christmas in Italy

Christmas traditions around the world, nativity scene

Presepe: Nativity scene in Italy (Photo: Davide Papalini)

Thought Christmas were longer only in Latin America? Think again! In Italy, Christmas officially starts on December 8th with the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception and then, families typically start to decorate their homes with lights. Gift giving, however, does not happen until January 6th or Epiphany, a tradition shared with many Latin American countries. That 12th day of Christmas is when it is believed that the Three Wise Men (aka Three Kings) visited Baby Jesus and showered him with gifts. As such, just like in Latin America, the main Christmas decoration is the Nativity scene, or as it is called in Italian: The presepe.

Christmas in Jordan

Christmas traditions around the world, beef and bulgur

Minced beef and bulgur, a traditional Christmas dish in Jordan (Photo:Wearenotmartha.com)

Christmas in Jordan is celebrated with great fervor by the Christian minority there. What surprised me the most, however, is the tradition of soaking dry fruits in rum, brandy, and cognac by women in early December! I can’t wait to go back to the Middle East an try those! 😉 Then on Christmas Eve, a cake is baked, while Christmas Day dinner consists of grilled eggplant, vine leaves in tomato sauce, stuffed turkey, and minced beef with bulgur

Christmas in Martinique

Christmas traditions around the world, shrubb

Clément Créole Shrubb, a popular one in Martinique (Photo:Scotlandstephenson.com)

Christmas in this creole tropical island is a mix of Caribbean and French flavors. Their most distinct Christmas tradition, however, is the making and drinking of shrubb, a fine liquor made of white rum, sugarcane syrup and dried peels of tangerines and oranges, which are abundant at this time of the year.

Christmas in Mexico

Christmas traditions around the world, posada

Posada procession in Oaxaca, Mexico (Photo: GoMexico.about.com)

Mexican Christmas (or “Navidades”) officially start on December 16th with a tradition called “Las Posadas,” which last all the way until Noche Buena or Christmas Eve. This tradition involves the recreation of Mary and Joseph’s hard journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, trying to find shelter to give birth. A different part of the journey is recreated every night, culminating with a party at a neighborhood. Children dress as angels, shepherds, and also as Mary and Joseph in such processions, with their parents following with lit candles.

Christmas in Morocco

Jemaa el Fnaa

Jemaa el Fnaa Square. Marrakech, Morocco

As a Muslim country, Christmas is rarely celebrated in Morocco. Yet, due to the strong French/European influence in the country, along with a growing expat community, you will find Christmas lights and decorations sprinkled throughout the big cities. Days vary, however, depending on the faith and background of that minority. For instance, members of the Orthodox Christian Church celebrate Christmas on January 6th; while the Coptic and Armenian Churches celebrate the holy day on January 7th. Last, but not least, the Catholics typically attend a special evening mass on December 24th to start Christmas.

Christmas in Panama

Christmas traditions around the world, Panama

Left: A traditional pollera dress; Right: Light show during Panama City’s Christmas Boat Show (Photos: Family-christmas-traditions.com)

Christmas in Panama is quite lively and several great events are held, specially in the capital Panama City. Festivities kick off the 2nd weekend of December with a big Christmas Parade. Gorgeous floats pass by and women dress in very bright, traditional dresses called polleras. Also, at night, an amazing boat parade showcase a light show that is truly spectacular!

Christmas in Puerto Rico

It is tough to decide what’s your favorite tradition of a Puerto Rican Christmas. Is it the fact that they begin on Thanksgiving Day in November and don’t end until the end of January? Is it the party after party throughout the whole season and how virtually everyone decorates their homes with hundreds of lights? Or is it the food and plena music?

Coming from the Island of Enchantment, I can tell you that the most unique and fun Christmas tradition in Puerto Rico is the parrandas! In essence, they are drunken Christmas carols! Learn more about Puerto Rican parrandas here.

Christmas in Spain

Christmas traditions around the world, Pavo trufado

Pavo trufado: A traditional Christmas dish in Spain (Photo: Cocina.org)

Naturally, Christmas traditions in Spain are very similar to those in Latn America. Thus, I have decided to switch it up a bit on this entry and leave ya with a recipe of a traditional Christmas dish in Spain: Pavo Trufado de Navidad (Christmas Turkey with Truffles)!

1 turkey of 4 kg.
½ kg. minced lean pork
1 kg. minced veal
Salt and ground black pepper
1 glass of brandy
1 large glass of dry oloroso sherry
3 tins (of 90g) truffles (mushrooms)
150 g “jamon serrano”
200 g belly of pork in rashers
6 eggs [click here for the rest!]

Christmas in Switzerland

Christmas traditions around the world, Swiss ringli

Ringli: Typical Christmas treat in Switzerland

A special Swiss Christmas tradition is to await the arrival of Christkindli: A white angel wearing a crown full of jewels, which holds a face veil over its face. This angel is the one that brings the presents. These, by the way, come in a basket, which is carried by Christkindli‘s child helpers. Also, another Swiss Christmas tradition is  to eat ringli (homemade doughnuts) with hot chocolate.

Christmas in St Thomas (US Virgin Islands)

Christmas traditions around the world, St Thomas sweet bread

Photo recipe: VirginIslandsThisWeek.com (click to enlarge)

One event to look forward to when spending Christmas in St. Thomas is the Challenge of the Carols outdoor concert. It is infamously glorious! While at it, grab some Johnny cakes (traditional holiday sweet bread). Click on the image above for a traditional recipe to bake at home!

Christmas in Vatican City

Christmas traditions around the world, Vatican

Vatican Christmas Tree (Photo: Sunshine city, Flikr)

Naturally, the Pope delivers his traditional Christmas speech and directs mass to thousands of fervent believers. This service, called “midnight papal mass,” actually begins at 10 PM on Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s Basilica. The papal speech, however, is delivered around noon on Christmas Day.

What are your favorite Christmas traditions around the world? Why?

Beach Thursday: Secret beach in Morocco

Since you’ve been hearing about Puerto Rico a lot lately (hehe), I decided to choose a totally different country for Beach Thursday this week. Below, a photo of a secret beach in Morocco, found during the first road trip I took while living and studying there in the fall of 2009. Ohhh man, so many great memories! =)

[click here for more photos of this road trip & secret beach in Morocco!]

secret beach in Morocco

secret beach in Morocco

Have you found a secret beach in Morocco? Tell me about it in a comment!


The Tannery in Fez Morocco: Photo essay

So before I head to a gorgeous Puerto Rican beach today (bahaha! =P), I wanted to switch it up on cultural tidbit Monday! Today we are taking a break from The World’s Superstitions series and traveling to the Arab world in order to learn more about their culture. Chosen topic this week: The leather tannery in Fez!

leather tannery

When the tannery is colorful! Photo: Bernard Gagnon, Wiki Commons

I had never visited a tannery until I lived in north Africa back in 2009. In fact, I didn’t even know that tannery is the process of making leather, which does not decompose easily, from the fast-decomposing skin of animals. Interesting huh?

While the old medina of Marrakech also has one, I only visited the leather tannery in Fez Morocco (as it was only a 1.5-hour ride from the AUI campus). Oh well, yet another reason to come back to this beautiful North African country! Below, some pictures, history and overview of the process of tanning leather! =D

tannery in Morocco

Entrance of the tannery in Fez - yes, it is FREE! Photo: Matt Cherry

tannery in Morocco

Me on a balcony overlooking the workshop at the tannery

tannery in Fez Morocco

Me at a leather shop nearby the tannery

[click here to learn more about the leather tannery process and history]

Have you visited the tannery in Fez Morocco?

The Hijab in Islam: What’s your take? (interviews)

Hijab in Islam: What are the different interpretations? Keep reading!

Hijab in Islam, different views

Hijab in Islam: Differing views (Orrling, Wiki Commons)

From my travel journal, written while I lived in Morocco in the Fall 2009

Background info: Sukeina’s family is high-class, originally from Fes, but stayed in a residence in Ifrane close to campus during Ramadan, just so they could be together in such special time. This “data” might be important as to customs and traditions do vary across the country

The second week of September, I was invited by my Moroccan roommate, Sukeina, to have futuur and dinner with her family. At first, I was hesitant to accept the invitation.  I’m a Christian who is not fasting this month (I did fast the week after, though). It is not the fact that I’m from a different religion that deterred me from going at first–it was the fact that these people had been fasting diligently, while I had been eating like a pig all day. Meaning, I felt bad eating like a pig again when this was their very first meal of the day. Get it? However, my roommate was so persistent, I felt just as bad declining the offer. Paradox has been a common word in my vocabulary while living in the Arab world.

We drove for about 10 mins. until we reached the residence. It was not time for futuur yet, so Sukeina, our other roommate Siham, and I walked around the grounds. I was curious to know their views about the hijab in Islam (head covering or veil), specially after the strong views I heard back in Egypt. For instance, the husband of one of my Arabic teachers is a tiny bit liberal: He told me that hijab is not Islam, but rather a “political move” by Saudi Arabia to “control the region. Before, Egyptians didn’t wear hijab or anything!” He also added: “They do not have real land to control, like Egyptians do. For this reason, they use their women as property, as that’s all they have” *gulps* Note: He really did NOT like Gulf Arabs and did NOT consider himself an Arab, but a Pharaonic Egyptian, or even part Nubian, instead.

Conversely, my wealthy friend Hussein (high class, like my teacher) was appalled by those views and said that of course, the hijab in Islam is essential.

Concurrently, my Moroccan roommates’ reaction was not any different. In fact, they asked me to repeat my Arabic teacher’s take on the hijab in Islam being “a political move,” as they couldn’t believe it. After gasping several times and highly doubting whether this man is truly Muslim or not, they told me hijab is Islam. The reason why they don’t wear it is because they are “not ready” and feel they “must be better persons” before they do. They basically see the hijab in Islam as the jewel in the crown: Once a woman feels “good enough,” then she must show it by covering up with a veil. Otherwise, a woman is not “worthy of admiration” by wearing a hijab in Islam, as they are not “good examples” or “role models” yet. Or so I understood from their explanation…

Have you traveled to the Middle East?
Did you encounter different views about the hijab in Islam?