Morocco, Day 6 – Marrakesh Craft Fair

April 16th – We are in Marrakesh at the beautiful Eden Andalou Resort and Spa. There are European families everywhere and it feels a little like a Moroccan Kutsher’s – a Catskill Mountains family resort I used to go to on family vacations as a child. This is confirmed when we see the jazz club and buffet style dining room. Not to mention the French children running around the resort. Watch out for those rugs, kids. We spend a little time by the pool before heading to the craft fair.

At the fair, we see a huge variety of Moroccan artisan products from dolls to jewelry, bags and of course, rugs. The fair takes place in the Artisana building, a government owned building that houses shops for various artists. The shop owners are sharing their space today with these artisans that have traveled from all over Morocco in less than desirable conditions to try and sell their crafts to the tourists and locals that wander through this central area of Marrakesh. All three of the artisans we loan to in this country are showing their crafts here. First, there’s Hayat and Fatime with their rugs, bags, and pillowcases that arrived in Marrakesh via our bus. Second, we see Tim’s artisans showing their water reed bags. We’re going to visit his small village of Tigmijou in a few days. Third, there’s the Khenifra cooperative led by Naima, showing their cloth bead jewelry. I’m fascinated by these necklaces that are created from traditional Moroccan beads and woven together to create a beautifully patterned and incredibly unique necklace. We learn that it was actually the old Peace Corps volunteer who lived in their village that came up with this idea. I purchase about ten of these necklaces from Naima, unsure if I’ll be able to give some of them away as gifts when I return home.

Brian asks us to walk around and assess each booth, giving feedback on the products and presentation. I walk around with Rebecca, Kate and Joya, and while I give my opinions on what I’m seeing, this is mostly a lesson in product development for me. Everyone seems to have much more expertise on what looks presentable, what could be improved and how each product could be adjusted to be sold in the U.S. market. I’m amazed by Rebecca’s critical eye, and try to view these crafts through her lens. We return to Naima’s booth, and she shows us some samples she made for Rebecca to sell on the Nest website. She also shows us a few clusters of beads she’s sewn together, and positions it as a potential for creating a new necklace. I admire one of these bead clusters, and place it on my finger, demonstrating that it could also be worn as a colorful cocktail ring. Naima loves this idea, and taps the other woman from her cooperative to point out what I’ve done.

We return to Earth Café for lunch and once again meet Ben, the owner. We order another delicious assortment of salads, rice noodles, goat cheese filled pastillas and more. Ben invites us to his farm once again and we agree to go the next day.

After lunch, we go to the famous Jardin Majorelle, where the well known artist Majorelle spent his time and after he died in the 60’s, Yves St. Laurent moved in and took over caring for the property. He set up a trust so the gardens could be opened to the public and tended for years to come. We are blown away by the beauty of this place, with varieties of purples, blues, pinks and colors I’ve never seen in real life before – seen in grandiose trees to small plants coming up from the ground. There are also fountains and ponds and a vibrant blue and yellow building, which must have served as the home of those who lived on this property. I allow myself to imagine myself living here – it’s not a bad fantasy at all.

Morocco, Day 5 – Midelt to Marrakesh

April 15 – The next morning, we invite the women from the cooperative to come meet us at the hotel for breakfast and we conduct interviews with them. They are sitting on a couch in the lobby after breakfast filming their interviews when I walk over. I notice they are currently filming, and I try to jump onto the rug nearby since my sneakers are making a disruptive squeaking noise against the floor. I flip over and fall completely on my back, the thud of my fall making a much louder sound than the squeaking shoes. I look up to see Brian and Hayat in fits of laughter, with the interview completely derailed. Three days later in Marrakesh, they are still making fun of me for this incident.

Back in the lobby, we compose ourselves and continue the interviews. Rachida, sitting next to Hayat, listens as Hayat (the president and only English speaking member of the cooperative) tells the story of how Rachida’s house burned down a few months ago, completely ruining the rugs she had made and destroying the loom she used to create new rugs. Essentially, she lost her livelihood in that fire. She can’t work now, and on top of that, her husband is divorcing her.Rachida starts to cry. Rebecca puts her hand on Rachida’s. I look next to me, and Erin has tears streaming down her face. Of course, I well up. Sadness and heartbreak – just one more thing that transcends languages and cultures. Later that night at dinner, we discuss doing a fundraiser for Rachida to help her get a new loom to replace the one she lost in the fire.

The rest of the day is spent on the bus, driving to Marrakesh for the craft fair. Our new friends, Hayat and Fatime, who will be representing their cooperative at the fair, join us as we pile onto the minibus. We load not only our luggage, but the product they plan to sell at the fair – the rugs, bags, and pillowcases. We drive past the beautiful mountains, again passing herds of sheep and goats along the way. We drive through a rainstorm, and Kate and I start humming Toto’s Africa. After the rainstorm, an enormous rainbow stretches across the sky, touching down on the flat land on each side.I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full rainbow like that before, with the entire upside down “U” shape from beginning to end.I press my face against the window until it fades.

Morocco, Day 4 – Fes and Midelt

April 14th – We wake up and Rebecca leads us in a brief yoga practice in the lobby of our beautiful Riad. We enjoy a breakfast of homemade yogurt, fruit and croissants. We leave the Riad and proceed to the famous tanneries, where they cut and dye leather. We visit the shop where Nest’s leather bags are made, and Rebecca speaks to the men for a long time about making some changes to the design based on the sample they had provided her with. The leather bags are paired with patterns from our rug weaving cooperative in Midelt, and we’re trying to figure out a way to adjust the design to make it more appealing to a U.S. market.

We walk outside to the roof of the shop that overlooks the tanneries. In one area, they are washing the leather; in another they are cutting the skins. In one central area, there are large vats full of colorful dyes. You have to hold a mint leaf to your nose to mask the smell, since the dye is created using pigeon stool. After observing this wonderful scene for awhile, I go back into the shop and again bring out my stellar bargaining skills to purchase a beautiful orange pair of shoes.

The drive to Midelt is breathtaking, with views of mountains, fields and wildflowers everywhere. We stop the van to let some sheep cross, and the herder picks up a baby sheep and gives it to our driver. Joya is at the front of the bus in an instant, and takes the baby sheep in her arms. Kate holds it too, since she’s also a lover of sheep. Have you heard about her Yurt project? We give the sheep back to the herder (the mama sheep is not too pleased) and continue our journey.

Once in Midelt, we park on a narrow street and are ushered through a door, greeted by a number of traditional looking Muslim women with head coverings, long skirts and some with long grey tattoos down the middle of their faces. I’m told this tattoo is an ancient Berber symbol for marriage. They kiss us twice on each cheek and we enter the home. We sit around three large tables and are served chicken, bread, cous cous, carrots, fruit and an abundance of it. After dinner, we see the women bring out a few brightly colored handheld drums. The music, dancing and singing begins, and this Jewish white girl finds herself in the home of traditional Muslim women, dancing with her friends and family the way she does with her roommates back in NYC.

And this is why I do what I do. The rest of the evening was unforgettable. We visited the cooperative that Hayat founded and where the other women work alongside her. At some point, I mention to Hayat that I want to try to get her cooperative into rug trade magazines back in the U.S. I hope I can actually do this. We return to her friend’s house, where the women are still dancing and singing, and one woman gives us henna tattoos. They serve us tea and dessert.

At some point in between a woman teaching me how to do their shrieking technique and playing with another’s little girl, I realize why I spend so much of my free time doing things for Nest, why I spent so much of my savings to come to Morocco and meet these women. As I relay these thoughts back to the group at the hotel, I know we’ve all come to the same conclusion – we are part of something phenomenal. Rebecca sheds a few tears as she talks about the women we met today. Most of them are unmarried or divorced, mostly because, according to Hayat, the men don’t work as hard. Clearly to these women, hard work is a huge value. I think about how this relates to my own life and what I’ve seen in America. I suppose the laziness of the male species transcends cultures. Though it does seem that our American Peace Corps volunteers certainly break this mold. But I digress. Rebecca is overcome with emotion because she is so happy we made a difference in the lives of the women we just met. She’s thrilled that there are 14 women around her that share her passion and have just connected on a deep personal level with the women they’ve been helping from their hometowns back in the U.S. by throwing parties and fundraisers. This is a whole other level from admiring the pretty jewelry we buy from the website and sell at our NYC events. She tells the story about how Hayat was able to go to a rug fair in Germany earlier this year, probably the first time someone from her village has ever left Morocco, to show her cooperative’s rugs to an international market. She is able, despite cultural and religious constraints, to be an independent business woman in her village. And Nest has a big role in that, all stemming from our little parties and fundraisers and the pretty things we sell back in the U.S.

Morocco, Day 3 – Fes

April 14th – We wake up at 5:30 a.m. and board our little tour bus. It’s a seven hour drive north to Fes. The trip is a scenic drive through Moroccan fields and mountains. It’s wildflower season and we see varieties everywhere of yellows, reds and blues. Someone yells that they want to lie in a field of poppies. I agree. We are driving in the middle of nowhere and see the first cluster of huts we’ve seen for hours. There is one small shop in this cluster, with two signs outside. One says Coca Cola, one says Tide. No matter how far you go, work will always follow you.

We arrive in Fes after our long trip, and enter the magnificent Riad Tizwa. A redhead comes bounding down the steps, and we drop our luggage and run to hug Joya, who has finally made it to Morocco after her demanding legal job almost prevented her from taking the trip she had been looking forward to for months. She takes me to our room, which has a canopy bed with closeable curtains, a fireplace, and an intricate Moroccan lantern hanging from the ceiling. The bedroom windows look down into the hotel lobby, where the rest of our group is still getting settled and finding their rooms.

We leave the Riad to visit the famed Fes Souks, which are exactly as I imagined – crowded alleyways with shopkeepers trying to sell you everything from fruits, spices, camel meat, jewelry, clothing, shoes, herbs and more. At first I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy in these shops, although I was taking notice of some mirrors with beautifully decorated mosaic patterned frames. Some of them had little doors on them that opened to reveal the mirror, and many of them had a distinct orange color that I adored. I finally came across one that I decided I must have, with an orange and gold border. I’m told the orange is camel bone with henna dye. I bargain the shopkeeper down to half of what he first asked for, so I probably got a reasonable price for a white tourist. We make our way back through the souks to the clock tower café, where we eat couscous, vegetables, cheese, fruits, almond, banana and date shakes, and…camel meat.

Morocco, Day 2 – Marrakesh

April 12th – We all wake up at different times and meet in the sunny courtyard. I’m sitting there with my legs up on a chair when Rebecca, Kate and the boys find me. We have one more day of leisure in Marrakesh before our entire group arrives and we start traveling around the country to meet the Nest loan recipients we’ve come all this way to meet. We plan to take full advantage of this time by exploring traditional Moroccan spa techniques, right here in the hotel. Once downstairs in the spa, we change into our bathing suits and go into the steamroom changing area. We have signed up for Hammam, the traditional Moroccan scrub. I’m not quite sure what this means yet, but people rave about it so I agree to try it. Before we enter the steamroom, the spa woman instructs us to remove our bathing suit tops. None of us are comfortable with this, but we do as we’re told. The steamroom is beautiful, with a little candle shrine in the corner and four wooden “beds” with rubber mats on them. We each lay down on them and steam for about 15 minutes. The spa worker comes back into the room and one at a time, takes us to another corner and rinses our bodies by pouring hot water from a bowl over each part of us. She then puts some kind of soap or lotion all over us and leaves us to steam for another fifteen minutes or so. When she returns she gives each of our bodies an intense scrub with what feels like a brillo pad. I want to tell her to lighten up on the intensity of it, but I’m afraid to speak up – chances are she won’t understand a word I’m saying anyway. When she finishes, I’m sure I must be bleeding. As she rinses the brown flakes off my body, I realize they are dead pieces of skin. Gross. Next, I am led to a private room with a Jacuzzi, which I have to myself for about a half hour before Rebecca comes in and I am led out to my massage. The massage room has two beds, and Kate is already in the middle of hers. At some point during my massage, Kate leaves and Rebecca comes in, so I basically experience a couple’s massage with each of them. We’re all a whole lot closer after this experience. I fall sleep on the table after mine, and Rebecca gently wakes me up and tells me it’s time to go.

We have to meet for lunch in five minutes, so we meet the boys in the lobby full of argon oil and wet hair. They walk us to Mama Africa, a small café that actually seems more Jamaican than African, with reggae playing and Bob Marley flags draped on the walls. I order some salad that includes rice, lettuce, tomato, avocado, bananas, pineapple and shrimp. It is delicious. Kate orders a sandwich called “lots of love.” I’ll have the cappuccino with lots of love, please. Jenny from Houston is with us now, and sits next to me in a chair that has a backing carved into the shape of Africa.

After our delicious lunch we walk through a craft fair taking place down the street, but the boys tell us not to buy anything here, to wait for the craft fair where the women we loan to will be selling their crafts. Both Tim and Brian are doing business development in the Peace Corps and are the ones teaching these local artisans how to turn their crafts into businesses. That’s where we come in- to give them the small loans they need to further grow and develop their business. So obviously we’re all a lot more invested in these women and would prefer to buy from them at the craft fair the boys set up, which will take place in Marrakesh a few days from now. Tomorrow we head up to the mountains to Fes, and then Midelt to see Brian’s cooperative of artisans. Tonight, the rest of our group, four more girls from San Francisco, will join us. Until then, I’m laying on the roof of our hotel until the sun goes down, enjoying this one leisurely day in Morocco.

Arriving in Morocco

April 11th – We arrive in Marrakesh, sleep deprived and weary. We patiently stand in what must be this country’s version of a line for an hour to get through customs. After getting this much anticipated stamp in my passport, I am pleased to see a young attractive gentleman with curly black hair holding a Nest sign. He is the epitome of American in Morocco – sandals, faded cargo pants, a linen shirt with rolled up sleeves and rope bracelets tied around both wrists. The other Peace Corps volunteer who will be acting as our tour guide for this trip looks more like an all American boy, with a button down shirt and jeans. They introduce themselves as Tim and Brian, respectively, and help carry our luggage out to the cab line. Our cab drops us off at our hotel, and while Kate, Rebecca and I check in to the hotel, the boys stand outside shouting back and forth with the cab drivers in Arabic. We’re told this is the traditional way of bargaining in Morocco.

Once everyone’s settled, we go to the courtyard where we drink mint tea and eat pastries in the African sun. This architecture is consistent throughout the trip, buildings that wrap around a central courtyard. We see it everywhere, from the fancy hotels of Marrakesh to the remote villages in the south.

We take a walk through the streets of Marrakesh and come to the famous medina, where everything I’ve read about comes to life. Men holding snakes approach you (and if you’re like me, you scream and your friends laugh at you) Everywhere you turn, someone is yelling at you to buy something of theirs. It’s not so drastically different than markets I’ve seen in Israel or Guatemala, but it still feels more exotic. We turn up an alley, and a store owner grabs my arm. I pull away, and catch up to the boys. I stick near them for the rest of the walk.

We walk through a small door in an alley off the medina, and we are in Earth Café, which puts a vegetarian spin on Moroccan food. We eat lunch upstairs in a semi private room. After a feast of goat cheese salads, filo dough with cheese and vegetables baked inside, and an assortment of couscous and pastillas, the café owner comes upstairs and sits at our table. He seems to know Brian and Tim well, and he tells us visitors about the organic farm he owns, not too far from here, where he grows everything he serves in this restaurant. He describes the horses, donkeys, the litter of labrador puppies who were just born, and the rabbits who are populating by the thousands because they won’t stop mating. He also talks about the frogs that keep him awake because of their mating. We’re pleased to hear that so much love takes place on this farm. He invites us to visit if we have time. We oblige, and head back to the hotel.

Dinner that evening is on a rooftop overlooking the medina. It is a beautiful night, and I share an enormous piece of lamb with Tim. It is delicious, but incredibly large and overwhelming. Luckily, he eats most of it.


Originally published here in October 2008.

For the past year, I’ve served on the NYC board of Nest. When Rebecca Kousky, the Nest founder, invited the board members from all eight cities to go on a trip to Guatemala and visit the women who have benefited from our loans, I immediately jumped on the opportunity.

Our group of five board members, traveling from Chicago, St. Louis and New York, arrived in Guatemala City and met up with our facilitator, Ian. An exporter of Guatemalan crafts, Ian has connected Nest to various artisan communities throughout the country, and we were fortunate enough to visit these communities throughout our trip.

The first community we visited, located in San Antonio Palopos, was run by a man named Andres. We spent hours in Andres’ community, looking through his workshop at the beautiful scarves his community had woven in a collaborative spirit. We met with Andres’ family, as his workshop is also his home. Nest had connected Andres’ community with domestic designers Proud Mary to create a line of tote bags, and while we were there, we choose a few collections of Andres’ hand-woven scarves to sell at our upcoming Kate Spade event in New York.

After saying goodbye to Andres and his family, the group headed to the Morales community, located outside the city of Panachel. The Morales community was a group of inspiring women who had the motivation and desire to work and produce their woven textiles for sale, but didn’t have the means to purchase enough raw materials to make any profit. It was clear that these women and their families lived in extreme poverty. They spoke an ancient Mayan dialect, and we had to have two rounds of translation to communicate with them, from Mayan to Spanish and then Spanish to English. In our brief meeting with them, we explained what Nest was and how we could help by providing them with a loan so they could purchase the raw materials needed to weave more fabrics to sell. We also suggested they take an organic dying class at the weaving school Nest had set up in Antigua, as this technique allows textiles to be sold at a much higher price. Once we had answered all their questions, the group of about 20 women made a democratic decision amongst themselves within minutes, deciding that they would send two representatives to take the class, spending the rest of the loan on the raw materials. Our group was fascinated with the way in which they came to this decision and couldn’t believe how so many women could come to agreement so quickly. As a symbol of their appreciation, they insisted on serving us food, which consisted of cinnamon spiced coffee and delicious jam made from local fruits.

The next day was spent at the weaving school Nest helped set up in the town of Antigua. The director of the school, Olga, is a Guatemalan who has traveled the world to find all different weaving techniques and has trained many people on the traditional craft. The school was set up this past June, and its goal is to mix tourists, Guatemalan students and indigenous women to create a sense of community and teach everyone the skill and business sense necessary to create and sell this ancient craft in today’s marketplace. While we toured the beautiful grounds of the school, we saw an indigenous woman teaching a tourist how to weave on a hand loom. Displayed throughout the school were completed crafts given back to the school by its students, rooms with intricately threaded foot looms, dormitories that are still in the process of being set up, and the space used to make the organic dyes used to create these vibrant, hand-woven textiles. While we were there, Olga suggested she pay Nest back for their loan (since the school didn’t produce goods for sale, they were going to pay us back in actual money), but Rebecca refused her payment, suggesting that she take the money and re-invest it in the dormitories they were in the process of setting up. This gesture was a true sign of how the non-profit world vastly differs from the corporate world.

Our trip went by in a whirlwind, and some of what I saw there is still settling in. The spirit of the people we met and the determination they showed will probably stay with all of us for a lifetime.
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