Morocco, Day 7 – The Farm

April 17th – We sit by the pool until it’s time to head to Ben’s farm. We take the fifteen minute journey down a winding dirt road and have to get out and walk the last mile because our bus won’t fit on this path anymore. We arrive and are greeted by two black labs. We go inside the magnificent, brightly painted yellow gate, to see olive trees extending as far as we can see, with horses, chickens and black labs milling around the front area. They all seemed to roam freely together, and aside from a few animals, none were really caged in separate areas or locked up in pens or barns.

The first thing we do is make lunch. Ben serves us goat cheese with bread and olive oil, which we eat at an outdoor wooden picnic table. When we’re done, Ben brings us some fresh vegetables from the garden – zucchini, spinach, carrots, squash, red peppers and potatoes. We all pitch in washing and cutting the vegetables. We put the scraps into a bag for the rabbits. Ben shows us the three ceramic stoves on the ground – the highest one is Indian, then the middle level is an Arab style oven and the one on the ground is a Jewish style oven. We place the freshly cut vegetables into a colorful display in the tagine bowl on the table. I do the honors of placing the cone shaped cover over the tagine and after Jenny helps light a fire, we place the tagine onto the Jewish style oven. While lunch is cooking, we go out onto the farm. It is line with olive trees and there are small burrows for the rabbits beneath the trees. We see more and more animals – rabbits, ducks, swans and more chickens as we make our way towards the back of the farm. Ben talks about the mating habits of the rabbits. He shows where they line up at night, and that when it rains, he can expect a lot more baby rabbits. We hold a baby bunny. He shows us the olive buds up close. He uses no pesticides on his farm. Ben explains that if you are good to nature, it is good to you. And we have to stop taking so much and start giving some back. He talked about building a few small huts out in the fields and allowing people to camp in them overnight and just enjoy nature as it is.

We walk back past the horses and over to Ben’s shed and there is a beautiful white stallion. He tells us this stallion makes him a lot of money. Then he takes us to a small shed, where we see twelve adorable baby labs. We step right into the puppy den, and start picking up the little yellow and black labs – their mother is a yellow lab, and father is a black lab. They are the most amazing puppies I’ve ever seen – and so many at once! After taking tons of photos and watching the puppies nurse from their mother, we are able to pull ourselves away from the pups to go eat the lunch we have prepared.

Beautiful Arrangement of Vegetables in the Tagine

We walk up onto a colorfully painted terrace overlooking the entire farm to eat. The completed tagine was absolutely delicious. We learn a bit more about Ben during this meal- he was born in France and grew up in Australia. His brother still lives in Australia, and runs two Earth Café’s there. Erin, a board member from San Francisco, is also a restaurant owner, and she found it fascinating that in Ben’s five years of being in Morocco, he had done so much with the farm and his restaurant. Today happened to be Erin’s birthday and the farmhands came upstairs with pastries and lit a candle for her. Then they presented her with a beautiful bouquet of roses. After the food and the birthday celebration, we took a quick visit to the olive press to see how olive oil is made. After saying goodbye to Ben, we head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. For a minute back in our room, we turn on the BBC since it’s the only English speaking channel, and we see that earlier this morning, a dormant volcano in Iceland has erupted for the first time in 200 years. All of Europe was covered by a cloud of dust, and every airport from Switzerland to Spain, had closed. Half our group was planning to head home through European airports. We weren’t leaving for another three days, but everyone grew concerned. Jenny actually stayed home from dinner that night to work out her travel – as a flight attendant, she always flies standby and all the flights she was hoping to get on were now full.

We go to a Thai place for dinner that night. Like every other restaurant, the décor was grandiose, with intricate mosaics running from floor to ceiling with a huge, ornate lantern hanging in the middle. There is a fire pit in the middle of this restaurant and during the first course, the music gets overwhelmingly loud, and right next to the fire pit we see a Michael Jackson impersonator on stilts, dancing to Billy Jean. Very authentic Moroccan. Later, a fire eater does a performance for us, and then a drummer. Our group goes into the middle of the restaurant and starts dancing during the drummer’s performance, and I take a tambourine from the restaurant owner’s hand and play it alongside the drummer for the remainder of the night.

Our Tagine Cooking

Olive Buds from the Olive Trees

Puppies on the farm

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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.

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.