Morocco, Day 10 – Marrakesh to New York

The last night in Morocco, we sit down to dinner and talk about our trip highlights. Every single person reminisces about a memory they had with a loan recipient, either in Brian’s village of Midelt, Tim’s village of Tigmijou, or meeting Naima from Khenifra at the craft fair. I talked to Brian on the bus earlier that evening, about what he would do when he gets back to the US. He wants to go to business school, or maybe work for US Aid. I can’t imagine what it will be like for him to come back to the US and assimilate after spending so much time in this beautiful place, adapting to Moroccan culture for so many years. I’m worried about how I’m going to adjust after only ten days.

We say our goodbyes after breakfast and leave for the Marrakesh airport. The airport is filled with stranded European travelers. Joya’s boarding pass reads “Joshua,” but she gets through security anyway.

About ten hours later, I’m looking out the window of the plane as we pass over Long Island. I’m not sure I’m ready for this. We’re landing at JFK in ten minutes and I know I won’t be happy to go back to real life, to work, to the materialistic culture of NYC. But even here at home, I still have Nest. And I need to keep this experience close over the next few weeks…and for the rest of my life. Knowing what I do, when I’m running around the city trying to get restaurants to donate food to our event, when I’m stressing out trying to convince venues to host our event at no cost, I have to sit back and remember that every little effort we make helps the women we personally met here, who invited us into their homes and broke bread with us – knowing what we do every day helps them and people like them – that will make the post vacation transition more bearable, and will bring me back to how I felt in Morocco. This is why I do this, why all these amazing people around the world have come together for this cause. This trip made me realize that I’m living my dream, and helping others do the same.

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

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 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.