Marrakech and Olive Picking

November 1st through the 5th was In-Service Training (IST) for all the Environment and Health Volunteers that came to Morocco in March. November 5th, as it happens, was our 6 month anniversary of our swear-in! We’re over a quarter of the way through our service!

We didn’t get to wander around Marrakesh as much as we would have had we been there for vacation, and I didn’t go clubbing at all – one of the best things about Marrakesh for PCVs, as I hear it. What I did do was go to a different place for dinner every night.

On Monday, Colin, Tina, and I were on our way to the grocery store to make food in our bungalows when we spontaneously decided to flag down a taxi and get pizza – a fantastic decision, I feel. The large supreme pizza with the cheesy crust at Pizza Hut is only 43 Dh a person when split three ways, and it is mightily delicious (and all pork products are substituted with beef, a change which the habitual omnivores said was unnoticeable).

On Tuesday, we decided to get street food at the city center – Jamaa el Fna. Four of the six pictures above are from that.  Overall, I didn’t think Jamaa el Fna was that great – I ended up there a second time later, and at neither time did I see monkeys or snake charmers. I saw lots of horse drawn carriages (picture 1), dancers who looked a little suspect and turned out to be men (picture 2), a guy playing guitar with a chicken on his wide brim hat (regrettably not pictured), and two guys setting up to fight but who might not have ever actually done so. There were also musicians, comedians, storytellers, and fortune tellers.

As for the food, there were established restaurants that seemed to make you want to feel as if you were eating streetfood. The first place we went was the best – they had cheap bowls of ahrir (soup) with excellent wooden spoons (picture 4), and the guy serving them was tickled to death that we could speak tashelheit, tamazight, and arabic among us.  Then we walked by several snail sellers before giving in and deciding to try a five dirham bowl. Nicole and I split that (picture 5). They were actually kind of good – spicy! Then some guy told us we could get 6 kebabs and free tea for 30 dirhams.. he listened to us request meat types, then we got 6 lmskeen (not so awesome) looking kebabs of.. I don’t even remember, but not what we asked for, and found out the place didn’t even have the capability of making tea. So boo to the guy that lied to us.

The rest of the evening kind of felt like walking around a fancy, expensive souq. There were some cool things, but I don’t really have any desire to go back. It’s possible it’s better if you’re not already used to souq.

Wednesday – Tina, Ben, and I were headed to Asima, and turned a little earlier than we’d been instructed to do – there was a sign, so we went for it. We are very happy that we did, because we ended up finding this Egyptian guy with a teeny tiny restaurant serving heaven on a platter. I stopped walking to ask him what he was making – it looked and smelled awesome – and he had a little tea spoon at the ready to give me a taste. It was some sort of eggplant-tomato-kefta (ground beef) deliciousness, and after Tina and Ben had their samples, we promised to return after we our grocery shopping. When we returned, we were treated to the best meal that I feel I’ve had since my fancy-pants goodbye meal in Philadelphia! We considered that the special ingredient may have been some sort of narcotic. The mix was turned into sandwiches, with an added tomato sauce, fresh onions, and fresh tomatoes. We were also given Fool, a fava bean dish sprinkled with olive oil. We were all so appreciative of the meal that the chef, Hamid, began to suspect that Tina’s freshly bought bottle of soy sauce was actually whiskey and that we were perhaps a wee bit tipsy*.  They brought us cookies and a pomegranate for dessert. 10/10.

Thursday – Tina and I decided to find a sushi/Thai restaurant everyone had been raving about. We did this on foot.  I thought it was by the Pizza Hut we’d gone too on Monday – we’d walked back to the hotel, and that only took thirty or forty minutes. However, this was by the second pizza hut! Oi! When we finally found it, we were so close to Jamaa el Fna that we just walked there, and were disappointed to find it still free of all monkeys and snake charmers. So we walked back to the Asian Restaurant, determined, and after two hours of brisk walking sat down for our meal. We got curry and a rice/chicken dish, both of which were quite good, one sake shot each, and ginger creme brulee. We should have done this before the Egyptian food, because it was quite good, but really expensive! The Egyptian food was 20Dh each, and Tina and I both dropped well over 100Dh for our dinners at the Thai place. And they charged me more for an extra bowl of rice! If you’re in Marrakesh and want dessert, however, the ginger creme brulee was exceedingly well done.

Friday – We took a bus in to town to buy CTM (bus) tickets the day before – both to check times and to have them, just in case. We found a very friendly sandwich maker outside the CTM place, and had very routine sandwiches with fries. I only include this because I chronicled all the other food.

Then, the next morning, I left! I was on the earliest bus I could be on to get back to Tinjdad – I am not a city person, as all who know me can attest, and I’d been a bit grumpy all week to be surrounded by people and noise and pollution and no space of my own.  I was elated to be leaving. Picture 5 is from inside the bus – there were just so many trees on the Mediterranean side of the mountains! I also found I was out of my element botanically – in my area, I can name almost all of the plants in Tashelheet. On the Mediterranean side of the mountains, there were tons of plants I didn’t even recognize! Things got much more familiar as soon as we crossed over the Tizi n Tshka – I would translate that as ‘the pass of difficulty’, and it’s known as the most difficult drive in Morocco (there’s always someone on the bus who’s throwing up. I, luckily, am somewhat used to the winding roads of Colorado and North Carolina, so it’s not too much of a problem. Hemdullah.)

I was very happy when I finally returned to my site. The aspens have started turning (picture 6), and I had not, as I feared, missed olive picking! Most of this last week has been spent making necessary social visits, picking olives, and screening the eyes of kids at the local middle school so we know who to send to the eye doctor when he makes it up here in two weeks (insha’allah). A bit more on olive picking:

First, sorry there are no pictures. I had my camera a lot of the time, but I never got around to taking any pictures. Maybe someone will still be picking them tomorrow, I don’t know… but I think I’m just picture free this year. C’est dommage, as people tell me here.  Pity.

Next, olive picking is primarily a ladies’ job in my town. I saw a total of one guy really helping, and he’s an old dude (he also managed to puncture his foot on one of the trees, lose a shocking amount of blood [I’d estimate a third to a half liter, no joke], and keep on trucking – and later the same day, he (a haj!) told me I should have lied and told people I was a convert to get into the mosque at Moulay Idris, one of the most holy places in Morocco… this guy is awesome).  He mostly hung out on his own set of trees while I worked with the ladies in his family on a different set – I saw a few guys stop to help him out and talk for a few minutes on several occasions, but that was as close as it came to other men helping with the harvest. In other towns in different parts of Morocco, I hear that olives are harvested entirely by men. I don’t know if there’s anyplace where it’s joint work.

The basic method of harvesting olives is this: if you have some sort of tarp, lay it down under the tree. If not, no problem. Then, as a group, (3-6 people normally, it seems), people start pulling olives off the tree, and letting them fall to the ground (it goes much, much slower if you actually try to hang on to the olives for easy deposition into some sort of olive receptacle.. I’m not even sure it’s possible most of the time). Two or three people are normally in the tree for this. There’s also a metal hook that can be used to bring branches closer to the ground for easier picking, and sticks for beating olives off branches out of reach. As for the rain (hail?) of olives coming off the trees, they need to big picked up off the ground one by one. This was most of what I did for the three and a half days I spent working on the olive harvest, and it’s harder work than it sounds! You can’t really sit down, so you have to hang out in the squat position all day and bend over to pick up olives. This is fine for a few hours, but after four or five hours of doing this your upper back really starts to hurt. After a few days, it doesn’t take four or five hours anymore. Thank god for my new yoga books! The other downside of picking things up off the ground is that there can be other things on the ground – the first few days I didn’t run into this really, but the last few days I was running into a lot of semi-hidden dried human poop on the ground, right where I was trying to pick up olives. That was disgusting. I assume this is a usual issue, though, and they do clean the olives off well.. and I’ve never gotten sick from olive oil, so I’m going to assume it’s not a problem.

The bonus of picking olives are that I get to spend time with my ladies, come home full-body tired, and get some community respect as someone who helps with harvesting. Plus, despite listing some cons up there, I enjoy the olive harvest for what it is: it’s fun picking olives off trees, and learning little things – did you know that fresh olives have a white milky goo inside them that oozes when they’re smooshed? It doesn’t look like olive oil at all!

And with that, it’s late, and I’m going to bed. Have a wonderful day!

*I have an identical bottle of soy sauce in my kitchen. Two of my friends at my site were in my house, and they looked in my cabinet and found the soy sauce, and conspiratorially asked me if it was beer. They were a little disappointed to have caught me with an Asian condiment rather than booze.

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