I have been waiting to share this vignette for a good while, and I sure hope I do it justice. It all happened in less than a half hour, and I may remember it for as long as I live.
After a short nap, Jan told us that he wanted to escort us to Jemaa el Fna (the main square in Marrakesh, and a place populated by snake charmers, towers of fresh pomegranates ready to be juiced, seducing rows of sweets, and a cascade of exotic sounds) so that we may know how to come back home that night, without getting lost. This sounded like a darn good plan to me, and I was ready to pay close attention.
I had no idea that what we were about to see before reaching Jemaa el Fna would be one of the most memorable part of our short stay.
Closing the door of his oasis of a home behind us, we made a left turn into a small street, where I immediately noticed a woman carrying a plate on her head. On the plate, there seemed to be a few loaves of flat bread. Seeing the question in my eyes, Jan explained that every morning, the women make bread dough at home, shape it into loaves, then “sign” the bottom of the bread with their own mark, before bringing it to the community bakery’s ovens to be baked. Around 2 in the afternoon, they go back to the oven to pick up their loaves, hot and ready to serve to their families. Trying to grasp this concept as fast as I could, inhaling the Essences of Community, Baking/Nurturing all in one breath, something in my heart melted a little bit. Even weeks later as I write this, I can feel how big hearing this was for me. The daily routine, the time spent making the dough, all these loaves having been shaped in separate homes and now being baked together in the same fire before going back to their own homes, ready to nurture families. It got me.
A few feet later, we turned right out of the small street, and officially entered Jan’s neighborhood, ready to follow our blond, blue eyed guide wherever he wanted to take us.
As my mind was trying to not jump out of my head, while bidding my eyes to not miss a crumb, I was listening to Jan, who was walking fast, talking the whole time and explaining that his neighborhood was one of the last really authentic, fully non touristy areas of Marrakesh. Here, he said, you get to see the real life of Marrakesh.
It was bustling, the daily market was closing, and there was so much to take in. I felt as though in a short few hours, we had landed in a completely different world. Carts pulled by donkeys, with their owners sitting high up on top, sometimes talking on a cell phone. Piles of mint leaves on blankets, kids laughing and playing soccer, the sun’s heat, mountains of fresh dates, mopeds coming in both directions, cats, smells, women in their hijāb chatting with each other, men sitting on door stoops, sipping mint tea, and everywhere, the most beautiful faces - which I was told I would not be allowed to photograph.
Suddenly, Jan pulled us into a small doorway and instantly away from the sounds of the street, we were inside a dark space, with steps to our left leading down to a large underground oven. Hypnotized, I made my way down the steps and stared at the fire, and at a man who was feeding massive amounts of shaped loaves of bread into this oven, carved out in the underbelly of the building. This was a bakery (not the community one), and just as we do in France and in many countries all over the world, bread gets baked. I was transfixed and I wanted to just stay there and watch. Really, I wanted to cry and I still want to cry when I write this. I cannot explain why, really. Something about the raw, down to basics, simple and so very important act of baking bread, always touches a tender part of me. Baking bread for families, for children, for older people. Taking flour, water, a bit of yeast and then human hands and fire to create sustenance. Wherever it needs to happen, however it needs to happen. Since we had to leave, I asked if I could take a photo, and was told that no, I could not. The photo lives in my heart and I hope you can see it, feel it.
We had not left the house more than 15 minutes ago, and my cup was already full.
Back up under the bright sun of the street, we walked past the retail counter of the bakery, where mountains of the small loaves were being sold. We saw and ate lots of these loaves over the next three days, and each time, my heart was filled with gratitude for the privilege of having been invited into their birth place, to have been allowed to get that close.
Following Jan closely, looking everywhere, the moment demanded our full attention, and there suddenly seemed to be no room for anything more than being there, completely present. There was no room for comparison, for explanation or opinion. It was for me a deliciously pleasant and restful experience - even in the midst of the intensity - and it would happen a lot during our time there.
Next, Jan was leading us through another doorway, this time on the other side of the street. From the outside, it looked like just one more small stone opening in a wall, and there was no way to guess what was inside. Many times over the next days, we walked past it again on our way to of from the square, and each time we marveled at how blessed we had been to have been invited to enter, and how easy it would have been to miss it.
A few feet from the entrance, in the semi darkness, a man sat at a low table, cutting small pieces of meat and vegetables. To the right of the table, way down below, was a huge pit. In the pit, was a roaring fire being continuously fed pieces of wood by a man. There were no steps leading to the pit, just a crumbly path made of stones. A hand got extended to me, and I quickly found myself at the bottom of the dark pit, right by the fire. Not being a big fan of anything underground, I realize now how odd it was that I did not even think about it, and just walked down. Like I said, a lot of opinions seemed to have gone to sleep, during that trip. From up above me, Jan explained to me that the fire was kept burning in order to heat up the water for both the men’s and the women’s hammams, in the street (hammans seem to be everywhere, and they are bathhouses consisting of multiple rooms - dry and steamed - for cleaning the body and soul according to a traditional ritual) Then the man feeding the fire showed me a small clay vase about to get placed at the bottom of the fire, and Jan explained that since the fire was burning so hot, they also used it to cook a dish made of meat and vegetables, which explained the table upstairs.
Again, our minds were turned around. Someone spends their whole day underground, in this dark, crazy hot underbelly, in order to make sure there is hot water for baths. It makes sense, it makes no sense ... sense no longer mattered.
Eventually we made it to the square and sat down at a café with Jan to drink some fresh squeezed orange juice and strong coffee, while he went through the directions once again, to be sure we would know how to get home.
Then he left us to experience the rest of the day, as the mosque did a call to prayer and we looked at each other, in awe.
PS: one thing that kept coming up for me, was how thankful I was, once again, for Airbnb. Having read the book of their inception, this past summer, I was awed at how they were reaching their vision and transforming the world, one stay at a time. How else would we have met Jan, stayed in a real home, and experienced what we had already experienced?
Note: While I was deeply affected by my time there, and am super excited to share my experience through a series of blog posts, I am in no way an expert on Morocco, nor Marrakesh. I spent three days there, did not do much research ahead of time, and stayed within the walls of the medina most of the time. This is the equivalent of someone writing about their experience in France, after having spent three days in Montmartre. So, I am only sharing here what I saw and felt in this limited amount of space and time.
With a couple changes of clothes in our bags, we were ready and more than just a little bit excited.
I had always wanted to go to Marrakesh, and I thought that maybe I had blown my one chance thirty some years ago when I had turned down my parents’ invitation to join them. A teenager with priorities, I apparently had an important party to attend, that weekend. Really.
So when I found us round trip tickets for 141€, we jumped on them fast.
The flight to Marrakesh left at 6 am, and we had to check in at 4. The easiest and cheapest thing to do this seemed to make our way to Pisa in the late afternoon, then take a snooze at the airport, after having paid our respects to the Leaning Tower. To her credit, our friend Marta was rather vocal about not liking our plan of sleeping at the airport, but we were full of adventurous spirit, had hitchhiked in the countryside, caught planes barefoot, and driven a Fiat on Italian freeways, so what was a night at the airport?
After walking through dreamlike night time Pisa, we made our way to the airport and found a couple of green plastic chairs to call home for the night. In a somewhat remote corner of the airport, they seemed fine enough, until a gentleman a few seats away decided to start listening to the TV on his iPhone, really loudly. A trip to the bathroom had me notice that there was an empty chapel nearby, and it was not long before we were laying down on the floor by the altar. Lights off, door closed and pretty darn comfy... before we were awakened rather abruptly by two security guards, informing us that the airport was closing. It was 1 am.
Several of us, including the gentleman with the iPhone, made our way groggily outside, looking around for shelter. The grass seemed like a good option, but then we noticed the sprinklers.
We settled in a closed restaurant’s covered area with tables and chairs, where a few people were gathered. It seemed that our trip had already started as most of our roommates looked Moroccan, and there was a very distinctly foreign flavor in the air. Because I was cold and I wanted some sense of privacy, I wrapped my scarf around my head and tried to sleep - when the iPod was once again loud, and there was no sleep to be had. When a man got up to ask firmly for it to be turned off, I knew that we weren’t the only ones with fragile nerves. We got up.
It was not warm, we were tired. We tried the parking lot. Gates closed. Then, on a whim, one of us pressed the parking elevator button. When the door opened, we looked at each other with surprise, and before the elevator changed its mind, we stepped inside. It was brightly lit, but it was out of the cold. And it was private. For the next couple of hours, it was home. Sitting on the small floor, I could not help but think of what someone would see if they too, called the elevator. And that thought, combined with the lack of sleep, gave me a big fit of the giggles. Just when I thought I was over it, they would start again. We managed to catch a little bit of rest, and were not a second late when the airport re-opened, at 4 am. We vowed not to tell Marta.
When we landed in Marrakesh, a few hours later and having slept in the plane, I was high. We were in Africa!!! Just like that, we were in Africa. The airport was beautiful, and as he had promised, Jan, our Airbnb host, was waiting for us.
Jan (pronounced Ian) is from Belgium and after spending the last twenty years in and out of Morocco, he had bought his riad - where we would stay - and moved to Marrakech three years ago.
Meeting Jan was the biggest blessing for this adventure, and what made our trip the wonderful thing that it became.
Driving expertly through Marrakesh (which is much less crazy than driving in Italy), he talked to us about living there, and his life. I was drinking it all in. Finally, we parked right outside of the medina - the walled city - and walked the few steps home.
Of these few very first moments, I only remember being happy out of my mind. Also, the orange-ish dirt of the walls. And the heat. Eyes wide open, we followed Jan through a small side steet, and when he opened the door to the house, it was as though we had entered yet another world.
Quiet. Beauty. Exotic simplicity.
Even though the house has no window at all to the outside (to keep the women hidden, is what he told us), it is designed in a way that it is very light and airy. Small and three stories high, the whole house is built around a tiny courtyard / living room, open to the sky. All three floors look down onto the courtyard, and its plants, mosaic, and typical tiled small pool of water. Downstairs are the kitchen, courtyard, another living room and a bedroom. On the second floor are all the bedrooms, with beautiful open doors to the courtyard, and on the third floor is the rooftop terrace, looking over the city, the hazy hot air, and several mosques.
The best word I can use is enchanted. We were both under the spell.
Jan invited us to sit down in the courtyard and headed to the kitchen to prepare a pot of traditional mint tea, which we sipped together. Bliss...
He then showed us to our room, on the second floor. Intricately carved wooden doors, painted tiles, rich fabrics, heady scents, deep colors, lush plants, and everywhere Tadelakt, the traditional Moroccan way to work with concrete so that it becomes smooth, round, waterproof, and so luscious you just have to caress it as you walk by. Which we did a lot.
Because one can only take so much magic in one gulp, we decided to take a quick nap before heading out with Jan.
Having gone through a bit of inner remodeling, I sat on my balcony and waited for olive picking time. Luigi had said between 10 and 11, and it was almost ten. I was ready. By 11, I was both ready and thinking that maybe this was not going to happen. By the time he messaged me at 11:45, letting me know that it was about to start, I was starting to get a little nervous and wondered if I really wanted to do that.
I mean, I had never picked olives... would ladders be involved? Would my body keep up? And mostly, would I make a fool of myself, in front of the whole crew?
I had just gone through a good bout of uncomfortableness and the rewards had been big. What would one more bring? Maybe this whole chapter was about that, anyway. Sure, I could stay home and work - but had I not gotten a good lesson on the topic?
I grabbed my water bottle and walked down to the olive grove, getting lost only once.
No one was there, which gave me a chance to inspect the situation a little more closely. I had walked past olive groves often, while in Tuscany last month, but always with a charmed painter’s eye, never with any intent on walking myself down there myself.
Totally different perspective, and I wasn’t sure I was up to this new one.
It was steep. Really freaking steep. And deep. I could not even see where the grove stopped, actually. Waaaaay down there.
One hour, I thought. I can give this one hour, then I need to get back and _________.
Finally, Luigi arrived on his scooter, hopped off and said: Let’s go!
Let’s go. Let’s go... how? Where is the crew? Where are the machines?
That’s when he reached behind a small wall and grabbed a stick (which may give some of you a giggle), a long bamboo pole that had seen better days, and walked towards the first available tree.
At that point, I decided to let go of anything and everything I may think I knew, and just be.
Out of nowhere, a woman around my age and in much better physical shape showed up with a big green net, which she laid under the tree, like a huge sheet. As soon as the net was nice and flat, Luigi began whacking at the tree with the pole. Whack, whack, whack.... I could not believe my eyes. What?? THAT’s how you do it? All of a sudden, the big Costco bottle of olive oil that sits next to my stove started glowing in my mind, and nodding.
Some olives were falling onto the net, leaves and all. Not millions, mind you. Some.
Once that tree was deemed properly beat, the net was moved under the next tree. By that time, we were still at the very upper part of the grove, outside of the fence and actually on the road.
I was still watching, feeling like a complete alien who had very little to offer.
Then it was time to gather what had fallen and thinking I could maybe contribute a little without messing anything up, I squatted down to help separate the fruit from the leaves, and put the olives in a small bucket. Luigi’s mother Cristina joined in, and handed me a pair of gloves. That felt nice.
I was in shock. There we were, four of us crouched over a net, separating olives from their leaves one handful at a time, and putting them in a bucket. My mind was having a full on chatter party, thinking about how crazy inefficient this was, how these people must hate their task, how surely there had to be a better way.
That’s when I noticed that the woman next to me was humming a little song. Right there, squatted on the side of the road, she was singing. I looked up. She caught my eye, smiled at me and said: e bella la natura, vero? “Nature is beautiful, isn’t it?” She was happy. Just happy. Her mind was making no alternate plans and there was no resistance. She was simply tending to nature’s gifts. In grateful bliss.
Her one sentence completely re-oriented me.
This was no chore. This was not something to “get better at,” or ameliorate. This was just ... this.
So I sank into it. My mind took a nap while I just felt the olives in my hand, saw the colors of the leaves and fed the little bucket. I could have sat there a long time. Surrendered.
Because Life really likes to drive a good point home, I was pulled out of my olive induced meditation by the voice of a woman, speaking to Luigi. She was speaking in careful Italian, and with beautiful blondish red hair and a tank top, was obviously not from here. She wanted to know where the road to the beach was. When he told her, she responded that no, it was closed. He turned to me with a quizzical look, as I had just been down there the day before. I shook my head, no, it was not closed. It was arduous and crazy steep, but it was not closed. I got up and told her I would take her there.
As she and I walked, she asked me how long I had been living here and I felt funny answering “two days.” With my olive stained gloves on, and all that happened since I got here, it was confusing even to me to give that answer. She looked surprised and told me a little about her.
I am from Stockholm and I am an actress, she said.
And then... wait for it....
I am here with my writing teacher. To write. I want to write a one-woman play and perform it.
Here? In the middle of nowhere, she too was here to write?
I saw Life give me a smile and a wink. Tell her, it said.
Well, I am here to write, too. Except it seems I can’t. It seems I’m stuck.
She stopped. I stopped. We looked at each other.
What’s your name? she asked.
I gave her my name and she laughed, saying that my last name was her favorite name, ever. She wrote it down.
And then we arrived at the road to the beach. Which was open.
We just needed to meet, that’s all, I said when she saw it.
Yes, we did, she responded. And we will see each other again. We hugged. She headed down the kooky road to the water, and I walked back to “my” net, my insides re-arranged a little, once more.
It was time to tend to the trees inside the fence, and I noticed that Luigi had hopped over the locked gate with a gunny sack and a bucket. As if I jumped fences every day, I did the same thing (no big whoop, I prefer it that way, god please don’t let me trip), and for the next hours, he, Cristina - who apparently had the key to the fence - the other woman whose name I didn’t catch, and I picked olives.
It was amazing. No more whacking, these trees had released their gifts by themselves, over the past days. The olives had fallen onto an expertly set up system of netting, which all oriented downwards, to the bottom of the grove. Our job was to find little pools of olives and harvest them, or nudge them towards the next low point, where they would gather, like happy looking little bunny poops.
We saw honey combs attached to trees, and I was shown where boars had dug the night before (not my favorite part). There was a small brook babbling nearby, the Mediterranean bright blue in the distance, and the quiet, sweet work of gathering these precious gifts. The further down we got, the more sacred it seemed.
My gratitude bucket was filling up just as quickly as my olive sack.
I was humbled that these people had allowed me to “help” them with this. I was proud to have pushed through the discomfort and my ego’s insistent warnings. And I was so glad that my body was keeping up.
After a good while, we reached the bottom of what seemed to me like a giant pin ball machine of slanted netting, and after checking on the avocado trees, made the trek back up, with the bags on our shoulders.
The sea was scintillating, that sea that has brought me so much home-ness since I was born, and I just paid attention to the next step.
Later that evening, Cristina came by with a couple handful of olives for me to brine. They take 20 days to get ready, she said. So we will be able eat them before you leave.
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