The palm leaf adventure
The Medina is a sensual overload, awash with colours, sounds, smells and feral dogs and cats; the enchanting local products blur together with other more generic tat and shopkeepers are swift to engage you should your eye linger too long on their merchandise. A stall full of elegant palm leaf baskets catches my eye and I soon find myself chatting to Said who runs the business on a busy corner opposite a Moroccan tea house. By the end of our conversation we have discussed the details of a wholesale deal and with some gentle persuasion he has also agreed to drive me to a small rural town to meet the makers of these beautiful hand-woven bags.
The next morning, Said pulls up in a beat up, rattley old car and once my 4 month old is safely strapped in, we head into southern Morocco's vast interior in search of the palm basket weavers. I had woken early that morning, full of anticipation about this trip. Was I being irresponsible, rash, naive? None of that realistically mattered because there is nothing I love more when travelling than getting away from the main drag, slipping quietly off the well-worn tourist trails and getting a chance to experience the true culture of a country and its people. Plus, an adventure into the unknown like this provides me with a healthy dose of adrenaline which overrides any guilt or worry I feel.
We drive into the hills behind the Essouira coast, our progress halted first by a calm loping caravan of camels gliding along the hot tarmac. Safely tucked into the middle of the line of these strange beautiful creatures is a chocolate coloured fluffy new addition to the herd. Then a tortoise crossing the road at his own gentle pace and dozens of sweet little donkeys trotting along the roadside with farmers and their crop on their backs. I take this all in, feeling grateful to be taking it all in and at the same time wishing my stepson were here to see it too.
Said points to the palm leaf fields dotted sporadically with men bent double picking the leaf an inch from the soil, the temperature outside is pushing 35c and the work looks monotonous and back-breaking. From this point on, the women weavers take over, firstly collecting the bundles of picked crops from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and then transporting them home for the weaving process to begin. The weaving is a craft women can do from their homes without the need of any external assistance or resource, as I was about to witness. I ask Said to stop the car and we get out. On this occasion, as on many others during the day I pass Olive, my 4 month old daughter to him so I can take photos. I snap away at the harvest that's taking place in front of us and Said coos and plays with Olive in keeping with Moroccans' love for babies.
We jump back into the car and continue our journey to the small village of Had Dra, where the women basket weavers are awaiting us. We leave the major road and join a bumpy dirt track, slowing right down to save the the tyres and follow it for a mile. The town is definitely not a place for tourists unless they have a penchant for dusty rural towns made up of ramshackle often half finished buildings. The narrow streets are strewn with plastic bags full of rubbish and mangy dogs awaiting scraps of meat being tossed out by the market traders. No, Had Dra probably doesn't get much action on Trip Advisor.
Further up the hill, we leave the town behind and I notice my breathing deepen and lengthen as I'm surrounded by the colour green again and grazing animals. We approach a small collection of shacks with corrugated iron roofs and Said stops the car. I scoop up Olive, who is now journeyed out and in need of a change of scene and a change of nappy, and straighten my shirt. A smiling woman in hijab appears and enthusiastically ushers us into one of the huts. Inside the interior is homely, traditionally decorated and thick with the smells of Moroccan cuisine emanating from the low round tables in the middle of the room. The women had taken a break from weaving to prepare two huge dishes: chicken and olive Tagine and lamb with prune Tagine. Both devoured by Said and I while Olive is whisked away and entertained by the women and their children. Mint tea follows, poured from great heights. Moroccan hospitality at its finest.
I am invited into another of the huts where 4 women sit with their young by their side. They gesture for me to sit down. I ask permission to take photos and videos of the weaving and they lift their scarves over their heads and joke about becoming famous on Facebook. I then enquire as to whether they have Facebook accounts and they instantly nod. I am surprised and wonder if they had understood my question.
The basket weaving is beautiful and hypnotic to watch, a meditative practice in which the weavers seem to lose themselves. It is their craft and they look proud to show off their talents. I learn that the women set their own price from the items they make and earn enough to support themselves and make sizeable contributions towards the family income. They work in the comfort of their own homes or in communal 'workshops' such as these. Their bags are then collected by sellers, like Said, and taken to markets in Essouira and other larger towns to sell, or in this case, sent to me to sell in locations further afield.
After a couple of hours of chatting and taking pictures we decide it's time to leave them to their work. The offering of endless thanks takes place and we walk back to the car, which is now surrounded by a herd of cows and goats, although from where and belonging to whom it is not immediately clear. Said and another man clear a path for me and Olive and finally we're on the road again.
'If you want me to stop to take pictures, just let me know', offers Said kindly. After a couple of miles as we drive through Argan tree farmland, I notice an old Mercedes 240 and decide I would love to photograph this old classic, traditional and timeless in its style. So I take Said up on his offer and request we pull over. I jump out, passing Olive to him and walk back towards the car and round to its rear to capture the classic shape and Arabic reg plate. After taking a couple of snaps I hear shouting and I whip round to see a man appear from nowhere suddenly running towards me. Eeek! I've clearly offended the owner of the car and suddenly feel very afraid of the repercussions. My only option, it feels, is to run back to Said and let him deal with the man as I will get nowhere with my rusty Arabic. So I too start running, with the man running after me and still he is shouting. I'm suddenly quite scared and on reaching the car jump inside and garble my words in a desperate attempt to explain the situation to Said. He hands me Olive and I pray for our safety. The man's head is suddenly shoved through the window, still shouting he directs his fury at Said, who calmly answers and from there a heated back and forth between them ensues and lasts a few minutes. Then Said starts the engine and we drive away.
The silence lasts a minute or so. Said says nothing, so I do. 'What did the man say?' I ask, fearing the worst and remorseful about the part I'd played in the episode. 'Oh he thought you wanted to buy his car and wanted to offer you a good price' he says nonchalantly. 'I told him you weren't interested, which made him offer lower and lower'
I'm still not sure whether I believe Said.