Posts Tagged With: goats

Arganic Farming (or, Return of the Tree-Climbing Goats!)

A change in the weather seems to presage a change in our circumstances, as the wind picks up and our trip winds down. Last night’s daramati  sunset was a harbinger, viewed from a rooftop bar near the fort overlooking the beach. We had gathered for a sunset happy hour before going out to a particularly nice French dinner, not quite our farewell meal but getting pretty close.

The wind strengthened during the night and brought some rain with it as well, the first we had seen since a brief drizzle at the Sahara camp proved to be the leading edge of our little sandstorm there, about a week ago. (I confess to be being a little disappointed that it had rained last night, as I had been looking forward to telling people ironically that the only time it had rained on this trip was when we were in the middle of the Sahara desert.)

The rain had stopped by the time we awakened this morning though there were still a lot of clouds and the temperature was noticeably cooler than yesterday. As any sailor will tell you, this meant that it was going to be a Jimi Hendrix, Orson Wells, and tree-climbing goat sort of day. (It is possible that you have never encountered that particular bit of folk wisdom.)

Our primary goal today was the women’s Argan oil collective, but our first stop along the way was in Jimi Hendrix territory, who as I mentioned passed through here in 1968. He stayed for about 11 days, including at our hotel, but one of his stops was at this café in a  rundown little village, well off the beaten path for anyone except the residents, the occasional passing rock star, and the latter’s various drug connections.

If your French is rusty, the sign reads, “1968, a date that marks the presence of a great star at this location.” In other words, “Jimi Hendrix toked here.” Note also that the sign around the arched entrance advertises wifi, which Jimi was probably unable to enjoy at the time.

Our next stop was the local surfer’s paradise, a broad and at that moment isolated beach where the wind was blowing a full gale, throwing spray into our faces even from 100 yards away (hence no photo). The wind was whipping the waves into a froth, and there were no surfers (or anyone else) masochistic enough to suffer through these conditions. In other words, it was an empty windy beach on a cloudy day, and we did not linger.

The road through this area was one of the paragons of lousy Moroccan roads, barely wide enough for one direction of traffic but allowing two, and not so much having a defined shoulder as sort of petering out into rubble at the edges. Every time we encountered an oncoming vehicle — which was frequently — both drivers had to decide whether (a) there was enough room to actually get past each other and so barrel onward with an inch or two of clearance, or (b) to slow to a crawl and inch past each other. I am amazed that it has taken three weeks, but it was on this road near the windswept beach that both drivers finally made the wrong decision and we lost a chunk of our outside mirror. Both our and the other vehicle stopped and the drivers got out to collect the debris and discuss the situation. To my surprise this did not involve any yelling and gesturing; this must happen so often that it’s just one of those things, like getting jostled in a crowd.

We continued onward and as we approached the collective were rewarded with a wonderful sight: more tree-climbing goats! Real ones this time! A big flock in a grove of Argan trees! Who were actually climbing into the trees and jumping out of them! It was satisfyingly surreal, and you can see a couple of them in action here. The two guys in the foreground seemed to be in conversation just before the top one jumped down out of the tree:

…while this guy in the second photo is just getting started.

I was glad to see all this, as you can tell, since I was grievously disappointed to learn that the batch of goats we had seen two days ago had been put in the trees. And now that we were seeing them in natural action, I took the opportunity to resolve a question that had been bothering me since that previous goat encounter, namely, how did those other goats get “put” into the tree? Several mental images had come to mind at the time, including (a) a goat pulley system; (b) a goat ladder; or (b) some kind of goat catapult.

In my own fantasy I had come to secretly favor the goat catapult. I imagined some crude medieval-looking counterweighted rough-hewn structure with a range of maybe 100 feet. You could launch them way up into the top of the tree but you had to calibrate your aim really carefully because there’d be very little margin of error and a miss would cost you a goat. That would lead to conversations like this:

FARMER (trudging in at the end of the day): “We’ll be having goat for dinner tonight.”

WIFE: “You missed the tree again, didn’t you?”

As it turns out, no catapults are involved. Basically the farmers who are trying to attract tourist photos out of season carry the goats up into the trees.

But today’s goats were satisfyingly self-propelled. We could see some nuts up in the tree branches, some late bloomers that had not yet been harvested and which were sufficient in number to motivate the goats. There were also a fair number of them scattered about on the ground that no one had taken the trouble to harvest. As I think I mentioned yesterday, they’re about the size of olives.

We continued on to the “Marjana Cooperative for Argan Oil Extraction”. If you’re wondering what that looks like in Arabic (and French), here’s the sign:

The production facility is, well, a room full of women breaking open nuts with rocks, then grinding them up into oil. Here are two of them:

   
 

As you can see, the Berber women… hey, wait a minute, that’s no Berber woman on the right! I knew I was missing something.

As you can see, the Berber women open the nuts one at a time by placing them on Rock #1 and hitting them with Rock #2. It takes something like 60 lbs of nuts to make a quart of oil, so you might think that the management could hurry things along by, say, giving the women hammers. But they seem to zip right along with rocks about as fast as they could do it with a hammer, and so tradition is preserved. (There is little doubt that this process could be mechanized for great efficiency and probably eliminate the women altogether. But of course the goal of the place is to provide employment as much as it is to produce the oil.)

After the nuts are opened they are ground in a stone bowl, essentially a rotary mortar and pestle. If the oil is destined to be eaten (it can be used as a dip or salad dressing) then the kernel is roasted first; for cosmetic products it is not. And I can now tell you what an unroasted Argan kernel tastes like: terrible. Very bitter. But once roasted they are kind of almondy.

There’s a shop adjacent to the production building, but you already knew that. So of course we bought a variety of Argan oil products. (By the way, I am a little uncertain as to whether Argan should actually be capitalized. I suspect that it shouldn’t. But my iPad autocorrect believes that it should, so I have decided to live with it.)

Lunch today was our final family home visit, in this case a somewhat down at the heels family of five: a Berber widow, her three sons, and her daughter. They lived in a small but neat concrete dwelling on a trash-strewn dirt road. We met only the widow and her eldest son, neither of whom spoke English so our tour lead Mohammed translated.  It was probably our most awkward encounter to date. They were certainly friendly and hospitable to us but rather incurious; they were happy to answer all our questions but asked not a single one of us, unlike all our other hosts. We did learn, however, that the street happens to be the dividing line between the Berber and Arab parts of the area. This has no practical significance since they’re not hostile to one another and intermarry with regularity, but I found it interesting that everyone is aware of the precise location of the imaginary border.

We returned to our hotel and I followed up on something that I had belatedly noticed yesterday (and that Alice had seen earlier but not remarked upon): we are directly across the hall from the “Orson Wells Suite”. So now I took action, marching to the front desk and asking whether Orson Wells had actually stayed there. Turns out he did, and the desk clerk kindly asked if I would like to see it. Of course I would, and as we walked down the hall towards it I fetched Alice, who rather sourly theorized that the chairs in that room would be twice as wide as the ones in the regular rooms. Turns out she was right. So for the historical record here is the living room of the Orson Wells Suite in the beachfront Hotel des Iles in Essaouria, Morocco:

“Rosebud!”

There was also a separate bedroom. The bed was of unremarkable size. And there was a portrait of Orson on the living room wall, all bearded and scowly as though someone had sold him a bottle of wine before its time.

Our Moroccan adventure is basically finished now. We’re going out for pizza tonight (no more couscous!), then leaving tomorrow morning for the all-day drive back to Casablanca where we started, three eventful weeks ago. We fly out of Casablanca very early Monday morning, so this is probably the last blog post for this trip. (Once I have finished sorting and editing our photos and videos, as opposed to the quick-and-dirty ones I have been posting here, I will create a website for them and post the link as a final blog entry; over the next several weeks I will be editing 3000 photos down to a few hundred.)

Our next sojourn: Hawaii in late January. Inshallah.

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Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tree-Climbing Goats. ‘Nuff Said.

Our group split up this morning with much hugging and promising to stay in touch. But before I depart Marrakech journalistically I’d like to offer two final photos. This one is an overview of the square at night; the lit tents are all food stands and you can see the crowds milling in the darkness, overseen by the lit mosque at top right. (This photo was taken by our travelmate Liz, who also took the shot of me face to face with a camel at our hotel in Erfoud about a week ago. She demands a photo credit, so this is it. I will also provide an unsolicited plug for Elizabeth D. Kennedy & Co. Catering in Vero Beach, Florida. Are we cool now, Liz?)

And here at last is the grand final group shot of our 16-person OAT ensemble on our last night together. That’s our tour lead and father figure Momo at the far left. Alice is on the floor in the blue shawl, with Thumper behind and to her right. That’s me and Steve next to each other at lower right. And on the floor at center, dressed as either a Berber woman or Pocahontas (they’re surprisingly similar) is Liz the Caterer, who has now been mentioned by name four times in two paragraphs, which ought to be enough for anybody.

Goodyes all said and hugs all exchanged, the remaining six of us set off for Essaouira: Alice and me, Steve and Thumper, Pat (at Thumper’s right in the group photo) and Dave (3rd from right in the back). We have a new tour lead for this final leg of the trip, a handsome and fit-looking 32 year old named (wait for it) Mohammed, who has been with OAT for less than a year but has been a tour guide for seven. We have also downsized from our bus back to our original van, since there are only six of us again, plus Mohammed and the driver. Mohammed sits up front with the microphone and keeps up a pretty continuous patter of facts, figures, history, and legends.

Essaouira is a resort town on the Atlantic coast, about 100 miles west of Marrakech, known especially for kite surfing because of its winds. It’s also in a region that is pretty much the sole producer of the presently-trendy Argan oil. Which is how, halfway there, we came to encounter the tree-climbing goats.

What? You don’t know about the tree climbing goats? You are obviously not fully up to date on your viral YouTube videos. I will help you out by offering you these photos:

At this point you are entitled to ask exactly what the hell is going on here. Here is the official narrative:

The Argan tree bears a fruit that the goats like to eat, and they actually climb the tree to get at it. Then they do what animals of all types do, which is to say that they digest the edible part and poop out the indigestible part, which is a nut about the size of an olive. People then sift the nuts out of the goat droppings — you want to make sure you finish college so that you can avoid this career — and then crush and press the nuts to extract Argan oil. It is very popular for both cosmetic products as well as being edible as a dip or salad dressing. In addition, people like us come from far and wide to watch the goats climb the trees and do their thing.

That, at least, is the official story, which is in fact true as far as it goes but leaves out some significant parts. First, there aren’t enough goats in Morocco or anywhere else to satisfy the demand for this product, so in fact the virally famous tree-climbing, fruit-eating, nut-pooping goats are responsible for only a small fraction of the production; most of the nuts are harvested through conventional non-excretory means.

Second, the fruits bloom (and thus the nuts are only collected) from June through August, so if there isn’t any fruit then why are these goats climbing trees for us in mid-October? Answer: they aren’t. The guys who own the goats put them into the trees within easy sight of the highway so that passing tourist buses and vans (like ours) stop and the passengers (like us) get out pay the guys a dollar or so for the privilege of photographing their involuntarily-treed goats.

In our defense, I will remark that the goats seemed perfectly well fed and cared for and unperturbed about being in a tree out of season. A few munched contentedly on leaves. The rest kind of stood there and occasionally looked around, no doubt asking each other, “Wasn’t there fruit up here a couple of months ago?” and “Do any of you guys remember how to get down from here?”

So now you know. The day after tomorrow we will actually be visiting an Argan oil processing place, so I will probably have more exciting goat-related information at that time.

As we approached Essaouira from the hills to its east it became clear that it resembled seaside resort towns the world over: low blue and white buildings, hotels along a strip of beach. The are two small offshore islands, as you can see in the picture: the long low structure at the left end of the leftmost island is an old prison, no longer in use. (I guess it’s the Alcatraz of Essaouira.)

The town, as we inferred from the distance, could easily be a resort in Greece, France, or Spain. You can see the town square here; there’s a street off at the left that leads into a maze of shops, a sort of more sanitary, PG-rated version of the grimy souks of Marrakech. They are wider, cleaner, and generally more tourist-friendly if less authentic in their choice of goods.

Adjacent to this square was a promenade of open-air grilled seafood tents, all blue and white, all equipped with benches and shrouded in charcoal smoke from the fish, all displaying their piscine offerings on a bed of ice out front, all with staff inveigling inviting you to inspect the fish and come sit down. Which we did, Mohammed choosing stall #14. (I know this because as we left, the owner kept shouting after us, “Remember us! We’re stall number 14!”. Which is understandable, because there are about 25 of them, all identical.)

The ordering process was essentially random, the owner throwing some samples of aquatic life onto a tray for Mohammed’s inspection and then ushering us to a picnic bench. A short while later, vast quantities of shrimp, squid, monkfish, and sardines, all charcoal grilled, were delivered to our table, and we attacked it with a combination of plastic forks, our fingers, and gusto. It was as fresh as fresh could be, grilled to perfection, accompanied by fresh French baguettes, and fabulous. (I am a sucker for grilled sardines. Steve remarked that if I took off my sunglasses that he expected to see my eyes rolling back into my head.)

After lunch we headed into the market street, an activity that can engage Alice and our credit cards for hours but which I tire of quickly. Pat and I split off, intending to head back to the hotel, but as we passed back through the square our attention was drawn to the sea wall and the boats there. We wandered over to explore and were rewarded by finding ourselves in the fish market, among the boats themselves, where the catch was unloaded and the raw fish — the stuff we saw at lunch, plus some crustaceans and lots of eels — variously negotiated for and sold at stands.

Alice returned from her hunting and gathering a short while after Pat and I returned to the hotel, having bargained aggressively for more crafts that will somehow magically fit into our suitcase in three days.

Oh, speaking of hotels, we are staying across the sett from the beach, serenaded by seagulls, at the Hotel des Iles, one of the venerable hotels of the area. It is elegant in a spare sort of way, with wide hallways, high ceilings, and a lot of open space. One of its claims to fame is a room named after Orson Wells, who I think may have stayed here. It’s hard to tell: the entire town is Orson Wells-crazy because his movie “Othello” was filmed here in 1952 and no one has gotten over the excitement yet. There is a statue of him just off the town square.

Sunset is in about an hour as I type this. Our plan is to watch it from the hotel rooftop before dinner. We will tour the city tomorrow and probably learn more about Orson Wells.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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