Mine de Sel (8/17/2011)

Somewhere between Telouet and Animeter, sits a sign that reads, “Mine de Sel: 300 meters,” with an arrow pointing down a dirt path laced with trails of salt. Because the path meanders between steep hills, the salt mine seems impossible to find until it’s just about in front of you.

Upon arrival at the locked metal door of the mine, we saw a small stone and earth house in the distance, which is where the directors of the salt mine live. Two men, one in a traditional white robe and hat and the other in jeans and a long-sleeve tee shirt, were standing outside the house when Ahmed called out to them. A few moments later, the men greeted us as we went inside the cool of the mountain and escaped the intense heat of the midday sun. Immediately on the other side of the door stood a large pile of rock salt crystals held back by 10-kilogram bags of salt. On the left, was a lonely wheelbarrow and another two massive piles of rock salt crystals. The only light in the mine came from sunlight streaming through the open door and one small flame, that was attached to a tank of gas. Besides that, the mine was a cool, dark cave, complete with stalactites and a bat.

Ahmed took the light and led us to three different work areas, all of which looked about the same. Each area had been carefully blasted in using small sticks of dynamite. Once workers bomb a section, they clear away the fallen crystals and then begin chiseling out more salt. One particular section was on level ground, while the other three sections were blasted on a downhill slope, causing us to have to descend to see the base of the crystal-covered hill. Two of the downward sections had shallow pools of water, which from a distance resembled white foam. However, upon moving closer, we noticed clear water with large deposits of ground salt sunk to the bottom.

From the mine, the workers either ship the salt to major cities such as Casablanca and Marrakech to be processed and turned into table salt, or workers sell the salt in crystals to locals to be given to their animals for good health.

One can usually find 16 workers in the mine, the number including the four mine directors. For now, the worked has stopped because “it has been a dead year,” said Salah Ait Bafas, 65, director of the mine (the one dressed in the traditional robe and hat). Workers make 60 dirhams per day (about $7.50), while the directors make 1,500 dirhams per month. However, when the salt doesn’t sell (.5 dirhams per kilogram), no one gets paid.

This is especially difficult for both Salah and Ibrahim Bador (the worker dressed in jeans and a tee shirt) because each has a wife and children to support, five and six children respectively. Salah (from Marrakech) and Ibrahim (from Telouet) spend much of their time working — for days or weeks consecutively — and then spend a few days at home. Both men agreed that the work in the mine is difficult, tedious and often lonely, but they are willing to sacrifice if that means making ends meet for their families.


The Berber Doctor (8/17/2011)

On the same day we visited the souk in Telouet, I was quite sick with a self-diagnosed sinus infection — congestion, blocked nose, slight fever, headache, and dizziness, the whole nine yards. As we left the kasbah, Carolyn explained to Mohamed (who was taking us to the souk) that I needed to see a doctor at the free clinic.

But instead of going to the doctor, we went straight to the pharmacy, or “depot de medicaments.” The depot was a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop, dimly lit, about twice the size of the bathroom in my apartment at school. There was a line of loud and pushy customers in robes and headscarves cramming into the narrow doorway, blocking most of the natural light that tried to creep in. Mohamed pushed to the front of the line, then pulled me inside the shop.

The pharmacist/doctor (not quite sure what he was, but he was wearing a white lab coat, and he spoke French) asked me about my symptoms, which I had to describe with French and hand gestures. Thankfully I knew the words for sinus infection, “infection sinus.” Within the next minute, he grabbed three boxes of medicine from the six-tier plastic shelves and started explaining the medicines to me in rapid French. He drew symbols on the boxes, three lines for three times per day, “après” for after a meal. I had no clue what I was taking, and I was slightly confused, so I asked what were the most important. He handed me a pack of three “antibiotiques” and a “nébuliseur” or nasal spray, the directions of both were in Arabic and French.

Within another minute, I paid my 83 dirhams ($10) and was out the door. Nothing like shady/fast service from a tiny pharmacy in middle-of-nowhere Morocco. Let’s just say that I texted my mom shortly after, explaining to her that if I were to die, she would know that I had been poisoned by Moroccan medicine. As it turned out, the antibiotics cured the infection.

“Sugar, Dates, and Pistachios!” (8/17/2011)

Every Thursday is Souk Day (market day) for Moroccans in and around Telouet, the largest city near Tighza. (Though I would hardly consider it a city. It’s about the size of a town in an old western film.)

Bourciod, the minivan driver, picked us up early in the morning at the kasbah and drove us the 40 minutes to the ville. Along the route, we picked up about 15 other passengers, who crammed themselves into the back of the van or hung on to the back of the van. On the narrow dirt and rock “road” we drove, winding around the mountains and through little villages. I couldn’t watch at times, picturing us tipping over the cliff after taking a turn a little too fast.

By the time we arrived, Telouet had been bustling for a few hours. It seems like all the men from nearby villages gather in Telouet and spend all day at the souk. To me, it’s an excuse to get away from the home, wife, and family, considering I only saw 10 women there total, which is nearly nothing.

In Telouet, there is one road that passes directly through the center, dividing the food shops and cafes into two sides. Like I said earlier, it really does look like a town from a country western film, just take out the cowboys and insert the Berbers. Behind one side of shops is the souk, or the market, which is a large square with lines of vendors under their makeshift tents. Some of the vendors were lucky enough to have wooden stands for their wares, but most had tarps on the ground with their goods on top.

Meat vendors aligned the outside entrance of the souk. Goats, sheep, and beef hung from hooks in the ceiling. Bloody goat heads stood on the counter. Flies swarmed the area, and the smell of rotting and cooking meat filled the air. (The meat was not cooking in an oven or on a stove, the sun was baking it.) As for coolers with meat, I didn’t see any. I’m shocked that more people haven’t died of food born illnesses here. Honestly, I was pretty disgusted, and I’m sure it was worse for Kim.

Though I didn’t find any sanitary conditions — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would’ve had a field day — I did find a butcher, dressed in a red Hawaiian shirt, who supplies meat for Mohamed. His stand was also decorated with goat heads. He’s a burly man in his mid-30s, who only speaks using signs and gestures because he is deaf. A few times he gestured to our cameras and then made a frame around himself using his fingers. Kim and I had already taken footage and photos.

Once out of the meat clearing, there sat vendors around the perimeter of the square with fresh fruits and vegetables, but only what is in season in the villages: potatoes, watermelon, figs, dates, onions, carrots, and apricots. I saw more dates than anything, and sellers were always trying to give you one to taste. They look like brown prunes, but have a slight crunch — like a squashed exoskeleton of an insect — when you bite into them.

The center of the square looked more like a flea market with teapots, old furniture, rustic-looking jewelry, pottery for tajines and cookery, old clothes, and second-hand rubber shoes. (The shoes sell for about 10 dirhams per pair, and nearly everyone in the village has a pair.) I was able to speak to one man who sells jewelry. In his broken French, he told me he made the jewelry, then he said he sold the jewelry for a store. All I do know is that he showed me his carte d’identité and he tried to explain three times that he is a democratic Berber, whatever that means. I’m pretty sure he was just trying to sell me his tarnished metal jewelry.

And every once in a while we stumbled upon a spice stand, complete with cinnamon, cumin, saffron, turmeric, ginger, paprika, ground coffee, coffee beans, lentils, beans, pasta, and kilogram cones of sugar. The colors were bright and the scents were fragrant, but because the spices sit in the open air all day, they don’t have as much flavor as the bottled spices we find in western countries.

Customers lined up to pay between 30 and 60 dirhams ($3.75-$7.50) for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of spices. The customer points to a spice, tells how many grams, and with a scoop in hand and a flick of the wrist, the spice slides into a quart-size plastic bag. With another twist of the wrist, the bag flips around and is tied closed. For the more adventurous type, spices are combined into one bag. At one of the spice stands, I spoke to the vendor, Hassan, 37, who has supported his family for 10 years by selling spices at souks around Morocco. He purchases his spices from Casablanca, then travels hours to different regions to sell spices. At this particular souk, his brother, father, and young son were helping him sell.

Upon leaving the crowded souk, we crammed into Bourciod’s minivan, and because Mohamed is good friends with Bourciod, we were able to score the front seat (which included Bourciod, Mohamed, Kim, and me in 6-by-2 feet of moveable space). Although I was incredibly uncomfortable, considering I couldn’t sit backwards without leaning into Mohamed’s armpit, it was far better than the alternative: stuffing into the trunk with 12 other people, mostly men, and their pounds and pounds of groceries. All other bags were shoved to the top of the van.

By the time we left the souk, there was nearly 2 feet of groceries on top of the van, about 20 people inside the van, and another half-dozen hanging on the back of the van. I’m not sure how much the whole van weighed, but I do know that for the first few miles the van traveled at the speed of 10 miles per hour. I was thankful when someone got out of the van, especially because we had to make it 10 miles back up the windy mountain. Somehow, Bourciod’s van has the power to do it, even though I doubt it every time.