I've always felt that in order to understand people from another culture or a profession, you need to walk in their shoes. Or, in the case of the famous tanneries of Morocco, stomp barefoot in the byproducts of pigeons.
In New York, when a pigeon poops on you, it's basically grounds for a lawsuit. In Morocco, the effectiveness of pigeon droppings in curing leather has made it "white gold," the fundamental root of a trade that goes back to biblical times.
Morocco is known for its skilled artisans, from pottery to cosmetics to jewelry, and its leather is prized by the most famous brands and designers in the world. If you're shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or Fifth Avenue in New York City, you don't stop and think where a leather bag comes from. The reality is more "Slumdog Millionaire" than "Pretty Woman."
Morocco is a roller coaster for your senses, from the olfactory heaven of its spice markets to the most overpowering stenches on earth. I follow my nose, through the 9,000 plus alleyways of Fes, to this incomparable odor in the tanneries.
Upon reaching my destination, I am offered a sprig of mint to combat the thousands of gallons of pigeon poop, donkeys and fresh animal skins that are contained in area roughly the size of a football field. Since my crew wasn't so enthusiastic, I wanted to lead by example. I waved off the mint offering. However, the Superbowl of Smells proved even worse than a NYC subway on a hot summer day. It was like getting hit in the face with an invisible 2x4.
With my eyes tearing up, I'm introduced to the foreman, named Mohammed, who extends an invitation for me to work side by side with his workers. Unlike the smell of their environment, they were incredibly gracious and hospitable. I am now given a rubber diaper to wear as protection.
Like any warrior preparing for battle, I removed my shoes, socks and trousers -- and realized that there was no turning back. Our crew who finally joined me on the battlefield (they have never let me down), had won the attention of virtually every worker and tourist in the arena. Because this is a multi-step process, I knew I'd be in for the long haul.
As with any unpleasant situation, whether it be jumping in a freezing ocean or eating Grandma's fruitcake or changing a baby's diaper for the first time, you have to commit to the Zen of the Moment. In this case, the Zen of the Poo.
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