Trashy Mysteries in Morocco

Nope, I’m not over here in Morocco catching up on the oeuvres of John Grisham and James Patterson. Instead, I’m up to my ears in literal trash! How this happened is not a mystery to me, but what I should do about it is.

Living in a new culture, I am frequently stumped by many of the banal, routine tasks associated with adult life, due to my complete ignorance and lack of exposure to the culturally appropriate method. Usually this results in some awkward conversations or me making a fool of myself, but never has the dilemma been so onerous (dare I say odorous?) as the mystery of what I should be doing with my trash.

What do the Moroccans do? As a proper Peace Corps Volunteer, this was obviously my first question. My host family feeds some of their organic waste to their animals, and tosses the rest into a giant trash pit across the street. This pit is right next to the mosque, so anyone entering in through the main door (the women’s entrance is around back – hello, Leah’s undergraduate thesis!) cannot escape the strong whiff of garbage, not to mention the unsightly mounds of waste.  Goats and chickens are often hanging out in the pit, ingesting goodness knows how much plastic (animals that we eat later on, mind). Occasionally, trash gets out of the pit, and we find used diapers or other refuse strewn about the mosque pathway.

When I asked my host family what I should do about my trash, they thought about it, and then remembered that is another giant trash pit near my new house. “You can put your trash in there,” they comfortably reassured me.

I was not reassured.

Unfortunately, one of the first projects I helped organize in my community involved a trash pickup with youth – you guessed it, right in the environs of the giant garbage pit. Since the pit is visible most times of day from the youth boarding schools, I felt that if I dumped anything in it (and was spotted) it would be a hugely hypocritical action. I’m doing my best to be a role model here!


Trash pit visible in background on the left.

Talking about trash is shameful in Moroccan culture, but the trash in my apartment was piling up, and eventually I got up the nerve to ask my supervisor what I should do with it. “A man comes every Monday and Friday,” he said. “Ten dirhams a month. Nine o’clock.”

I was elated. I had discovered an actual system for disposing of trash! And I could pay a local in the process!

The next Friday came. I got up super early and waited by my window for half the day so I could spot the garbage man coming and pay him.

No garbage man came.

Undeterred, I resolved to try again the following Monday. Outtakes from my interview with Johanna Boyle are mostly me saying “Wait a second – I think I hear something –” and then dashing to the window to scan the street below for the garbage collector. One time I even thought it was him and went running outside with my trash bags – only to discover it was the oil-dispenser-and-bread-scraps-collector. Yep, there’s a guy for that. (A guy who was confronted that morning by a wild-eyed foreigner, dressed in a Moroccan nightie and clutching about eight bulging plastic bags, running toward him and babbling about trash. …It can’t be helped.)

But later that day, I noticed that my neighbors had set plastic bags out by their doors. Ah, maybe the trash man had not come yet! I brought a large bag down, placed it outside my door, and left to run an errand, hoping for the best.

When I came back, my trash was gone! Hallelujah! The trash man cameth! Except…all my neighbors’ trash was still outside. Hmm. Who had taken my bag then?

The next trash collection day, I tried to see if the magic trick would work again. I placed my plastic bag outside the afternoon before, as I was on my way out to spend the night at a friend’s house. When I came back the next afternoon, not only was the bag still there, but it had been torn apart by animals and there were remnants of my garbage littered about the ground in front of my house.  Yuck.

Well, clearly this elusive trash pickup man could not be relied upon. I would have to resort to…the Pit.

Yup...some of that's mine.

Since I was still petrified of being seen actually bringing my trash to said pit, I started sneaking out of the house at 5 am or under cover of darkness (dodging the street dogs that become lively at night), dressed as Moroccan as possible to decrease the chances that I would be recognized.

You probably would think that I was going overboard, but before long all my fears were confirmed. One day, I foolishly thought I could chance taking my trash out to the pit in the middle of the afternoon. Unfortunately I was immediately spotted, and to my horror of horrors, a man started hurrying toward me and gesticulating wildly. I went to meet him, and he seemed to be telling me not to do what I was doing.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” I asked him. “Someone told me that a man would come Monday and Friday to collect trash, but he didn’t come today, and I have this garbage. What am I supposed to do?” Although I was exasperated and embarrassed, I secretly hoped that perhaps this man would be the answer to my conundrum. Maybe he was about to be forthcoming with new information about a better alternative than the Pit! But instead the man surveyed me thoughtfully, seemed to understand my predicament, and gave me the go ahead.

In the end, it’s just a big, stinking mystery to me. I’m not sure why I shouldn’t – or should – be using the Pit, although I do know that I don’t want youth to see me using it. I don’t understand how the trash collector system works, and I don’t know how to find the man in order to pay him. It’s unknown to me why occasionally my trash bag disappears but my neighbors’ bags stay. So until I get more answers, I’ll continue sneaking off to the Pit every so often under cover of half-light, clutching my trash bags, heart beating overtime at my oh-so-cunning stealth.

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