Taliouine to Tafraoute

It’s been rather cold recently, so we are keen to go further South. There’s a minor road on our map that leads to Tafraoute from Taliouine, right across the Anti-Atlas and we feel ready for more adventures off the beaten track. For two days, we enter another stretch of breathtaking, jaw-dropping landscape, as Emma slowly winds herself up into the mountains.

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We stay overnight on a disused bridge (one part of it having been washed away and the road having been re-routed), in a very silent valley.

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Next morning, I go for a strenuous scramble up the mountainside to be rewarded with a 360-degree view for many miles, the snow-covered peaks of the High Atlas mountains visible in the north and a dusting of snow on the Anti-atlas too.

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In Igherm, we catch sight of some freshly-baked Brioches in a café window. While enjoying them, we chat to the waiter, who lives here but has his sights trained on Europe. (As with all the young men we meet, we try to dissuade him and tell him that right now, Europe will not give him the welcome he expects). He comes to look at our van, and once inside and sure that the door is closed, for the first time in Morocco, we hear a voice critical of the King, whose decisions, he says, are sometimes driven by personal or financial interests and not for the benefit of his people.

After Igherm, the land seems to become more arable, with many little villages and intensively maintained terraces high into the mountains. It looks like I imagine a Chinese landscape to look like, with very steep mountain peaks towering over layers and layers of green terraces.

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We see people dressed in very colourful clothing, often on an underlay of black. There are embroidered shawls and wraps with bright tassels and extraordinary headgear. We stop at a souq somewhere high up in the mountains and go out in our jellabahs, much to the delight of the local population. They lean over backwards, laughing at us. I wish we could take more photos to show you how they look like though, but here as everywhere, there is a strong reticence to be photographed, so we refrain. You’d never get an English person laughing at someone in this way, yet, it is such an innocent laughter that I would trade it any day for the thoughts that a northern European person might hold in private.

 

At the top of the mountains, we enter another plateau. Fields of Almond trees at I don’t know what height, maybe 2000m, before the view opens to the next mountainous valley and our road zigzags down amidst the most spectacular rock-faces. We have arrived in Tafraoute.

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There are many more amazing photos of this chapter here


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Lezagmouzen Camping

If we hadn’t smashed our window, we would never have come across this wonderful little paradise of a campsite! We receive a warm and relaxed welcome from Ali, the manager, who promises to help us find someone to repair the window. The next day, he brings a young and taciturn man who has a good look and goes way again, only to return some hours later with a piece of metal which he proceeds to insert into the space where once there had been a window. It’s not an easy job and at times we feel like he’s taken the wrong measurements, but he persists and eventually it slots into place. We are impressed by his tenacity and workmanship, except for the way he drips silver paint onto Emma.

It takes him the best part of the day to repair the window and he only charges us a 100 Dh – we give him 140. Now Emma has a little silver blind window – it’s like she’s had her first dental filling!

Ali shows us around the campsite. There are some Berber tent-style huts for simple accommodation. The shower has a wood-fired boiler (and is fantastic!), there is an enclosure for animals (but it’s empty except for a couple of little dogs), and there are a number of incredible trees, some of which are of a local species that is now rare. We meet Ahmed, the owner of the campsite, a few days later and he says they are called Atlas Pistachios. They don’t bear fruit but the resin gets burned for special ceremonies.

Ali tells us that Ahmed is thinking of selling the campsite, as well as a nearby, walled plot. He shows us both and for the first time in our 4 years of travelling we are seriously tempted. This seems a very special piece of land in a lovely village and we consider what it would be like to run this place, while also maintaining our lives in the UK. Looking at the campsite, our imagination runs wild. It will need quite a lot of TLC, having been just ticking over for a number of years, since the death of Ahmed’s son who was a great tour guide and involved in maintaining the site.

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But this lack of attention is probably what attracts us, there’s lots to do to make this place sing again. Plus, in combination with the other piece of land, there really is room for expansion. For a whole 48 hours, we mull over the possibility of buying it. We dream about chickens and gardening, about going to the local souq on a donkey, and then we wake up one morning clearly knowing that now is not the time to do this. We are too deeply involved with life in the UK in general and with our children in particular. While we travel, we may be physically absent, but we have a lot of space and time to be in touch with them. If we were to take on a project like this, our headspace and energy would be fully taken up, and it’s just a bit too far away from the UK for anyone to just ‘pop over’ and visit.

We meet Ahmed once more to tell him of our decision and leave him with a suggestion that maybe we could come back next year and stay for a month, giving some of our time and energy to improve the place and maybe help him with a ‘rejuvenation’ project. Ahmed must have liked our ideas, because after offering it to us, he’s adamant that he will only sell his precious piece of land to someone he feels will appreciate the place and continue to respect what he’s built up. We like him too. He’s unusual and we share a few personal life stories before we bid him a heartfelt good-bye. Even though we don’t want to buy this particular one, thinking about it has clarified some ideas about the possibility of owning/running a campsite.

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Ahmed’s place, an Auberge with rooms, is on the other side of the river from the campsite, so after visiting him, we decide to walk back across the dry river bed. We enter quite a magical place; a forest of silver-barked trees, maybe some kind of poplar, is followed by all sorts of bushes and plants we don’t recognize and there is a particular type of silence here. I can imagine this to be baking hot in the summer, with snakes languishing in the hot sand.

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At the campsite, there’s a young man, Abdulatif, who helps looking after the campers. One day Ali and Abdulatif get it in their heads to cut back the trees, but they make a real hash of it. Ahmed is shocked when he comes to view the results. Abdulatif is a farmer, so it’s really surprising that he doesn’t know how to prune trees properly.

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One morning, Abdulatif invites us to come for breakfast at his house. We meet his 80 year old mother, as well as some really ancient animals; a 37 year old cow and her calf, and a 40-year old donkey called Ariel.

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The house is a huge Riad – Abdulatif and his mother appear to rattle around in its vastness. The very traditional kitchen with wood fired ovens for cooking and baking seems curiously at odds with a modern, two storey-high building, where an undercover courtyard gives on to many rooms on two floors. There’s a magical garden too, with all sorts of fruit trees – figs, almonds, lemons, olives and bergamots. The almonds are in full blossom and the garden is humming with bees. Abdulatif brings out delicious, freshly baked flat-bread and Amlou and of course ‘Berber whiskey’ – the strongly mint and absynth flavoured tea, sweetened with piles of sugar, and we sit under the trees in the morning sunshine, discussing life in Morocco and Abdulatif’s plans for the future.

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One evening, we hear the tell-tale sounds of another Berber wedding in the village, but we are still chewing over the experience of our first, so we pass on this one. That night there is a light snowfall! The temperatures really see-saw from day to night here – it can be up to 25 degrees in the day and then snow at night! I wonder what that does to the almond blossom?

One day, Ali lets water into the campsite and for a few hours, we hear the happy gurgling of a stream rushing through the Azequias, gradually filling the flower- beds. That night, we hear the extraordinarily metallic sound of a toad, right next to our van.

Despite feeling so at home in this camp site and village, eventually we have our last wood-fired shower, fill Emma up with water, bid a hearty farewell to everyone and get back on the road.

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For more photos of this chapter, click here


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Brahim and Ezzora

We like the way these two greet us, with a vigorous handshake and a great big smile, so we decide to accept the invitation.

They live not far from the souq, and we follow them in our Emma as they wend their way through little village streets. Suddenly the road gets very tight and also slopes sideways, and going around a right hand bend we hear a terrible crunch: Emma has hit a stone wall at the top, due to the strong sideways camber of the road. Although our windows are incredibly strong, Emma having been a mobile bank in her former incarnation, the stone has won and there are shards everywhere, inside and out. Luckily it’s one of the smaller windows and, even more lucky, it’s the one behind the stovepipe, one we couldn’t really open anyway. And, amazingly, we’re right outside a campsite, so we make a quick decision to park Emma there and continue following Brahim and Ezzora before thinking about how to repair the window. After a 15-minute delay (mainly to calm ourselves down from the shock of damaging Emma) we arrive at their house.

I don’t know how Ezzora managed to create a feast in such a short time, but we have a Moroccan salad, followed by potato chips, fried fish and lentil stew, then yoghurt, fruit and some incredible home-made biscuits. We want to learn how to make the biscuits and she wants to learn how to make Frank’s marmalade, so we arrange to swap cooking sessions: Marmalade making tomorrow, biscuit making the day after. This allows us to spend quite a bit of time with them, to get to know each other and ask more personal questions to gain an insight into their lives. We are intrigued to know how they met, having married only recently. Brahim describes how his uncle knew Ezzora’s family and mentioned her to him. One day, he took the initiative to ring Ezzora, just to talk to her. And what did Ezzora think when she was rung by a stranger? She says she liked his voice and was happy to hear from him. Their telephone calls continued for 2 months, each telling the other all about their lives. Brahim says he was very honest and explained his situation as a divorced man with two children, who his estranged wife wouldn’t let him see. Ezzora comments on how she liked what she heard; she felt he was a kind and sensitive man and that she was lucky to have found him – or be found by him (Brahim translates what she says to us, with an exquisite mixture of shyness and pride on his face).

Eventually, they agreed to meet in person and Brahim drove all the way to Casablanca to visit her. They spent 8 days walking around Casablanca and going to the cinema. After that followed several more months of phone calls, while they arranged their wedding. It was a small, private affair, not one of those huge Berber weddings like we had witnessed. And now, how does Ezzora like living in a small town, having spent most of her life in a large city? I ask. My home is wherever my husband is, she says, and there’s a lovely shine in her eyes. These two really have found each other.

(A few days later, we have another conversation where I pick up a sense of isolation though. It seems that Ezzora hasn’t yet found any real women friends here, and this was partly what I sensed in that first handshake and invitation when we met them at the souq. It was her who made the invite, which seemed unusual, while looking very directly at me. She is a strong and outspoken woman, slightly out of place in this rural setting but still happy to be here. I wish we had more time to become real friends. I’d have to learn Berber too, I think.)

After a two-hour meal, Brahim absents himself for evening prayer, after which he invites us for a stroll in the fields by the river. We all go out together. Outside the door of the compound sit both their mothers, chatting with each other in the last rays of the evening sun. They seem to be getting on well. We get showered with kisses and blessings before we are allowed to continue our early evening walk.

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This little village houses about 80 families, each of whom has a parcel of land down by the river. It’s busy down there – mainly women at work – some harvest olives, others gather green fodder for their animals. There is a lot of merriment as we pass by. Maybe it’s a funny idea for those for whom walking is not a leisure activity, to see others out on a stroll. I keep trying to hit the cadence of greetings. They fire questions at each other: How are you, all good? Your mother, all good, your father, fine? Your family, your house, your fields? It’s happening in Berber and arabic at the same time and you mustn’t leave time for an answer. And when they realise we are foreigners, they often add French for good measure: ça va, bkhair, lebess?

One evening, returning from our stroll through the fields with Brahim and Ezzora, we spot a whole lot of beehives and a man working by them. Frank and I drift off towards him but are called back sharply by Brahim – where are you going? to meet the beekeeper. Oh no, you can’t just go and talk to him! No amount of reasoning works, not even the fact that if we hadn’t done precisely that -walking up to strangers and talking to them – we’d never have met the two of them. Somehow, this is different though and it seems to be almost dangerous to just walk up to a man who deals with Bees. It’s almost as if he’s an outcast, but one that also imbues people with a healthy portion of respect, mixed in with a dash of fear. A few days later, we mention the beekeeper to someone else in the village and get a similar reaction. Bees are dangerous and beekeepers too, for some reason. We wonder if the beekeepers themselves maintain this image – it would certainly help keeping the price of honey so high. A pot of good quality honey here is up to 6 times higher than in Southern Spain. Of course partially this is also due to the fact that there isn’t that much honey around, what with the landscape being so arid.

Just outside Brahim’s house, there is the local olive mill. Each family gets a day or two allotted to bring their olives and with the help of a donkey, olive oil gets produced.

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This is not for sale, each family just produces enough for their own use, and no-one uses chemicals (famous last words. We just heard that many of the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that cannot be sold anymore in Europe due to tightening of regulations, go to places like Morocco where the rules are not as strict). However, after talking to the men at the mill, one of them goes back home to bring us a litre of the delicious green elixir.

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For more photos of this chapter, click here


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Taliouine Souq

We are in luck once again – just a mile from the campsite is this week’s local Souq, so we’re off early for another Moroccan shopping adventure. This one is the most vibrant and diverse Souq we have come across so far, with many stalls of local vegetables and a great variety of produce. Frank finds more Bergamots than he can dream of and we sample a lovely fried fish sandwich for our breakfast. A local medicine man is advertising a magic muscle and joint rub. He’s an old man but he jumps up and down, bending in half and contorting himself to show just how effective this rub has been to his health. He sees me and seizes on my arm, the one where, in fact, I have a bad shoulder. He slides up my pullover and vigorously anoints my whole arm, instantly hitting on some quite sore points. After about 30 seconds of quite a violent but somehow oddly satisfying massage, he turns to the public and demonstrates just how soft my arm has become through his magic treatment, by flailing it about wildly. However, when he moves to bend it up behind my back, I call a halt. The whole thing is so quick, I’m a bit baffled by it all, though I have to say as I walk away, that my shoulder and arm feel quite good after the assault.

This Souq has everything, from people sitting behind a little pair of scales selling saffron from a bag, all the way to a low-loader full of large tractors!

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On our way back to Emma, we pass by the shaman once again and with our last few Dirhams buy a little pot of the magic green ointment.

Outside Emma, we meet Brahim and Ezzora, a couple who’ve been shopping for trees for their garden. We get talking and they invite us back to their home for lunch. It’s going to be a simple lunch, he says, just some lentils.

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For more photos of the souqs around Taliouine, click here


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Good-bye Atlas

We’ve had enough adventures for today, so just a few kilometers South of the reservoir, we stop at the top of a hill where there’s a flat car park and settle down for the night. There’s a spectacular view onto the snowcapped, High Atlas mountains to the north and all around us a deep brown mountainous landscape stretches as far as the eye can see.

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At night, it is pitch black with no light pollution and a starlit sky to die for.

The next morning, we are woken by the click-clicking of Emma’s roof as it expands in the sunshine. A Dutch couple pull up with their cute looking retro campervan, and we get talking and end up sharing a lovely brunch. They are doing the circle around Morocco the other way round from us, and here we are, our paths crossing on a mountaintop in the beautiful sunshine, where we share stories of our journeys and our lives.

Mariel is a real fighter, having had a terrible car accident over a decade ago from which she has come back, every inch a fight for health, all the way to being able to cycle from Holland to Santiago de Compostela!

We exchange info about places along the way. They’ve had more problems than we have experienced with people hawking and hassling them. We agree that just giving is not a good option and we tell them how we’ve tried to find creative solutions to the initial demands, often engaging with people in conversation and diverting the standard plea for money, food or clothing into something more personal. I have to say, when I hear the stories from travellers who are coming from the regions by the sea, I am a bit concerned that we may not like it there very much. But we’ll see for ourselves in a little while.

We say good-bye to the lovely view of the High Atlas and move on South.

 

The next stretch of road takes us into the famous Saffron area of Morocco, a long high plateau from Tazenaght all the way to Taliouine.

We stop at one of the co-operatives along the way, in a little village called Tinfat.

A vivacious Berber woman is commanding a dreamy-looking young man into dealing with us. We don’t understand what she’s saying, but it sounds like come on, what did you do in school, you should be talking to them in French. And when he has some trouble adding up the sums for 5 grams of Saffron, Didn’t you pay any attention in your maths lessons, what, you need to use a calculator for that? Come on, get your act together! Although it’s all said in a jocular tone, the constant running commentary doesn’t increase the boy’s confidence, and we end up helping him with his sums.

We ask about the production of the saffron and, to our surprise, are given an open invitation to return next October and join them in the harvest. We buy a little bit of Argon oil too, just enough to try it out on our skins. It’s understandably very expensive, as you need to pick about 30kg of nuts from very prickly trees and then crack the nuts by hand and grind them to produce one litre of oil!

As we are leaving, the woman comes with handfuls of almonds and stuffs them in our pockets. I tell Frank to go and get a Marmalade. She thinks he’s going to get money and objects loudly, gesturing wildly no, no! Until I have calmed her down by saying la nukud (no cash), just a gift. Ahhh, she says. And she’s very happy to receive a pot of Frank s special. We show her our van and we get appreciative clicks from her (a sound in the back of the throat that Berbers make when they approve of something). Another woman comes along with a little baby lamb that follows her like a puppy dog. She picks it up and pushes it into my arms.

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We drive on and then, as so often in Morocco, the earth opens up, the road drops down into a mountainous valley.

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We stop off at a camping place called Toubkal, by the side of the road. It doesn’t have a very friendly feeling, but sometimes we are simply too tired to be looking around. We have a lot of admin work to do, so as long as the internet is working, we are fine here. We order a Tajine to have in our van, light the fire and settle in for an evening stint of writing the blog and catching up with emails.

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Business or Friendship?

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Morocco really is a country of light and shadow. Just when our hearts are all open and our minds full of a wonderful exchange, we get thrown right into the opposite direction. The emaciated farmer who partook in our lunch turns out to be a bit of a chancer.

As we are about to leave, we ask him if he knows of anywhere we could buy wood. I can give you some wood. Ah, great, how much does it cost? No, no, it’s a gift, come with me to my house. So we drive the few hundred meters to his land and then walk across the hills to his house. On the way he tells us of his plans to make the house nice, to plant olives and almonds. How does the damming of the river affect him? It’s great, he says, I can have as much water as I like, it’s not creating any problem. It’s great that the Europeans and Chinese help us to build this dam. We prick up our ears – Europeans and Chinese? It turns out there’s been over 70% foreign investment, according to our farmer. We need you Europeans, he says. We try to tell him there’s no such thing as altruism on this kind of scale, what’s the hook? What do they want in return? Nothing, he says, just the Chinese want the rights to the mines nearby. There are a lot of minerals here that are needed for modern technology – Cobalt and Barratine among them… And the Europeans? We don’t get an answer on this question but a few days later, someone mentions the larger picture. Morocco has a great leverage over Europe by promising to police the tide of immigrants across the sea, or not, as the case may be. We don’t know whether the funds for a reservoir would be part of a barter on a grand scale, but what we do know is that all the Moroccans we have tried to barter with were highly skilled at negotiating a good deal for themselves.

We don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have a reservoir, we are by no means informed enough to have the full picture.

But to return to our farmer – after having offered us semi-precious stones and firewood, he accompanies us back to the van where he charges us 50 Dh for the wood. I’m caught off-guard… I thought we’d had an equal exchange in friendship, and he’d been adamant that these things are gifts. We want to move on, so we pay the money and go, but this encounter rankles with us. We have no issue with paying for firewood, we understand very well that as there are hardly any trees around, it’s in high demand. I did initially offer to pay and he refused. Now that the wood is by the van, he wants money. It’s also obvious that he is really poor – the meal he had with us was probably his first good meal in a while. So it’s hard to refuse a payment that isn’t really that much in the grander scheme of things. But – it’s the retrospective changing of a relationship that is not good. It makes us mistrusting of the next person who seems to be making a generous gesture. If I’d had enough presence of mind, I would have started a conversation with him, explaining how this feels uncomfortable for us and ask him why he refused the money when I offered to pay. And last, but not least, I’d like to ask him if he really wants to change our relationship in this way.

He saw us giving Bassou our card with email and phone etc. so he asks if we can exchange phone numbers, but I refuse. He backs off. I think he has noticed that he’d pushed too hard and overstepped a boundary. Sadly, we both lose out in this kind of encounter.

Luckily, so far, we have met many more ‘Bassou’s on our journey than people on the make.


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Bassou

On our way West and then South, a ditch appears on our right hand side, with pipes waiting to be lowered into it. This is a big project, and we wonder what’s going on. The answer reveals itself some 30km further down: there is a new reservoir, only noticeable by a tiny piece of a dam in an opening of the mountain range on our right:

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Outside the nearby quarry enclosure we meet Bassou, a philosopher in the middle of nowhere, who can answer not only our questions re this water project, but gives us many more insights into things that have puzzled us in the last 7 weeks.

This is a new reservoir to collect water for Ouazarzate and the villages south of Ouazarzate. But Ouzarzate has its own reservoir? Yes, but the water is polluted and cannot be used for drinking water. This is a drinking water project. If this river here is dammed for a reservoir, doesn’t that create problems for the villages here? On the contrary, they are happy. The river used to be unpredictable, sometimes there would be droughts and then terribly destructive floods, with the water destroying the crops and villages but then just running off into the desert. Now this can be controlled and everyone can still have enough water. Wouldn’t it be more effective to resolve the problem of pollution in the already existing reservoir? Yes, Morocco has a lot of water problems to solve, but this here is an ambitious project, which they hope to finish in the next couple of years.

Bassou fascinates me, with deep set eyes which penetrate you straight away, but also envelop you with kindness. He is a wise man and, having spent a number of years in Europe, not only is he fluent in various languages but he also understands how we think and can ‘translate’ between the Moroccan and the European way of thinking (if there is such a thing). We seize on the opportunity to ask a whole number of questions: What is the situation on recycling here in Morocco? Yes, it does exist, but not in the same, institutionalised way as in Germany, for example. Here, first of all, people will give things another life. Plastic bottles are used for all sorts of things and old tyres, for example, may be turned into a bucket, and once that is broken, we might use it again to make soles for our shoes. There are also individuals who make it their business to collect plastic, glass, metal etc. and then transport it to Casablanca and sell it to the big factories. So, no there is no collection of recycling but if you ask around in a village, you will be able to locate a person to whom you can give your empty bottles etc.

Bassou also gives an interesting new perspective of the deeply engrained hospitality here, which we seem to have largely lost in Europe: here in Morocco, we’ve been invaded by so many cultures, starting from the Phoenicians. We are a big mix of cultures and for a long time we’ve been confronted with different ways of speaking, different points of view and different ways of doing things. We have a culture of wanting to find out about and understand the Other, to learn their language and understand their point of view. This is why we welcome strangers.

It is indeed true that in addition to the hospitality, people often want to practise their language skills and want to get engaged in conversations that help them understand how we see things, or for them to tell us about their culture. People just engage you in conversation, even if you only wanted to buy a fish sandwich at a market, and they ask you about where you are from, what your life is like, do you have children, how do you live? There often is the underlying question of ‘who are you’ in its essence, ‘how do you tick’, ‘what is your passion’, ‘how do you see the world’. And it invariably ends with ‘Bienvenue au Maroc’.

We share with Bassou our deep upset about the unwelcome that immigrants to Europe experience these days, and our shame at the contrast between that and what we experience here. There is a moment where we really connect on a deep heart level and he really listens and sees into us. We talk about the need for a more open and mutually sharing environment in this day and age, a meeting of cultures to rise to the challenges of climate change, pollution and peace together. Bassou has seen enough of Europe to know that it has plenty of problems, that Morocco could be an equal partner in the contribution of ideas on how to meet the challenges. There are many things working here that don’t work anymore in Europe, and often they are of a more hidden nature than meets the eye.

As we have lunch already cooked, we invite him to share a meal with us. A few telephone calls and he’s able to free himself from work to join us. Another man, hitching a lift to his home in the hills some 70km from here, is dropped off at this crossroads in the middle of nowhere and we invite him too, as well as a local farmer on his way home (he looks very emaciated, I think he needs the food most), plus three dogs who are attracted by the smell of cooked meat. There’s enough for everyone and it feels great to be sitting here, in the stony desert by a dusty crossroads and be talking about the deep stuff. When we leave, we feel deeply nourished.


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Mud Architecture

For a while now I’ve been fascinated by the construction materials of the traditional architecture. We’ve been talking about ksars and kasbahs, so here is a bit of an explanation of what they are:

A kasbah is a fortress building or a fortified part of a city, historically the home of regional rulers providing security from attack. Built with high walls and few exterior windows and often on hilltops to provide greater security, kasbahs house one or more buildings.

Kasbahs are found in many places across Morocco and date back several centuries – some having undergone significant repair but some now rather dilapidated – with a fascinating selection easily accessible in and around the High Atlas mountains.

A ksar is a Berber palace (or very large house), fort or castle (the term means “castle” in Arabic, although the European view of a typical castle may be misleading). The distinction between kasbah and ksar is marginal, both fortified structures containing one or more buildings, although ksars tend to be less grand than kasbahs.  Good examples of ksars are the Batha Museum in Fez (the sultan’s palace in the late-19th century) and the Glaoui Palace in Ziat. (quote taken from Naturally Morocco)

 

When you come across the more dilapidated kasbahs or ksars, the first thought turns toward using more permanent building materials, and this is what often happened here: a lot of the modern houses are built with concrete blocks and steel re-inforcement. However, the feeling of being surrounded by walls of bricks made of mud and straw is entirely different to sitting in a concrete box.

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Moreover, I’ve been amazed at seeing really tumbled down kasbahs practically melting back into nature. After a few years of neglect, they just crumble and disappear without much of a trace.

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This is very ecolocigal. For a moment, I imagine a place like Totnes and what it would look like if some of the houses tumbled down. One would certainly not use the expression of ‘melting back into nature’ for many years, if ever! It seems strange to think at the building stage, of what a house would look like if it were to disintegrate, but maybe we have to shift our focus and give this aspect a higher priority when we construct buildings. Maybe its degradability, and its impact on the environment during this process, is more important than how long it will last. Thinking it through, of course this doesn’t just count for houses but for everything we create…

This is certainly a novel idea for a German mind!

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Ait Ben Haddu

We’ve seen a great picture of Ait Ben Haddu at dawn in one of our books about Morrocco, so we’re up early to try and catch the sunrise on this famous Kasbah. We drive into town and park by the side of the road. Ait Ben Haddu has two parts; the ‘modern’ part by the side of the road, at this time of the morning a quiet village with dirt streets and mud-walled houses; and the old Kasbah which you can reach across a little pedestrian bridge or via stepping stones in the river.

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We are early enough to have the Kasbah almost completely to ourselves. We climb through the narrow streets all the way to the top from where you have a fabulous 360degree view.

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By the time we go back down, the village has woken up, some tourist shops have opened and the first groups of japanese or chinese tourists are coming up the narrow lanes.

We meet Mohamed who owns an old troglodyte house, which he has opened for tourists. Ait Ben Haddu has often been used as a filming location (there are some famous film studios just outside Ouzarzate too), and Mohamed has been an extra in quite a number of them. His house was also occasionally used – there is a cave-like room that was the filming location for a prison (can’t remember which film) as well as a wedding in Game of Thrones . Note the amount of items on the shelves, many of which have been film props!

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In the heart of the house, we are astounded to find a tiny animal enclosure.

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Mohamed entertains us royally, offering Berber tea and telling us many little details of his culture, for example the pegs on his keyring symbolising the members of the family, and how pegs get removed when someone dies.

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We wend our way back through the streets of the Kasbah, past some very convincing sellers but we don’t have any money with us, so we are immune. When they suggest barter, we tell them about our bartering experience at the pottery in Tamegroute and explain that for us, bartering with a Morrocan is like a beginner trying to beat the master. We have no chance, even if the experience is educative. They laugh and let us go.

Frank gets sucked into an antiques shop where he gets offered an ancient compass, with various different metal discs full of star signs and other symbols. Apparently it will safely guide you through the desert and of course the vendor thinks it’s indispensable for us and much safer than GPS, which may fail you somewhere far away. A minor obstacle being not understanding any of the symbols on the instrument!

Many more pictures of Ait Ben Haddu are to be found here


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Camping La Palmeraie

The Berber wedding has indeed knocked me for six. I think what really pushed me over the edge was witnessing the two young women being kept in this little room, wrapped from head to toe, sitting on a mattress, while their wedding took place outside with more than 300 people. It somehow gave a pupa-like feel to them – maybe this is what it is about, symbolically; a change from the girl/young woman to a married wife. Something dies and gets reborn in another shape. They are two sisters and at 19 and 21 years they are still quite young and somehow this upsets me, thinking back on how I was at that age, or how my children were, and I presume that a double wedding is held not because both of them have fallen in love at the same time but for economic reasons. It’s totally understandable – even done once, a wedding of this magnitude will challenge any family’s finances.

More upsetting is the feeling I get from the uncle who takes us to the brides. The proprietorial pride that emanates from him creeps me out. It somehow shifts the focus onto the subject of the girls’ virginity, and how this gets guarded by the family and then passed to the husband, as if it’s a property. I find it a very uncomfortable objectification of the woman.

The next day, fittingly, I’m ill in bed with cystitis. This gives me the space I need to reflect on my feelings, and I feel blessed to be in such a sweet campsite to heal myself and regain my centre. Frank goes off to the second and the third evening of the wedding, while I stay in bed, listening to the sound of the drums and reflecting on the preciousness of woman in our society, how it often gets owned by men, used and also abused. I feel the pain of all the women whose light gets dimmed or broken.

It takes me a few days to be ready to watch the video footage that Frank brings back from the wedding, but when I do, I also see how deeply uncomfortable the grooms are in their role, in this particular case they seem even more uncomfortable than the brides. I think of what it must mean for them, the full load of responsibility crashing down on their shoulders, and who knows, maybe they didn’t even personally know the woman they are now responsible for feeding. There is so much uncertainty in this country, so little paid work. Five years on from now they may not only have their wife to look after but also a bunch of children. Read back on our last few chapters and see how it can turn one way or another, there can be a happy family like in the case of Brahim or it can be a real struggle like in the case of Hakim.

 

The camping we are at has a special feel to it with its recycling facilities (the first time we’ve seen this here in Morocco) its garden and its animals. We stay for almost a week, becoming good friends with the cat. As Frank already mentioned, she moves into our van, nosily rooting about the place, climbing into all sorts of corners and we frequently have to tell her ‘safi!‘ (‘that’s enough’, or ‘stop’). One morning, Frank says if this cat were mine, I would call her Safi. It turns out that is actually her name!

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I’m really quite weak and Frank is not at his best either, and since this is our third illness in the space of 4 weeks, we think it best to go to a hospital to eliminate our suspicion of having Bilharzia. (After our visit to a hot spring about a month ago, I did have a funny leech-type of animal attached to my upper thigh which kind of dissolved when we tried to take it out, leaving behind its head, which Frank removed – it had to be painfully ripped out! – with some tweezers.)

At the hospital in Ouazarzate, we learn that to test for Bilharzia, it’s not just a matter of simply taking a blood sample, it involves a whole range of tests, including a gut biopsy, and it takes time to get the results.

We don’t want to be confined to the same place for weeks on end, so we decide to forego the tests, especially as the doctor assures us that if we had Bilharzia, we’d be in a lot more gut pain, with distended bellies. When we walk out of the hospital, we already feel better. The power of imagination!

That afternoon, we say good-bye to the lovely people of Camping la Palmeraie and we drive off into the sunset. We are heading for Ait Ben Haddu, about 30 minutes from Ouazarzate, and we stop at the top of the hill, which overlooks this amazing historic site, in the last of the fading light. This place is windy and exposed but we light a fire in Meme, our lovely little stove, and tuck ourselves in. By 8pm we are fast asleep.

For more pictures, click here


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