Well, now we are in Tarifa. We arrived here yesterday. It has been one hell of a crazy past few days snowballing into a rush out of Morocco one week earlier than planned.
Events took a downward turn in Meknes. We had hoped to spend a couple of days there exploring the Medina. There is a large Sunday market we hoped to catch. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn. It was a one way street that we became swept along. Quite by surprise we found ourselves behind the Medina walls. The tiny street then turned back through a gate into the wide world but the Zil was not going to fit through the gate. We began to maneuver to see if we could squeeze through – it would be tight. One vegetable seller was adamant we could fit and tried to direct me. I hesitated, whilst a few more residents, eager to help, started directing me in different directions. Meanwhile the Zil was getting into a rather awkward poition, neither able to fit through the gate, nor reverse back along the one way street which was filling up with waiting cars. Then I made a big mistake: I took instruction from one chap that insisted I could pass through a tiny alley that curved round into a wide open square. The idea being I could turn around in the square and return back along the one way street contra-flow. I had to pull in my side windows as the fit was glove tight – thus putting all faith in the competence of this chap that proceeded to get us truly wedged, the bumper passenger side dug into one wall, the cabin driver side grating against the pillars of a portico.
The noise brought out the entire neighborhood. Some people had advise to give, otheres just wanted to spectate. The residents of the two houses were screaming abuse, one lady was waving a cosh. The chap that was giving me directions slipped away quietly leaving us stranded. Not able to even open the drivers door, I hit the accelerator pedal. There was the sound of metal grinding, a child screaming, the collapse of rubble, tiles smashing to the floor. The Zil broke through into the square. Behind me was a plaster wall covered in deep incisions, a wreaked electricity box, a pile of rubble and smashed tiles from damage to the pillar.
There was nothing for it but to wait for the police. First I tried to placate the angry residents but there was no way of engaging them, even with supplicating myself on the floor, which just made me an easy target for the lady with the cosh. Some residents were sympathetic. ‘It happens all the time’ one said. Coffee was made for me. I nursed a mangled thumb whilst the storm showed no sign of relenting.
In such a situation the Police proved fantastic. A plainclothes officer took the case on. He made some notes, took my papers and got me to turn the truck around to go back through the tight alley. This time I had a more competent chap giving directions and we made it through without a scratch.
In the station witness statements were taken. After about an hour of paperwork I was told I could leave. Great service! Now there is some cosmetic damage to the truck. I also need to replace the protective steel skirting which was crushed.
Feeling rather shaken we now headed for Ceuta. The route took us past the ruins of Volubilis. It is a romantic looking Roman city. From the car we could see the Arch, forum, theatre. Amazingly, the city had a population of several hundred thousand, a mixture of Mediterranean merchant families and mountain Berber. Also amazing is that the city remained inhabited until the 1800’s when it was leveled by an earthquake.
Passing on we reached Chefchaouen. This is a gorgeous city. It is famous for its buildings being colour coded white with blue highlights. This gives it a very distinct Mediterranean look, it could be Greek, or Spanish. The walls are smoothly plastered over. Attention is paid to the details, pretty doors, doorknockers, birds in cages, plant pots, fountains. The Medina is where all the good looks are concentrated as is the thriving tourist industry which attracts plenty of urban Moroccans from Rabat and Casa. Unfortunately the city was been flooded with heroin in teh last two years which has seen a rise in junkies and crime.
So now we are in Spain! It feels good to be back in Europe. But then it also feels sad to have left Morocco. I can not wait for my next trip over there!
I need now to take some time to reflect. The Africa leg of our journey is ended. So much has happened. Its been an incredible adventure. It does not end yet. Next is France – will we find ourselves a home there or keep traveling?
It has been a few days since I last blogged. We have been on the move, dodging rain clouds whilst seeking out special moments that we shall keep as memory.
Waking up in Agouti was a turning point for us. It is half way through our mountain adventure. The dark skies of the day before had vanished leaving a blue canopy that lit up the snowy peaks, causing the scree faces of the mountains to resonate an orange glow. The village, across the other side of the river from where we camped, was coming to life. Women were washing clothes in the river, bright polka dot throws hanging from branches to dry. On top of flat roofs thick wool carpets bake in the crisp air. Our cabin thermometer reads 9C, after the desert this is freezing! We are currently at 1800m. Two back packers passed us by, the only other tourists in Agouti. They were heading for the mountain peaks.
Agouti sits below the ruins of a kasbah. It really is a ruin. Only a sliver of wall remains atop of a towering pinnacle of stone. I wonder how they ever constructed it at such vertical heights. Its composition of mud and stone makes it appear to grow right out of the rock. Beneath the ruin, the village is collection of compounds creating a small network of tiny alleys. Each compound contains a set of habitable rooms as well as a yard and stables. Due to the steep topography the compounds utilise their flat roofs for yards. Ontop are kept the livestock (cows and sheep) with a ramp for the animals to access the stables below. The compounds do not have any gardens, they instead huddle together, displays of human warmth as women move from yard to yard chatting away, chimneys puffing out wood smoke. The buildings are predominantly mud wattle constructions utilizing enormous blocks of hardened mud. Each block must way a tonne. Its hoisting must be at great effort. The advantage of using such large blocks is the thick walls they create. As well it makes for solid foundations to build upwards so that some buildings can reach four stories. There are a few stone houses too. Stone is most commonly used as the foundation block between the ground and above. The exterior walls are plain to view. The natural mud colour blends the village into its surroundings. Only the windows receive artisan attention. These are are given white painted frames. They are set with glass, sometimes coloured, behind ornate metal grills. The windows are small, they would provide little light. Before the availability of glass the houses used to keep gaps between the large blocks of mud, like arrow slits in a castle wall. Traditionally the doors are wooden. Increasingly now they are ferrous steel. Painted bright colours with ornate patterns. The gardens are along the river bank. Iris is planted, or else grows as it pleases. The banks are covered in wild flower. Then they give way to orchards of fruit, walnut trees older than the village, vegetables. Springs of water wind their way through the village along concrete channels or plastic pipes providing running water to the compounds then irrigating the gardens.
Agouti has two cooperatives. One is a women’s weaving coop ‘Association Ighrem Timdokal’. The other is a carpentry coop ‘Association Ighrem Atelier du Sculpture’ (www.theanou.com or etsy.com). The weaving coop draws together women from the surrounding villages to produce carpets, throws, blankets, made from local wool. The material comes either plain or dyed using natural dyes from the plants in the valley. The blankets have a comely farmhouse smell to them, reminiscent of large wooden beds and roaring fires in the hearth. The carpentry coop produces functional wooden implements such as plates, spoons, ladles, bowls, in the traditional manner. Inside the workshop there are shelves from which hang the sets of carving chisels. The floor is covered in wood chip. Stepping into it is like walking through a forest floor on a dry autumn day. There are sweet smells of wood mixed with sticky amber sap. The wood used is juniper, walnut, boxwood or orange. Importantly the trees harvested are replanted in a strictly monitored program.
Both coops provide much needed income streams to the valley whilst safeguarding traditional practices as well as protecting the natural environment. Deforestation has been a big problem which is now being addressed as soil erosion takes it toll. The carpentry coop runs a reforestation program jointly with other NGO’s of which some of the profit from its sales goes. Both coops also reflect a growing confidence, as assertion of the Berber people in this valley, which have only recently become accessible to the outside world.
We spent the morning in Agouti then continued east along the road to another village seven kilometers on, called Tikniouine. Here there is another coop: . The food coop Tikniouine. It was set up by a young lady of 19years. It produces honeys, walnut butter, hard cheeses, yogurt, all made to strict European organic and food hygiene standards. It has already won several awards for the quality of its produce. We bought some honey mixed with crushed walnut. Unfortunately they were sold out of cheese.
Moving on we then come to the valley school in the shadow of the marabout hilltop retreat Sidi Moussa. The school is an NGO project to make education available to young children. It has a wide catchment area encompassing the entire valley and surroundings. The marabout retreat is an ancient building rising out of a conical hill that sits in the midriff of the valley. It is one of two perfectly conical hills visible from the valley floor, the other accommodating a ruined kasbah. A steep path winds up the hill, at times slippery from the scree. The rock is splintered and sharp appearing like a field of arrow heads. The building looks like a square set fortress made of stone and adobe, once used as a collective granary. We heave ourselves up the last few steps sweaty, exhausted, despite the chill wind that whips through our clothes. Its dark entrance is a yawning mouth, the heavy plank door wrung outwards on sturdy hinges. Inside is dark. The only light comes from a hole in the roof. It is an intentional hole, one that lets out wood smoke whilst allowing the occupants to know the difference between night and day. Framed within the light is the marabout, a wizened old man with caloused eyes. His lips, cheeks, have been drawn inwards through age, as if the cold has preserved him against the erosion of time. His head is protected by a ragged turban. We did not expect there to be an actual marabout living here. He welcomes us with some tea before withdrawing into the shadows from where he mutters what could be prayers.
The retreat is a strange building. It seems to be on two floors. The ground floor is an open circular space whilst the top floor is a passage that snakes above the ground floor. There are possibly a few antechambers that in the dark remain concealed. There is no light save the arrow slit windows.
The thickness of the walls prevents light from actually illuminating the insides. The slits only indicate where the exterior walls are. From the first floor we found some steps going down into a hole. How far down I do not know. We also found a flat roof facilitating spectacular views of the valley. The roof is accessed by two logs propped upwards with foot wrungs crudly hewn into them.
On leaving we realized that we were expected to make a donation to the marabout. Unfortunately I left my money in the truck not expecting anyone to be atop of that cold, drafty site. Not wanting to incite the ire of a local legend I rushed back down the hill to retrieve some cash. I grabbed a 5 liter bottle of water for good measure. The struggle back up the hill felt like a penance. Its a strange life to choose, alone atop of this hill. He is nothing like the fortune telling juju marabouts of Senegal. I am reminded more of Simon Stylities. A modern day hermit living the aesthetics life. Respect to him for having stuck with it.
Moving on we continue driving for a few kilometers before reaching Tabant. This is a large village by comparison to what we have seen so far. The tarmac road ends at the turning for Tabant which is reached by turning off the road, south, over a bridge and round a hill that sits in the wide valley keeping Tabant hidden from sight. Tabant has a large market area (I could not find out which day is market day), post office, clinic, a few cafes. We had lunch of tagine in the grass beside a river. There is also a mountaineering school that has guides for those wishing to climb the nearby mountains.
Leaving Tabant we cross back over the river and follow eastwards what is now a rough piste. The water has washed it away in places by very rarely a 2WD passes by proving it is still quite accessible. The only difficulty we had was navigating the around the tight bends where the road weaves through a village. Jutting walls and low hanging electricity cables are the greatest challenge. After some time (posibly around 20km) the road forks. We took the left turn which winds north away from the valley up into the mountains. Now the weather begins to turn as we climb higher and higher, past the tree line, up into clouds, rain, then sleet. We must be over 3000 meters at the highest point, well above the snow line. The piste is narrow, very narrow, whilst the drop off the side makes me swim with vertigo. Fortunately the thick cloud reduces visibility to about fifteen meters so I do not have to see the drop. The challenge here is avoiding the points where the road edge has washed down the cliffs. It is six wheel drive weather in the slippery mud. Despite the sleet we still stop so Anika can have her ten minutes in the snow, leaving me frozen to the bone.
Relieved to finally descend the mountain, we zig zag down, eventually reaching the tiny town of Ait Mohammed. This marks the end of our mountain trip. Though we are still over 1000 meters high, it is all down hill from here. This route has been a little taste of what is on offer in the Atlas, forests, waterfalls, streams, snow, isolated villages, plenty more pistes to explore.
After Ait Mohammed we reach Azilal where we camp for the night before heading to Morocco’s most famous tourist attraction, the Ouzoud falls. It is a 110 meter high waterfall, full bodied, crashing down with two tiers. At its misty base it should be possible to swim. As befits a major tourist attraction the village has mutated into Camden market, packed with guest houses, creperies, tea stalls, tagine eateries, incense, apple tobacco, stalls selling fake antiques, ash trays, jellabahs, coloured glass lamp shades etc. These stalls line the path right down to the base of the falls where a flotilla of boats are available to hire though there is no where to paddle to. Naturally the infrastructure does not quite match the facilities offered so all forms of waste build up around the tourist camp. The village of Ouzoud has become entirely corrupted by this false economy, selling themselves as guides though the route down is plainly obvious. It is a shame to see after the pristine Atlas.
It is still raining so we only stay an hour before moving north along the minor road. This winding road takes us into the Ouzoud gorge, the less explored though equally stunning natural wonder of this area. Coming out on the other side we get onto the national route 8 at Khemis-des-Oulad-Ayad heading for Meknes.
The heavy rain really slows us down. So we stop for lunch at a road side butchers where meat gets charcoal grilled for hungry drivers. Anika and I gorged on mince and bread, washed down with mint tea, all for 35 dirham. Then we set off again.
As the evening approached we decided to camp for the night thus beginning another small adventure into Berber life. We pulled off the road onto a muddy track going southwards, between Ouaoumana and Tighassaline. It is actually just after the turning for Ait Isehak. The track goes on for 50km into the hills. We did a few kilometers before doing a rather uncomfortable 5 point turn in a swollen river (the only place wide enough to turn). Shortly after as we headed back to the N8 we were hailed by a Berber family offering us their hospitality. How could we refuse? We ended up spending the night there (in the truck – not wanting to evict the family on our behalf).
The family live on a smallholding. They inhabit one room of thick mud wattle, much like the constructions I have seen at Singleton open air museum, of the old Tudor period farm houses. In one corner is a hearth, against one wall in a cabinet with plates, TV, radio. There is a hanger for the families clothes, kept concealed by a throw. The floor, a mud floor hard and dry, is covered in blankets and cushioned pillows. Despite the mud walls, mud floor and wet mud outside (it is still raining hard), the room is spotless. The room is protected by a sort of conservatory built of plastic tarps against a wooden frame. This serves as the boundary space between the cozy indoors and unkept outside. It is the kitchen, the space where shoes are kept, coats and tools. Neither room has a door that fits tightly enough to keep out the draft. Outside is a yard with a stables where four cows, a few sheep and one donkey are kept. The donkey is the farm tractor. It does the pulling, carrying and transporting. The cows are for milk. The sheep are for food.
They are a family of four, Mohammed, Havida, Meena (aged seven), Nordin (aged two). The father, Mohammed, claims to be 33 years but he looks more than forty. Anika hits it off with the daughter Meena. The son Nordin is a bit too young for her to play with. Our first meal is a soup, a sweetened milk broth with noodles. This is served in two large, deep plates, one for the men (and guests) and one for the females. For this meal are invited some of the neighbours keen to observe our family. We then all go for a ride in the Zil to the men’s cafe in the village whilst Havida cooks up a delicious chicken tagine. The kids all watch cartoons in the back whilst the men cram into the cab. The food is served with bread but first we must wash our hands in a bowl and beaker of warm water provided by Havida.
They are a very lovely family, very poor, with no welfare blanket to support them should they suffer a string of bad luck (accident in the field, illness etc.). Yet they seem very happy. Never did we hear any shouting nor naughty behavior. The hard life has certainly taken its toll on them. I expect the life expectancy is much lower than the Moroccan average.
Mohammed wanted Mara’s bike but she needs it in Europe. As well it has rusted up and requires a full service which he would be unable to do without the right tools. So we left them enough money to buy a bike with a bit extra. On leaving we know that they are our friends for life. Should we ever pass back through Morocco we shall always pay them a visit.
Moving on we reached the outskirts of Meknes by the end of the day. It has rained again for another full day. The rivers have burst their banks, the green hills are water logged, red water pours down like blood, washing the soil away. There were several accidents along the way, vehicles slipped off the road. I was going slow at 40km an hour, not only because of the slippery road but to avoid the reckless trucks.
Finally this morning is a sunny day! We shall go and explore this Royal city, one of four Royal cities in Morocco.