Morocco 2017 – The Atlas Mountains

We arise to another rooftop breakfast, with a table laid in white linen and small colorful tagines filled with preserves and shreds of butter.  We are back in the lands of well-rounded breakfasts, complete with fresh yogurt and one-egg omelets, which will help to fuel our final day of this tour and a much anticipated excursion into the High Atlas Mountains.

I have enjoyed three weeks of mostly temperate climate, sun and brilliant blue skies. Today would be no exception. Once we clear Marrakech, I note the consistent mud brick walls that separate the farms from the road, which is  a stark contrast to the hodge-podge of materials that I have seen used in perimeter fencing over the last two days.  We drive through an unexpectedly lush landscape marked by forest-green palms, lime-green weeping willows and a variety of bougainvilleas in full bloom. 

We climb up the side of the mountain and stop at a scenic outlook, where camels and aggressive trinket salesmen outnumber the tourists.  There is a blanket salesmen hawking antiques, and I see a clay oil lamp in a Roman style, but since I cannot tell if it’s an antiquity or a reproduction, I don’t show any interest in it since I don’t want to engage with the salesman. I hear Catherine behind me, with her steady stream of “La La La” (La is the Arabic word for no).   I try not to make eye contact but am barraged anyway.  I am chastised for speaking Arabic to a young Berber who is anxious to sell me his strings of beads.

Camel men vie with eachother as they invite passersby to mount their camels for photos (and we know where -that- can lead you…) We watch Doug as he checks the teeth of one of the camels and converses with the camel’s owner.  It’s one of many times on this trip that I would wish I could at least understand Arabic.  We continue to be impressed at how well Doug can walk up and start a conversation with pretty much everyone he meets.  

Back in the car and a few miles further up the mountainside, we encounter another police checkpoint. This stop takes much longer than our previous ones, and Mohamed is asked to step out of the car to speak with the officer at their vehicle.  Doug joins a few minutes later.  Several minutes pass. One of the officers comes up and slides our van door open, and asks for our nationalities.  Several more minutes pass…  finally Doug and Mohamed return, having resolved the questions the officers had about our rental vehicle. No money exchanged hands at this stop, which we again credit to Mohamed’s exceptional negotiating skills.

Finally, we arrive at Oukaimden, a ski resort and town at about 10,000 ft. elevation.  It’s windy but not as chilly as I was expecting, and Doug points to the green and rock pasture where some sheep are grazing, and said that usually there was still snow there this time of year.  Doug orders lunch from a tiny roadside tagine restaurant, and I scamper around the rough terrain, at one point I trip and take a spill.  “You lose cred with the Berbers when you do that,” Doug kids with me as he extends a hand to help me back to my feet.  

Lunch is ready.  We are seated under a large umbrella at a table covered with a white plastic cloth and laid out with an assortment of floral patterned melmac plates.  Tagines filled with beef, chicken and goat, under layers of potatoes, carrots and canned green peas, cover the table.  The goat is pretty fatty, but the dishes are all piping hot and satisfying in spite of the complete lack of spice that is an unexpected deficit to the cuisine here.

Tagines for lunch. Photo courtesy of Mark Charteris.

After lunch, Doug gives us an hour or two to wander around, and drives the rest of the group towards the ski area for some photo ops. I go out to the bridge and find a place where there isn’t any grafitti, and lay down on my stomach to get this shot of Mt. Toubkal.

Next, I climb about halfway up the hill to investigate the stone ruins that Doug had pointed out.  They appear to be the remains of a small village, with only stone walls remaining of the original one-room structures. Doug says that shepards use these ruins as shelters during the summer season, when they bring their sheep to graze here.  The grass is emerald green but very boggy, and there’s a lot of rock outcrop.  But the scenery is pretty fantastic, especially the view of Mt. Toubkal, rising 13,000 feet in the distance, being the second tallest mountain in Africa behind Kilimanjaro.  

I have brief thoughts of just staying here…

But the van pulls up, and Doug comes up to see if I’m ready to go.  He takes my camera and snaps a few photos of me, “Berber Girl with her sheep and horse” and stone ruins and mountains in the background, which would become among my favorite shots from this trip. You will find a zillion additional photos at Daveno Travels.

We head down the mountain to the valley floor, and the town of Ourika, where we spend another hour just wandering around. The road is lined on one side with hotels and shops, and on the other side with restaurants lining the banks of a fast-moving river. More than one merchant yells at me in 6 different languages, trying to figure out what nationality I am in order to entice me into their shops…

There are a number of footbridges to the restaurants, some more stable than others, and I spend about half of my time just looking at these eateries, with their brightly painted furnishings so close to the rocks that some of the chairs and tables are actually sitting in the rushing water. The roar of the river is so loud that it must be hard to hear your waiter…

One of the many riverside cafes in Ourika

Then it’s back to Marrakech for our final night in Morocco.

Back at our riad, I start consolidating my belongings to determine how large of a suitcase I need to buy for the flight back home.  I pour my remaining vodka into a water bottle, and peel the label off to visually separate it from my actual water bottle. I sort through papers and toiletries and start throwing things away.  I really hope to keep my luggage under the 8 pound limit so I don’t repeat the lost luggage issue that I started this trip with. I am loathe to spend money on a new suitcase, but it’s on my list of things to shop for tonight, now that I have a visual of the size that I need to buy. I pack my purse with stuff I’ll need tonight, top off my water bottle and join the rest of the group for the walk to the van. 

We pull up to the curb at the Jemaa el Fna and determine a place to meet in about 3 hours. Brenda, Mark and Catherine are looking for a restaurant, and Doug has his own shopping list to complete.  I bound out of the van, determined to wring every last minute out of this final evening.  I find a cash machine and head towards the tannery souk that we had passed by yesterday, in search of the fancy shoes I had seen.  

For once, I navigate to a previous place without getting tremendously lost, and find the shop that sells the shoes.  I pull a pair off the wall, and after trying on a couple of pairs, choose the ones that will go home with me.  I also find a thimble here, and barter with the shopkeeper for most of the money I have just pulled out of the ATM.  I show him my turquoise shoes, which have separated at the toe, and he glues it back in place for me (at no charge!). 

Back in the square, dark has descended and a carnival-like atmosphere now blankets the area.  I decide to try some street food rather than a restaurant, and walk past booths selling snails by the bowl, and several types of snack foods, before settling on the Chez Hadj Ahmed Doukali, with its rows of county fair style picnic tables and benches.  I order a spinach dish (the spinach turns out to be canned) and a chicken bistilla.  I pull out my water bottle, take a big swig, and discover that it’s the one I had filled with vodka…

After dinner, I’m feeling pretty great : ) and head back out into the square, flitting in and out of souks. I buy a pair of red leather slippers and an embroidered pillow top that I whisk out of the center of the 3 foot pile without disturbing the rest – a magic trick that mystifies the salesmen, who looks at me wide-eyed and asks how I learned to do that.  I catch up with Doug who is looking for tagines and books, He helps me to buy a knit prayer cap before we part ways again.

My shopping done, I’m walking through the square under a starlit sky filled with smoke from the food braziers.  Neon whirligigs like what I saw in Istanbul during EID shoot up through the haze and pierce the sky before falling back down and being chased by the teenagers who are trying to sell them. The air is filled with the noisy clamor from a thousand strangers, as I relish my final hours here in the carnival that is the Jemaa el Fna of Marrakech.

Jemaa el Fna, photo courtesy of Mark Charteris

I find Doug and Mohamed at the designated meeting place, and after about a half an hour, we wonder if Catherine has accepted the invitation she was made earlier to drive one of the horse-drawn taxis.  Eventually they arrive, they had found a restaurant that had both wine and bellydancers, so they are also pretty happy.  All of us collected, we return to the riad.

…. and I find that I have completely forgotten to buy a suitcase … 

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