The Dades Valley spreads out supernaturally from the Tizi ‘n Tichka Pass of the Majestic High Atlas mountains onto a dry desert that pools into a riverbed oasis of a thousand Kasbahs. A long day’s journey begins with exhaustion and a chance for me to take a look at the sub-Saharan uplands of southeastern Morocco.
The Tizi ‘n Tichka pass was friendlier than the Tizi n’ Test ( from Imlil to Tarandant that I had taken just a few months earlier for my birthday). It was greener, shorter and the roads were seemingly in better shape. It reminded me of Colorado and from photos, quite similar to Tibet. The people live close to the road. You can easily see the mountain people in action herding sheep and cooking their tagines on the roadside, meandering around in the middle of nowhere looking like mystics in the mist, seemingly indifferent to the dark and the elements.
A journalist friend was traveling with her mother in Morocco on assignment. We had just spent a week together in my program based in Marrakech. They were ready for something new. I suggested a dreamy Kasbah called Dar Ahlam, House of Dreams, in Skoura on the road to the Sahara. With little persuasion, she asked if I would like to join them. I thought, why not? I had wanted to visit this Relais Chateau hotel, one of only three in Morocco, but it was always just a little too far. Today, I was content to rest in the back of the car, not being in charge of anything. I left Jenny to grill the driver. She was full of questions, as she should be, and I have found myself empty-handed of answers at times, no expert on Moroccan history. When I’m tired, I can hardly recall what I do know. Now someone else could carry the ball and if they didn’t know, they could say so. I was tired of saying it. So I dozed and dreamily gazed out the window.
Before reaching Ouarzazate we took a side road into the desert to visit Ait Ben Haddou, a village of Kasbahs, built in the 12th century. It’s the most photographed place in all of Morocco. Protected by UNESCO, what looked like a city of sand castles was being carefully restored by local craftsmen. A visit was a must. We drove closer and awed at her beauty from afar. Our driver, Fatah, said, ” too bad it’s raining, we could have taken a walk’’. Jenny, Carol (her mom) and I said, “we don’t mind a little rain”. We were adventurous. We were also hungry and tired after being in the car for several hours. A walk in a 12th century earthen village sounded too refreshing to pass up.
I changed my clothes. I had dressed in all-white, pearls and linen, in preparation for our night’s stay in the House of Dreams. I had been salivating all day. I was so excited that I postponed my flight back to Italy for two days. It wasn’t just to see an area that I had not seen before. It was a purely hedonistic decision, I needed a rest and this sounded luxurious. A walk in Ait Ben Haddou in the rain was not my first choice, but I was willing and I knew it would do me good. I shimmied into a pair of jeans, grabbed a jacket and a scarf and stuck on some flip-flops. Since it was raining, it seemed the appropriate choice. Suede was out.
We walked 50 ft and encountered a riverbed with a strong muddy current. Some local boys were vying for an extra dirham to give passage on a donkey. I assumed it was normal considering the infrequency of rain. Jenny and Carol went with a valiant head-dressed horseman, who hoisted them up by turn with ease beside him on his steed. Meanwhile, I was hoisted up on a small reluctant donkey and taken across 10 feet of wildly rushing desert- colored water with some difficulty and hesitation. Once deposited on the other side, we walked over stones in the dry part of the riverbed to the edge of the village. Fatah knew it well. We were having trouble walking. Dry desert dust and water make mud. Every two feet we would have to stop and clean our shoes, or else lose them. It was tediously funny. Finally we hit a stone path and entered the ancient Kasbah. It had stopped raining.
Climbing up the pathways, we could see where the old buildings had been restored and where they were still in ruins. Families had begun to move back in, bringing life to what seemed like a movie set. Which in fact it was at times, for films such as, ‘The Sheltering Sky’, a Bertolucci film adapted from the book written by Paul Bowles.
Fatah met a woman he recognized on the road that cautioned him about something we couldn’t understand. He said, ‘’waqqah”, ok and moved on. I asked him what she said. “She said, the river was rising and it will be difficult to cross back over”. At that point I forgot all about the ancient city and all I wanted to do was find a way to get back to the car so that we wouldn’t miss our precious evening at Dar Ahlam. I started weaving through the pathways to find the front entrance to the old Kasbah. I met another western woman who told us the river was now too high to cross. There had been much rain up stream and now the small stream we had crossed had all of a sudden become a rushing river. We would have to wait an hour or hike 5 k to a bridge. I knew how far 5 k would be; perhaps two hours by foot. In the mud it would be futile. Fatah was close behind and when he heard the news, he spoke to a few locals who suggested donkeys. I am a great fan of burros. Burroughs is my family name. I was quick to mount. I felt it was the best and quickest solution. It would cut the time in half. While we waited for a third donkey, it began raining again; harder.
The Berber men who provided the donkeys for us suggested that we wait for the rain to subside and invited us into their family home for tea and couscous. We were grateful to be dry and eating crumbly couscous, thankfully with a spoon instead of our hands. It stopped raining only long enough for us to eat in dry shelter. As soon as we were back on the donkeys, it started raining again. At this point we were ready and restored, rain or no rain. We were off on an adventure over the red mesa, with our arms around the kindness of strangers.
The entire landscape was full of rocks and boulders and fissures that we had to navigate through. Carol was barefoot and drenched, but still smiling. Jenny was still full of curiosity. “It seems we are headed away from the river. If we are looking for a bridge, shouldn’t we be going in the direction of the river?” I was the most covered, in a woolen scarf and the happy holder of Carol’s umbrella. She didn’t want it. I preferred it to shield the wind. I must have looked a sight on the back of the donkey in the middle of nowhere looking a bit Poppins like. I said to Jenny, “don’t worry, these Berbers know what they’re doing. I trust them totally.’’ Then we smiled at each other in total disbelief that we found ourselves in such a predicament. Just an hour before we were cozy, dry tourists admiring the sites from our vehicle. The next thing we know, we are refugees escaping a flood, totally exposed to the elements at the mercy of the locals, still unsure of our fate.
As a woman, I appreciate a valiant man, especially one with no pretense.I have gotten to know the Berbers over the last 5 years and I find them extremely gentile. They are kind, generous, big-hearted people, genuine to the bone. We gave them a mission and they were on it. I was behind Aziz; a strong jawed man with a talent for donkey driving. His series of clicks and commands had us jumping over creek beds, picking our way carefully down rock wall fissures and at times galloping. “Rro, rro’’, the most common command, makes your donkey go forward. The shrills and trills that came after that were ingenious and the donkey never failed us. Aziz would place his hand respectfully on my knee to protect it as we brushed against rock in tight places. I held on tight with my arms around his waist, moped style. He took a turn with the umbrella to give my arm a rest. He also kept checking to make sure I was ok. Speaking very little English, he would ask, ‘’it’s nice?’’ What he really meant was, are you ok? I would say, ‘’yes, it’s nice’’ just to please him. Cold, in the rain, in the middle of nowhere, not knowing if we would make it to our destination by nightfall, I would say, yes. It’s nice. One’s experience is always relative. I was on my edge and it was challenging. I could have complained or whined. But I didn’t. I was grateful to be cared for.
We came to the edge of the mesa. After traveling north instead of south, we were curious why we were headed in the opposite direction from the river. It was because we had to go through the opening in the rocks to find the path to descend. Jenny saw the river and the bridge and was relieved. Carol was drenched, but still smiling. I said, ‘’are you alright?’’ she said, ‘’just dandy’’. At 63, she was more open and free than either of us. ‘’That was a piece of cake’’, she later told us. She had been through hell for the last 9 years with her son, a heroin addict. Both survived. ‘’He has been clean a year, he’s in a steady relationship and I have a gorgeous grandchild. This was definitely cake.’’
We clip-clopped across the bridge then realized what goes out 5 kilometers, must come back 5 kilometers. It was easier terrain and went much quicker. We passed through a village where all the people came out of their houses to see the spectacle. Who were these wet women on the backs of the donkeys and why? We made it to the car just before dark. We said goodbye to our dear friends and gave them an offering of thanks. I hated to leave so abruptly. I would have preferred to sit somewhere by a fire and drink something warming to the bones. Yet, it was time to go. I realized it was their kindness that warmed me the most. The sight of Hamadi especially, looking as handsome as Omar Sharif. He ran behind our caravan in gum boots over rocky terrain the entire 10 k just to make sure we made it safely. I felt reluctant to say goodbye. Escape adventurism is intimate.
I took the essence of Aziz to my dreams that night. But it wasn’t in Dar Ilham. The river there had risen beyond passage as well. We stayed at Ait ben Moro, a Kasbah run by a Spaniard. I lamented terribly the missed opportunity for Relais Chateau. But even that became transparent. We were able to cross over the next day by 4 x 4. It was a beautiful sight. The chef prepared us a wonderful lunch and we ate by the fireside, out on the patio. He must have sniffed journalist. He was quite GQ and the meal was memorable. I was impressed with the place, but not too regretful for not staying there. Relais Chateau is a state of mind. There’s nothing to complain about. I made a plan to come back for a three day tented safari in the desert.
I am usually the one taking people to their edge, only because it’s no longer mine. Sometimes I find one for myself and when I do, I am grateful. It increases my own ability to stretch.
We headed back over the mountains, but not before we stopped on the side of the road for a basket of dates. After all, we were in the Dades Valley.