There’s a saying at home that you can take the man out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the man. I’m not sure what’s in me. Urban or rural? City or countryside?
When I moved to Hungary, I wanted city. I wanted noise, life, chaos … anything that would take me away from the quiet, somnolent, comatosed life I had had in Chichester. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter I spent in Valdez, a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people. So I suppose it depends very much what I’m in the mood for and given that my moods can last years, it’s little wonder that I’ve stayed in Budapest as long as I have.
Or have I stayed so long because I leave so often? Because I go to places that are far quieter than Pest? Places where traffic in a given day is counted in donkeys and not cars? Places where kids still play in the street and all five families in the village know each other. Places where you stop and wonder what in God’s holy name do people do here all day?
The High Atlas are something special. Yes, the valleys and the rivers are spectacular and the scenery is jaw-dropping, but it’s the Berber villages that left me awed. You can do lots of day trips from Marrakesh,** there’s something for everyone – be it overnighting in the desert or visiting the beach or four-wheeling through the Sahara. Me? I wanted to see the villages and the people – the Berbers. What’s not to like about an ethnicity where the women get to choose their husbands?
We visited three valleys in the High Atlas, each one different in its own right. Ourika Valley is very popular with the Marrakeshis – a weekend retreat from the heat of the summer where they come to wallow in the cool waters of the Ourika River. Imagine taking Szimpla Kert or any other ruin pub in Budapest and plonking it outdoors beside the river … then you’d have Ourika and the village of Setti Fatma. It’s all a little bit mad really. Seeing sofas and dining tables and chairs set up on the banks of the river and even mid-river is quite something.
Our end goal was a waterfall. A waterfall at the back of the village and up a few stoney ridges. Our Berber guide reminded me of the young MT. While the rest of us were huffing and puffing and trying to find our feet, he was bouncing along up and down the rocks like a goat. We’d been warned to wear flat shoes and we were first that morning. On the way down, it was mayhem. They needed the flag ladies out to direct traffic … and some of those heels !!!! Mad. The lower part of the path was lines with artisan stalls selling all sorts of Berber handicrafts and once again, I was cursing the luggage allowance on Ryan Air and making a mental note to myself for next time. There were plenty of cafés along the trail for those who dropped by the wayside and tempted though I was to let the others go on ahead, I’d never have lived it down. God bless those who have to hump in the cans of Fanta and bottles of water. It must be a thankless job. Gotta love the natural refrigeration though.
One of the most remarkable things about Morocco is its colour. It is so vibrant. So not what I’d have expected from a society that is 98% muslim. I don’t know why I expected sobriety to match with somber shades but I couldn’t have been further from the truth. The waterfall, when we got there, was lovely. But beside Horsetail Falls or Bridal Veil Falls in Valdez, it would have looked more like a dribble. Then that’s life, though – a mishmash of perspectives that vary with time. But I didn’t give up. I made it to the top. I persevered.
The next valley over is Oukaïmeden Valley, distinctive because of its tricolour ridges shaded by basalt, copper, and iron oxide and famous as one of the premier ski resorts in Africa. No snow this year though – it’s been unseasonably warm. Many of the rivers we passed by were dry and the farmers are feeling the pain. The terraces hewn from the mountain faces that should by now be full of wheat were empty. It’s worrying, especially for a largely subsistence people who depend on what they can produce.
There aren’t enough schools or classrooms or teachers to go around so the kids go to school in shifts from 8 to 12 and from 12.30 to 5, older ones in the afternoons. There are two secondary boarding schools, too, and all education, what there is of it, is free. French is taught from 3rd class onwards and most kids are trilingual – French, Arabic, and Tamaziɣt (Berber). Juxtapose this with women still congregating by the river to do their laundry and you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming.
We were booked in to have lunch at one of the village houses in Tachedirt, the highest village in the valley. Home cooking has never tasted better. We’d been on the road since 8.30am and I was hungry enough to eat a Berber bag, buttons and all. With tagine and couscous on the menu, we weren’t disappointed. Such is globalisation: this woman and her daughter catering lunch for some Austrians, Irish, Americans, and Australians, each of whom was marvelling at the simplicity of it all and no doubt a tad envious, too. The view was stunning. The food spectacular. And the air – so clean you could smell a blade of grass growing. Not for the first time this week I found myself wondering what it would be like to come back and stay a little longer…
The third valley, Asni, is by far the most developed. It’s here that the rich people have houses and where Richard Branson has a hotel, with a swimming pool and room for a few ponies. I wonder what the locals make of the choppers flying in and out and whether the residents ever leave the poolside?
Asni, being that much more populated, has its markets at which most of the locals shop just once a week. Esnee has one on Saturda and some other village has one on Tuesday. Coming down from the mountains takes on a whole new meaning [anyone old enough to remember Come Down from the Mountains Katie Daly? – must be the altitude getting to me]. It’s here, too, that the majority of the fruit is grown – apples, walnuts, almonds, and peaches – as well as the bamboo used as roofing in the Berber houses. And with lots of houses going up, the urban sprawl from the city is making itself felt.
It was a spectacular day. One that will live on in the memory bank for a few years yet. I’m grateful indeed to be able to kick off this 2016 Grateful series by giving thanks, yet again, for the opportunities I have to travel, to see new places, to meet new people, to get a glimpse of other ways of life. And were I in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, my first one would be: Travel … more.
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