Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Morocco Day 2: Berber Villages on the Haouz Plain

Sunday, September 4, 2011

After a somewhat hectic morning of trying to rouse sleep-deprived students following a night in the Marrakech clubs, we left Marrakech for the network of Berber villages on the Haouz plain at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. 

Villagers in Lalla Takerkoust

We stopped in the village of Lalla Takerkoust beneath a large dam and reservoir long enough to load up on drinking water for the trek, and take in the mishmash of shops selling everything from trinkets to complete cattle carcasses.

Mohamed & Lhaucine

Then we drove off the main highway to the small village of Tachbibt, the starting point for our 2-day trek.  Our two Berber guides, Mohamed and Lhaucine, organized all our gear to be carried in large baskets by donkeys – we were quite a caravan with 8 donkeys and guides, 4 Berber men who would be our cooks, and our 2 Berber guides!

Departing Village of Tachbibt

We started by descending into the Oued Amezmiz, a large dry river valley that descends from the Atlas Mountains to the south through the nearby city of Amezmiz. 

Tomatoes near Tachbibt

Water is the key to life in this region, and our guides quickly helped us to observe all the ingenious ways Berber life is built around capturing water and using every available small scrap of land for growing food: in the midst of arid desert we constantly came across patches of corn, tomatoes, beans, squash, potatoes and Moroccan mint for daily tea; in addition to the ever present olive groves were fig trees, pomegranates, quinces, walnuts, and almonds.

Berber girl on irrigation ditch; Atlas Mountains in distance
Berber boys on donkey off to herd sheep
Picnic lunch beneath the Olive Trees

After a couple hours of walking through the arroyo and greeting the occasional Berber child herding goats or sheep, we stopped at the edge of a large olive grove for lunch; while we rested in the shade our 4 Berber cooks sprang into action and soon produced a banquet: platters of fresh cut vegetables and salad, including peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and olives, with loaves of flatbread, cheese, mashed sardines and rice  -- unbelievably delicious.

Liz Cox with Mohamed
Donkeys pass Trekkers on Trail
Safari hats to protect from sun
Temperatures were in the high 80s – hot in the direct sun, but lovely in the shade and whenever we had a breeze.  After an hour-long “siesta” we headed back onto the trail, and crossed through several small villages, and up and down ravines, until we arrived at the village of Ait Zitoune and the “gite” or hostel where we would spend the night.

Traditional Berber house
Old & New Building Styles in Ait Zitoune

Berber architecture reminds one of the pueblos in the American Southwest, with thick, mud walls and stone that keep temperatures cool during the daytime sun and retain the heat in the cool night.  Yet many of the villages are being “modernized” and the traditional buildings being replaced with more efficient concrete block – much less pleasing aesthetically and hot during the day and cold at night, but easier to plumb and equip with electricity, apparently.

After traditional Moroccan mint tea at 4 pm, we had time to rest or roam the small village made up of perhaps 10 families.  Some of the women in our group befriended a group of Berber girls and were promptly invited to participate in a female-only pre-wedding party for a new bride in the village.  Others of us walked along the ridge-top observing the intricate irrigation system that brings water to verdant small fields, while listening to boys singing while they herded their sheep.

Dabrahim with Mohamed & Lhaucine, Ait Zitoune
Following another amazing meal provided by our cooks – who sang and drummed throughout the meal preparation – we visited with Dabrahim, the owner of the gite and clearly the village elder.  A man with a smile that fully engulfs his wizened face, he patiently answered our questions about Berber village life: his family (12 children but only 1 wife!), how young men and women meet and court (at Berber social gatherings, and then the families introduce them formally), and what are the problems they face in the region.  The answer was clear and simple: “When it rains life is good.  When it doesn’t rain, life is hard.”

We then asked Dabrahim if he had any questions for us.  Only one: “Are you married?”  He was astonished that in a group of 37, there was only one married couple, and 32 young people between the ages of 18 and 23 and not a single one married!  Berber life centers so strongly around the family, the village, and the land that our group seemed simply inconceivable to him.
Berber Women in Ait Zitoune
After dinner our cooks brought out their drums and musical instruments and we had a lively 2 hours of singing, drumming, and dancing, where SAS students intermingled with local men and girls, and smiles and laughter abounded.  Eventually all 37 of us took our mattresses to the roof of the gite to sleep under the stars – the Milky Way gilded the sky, as did several shooting stars – a stunning night sky.  The quiet of the countryside was broken only by the occasional braying of our donkeys in the courtyard below and the first call to prayer at 4:20 am (!) – echoing from several villages on the surrounding ridges and ravines, and finally culminating in a loudspeaker atop the next building over from the gite.  When I woke for the first call to prayer I was delighted to see that Orion has rejoined the night sky after his annual summer absence – fall is approaching!
Dan & Pat with Hilary, Jordan, Laura, and Kat -- Ait Zitoune village, Haouz Plain, Morocco

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