Thursday, March 05, 2015

Imlil and the High Atlas Mountains

We leave Marrakech and head in what we hope is the right direction. The signposts only seem to appear at the intersections when you've already committed to a direction or are too busy figuring out how to get safely through the roundabout to notice. Unlike anywhere else we've driven, the vehicles entering the roundabout seem to have priority. After a little jaunt down the wrong road we get redirected along a canal and onto the road to Imlil. The Atlas mountains beckon in the early morning sun. The towns we drive through remind us a lot of Mexico. Men sitting in clusters low to the ground around a woman ladling breakfast out of a pot. Small towns with a string of mechanics, moped repairmen, men sipping tea and kids on their way to school.

The road is narrow and windy. According to the white line there are two lanes. Faced with the reality of two vehicles, however... We spend a lot of time playing chicken — seeing who will move over onto the rough shoulder first (when there is a shoulder). We weave our way through the foothills, avoiding the occasional boulder on the road. The steep hills are deep red. Some of the boulders hanging above the road look seconds away from toppling. The regular appearance of repair crews is little comfort. We finally pull into Imlil, a little village of homes stacked atop one another up the side of the mountain. As we pull in, a man who appears to be waiting for us comes out to greet us. After a few minutes of handshaking and greetings we realize he is not the Mohamed we're looking for. He very kindly offers to call the right Mohamed on his phone because it will be cheaper for him. He gets in touch and tells us to pull over at the second parking where Mohamed will be waiting for us. The "parking lot" is the smallest little patch of flat ground patrolled by a smiling, toothless bearded man. Mohamed finds us and leads us to the little café across the road for tea and preliminary chat. We sit down in this surreal setting and make small talk. He introduces us to Mustafa, our guide and Majid, the guide in training. Across the road, we watch a man giving a long line of boys buzz cuts. We take turns climbing the steep, concrete steps to the bathroom, a dark closet with a squat toilet. No light, no toilet paper. The things we take for granted.

We pull out the clothes we need for the first little leg, the rest goes on three mules held by three muleteers. The harnesses across thee mules' chests are decorated with geometric patterns of rough, colourful wool, the saddle bags are pale blue and manage to hold our five backpacks, all the food for the trip and the guides' gear. The mules go on ahead and we start walking up to the pass. Alice, who's been struggling with a fever and a massive cold, can't seem to catch her breath — her chest heavy and full. She gets on one of the mules for the climb. The rest of us plod on, up a rocky, dry river bed, past the outskirts of the nearest village up through pine forest. The smell of pine and dust bringing summer on fast. The sun at altitude however feels like an assault. Suddenly the scarf makes a whole lot of sense. We keep climbing through the trees 'til we come upon a colourful carpet and some mats laid out in the shade of some pines. The muleteers and guides settle a little ways up the hill, jogging down to bring us mint tea. Despite the rustic setting, it comes out on a silver tray with five pretty, little glasses and the silver tea pot and is poured with the requisite flourish. Then a rice salad and tagine of ground meat in a yummy tomato sauce. Bananas for dessert. As we're enjoying our lunch we are visited by a herd of goats that wanders by through the trees. A bold one heads right toward the cook and is rewarded with all the vegetable and fruit peelings. He stands between the mule and the cook chomping away, the bright orange flashing against his black coat. When he has polished off all there is he bleats to his friends who've wandered away, off into the valley.

When lunch is done we head off back up the side of the mountain. The muleteers clean up our mess (we're all feeling very guilty about the service) and pass us later on the trail. We keep climbing, eventually coming to a pass leading into the neighbouring valley. The view is spectacular, snowy peaks a blinding white, pink valley dotted with villages, mosques standing head and shoulders above the houses, switchback goat tracks cut the mountainside into triangles. We are given the option of doing a quick hour on the switchbacks or a three and a half-hour walk through all the villages in the valley. It's up to Alice who is gasping for air. The mules aren't so great with mounts on the downhill sections. She decides to brave it for the team. The side of the mountain above the trail is peppered with snow. Henri and Majid throw snowballs at each other. We follow a few girls who are bringing their cows and sheep back from the high pasture. They are dressed in brightly coloured caftans over pants, headscarves in contrasting colours. They hurry on ahead, I think perhaps reluctant to be photographed by me.

The valley has an amazing canal system which takes the river water into the mountain villages. As the kids said, a foot wider and you'd have the most amazing flume ride in the world. The foot wide cement trench steals water and brings it along either side of the valley through every village. Every ten metres or so there is a little numbered sluice gate with a door that can be moved from the edge of the trench into the trench itself to block the flow. The door is opened according to the master list kept in every town as to whose field gets irrigated that day. The "field" is a steep patch of grass that isn't demarcated by anything visible other than the number on the gate. As Mustafa points out, nothing is growing above the canal. Below it are fields of barley, almond, apple and walnut trees about to come into flower.

The villages are spectacular. Earth-coloured two story huts — a door in the basement for the mules, goats or cows, a door upstairs for the humans. The doors are of every variety — rough wooden planks strapped together, old cans flattened and nailed together, corrugated metal, often painted. The villages are full of women and children and old men. Mustafa explains that "in Morocco, the man is the boss" — the men are all off working jobs in the city, mostly construction, coming home once a week, once a month, once every few months as the salary permits. The women run the show while they're away — raising the children, herding the goats, hoeing the fields, harvesting the barley, collecting the firewood. In contrast, once you're in the bigger towns, you see mostly men. Men sitting around chatting at the cafés, at the garage, at the store, the women flash by, hustling along on the verge of the road carrying cumbersome loads of wood or greenery.

The paths through the villages are at most wide enough for two slight people to pass one another. The locals very kindly step aside, nestling into the corners and doorways to make room for the big Canadians coming through. The women, bundled up in layers of colours, are bashful, wary even. The kids are downright friendly — offering up a big Bonjour or a wave as we pass. A well-placed A Sa'alam Aleykum goes a long way.

Mustafa sets a leisurely pace as he assesses our state of fitness and stops regularly to discreetly check our breathing and offer up a fascinating tidbit about Berber culture. He is very happy to talk about all things Berber. The blue mountain guide's scarf tied proudly around his head.

We drop further into the valley, through more villages. The walkways are so indirect, up and down, winding in and around homes. They feel a bit like secret passageways, some are dark tunnels between homes and the mountainside. Aside from the colour on the front door and around the windows, the homes are uniformly clay coloured. Stacked pink stone or mud brick covered with sticks, plastic and a mud roof.

Every village has its own cemetery, mosque and school despite the fact that some are only a few hundred metres away from each another. The mosques very politely let the neighbouring village's muezzin finish the call before beginning theirs. Each mosque has a little minaret with a loudspeaker pointing in a couple of different directions. "Allah is great. There is only one god. Mohamed is Allah's prophet. It's time to come and pray." Each sentence is repeated twice. Mustafa tells us there is always someone standing behind the one doing the calling in case of a sudden lapse of memory. After the call the imam has ten minutes to get to the mosque to lead the prayer.

Mustafa points out the guesthouse on the other side of the valley, a pink building under the only street light in the village and we cross the river one last time, across a bridge put together much like the houses, sticks and packed mud. We were all very happy to take off our shoes and look out over the valley floor. Minutes after we arrive, the now familiar and very welcome silver tray appears with piping hot mint tea and little chocolate-filled biscuits. Our room is a rectangular with one little window, the whole of it taken up by five single beds side by side and just enough room to get past at the foot. Each bed has a red pillow and a big fluffy fleece blanket. We move into another room lined with mattresses for dinner, where I suppose the muleteers will sleep. We take turns taking hot showers. There is no cold water to temper the heat so we end up holding the shower nozzle as far away as possible to avoid scalding. To little avail and to make matters worse, we forgot towels... We get dressed in the shower room, trying to keep everything off the wet tile floor and step out into the now freezing night. The moon is up and the stars appear one by one over the peaks.

We eat our lovely tagine. Mind you, we could have had gruel and have loved it. After we finish eating one of the muleteers comes in with his prayer mat and is waved away by Mustafa. We insist that he come back explaining that as non-muslims with little or no access to mosques, this may be our only opportunity for the kids to see how muslims pray. Mustafa chats to Wil and me as the kids, enthralled, watch Abdurahim do his thing.

After spending quite a bit of time trying to master some basic Arabic, Mustafa tells us that not only do most Moroccans in the south speak Berber, they speak one of several dialects that are incomprehensible to others. Great... Majid tells us he is a recent graduate of the only guide school in Morocco. It took him four years to pass the exam. He is coincidentally from the same village as Mustafa.

Over chamomile tea, Mustafa pulls out his dog-eared, and obviously precious, map to show us our route for tomorrow. Today was one ascent and one descent over twelve kilometres. Tomorrow we have fifteen on our plate, with two mountain passes to cross — two ascents, two descents.

We said goodnight and climbed into our sleeping bags. Everyone was asleep inside of five minutes — with the full range of snoring, tooth grinding and talking in one's sleep. The stars were crisp. The moon almost full. It's hard to imagine a more beautiful hike than the one we had today.

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