Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ourika and Skoura

We drove out of the valley on a road that swung around with the river. The deviations and adjustments that are made here to bring water to fields would make our Ministere de l'environnement have a conniption. Any land between the river and the road is occupied with a few saddled dromedaries waiting for tourists and other goodies for sale. There is a lot of pointing to the eyes and then the goods as we are strongly encouraged to peruse. "Come have a look. Just look," the salesmen implore.

The road is beautiful, a weaving, winding route around river and mountains. The snowcaps fade as we swing eastward but are replaced with red mountains and village after village. Many building facades are decorated with mountains of terracotta pots — tagines, platters, gourds, vases. Henri wonders what happens at night as it is unimaginable that the goods get moved inside. Never, in a million years, would they fit in the wee shacks they surround and, were you to try, it would probably take longer than it did to make them in the first place. Other buildings along the road are hung with carpets, shaggy and not, some twenty feet square, others little runners. The colours are spectacular and I can picture one in every room of my house but the pressure to look and haggle (a skill I lack entirely) is enough to keep me from stopping.

We drive on to the tiny village of Ourika, to a hotel known for its gardens. We are welcomed by Kareem, a very smily guy who invites us to the terrace for — you guessed it — mint tea. Henri tried to excuse himself to go take a shower, which in all honesty was all any of us wanted after three days in dusty sleeping bags. Kareem wasn't having any of it. We went through every building on the compound — indoor and outdoor lounge area, indoor and outdoor dining area, bar, pool and foozball machine, then through the gardens. I believe there were five of them. Herb garden, fruit tree garden, the garden with the chairs that looked like hands and on and on. I began to suspect they had run out of hot water and were stalling. Whatever the reason, it was forty minutes before we made it back to our pretty room. Our door led into the side of a hill, giving it a cavelike feel with a fireplace ablaze, carpets everywhere and beds piled high with blankets. Sure enough, the hot water took forever to come but it did and we all cleaned up, had a tasty dinner, played a few rounds of cards and hit the sack.

Back in our Kangoo in the morning both Henri and Wil noticed the gas tank had lost half its volume. Hmmm. Another possible reason for the long visit? The morning drive was through an intense mountain pass. I kept picturing the little towers of sand the kids used to make dripping wet sand from their fingers on the beach. That's kind of what the road looked like — a cone of sand with the road perched on the peak. Stomach-lurching switchback. Looking back at what we'd just driven through was an exercise in anxiety management. I passed around the chewable gravol and we all watched the road. We regularly got stuck behind a diesel-spewing stinkbomb of a grand taxi (80's era Mercedes Benz) with 8 or 9 grown men sandwiched in. Passing becomes somewhat of a leap of faith. Losing one's nerve might mean several kilometres of noxious fumes and snaillike speeds.

The mountain villages are flashbacks. Most of men in djellabas and kufis, women in niqabs or kaftans and headscarves. The towns are almost entirely ugly cinderblock squares with a few feet cantilevered over the front for shade while the homes in the countryside are either squat cinderblock or mudbrick blocks with brightly painted metal doors. Almost every village seems to have the remains of the most gorgeous crumbling kasbahs.

The soil colour changes every few kilometres, from ochre to gold to black and back. Out of the mountains and suddenly all things green are gone. Bare, dusty scrub. We stop at Aït Ben Haddou, one of Morocco's big tourist attractions, the backdrop for a thousand desert movies. To be honest, after the hike and seeing the Berber village homes up close, the attraction less than attractive. It is full of tourists and salesmen selling seriously awful crafts. We do the tour as quickly as possible, enjoying the view more than the actual site. We are in the desert — not dunes, but desert all the same. Geology on display. Layer upon layer of red soil and rock with no vegetation in site. We stop in Ouarzazate, home of the Moroccan film industry. The almost empty boulevard into the town is inexplicably lined on both sides with towering, ornate street lights every 20 metres.

School is out for their two hour lunch break. High school kids are cycling home for their two hour lunch break. We can't quite figure out where they're going as there are no dwellings in sight and we can see forever.

Eventually, an oasis appears on our left. An incredible burst of green. Palm trees, olive trees, grass, barley, water! We turn off before the town of Skoura into the oasis, trying to find a renovated farmhouse we've read about. We drive through a dry river bed and come across a white van and who is driving the van? Younes, our guy from the Sahara. Seeing a familiar face in such an unfamiliar setting feels a bit like coming home. His van is full of German ladies and we get the sense that he'd much prefer to be in the car with us. Unfortunately he'll be in the desert the night after us so our paths won't be crossing again. We find the "farmhouse", the most lovely building we've seen in Morocco. Beautiful tadelakt & tile work in all the rooms, a million lounge areas, the exterior all warm cob walls and white cushions and shade. Aaahhh... We watch the sun set over the distant Atlas mountains.

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