Sunday, March 08, 2015

Berbers rock

We started off through the valley, back across the river and the scrappy little bridge through a beautiful little town called Ikiss. The berbers really have mastered the art of terracing. Walls of pink rock in elaborate stacks topped with earth and animal dung hauled over in buckets and packed in. Planted with barley in the spring and later with vegetables, the terracing save the locals a whole lot of travelling to the nearest souk over 20 km away. Not all of these towns even have a road. We walked on along a river, an old man with a rustic hoe balanced on his shoulder waited patiently for us to pick our way down the river bed without falling in. When we finally let him pass he dashed by in his billy boots and djellaba. Down in the valley we had a bigger river to cross and Mustafa didn't want us to risk losing our shoes or twisting an ankle so we threw our shoes to the other shore. Barefoot in the glacial, instant-muscle-cramp-inducing water, we were very grateful for a bracing hand from Mustafa & Majid who braved the freezing water to help us across. We climbed and climbed, wrapping around the side of the mountain on a goat track that led us to the first pass. Eagles soared overhead. Across the valley we watched kids leaving two villages a kilometre apart as they skipped along a path to the primary school perched on the hill halfway between. We stopped at the pass with the mules and had a little snack of figs, sesame seed balls, moroccan nuts and then began the descent into the next valley.

Through another village. The Berber women are simply stunning — dressed in brightly coloured tops and headscarves with pants and slippers. They are not at all what I thought of as Moroccan. Many have green eyes and fine features that, in my ignorance, would have put them more in Afghanistan than North Africa, with their pale olive skin with ruddy rosy cheeks.

We stopped for lunch under some almond trees and watched a woman working a terrace across the valley. Water flowed from an irrigation canal into the highest terrace and the woman worked her way down the levels, hurrying around hoeing a channel to bring the water into all her fields. The bright green of her barley testament to the effectiveness of her technique. Her goat had a front leg tied to a post and its kid bounced around in the fields bleating away.

The richer homes, which are few and far between, are plastered and painted cinderblock with real windows, wooden lintels and frames in the doors. The cost of transporting the building materials putting them well out of range of the average goat herder. The regular houses are one room of mud bricks or simply packed earth with grates or screens in the openings. The roofs are layers of sticks and larger branches covered with plastic and then clay. The eaves are edged with straw or reeds to keep the rain away from the cob walls.

We climbed some more. This time through big limestone boulders, past an abandoned mining operation which had torn a big red gash into the side of the mountain. We could hear goats in the mountains above us but we never saw them. Nearing the next pass, the juniper trees that we'd seen on the crest of the mountain came into view. Hundreds of years old, their thick trunks twisted and gnarled, their greenery added a welcome punch of colour to the scenery. The ground below the trees was as green and smooth as a putting green. I suppose the trees provide the only shade in sight and their roots hold the little topsoil there is to the steep sides of the mountain. The juniper were so fragrant it was dizzying. The track was peppered with blue berries and goat droppings. Cresting the pass, Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak, came into view, along with another gob-smacking valley. Three more villages nestled into the crook of the mountains. Wandering in the woods was a woman bent over double with a massive load of firewood bundled over her shoulder. We could hear her son singing to himself a little higher up in the trees. We descended into the village, roosters cockadoodledoing, goats bleating, mules braying. A little rosy-cheeked girl stood alone in her garden watching us pass. We wove our way down the track, the village coming into view one clay roof at a time, past a few men sitting at a table outside the village store, some small boys playing with plastic wheels and finally up to our guesthouse. Our knees and calves were screaming.

We went out to the village store for treats for us and the guides and ended up buying out the store's stock of Coke and Fanta. Thankfully Majid came along. The stores in these valley villages are a three by three window in the side of a building with nothing on display. If you don't know the name of what you want, you're at a loss. A couple of boys stood by hopefully and were rewarded with a little treat. They ran off with their chocolates as if they'd just robbed a bank but were back in seconds with their fingers motioning in front of their mouths for more.

We took turns taking showers. The hot water pressure reduced to a excruciating trickle standing on the freezing cold tiles if more than one of us turned it on. I'll never forget towels again! We listened to the three neighbourhood mosques' call to prayer in a sort of round as the sun set. The mule boys spent half an hour halfheartedly trying to put together a tv with satellite dish for the guesthouse owner but no one could say what they were planning on watching. The project was soon abandoned.

Over the edge of the terrace I watched two trucks pull into town on the one single-lane dirt road (the only vehicles in the village), both full of people and their supplies from the souk — flats of eggs, 25 lb bags of flour and goodies. The front truck would stop to drop someone off and the driver behind would honk and gesture, all the while with someone hanging off the side of the truck and chatting him up. When the trucks finally set off, the village boys trailed behind, wanting desperately to hop a ride.

One room of the guesthouse is a floor to ceiling pile of heavy fleece blankets for anyone to use. We sat down and the cook sent us up a massive plate of popcorn and biscuits with a sweet pot of Berber whiskey, mint tea.

After dinner, Frances tortured Mustafa and Majid with English tongue twisters. Majid gave us a lesson in Berber alphabet and vocabulary. I hadn't really realized that the Berber were Morocco's native people and the Arabs only came to town in the 7th century, that the Berbers were the holdouts when it was the French's turn as their settlements were too remote to capture. Mustafa told us that only recently had the government consented to having the Berber languages and alphabet taught in schools. Three years of Koranic studies, followed by arabic & math. He told us most rural kids don't make it past elementary school as the high schools are in distant towns and the transport is difficult. Post secondary is even more unrealistic as it requires exorbitant boarding fees in distant cities. The government has a program to provide high school kids with bicycles to get to class but after traipsing along the mountain tracks for a couple of days we could see just how unrealistic it was for most kids.

The mule guys came in for a visit after mint tea. They joke around with Henri, resorting to wrestling and wrangling to forge some kind of bond that the language barrier prevents. Mustafa shows us the route for tomorrow and we say goodnight. We all settle into our sleeping bags piled high with fleece blankets, pillows felt like they'd been filled with cement. Nonetheless, sleep came so fast.


Mom said...

Sarah, It's not "rooves"; it's "roofs". Miss you.

Peter C said...

Just getting caught up. Sounds amazing; another great adventure ! Wish Bubbles courage and a quick recovery. xOX

ajm said...

Hope Alice is feeling better. You are a wonderful writer. - Annabelle