There have been many times on this whole adventure that it’s all about the journey and not the destination. This was the case many times in India, and it’s certainly the case on this Intrepid trip through Morocco. We left the Todra Gorge at 9 a.m. and arrived at our destination – Ait Benhaddou – at 7 p.m. Along the way, we had drove through vast brush filled plains rimmed by the Mid and High Atlas Mountains; shopped at a weekly local market, ate lunch at our driver Moulay’s family home; and visited a non-profit artisan workshop. At our destination, we climbed the casbah at our destination before a couscous and tajine cooking class with our host.
Our first stop was the weekly market to pick up food for the meal at Moulay’s. M warned us there’d be touts and people following us, but mostly this was a place where the locals bought and sold their wares to villagers. The weekly market takes place in a different places each day so each village has a chance at commerce. It was in an open space and looked like an American flea market with tarp-tented stalls filled with vegetables, housewares, and some tourist goods.
I bought two kohl eyeliner containers, one from a Berber woman sitting under an umbrella. Her tattooed face, covered with ink dots that act like a brand to alert the men she’s married) was the only part of her body visible and she demonstrated how to use the product on her own heavily kohled eyes. Elizabeth and I walked around looking for hostess gifts and learned that we had to bargain hard on everything, even coffee. We were quite the attraction and gained some young male followers, some who tried out their knowledge of English swear words as we passed.
M and Mouley brought in bags of food to a big, airy house that overlooked the terra cotta-colored and dry landscape of Ouarazizite. Mouley’s brother Omar let us into a large open room covered with red Berber carpets and lined with similar covered benches along the wall. It was a comfortable room and cool, a contrast from the bright heat and hot sun outside. Moulay served us mint tea after an elaborate pouring, tasting, and heating ritual. He then brought in a large plate of cous cous covered in vegetables and a beef roast. We didn’t have plates so took spoons and shared the communal dish in the center of the table. Normally, Berber eat with their hands, balling up the semolina bits and scooping the ball into their mouth, but that would have been a catastrophe for our group, so we were happy with the spoons.
Omar and his brother’s family shared the house and after desert two little girls had to be pulled and dragged into the room to meet us. There were other kids, but these were the only brave, albeit still very shy ones. They sat across the room from us and our group did not make any gestures to meet them, but smiles from 10 feet away. To break the ice, I went over with a cooking for the little one, Rashida who was four, and showed her my pictures as she sat on Moulay’s lap. Then I asked to take pictures of her and we smiled together when I showed her the display screen with her and Moulay’s face. Elizabeth gave them pretty barrettes from Australia.
We left with a lot of thanks and smiles and headed off to the Horzon Project in between Oarzizite and our desitination. The Horizon Project is a center that provides rehibilation, training, prosthetics, and income for handicapped Moroccans. We toured the clean grounds, clinics, playrooms for the younger attendees, and the craft shops where some members make pottery, rugs, and jewelry for sale in the gift shop. The King and the Intrepid Foundation sponsor the project. Our guide had been there since it opened in 1994 and was obviously very proud of the modest, but very complete services the project provided to disabled Moroccans. I felt especially sad/happy/touched in the play room and saw the pictures of all the children who attended the school and playroom. Some smiled from the pictures and some didn’t. I said a prayer to heal and feel courage because their battles are so much bigger than any of ours. All of us bought jewelry and pottery in the gift shop.
We arrived at Ait Benhaddou in the evening with the sun saying good night. This meant the historic casbah and village on a hill was glowing gold. Many movies have used this restored town as their background for Arabian tales, most famously the film Gladiator and Laurence of Arabia. Our host at the hotel was nicknamed “Action” because he’d been an extra in about 10 movies filmed here. M led us on a hike through the narrow uphill streets to the top of the hill. It was incredibly windy, but the view spectacular. I looked down on the ancient town dimming in the setting sun, the mountain vistas and river valley and felt amazed. This was never a place I would visit on my own and was thankful to be here.
Before a late dinner, “Action” and his sister Erika taught us how to make cous cous and tangine. Actualy they mimicked it because there was no open flame and the actual cooking of these classic dishes together takes about four hours and a lot of steps. The most intersting thing is that in a tangine, the vegetables are arranged like a campfire to steam them properly over this time. Action was very entertaining with jokes about his superstar status and trying to guess our ages by looking at our hands. He tried to broker a deal with M to purchase me for some camels, but I refused to be third wife saying that I can only be number one. Our group ate some gorgeous lamb tagine for dinner. I said goodnight when some tourmates started barraging M with questions in a now familiar, demeaning way that I couldn’t handle anymore. Elizabeth came up to the room later and we spent about 30 minutes cackling laughing and venting about these tourmates and their idiosyncracies. Not the nicest thing to do and I can’t excuse my behavior, it just felt good to release a little bit of tension garnered by traveling with so many different personalities and perspectives.