Sunday, 12 June 2011

Morocco: There's a lot of it about

Click to see my exact route
I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of Morocco, but by god am I glad I went. I found all of the spiritual transformation and artistic inspiration which I had hoped to find in the mountains and deserts there, but I'll stick to the more adventuresome parts for recounting my voyage. Leaving the city of Marrakech, which was overrun with tourists and the merchants who invariably follow, I got a ride with a fruit seller to the foothills at the very edge of the widest section of the High Atlas range. Immediately I saw a flaw in my plan: I was to rely on the melting mountain snow for water, and there wasn't a snow-capped peak in sight. I had gone on a power trip, packing 8 days' worth of food, and another 5 days of emergency rations. Utterly useless without water; I had to walk along the road for some time until I reached the altitude at which rivers are still abundant, all of which seem to flow out into the desert (I know, right). I didn't bushwhack like I do in Europe. This entire country is crafted out of hardened mud: god help he who chooses his own footholds on the parched mountainsides. There are no hiking trails in the Western sense, but the century-old paths worn and woven by countless donkey hooves and sandalled feet are extensive enough to make the National Park Service seethe with envy. Choose whatever direction looks the nicest and eventually you'll find yourself on a trail.

Though you can't blame my confusion
when this is what Hollywood would have
us believe the typical Moroccan looks like
The mountains are not barren wilderness. Berber villages dot the landscape with a comforting frequency. They are an adorable people. A walk through a secluded township makes you feel like you're in a movie, with children running along behind shouting 'bonjour!', old women gawking out of windows, and chickens fleeing along the road before you. I made the mistake of trying out my limited Arabic on them. Most do not speak Arabic, let alone French. The Berber have a language, culture, and charm that is utterly unique.
Both the Berber and the Arabs of southern Morocco possess very little besides hospitality. But in this they are among the richest people in the world. My 8-day supply of food lasted me 12; nearly every day I was invited into a mud hut for bread and olive oil, or a platter of stew, or a refreshing swig of fermented sheep's milk -- there's nothing like it on a hot day.
Once I achieved my goal of crossing the range by foot, and reaching the 'silent city' of Ouarzazate, I made the decision to start hitchhiking. My friends and family had warned me of being too idealistic; of trusting whom they perceived to be nothing more than a race of desperate desert people. The truth is I felt as safe as an American alone in Morocco as I would in rural England. The first rule about visiting the country: you must learn to decide who is showing genuine hospitality, and who just wants your money. Once that distinction is made, you will sink into the culture and lifestyle, reluctant to ever leave.
The most memorable people who picked me up were two college kids from Casablanca. They had had to cancel a trip to Japan because of Fukishima, so they had gone on a 2-day road trip, on which over a week had now passed. After spending the night at their abode (we watched Black Hawk Down and made a 3D animation) they said to me, "Where you are going looks nice. We'll take you there." We spent the next four days driving deep into the Sahara, dodging sandstorms and bandits. After camping deep in the dunes, defying the scorpions with my bare feet and playing my harmonica under the stars (stars more brilliant than I have ever seen -- you could see the Andromeda galaxy) I returned to the mountains to finish out my voyage, where I got comfortably lost for four days before hitching back north.
I camped out in this valley, and many similar ones.
Sweet tea five times a day, watching football through a window in the shade of olive trees, trading cell numbers with a man who lived in a cave...I certainly felt like this place had everything to offer a kid such as myself. At the same time, after almost three weeks I began to feel what Robert Service termed 'the gnawing hunger of lonely men, for a home and all that it means.' My wanderlust has been sated for the moment. I have finally been somewhere exotic, and was surprised when I felt right at home there. Some day I shall no doubt return with larger water bottles and a better grasp of the three languages. But for the time being I can stop dreaming about trotting the globe and set my mind on more prescient things -- schoolwork, artwork, and girls.

If you have any questions about the country or this kind of travelling, please comment!