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Glasgow, United Kingdom
An illustrator and games artist living and working in Scotland. I have various hobbies: coding, travel, art and games; and I enjoy writing about them.

5 January 2013

Morocco: High in the Atlas Mountains

I delayed this long enough. Without further ado, let's get stuck right in.

The hotel we stayed in is located some 80 kilometers from the capital - Marrakesh. The road there leads, at first, through the grey-red desert and eventually starts climbing high into the Atlas mountains. The name is a very romantic one, bringing to mind images from the Greek mythology. When the car finally gets to the viallage the rest of the way has to be traversed on mules. Mules are optional and are mostly for luggage. When we got to the hotel Toubkal came into view in all its majestic glory. The icy top was blinding in the harsh midday sun.

Early next morning we went on a small walk around the village of Imlil. It was a bit of a culture shock to say the least. I've never seen before a way of life so drastically different to our own. While we run around worried about insulation and gas prices the people there are worried about how the calf seems ill or how the crops will do. The land is their lifeblood and it would be impossible to survive without it.

Sorry, no banana for scale.

Another thing to note is that the air is thin up there. Two and a half kilometers above the sea level and suddenly I magically get out of breath walking up the stairs. The trek around the village was fairly challenging, but I loved every second.

The village itself lies in the valley below, but other villages cling to the mountains on each side. We were shown the road that goes all around the valley. The sheer scale of things is staggering. There was a rock on the other side of a gorge and we tried to judge how big it is. It didn't look too big from where we were standing. Maybe as tall as me. However when we got to the other side and walked past it, that little rock turned out to be a huge monolith, portruding from the ground to the height of a three storey building. Just shows how perspective and scale can play tricks on one's mind.

As we made our way around the valley we eventually decended down into the village. Suddenly the harsh terrain of the sun scorched mountain side made way to lush trees and rivers. Imlil has an incredible water system, which uses concrete stocks to re-direct water from the mountain river and deliver it to almost every home in 5km radius. This also acts as a flood prevention system for when the rains hit in January. Anyway, the harsh sun turns into pleasant shade of the valley as we decend into the village proper. I'm going to spare you and not write about how we got hassled by the merchants and how delicious the tea is. For these stories google can help you out with some travel guides. I'll only mention this, the busy village centre was filled with people, mules and smells I never thought would go together mixed in the air creating a thrilling aroma. Who would've thought that fresh olive oil and mule dung would smell so spicy and exotic?

The shade of the valley was a plasant change
In a few days, once we aclimatised we went on a longer trek around the surrounding mountains. My mother chose to stay in the hotel so it was just us youngins and the guide. This was a more challenging trek and more than once we had to stop to catch our breath. Up an overgrown spree and onto a plateau covered in small pines. I had many theories about them but never got a decent once solidified before we left the place. Maybe the wind was strong up here in the winter and there was no point in them growing any taller, or maybe they were planted artificially not long ago.

From this plateau we decended into the valley above the village. The sun was beating down from the sky and I felt like a real adventurer. The rocks crumbled underfoot, sweat was pouring down from both of us and the air was so dry we had to stop for water every few kilometer or so.

We even met some more tourists! Funny that British tourists seem to be always cautious around other British folk. Not sure why, but everyone got really defensive and monosyllabic all of a sudden when we approached them. Perhaps they read too many travel guides and thought it was some form of clever scam? We'll never know. As we walked Toubkal always towered over us, as if trying to intimidate. Gotta say, after the trek I did feel a little intimidated. But more so inspired. I promised myself to one day climb this mountain. According to our guide he can run to the top in around 4 hours, but most tourists take 5 to 6 hours due to frequent stops. One day, Toubkal. One day.

The next day we decided that we need some R&R and went on a donkey trek around the same route as we did on day one. It was a relaxing journey.

Half way round there was a strategically placed shop with a friendly owner who could speak suspiciously good English. Turns out he studied in Manchester. Perhaps the world isn't such a big place after all! In his shop we stopped for some hot tea and chatted.

Tea in Morocco is a huge thing. Everyone drinks it. However the guides online and the Moroccans themselves play it up for the tourists. In reality mint is quite bad for your "man organs" as our host put it. Almost no one drinks tea with mint, instead favouring simple herb tea with a staggering ammount of sugar. Before my very eyes our host stuck 6 cubes of sugar into his tiny glass, sipped it cautiously, threw in another two cubes, tasted it again, smiled and continued the conversation. I came back in a few days to buy some souvenirs and that's when the battle happened.

I never realised that I'm such a fierce haggler. We sat and we drank tea and then we started to haggle. I didn't have much money, and perhaps that helped me; because once you start haggle you are binded by an unspoken law to buy the item. Or perhaps it was that my Jewish and Mongolian genetic memory finally kicked in and I summoned the haggling powers and techniques of all my ancestors. The point is many hours later I recived all my items at quarter of their price and he threw in another little necklace in for free. When it was over he looked at me for a long time and said, "You, my friend, haggle like a Berber."

Him saying that was music to my ears.

The next day was our last day there. We relaxed, went to the Hammam, which is basically a sauna, and used up almost the whole supply of their traditional olive oil soap. The whole Hammam smelt of this oil and it was as if the walls themselves were infused with it. After that and a hearty meal of beautifully stewed meat with fruit and potatoes I had a chance to reflect on the trip.

Lying there, on the roof of the hotel on a soft throw made of sheep whool, I stared at the stars. I've never seen skies clearer and the stars brighter than in Morocco, high in the mountains. I thought about my life in Scotland, about why ducks like bread and about a million other, important and not so, things.

The next day it was time to go home, and I left with a sense that there are so many things I still haven't seen and haven't tasted, and haven't climbed and haven't explored.

I will be coming back someday.

A long journey home.