Wanderings of an artist in the trenches.

Morocco or Bust: 4

Installment Four

By Ali-Baba


Note: To try and expedite getting the blog closer to up to-date I’m going to post just the text and, hopefully, add pictures later.

Returning to Marrakech was tough. The heat had not dissipated and we immediately missed the cool breezes that wafted from the ocean in Essouira. We returned to Riad Empty Canvas and were set up in a different room this time, a little bigger, actually. We were there for only one night as we were heading off to Imlil and the middle Atlas Mountains. We packed our backpacks for the trip, and even making them lighter we were still hampered by the weight.

Jamal helped us organize this trip and his buddy at the travel agency got us all squared away. We were taken by a private driver to the mountains, which was about a three hour drive. The landscape was beautiful! Jon and I remarked how much it resembled the Southwest in America.

Imlil was not a large village and the streets were tight, like everywhere else, it seemed. We were deposited at a small coffee shop where there were other hikers sitting about drinking coffee, sodas, or “Berber Whiskey” (sweet mint tea). We were introduced to our host, Hassan Azdour, and our guide, Hamid. Both were very, very nice and they hefted our bags and shook their heads. They informed us that there was no way we could bring all this stuff we had in there. I was worse off than Jon. They ran and picked up another backpack and I put essential stuff in there. Hassan would take our bags to his house (Gite Tizi Mizik — I’ll include information for anyone interested) and they would be there waiting for us. What we didn’t know was that we’d signed up for a major hike.

We left the coffee shop and began to hike up the Main Street of Imlil which quickly turned to a dirt road. On either side were small shops with various colorful robes hanging from the wooden rafters, tajines and baskets lined the floors. Small restaurants had tajines bubbling with wonderful scents of vegetables and spices. Donkeys were coming up and down the road we were traveling loaded with the bags of tourists. The way forward was at a pretty good incline and I was getting winded quickly having to stop and catch my breath. Yes, I didn’t get in shape before leaving for Morocco.

As we made our way up the mountain we came to a very steep incline of large rocks that we had to work our way over. Presently we could hear a commotion and a large group of young boys came sprinting by leaping over the rocks like goats. It was crazy. One misstep and they would be dead. The drop from the rocks they were running full tilt over were 30 to 50 feet or more. It was amazing to see.

When we finally arrived at the village we would see what all the fuss was about. Guys dressed in the pelts of freshly skinned goats and sheep were chasing the boys about with sticks, smacking them with their switches. They had masks on and horns growing out of the tops of their heads. They were pretty frightening, and they reeked! The smell was practically a physical presence.

This hike ended up being five plus hours long and we were walking and climbing up some pretty precarious stuff. We really didn’t know what we’d gotten into. Jon did much better than I did and our guide wasn’t winded at all. He was walking at a leisurely pace, like a Sunday stroll. I was dying! My heart was pounding, I was gasping for breath and I was sweating buckets. But I stuck with it. I let Jon and M lead on and I followed in fits and starts. At times the ground was just a large field of rocks. At others it was dirt and small bushes. The vistas were breathtaking. You could look out and see the Atlas Mountains and the homes built into the side of them. Just beautiful. And the quiet! Oh, the quiet! It was heavenly. No planes flew overhead. No cars or horns or beeps or — anything! Just the wind and our footsteps. It was healing for sure. A salve for the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.

Horses ran free and you could see them, black and white dots off in the distance on the side of the inclines. Goats and sheep were there too. When we finally got down off the mountain we stopped at a small grassy area across from the home of an elderly lady. Hamid went to her and was able to borrow a large plate from her whereupon he laid our a picnic lunch of olives (olives are served all the time here in Morocco — I love olives to this is wonderful for me), Mackerel, Cheese, some kind of sausage, and bread. I passed on the Mackerel, though Jon had some, and it was nice to sit there and catch our breaths.

Everyone, it seems, knew our guide and he was well liked. Another large group of young boys was being chased by guys dressed in the skins. The skin clad guys came over to hang out with us, smell and all. They were laughing and cavorting and were happy to have their pictures taken. This, it turns out, is the way they celebrate Eid here in Imlil and it has been going on for a long, long time. Centuries? All the various villages come together to celebrate Eid, traveling from village to village. There are dances and music with much singing and laughter.

Hamid, our guide.

One thing that stood out the most to me were the voices of happy children in this village. You could hear children laughing and playing at all hours. They were extremely happy and it was uplifting to hear the joy in their voices. At night we could also hear the drums and the chanting and singing as the villagers celebrated Eid. This extended well into the early hours.

The Riad we stayed in was called Gite Tizi Mizik and it was very nicely appointed. The rooms were extremely clean, each with its own bath. The entrance room where all rooms adjoined was neat and overlooked the village and you could look far out at the mountain range and the buildings lining the slope. While we were climbing and hiking I was sweating like crazy. But in our rooms we left the windows open and the cool mountain air was a joy. Such a change from the oppressive heat of Marrakech. I’m an oven. I have a high metabolism and am usually cooking on a good day. I usually sleep without covers, or at the most a thin sheet. In the Atlas Mountains I was sleeping with layers of covers and it was perfect.

I was sketching in the main room when another of the guests came out and began talking to me. His name was ? and he was from Quebec here for studies. But he was going to go for the summit and had hired a guide for just that. He would be leaving the next morning. Very nice guy and it was fun to chat with him.

That night over dinner we met another two guests, two German girls who were also going to go for the summit but who had not hired a guide. They were laughing about how they were worried about whether they had enough warm clothes to actually stay comfortable. Also they didn’t quite know the route but figured it wouldn’t be too hard. We ended up being worried about them because we were told it was not an easy trek and that there were tough spots up there. We don’t know how they faired, but we had a great time talking with everyone and recounting our various travels. We were served a large tajine of couscous, vegetables and meat. Sweet mint tea, of course and for desert fresh apples from the trees outside. Delicious.

We took another two hikes, neither as difficult as the first, but tiring all the same. The second one took us up the mountain behind Gite Tizi Mizik toward the pass, which is part way to going to the summit called Toubkal. We had no illusions about trying for the summit. Forget that. Hell, I had no illusions about the pass! The first hike had cured me of that. Jon, however, wanted to try and make it. I had them drop me off at a neat spot next to some interestingly twisted trees and I’d wait on them and sketch. They took off and I settled in to draw. I was in the shade of the trees I would be drawing and got out my sketchbook and pencils, etc. I’m not a detail guy, but I was fascinated by the striations in the bark of these trees. It was right out of Arthur Rackham illustrations and I gave myself over to trying to capture the minutiae of what was before me. It was a total meditation about this one tree. As I drew, a man leading a heavily laden donkey sidewinded up the arid path and passed me. I’m fascinated by the use of donkeys and how anachronistic it seems to us, yet how effective it is in these environments.

I drew the tree as a double-page spread in my Moleskine and was hoping to get finished enough to do a nice crayon drawing of the mountain and pass to my right, where Hamid and Jon had gone. But the tree occupied my whole time there, which was ultimately fine. After awhile a mother and daughter came down the mountain and stopped to chat. They were from North Carolina so we had a good bit to talk about since I’d lived in Chapel Hill for quite awhile. They were very friendly and were happy to have a pause in their trek. Their guide had actually zoomed down and left them there, not that they seemed to care. I got some good pictures of them with my daughter’s cat in a teacup plush toy.

Not long after Jon and Hamid returned Hamid whipped up a picnic to have in the shade of those trees I was drawing. Jon confessed that he’d finally reached his breaking point. They did not make it to the pass and he said he just gave out. I was somewhat glad to hear this because they both had done so well on the other hike. I wondered how Jon could keep up with Hamid all that time. Glad to know there was a point of no return. 

Guy we met on our hike.

On the way down we passed an interesting house cum cattle shed that Hamid said was tended to by various family members throughout the seasons. It looked like it belonged in a Sergio Leone film. I took some photos of this and then we headed on down. At times we were walking on what seemed like very thin slices of land with very steep drops below us. There were no walls or hand holds anywhere and if you thought about it you’d get a little nervous. We ended up in a part of the village that I’d only seen from a distance, the houses built into the side of the mountain. We went to the roof of the highest home and the family came up and served us sweet mint tea. Below us in varying levels of height was the village and on the street we could hear the drums and the raucous sounds of the boys being chased by the Eid. Off in the distance we could see a large throng of white robed people gathered in a line walking slowly down the thin trail of the mountain chanting, singing and playing drums. All about us we could hear the children laughing and playing. Great bursts of uncontrollable laughter. It made everyone smile.

The tea was delicious and with it were various nuts and cookies, all wonderful. We stayed there for awhile and then made our way further down, entering the rocky ravine and following its course. We were surrounded by cherry trees, oak trees, walnut trees and apple trees. Each stone wall fenced in a different family’s plot of land where they were growing apples or walnuts. Each family could have multiple plots scattered all over the place.

Hamid reached up and pulled ripe walnuts from the trees, peeling off the green outer shell, then taking the Walnut and setting the pointed end down on a rock smacked it with his closed fist. The nut popped open and he fished the meat from within. I’ve never had a fresh walnut, only the ones that we get in the stores. This was a very different experience and it was delicious. I couldn’t get enough of them. All the way down we would pick ripe walnuts from the path or from the trees and eat them. Never got enough of them though. 🙂

That night Jon and I were the only guests at Gite Tizi Mizik. We called it an early night, but not before I got a photo of Hassan and his daughter with Mary’s cat in a teacup. Such a nice family.

Our last day in Imlil included yet another hike, but the easiest of the three. We actually took a road to begin with and made a stop at a sort of trading post where Berber carpets, blankets, jewelry, wooden boxes and chessboards, as well as fossils were sold. It was a cooperative which meant that people would bring their goods to this place and get a fair price, money being divided equally and fairly. Jon picked up a blanket and I snagged a couple of things for my daughter. Lots of good-natured bartering and bits of history were thrown in and we left happy with our purchases.

This trek was to be a much more leisurely walk to see Hamid’s village. I actually don’t remember too much about this trek, but there was more of the Eid going on and laughter. We ended up on the top floor of a coffee shop that overlooked the village. We had tea, of course, and coffee and Jon and I got ourselves orange Fantas as well. Hamid knew the proprietor and he sat with us for awhile to chat. On the street below was an odd mixture of transportation: donkeys, some with carts some without, men pulling carts themselves, taxis, broken down (but still running) SUVs and the one odd sleek Mercedes looking for a parking spot. People were climbing the rocks on the river, laying blankets out and setting up camping stoves. There are times when the light was right, I would look around and could believe that I was seeing into the past, that time had stood still and I was rewarded for some good deed with a glimpse of how it used to be.

On returning to Gite Tizi Mizik Hassan and Hamid began to lay out a feast. Hassan’s little boy of about 4 or 5 would hang out by the door to the Riad and wouldn’t come out. Hassan, with a gleam in his eye, said he was scared of the Eid. Two large tajines were brought out, bubbling with cooked meat and vegetables. Plates of olives were set down and platters of bread. Hot sweet mint tea was served with M raising the carafe high and pouring from close to a yard from the glass and its intricate designs. He took that glass and poured it back into the pot then poured again. He did this three times and it became a ritual we enjoyed throughout our trip. This might have been when we first heard the tea called “Berber Whiskey” as well.

When I was much younger I read a passage from “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence. In it he described dinner with the bedouins, the breaking of bread with the right hand and dipping into the bowl or platter to scoop up rice or meat. I was enthralled with that and here it was. We all dug in. It was so damn hot that I practically scorched my fingers. But it was so very good. The meat was succulent and the vegetables tender. Wonderful. One of the best meals we had in Morocco.

After we had fresh apples and more tea. Then Jon and I packed up and walked to the coffee house where we’d been earlier that day. There we were met by Hassan and he walked us to the original coffee shop where we met on our arrival. There we found our ride home. We said our goodbyes and piled into the car. The ride home was uneventful, though it was sometimes hair-raising to see a lone motorcycle rider stopped on the side of precarious roads winding through the mountains. He would be sleeping on a stone wall that had nothing on the other side of it but a sheer drop of hundreds and hundreds of feet into the chasm. The light as it sculpted the mountains was entrancing.

NOTE: Gite Tizi Mizik: Chez Hassan Azdour

Mobile: +292(0)6 66 39 59 21

Imlil-B.P:224-C.P:42152 Asni-Marrakech-Maroc

Email: azdourhassan@hotmail.com






On returning to Marrakech for our last night at the Empty Canvas we had yet another room which was also a nice room and a bit cooler than the others. We got dinner then crashed. The ancient city of Fez awaited.


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