Hygiene and cuisine
The camps were well organized. The crew prepared our individual tents. A small tent containing a real toilet seat was quite comfortable, and a “shower” tent with a small jug of warm water created the illusion of hygiene. There was a dining tent with table and chairs. We had “happy hour” every evening with red and white Moroccan wine and plates of olives. Mohamed sat through these rowdy sessions stony faced but abstinent.
The food was good. Most Westerners know about couscous, but equally popular is tajine, a steamed dish with either lamb or chicken. The meat is placed on the bottom of a two-inch clay pot and covered with vegetables and potatoes. Prunes, olives, or raisins may be added. Olive oil and subtle spicing based on cumin complete the dish. It is covered with a conical clay lid and slowly steam-baked in a clay oven.
Framed by the awesome peaks of the High Atlas, the entire area is a fertile valley. The Berbers grow corn, barley, fruits, vegetables, and olives and raise sheep and goats. There are many irrigation channels and dikes. The villages are economically self-sufficient, as they sell their carpets and trinkets in big-city markets to buy other essentials.
The women work in the fields, carrying very heavy loads on their backs. At one point, a slip of a girl sat near our group for a momentary rest. One of us tried to lift up her bundle of freshly harvested corn and failed! Women tend the animals, cook, and do other household chores. The men build the dikes, erect houses, take goods to the markets, and maintain the trails. An interesting division of labor.
Atop several solitary hills stood fortresslike buildings, which were a most dramatic sight. These granaries were once bastions of defense, where the local population retreated with their goods and animals during tribal warfare. In another village, a tall, square building filled the dual purpose of granary and mosque.
Over the pass
One more major challenge remained–getting over the Tizi n’Ait Imi pass at 9,512 feet. Both the approach and the descent were very long and, as before, all shale. I rode my mule part of the way. The beast was tame, not a bit obstreperous.
Mohamed lived in the At Bougoumez valley, not far after that last tizi, so he invited us to his house for “Berber whiskey.” This delightful drink, which we drank copiously with every meal, is made of green tea, fresh mint, and liberal amounts of sugar. It was surprisingly refreshing and rehydrating after the long, hot walks. Ritual demands pouring it from about a two-foot height into colored glasses, without ever spilling a drop.
His house was solid. The inside walls were whitewashed. We were received in a room empty of furnishings except a beautiful, soft, red- and-cream flat-weave carpet and an alcove decorated with pillows and blankets.
We spent the last night of the trek in the same village at a Berber lodge, grandiosely called Auberge de Montagne. It was utterly simple, bare essentials only, but spotlessly clean. There was plenty of hot water in the showers, and the tajine tasted good. The warmth of hospitality was overwhelming, and French was spoken.
The next day we walked eight miles to the end of a dirt road, where a inibus waited to take us to Fez. Several hours later, while soaking in tepid water in my all-marble bathroom, contemplating my blistered feet, I fondly remembered the moments when I set aside my false pride and took respite in riding a mule. I remembered the smiling faces of the colorful Berber women, who while steeped in their Islamic faith did not shrink from showing their faces in public. Finally, I remembered crossing and recrossing the warm waters of the M’goun on our three-day river walk. What a different world the highlands of Morocco offers the traveler, far from the suffocating crowds of its famed cities, and how pleasing the journey had been in its simplicity and honest hospitality.