Our breakfast at Riad Karmela was quite nice. We found a table in the corner of the courtyard and picked our favorite foods from the buffet which included a variety of breads, jams, fruits, juices, vegetables, cheese, meats and eggs.
Soon after we finished, we were picked up to go on our three-day tour of the High Atlas Mountains. The weather was terrible…cold and dreary! I thought I hope we won’t have to hike in the rain as we drove through a drizzle and clouds so low that the surrounding landscape was hidden. Who knew there were giant snow-capped mountains in front of us.
Our first stop was in Tahannaout a town about 45 minutes south of Marrakesh. Here we visited an Argan Oil Co-op located across from a view point that overlooked Azrou, a 400 year village. Fortunately, the weather cleared enough for us to see this ancient Berber capital named for the city’s quarry of black volcanic rock.
The Argan Oil Co-op called Feminine D’Huile D’Argan was quite interesting. The argan oil comes from a nut on the argan tree which only grows and produces fruit in Morocco. The nut starts as green, then turns yellow and soon falls to the ground. It is left on the ground until it turns brown and harvested in May, June, and July. It is kept for a year to dry. The nut goes through two shelling processes before the almond is removed, roasted, and ground by hand for edible oil. The raw almond seed is ground by machine for beauty products.
The fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent noticed the silky skin of the Berbers and soon attributed the aesthetic qualities to the argan oil. With increased price and demand for the argan oil, the oil is considered Berber Gold, and the Moroccan government helped establish women’s co-ops to help extract the oil and protect the argan forest. This has provided much needed employment to women in rural areas.
After watching the nut cracking process and trying a few products, we joined our guide, Omar, on the rooftop where he pointed out the building is located next to a cemetery. The only way to know that is was a cemetery is that is was fenced. Otherwise it just looked like a grassy knoll, as headstones are not used to mark graves. Sometimes a small rock will mark the location of loved one, but after many years when the body has decayed, others are buried in the same location.
From Azrou, we traveled 15 more minutes south to Tagum Village (or Tagom on Google Maps) where we made a very hard right (almost a U-turn) to climb a wending dirt road to have tea with a local family. We were invited into their cinder block home where we saw their small kitchen (basically a firepit), a hammam which I didn’t know individual homes had, a shelter space for their cow, and a room for the tea drinking ritual. Omar quickly asked, “What is a hard tea to swallow?” Soon, he answered, “Reality.”
Kids played outside which prompted me to ask about their schooling. They go four hours a day, six days a week. Large villages have their own primary school while small villages tend to share one. Students go to boarding school for secondary education which is paid by the government.
We continued on through the Asni Valley where we passed by a hotel owned by Richard Branson before we finally arrived in Ait Souka Village where we had lunch at our Riad. We were served a hot tajine of chicken, rice with fish, bread, yogurt, and of course more tea which warmed us up before we prepared to hike. It was so cold on the rooftop patio, that we opted for lunch inside and piled on clothes for our hike.
We started our “easy” hike passing by cherry and apple orchards that were still dormant. We crossed the bridge to get to the street where we hiked down to a trail on our left that I would have never noticed. We crossed the street and began climbing up toward the Village of Armed on a dirt path. It led us by plain homes with decorative windows and doors, through a batch of trees, across a creek, along an irrigation ditch, and past mules to a waterfall! The waterfall was lovely and of course, no matter where you go sometimes, commercialism abounds.
We visited slightly early in the season, so no one was working at the creek side restaurant with a patio and lots of chairs. The primitive orange juice stand seemed like someone could appear from around the corner at anytime as a basket full of oranges sat on the counter with a knife and hand squeezer. A make shift sink with a circular spinning hose sprayed water for washing the glasses.
After admiring the waterfall, we climbed some more up a rocky steep path to another village. All I could think about is how do the Berber people climb up to their homes in slippers or clogs with their groceries or other supplies they fetch at the weekly market. It’s simply their way of life, and in my eyes quite amazing.
The Berber homes are generally two stories and 300 square feet. The bottom story is for their animals. Most families have a cow, some chickens, and a few sheep. The upper story is for the family, which is usually around six…the parents and four kids. It makes me think that sometimes Americans just don’t realize what is really needed in life.
Our trek ultimately led us through at least four Berber villages, including Achelm, Mzik, and Arhrene. All had a mosque. The buildings in the larger towns seemed to be more colorful than those of smaller towns. Kids played soccer and hopscotch and women worked near the house while men transported their goods on mules. I lifted my camera to take a picture of the hopscotch design on the ground as it differed from the one I grew up playing, and it was drawn with water in the dirt. The kids were off to the side, but one went running away. Kids, along with women, are not allowed to be photographed. I knew this and wasn’t even aiming the camera at her, but they have been told by their parents to disallow it so the little girl didn’t take any chances as she sprinted off.
Most of the kids are quite shy, though occasionally we were greeted by a cheery bonjour. All primary and secondary kids learn French in school as when Morocco was ruled by the French Protectorate, French was the official language. High schoolers study English. They have twelve years of schooling before they may attend free college, though the must pay for their lodging and such.
The villages clung to the steep hillsides which were terraced for their crops. Currently barley was being grown which is used to feed their animals, but for the summer other vegetables will be planted. Occasionally we got a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains that poked through the low hanging clouds. Toward the end of our trek, the skies cleared for some lovely view. Most of the trek felt like it was uphill, but we finally started heading down where we saw three kids rolling loops with a stick, and a few others sharing a tiny bicycle. They sipped water from a pipe coming from the irrigation ditch.
Eventually we reached the bottom of the valley and its town that catered to tourists. In fact, 90% of the families that live in this Imlil area survive on tourism. A few outdoor gear stores rented crampons. snow shoes, hiking boots, and poles. Here we met one of Omar’s nephews who was walking home from school. He was only seven and had to walk at least a mile with all of his schoolmates home. No parents accompanied them. They were entirely self-sufficient. We stopped off at a small convenience store where Omar bought his nephew and his friends candy bars. As a soccer fan, I was pleasantly surprised by the “Pringooaals!” can.
After 3-4 hours and six or seven miles later, we arrived back at our riad ready for a shower. Our room included three single beds draped in heavy blankets with a spare by the side of each bed. Our bathroom appeared to be recently remodeled it nice tile and a good shower. It didn’t seem quite finished as a small pillow filled the square window and the toilet seat wasn’t attached to the basin so it fell to the floor if it was touched! Fortunately, the shower water was hot, and that was all we cared about aside from dinner.
Once again, we chose to eat inside. This time we wrapped ourselves in the blankets as there was no heat in the mountain house. We ate a bland soup for our first course. Neither of us could tell what is was, but we thought it just might be leftover vegetables from our lunch tajine blended together. Next we were served kefta…ground beef meatballs, tomato sauce, onion, and egg for our dinner and a pudding for dessert. It was tasty. I’m certain we were offered tea again, but there is a limit to how much sugar we could intake for the day. Occasionally, we were able to get the tea without sugar if we remembered to ask before it was prepared.
Though freezing cold, we expected to sleep well after a busy day. Not so, we both woke up melting (those blankets were warm), and couldn’t fall back asleep for hours! We hadn’t overcome the jetlag yet. Anyway, I absolutely loved walking through the villages and could have spent hours watching the Berber way of life. ETB
PS. Omar asked, “Why don’t hens have boobs?”
He Answered, “Because roosters don’t have hands.”
He has quite a grasp of the English language!