Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In the Valley of Thousand Kasbahs

24-26.01 - Marrakech - Télouet - Aït Benhaddou - Ouarzazate, 215 km, three rides.

It's high time we left the Marrakech madness. Early in the morning we take a grand taxi for ridiculously cheap price of 6 MAD per person (around 0,54 € for a distance of almost 10 km!) to the center. From there it's just a short walk to the road leading direction Ouarzazate. We didn't find any indications where to hitchhike from on Hitchwiki, but it's not a problem - the road is not very busy (we even pass through one more souk, where we probably look as totally lost tourists for the local people) and we see many places where the cars can stop safely.

First car that stops is apparently a local bus. We've heard about Moroccan drivers sometimes asking for money so we clarify that we are hitchhikers and use an Arabic phrase that Iliass told us - "makaynch flos" - "I have no money." They don't mind and give us for free what other co-passengers have to pay for - a ride to nearest bigger village, Aït Ourir. From there we hitchhike with French tourists from Valence. Having heard a little about the propensity of Moroccan drivers to drive like crazy, irrespective of the speed limit and the road surface, which is not always the best quality, we are happy to have tourists as drivers - they don't take the middle of the road, are more careful around blind corners and slow down when passing through unpaved sections.

After crossing the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, instead of following the main road, our drivers decide to take an alternative route passing through Aït Benhaddou, a town on our itinerary. In this way we won't have to make a trip there from Ouarzazate, because we'll have already seen it on our way.

This route is infested with stunning views. The most noticeable thing about traveling from Marrakech to Ouarzazate is the change of landscape. You pass through the full range of Atlas environments - from verdant oueds with olive and fruit tree groves , through barren, snow-capped peaks and dusty brown and copper-red mountain ranges, to the arid surroundings of Ouarzazate. You can be almost sure to meet some donkeys and flocks of sheep wandering across the road. There aren't many villages in this area. Probably no public transport as well. This is the first place where we see local hitchhikers.

Tizi-n-Tichka Pass

Around lunchtime our Frenchies stop in the biggest village on the way, Télouet. As we get out of the car, a Berber man emerges to show us around. The village is quiet and dormant, the only sounds are blowing wind, household animals and, at some point, the loud voice announcing the prayer that emanates from the tiny ochre-colored mosque. It seems that time forgot about this place. People live in sun-dried brick houses, as they probably did 50 years ago, collect water from the stream, get milk from the cows, ride donkeys, take a bath in home-made hamam. Simplest conditions. Only few houses have antennas on the rooftops, the only sign of modernity.

Cheap version of barbed wire

The mud construction reinforced with straw
A walk in the village ends by a spectacular kasbah. It would be strange if a local gave us a tour that didn't end with a paid entrance to some attraction. Guido and I don't really feel like coming inside but the French invite us and we discover the kasbah together.

Sadly, the kasbah is slowly deteriorating and parts of the structure can be dangerous to walk through. It's made in a typical way the houses are built in the south of Morocco. They mix water with sand and clay, sometimes reinforce it with straw and let it dry in the sun. Bricks are made with the clay and then clay is pasted over the bricks to build a house. Such structures are extremely durable but take damage with each rainstorm and hence have to be reinforced every around 20 years. Another important feature of this material (especially in a place where the elevation reaches 1800 meters) is also the fact that it holds the heat during cold nights and keeps the house warm, if it was warmed through a hot day.

Despite its condition being not exactly splendid, its beauty is impressive. The great reception rooms with filigree ceilings, elaborate sculptures, walls, floors and slender columns covered with elegant zellige tiles made from ceramics, doors decorated with ornaments painted with natural pigments are like an interior designer's shrine. No detail left untouched! Through the latticed windows we can see stark beauty: the red village, the green countryside around it and the white Atlas mountains in the background.

After seeing the kasbah we get some lunch - Moroccan tajine; mine is meatless, the others' is traditional, probably with chicken. We are offered some "Berber whiskey" - Moroccan tea; the national icon for hospitality. Its preparation and service are fine-tuned when welcoming a guest. The tea is served in small glasses, and you pour it from high above to create a foam in the glass. And the massive amount of sugar they use in their tea... as I always detest having any drink sweetened, so in Morocco there's no way to drink my tea without a large dose of sugar in it. Morocco is the first place ever where I have seen sugar not in powder, not in cubes, but in cones - massive cones that are broken down before adding them to the tea.

Our drivers and our Berber guide
We linger in Télouet for more than 2 hours. The last stop on our way is Aït Benhaddou. This fortified village is simply stunning. It's regularly used in adverts and movies; one of them is famous "Gladiator." It boasts one of the most well-preserved kasbahs in the region (local people regularly restore it to keep its historical aspect, but also to maintain it for the moviemakers), which gave it the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. We even meet one local Berber who was a background actor in "Gladiator." He points us the exact locations where the shots were made.
By hopping on sandbags, we cross the Oued Ounila. We ignore some boys telling us "this way, this way!" (the fee way) and follow the way another local told us about (the free way). We climb steep, narrow streets, pass mud houses where only few families live, on the contrary to the opposite side of the river, where many former inhabitants have moved to the newer part of the village. At the top of the hill a prominent granary is situated. It offers a perfect view over the village, surrounding barren hamada and Atlas mountains in the background.

It was a great day with our friends the tourists. But it's getting late and we have to reach Ouarzazate where we have the next couch. When we reach the medina, we find our host Abdelilah in his shop, where he welcomes us with tea. We notice some backpacks - yes, there will be other couchsurfers staying with us. One of them is already there - Igor from Croatia; soon also Ellen and Kai from Germany arrive. Together we go to a place where Abdelilah's friend Mostafa has kung-fu classes. He kindly welcomes us to join, but first gives a short training to a group of teenagers. That doesn't really look the way I though kung-fu would look like, doesn't include any fighting, but I'm still not so convinced to join in. This was a long day and I feel a little tired. So is Ellen, so only the boys will have some sports tonight. At first the exercises don't look very demanding, later they become jumps, turns and flips that require some strength. Some of them are so ridiculous and difficult as well; Mostafa punishes the boys by hitting them with some object (later they say it didn't hurt at all to get hit with it). Ellen and I can't stop laughing, happy that we didn't decide to take part in this funny performance.

After a hot shower we go home, where we meet one more couchsurfer, Federico from Argentina. In total it makes 5 people (and me), the biggest number of co-couchsurfers simultaneously hosted by the same host in my CS history. The entire family is also there - Abdelilah's wife Jamila, her sister and 2 kids. They're sitting in the salon and watching some cartoon. Abdelilah's kids seem to be extremely used to visitors. They start playing with us the very moment we arrive. Language is not a barrier for them, the 6-year-old girl speaks little French, the 3-year-old boy speaks just Arabic but makes up for this with his hyperactive temperament that explains more than words. When he plays in the living room, the phrase his mother says most often to him is "safi, safi!" "Is his name Safi?", Guido asks her. "No, it means 'stop'."

For the first time in Morocco we have a chance to taste traditional Moroccan couscous. We all gather around the low table, sit on the floor. There are two plates, one big for the carnivores and one small for Federico and me, the vegetarians. First thing that makes me flabbergasted is that we eat straight from these plates, without separate plates for each person. In Europe people usually feel uncomfortable when hands on one plate become too many, the concerns of hygiene are too important issues. Here nobody cares. Eating from one plate directly increases intimacy among people. Spreading diseases are among the very least of our worries. We down the food, making a lot of mess at the same time but who would care...

The room where we have our meal will also be our living room for the length of our stay. High in the mountains (elevation 1160 m) the nights are cold, so we get plenty of blankets and sleeping mats. Our hosts do their best to ensure everybody feels comfortable.

In the morning our little couchsurfing tribe gets smaller. Igor and Federico are leaving. Igor wants to go all the way south, to Dakhla. It's only the beginning of our stay in Morocco and we probably won't have enough time to reach Dakhla anyway, but still, when we part and Igor says "hope to see you in Dakhla" to everybody, we hope that this will actually happen.

We also have visitors.As soon as we start our breakfast, the kids come to the room full of couchsurfers. We share some food with them, Guido entertains them with his juggling balls, they are fascinated. It's fun to play with them but on the other hand, it's difficult to get rid of them, they'd so much like to stay with us all the time. Writing a short email is impossible because once they see our laptops, they shout "Tom and Jerry, Tom and Jerry!" "Yes, I'll find some Tom and Jerry for you but let me finish this message," I think to myself. Impossible. They tap the keyboard, touch the screen. Another wonder for them is my camera. They want to take photos, videos, laugh when they can see somebody in the little screen. Almost impossible to keep these busybodies distracted. Even magical "safi" doesn't work. I take my eyes off the boy and just a moment later, to my wondrous surprise, I see him open my backpack and take some things out. Next time I look at him, he's playing with my box of playing cards, apparently using them as a substitute of a teether. What a little bastard! Then he finds another treasure, a bag with food belonging to the Germans (who had already left the house for the day). He looks very raring to eat the contents of the bag but even if I wanted to share it with him, I can't - it doesn't belong to me. And how to tell it to a kid who doesn't understand your language? I only hope that his mother manages to keep him away from us...

We discover the surroundings - thanks to the landscape that can closely resemble the natural environments of many countries Ouarzazate and its vicinity have been the backdrop for many movies (as we already saw it in Aït Benhaddou). Out of numerous film studios the most notable is Atlas Studios, the largest in the world.

We see our third kasbah in 2 days, talk with friendly locals and sometimes ignore the ones who are very oppressive in the way they want to sell us something. We knock down around 10 km without fending, meet Abdelilah once again in his shop, happily receive the news that more people are coming in the evening, among them a person from Denmark, get disappointed when all of them cancel their visit, walk back home taking a shortcut in total darkness without using any flashlight, eat another divine meal - Berber spaghetti, drink more tea, make more comfortable bedding with pillows and blankets (Guido's idea), get ready for another day of hitchhiking...

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