Life is Precious: To Ourzazate and Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

21 Jun

It’s day six and I wish I could stay longer at Kasbah Amazir in scenic Todra Gorge. The breakfast table by the pool groans with boiled eggs, fried morning bread just like Malaysian roti, three kinds of jam, honey and fresh fruit, all washed down with fresh squeezed orange juice and strong cafe au lait.

We’re travelling the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs today heading to our own kasbah destination of Ait Ben Haddou. The roadside views for many kilometres are flat, dry and stony abutting a ridge of similar red brown earth with adobe compounds in various stages of repair occupying the highest points and the ocasional oases.

By a reservoir lake we see masses of the large, new second homes of Middle Eastern families who come here just for a few weeks holiday every year. We stop briefly by the odd ‘Monkey Feet’ weathering of the soft rock for the inevitable ‘me in front of a thing’ photos.

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As ever the journey is enlivened by Yacine’s story telling. I know more about Yacine and his family than I do of some of my closest friends. If there is one defining chacracteristic of Berber men, and I have now met a few, it is honesty. A couple of times I’ve wished Yacine didn’t share quite so much, as with his story of the home remedy for his chronic piles one of his three sisters concocted for him. But Yacine’s self deprecating humour and the love he has for his family go straight to the heart so we laugh along with him and urge him to tell us more.

Coffee stop is in the rose town of Kelaa-des-M’Gouna where an annual rose festival is held May 5th. We’re too late for the blossoms but I can buy pure rose hip oil to nourish my sand blasted skin. I joke with the stall holder, a man of course, that he should use his own product as his hands are dry and cracked. Another fellow assisting with translation explains that man-with-dry-hands is not actually the salesman, he’s just minding the shop for a friend.

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Translator left, man-with-dry-hands right.

Driving out of town we encounter the only serious traffic accident I saw in my time in Morocco. A car with a head sized hole in the shattered windscreen is parked by the road and a smashed bicycle is nearby. A man lies prone in the dirt with several men thronging around him. The man’s face is as beige as his jelaba except for the blood trickling down from a head wound. He is not moving.

Those who see it try to piece together what happened. The most likely scenario is that the elderly man on bicycle was crossing the road and was hit full on by the driver. The cyclist was then thrown up onto the bonnet and into the windscreen. It is also almost certain that he is dead. It’s quiet on the bus for some time as we process what we witnessed.

It’s heating up as we go south and the lunch stop in Ourzazate, home of the ‘Mollywood’ Atlas Film Studios is literally sizzling as our group eats by a roadside barbecue. For the first time fellow diners, local people, engage with us and chat while waiting for food.

Moroccan women outside of the cities seldom eat in roadside restauarants or take tea/coffee as the men do but here we see a couple of wives.

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We make our kasbah destination in Ait Ben Haddou, Le Sable Rose, by 3pm and by 3:15pm we’re in the pool cooling off. Ait Ben Haddou was a thriving Berber community built on a high rock formation until the water stopped flowing in the nearby river forcing them to move. Today only five families live on the rock. We visited two to see and hear how they continue to survive. Mohamed is proud of his roles in three of the many feature films shot on and around the kasbah and showed us photos and souvenirs of ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Prince of Persia’. All the families who own houses, whether resident or not, are paid when a film is on location there.

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Everworking Yacine.

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From atop the kasbah.

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The sign/word for Berber.

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Exploring the many levels of the village I spy a woman hanging laundry. Quite a task with a limited water supply. Through sign language and a little French we agree on a photo to add to my stock of laundry snaps and Jamila happily poses for me.

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It’s time for our tea with Lela Memas in her home. Over mint tea and snacks the diminutive 85-year-old answered questions about her life. She raised eight children in this three level adobe home (the lower level is always for the animals) and has lost count of the number and names of her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

All her offspring are healthy and working but her husband has been ill for some time and his treatment is expensive so she has moved him across to the new village where he gets better care. She comes home every day to maintain the old house and receives visitors like us by appointment. Yacine has been visiting with her for twelve years and there is true affection between them. It’s clear Lela Memas is worried for her husband but she manages to smile and joke with us. I realise she is the same age as my parents and consider the differences in their circumstances.

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Beautiful, gracious Lela Memas.

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Dinner tonight is special. We cook tagines ourselves in the hotel kitchen under the tutelage of head chef, Mohamed. For some reason I’m given a Moroccan name, Lela. Perhaps Sharon is not considered a suitable name, who knows?

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Nic and Eileen offer words of encouragement.

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Bit disappointed we did not use the clay pots but it is an industrial kitchen.

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Ta da!

It’s our last night on the road together so I open a bottle of red wine, Morocco’s second best, according to the supermarket checkout guy (the best bottle has been reserved for Stuart who arrives tomorrow). It is my first alcohol since I left Paris and though I have not missed it at all it seems right to toast to everyone’s good health ‘Be Sa Ha!’ and congratulate Yacine and ourselves for a wonderful week of travel together.

Tomorrow is our last day and we will enter the madness of Marrakech!

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An outstanding group of fellow travellers!

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