There is far more to Morocco, Al Maghreb, as it is known among its citizens, than I can describe in just a short little blurb. Other than the intrusions of various cultures into this part of the african continent, the geography plays a large role in shaping Morocco as well. First and foremost, the High Atlas mountain range dominates the heart of the land.
Eclipsed only by Kenya’s volcanic Mt. Kilimanjaro, the High Atlas rise to a maximum height of just under 14000 feet and hold the largest mass of snow in all of Africa. The snowcapped mountains make an especially beautiful backdrop for the city of Marrakech if they can ever poke through the dusty, sooty air that blankets this town constantly. Widely inaccessible in winter, the high valleys and plateaus hide coniferous forests and, during the summer months, alpine meadows that rival those of California’s Sierra Nevada range. To the north the High Atlas is flanked by the gentler rising Middle Atlas and the Rif Mountains; to the south the drier Anti Atlas leaves its mark on the land.
The Anti Atlas is unique because it marks the gateway to the sand dunes of the Sahara desert in the east and is also the site of the Kasbahs, ancient berber villages encased within high protective mud walls in the fertile valleys of these relatively barren mountains. What is not mountains or Sahara desert, has been turned from stony hillsides and plains into fertile agricultural land. The main crops are wheat, which now in winter gives mile after mile of rolling hills a velvety green cover, as well as olives, argan, and almonds. In the south, almond trees are now at the peak of their bloom, while elsewhere olives and argan (a tree that’s very similar to olives) are being harvested laboriously by beating the branches with sticks and collecting the fallen fruit. In fact, during a four day hike in northern Morocco, I saw nothing but olive trees, so many that I thought I somehow got into southern Spain, if it wasn’t for the minarets of mosques rising out of small villages. During this hike I noticed that the herds of goats and sheep and camels are tended by men while all dogs seem to roam in packs across the countryside and not bother with herding. Life out on the land moves very slow, as slow as I moved at the end of my first day’s hike. Most labor is done manually or through the use of horse and ass. That goes for plowing, pulling carts, and driving the heavy grindstones that squeeze the oil out of olives and argan.
Sleeping out on the land posed its challenges with the hordes of dogs howling all night long in imitation of their wild ancestors. Add to that the competition between the various roosters on each farm and you can kiss a restful sleep under the skies goodbye. The heinous braying of a nearby arse would put a complete end to my snooze attempts and, thus, every night spent outside I watched the constellation Orion sink in the western sky and Scorpio rise from the east as the night wore into early morning. But then again, there were plenty of opportunities for daytime naps under gnarled olive trees. I survived this little countryside trek with only a couple of blisters and one dog bite in the left calf, inflicted by an especially aggressive little bastard.
In return it took a solid kick in the head from me. I cleaned the wound right away with a first aid kit, but decided to hitch a ride into the next town to get it thoroughly cleaned and some shots for tetanus and rabies. Luckily none of the teeth went past skin deep or else continuing to walk might have been painful. Occasionally I let the thought of sharks scare me while in the ocean surfing, while various loose dogs have nipped me three times so far in my life. At least dogs don’t have the teeth of shark.
Out of the countryside and back into the noisy and crowded capital city of Rabat, I once again savored the smells of exotic spices, couscous, and tajines with sheep meat. Oh yeah, and the stench of sewer and diesel exhaust here and there, but that’s Morocco. A visit to a hamam, a traditional public bath house, cleansed my skin of the road grime. Unlike my brother Abdul’s visit to a moroccan hamam last year, I found that the…uhh…sensual skin rubdown by another man is not mandatory. I still don’t know how they convinced an avowed heterosexual like Abdul to get every nook and cranny of his body scrubbed by some hairy dude. Well, I’ve had my moments, too…
A sweet crowning moment before my departure from Morocco occured in Rabat. The Moroccan national soccer team was playing Algeria in the African Cup, when I was getting ready to leave for the airport. The normally bustling streets were eerily quiet and layer upon layer of men crowded into tea houses to catch a glimpse of the match on TV. Soccer rules here; Morocco is currently competing with Egypt and South Africa for a chance to host the 2010 world cup. I’m not much of a soccer spectator but the tense atmosphere and various emotional outbursts lured me into such a tea house. All of a sudden three men near me got into a face slapping match over an argument as to why a moroccan attack on the goal failed. But each one of the three goals that Morocco scored, rocked the foundations of the city. Cheers blasted out everywhere. Windows shook. Many a fist raised in triumph smashed into concrete ceilings. The cheer increased to apocalyptical levels when ninety minutes passed and Morocco won with a score of three to one. The streets exploded with life again.
Then it became larger than life: hordes of flag waving, drum beating, and chanting youths spilled out from everywhere into the streets. Cars loaded to the window brims with people honked their way into absolute gridlock in the center of Rabat. Police here and there seemed helpless, hell, they celebrated, too. Finally, the sidewalks couldn’t contain all these revelers anymore and the broad boulevards overflowed with raucous people among all the honking cars. A fifteen minute walk from the hostel to the train station took me a giddy hour and a half. The joy was just infectious. Luckily I caught the second to last train to Casablanca airport, although I would have loved to continue participating in that wild mayhem. One soccer match! What if this team ever wins the world cup?
Morocco, with its intense mix of cultures and a timeless landscape has left an indelible impression on me and I am looking forward to returning to experience more of it. From here my next step is a long flight across the entire landmass of Africa to Capetown. The flight will also take me from winter to summer as I will end up in the southern hemisphere. I am already looking forward to ditching the pants in favor of shorts and shoes for sandals. You will hear from me, once I get my bearings there and find an opportunity to write. Until next time, enjoy life.