Out in the Country


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Published: June 17th 2008
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Kelaa to Ait Ourir


Cleaning DayCleaning DayCleaning Day

Salma finally tired of playing soccer in the living room and we sat down on the floor to cool off.
I decided to visit my friend Rebecca, who was in Peace Corps with me and is still here since she extended her service a year. Becky lives in another town close to Marrakech and I used to travel from Kelaa to her site in Ait Ourir almost every month.

Maryam woke me up in the morning around 11:30. It had been another hot, sleepless night. When I looked out the door of my room into the central living room I saw all the furniture had been moved. It was washing day. From the cleanliness of Boise it’s hard to understand just how much dirt the Sahara produces, but imagine that southern France is often blanketed by dust blown north from the North African desert. Satellite images have documented swirling clouds of sand and dust far out in the Atlantic. Now imagine living in a small town close to Marrakech where the streets are unpaved and the fields surrounding town have been barren since the spring harvest. Morocco is a sandy place.

All the furniture had been moved out of the main rooms of the house and stacked in the back room so Maryam (and I) could fill buckets with
Taxi KabirTaxi KabirTaxi Kabir

This is not one of the taxis I rode in today, alhamdullah. I doubt anybody got anywhere in it today.
soapy water and wash the house. Literally. Maryam scrubbed the walls, floors, windows - everything. I played in the water with Salma and swept the water away from the door to the room that contained the furniture. Moroccan furniture is light: wooden bed/couch frames line the walls with thin mattresses and pillows to cushion them. The frames are called sedari and the mattresses are ponjes. The round table that occupies the center of the room is on wheels and easily moved out of the way. Ponjes serve as couches, chairs and beds. A person can watch TV, eat, read a book and sleep comfortable without getting up. Guests are taken care of to the max and not asked to every get up. I don’t count as a guest anymore and had to help with the soap suds and currents of water flowing through the house and down the stairs to the drain.

After the floor was dry Salma and I got out her little soccer balls and played soccer it the bare living room while Maryam made lunch. Her husband Hichem came home from work and we ate in the center of the floor, sitting on pillows around the
Foothills of the AtlasFoothills of the AtlasFoothills of the Atlas

The fields may be bare, but mountains will always be beautiful to me. Ait Ourir nestles into the foothills on the way from Marrakech up of the Atlas to Ouarzazate.
table cloth spread out between us. It was all fun and games for Salma - and me.

It cooled off enough by late afternoon to head outside so I threw a few things in a bag and went to the taxi stand. Taxi transportation in Morocco is a communal experience. Taxi stands have a director who coordinates who will drive where. Passengers show up and tell the director where they’re headed. When there are six passengers the director tells a driver to get going and the taxi takes off. Taxis are invariably old Mercedes, which sounds luxurious by US standards, but isn’t. They’re wide old cars that are all in various states of disrepair. Around Marrakech most are vomit-green. Different regions tend to have different colors. Farther out in the Sahara they don’t use Mercedes but Toyota station wagons.

Two passengers sit in the front seat and four in the back. Luggage goes in the trunk. People transporting animals take vans with racks on top for sheep and goats. I settled into my first ride of the trip, from Kelaa to Tamillelt. It’s about 20 or 25 kilometers. I got the window seat in the back behind the
A Linguist's ParadiseA Linguist's ParadiseA Linguist's Paradise

In Ait Ourir there are signs pointing back the way I had traveled through Sidi Rahal and up over the Atlas to Ouarzazate. They really should be written in Berber - or Tashillhit also. People here are all multi-lingual.
passenger seat. It’s generally safer to sit in the back in case of an accident but hotter. Window seats are better than being in the middle because you’re only squished up against one stranger instead of two. The man next to me in the first taxi was friendly and talked to everybody, including me, the whole way. He asked if I lived in Marrakech or Kelaa and I told him I was a tourist. He looked at me sideways and responded that tourists didn’t speak Arabic. I told him all Americans speak Arabic as a second language, just like Moroccans learn French. He laughed and didn’t press the issue.

He asked to be dropped off before we got to Tamillelt. I am always amazed at how many people ask to be left on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. Often there are no villages or even solitary houses in sight. However, this land has been inhabited for thousands of years and homes cover the land where you wouldn’t think people could possibly survive.

In Tamillelt I jumped out and walked across the taxi area to claim a spot in the next Mercedes leaving
Edge of TownEdge of TownEdge of Town

The moon was up early when I got to Ait Ourir and picked my way through the alleys to Rebecca's house.
for Sidi Rahal, also known as Zaouia. This town is much smaller than Kelaa or Tamillelt but was the main market town for my friend Cybele when she was in Peace Corps. She lived in a village called Tazert a short hike from the main road. There’s plenty of time to reminisce while waiting for taxis and sitting in them, squished up against the window. I thought about all the times I had traveled through Tamillelt and Sidi Rahal, bound for Tazert to visit Cybele or to Ait Ourir to visit Rebecca. Often I was lonely from being in my site alone too long, or bored from being in my site too long, or depressed from being in my site for too long. See the pattern?

This time I am on vacation, carefree after working a real job for a whole ten months back in the magical land of America. I have an iPod to listen to Nelly Furtado singing about being a bird flying away. I don’t have a schedule to keep or work waiting for me unfinished in Kelaa. I am a tourist. It’s a delicious feeling.

The taxi filled up quickly in Tamillelt and I
Not Really the Middle of NowhereNot Really the Middle of NowhereNot Really the Middle of Nowhere

American products have penetrated even the smallest villages in Morocco. The Arabic writing is advertising a stall that sells milk and juice around the corner from the taxi stand.
was back in my favorite window seat, watching the fields skim by on the way to Sidi Rahal. Most fields are wheat and the wheat is bought by locals or eaten by the farmers themselves. They’re planted in February or January, depending on the rains, and harvested in May or June. We passed fields in various states of harvest, though none were even remotely green anymore. The only green is the dusty color of the cactus fences planted between fields to keep sheep out. Some had recently been harvested and the hay was stacked in neat bundles scattered around the field. In some places the bundles had been pushed together into the beginnings of a hay stack. We passed only a handful of finished hay stacks, which are long conical structures plastered with red mud. They dry almost instantly in the Saharan sun and keep the hay from blowing away. Dust devils danced in the distance, stretching up from the dry plain, reminding me of summer sand storms which would decimate an uncovered hay stack. In most countries hay would mold in such storage, but nothing molds here. It’s far too dry for that.

Before Sidi Rahal the guy
StorkStorkStork

I'm used to seeing storks nesting in the tops of mosques, since in Kelaa there are no trees to speak of. Ait Ourir provides its storks with real treas, this one covered with grape vines.
next to me got out and walked purposefully off into the dry, rocky fields, leaving me breathing room and the chance to inch away from the hot metal door and window that focused the rays of the sun to baking temperature. In Sidi Rahal my door was opened by the taxi stand director who remembered me and asked how Cybele was and how my cat was doing. While I was in Peace Corps Cybele’s cat had kittens and I had taken one with me from her house back to Kelaa, transporting it in a cardboard box. I must have looked funny enough to memorable even two years later. The next taxi left almost immediately for Ait Ourir and I didn’t have enough time to take any pictures of Sidi Rahal to show Cybele that the place is still there waiting for her.

The third and last ride was uneventful, sliding past more dry and barren fields but increasingly speeding through olive groves as we neared the foothills of the Atlas. Becky’s town is at the foot of the Atlas where the road goes up from the Marrakech plain to cross at the Tishka Pass and head down to the
MosqueMosqueMosque

Walking through the streets of Ait Ourir on my way to Becky's place I caught the last of the evening sun rays on her neighborhood mosque. Fig trees and masses of grape vines line this street and make it one of the more pleasant in town to walk along.
dunes beyond and the caravan trail to Timbuktu. Yes, it’s a real place out there in the desert, though I have no desire to trek the month or so it takes to get out there on a camel. One more week and I’ll leave the Marrakech plain to start my trek north away from the sand and towards a more reasonable climate.


Additional photos below
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Saharawi HennaSaharawi Henna
Saharawi Henna

Rebecca is close with a family in Ait Ourir who is from Zagora, a small Sahara oasis I visited in spring 2006. They took her out to the desert and welcomed her with henna. The Saharawi have their own henna designs that I might like even better than the Fes designs I have always asked for when I get henna.


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