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Published: March 25th 2009
We slept at Stansted Airport. I say we, but in truth Seth slept and I woke up every fifteen minutes freezing cold and wondering why my wrist was in so much pain. Realising that this was in fact due to vigorous cleaning of the oven before moving out of our flat the previous afternoon, I knew it was my most pathetic war wound to date. Such banalities, I thought, will at least be left behind for the next six months, while in Africa... yet here I am hand washing my clothes and hanging them out on the balcony to dry. I guess some banalities follow you (though I don't think they were on the same plane as us...)
Twelve hours later, we were sat at a beach bar in Agadir, trying to convince each other that we really were at the start of our epic trip, that we really were in Morocco and that this was it; the beginning. Six months to track down the alphabet, in order, in Africa. It was a great feeling, a little surreal - like Agadir itself. A giant, hazy sky sat on the flat beach, running for miles in both directions, giving the place
the same feeling as an empty room in which words bounce off the walls. A huge earthquake fifty years back devastated Agadir, taking apx. 18,000 lives and pretty much everything traditionally Moroccan in appearance with it. All that is really left is the old kasbah on the hill above the beach, which we found to be a wasteland in which foreign visitors kicked up the dust and tried not to get blown off the cliff edge and into the Atlantic. To shake the feeling of the beach-holiday-tourist-trap, you have to dodge the gauntlet of waiters who fly at you with laminated menus printed in ten different languages, and look for the places where Moroccans either go or are. Such places include the small meat and vegetable markets away from the tourist souks. Another is the port, where ships are built, fish are sold and from where thousands of boats sail and return with the catch. Loud seagulls outnumber fishermen. An enthusiastic old man even demonstrated the variety of fish available by picking them up from his friends' stalls and dangling them in our faces. He even went as far as to blow up a dead puffer fish to illustrate how
it looked when inflated. Basically, I thought, that's just kissing a dead fish. The hotel we stayed in had character, in that it was full of them; the baby that screamed all night, the passive-aggressive British guy who kept provoking mild arguments in the courtyard, various drunk people who got locked out then tried their keys in the wrong doors, and the sacred house buntings who drank from the communal squat toilet. Before leaving town, we bought a trinket (to be procured in every alphabet town, and a, after all, was for Agadir.) It was a metal symbol for the Berber letter 'Z', also known as amazig, a symbol of the people. To get a 'Z' in our 'A' was somehow pleasing, and the gentleman who sold it to us had a workshop straight out of 'Gremlins', full of strange objects glued together (horseshoes, jawbones, doorknockers, planks of wood.) He worked at a brilliant old desk besides which a tray was piled high with empty tea glasses; the sign of a true artist.
From Agadir we journeyed southeast, via the walled city of Tiznit, to a place called Tafraoute on the edge of the Anti Atlas. Here, great granite
rocks, boulders and mountains were surrounded by palm trees and villages full of squat cherry red houses. There were valleys full of bright yellow and purple flowers, so bright it was like walking through a cartoon. Seth is showing a sudden interest in wild flowers and is taking lots of photos on them. We even hailed grande taxis and hitched lifts to find the places where the valley was carpeted with the most flowers. 'Perhaps I'll become a botanist!' Seth announced. 'You could find out what all these ones are called,' I suggested. 'Nah, can't be bothered with that,' came the response. Don't think he'll be a botanist any time soon. It was on the way north that I finally saw goats in trees. I'd read about it and seen pictures, but it's not until you are actually looking at four goats balancing on the branches of an argan tree that you genuinely believe it's possible. I grinned for about an hour afterwards. I had been staring out of bus windows for four bloody days trying to see goats in trees. We reached the town of Demnate after dark, with no map, and no clue whether hotels would exist. Thankfully,
there was one, though the receptionist disturbed me a little by tugging on my sleeve when Seth wasn't looking and giving me a demonic look that was perhaps intended to come across romantically. The next morning, we reached the town of Ouzoud (it means 'olives', and the area is full of them), deep in the countryside, to visit the famous waterfall there. I can say with entire honesty that I have never in my life seen a place so beautiful. Spring had brought to Morocco not only flowers, but also storms that had even caused flooding in some parts of the country. For the Cascades d'Ouzoud, already in their best season, it meant the water fell faster and heavier than ever, tumbling a hundred metres down a double layered red gorge, slick with green moss and inhabited by daredevil pigeons who flew across the spume. A rainbow hugged the falls, and you could crawl to the very edge of the rocks, where the water sped up and plummeted downwards, and look over the edge. Retreating from doing so, I found my legs were shaking. Heights and wild water scare-fascinate me. Those people who go white water rafting - in my
eyes, they are totally insane and also kind of incredible. (As for bungee jumpers, I am one; it is far better to stand at a great height with a chord tied to you than to do so without.) In the late afternoon, climbing out of the gorge in the company of barbary macaques, through olive groves above the roar of the falls, the sky suddenly turned a deep grey and thunder began to rumble. From the roof of our tiny guesthouse, a full panorama show of electric lightning streaks began, flashing across whole stretches of the sky in streaks of purple, bright blue and white, while water crashed down. With torches, we tramped through the mud and rain to the only restaurant open in Ouzoud, an outpost of travellers huddled over tajine pots, munching olives, drinking tea while rain thundered on the roof.
It took a full day and four grande taxis (shared taxis) to reach the outpost town of Midelt in the Middle Atlas. At the penultimate stop, it was raining and dark, and we sheltered in a crowded teahouse while the driver tried to round up more passengers. About twenty pairs of suspicious eyes fell on us. I
suppose tiny Boumia rarely saw foreign visitors. It seemed to be a place totally composed of tiny butcher's shops, with huge hunks of red meat hanging on hooks and chickens rendered slightly silly, headless, plucked, and dangling. Earlier, I had seen a man carrying about seven live cockerels by the feet, swinging them casually as you might an umbrella. We'd also followed a lorry full of donkeys. It was a good travel day.
Midelt, like Tafraoute, was less appealing in its centre than in its beautiful environs. Seth had selected the nearby village of Berrem to be our 'B', so we walked there, tempted away from the road by a ruined kasbah backed by snowy mountains, then following a path along a river, meeting locals on donkeys along the way. Berrem's mosque soon appeared ahead of us, with the village built up behind it, every house squat and cream coloured, giving the place the look of a pile of butter blocks. Behind was a deep gorge, and the white Atlas stood proud in the distance. It was breathtaking. What a place for an alphabet town. The river running through the gorge was crystal clear, so we sat on the
bridge (built with wooden planks and sand bags), dangling our feet in the water while women washing clothes nearby smiled shyly. In the village, prayers had just finished and we met a man called Aziz who invited us to his house for tea. His house was large, and dark, with high ceilings supported by thick wooden beams. The preparation of the tea was a complicated process, which I watched with fascination. When the sugar went in, it was in a crystallised block the size of my fist, and the tea was from Shanghai. The kettle boiled on an awesome stove, built by Aziz's brother, composed of pipes that led up through the ceiling, the base of which was made out of a car wheel. He was a stonemason, and when we had had tea and cakes, who took us to the site where he and his friends were working; fortifying a river wall against flooding. Baseball-capped and with a nice smile that came often, Aziz and his hospitality became as central to our experience of Berrem as the village itself. Finding a trinket in a village that only seemed to have one shop open was not easy. We eventually settled
on an eraser that depicted an Arabic version of Barbie, wearing a headscarf.
Heading north and west now (in the direction of Rabat, from where to apply for Mauritania visas), we stopped in the imperial city of Meknes. The bus ride there was awful on account of everyone having thrown up on the floor. A bag of warm sick under the seat in front of me began to leak, its contents creeping closer and closer to my feet as we travelled. Great wafts of puke floated around the bus and the heat intensified the smell. The bus driver, in no rush to arrive, stopped often and for no apparent reason. Our moods suffered. Finally in Meknes, free of the scent of vomit, a kid threw a piece of brick at me. It was not the first time I've had things thrown at me while travelling, and it won't be the last, but it was not the right day for it. It's kids, so what can you do? On this occasion, I spun around, angry, and flipped them the middle finger. This coincided with the exact moment that a responsible adult rounded the corner. It happens.
So, for the
rest of the day Seth happily took photos of olives, goat heads, sheep stomachs and perfumes in the markets of Meknes, while I brooded angrily, saying little. Luckily the next day, spent at the Roman ruins of Volubilis, composed of crumbling columns and brilliant mosaics, and surrounded by stunning countryside, revived me. We lazed like lizards in the sun and listened to the chattering of giant storks making their nests. Seth taught me how to take a proper portrait photograph. (Usually when he hands me his camera, he does so with a look of predicted uselessness, as though handing a rubik's cube to a monkey.) I am now the next Testino.
This brings us to Rabat, Morocco's capital. We are due to collect our Mauritanian visas in three hours, if all goes well. The washing I did has blown off the balcony and landed several stories down, above the awning of a local coffee shop, much to the amusement of a waitress in the snack joint across the road, and the bemusement of the nightshift receptionist downstairs. I stand out on the balcony and wonder how to describe Morocco. Can an outsider really come to a proper understanding of
a place while passing through? I think you come closest by living in the now, knowing your limitations, observing, absorbing, participating, considering. To me, right now, Morocco is about tiles - little coloured tiles absolutely everywhere: under your feet, on the walls of teahouses, inlaid in ancient medina gates, overgrown with grass in old ruins. Morocco's also the taste of olives - pink, black and green - with every meal, and the taste of some spice - I think it is cumin - that sneaks into everything. From a moving vehicle, it's a world where a thousand sheep and donkeys scroll by, and where terrain changes so fast and to such extremes, it's like channel hopping. It's men in yellow slippers and hooded djellabas in earthen colours, and women in headscarves, the girls and boys in jeans sometimes. It's frothy coffee in a glass, and streets swept with dry palm tree branches instead of brooms. It's the tattoo on a Berber woman's chin, and the flight of an owl startled from the ledge of a gorge. Our time here has flown and there are things that we will miss, but it is not until we move south that our trip
can begin to properly carve out an identity.
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