Into the Desert

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Africa » Morocco
June 26th 2019
Published: June 29th 2019
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Today was the weirdest day! But with punctuations of awesomeness. Before leaving home, I had arranged an excursion to the ancient kasbah (castle) and city of Ait-Benhaddou. We wanted to experience where original Berber people lived, and maybe also see where a few episodes of Game of Thrones had been filmed--maybe!

As planned, we met our driver Youssef at 9 a.m. and headed for the edge of the Sahara desert...or as close as we would come on this trip. Youssef was friendly enough, but a little boring, and didn't readily offer information about things we were seeing. Surely some of this was due in part to the language barrier. For instance, he didn't understand what Sean meant when he suggested people must enjoy catching up on socializing with friends at the market. "Yes, you can talk to them, no problem!" he said. And when we asked if it snowed in a small village at the base of the mountains, he said snow is "just for the wintertime." But beyond that, he just wanted to identify motorcycles that drove past, and so we rode mostly in silence. At one point, we stopped on the side of the road where several bee boxes occupied a gravel bar. "If you don't mind, I stop for a minute and see if they offer good price for honey. I use it to make medicine for my lungs. Last year I quit smoking hashish and now just take my medicine, and feel happy all the time." Oh boy. So we stopped, and our driver bought fresh honey for his stash of "medicine" in the trunk of his car. To be fair, we sampled the fresh honey from the beekeepers, and it was a bit of divinity straight from Shangri-La! I can't recall if it was before or after the honey stop that Sean noticed Youssef was missing two fingers on his left hand.

The climb up and over Tichka Pass was incredible! For these Idaho kids, we couldn't help but feel much more at home among the rooftops of the Atlas Mountains. We drank in the delicous, cool air and marveled at the blue layers of peaks upon peaks in the distance. It was such a relief to be in the fresh air and lower temps that we briefly wondered why we were heading to the heat of the desert just to see some little UNESCO World Heritage site. ?

Youssef stopped at one of the many roadside restaurants along the way and promised to share his "medicine" with us after our afternoon tea and cookies. I don't know if it was the fake roses, the dirty table cloth, Youssef's mysterious "all natural, 100% pure and natural spices" of his peanut butter-looking "medicine," the way a picture frame chose just that moment to fall from the wall, or the near miss of the rolling boulder during a road construction stop that gave me the heebie-jeebies, but by the time the tea arrived, I was pretty creeped out. Not in any logical way, but in a clairvoyant way. Yet, what could we do? Youssef served us tea, and we were on our way again.

Our next stop, though I had told the booking agent we weren't interested, was Atlas Studios. And it was so hot! Welcome to the Sahara, I suppose. The movie studio grounds were comprised of relics from such desertesque films as Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy Returns, Prince of Persia, Gladiator, and parts of Game of Thrones. But what an odd place. In the movies, you suspend your disbelief to travel to Egypt or to watch Daenyres fly her dragons over sand dunes. But there in the sweltering heat, there was no magic at all. Plaster and straw pretended to be Nazareth. Pastel pillars posed as Egyptian tombs. Particle board silhouettes framed fake cars and Viking ships. And so much scaffolding belied ancient villages, Chinese palaces, and sarcophagi. I'll take the fairy land over that cheap reality, thank you.

We stopped for lunch, eating alone on a partially shaded rooftop terrace. Was it weird that our driver had taken more of his "medicine" and was sitting on the patio watching our bags? We started imagining all the worst case scenarios of American tourists in foreign places...but that is a dangerous place for the mind to go! We tried to just enjoy our kebab and Fanta.

When we finally arrived at Ait-Benhaddou, the crumbling red castle on the hilltop really was stunning in the evening light. We took cool showers and Sean napped briefly. By the time we were sprawling out on the rooftop terrace to take long exposure photos of the Milky Way, most of the strangeness of the day had dissolved with the heat. There's nothing like an African night under the stars! (And that's saying a lot when you've spent summers in the Frank Church Wilderness.) ?

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