We give a Berber woman a ride

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Africa » Morocco
June 27th 2019
Published: June 30th 2019
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In the morning, everything was brighter and new again. We woke by 6 to explore the old palace of Ait-Benhaddou on our own before the heat set in. And it was quite lovely in the morning light! Part palace, part neighborhood dwelling for the original settlers of the desert, the Berbers, Ait-Benhaddou is comprised of red earthen structures on a hillside. Only one or two families still reside there, so most is abandoned and free for the exploration, or has been turned into little artisan shops selling jewelry or paintings or leather. We climbed through the old streets, ducking into former homes, and winding our way up to the top of the kasbah to view the river bottom and green palm trees. This time of year, no water runs in the riverbed, but in the spring, there are often floods. It's feast or famine around here, it seems. And what a harsh climate in which to survive! We marveled at the mud and straw the Berbers had mixed with water with their bare hands, forming a reddish building clay. I could almost hear their clicking language and smell their baking bread. The wild dogs and tabby cats brought liveliness to the village as well. I wondered about the lives that had been lived quietly there. About the tapestries woven and produce grown. About forged love and childbirth. About disease and loss and pain. So many stories left untold!

After breakfast of fresh watermelon, yogurt, and assorted sweetbreads, Youssef drove us down a different route than we had come, through the valley this time to rejoin the main road in the Atlas. The sky was blue and the temps were climbing, but it really was beautiful! A green oasis snaked along where the river would be: palm trees, shrubbery, and some kind of pink flowering bush. Everywhere we looked, more red Berber villages could be seen. Men loaded straw or sandbags onto the backs of donkeys. Kids ran and played, or sat and stared. I was most captivated by the old women, however. Something about their wrinkled faces, their kind eyes, and the mystery of their hair beneath their bright headscarves. Were they gray underneath? What lives had they lived? Had they born children? What skills could their hands perform that mine could not? Weaving textiles, dying silk, stretching leather? What songs had they sung?

One woman walked alone on the side of the road and gestured to our car. "OK if we give this lady a ride?" Youssef asked us. Of course we said yes. I made space for her in the back of the car next to me, and because we didn't share a common language, we rode in silence. But when Youssef drove hard over a rocky road that recalled Idaho's mountain byways, throwing our bodies left, right, up, and down, this strange woman and I laughed together like little girls.

In the next village where the woman needed to be dropped off, Youssef explained that today was the once-weekly market day. We were the only white people among these locals as we walked through the dusty market. Vendors had spread blankets and tarps on the ground to showcase their wares. One man sold household items from toothbrushes to duct tape. Another sold children's clothing. Another, shoes. Another, appliances from toasters to stoves. Another, mattresses. The produce section sold carrots and watermelon. On a large wooden platform, men haggled over sacks of grain. Still other booths sold live chickens, and butchers hacked up goats and cows. It was a primitive Fred Meyer--no brick and mortar or cash registers necessary. Our hitchhiking Berber friend obliged my request for a selfie. I wondered if we seemed strange to her.

By late morning, we arrived at the ancient kasbah of Telouet. Situated between the Sahara desert and Marrakech, it once served as a stop-over on the salt and spice route before traders navigated the Atlas Mountains. Inside, in addition to old dwellings similar to Ait-Benhaddou, we discovered the stunning and well-preserved palace. Wow! So much intricately laid tile. So many vaulted, arched ceilings. Such clever design to allow spade-shaped windows to mimick spade-shaped doorways. It was cool and shadowed inside, save for occasional shafts of light that filled hidden rooms with sunshine. My imagination supplied rugs on the floor, pillows for seating, and a silver tea set in the windowsill, and the palace came to life!

For the next several hours, we wound our way back through the mountains to an overcast Marrakech. We stopped only briefly for a rest at the river. Many families put plastic chairs in the water to cool their feet and socialize with friends not unlike gatherings on the sandy beach of Redfish Lake! By the time we reached the cool sanctuary of our Jemaa El Fna riad again, we were exhausted from 10 days of straight travel. Sean was coming down with a bit of a cold and we were both tired in our bones. After some tea on the terrace, we skipped the night market and went to bed early for a change.

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