Sunday, February 03, 2008

Morocco Tales 7: "Pain and Couscous at 7,000 feet"

February 3rd
Recovering from long trek in the Atlas Mountains in Marrakesh...

After countless days weaving in and out of the markets, stuffing ourselves with soup and salad, and choking on the exhaust fumes of Marrakesh, Mom and I decided to escape from the city for a couple of days and go trekking in the High Atlas before Steve arrives in Morocco.

Our original plan was to go half way up Jebel Toubkal, Morocco's highest mountain, spend the night in a refuge there and return the following day. It's still the middle of the winter here, however, and much of Toubkal is covered in ice and snow, requiring crampons and mountaineering experience. Our guide Mohammed instead recommended that we take an alternate route to a nearby 'valley' and stay in one of the Berber villages there.

"We'd love to do a nice hike through a 'Valley!'" we said rather naively.

It sounded quite reasonable and refreshing to me and Mom....evoking serene images of walking along a cascading river, stopping for hot tea and biscuits, listening to the birds, and photographing the changing countryside. Although we absolutely love trekking around the world I now admit that there's some sort of amnesia that occurs shortly after all of our trips...where we forget how the word "hill," when used by either a highland local or any author of a Lonely Planet trekking guide (those bastard sandbaggers!) actually translates into enormous mountains we'd never attempt climbing at home, where "three-hour walks" translate into five hour-long grueling climbs uphill, where we forget how cold it really is to sleep in January at high altitude in buidings without heat on old mattresses beneath used blankets wearing fleece hats and long underwear as a bitter wind blows through the cracks of a window, of how dirty your hands and nails become no matter how many handiwipes you use and blacken, and how tired your entire being is at the end of the day when you want to collapse in a heap of fleece clutching a cup of tea in one hand and a bottle of ibuprofen in the other.

But somehow, miraculously, we do forget, and we convince ourselves that a trek might be easy and relaxing.

Starting in the small village of Imlil (where all of the Jebel Toubkal summit attempts start from in the spring/summer), we made our way up through serene fields of barley and orchards of apple, walnut, and cherry trees. We stopped and ate freshly peeled mandarin oranges which Mohammed had bought in Imlil, munched quite blissfully on handfuls of fresh roasted peanuts and waved to a Berber woman who sat with her two children as their cows grazed in one of the fields. (Ahh, the happinesss of a fresh hiker's ignorance!) Below us, the mountains stretched out towards a low blanket of cumulus clouds, their west-facing flanks dusted with snow. The landscape opened up like an outdoor theatre and from our rocky perches, we could hear the cry of baby goats looking for their mothers to milk, laughter from kids playing, and the occasional truck transporting goods along the road to guesthouses stocking up for the spring trekking season. A few villagers worked fields of barley or cleared brush from new fields.

Still blissfully unaware of the trek ahead (Mohammed had told us that we only had a two-hour hike to the pass), we snapped photos of herds of goats scampering up the hillside above the river and soon the path became steeper and steeper. The setting was gorgeous....a warm winter sun in a nearly cloudless sky over a slope of pine trees giving off a sweet scent...evocative of the pine forests in Northern Arizona and the East Sierras of California.

We trudged onward, becoming quieter and more focused with every labored step, our legs and backs weary from our full backpacks. I hadn't hiked in over a six weeks and it usually takes a couple of days to break my muscles in to the endless hours of mountain trekking. Although I had brought a five pound first aid kit with me, I had somehow left the bottle of ibuprofen behind in Marrakesh. Mohammed kept telling us "another hour" for what seemed like an eternity but the views were so spectacular, beyond our expectations, that it was hard to complain. We were finally in the High Atlas!

Nearly three hours later, we reached the pass at over 7,000 feet. Like the passes in the Himalayas, a lone stone hut manned by a local Berber was situated on a ridge overlooking a staggering view of snow-covered mountains and Berber villages nestled on their slopes above a faraway river. It was so incredibly immense that its grandeur rivalled views we've had in Tiger Leaping Gorge (China) and on various treks in the Nepali Himalayas. It's difficult to compare the magnitude of this immense valley and mountain range with anything I've seen in the U.S. Although we were only at 7,000 feet, we were above the tree line and half of the mountain slopes were covered in sheets of densely compacted snow and ice.

For lunch, he served us rounds of Moroccan bread and a plate of fish, olives, and slices of a canned meat much like Spam only bright pink. I was so hungry and tired after lunch that I kept imagining that the muddy road we walked along was made of hot chocolate and that the half-frozen earth was fresh baked brownies, crumbling beneath my feet.

Mohammed kept pointing towards the end of the valley to one of the villages that looked as if it could be a part of another mountain range. We passed a man dressed in a jellaba and worn shoes walking a small herd of goats among the pastures...over small streams past a couple of men waiting with another herd of sheep, sipping their mint tea to ward off the cold. Now over five hours into Mohammed's "easy three hour hike," and with our village still across the immense valley, we begged Mohammed to take a short cut so we could arrive before we either passed out or got caught in the chill of darkness. We took a short cut and slid down icy slopes of hardened, refrozen snow, across a low river where rugs were hung to dry and back up into a village. Groups of kids ran in front of us eager to tell the family whose "gite" we were staying in that we were on our way.

We had the best couscous of our trip that night. One of the men who also guides out of this village, presented us with a plate of couscous big enough to feed eight to ten people. The couscous was moist and fluffy, the carrots, potatoes, and parsnips were all infused with the juices from the beef brochettes and various Moroccan spices like cumin, turmeric, salt, and fresh black pepper. After dinner, we drank freshly brewed chamomile tea, fragrant like a light perfume and utterly superior to any other chamomile tea I've ever tasted. Mom and I passed out under a pile of blankets wearing most of our clothes, fleece hats, and socks. I had completely forgotten how tiring hiking is in the mountains and knew I'd be in pain when at the end of the trek.

I was so tired and cold that night, I could easily have passed out with a cup of tea in my hands, perched against the wall wearing all of my long underwear, fleece, hat, and gloves. We ate by candlelight (literally one taper candle stuck in a used Fanta bottle) as the town doesn't have electricity and the generator was out.

The next day, we hiked again for nearly six hours and limped into town (I stubbornly refused to let Mohammed carry anything from our backpacks, including my camera gear). Mohammed had wanted to take us over another pass for our return trip the next day but he discovered that a local couple had recently attempted crossing it as well. Sadly, the man had fallen to his death along the icy slopes and his wife was in the hospital with a broken leg.

Just for masochistic kicks, we looked at our Lonely Planet guide to check out the miles we had hiked and if we had done at least three days' worth of hiking in two. I stopped reading when it said, "The hike from Imlil to Ouneskra is a gentle first day of hiking..." and slammed the book shut. The damn sandbaggers! I could just kill those sadist rats! (They must be the same writers who wrote all the guidebooks on trekking in China, Tibet, and Nepal.)

So why do we keep doing it? Amnesia, I suppose. That and the fact that it is always these "treks" (in every sense of the word) which yield the most vivid memories...Every view and experience is earned and every footstep magically rewarded with breathtaking views, sweet air, and blissful moments which catch us at unexpected moments (peeling oranges and sharing them with children, trying to catch baby goats, sipping spring water from tin cups). Every taste of tea and bite of bread is ten times more flavorful than any feast bought with money and cars in the city.

But I still would like to have a word or two with those trekking writers... :-)

Namaste and much love,
Rach and Karen