Goodbye Mountains, Hello Seaside!

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We survive The Night of The Howling Wind in one piece.

The following morning, there’s an option to go on a guide-led hike through the area, towards a huge, white painted rock, which locals are said to visit to make wishes (especially those for fertility/virility). It’s got nothing to do with Islam; rather, it’s a local thing.

In any case, I’m still feeling rotten because of my cold, so I opt out of it. So do pretty much all of us “youngsters”, except for Nonnie. I hang out in bed until about 8:30 a.m., when I eventually get up. 

After breakfast, I go and chill out on the sunny part of the terrace, while the sunshine lasts … and I catch sight of one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. It takes me a few seconds to realize that the white wispy bit of mist I’m seeing is actually a CLOUD making its way past the peak.  It really is a sight to behold.

Eventually, us stragglers get our collective acts together and leave the gite to take a walk into the nearby village.

morocco-march-2009-4902We wind our way around, up and down makeshift steps, passing locals, stopping here and there.

We come to a river, which we crossing by hopping along huge rocks, with the help of some cute local school-aged village girls. (I almost fall into the water, if not for one of the girls, who holds my hand as I struggle to regain my balance.)

Once on the other side, tour-mate Grace takes over from Will to play tour guide; her version of things are way more entertaining.

We return from our walk just as the others – tour-mates Sally, Cathy and Colin – come back from theirs.

We have one last meal – a lovely lunch – out on the sunny terrace, say goodbye to our host family and make the 45-minute trek back down into the village to collect our things.

We leave Imlil and the mountains behind …

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… And arrive in the seaside town of Essaouira around late-afternoon. It takes a few minutes to re-adjust to the warmer temperature. The seagulls cry in the distance.

I have been waiting to get here for days.

Sadly, we part ways with our awesome driver Abdul. We all chip in to give him a generous tip before leaving the minibus one last time.

Local men line the sidewalk, standing by big empty carts, waiting to lug our bags (for a small fee) from the drop-off point to the riad where we’re staying.

It’s not far at all – it’s literally a five-minute walk into the walls of the older part of town. And the place has got character – nice rooms, lots of mosaic tile – cute all round. And from the looks of things, it’s a family-run business. 

We also have company, as it turns out. Trip leader Will’s work-mate and friend – nicknamed Simo – happens to be in town, in our riad, for a few days before his next job.

From the moment he calls me “rasta”, I can’t decide whether he’s irritating or entertaining. Either way, he’s already been drinking, which could make for an interesting evening.

Later when we’ve all freshened up, we head out to a place nearby for dinner – this French-influenced restaurant. Expecting a little European flare with my Moroccan food, I’m a bit disappointed when I sink my knife and fork into a much-craved pastilla. What a letdown! It’s SO BLAND. The one I first had in Meknes was LOADS better. (Must be the chicken.)

We have our after-dinner drinks at another place close by – the rooftop patio of Taros , this huge, multi-level restaurant/café/bar. A live band is playing Gnaoua music (also spelled Gnawa), which is unlike anything I’ve heard so far on our travels. It’s not heavy on the base, but rather kind of light, with a fast rhythm – even a bit hypnotic.

Between the white wine I share with Nonnie and Cathy, and the rosé I help Alex finish, I’m unsure of how well the night will end.

But luckily for me, I have absolutely no trouble sleeping.

Slightly Ill in Imlil

Tuesday, March 24.

morocco-march-2009-470It’s official. I have a cold. 

SURPRISE.

 This completely sucks the big one.

Breakfast is spent on the terrace atop Action Couscous’ guesthouse. It’s a nice, warm temperature outside.

Our quiet meal is followed by a not-so-impromptu photo session with Action, and his son (when he comes wandering up to the terrace).

Leaving Ait Benhaddou, I watch as the terrain changes again, and the road winds upward (see above).

morocco-march-2009-469We wind our way along Tizi ‘n Tichka, which connects Marrakech with the desert regions we’ve just left.

We hit the Tizi ‘n Tichka Pass – the highest elevation of the route – and stop to take a picture by the sign, and also of the valley and winding road below, while fending off aggressive vendors trying to sell us cheap necklaces and other tacky tchotchkes.

morocco-march-2009-474We continue along the winding route through this enormous mountain chain until about mid-afternoon, when we reach the village of Imlil, where we’re staying overnight.

This is only the first leg of our trek to the mountain gite we’re staying at for the night. After we store our bags in the luggage room of a local hotel, we assemble in the parking lot while two donkeys are prepared for Liz and Nonnie.

Why? Because our trek up to the mountain gite is a 45-minute walk. Up.

Liz isn’t feeling well, which is understandable. Nonnie probably doesn’t want to tackle the walk. 

As we begin the walk, I think boastfully to myself as I walk, my day-pack strapped on, psssht! this ain’t bad at all.

By the time we cross the creek and start heading even farther upwards, I’m ready to die.

My nose is half-blocked. I hate breathing through my mouth because I’m pretty much behind Nonnie’s donkey – and inhaling the fresh mountain scent of donkey do0-doo doesn’t impress me. And my throat feels like someone stuffed it with sandpaper.

Adding to this, as we’re heading up the rocky “steps”, I get a little splashback from Nonnie’s donkey.

And I don’t think it’s mud.

I’m panting and sweating uncontrollably by the time we reach the mountain gite. I would just lie down, but I’d probably end up in a pile of donkey dung.

We’re taken upstairs to the sitting area, which has a low ceiling over the seats and tables, but opens out onto a terrace with a great view of the mountains nearby

The air is crisp and suddenly a lot cooler. The sweat evaporates, and I’m instantly shivering. I quickly start re-layering.

We’re given tea and biscuits; someone also shares some chips they bought on the trip up.

Two tiny kids – children of the family that runs the gite – come bounding out of the kitchen, having an impromptu wrestling match on the terrace. They’re brother and sister, possibly no more than 3 and 4 years old, respectively. And they’re so cute, with their cherubic, rosy-cheeked faces.

After catching our collective breaths, we work out the room arrangements. We’ve got three to choose from: one with seven beds, one with five beds at one end of the hall, and one at the opposite end with “Berber style” beds.

All the younger women take the largest room; the older women take the next biggest, and Colin camps out in the remaining room.

Night descends quickly, and the wind picks up suddenly, whipping around at a furious pace.

The hours spent before dinner are in this “dining” room of sorts, with lots of seating, outdated travel brochures, and a fireplace which doesn’t work – instead of exiting through the chimney, some of the smoke wafts back into the room. TWhich means the door to the cold, windy outside has to be kept open.

I’m also feeling increasingly craptacular. I’m so cold, I’m wearing my tights under my cargo pants, as well as a second pair of socks, my fleece sweater, spring jacket, scarf, hat and mitts. I’m convinced I’m getting a fever. 

This. SUCKS.

When dinner’s served, I eat a bowl of soup and some vegetarian tajine. I  start feeling better – and warmer.

We end up playing a few games before bedtime.

Ah. Bedtime.

Our beds are actually mattresses on the floor, done up with bedding and blankets (which is totally fine). The pillows are, well, ROCKS with pillow covers over them. At least, that’s what they feel like. Luckily I’ve brought along my spongy travel pillow, so I use that instead.

The first part of the night is tough. The wind’s so fierce, it’s shaking the locked windows above our heads. It’s a wonder they don’t break or unhinge and fly off, the way they might in movies involving small American towns and vicious tornadoes.  

I’m stuffed up, and my feet are still cold; I spend what seems like an eternity vigorously rubbing them together, like I’m trying to start a fire. 

Just when THEY warm up … I realize I have to pee. Which means I’d have to leave my now-warm bed and face that monstrous wind on the way to the bathroom downstairs.

I try waiting it out for as long as possible, hoping my bladder can make it until morning.

By about 4:30 a.m., I can’t take it anymore. I rifle through my day-pack for my trusty roll of toilet paper, put on my shoes and trudge downstairs.

I do my business as quickly as I can – it’s friggin’ cold and the wind is shaking the door. After washing my hands in the icy cold water, I make my way back towards the stairs … when I just stop.

I edge out onto the terrace and look straight up.

The stars are out, twinkling in all their glory.

The cold wind’s whistling and whipping all around me. The dark silhouette of the mountain facing me cuts a menacing figure, like a big schoolyard bully. 

All I do is crane my neck, looking  from left to right, taking in as many eyefuls of stars as I can handle. 

It’s awesome and a bit terrifying at the same time.

And at this moment in the middle of the night, I’m the only one here to to see it.