Monday, March 23.
I’ve left the Todra Gorge with good memories, clean laundry …
And the driest throat EVER.
For me, this usually means I’m going to get a cold. Several other tour-mates are having similar symptoms. Liz already has a cold. I’m just hoping it’s a temporary by-product of the climate we’ve been in.
The first place we hit after leaving Todra is a souk in a local town. Anything you can think of is being sold here – clothes, old electronics, spices, shoes, underwear, jewellery. I even saw an old handle being laid out for sale. What it USED to be attached to, I can only guess.
I’m not even remotely in the mood for this. I’m feeling a touch crappy. The LAST thing I want to try and do is barter with ANYONE for ANYTHING.
Sally and I pass by this one guy hawking his wares, and of course, he immediately starts chatting me up, because I’m from “the family.” This is the one thing I note about travelling through this part of the country: people who look more like me, using this fact to try and get me to buy something.
The “something” in question is a door-knocker in the shape of a hand, which apparently an antique. The “salesman” next to the guy we’re dealing with tries to get us going with the bartering process. But Sally doesn’t have enough money, and I’m turned off, so we walk away.
But it’s only a matter of circling the place before Sally decides to return so she can take a second look at that door-knocker. The salesman tries again for a sale. What he’s offering, Sally doesn’t want to pay. And what Sally has in terms of cash, the salesman doesn’t want.
Meanwhile, one of the nearby merchants latches on to me, trying to entice me. My heart’s only half in it, but I settle on this wooden bowl – again, supposedly antique – with a gold-coloured Tuareg design inlaid in its centre.
The vendor offers it to me for 750 DH (about $108 CAD); I barter him down to about 500 DH ($72 CAD), all the time wondering what on EARTH I’m doing buying a wooden bowl for that much money.
(Note: Writing this now – about four weeks after the fact – I’m looking it, STILL wondering what I was thinking. And the thing smells like either burnt wood or smoked fish … as stinky as the day it arrived home.)
Sally also successfully scores the door-knocker – for a third of the price! I’m impressed.
We make our hour-long lunch stop in the town of Ouarzazate (pronounced WAR-zah-zat). It’s generally known as a movie town, because of the movie set nearby that’s been used for big Hollywood productions.
I will remember Ouarzazate for the only pedestrian traffic signal I’ve seen on this trip so far. I’m not even kidding. It’s been so long since I’ve seen one, I almost forget how to use it.
After lunch, we re-group and head over to a non-profit organization called Project Horizon, which is sponsored by the tour company’s charitable foundation.
As we move from area to area – and with Alex’s superior French translation skills – we discover the organization does things from creating prosthetic limbs, to providing therapy for people with physical disabilities and children with developmental disabilities, to running workshops where people create various types of pottery, jewellery, carpets and other artisanal work.
By the time we reach the gift shop, I can’t NOT buy something. Even though early on in the trip, I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy a tajine bowl (because I wouldn’t be able to lug it home), I manage to find a beautiful decorative mini-tajine bowl, glazed a deep, dark blue, for 70 DH ($10 CAD). Not only it is completely reasonable, it’s totally worth it, knowing what the money is going towards.
We leave Ouarzazate, making no more major stops until we reach the town of Aït Benhaddou, where we’re staying overnight.
The maison d’hotes (guesthouse) we’re staying at is run by a man whose real name I don’t remember*, but everyone calls him “Action Couscous” (see picture at left).
He lives there with his other family members, including his sister, wife and four-year-old son Abdullah, who’s nicknamed – what else? – “Baby Action”.
Action’s fun moniker is the result of having been an extra in at least 10 Hollywood films. It’s his on-screen credits that he uses to promote his guesthouse …
And, as we find out, it’s also probably the reason he doesn’t appear to be camera-shy whatsoever. In fact, he LOVES being in front of the camera and encouraging us to snap pictures whenever he can.
Action welcomes us to his huge desert abode with some tea. Alex also has her royal blue scarf tied professionally by Action, Berber-style.
After getting our room assignments, most of us decide to check out the huge kasbah on the other side of the river.
(As I’ve now learned, Aït Benhaddou is also known as a ksar – a fortified city – and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
Again, I find myself paired up with Sally, and we make our way over to the river.
The path leading to the river is lined with shops and aggressive salesmen, who know EXACTLY where we’re staying. Before I left on my trip, I was told about how ridiculously observant Moroccans are. I didn’t believe it until this particular moment.
Sally and I are by the river’s edge within three or four minutes.
There are two ways to cross the Ouarzazate River:
(1) by donkey for a small fee; or
(2) by foot, through the river water, for free.
Guess which one Sally and I pick?
The nerves in my bare feet are cussing at the nerve endings in my brain as I unsteadily wade over bumpy rocks and pebbles, through excruciatingly cold water, trying not to drop my sandals.
I kick myself for not taking option (1) when, halfway through my painful crossing, I look up and see our driver Abdul already on the other side, dismounting from a donkey.
Once we cross and put our shoes back on, we begin our climb to the top. The place is absolutely HUGE. And apparently only now inhabited by about five or six families.
The way up is a bit treacherous in spots, because some stairways are covered by crumbling plaster and huge bits of rubble.
But the view once we reach the very top is worth every step, twist and turn we’ve had to take. It’s simply breathtaking.
On the way back to the guesthouse, I get sucked into a local shop and, once again, end up practicing my mediocre haggling skills.
This time, I purchase an alabaster ring for 125 DH ($18 CAD), and get two pictures of myself posing with the store owner, me dressed in traditional Berber garb. It’s quite funny.
At 7:30 p.m., Action Coucous and one of his sisters gives us the group a demonstration on how to cook tajine and couscous, the old-fashioned way. Then it’s to the dining room, where we have our choice of veggie or lamb tajine. I am so unbelieveably stuffed I cannot even think of touching any of the bottles of beer I had purchased earlier.
We while away the rest of the evening playing a couple of card games. Following this, Grace decides she needs her bangs trimmed, so Will elects to play barber – with some hilarious results. He does get the bangs evened out, with Nikki’s help.
I go off to bed, hoping to fight off the scratchy throat and blocked nostril I’ve developed during the day, but knowing full well what’s going to happen.
* Editor’s note: This post was written back in 2009. But thanks to a kind reader, I know now our kind host’s name was Houcine. A two-year-old mystery, solved!