In The Gorge

The next morning, a group of us gemorocco-march-2009-426t up and at ’em, leaving the hotel at 8 a.m. for several hours of hiking along the Todra Gorge.

Our guide this morning is Aziz. Not the one from the day before, but ANOTHER guy named Aziz – whose nickname is apparently Saeed. (In my mind I call him “Little Aziz”, because he’s smaller than the other one.)

Also joining us on our hike is a newcomer – Will’s boss, Yassin, who dropped in on us the night before to check up on Will to see how he was doing. He comes with us instead of Will, who’s probably still recovering from that nasty cold.

We pile into a minivan, where we’re driving to the starting point along the bottom of the route we’ll take.

As we start our hike, a stray dog comes out of nowhere and walks alongside us. It’s likely she’s looking for food, and we assume she’ll eventually take off. But she stays with us the entire way up. She’s like our four-legged mountain guardian.

In total, we hike about three kilometres across (the easy part) – and 600 metres up (um, the NOT-so-easy part). Perhaps it’s because I’m out of shape, or maybe because of the elevation, but the higher we get, the harder I’m PANTING. It’s ridiculous.

I also find that my unease about heights is almost non-existent. Which is weird for me, ’cause even looking down from any decent height usually makes my stomach lurch.

Not here.

In an area where we’re surrounded by rocks, where one bad step could have me slip and roll down the side of the gorge, I’m completely calm.

We continue onward, and as we continue upward, the views only get better. I have never seen anything like it before in my entire life.  

Of course, this is what is supposed to happen when you come to the gorge.

Some visitors to the gorge aren’t as fortunate.

We see a local man with a woman, obviously a tourist, walking about 50 metres above us. Seems she got separated from her husband and they’re in the process of trying to find him.

Not even five minutes later, Little Aziz meets up with a guy he knows, who’s escorting a tourist in the opposite direction. An Italian tourist, as it turns out.

A really DUMB Italian tourist.

Seems he and some friend decided to tour the gorge alone, WITHOUT a guide, and got lost. So he spent the night up there, separated from his friend, and was being helped back down. Needless to say, Little Aziz and the other guy scold him for his folly.

morocco-march-2009-430We continue on our hike, finally reaching the top around mid-morning. We stop for a water-and-orange break, and take some pictures.

A local guy stops by to talk to Little Aziz and Yassin and he shows him his slingshot. It’s not the one you’re thinking of, with that Y-shaped frame. It’s more like this one, which you have to wind up with some crazy wrist action, and swing at a high speed. Either way, it’s pretty crazy.

Following this, we begin making our way horizontally and then down the other side. 

We stop to visit a local family who make their home in a series of caves – a man, his wife and their 19-month-old son. We sit outside as the man serves us small glasses of tea.

It’s hard to tell how old the couple are. Aziz says the man might be in his 70s; I’m willing to reckon he’s probably in his 50s or 60s, as I’ve noticed that people here in Morocco seem to look older than they actually are. His wife, named Fatima, is about 43 years old. She pretty much stays inside a nearby cave, never really coming out during our visit.

morocco-march-2009-433Aziz gets a hold of the little boy, named Youssef, and sits him on his lap, offering him a package of biscuits as a gift.

Little Youssef was just circumcized a couple of days before our visit, so this, combined with being stared at by a bunch of strangers, is probably the reason he’s pretty silent. 

But he’s just so cute, his upper lip jutting out in a little pout, as he sits there quietly.

After a couple glasses of tea each, we say our goodbyes and continue our descent downwards. This is actually harder than the climb, and a couple of times I slip a little bit on the tinier rocks and stones.

We reach our final destination at the bottom – lunch at the home of a local family – about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. When my other tour-mates arrive, we partake in some tea, soup, and pizza.

Next stop after lunch is a local carpet shop. We climb a couple flights of stairs and file into this little room, where we sit on benches against carpet-lined walls.

morocco-march-2009-437The people here – the woman who spins wool into yarn and then weaves it into a carpet, and the older man and woman who are also present- are so warm and kind when they welcome us.

The woman weaving on the loom even lets us try straightening out some of the wool (using brushes I haven’t seen since my elementary school field trip to the local pioneer village).

I’m having a go at brushing out the wool when Will interrupts me to tell me there’s someone on the phone who wants to speak to me.

It’s a work colleague from back home! I happened to mention to Will a few days ago that she’d also be travelling in Morocco with the same tour company, albeit on a different tour. But he managed to get in touch with his fellow trip leader in charge of that tour, et voila! It’s a good feeling to be able to talk to someone I know,  for a few minutes anyway.

Next, one of the men shows us an array of Berber carpets, all different sizes, colours and patterns. Tour-mate Sally – who’d already bought a carpet in Fez – ends up buying another three carpets, with the group’s “encouragement”. So does Nonnie, although she makes her buy quite sneakily.

Tour-mates Nikki, Grace, Amelia and Alex all decide to get henna tattoos on their hands and feet by some local henna “girls”. They’re all quite pretty – intricate flowers and leaves.

morocco-march-2009-416For the remainder of the afternoon, everyone in the group goes into town to the local hammam for a good scrub. Everyone, that is, except me. I opt instead to have a nice, loooong nap, followed by a nice, hot shower.

I don my pretty new baby blue caftan and a pair of jeans and join the others for dinner. Tonight, I have a great Berber soup, followed by an equally awesome Berber omelette.

And then, just when it seems most of us are suffering from food comas and are ready to pass out for the night … in come some of the local Berber guys from the hotel for a drumming session – a group that includes our driver Abdul and Will’s boss Yassin.

Everyone’s pretty timid at first to try banging on the drums we’re given. But then the guys give us a drumming lesson, and a couple of us loosen up. I think it’s so much fun!

There was even a little dancing later on, which I took part in and liked very much. (Apparently the ringleader/dancer, Mohamed, says I made him work. Ha!)

Our night ends sometime after 11 p.m., which is late for us, but just fine.

As my head hits the pillow for the night, I marvel at how the  Todra Gorge has won me over. I never believed I would have liked it as much as I have.

The landscape will stick in my mind because of its breaktaking views. The memory of the people will stay with me, because of the genuine kindness that seems to radiate from their caring faces … from every wrinkle and tooth gap … even if we don’t speak the same language. 

I’d like to come back here one day, to have the chance to share this amazing place with other people.

But for now, it’s onwards to sleep and the next part of our journey.

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The Road To Todra

morocco-march-2009-398Saturday, March 21.

We’re woken up eeearly from our tents.

I’m chilly, and groggy from insufficient sleep. But right now, that doesn’t even matter.

The sun is beginning to rise.

I’m slower than everyone else in getting to the lookout point. I’m incoherent and still trying to wake up.  

So I bring up the rear, walking over with Will, who didn’t get much sleep in the tent and isn’t looking all that hot. His head cold definitely has a grip on him.

Probably about 100 metres away, I decide to make a run for it before I miss the sun rise completely.

And, panting, I see it, just as it’s peeking over the distant dune. It’s perfectly round and not yet blinding, but that soft yellow hue. It’s picking up its pace, quickly rising.

We all stand there for a few more minutes, watching the view, before we turn and head back to camp.

morocco-march-2009-405We switch camels for the ride back. And although I get a dromedary with a nicer hump, I can feel I know the damage has been done.

My lady bits are destroyed

No part of the trip is better than the other. It hurts THE ENTIRE TIME.

We grab our typical breakfast – bread and Berber pancakes (now cold), with a choice of butter, jam, or mini Babybel cheese – and then it’s back in the minibus for our next destination …

A day and a half in a place called the Todra Gorge, located on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains. I can only characterize it as Morocco’s answer to the Grand Canyon.

As I’ll find out, it’s a place of great natural beauty. But as the minibus bumps along towards a paved surface, all that Todra means to me for the moment is the promise of a hot shower, laundry, and a great night’s sleep.

We stop in a small town so people can stock up on things – especially booze. While we wait next to the van, across the road, we see these three little boys of varying ages, sitting outside what looks like a little construction job next door. They look to me like they’re brothers, probably as dark-skinned as myself.

(Looking back, I regret not taking a picture of them now, because they were SO cute.)

Cathy and I wave. One of them – perhaps the middle child – shyly looks away, then back at us, smiling. We wave again – the tiniest one waves back. We play “the waving game” for a couple moments more, until everyone returns. It just warms my heart.

morocco-march-2009-423It’s not long – or doesn’t seem like it – before we hit the Todra Gorge and reach our hotel. The building – which is the terracotta colour of the rock face surrounding us – is nestled amid some of the lushest palms and vegetation I’ve seen.

It almost seems as if the whole place is a mirage.

We grab our backpacks and make our way across the road and to the hotel,  passing by an older man painting a metal railing and crossing over a bridge which is fairly solid (despite earlier accounts that it’ll be rickety).

We drop our bags in the main sitting room and plunk our weary bodies down into the cushiony seating as we wait for tea. After catching our collective breaths, we get our room assignments.

And this time, I get my OWN. ROOM.

I love this place.

Seconds after I enter my lodging, I’m looking for clean clothes and soap. I check out the bathroom. The wall is completely covered in tile on two sides. The sink and toilet are closest to the “door”, which is basically a shower curtain. The shower is in the corner. Literally.

Sure, it sounds weird. But that hot shower is heaven.

Some time later, we assemble for a short tour of the aremorocco-march-2009-421a surrounding the hotel. We’re led by Aziz, one of the guys that works there.

He shows us the different kinds of vegetables grown in the small gardens by families in the area – maize, beans, dates, figs, and so on.

He even makes a few of the group members little camel “necklaces” woven from palm leaves. It was his first job as a kid, making and selling them by the side of the road to tourists who would stop.

After returning to the hotel, we relax, sitting around drinking wine or playing card games.

We go to another room for dinner. And it’s fantastic. I have a Berber 0melette. It’s nothing like I’ve ever tasted. And I finish it all.

We were told earlier that there would be drumming. But perhaps another night – all the travelling and food has made us tired.

But that’s okay. Perhaps tomorrow – we’ll have a full day ahead of us to explore what the area has to offer.