Dramatic Cliffs

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Sunday, December 4, 2005

After a quick breakfast back at the auberge, we piled into the vans, many of us tired and smelling of camels. Next destination: Todra Gorge, a massive fault in the plateau dividing the High Atlas Mountains from the Jebel Sarho range which soars up to 300 m high.

Upon our arrival, we went on a brief walk to explore the gorge. This was followed, the next day, by a two and one-half hour walking tour of the "palmeries" - a lush green oasis nestled between towering red cliffs in the Todra Valley. There we witnessed local women hard at work in the fields tending to such crops as alfalfa, brussel sprouts, wheat and various types of food. Tarps had been laid out under the olive trees to catch falling olives being shaken out of the trees. The date harvest also occurred in the past couple of months; our guide informed us that it takes three years for a male tree to produce pollen to fertilize the female palm which will not produce fruit until about 25 years of age. One-half the population of Morocco is involved in agriculture.

The palmeries are covered with ruined kasbahs. Kasbahs were initially military forts that housed the city's army, but later could be described as a style of housing of two or more storeys where animals were housed downstairs and families occupied the upper quarters. Similar to the Berber houses we saw in the desert, kasbahs are constructed of mud, stones, gravel, straw and lime. Many of the kasbahs feature intricately decorated turrets and Berber tattoos carved into the walls. Since few have running water or electricity, many of them have been deserted and have been left to simply erode into the earth. A few still have poorer people living in them.

We noticed quite a lot of new housing and buildings in this area; many are painted attractive shades of terra cotta and pink. As far as the architecture goes, there's certainly more colour than the Middle East where the only colour used was "au natural" cement! Sandra told us that there is quite a lot of money in this area because of the nearby silver mine and because many of the people living in this area have relatives in Europe who help support them. (It's also very common here for people not to finish their home because they have to pay tax only once the building is completed.)

Morocco is headed by a monarchy, the current kind being Mohammed VI who claims to be a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed; there's a king's palace in virtually every city in the country. There is also an elected government. Morocco faces massive challenges: 20% unemployment, an illiteracy rate of 60% (as a result many signs are pictograms), mass exodus of rural poor to the cities and rampant environmental degradation. Improvements in roads, sanitation and housing, as well as electrification of remote areas is making life a little easier here, albeit these changes are occurring slowly. Morocco has also gained the favour of the US when it joined the War on Terrorism, probably as a result to the Casablance bombing in 2003. The current king is also viewed as progressive because he has only one wife and she is an educated woman (a computer engineer).

Like many of the places we have visited in Morocco, it is mainly the Berber who live in the village and work the fields. I had assumed that Berber was a dialect of Arabic, but found I was completely mistaken. Rather, it is a completely different language written in the Latin script. When we tried speaking French to the local people, one woman responded with "We don't speak French" (in French). They talk Arabic, or preferably, Berber. While "salama lekum" is hello in Arabic, "agoo" means hello in Berber; "shukran" is the Arabic word for thank you, while "saha" is thank you in the Berber language.

Although 70% of Moroccans have Berber blood, only about 50% will acknowledge it. Berbers are perceived as being primitive, even savage; even the name "Berber" stems the world "Barbarian". In the past they have been widely persecuted; their rituals were forbidden by law, their language nearly obsolete and schools gave priority to Arabic students. However, because King Mohammed is part Berber himself, life for the Berber people has improved over the past few years and the Berber language is making a resurgence, as is education for Berber children. Seventy percent of the population of Morocco are under the age of 30.

Mint tea is a very important part of a Berber meal as well as an integral part of their culture. (I prefer it unsweetened with sugar on the side, but often it is served already sweetened - and with enough sugar to make you wince!) The tea is poured with great ceremony and from heights of a foot or more. It is seldom the pourer misses the glass! We were told that, in the Berber culture, when a man is interested in a woman he has her make tea for him. If the tea is very sweet she wants to pursue a relationship, but, if she does not care for him the tea will contain salt rather than sugar.

While in Tinerhir we visited another carpet shop. This one was much was much less hard sell than the one we went to in Fez! (Martin barely got out of there with his life!) It was family-owned, of course; the man who showed us what they had for sale had seven sisters who made the carpets and kilims, all coloured with natural dyes and made of various fibres: wool, wool and cotton, cotton and cactus silk, 100% cactus silk. Many are embroidered with elaborate designs indicative of Berber life, such as tents, mountains, spiders, the family tattoo and, of course, the evil eye! (Like the Bedouin, some Berber women have tattoos on their forehead and chin; the tattoo on the forehead represents the tribe name and the one on the chin indicates the family.) Each carpet also bears a symbol that represents the family name so that you can tell simply by looking at it which family made it.

While driving through Tinerhir, one of the van drivers was stopped and forced to pay a 150 dirham (about $25 CDN) fine for "speeding". The police are renowned for being corrupt here (our driver was certainly not speeding) and look for any excuse to fine motorists (such as a broken headlight or lights "not working"). The money they collect, of course, goes into their own pockets. We took pity on our driver as the money he had to pay would probably have been half his weekly wages and collected enough from all those in the van to cover his fine. Sandra tells us that the average monthly wage in Morocco is about 1000 to 1200 dirham per month ($150 - $175 CDN).

Although the major roads are paved in this area, they are very narrow and it can be very frightening to meet a large truck driven by someone who doesn't want to move one tire on to the shoulder! Drivers here straddle the centre line; when they meet another vehicle pull over just far enough to avoid sideswiping each other. Since I've been sitting mainly near the front of the van I've been trying not to pay too much attention - we haven't had a collision yet!
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