Saturday, October 4, 2008

Journey to the Atlas Mountains

When in Marrakesh, Morocco, on our honeymoon last November, Michael and I took a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. It was only a few hours outside of the city, but what a difference!

While the city of Marrakesh was packed, noisy, and bustling, the road to the mountains was quiet and austere. We saw Berber villages that blended in with the earth around them and a smattering of scrubby green trees.

A Berber village on the drive from Marrakesh to the Atlas Mountains

On the way, our driver took us to Sir Richard Branson's Moroccan retreat, Kasbah Tamadot. While the surrounding area was unassuming, the hotel was truly an oasis.

The road by Sir Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot

The outer walls of Kasbah Tamadot

Check this out! It was a world of utter luxury, with beautiful carvings, magnificent fabrics, a glittering pool, all sunshine and greenery and tilework.

Inside Kasbah Tamadot

We got to look around and use their bathroom and imagine what it would be like to spend hundreds of Euros a night to stay here.

I looked out from the patio to observe who their neighbors were, and across an expanse of land was a small, simple Berber village -- you could barely make it out.

View of Berber villages from Kasbah Tamadot

The contrast between the Kasbah and the village was tremendous.

An outer building at Kasbah Tamadot

Another view of the surrounding area by Kasbah Tamadot

After our tour of the grounds and a nice tip for the hotel staff member who showed us around, we set out for the town of Imlil.

Road to the Atlas Mountains and the town of Imlil

It was autumn, after all, but I was almost surprised to see the colors of the foliage as we got closer to Imlil. Given the look of the trees we had seen up to that point, I had not thought there would be deciduous plant life.

On the way to Imlil

But there were. In fact, the foliage was more magnificent than what we had seen in Upstate New York on the day of our wedding. As it turned out, last year the leaves turned later in the season than they normally do. So we did not have as gloriously colorful a wedding as we had hoped. No matter!

Imlil, Morocco

We got to Imlil, a town that is used as a base for tourists to come in from Marrakesh and hike around. It had several restaurants and a number of people ready to give tours or offer donkey rides. But there was nothing really upscale there.

We were dropped off at a restaurant where we were to pre-order our lunch before setting out on a walking tour with a guide. It was all designed to separate us from our money, but it wasn't terribly expensive, and no one in the town seemed to be living in wealth.

View from the roof patio of the restaurant where we stopped

Our guide walked us up tiny pathways that were busy with locals, livestock, and tourists on donkeys all doing their best not to fall into the adjacent stream.

Michael and our guide on the path

Here we are at a small waterfall along the way

Path in Imlil

One thing I immediately noticed was how fresh and clean the air was. Marrakesh had been incredibly polluted, and at times I found it hard to breathe. Here I wanted to drink the air in.

More fall foliage

After we finished our tour, we went back to the restaurant for our lunch. I had the best vegetable tagine of our trip there. My theory is that meat is generally a luxury for the people who live in this area, so they are particularly good at making vegetarian food. In Marrakesh, most of the vegetable tagines I had seemed rather uninspired.

View from our lunch table

There was something about this town, the mountains, the low stone buildings, the clarity of the air, and just the sense of austerity that reminded me of China, particularly of my time in Longsheng in 2001.

There was some terraced agriculture in Imlil, but nothing like the Dragon's Backbone rice fields. It was more than that. It was that sense of being far away from home and high in altitude, knowing that this was a place that did not have the creature comforts or materialism I was used to. I admired the beauty but felt slightly uncomfortable, stripped of most of what I know.

It was the edges of culture shock. I was an observer, as I knew we would be driven back to the relative familiarity of urban life in Marrakesh. Had I stayed longer, I would have had to start opening myself up to the slow pace of life, the difference in plumbing and accommodations, the donkeys, the villagers, for whom the rest of the world seems but a fairy tale, and nature's harshness in the mountains.

I know that feeling of being far away from home and realizing you cannot get away easily. I know it from my times in Germany and from my longer travels, particularly in Vietnam and India. The deeper you feel it, the greater risk you are taking: the further away you are, the longer you will be there, the more foreign the locale. But of course, as with everything, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. While the initial sensation can be frightening, for a traveler it usually means you are on the right track.

Michael in Imlil

Waiting for lunch


mom said...

Holly, what an absolute delight to read this entry and see your photos. I felt as if I were there in the mountains, experiencing all these strange, new and wonderful things with you. Your thoughts on traveling far from home intrigue me; now I'm really going to pause and reflect!

Holly said...

I'm so glad you liked it! It's great to be able to share this with everyone.