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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Under the Sheltering Sky

Dearest readers, I’m writing this in Word to post later on the blog because we have no Internet access. BECAUSE WE ARE IN THE SAHARA DESERT.
But as usual, let me backtrack.
We drove from the seaside at Essaouira back past Marrakesh to the Atlas Mountains. Up. And up. I knew our hotel – an ecological dar, or house, in the High Atlas – was six kilometers up a dirt road. I had no idea that the road was a series of insane switchbacks without any kind of guard rails, leaving a sheer drop of many thousands of feet. By the time we arrived, I was sweat-soaked and trembling. Ben was trembling. Phil was gaseous. But good lord was it worth it.
We were offered almond milk and dates, then mint tea and salted nuts. We needed two snacks to recover.
Dar Tassa is an exquisite bed and breakfast hanging off the side of an Atlas cliff with nearly endless views down the valleys. We hiked up the mountainside and then down to the stream, which was still running though most wadis here are dry by now. Waded in Atlas waters, read books (they had E. Nesbit in the dar library!) in the Berber rooftop tent. Then we ate a wonderful dinner on the rooftop, listening to the muezzin’s call to prayer and watching the moon rise over the mountains.
In the morning we set off back down the switchbacks – so much easier on the way down! – and then drove through the mountains to the desert. What a road. It was mostly paved but generally only about 1.5 lanes, which made oncoming traffic a heartstopping challenge. Few guardrails. Astonishing and terrifying views. And all in standard shift.
We stopped at the thirteenth century Tin-Mal mosque, one of two mosques in the country that non-Muslims are allowed  to visit. It is no longer used for religious observance, but it is serene and beautiful, set high on a hill in a tiny village that was once a bustling center of commerce. Then we crossed the High Atlas at the Tiz-n-Test Pass at 7400 feet. The margin of error for the driver (Phil) was zero.
The mountain road finally deposited us on another road that runs along the edge of the Sahara. We drove past fields holding nothing but enormous red rock boulders.
Past buttes carved of black and purple rock. Past small groves of argon trees with occasional goats climbing up them. (Yes, goats climbing trees. Really.) Past long stretches of a frighteningly monotonous moonscape of brown rock.
Past camels. The sun blazed down unrelentingly. The road twisted and turned, losing its pavement now and then.
We stopped to see the Unesco World Heritage site Ait-Benhadou, a medieval town with four towering kasbah built of mud brick still beautifully preserved. We drove through Ourzizate, which had a ridiculously gigantic movie studio where The Sheltering Sky and Kundun were filmed.
We were dizzy with sun, heat, and exhaustion when we finally reached the six-kilometer dirt road that led to our hotel.
And now we’re in a beautiful kasbah (a fortified dwelling) set in the middle of a gorgeous palm oasis on the edge of the Sahara. This part isn’t the dune-covered Sahara of The English Patient (sadly, no Ralph Fiennes wrapped in bandages and dying slowly and beautifully in our room).  But there is a swimming pool, and they serve wine here. The dinner was exceptional – a cumin-flavored soup made from “a brother of the carrot” (any guesses?), saffron flavored fish tagine, and what seemed to be a deep-fried rice pudding. If we die in the desert tomorrow, we die full and happy.
Here it is Sunday, and we are still alive. In fact, we had a marvelous day. We spent the morning lounging by the pool and treating our fierce sun headaches, then set out for the historic Amerhidil Kasbah in the Skoura palm oasis, a seventeenth-century structure that has been restored. A member of the Glaoui family who originally built the kasbah lo these many centuries ago took us through it. He explained the various rooms and the implements that were found in the stable, where they had been successfully hidden from the many invaders who’ve overtaken parts of Morocco at various times in its violent history.
We then drove deep into the palm oasis with Mustafa, a mostly French-speaking, turbaned Berber who claimed to have “only one wife, but many French amies who come to visit in September and October. My wife does not mind!” At least I think that’s what he said. He was quite dashing, so it was easy to believe. Mustafa renamed us Ibrahim (Phil), Ismael (Ben) and Asni (me) and guided us on a wild drive through the oasis, pointing out the old Jewish kasbahs and cemeteries (there is only one Jewish family left in the oasis, though there are 35,000 people living there in tiny villages of mud-brick houses that can’t be seen from the main road).Ben saw a hoopoe. No sign of fennec foxes, sadly.
Mustafa brought us to a friend’s carpet and jewelry shop, where we drank mint tea, admired many gorgeous and pricey carpets, and bought necklaces. Then he showed us the Dades River, one of the two rivers responsible for the oasis’s existence, where many small boys were leaping into the water with joyous abandon.
Back at our kasbah, we swam, and Ben and I had massages – mine of the feet, his of the skull. Thank you, Kaz, for the birthday massage, so belatedly realized! It was wonderfully relaxing, curing my severe mental strain from so much speaking of French. Ben claims his head has never been so loose. We devoured yet another delicious dinner and are now about to go to bed early, as we’ve been told our drive tomorrow to Fez will take at least ten hours and perhaps twice that.

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