Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape
After an eye-popping few days in Marrakech amid snake charmers, spices and traditional naked hammams, we drove about 80km to the base of North Africa’s highest mountain range. To give you a bit of context of how overwhelming this mountain range is, it runs 1000km diagonally across Morocco and is part of the even bigger 2500km Atlas range that extends through Algeria and Tunisia. The rugged, majestic landscape in Morocco is dotted with Berber villages and other fascinating finds – one day we came across an abandoned hamlet with a rusty sign stuck in the dirt: “Forbiden to Non Muslims” [sic] it said in Arabic and English. You can also hike, bike, ski, rock climb, ice climb and horse ride throughout the mountain range. It really is an adventurer’s paradise.
We opted for a few sweaty days mountainbiking over the dusty brown hills, our Moroccan interpreter in tow. We’d bunk down with families at night, eating spice-laden tagines, sleeping on thin mats and washing in a holey bucket in dilapidated outhouses (going to the toilet at 2am was a rather frightening experience).
The traditional Berber culture was hospitable and humbling. Sure, it was rough, yet it was equally gratifying.
One day we ditched the bikes and our local guide, Hassan, led us on a treacherous, thighburning mountain hike with not a person in sight. About halfway up, already at a dizzy height, nestled inside dusty terracotta manmade walls, was a village of about 30 houses. We hit a potholed road, past a pack of skinny dogs, a bunch of grubby kids chasing a ball and, finally, past a man plodding along behind his cow. Washing hanging high up out of windows was gathering dust from our tracks. After walking through a muddy front garden of sorts, we arrived at Hassan’s sister’s house for mint tea.
She flung open the door and the warmth from her smile, though toothless, was energising. I could smell the spices in her hair. Her three young kids smiled sheepishly while tugging at her long colourful skirt. She gave each of us a big welcome hug and ushered us into her house, then into a small room where well-worn Turkish rugs covered the floor. The dirt peeked through where the rugs didn’t quite reach the walls. There was a two-seater sofa, dirty and ripped, and a vintage TV in the corner.
We sipped our tea, smiling a lot as we had a disjointed conversation through her brother. From her deep wrinkles and mostly grey hair, I guessed she was over 40, but later found out she was in her early 30s, around the same age as me at the time. She’d never left Morocco and had only done the 12-hour trip to Marrakech a handful of times.
As she talked, she had this supreme joy that lit up her whole face. A real delight in her eye. I asked if she had lived a good life so far. “Yes, of course,” she said. She had family and friends. Food, shelter, health, animals – that was her life. She walked us through the rest of her house, which included a tiny kitchen with camping-style cooker, fridge and small cupboard, and pointed out the bedroom where her whole family slept. When we were leaving, she hugged me tightly as if to say, don’t judge me. My life is good. I have everything I need. I live a rich, full and meaningful life.
There was a simplicity to her life that I was insanely jealous of. A happiness. An ease in many ways. For the days and weeks after, back in the harsh reality of work deadlines, long lines of city traffic and mundane life admin, Hassan’s sister’s grin would pop into my mind, reminding me of another life. A mismatched world to mine. I printed out my photo with her and her children, and sticky-taped it to the side of my desktop to remind me, when I was deep in the overwhelm, that there was another life – if I really wanted it.
Felicity is the author of Balance and other BS (Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99).