Morocco (2016)

Return to Marrakech

We drive back to Marrakech via Ouarzazate, defy damaged roads and are invited to tea with assistant driver Youssef’s grandparents.

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Saturday was the last day of travel of this holiday. One last breakfast in the casbah, a goodbye to Gaëlle—who “angrily” stormed the bus to retrieve a forgotten key—and the bus departed in the direction of Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Moroccan South. Although we did just come from there, so it was more like the gateway to the North for us. Once again the bus wound along curvy roads through beautiful landscapes in the Atlas mountain range, where we even got a scenic view of snow-covered mountains in the distance.

Shortly after a brief stop to take pictures of the view and a second stop in Ouarzazate to take pictures of a well-maintained casbah (although it turned out there was a quite busy run happening at the moment), Mahmed parked the bus in the city center. This allowed us to go have some coffee, and have a look around on the local souk. Martin was interested in buying a scarf, but did not find one to his liking at a stand selling scarves, so we walked to the town square to get coffee. Just as we reached it, a few minutes and streets further along, a man suddenly came running up behind us. It turned out to be the salesman of the stand with the scarves, who had followed us with a rack of scarves “in more different colours”, because he had more than we had seen! And indeed, that turned out to contain one that Martin did like and was able to buy for a good price. Can you imagine it? Back home it is occasionally difficult to get a shopkeeper’s attention when you are right there in the store—let alone when you are three blocks down the road!

From Ouarzazate the journey continued towards the Tichkal pass, the highest point of our trip through the Atlas. From here, we would be descending for several hours towards Marrakech. After having lunch at a restaurant in the pass, there was a surprise addition to the programme: Youssef, the assistant driver, had invited us to come have tea with his family, so we would be making an unscheduled stop. From here, continuous small shops appeared alongside the road, which all carried the same assortment of painted plates, tajines, “genuine” fossils, minerals and other odds and ends on display on small racks along the abyss. If you placed a wooden camel back a bit too enthusiastically, you could make a shopkeeper unemployed. Additionally, they were all quite literally in the middle of nowhere in a mountain range, so how they would ever turn any sort of profit, is a complete mystery to me.

Panorama of a view across the mountains from a high road in Morocco.

Eventually we reached the cause of the disturbance on the route to Marrakech; a police officer was quite busy directing traffic, as trucks were apparently still not allowed through. We heard that they ended up having to wait for four days in total. And apparently they all did so in the next village, because it was completely filled with lorries. Fortunately the bus was allowed on, and some distance ahead we did indeed pass several bits where the road was either partially or completely washed away. Mahmed expertly steered the bus along and across the obstacles, allowing us to continue our descent from the Atlas.

Tea at Youssef’s

Halfway through the afternoon, the bus stopped at a small road that led to a narrow bridge across a river (this time a proper one with flowing water and everything), towards a small village, where apparently Youssef’s family lived. It turned out to be a good 15 minute walk, including a steep descent and clambering over some rocky paths to actually get to the village itself; no wonder there are people who end up never leaving their village. At a house all the way at the far end of the village, we were welcomed by a brightly smiling old man: Youssef’s grandfather.

We were directed in, where we sat down in a room along two lengthy tables; or at least, half of us, because the room could not hold all of us. The rest took seats in the hallway or enjoyed the sun outside, where they had the opportunity to also meet the equally brightly smiling grandmother of Youssef, as well as his mother who made herself quite busy in the kitchen. Soon, Youssef came out with trays full of tea glasses and baskets filled with bread, tasty olive oil, and butter. We wondered how something like this works: does Youssef simply phone home and say: “Hi mom, I am dropping by this afternoon with 37 friends, could you make us some tea?” And do they normally have this many tea glasses, or did his grandfather have to go around the village that morning to collect additional tea glasses?*

Another mystery that was solved, was how Mahmed and Youssef knew each other: Mahmed turned out to be the brother of Youssef’s mother. Good to know. Other than that Youssef was quite good-looking, fun company, 27 years old and single, his invitation and the resulting visit to his grandparents made him even more popular with our company than before—we heard that evening that some of our fellow travelers (names known to the editor –ed.) had pretty much already married their daughter off to him. That must be a fun surprise upon their return; at least it is quite a bit more original than a souvenir from the souk!

Return to Marrakech

After saying our goodbyes to Youssef’s grandparents and thanking them profusely (I am not sure whether they made our day, or whether we made theirs), we marched back to the bus to continue our journey to Marrakech. It was not long before the mountains and hills of the Atlas made way for the plains around the city. Before heading into the city center, we asked Mahmed to stop the bus next to the road, in order to both thank him and Youssef and handing him the money that we had collected as a tip, for this was our last trip with them. We would not see them again after stopping at Hotel De Foucauld.

Mahmed drove the bus into the Marrakech frenzy once more, which seemed even more chaotic than it had the week before. Buses, taxis, horse carriages, cars, and mopeds were zigzagging through each other, but our bus set a steady course to the sidewalk in front of the hotel, honked a few cars out of its way, and we alighted where we had begun our journey. In Geert’s words: we had now come full circle.

It felt rather strange to be back in Marrakech that evening: the business, the other tourists, and the modern sense of a big city. On the one hand it felt that we had only been in Marrakech just the other day, but on the other it felt as if we had been travelling for weeks, with everything that we had seen and done in between. Azrou, Ifrane, Tinghir, the Todra Gorge, Alnif, Agdz, Asslim, Ouarzazate and all the other places where we had passed through ran through our heads as we fell asleep that night.

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