Never Peed by Candlelight?

“You did?”

“I did indeed. I said Now Max, this is going to be an adventure trip – not a relaxing trip. Are you ok with that?"

 “Huh. Well I’m sure I don’t remember that …” Max yells with a grin as the freezing wind whips across his face on top of the fortified city of Ait Ben Haddou.

 To be fair, we might have had that conversation while he was reading his favorite news blogger, who I sometimes refer to as Max’s boyfriend because of the way he so intensely zones out when he reads his blog…but who can say?

We have been wanting to see the south of Morocco since we arrived but it was either too hot or too far for a short weekend or too…whatever. But after two months, 8 weeks, 56 days of staying put I was going to burst. Our little car isn’t much, but I was determined to drive it over the Atlas Mountains at least once during our time in Morocco. So we got out our maps and plotted a feasible route from Casa to Marrakesh, up and over the Tizi n’Tichka pass, a stopover at Ait Ben Haddou, on through to Ouarzazate and the Skoura Oasis before mounting the Tizi n’Tichka again with a detour to Telouet then through Marrakesh and back home. We drove a lot and, to my shame, were mostly fueled by a pack of fun size Reese’s peanut butter cups my mother sent us for Christmas.

The first thing to know is that even though Morocco is in Africa and it has a desert, a famous one, it gets cold here. Even though the sun was shining and the sky was robin’s egg blue for miles – we were frozen to the bone most of the time. Thank goodness for layers and car heaters because my original planning would have left us much grumpier and much colder than we were. I found this place inside the UNESCO world heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou, a fortified city of Kasbahs (Ksar), that had been renovated and rented rooms. “We could stay in an actual Kasbah and climb to the top after all the day trippers have left! How cool.” That’s pretty much all I need to get excited about something. I didn’t discover until a few weeks after making the reservations that this particular Kasbah didn’t have any electricity. After being assured the rooms were heated, I shrugged it off. I did warn Max this would be an adventure trip… 

The peak of Tizi n'Tichka
 The drive over the mountains was stunning. I felt like I made Max stop every ten minutes, but with each new bend I was more and more amazed. We stopped at the peak of the pass to take photos of the snow covered mountain tops and the farms below, but scurried quickly back into our chariot when a mountain Berber got a little too friendly with my waist upon learning I spoke three whole words of Arabic. The landscape quickly changed from rocks and snow and Argan trees to deep red clay stretches of earth and cheeto colored plateaus hovering above small villages. We stopped for some real food before the turn off to Ait Ben Haddou and then trundled along the pise (clay dried road) to what was supposed to be our final destination.

The contrasting colors were really something.

The Kasbah at Ait Ben Haddou is very impressive. We had to walk across a “bridge” made of large stones and sandbags just to get there. The Ksar became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987 and our host, Mohammed, told us that renovations have been taking place over the years in order to entice people to come back to what was once their home. These efforts; however, have not really been successful and only 10 families currently live in Ait Ben Haddou. As Max and I scaled the empty Kasbah we began to wonder if the former residents were as spooked by the now empty fortress as we were and perhaps that's why they weren’t returning. But more on that in a bit.

Ait Ben Haddou - recognize the top of the hill from Gladiator?  Many films were shot here. 
View from the top

Mohammed greeted us on the far side of the stream and helped us over with our bags. When we entered the Kasbah it was pitch black save a small candle on a table in the entrance hall. As we moved from room to room in the Kasbah, led by a candle carrying Mohammed, we heard him whisper “Bismillah” in each new space. Bismillah means “In the Name of God” in Arabic and it is often used to invoke the blessings and protections of Allah, or God. As we crept up the dark stone staircase the thought occurred to me that he might be muttering this to ward off Jinn.  Jinn (Genies in western parlance) are ”supernatural creatures in Arab folklore and Islamic mythology that occupy a parallel world to that of mankind. Together, jinn, humans and angels make up the three sentient creations of Allah.” (Thank you Wikipedia) Jinn can be bad or good and while I’d never heard of them in other Muslim countries, Jinn seem to play a larger part in the Moroccan belief structure. From my research (admittedly informal) it seems that Jinn are particularly active in old spaces – they inhabit and more often “haunt” old homes, riads….and Kasbahs. Later we asked Mohammed about the Kasbah and why people weren’t coming back and he speculated that perhaps there were inhospitable spirits about…

We slept just under the
storks nest 
Despite a very high potential for hauntedness we stored our gear for the night and headed down to the dining hall for dinner. Mohammed was the only one in the Kasbah besides us that night and he had spent all day preparing a delicious three course Berber meal for us. We ate by candlelight and except for the wailing of Mali’s Tinariwen in the background, I’ve never experienced such silence. Most riad/guesthouse hosts are chatty mcchatty Cathy’s but Mohammed moved silently around the Kasbah with such purpose and such self possession. The night grew even more silent and I couldn’t help but think about those 10 families, including Mohammed, who live in darkness and silence every day. It was actually a really great evening to be still. To invoke a cliché, in our modern world we are hardly ever still. It’s become something I have to learn and relearn from time to time. We loved it.

….except that it was about 5 degrees and FREEZING. Despite a butane heater in the corner we spent the coldest night of our recent past curled up under the blankets. One night was awesome, two nights would have put me over the edge. So we moved on…


Road Trip!

Have I unpacked yet?  Of course not.  Am I still thawing out from our frozen adventure?  Yes, yes, I am.  I'll be back with more details of Kasbahs, Gimbris, and Jinn as soon as I kick this High Atlas Mountain cold.