Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Imlil: In Which We Run For the Hills

The view from our guest house, the beautiful, snowy, High Atlas mountain range.

    Apart from getting us in and out of London, a one way ticket from London to Morocco, and lodgings in Marrakech, Imli was the only other accommodation I booked ahead of time. On other trips I've done far more planning in advance, but this time I decided to let the trip unfold a bit more naturally, allowing for more flexibility as we go. This was partly due to not buying our tickets until two weeks before we were leaving. I simply didn't have time to do the research necessary to plan out all the details for a two month trip that will take us to four different countries. I figured that as long as I have an internet connection and a couple of Lonely Planet guidebooks, I can keep a step or two ahead of us, booking accommodations and transportation as we go.

    From the reading I had done, I knew that a few days in Marrakech would be enough and that getting out into nature should be our next step. We engaged a grand taxi to drive us to the mountain village of Imlil, a journey that would take about two hours even though it's less than 45 miles away! From Marrakech's palm lined streets you can see the snowy Atlas mountains in the distance, a beautiful juxtaposition of landscapes. We made our way up a winding mountain road, impressed with our driver's caution, something not to be taken for granted! The village of Imlil is nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, and is the center of mountain tourism in Morocco due to its close proximity to Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. The tarmac ends in Imlil, and many people come from far and wide to trek in the High Atlas and attempt to summit Jebel Toubkal.

Pearl and the luggage got a lift! 

     We arrived in Imlil and were excited to be met by a mule who had been engaged to carry our luggage up the steep, rocky hillside to our guest house.  It was quite a trek up there, and when little Pearl began to lag behind a bit, the mule driver hoisted her up to ride the rest of the way! Before long we were flanked by two other muleteers offering their services for a mere 150 dirhams (fifteen US dollars). I declined repeatedly and firmly, but they accompanied us up the greater part of the hillside. These guys are persistent, not rude like some of the touts in Marrakech, but apparently they hold onto hope long after it's gone!  

   We arrived at the doorstep of the Riad Atlas Prestige a bit out of breath and were welcomed by Ibrahim and ushered out onto the patio where we sat in awe of the gorgeous, snowy Atlas mountains towering above us. The air was crisp and cool, but we were warmed by the sun and our exertion, and delighted to sit and rest in such a place. Over the railing was a sheer drop, and we could look out across the valley, over Imlil, and to other small villages spread out across the hillsides, the minarets over several mosques residing over each community. Ibrahim appeared a few minutes later with steaming mint tea, poured high into small glasses for each of us, and a plate heaped with nuts, raisins, and dates. Once we had rested a while we were shown to our room where we settled ourselves for the evening.

Our room came complete with slippers and jellabas, the long, hooded cloaks worn by Moroccans. Poppy and I had fun  trying them on!

    Ibrahim asked if we wanted dinner, and as we weren't keen to walk down into the village again that day, we gladly accepted that offer. We usually prefer to eat in the little, local places, which tend to be cheaper and often better quality, but we thought for our first night it would be good to stay "in". Dinner in Morocco is usually offered between about 7 and 10 PM, so we've had to adjust to eating later than we usually do, which means the children often get to bed later as well. (Now if they would just figure out that sleeping in is acceptable!) We walked downstairs from our room, breathing in the cool mountain air, gazing in wonder as a nearly full moon rose over the Atlas, its light illuminating snow-flanked granite peaks. I love the mountains, which I attribute to being born in Canada's Rockies.
The cozy room where we ate breakfast and dinner.
    We were ushered into a curtained room lined with low couches. A wood fire crackled in the stove, spreading cozy warmth, and candlelight flickered on tables. We sat down wearily, hungrily, and helped ourselves to bread and olives, the only proper way to begin a meal in Morocco. Soon a steaming bowl of soup was placed before each of us, and we sipped its delicate broth from small, carved wooden ladles. It was delicious, and I would have been satisfied with the meal at that point, but, as it turned out, we were just getting started!

Soup of the evening... beautiful soup.

    Our soup bowls were whisked away, and in front of us was placed a still sizzling tagine. Steam billowed as the lid was lifted, releasing the tantalizing fragrance of chicken slow cooked with preserved lemons and olives, topped with a variety of vegetables. It was delicious, with surprising layers of flavors, both sweet and savory. At this point we were really, truly full and more than satisfied, but then came tea! More small glasses of sweet mint tea were sipped, followed by a platter of oranges and bananas. I had expected mediocre guest house food and instead enjoyed the most excellent meal of our trip so far. We wrangled our very tired kids upstairs for bed, with full bellies and happy hearts. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door, and one of the guest house guys was standing there with four hot water bottles for the kids!

Tangines simmer on clay braziers in front of many little shops and restaurants. For around 30  or 40 dirhams (3 or 4 dollars), you can choose the one you want, usually goat, beef, lamb, or chicken with several kinds of vegetables, served up with a basket of crusty bread.

     The next day we enjoyed breakfast in our guest house, a typical Moroccan carb-fest of bread, crepes with jam, and thankfully, hard boiled eggs and yogurt. (Sometimes it's just bread; one place served us no less than six varieties of bread at breakfast one day!) After satisfying our hearty mountain appetite, we relaxed on the patio for a while in the sun, writing postcards and working on our journals. A Moroccan family was staying at the guest house at the same time, and she and Pearl engaged in a game of Monopoly, made quite humorous by the communication and cultural gaps. (Out of money? No problem, the bank has plenty! Just take some.) I enjoyed my visits with them over the next few days, and Pearl and the little girl played together several times. After an enjoyable morning we decided to walk down into the village for lunch. 

Tiny tagines for sale in a little shop in Imlil. Pearl decided I must have one of these, and bought a turquoise one in my favorite color with her own money. She snuck it home and wrapped it up in a scarf to give me as a gift. Sweet girl. 

    We enjoyed rambling around the small village of Imlil. It reminded me so much of time spent in Nepal in 2000 and 2001, with its beautiful mountain setting and an abundance of shops organizing treks and selling used trekking gear. I never knew the Atlas were a prime trekking destination! You can do anything from a small hike nearby to a couple weeks. Given the beautiful setting, I can see why people come here to spend time in these mountains. 

These two muleteers offered us their services repeatedly as we walked around the village. When it came time to walk back up, we bartered a bit and got to ride the mules for 20 dirhams, the equivalent of two US dollars each. The kids were absolutely thrilled! (And I was glad we'd not been roped into the fifteen dollars ride the man had offered us the previous day. We must have had that "just arrived" look! I asked Ibrahim later how much a ride should be and he said 30-50 dirhams, so I guess our bartering skills are up to muster.)

I wasn't going to buy a carpet, but...

    Really, truly, I had no intention of buying a carpet! Nope, not me. We traveled with only carryon luggage, although I did plan on bringing one extra bag home with us, knowing there would be a little shopping along the way. About a third of the way up the hill was a cooperative that sold carpets and other handmade items. On our way down, the salesman invited us to come take a look, and we told him maybe later. When we walked by in the late afternoon, of course he was there waiting for us. We walked in and Mohammed began showing us some rugs while the children looked at the magic boxes, little carved cedar puzzle boxes that fascinated them. 

    Mohammed is the father of seven children and lives in a nearby village, walking 30-40 minutes to work each day. He lives with his parents and a couple of his siblings and their children, a total of around 20 people in the household. Only a few of them have paying jobs, which seems to be a fairly typical situation in Morocco, and those that do financially care for the rest, who contribute to the household in other ways. I have long loved textiles, and so of course I was thrilled to look at the carpets, and Mohammed was happy to answer my many questions. They are made in the traditional way, from wool that is sheared and spun and dyed with natural pigments, the way it's been done for centuries. Often a women has a loom in her home and works on it in her found moments in between caring for children and her many other responsibilities. I delighted in seeing the colors and beautiful patterns, all the while saying I couldn't take one home with me. Erik pulled me aside and told me that if I wanted one, I could buy it. Plot twist! Being the submissive and agreeable wife I am, I settled on a medium sized rug, assured it was of the finest quality, bartered appropriately, and became the happy owner of a Moroccan carpet.  And like Mohammed said, I made him happy, and he made me happy, and now he could go and buy tea and sugar and couscous and meat and vegetables for his family! (The carpet pictured above isn't the one I ended up with. Mine is smaller and has a different design. This one was a bit out of my league!)

I'm afraid the kids are ruined for normal hiking now. Can't we just get a mule to carry us when we're tired? 

    We engaged a local guide through our guest house, and the following day he, along with a mule and muleteer, led us on a trek around the valley. It was a beautiful, clear day, and we hiked over seven miles up a steep hillside, through patches of icy snow, and across a rocky valley just beneath the snow line. We walked through an ancient Berber village, its steep stone paths worn by countless feet over the centuries. We continued along, making a wide circuit, stopping to rest among pine trees, where we ate oranges and bread left over from breakfast. The three younger kids took turns riding on the mule, and I even rode for a short time. (I like going up, but going down? Not so much.)  We came upon a little herd of baby goats that scattered, bleating, as the kids approached. In a few places we saw mules grazing contentedly, probably glad to be given a respite from the carryon of burdens. 

A glimpse of our trekking party. I was so proud of how well the kids did during our long day. 

The hillsides around Imlil. 

    Out of seemingly barren land, these hard working Berber people have fashioned terraces for growing their crops of wheat and vegetables, along with fruit trees. Apples, cherries, apricots, walnuts, and plums, their buds swelling, dotted the hillsides. In a few more weeks they will burst forth in delicate pink and white and red blossoms. I was continually amazed to see the ingenious water irrigation systems in place, diverting water from the streams and rivers. We walked alongside a concrete channel complete with several sluice gates for watering the terraces. It also powered a small mill, presumably for grinding wheat into flour.

One of the Berber villages we walked through. Though a road has been built, it doesn't appear that too much has changed here for centuries. 

Our guide, Hassain, preparing tea.

    Hassain either didn't have much sense of time, or was unused to leading parties that contain small children. We finally stopped for lunch in the mid-afternoon, hungry and tired and very ready to take a break! We were led through the dark and narrow stone passageways of a Berber home and out onto an open rooftop where a table was laid out for us. Glad to have a chance to rest, we sat down and watched as Hassain prepared the tea. As the gunpowder green tea and fresh mint leaves  brewed, he asked if we'd like sugar, and we said sure. He proceeded to grab two lumps at least the size of golf balls and throw them in the pot! Needless to say, certain children thought it was the best tea ever! 

Little boy, big tagine.

   We were grateful for the large loaves of bread and "salad" that arrived shortly after the tea. The salad consisted of chopped tomato and pepper, fresh herbs, and cumin, similar to a chunky salsa, only not spicy. It was a delicious start to our meal, and was soon followed by not one, but two steaming tangines of savory meat and vegetables. We ate as much as we could and it felt like we hardly put a dent into the food! After that was a bowl of delicious tangerines. I love that dessert in Morocco is typically fruit of some sort. There are definitely sweets to be had, and plenty of sugar, especially in the tea, but for the most part fruit is considered an adequate dessert. One of my favorites was a platter of sliced oranges sprinkled with cinnamon.

    After our trek, we had one more day to enjoy Imlil. We spent it resting up after our big outing, something we find necessary for travel with children. It doesn't pay off to push everyone too hard, and so we try to balance the big days with more restful ones. We walked into the village again, spent time visiting the Moroccan family staying at the guest house, and worked out plans for our onward journey. I loved our time in Imlil, and am so glad we were able to be there. 

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