Day 2 of our trip began with sunshine and optimism, but in the manner of travel, everything that could go wrong tried to and some things went gloriously right. We left Marrakesh after what could be called a restless night, at least on my part. The girls (Husna and Khadija) admitted that they weren’t used to the different bed but I think they rested all right. Travel tip #143- The wise traveller always wants to check to make sure that the screen in the window of the room isn’t broken, else one can’t leave the window open for the evening breeze. In Marrakesh, in the summer, an evening breeze is essential. I didn’t check. Our screen was non-functional and since I dislike awaking dotted with inflamed bug bites more than I dislike creating my own little swamp of sweat, I decided to sweat. (Note: At this point, any decision to sweat is moot since the temperature is over 100 degrees. I’ve personally released into the universe liquid to match that consumed at a Super Bowl game, and all unbidden!
The Hotel Toulousain, modest but recommended, provided a welcome breakfast of fresh squeezed orange juice, lattes, petit pan au chocolat, and yogurt. We breakfasted, we left, and eventually, after asking a couple of people and consulting our map, found ourselves on the road to Ourika and thence to Ait Lekak, the village where an old Peace Corps friend, Michael, and a couple of other volunteers, spent their tour. Michael stayed with and became like a son to a couple named Hamad and R’kia (variation on Ahmed), who had a plethora of wonderful children in the way of mountain Berbers. The two sons I’ve met are Mustafa, who was 13 when last I saw him eight years ago, and Hussein, who now tips the time scale at around 30.
After pushing our little car to what I thought was its limit wending our way high into the Atlas mountains, we rounded a corner and rediscovered Ait Lekak, also known as Ait Al Coq. At the first the
mul hanoot, or small grocery, I found that the store owner didn’t quite get what or who I was talking about but eventually, in my rapidly eroding Arabic, he understood and arranged for someone to walk us up through the douar, or village to Hamad’s home. There are no roads within the village, so we had driven up and parked on the verge of one that passes by on the way to Oukaimden.
Instead, pathways, boulders, rocks, stairs, ruts, half paved alleys, and other assorted objects lead from one house after another, some joined at their rooves to create a single, larger expanse on top but neighborly separation below. There is no rhyme or reason to the separations between one set of buildings and another as they climb the hillside. We passed a house in progress and saw that where nature hadn’t provided a flattened area on which to build, the hearty Berber digs out his own.
All around us in the mountains were intricate layers of terracing, some seemingly inaccessible from the road but, up close no problem for those who have the lungs of a sperm whale and the leg muscles of a Lance Armstrong in his prime, before dopping .The desire to revisit Hamad and R’kia arose out of the tender memories I have of a few hours my daughter and I, plus ex-husband spent with them all those years ago. In truth, I was a bit impatient with the errand we had taken on for Michael on that first trip, to deliver a gift of cash. No, the impatience wasn’t with the errand, but with the possibility of getting off schedule – a very return-to-Western-World reaction, and, truthfully, with being so far from a bathroom.
At the time, though, I couldn’t fight the look of disappointment in R’kia’s face and the insistent arguments put forth by Hamad that we extend our delivery time to include a real visit and a meal. So, we stayed through delicious tea, not the traditional mint but so flavorful and graciously offered. We stayed through a never-to-be-forgotten serving of homemade bread and olive oil, and we stayed long enough for Hamad and R’kia to imprint their caring and generous nature on our spirits. Of all the moments of that trip, I remembered the hours with Hamad and R’kia, though there were no luxuries, no accoutrements, or even what we would normally consider comforts and amenities.
Inside the “salon” the walls were the same mismatched patches of baby blue, pink and white; the choices having nothing at all to do with the birth of a new member of the family. I think is was a design they chose with the residue of different cans of paint, probably purchased inexpensively.
Hamad opened the small window at the end of the narrow room and there, beyond, for my nieces, nephew and brothers-in-law to see, were the Atlas mountains, towering above us and yet close enough almost to touch. I gave Hamad the pictures of Michael’s son I’d brought in a small album as he settled us in and went to arrange for tea. We sent Ibrahim out to look round the village, a chance he jumped at while the rest of us waited. Not too unexpectedly, we’d seen a young boy who looked enough like Ibrahim to be his twin as we clambered up to Hamad’s house.
Soon, a pot of aromatic tea arrived with peanuts and walnuts, these last from Hamad’s own trees. Shortly after came the much awaited bread, honey, and olive oil . Hamad wanted us to stay four days, well, three then, but he settled for staying through lunch, for which he had a chicken all picked out for slaughter. As the lunch cooked, I checked my coterie of younger folk and found, again, not unexpectedly, a certain absence of enthusiasm. It was Day 2 folks, new relationships forming, riding long distances in cramped circumstances, you know the drill. Hussein’s suggestion that he take everyone for a “walk down to the river and up the mountain” met with stoic acceptance, but I sent them off without me. It was a challenge just getting to Hamad’s house from the road. A mountain? No, probably not.
But, rather than sit on my can for the hour plus they would be gone, Rachida, R’Kia’s daughter in law, showed me around the village and introduced me to everyone who came out of their house to see what was happening. My entry pass was, “I’m a friend of Michael’s,” a phrase that invariably brought forth an, “Ohh, Michael. How is he?” from anyone older than 15. We left Peace Corps over a decade ago, so memories would fade among the young. Not for those who were older. They all remembered Michael and were happy to hear about the baby. “Only one?” was an occasional surprised comment, since village Berbers marry young and produce offspring regularly. We left Hamad’s house for the tour of the village with Rachida’s two oldest girls as company. We returned with those and two others. Friends of those friends were called back by their mothers else I would have felt like the Pied Piper without any tricks up my sleeve. Children abound in Ait Lekak.
My own off-spring-by-marriage returned from seeing the river and climbing the mountain with smiles and stories, and ready for lunch. Hot, fragrant couscous, piled high with carrots and squash appeared as if by magic, yet I’d seen the carrots pealed, the fire built, and the pressure cooker pulled down from the shelf, so I know that all the usual steps were taken. Silence reigned as we dug in, R’Kia having been thoughtful enough to provide spoons to those whose “Moroccanness” she wasn’t sure of. When the first, much needed, bites were taken, R’Kia commented on how great Michael had been at eating Moroccan style, with his hands. Apparently, Michael was great at everything. Hamad told us how he’d help to cut the trees that formed the beams of the ceiling we sat under, how he would watch closely to see how something was done and then insist upon doing it himself the next time, and how he conquered couscous after a few mis-tries.
People often don’t realize the impact of Peace Corps volunteers, but, in places where the internet doesn’t hold sway, a visitor from another world, a person who wants to know you and work with you, becomes a focus of attention. It was through volunteers like Michael that Hamad and R’kia gained knowledge of America.
We left after lunch and more tea with three bags of walnuts, which didn’t get through customs: one for me, one for Michael, and one for my extensive Moroccan family.