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Berbers, Gorges and the Route of 1000 Kasbahs

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On our way from the Sahara to Marrakesh, we got to see more of the Morocco’s impressive scenery and learn about the Berbers. Really quickly, the Berbers are the indigenous population of Northern Africa, stretching from the Canary Islands in the Atlantic to somewhere west of the Nile in Egypt. I was surprised to learn about them, because I thought Morocco was entirely an Arab nation. Actually, although it’s an Arab-ruled nation, only about 30% of the population identifies itself as Arab – most people consider themselves Berber. Within the Berbers there are tons of tribes, each with its own dialect, customs, and, sometimes, tattoos. Some women even have tattoos on their chins that signify their tribal affiliation – unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of this.

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Nour with a glass of camel’s milk and the local products for sale

Our first stop was at a small farm, where we sampled camel’s milk. It’s about $6 a glass, so we all tried a few sips. I was expecting something sour like goat’s milk and had a stick of gum ready in my pocket to fix the taste after sampling, but was pleasantly surprised to find that camel’s milk is a slightly lighter version of cow’s milk, and very close to the American version of skim milk. The salesman told us “beaucoup vitamin” which I’m pretty sure means full of vitamins, but every specialty milk dealer I’ve encountered lately says their stuff is the healthiest, so who knows.

Next up was the Todra Gorge, where we walked along its creek, then through a palm grove to see the local agriculture. The actual village was tiny and partly empty, as lots of people have left to find work in Casablanca or Europe. The villagers devised an irrigation system full of dikes and dams to support each family’s plot along the creek. Along with the date palms, olives, cabbage, almonds, peppers, and beans were growing. I hope I’m wrong, but I think this was the first time I saw a blossoming almond tree! We had the option of visiting a Berber carpet-making collective or continuing with the walk. Since I already have too many carpets and it was such a beautiful day, I decided to keep walking.

When we reached our pickup point, we had drinks on a hotel terrace while our guide, Nour, serenaded us with some of the Berber music that he’s learning.

The next morning we visited a local center for the disabled. Providing disabled people with education, or even a life outside the home, is a relatively new thing in Morocco. At this center they welcome people with physical and mental disabilities and try to give them a sense of purpose and community. They teach trades like knitting, sewing, and metalwork, and then the products are sold at the center’s shop to help support operations. I bought some jewelry and a tooled mirror that are my favorite things from Morocco.

In Quarzazate, we visited a Berber pharmacy. As in most cultures, the Berbers have a natural remedy/cure for every ailment. This particular pharmacist was big on promoting ginseng for ED and other sexual problems, and a daily shot of argan oil as a preventative health measure. After his hilarious presentation we got to shop. As somebody who religiously avoids all forms of medicine unless forced by terrible illness or the Navy, I was surprised to hear of all the ailments and remedies available. The pharmacy was kind of a natural goods store as well. I bought the Moroccan mixture of 35 spices, called Rad al Hamoud, and a very sweet-smelling curry powder. I even learned the ingredients in curry powder: coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek.

Quarzazate is Morocco’s Hollywood, in that it’s the country’s central studio area. Lots of films taking place in the Middle East, or the desert, were filmed here. Most recently: Babel and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and most famously: Laurence of Arabia. We stayed in the same hotel as Brad Pitt, but didn’t spot any stars this time.

We passed several studios on the road from Quarzazate to Marrakech, and then stopped at Ait Benhaddou, a ksar where the Gladiator was filmed and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A ksar is a fortified village of a kasbahs, which are fortified homes. Yeah, lots of fortifying going on here. The ksar was located on the Silk Road and a frequent stop for caravans. Most of the village is empty now. To encourage easy filming, the government has sponsored relocating the villages across the creek, but a few stubborn holdouts remain.

We came across these artists, who make paintings of the ksar and other Moroccan themes with the natural ingredients of green tea, indigo, and saffron watercolors. Then, the picture is heated, either by the sun or with a gas heater, to brighten and spread the colors – it’s pretty amazing to watch!

After climbing the kasbah, we were on the road to Marrakech through the High Atlas Mountains, which has recently become famous because of this Cadillac ad. I was in the back of the van and felt every curve and drop – it was a pretty exciting drive!

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