The experience of traveling for a quick six day trip to Morocco (from England where I was visiting my mother) was very much worth it.
The first day, I was up early and spent most of it on a bus crossing the High Atlas (868 hairpin bends on a very narrow road). The bus was First Class Direct, but it still took five hours to go 180 km. The hands in the photo belong to the lady sitting in front of me. I loved the design on her hands and after trying to do so surreptitiously over her shoulder, got up the courage to ask in pidgin French if I could take a photo.
There was lovely scenery as we climbed about 7500 ft into a pine forest, then through a dry barren rocky landscape with adobe mudbrick villages. The houses are built one on top of another, huddled against the outcroppings. Finally the bus descended onto a wide plain with an almost dry riverbed, passing crumbling remains of ksars, the adobe palace fortresses of Berber chieftains.
Ait Benhaddou is one of the finest remaining ksars, now partially restored by UNESCO. After all that traveling, I was in no mood to do anything except relax, so I got up early and left this pretty little hotel and neighboring mosque to walk over to OLD Ait Benhaddou. To get here I had to go into Ouarzazate, a large town built almost entirely since 1920 as a French administrative center controlling the south and Sahara. The town is now famous for huge film studios specializing in desert classics. From there, a taxi back up the road 40 km and down the narrow track to this rather isolated and very peaceful village. (That is, except for the gaggle of tourists who just arrived…their voices echoing around the hotel. All I can do is hope they’ll find their rooms and settle down!)
When I told my host Aziz I hadn’t liked the designs they offered at one particular hammam, he took me next door to meet his Berber neighbor Semia. She offered to demonstrate for me how they create the beautiful henna designs that the women wear on their hands.
I watched as first the henna powder was kneaded and pounded with warm water, until it smelled like grass clippings and had the texture of whipped cream at the “stiff peaks” stage. The design comes as a black plastic stencil, which I am assured is the correct traditional Berber way. Semia and her very strict-looking mother sat me on the floor, back against the couch facing the TV and began to very thoroughly plaster henna paste over the stencil. It all took quite a long time, while I watched Alice in Wonderland.
Once they were satisfied, first feet, then hands were encased in two layers of plastic shopping bags. Then I was buried in quilts and blankets to get REALLY hot and marinate for two whole hours. While Mother Aisha finished plastering and bagging me, Semia cooked Berber flat bread filled with dried sheep, sheep fat and her own special spice mix which sounds awful but was really delicious. As I had no hands, she sat and fed me bites followed by sips of mint tea. It was as if I was a baby again.
Waiting for the henna gave me plenty of time to talk to Semia in a mix of English and French. She is 30 years old and won’t marry because, she says, Moroccan men want to control every detail of a woman’s life. Her sister works, and Semia stays home to take care of her two small children. She says she hardly gets out of the house. Her father is retired with a very small pension and life is very difficult.
Finally just as I could stand or rather sit it no longer, the big reveal. Blankets off, stencils peeled, excess henna scraped off with a knife, skin rubbed with baby oil and instructions not to bathe. Semia and I are now lifetime buddies, too. She gave me a pretty headscarf and some of her spice mix, and I gave her a fistful of dollars, feeling inadequate to have nothing more. Of course, I left with promises to return to Ouarzazate for a real local experience in her company.
I toyed with the idea of not coming back.
This is my sheik as he invited me to move in as his 4th wife. Okay, maybe not!
You can always recognize a tour guide because they are the only ones dressed as Berbers. This one took me on a tour through the date palms and olive groves of the large Skaura oasis, with many old kasbahs which guarded the camel caravan trade routes from the Sahara to Marrakech.
From there to the oasis of Fint, a much smaller oasis but with dramatic black volcanic outcroppings. It has been much used as a movie set.
One of the photos is of a little “fixer upper”….no doubt soon to be a luxury vacation home for the Italians, French and other Europeans flooding into the area. This is near where I’ve been staying in Ouarzazate.
The next day, I got back on the bus, back over the High Atlas and enjoyed a brief sortie into the souks of Marrakech. And now, back to England and back to Merida!