Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Road Alone

Farewell today
Travel on now
Be on your way
Go safely there
Never worry
Never care
Beyond this day.

I have a strong conviction that everyone, at least once in their life, should travel. 

Doesn’t have to be far. Doesn’t have to be exotic. Just get outside of the boundaries of everything familiar, and soak up something different. After all, as the wise Momma Skroch always says, “Travel is the best teacher.”

I also have a strong conviction that everyone, at least once in their life, should travel alone. 

Having traveling companions definitely makes mishaps and long lines more bearable. And, of course there is the safety factor, particularly for women. However, learning how to be comfortable in your skin and learning how to trust your own footsteps is an invaluable life skill. One way to learn this is through solitude and solitary travel.

I have been studying the philosophy of solitude in my daily meditation, and I had the opportunity to put it into practice last week when I went for a little southerly trek on my own.

Jebel Toubkal: North Africa’s Tallest Mountain

J, my old college roommate, and 5 of her Gambian Peace Corps comrades used a couple weeks of their precious vacation time to come and tour Morocco. I joined them for the southern leg of their journey. We joined up in Marrakech, and caught grand taxis to Imlil. Imlil is a tiny village, known mostly as a base camp for hikers anticipating the climb of North Africa’s tallest mountain, Jebel Toubkal.

At 4167 meters at the summit, Toubkal is more of a hike than a climb, with a (mostly) clear path sloping upwards. There are a few refuges a little more than halfway up, so most sane (ahem, CaitlynRodSamRoz) people split the trek into two days. That was our plan, but was apparently not the plan of October’s Weather Forecast.

Imlil is already pretty high up, and when we arrived it was already what I like to call “perfect apple-picking weather”. You know, bright blue sunny sky with huge fluffy clouds and just a wee chill in the air. You need a sweater, but you take it off if you’ve been walking around too much. Bonfire nights. Ya dig?

We stayed in the super friendly/cozy/affordable Hotel Imi N’ouassif, and the morning we awoke, pumped for the first 5-hour climb to the refuge, it was already pouring rain. So we sat around over a lazy breakfast, chatting with the other restless hikers, catching bits of American films dubbed into Arabic. (The Groomsmen, anyone? Like a chick flick in reverse). Finally, around noon, the drizzle burned off and we decided to chance it.

We hiked through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. First, winding up through a forest with hidden waterfalls above Imlil, then breaking open into a vast valley with purple and green stones covering the floor. Then, cutting upwards through walnut, apple, and cherry trees, through low-lying rainclouds. Every so often we’d pass an old Berber woman carrying a load of brush on her back, singing or praying as she blithely ascended…usually not far behind was her husband, not carrying anything, but whipping a donkey. Way to go, Ladies.

The breathtaking majesty of the mountains, the postcard perfection of the valley and clouds and streaming sunlight are indescribable. Almost cliché. We kept joking about how we had made it to The Shire. My photos do not do it justice, so I’ll just hide it away in my own memory.

After about 3 hours of climbing, we had only made it as far as The Marabout Mosque, which is about halfway between Imlil and the refuge. We were poorly equipped and taking our time to snap photos along the gorgeous route. In fact, when a group of hardcore Spanish hikers passed us on their descent, they told us how they had not even made it to the top, because of terrible weather conditions. One looked at D, in her socks and sandals, and called us “Viking Women”. I’ll take it as a compliment.

We stopped to picnic at an almost-too-perfect waterfall, just as the clouds were rolling in and the drizzle began. We ate quickly, and decided to descend. We were happy with our hike, and none of us feel like we missed out by not being able to summit. It took us 2 hours to get back down, and we arrived back in Imlil juuuust as the rain was starting and the darkness setting in.

Most of us decided to catch a grand taxi back to Marrakech that night, for my amigos to get an early start to Essaouira and me to Demnate the next day. 

Demnate: North Africa’s Largest Dinosaur Footprints (not a joke.)

The next morning we said our “a bientot’s” and set out on our separate ways. I really wanted to visit this mountainous region of Morocco, and missed the Cascades d’Ouzoud last time I was there, so this is just something I had to do, for myself. Soon it will be too cold to hike, and there was a wee bit of research I could do in the area…so why not?

My Road Alone began with a 2-hour wait at the grand taxi stand in Marrakech, waiting for enough people (6) to fill up the taxi to Demnate. Patience.

When I finally rolled into the tiny town, I decided on Hotel Marrakech. A good choice, if only for Sidi Mohammed, the owner, who took me under his wing as his granddaughter. I think he felt sorry for me as a woman traveling alone. In any case, he was very helpful and volunteered his nephew to show me around the caves of Imi N’Ifri.

Just 6 km outside of Demnate, Imi N’Ifri has rock formations and caves that make a natural bridge and waterfalls. Just stunning. In fact, if you stand in a certain spot inside the gorge, the scenery makes a map of Africa in the sky. And, just a little further away, the villagers are proud to show you a large dinosaur footprint imprinted in stone. Pretty cool.

So I explored a bit, then went back to town and explored more, walking down to the river. Demnate is set amongst rolling mountains and forests. Calm and peaceful once you get outside of the bustling town center. I decided to stick around for a few more days.

Cascades d’Ouzoud: North Africa’s Largest Waterfall

Because Demnate is between Marrakech and the Cascades d’Ouzoud- the tallest waterfalls in North Africa (sensing a theme?)- I decided to take a day trip to hike and picnic. However, because Demnate is not a major transportation hub (think: Lansquenet-sous-Tannes-esque sleepy little mountain town instead), I couldn’t find a single soul to share a grand taxi with me for the 1.5 hour journey. That is, until a group of French tourists (artists, bien sur) came screaming into town, straight from Marrakech, stopping to buy cigarettes. Mom, skip to the next paragraph now. I decided to try my hand at hitchhiking, and it turned out to be the best decision. 

I chatted and laughed with two men and two women, plus their Moroccan driver, on vacation from Bordeaux. I was practically sitting on E’s lap the whole time, and she was such a good sport about it. As we passed olive groves and almond fields, they told me about how Morocco has changed in the past 10 years, since they began their annual trips. Once at the Cascades, we split up and I climbed down into the falls and back up the other bank, then followed the course of the river through a tiny village on my own.

Needless to say, the views were breathtaking. The 110-meter, 3-tiered falls create rainbows and cool freshwater pools. I got a little lost climbing up the steep, wooded banks and into the village. But again, it was an exercise in trusting my intuition and putting one foot in front of the other.

When I met up again with the French Tourists, we lazed out and picnicked in the sunshine. And despite the disapproving looks of Moroccans around us, and to our driver’s amusement, they opened up the trunk of the taxi and busted out bottles of red wine- of course- because, as E explained, “It is unthinkable to have lunch without wine!” Gotta love the French…especially those who hike in heels and keep corkscrews in their pockets.   

The afternoon passed slowly and luxuriously, with warm red wine and cigarettes and conversation about art (E is an art restorer for Bordeaux’s chateaus) and religion (she believes in reincarnation, and says she was a courtesan in a previous life) and her travels (she traveled to Cuba and India long before Michael Moore and all the hippies thought it was cool). Too soon it was time to return.

We wound around the mountainsides, stopping at orchards along the road to pick almonds, to splay out under the enormous blue sky, and to munch on pomegranates, which are in season for about 75 cents a kilo.

They dropped me off at the fork in the road leading in either direction to Demnate or Marrakech. I hitched the final 9 kilometers back to town, but I wasn’t ready to go back to the hotel. I climbed up the mountain, up and up, until I found a pretty little sitting spot overlooking the village in the valley below. Drowsy and dreamy from the wine, the sunshine, and the beauty of the day, I watched the sun go down over the mountains, and realized that there was no place I would rather be at that moment in time. My journey had been adventurous and restorative. I had been able to focus more on what I want my remaining 2 months in Morocco to look like. Most of all, I had learned from strangers about caring for others, trusting in myself, being open, being careful, and most importantly, about being present. I have a lot to pay forward.

Quit while you’re ahead. It was time to go home. The next day, after hugging Uncle Mohammed goodbye, I was waiting for over an hour to get a cab to Marrakech. The town is so small that Marrakech is considered the swanky big city where you only go for serious business. By the grace of God (another theme of my life), an Moroccan family was making a day trip to the big city and invited me into their car. I chatted with the daughter, and aside for the baby-vomiting-on-my-jeans incident, the ride was pleasant.   

Even the train ride back to Rabat was fascinating. I sat in a cabin with a retired French woman who has started an adventure travel company here (Really gotta love the French), a government official from Ouarzazate (where a few secret prisons are located, remember?), and a very outspoken Communist university student, whose father was imprisoned and tortured during the Years of Lead. SUCH interesting conversation.

Rolling into Rabat’s train station brought a wonderful sense of coming home. Home, I guess, is where my passport is. But as I travel alone, I am learning to be more at home anywhere in the world. To find friends and experiences and to carve little niches for myself, filing memories away in my mind, stories to be retold at future dinner parties.

As much as the mountains are inspiring, I have sure missed the ocean. It’s good to be home.   

Farewell tonight
To all joy and to all delight
Go well and go peacefully
We can't keep your majesty
Be on your way.
-Natalie Merchant, “King of May”


Bridget E. said...

Your stories are beautiful - eloquently and thoughtfully written without pretense. But you are the most lovely aspect of the story! Love you!

Unknown said...

Cath, an inspiring entry on traveling alone and the interactions that result. ~Lynda