May 7th, 2016
Part I: First sight of Azzaden Valley, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The taxi slowed down along the main road and pulled off to the side. There were four of us in the back of the taxi, squished shoulder to shoulder.
“What are we doing?” I asked, craning my neck around to see if I could locate the cause of our abrupt halt.
“We are going up there,” answered Lahcen, one of the volunteers working for the organization I was researching with. He was pointing out the window to a rocky road veering at an alarmingly steep angle. As I tried to follow the road with my eyes, it curved around the mountain side and disappeared.
The driver cranked the wheel and navigated the car onto the road and stepped on the gas. The lane was big enough for one vehicle. With the mountain on our left and a sheer drop on our right I wondered what happened when another car came from the other way. I asked Lahcen.
“It is very dangerous,” he answered, without further explanation.
He left it at that, so I decided that I would as well. We clipped along the road at a pace that made me push my back against the seat and stare at the ceiling, and every now and again a rock would hit the middle of the undercarriage so hard my feet jolted. Although I was admittedly scared, as we gained elevation a few things started to happen: the air got colder and crisper, the views became more spectacular, and best of all, a party-going mood filled the taxi. The driver pushed a button on the dash and Berber music called Imghran burst loudly from the old radio. Lahcen and the others in the car began clapping and singing at the top of their lungs.
“This music reminds me of home,” shouted Lahcen, clapping and grinning. “You must clap strong,” he told me, showing me how to hold my hands so that they made the loudest sound. The mood was catching and before long, everyone had joined in—even the driver was smiling and pounding his hand to the beat on the steering wheel. It was like this that we rounded the hairpin turns to the valley, winding higher and higher along the grey and red mountain face.
The sun cast striped, translucent rays down through the clouds and cast shadows on the bluish mountains rising up all around us. The valley below was green with olive, walnut, cherry, and plum trees.
As I was pressed against the door on the panoramic side, I had the best view, but I also hoped the door was secure. If it popped open, there were about five inches between me and a drop of hundreds of feet. I felt the thrill of it deep in my belly—this, mixed with the majestic mountains flying up around me and the wild and haunting Berber music, all created the familiar feeling of intoxication that can only come from adventure. Everything else had fallen away, my life in London, the anxiety I felt for writing a good dissertation, and so many other things. I smiled the kind of smile that makes your face hurt and with heart and mind soaring, I pressed my face into the fresh mountain air.
We rounded another bend and villages appeared, seemingly carved out of the mountain face. The square homes were made of the same reddish clay from the mountain and if I looked carefully, I could see the terraces the people had created to farm their fruit trees and vegetables. Goats ran up and down the sides of the mountain, hopping between the rocky ledges. I could see children as well, running just as nimbly. Born on the mountain, they had learned to climb as soon as they could walk.
“They learn to climb from a very young age,” said Lahcen. We were both watching a boy who looked about three propel himself expertly over the loose rocks and along the steep trail that connected the homes.
Because the villages were on the side of the mountain, they naturally rose up, which meant that the roofs of the houses below became the footpaths on the tier of houses above. This created a beautiful maze of winding red paths and overlapping houses that looked like intricately laid tetris cubes.
We passed eight villages, before stopping at the last one, Tiziought. This is where I would be conducting my research and it would be my home for the next four days. A huge ridge rose from behind this last village and each of the peaks jutted into the clouds. The next day when it was clear, their snowy peaks created a magnificent crest against the blue sky.