Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tifoultout - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 4)

Mohammed came back at 4pm to pick us up. He had an old tan Mercedes, a car from a previous era. Scrambling into the car, we found some religious knick-knacks around the car and a covering that looked like a faded carpet on the dashboard. We had a full evening of exploring to do since Mohammed was going to take us to a few different sites in the area.

Our first stop was at the kasbah in Tifoultout, one of the residences of the famous Glaoui family, the head of the Glaoua tribe. Their power peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were involved in the overthrow of at least two different Sultans of Morocco. Walking through the front gate, a man sitting on the side took 10 dirhams for admission in exchange for a ticket which says "tea included." It turns out that the Glaoui family had not held onto their power over the past few decades, and the occupants of this particular kasbah had been reduced to charging 10dh for tourists to wander through their home and to serve them tea.

The kasbah was painted pink as with all of the other buildings in the area. Many of the walls were worn and collapsing, while other walls had brand-new sections and decorative elements which seemed like they were already crumbling. We eventually found that all throughout southern Morocco, there are crumbling kasbahs like this one. Almost all of the buildings in the area are built using mud with straw. With each rain, the buildings get washed away a bit. As soon as a building is worn too much to maintain, the families just build a new house to live in. Luckily for them, it rains only about twice a year in the area so a house can last quite a long time with proper maintenance.

As the kasbah was built on a hill, the view from the roof terrace was spectacular. One can see the hills of the Atlas in the distance, and the town below, a cluster of mud buildings ranging from brown to pink. There were a few minarets of mosques breaking up away from the rest of the single and double storied buildings to form dramatic peaks in seemingly random parts of town. The town surrounded an oasis of lush green fields and full, healthy date palms in an otherwise dusty and barren landscape. From the top of the hill, we saw a few people going around town, and a caravan of donkeys carrying bales of hay passed below us. The top of the kasbah was home to many storks, each family with a giant nest of many sticks weaved together. As we walked up to them to observe them, they seemed just as curious of us as we were of them.

To commemorate our first main stop of the trip, we took a combined self portrait. We stood by each other and held our cameras out, taking our photos together at the same time. I'll have one version, and Felix will have the other. After that, we ducked indoors to their main lobby to have some tea. It was much cooler and darker inside. The floor and walls were covered with a patchwork of ornate cloths and rugs, many of them quite faded and worn. We sat on a couch in front of a table covered in what seems to be many layers of cloth. A man started making us some tea in an ornate silver pot. As we waited, Mohammed introduced to us the owner of the property, a member of the Glaoui family. We noticed that Mohammed appeared to know the man. We wondered if this was a tourist attraction at all, or if he was just trying to get our money somehow by showing us his friends home. Eventually, we found out that since Mohammed takes a lot of tourists around, he has gotten very familiar with many of the people these sites and had deals with them.

This would be our first taste of Moroccan mint tea, which would become the beverage of choice for every single meal we would have in Morocco. Morning, midday, and night, we, along with everyone around us, would drink mint tea. The connection between mint tea and Morocco became so strong in my mind that long after leaving Morocco, the taste of mint tea would immediately conjure up visions of sitting at small restaurants in the dusty streets in Moroccan towns, watching as people and donkeys walk past. Our driver told us that mint tea was known as "Berber whiskey" since the Berbers make it so strong that it packs the punch of whiskey in terms of taste. It also looks surprisingly like a shot of strong whiskey when sitting in the small glasses. Moroccan mint tea is made by boiling green gunpowder tea for a while and then adding mint and sugar near the end of the process to flavour the tea. The tea is then poured from a large distance above the glass to create a small foam head, although this isn't done as often in the cheaper restaurants we ate in. The tea is dense and strong in all flavours including sugar. I liked this very much as I usually enjoy my tea extra strong.

After tea, we set off in the direction of Aït Benhaddou. After a short drive, we made a quick stop at the Atlas Film Studios, the most famous of the numerous studios in the area. Films that have been filmed there include major Hollywood blockbusters such as Kundun and Gladiator. Seeing that the admission price was 60 dirhams, we decided not to take the tour and continued on our way. Once again, we noticed that Mohammed seemed to know the people at that tourist stop quite well.

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