Sunday, October 12, 2008

Aït Benhaddou - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 5)

On our first drive through the South Moroccan countryside, we got a glimpse of the barren rocky desert. Mohamed informed us that there were two words for desert in Arabic, "rag," which is the rocky desert we are travelling through, and "erg," which is the sandy desert we plan on visiting. Along the way, we see small streams surrounded by green fields, trees, and small villages in an otherwise barren landscape. The terrain was a dull reddish brown colour, scattered with rocks. In the distance, one can see cliffs, hills, and mountains. Every so often, there would be a road marker that looked like a white tombstone on the side of the road with a coloured top below which is painted in black the number indicating the distance, and the Arabic and English names of the place it was indicating. These appeared regularly and seemed to alternate among the next few destinations on the highway.

We stopped once to look at a rock hill with three colours, which Mohamed explained to us was very rare and caused by the presence of three different minerals and metals. We passed many small villages and saw many mud buildings, some crumbled and abandoned, and some well maintained and new. At least a few times we passed small villages on hills which we thought might have been Aït Benhaddou.

Finally, we stopped in a small village, which we were told is the new village of Aït Benhaddou. Mohammed gave us directions on how to get to the old village, and said he was going to go spend the time at a friend's house. We told him that we would watch the sunset from the hill and agreed to meet later.

Walking through town and passing a few gift shops, we reached the banks of a dried up river. I had read that if there is water in the river, one must be very careful not to step in the water due to parasites that will burrow in you skin. Luckily for us, the river was completely dry, and to get to the old site of Aït Benhaddou, all we had to do was walk across the dried riverbed. The view from this side was breathtaking. Following the banks of the river, there were green fields, bushes, and date palms. Rising above it was a collection of majestic kasbahs forming a magnificent ksar that covers a quarter of a steep hill rising out of the rag desert. Near the top, there is a cliff and a crumbled wall following the upper lip of the rock face. At the very top of the hill was a badly crumbled tower which used to function as a granary.

After walking across the dried river, we entered the gates into old Aït Benhaddou. There are currently still ten families that call old Aït Benhaddou home. We spent our time exploring the village, climbing ups and down stairs, going from roof to roof via connected passageways, and exploring small nooks and crannies. We found a few donkey stables, a few family homes charging admission for a tour, and found that most of the families that still live there now also own small gift stores. We chose not to visit anyone's home since we were afraid that it would be too touristy, but in retrospect, it would have been interesting to see anyway. In any case, we were able to explore some abandoned kasbahs which used to serve as family homes. As forewarned, there were many childern acting as touts. We ignored them and decided not to have them show us around, but again, in retrospect, for a measly 10 dirhams, perhaps they would have show us some secrets of the ksar. However, that was not guaranteed, as we have had very varying experiences with official and unofficial guides in Morocco.

Following a path leading out of the upper side of the village, we came to the top of the cliff we saw from below. There were two boys drumming on tin cans, and as they were making quite a catchy beat, we were tempted to give them some money, but we were out of change. The view from the top was amazing. At this time, the sun was low in the sky, bathing everything in a reddish orange glow. It seemed very appropriate on the reddish brown earth and the similar coloured buildings that seemed to grow out of the earth full of life before ending its life cycle and crumbling back to dust. From the top of this hill, we can see that we were surrounded by vast stretches of rocky hills and plains, well weathered into repeating patters due to millenia of erosion, untouched by humans. We also climbed around to take a look into the collapsed granary, which by now is hardly recognizable. We noted that there were different compartments in the structure which was probably used to store different foodstuff or used by different families.

After sitting there for a while watching the colours change with the setting sun, we decided we should not keep Mohamed for too long, so we decided to head back. On our way down, I noticed clear water damage on the buildings, especially around the gutters. In some places the external mud covering was washed away to reveal the compacted straw and the mud bricks, which were also showing clear damage. I wonder how much longer Aït Benhaddou is going to last, seeing that no new residents are moving in to the old village, and the ksar will be slowly ground into mud and dust with each passing wind and rainstorm.

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