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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Heart of the Atlas, Part 2:

NOTE:This is part 2! If this is your first visit, scroll down and read part 1 beforehand. Again, I am sorry about the length, I will try to keep my entries more concise from here on out. Enjoy reading and don't forget to comment so I know you were here.


06/12/2010- Day 105 in Morocco – 692 Days of Service Remaining

In the end, I only got roughly 2 hours of sleep; besides the inordinate amount of tea I had had to drink in lieu of dinner, I was also plagued by fleas which seemed to bite just as I began to drift off. I awake to a grey dawn feeling nervous and unrefreshed. The herds are gone and Hassan is beginning to rouse beside me. Outside, I smell baking bread and the woman soon appears with tea. One of the children gives me bread, with his left hand. This is simply not done, but I know it was not done on purpose, so I smile weakly, and tear off a small piece that had not been touched. As I chew it, the family looks at something outside, and I hastily tuck the rest of the bread into a crevice in hopes that mice will find it before my hosts do. I smile again as they look back at me and refuse the offer of more bread. Next, there is a breakfast soup, called Ahareer; it is one of my favorite Moroccan dishes and I slurp down a couple spoonfuls while it is still scalding hot, hoping that whatever microbes were in the milk have been killed by the heat. Hassan eats the rest and we look at my map.
We gaze at it together for about 10 minutes before I realize that, to Hassan, this map is meaningless brown squiggles on a green and white background, occasionally marred by French names for mountains or towns. I thank him for the help and we go outside where I ask for more specific directions. He tells me that there is a pass about 4 hours distant that leads to the village that is my destination. When I ask where it is, he smiles and points with his whole hand, just like my host father, “Nishan”. I thank my hosts profusely for their generosity and hospitality. Thinking of what I can give them, I reach into my pack and produce what remains of my cheese, about half of my food, and give it to Hassan. Before I walk out of sight, the children have finished it and are playing with the foil wrappers.
The family and their home vanish as I round a curve in the cold, grey canyon. Looking back, I can see no evidence of humanity, just stone and misty cedars. I ponder whether the house in which I slept would even be there if I went back, or whether it was some twist in time deep in this canyon which seems to be a world all of its own. Time seems to stop beneath these ancient trees.
I start my march and immediately the exertion of the previous day and the absence of sleep seem to tear at my body; my pack seems to be a living thing with talons digging deeply into my shoulders and hips. The canyon is narrow and I follow animal sign to find the path of least resistance. Occasionally a rushing, whispering noise will break the tomblike silence and I will look to see a tumbling cascade enter my streambed, waterfall upon waterfall climbing upwards into the dark trees and eventually disappearing into the mist.
The trees drop away and I find I badly eroded trail that goes over a nearby pass; it is too soon, it has scarcely been an hour since I left the house in canyon. I go to the divide and look down into a deep defile with several small houses at the bottom. This valley is nearly as deep as the one I have just clawed my way free of; my mind tells me that this can’t be right, that I missed a turn and am too far north. A shred of mist blows from a nearby promontory and I catch a glimpse of a shepherd boy in a flowing teal Jelaba, he doesn’t see me and I turn around and go back the way I had come, searching for the true route.
I am not lost, merely confused, I tell myself over and over. I feel the dread return, pulsing beneath the fatigue; what if this valley won’t let me go? I am on a small bend in the creek covered with small broken flakes of shale. I stop here and drop my pack. I spread out my topographic map and pull out my GPS, which quickly dies (didn’t I change those damn batteries?!) but not before it can give me a set of coordinates that at least confirms that I am still in the valley. I look at the mass of lines, which is drifting in and out of focus, and try to dig deeper; there must be some trick I haven’t thought of, something I am forgetting. It hits, me and I dig in my pack, going back to basics. I pull out an orienteering compass, a tool I haven’t used since I got my Eagle Scout years ago in the BSA. I place it on the wedge at the bottom of the map and hear my scoutmaster’s gruff voice in my ear, still barking instructions. “By the way, Charlie, did you forget your Scout book again?!” “Uh, yes sir, but I still remember how to orient a map!”
I look down and realize the job is done. Placing my hand on the damp paper, I line up the compass and take a bearing on my destination: the unknown pass. I fold the map and point the compass. I leads back up the canyon I had backtracked, but I walk the wash for a third time, this time with purpose. I gain a spurt of energy and find myself back on the misty saddle before I realize. I am looking back down into the deep valley, the boy is gone but the view is the same; it looks exhausting. Exasperated, I pull out my compass. The bearing unrolls like a glowing thread across the bleak vista, point directly across. There is nowhere to go but down.


I start down an eroded trail straight into the heart of the valley. On the cloud shrouded heights, sheep bleat unseen. I hear I shout and turn to look back. It is the shepherd boy, yelling something I cannot understand in Berber, I wave benignly and keep going down, the boy does not follow. I hope deep ruts that cut across the trail, stumbling on stone, my knees and hamstrings protesting this new abuse. I reach the bottom and see the stream leading into the high basin where the map says there is a way over the mountains to my destination, where I can rest. I step onto a bank and prepare to step gently into the streambed, when a rock gives way beneath my right boot and I fall. I land hard on my side and a sharp pain burns on my forearm and shoots up my humerus, I am on my feet again before I have time to process and I go through the different things I can use in my pack for a sling. A quick assessment shows that there is no lasting damage, just a scrape up my forearm and a bruise. I shake myself and stagger on up the stream. My heart sinks again as I hear barking.
A glance over my shoulder shows an angry shepherd dog standing atop the bank when I fell. Thankfully I am swallowed by a bend in the stream and the dog does not follow. There are several houses here and I keep my head down not wanting to attract the attention of more dogs, or their masters. My efforts are in vain as some children spot me and start chasing me up the streambed. I see an older girl with a baby on her back, she motions for me to go before they catch me. I nod and quicken my pace. It is in vain, however as the children, two boys and a girl, catch up to me and begin demanding things in French.
I am exhausted, my patience is completely gone and has been for some time. I look at my assailants; they are some of the dirtiest children I have seen, one of the boys has a string of green slime flowing from his nose onto his lip and all of them are covered in dirt and offal. They put their hands out demanding the trio of items I have become accustomed to hearing: money, candy, and pens. All demands are made maddeningly in French. In Tam, I say I don’t have any of these things; this is true I have no candy, I have one pen (damn them, it’s my pen), and the smallest amount of money I have is a 100DH note, deep in my pack. I have no intention of giving them anything; a kid begging me for money is maddening on the best of days, in the cities they single me out and badger me mercilessly simply because I have pale skin and eyes. It goes without saying that I am French, and speak French; I have see clean, obviously well-fed, children leave their parents and come up to me demanding a handout. What is infuriating is that tourists often give them what they want. But, as a PCV, I can’t carry around pens and candy all the time. Whatever small money I do have, I need to use for food and lodging. So, wrapping up this tangent, I will give to the blind and the lame, the obviously destitute, but I will not give to kids.
The look at me silently for a minute and the older girl with the baby walks up behind the trio. The demands begin again, still in French, I say firmly that I don’t speak French. They look at me as if I am crazy, and I know my Tam is intelligible, but they just act like they don’t understand it. I want to scream from anger and exhaustion. The older girl yells at the little demons to be quiet and then asks me my name. I tell her who I am and where I am going. She looks at me for a minute and then asks halfheartedly for candy. I say no, but without force, and she leaves it be. I ask her where the piste is that goes over the mountain. The gestures back over my shoulder, looking suddenly wild in her robe and colorful headscarf, “nishan.”, that is all. I turn to go, one of the smaller kids makes to follow me and she calls him back. Soon they too, are swallowed by the canyon.
Clouds still shroud the summits around me but they are higher and paler than they were this morning, the weather shows some sign of getting better rather than worse. The cliffs high above are of a strange red stone I do not know and much of it has tumbled down toward the creekbed, where I am walking, in huge round boulders. The creek grows tighter and steeper and my legs burn as I climb; I have to stop often. I am starving and thirsty and I am drinking water, but it never seems to be enough. I know I need food but I find it difficult to eat the stale bread I have left in my pack. I think about the cheese I gave away a few hours ago and convince myself that it wouldn’t have helped matters anyway.
I am confronted by a small cascade, there is no way past it except going up the steep slope to my left. But this is not a scree slope, it is a solid mass of wildflowers and tall grasses all heavy with the night’s dew not yet gone. I half walk, half crawl through the slippery fragrant mass, making no effort to step carefully. The smell of wet grass and crushed flowers is sweet and offers some small comfort to my pain-fogged mind. I look up as I crest the hill and scan my surroundings. I am in a hanging basin, bounded by mountains, entirely carpeted with waving golden grass. This is no wheat field, it is simply a vision of what once was, here in the Atlas, back when the mighty cedars could be could found in every valley and where all basins were explosions of life and color, following the receding snows in the spring of the year. In this long past era, huge herds of Barbary Sheep could be found browsing the slopes and being hunted in the forests below by hyenas, lions, and even a species of Atlas bear. The forgotten valley of last night and this golden basin are reflections, shadows of a greater past.
I sit down suddenly and slide out of my pack. I half lie, half lean on my pack and squeeze water between my cracked lips. The grass nods around me and I think of Frodo, the hobbit from Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” being pursued by a Shelob the spider, tripping over a stone and suddenly finding himself facedown on the forest floor of Lothlorien, instead of in the terrifying darkness and stench of the spider’s cavern. I feel a similar bewilderment at the sudden peace and perfect tranquility I feel, lying here in the sun, high in the mountains. I can feel myself surrendering to sleep and then the truth comes crashing down; I am not home, I am in Africa, in the middle of dangerous and unknown mountains, still far from my destination, and at the edge of my physical and mental capacities. I am back in the cavern again, but I feel I have somehow been given a gift with this sudden vision of paradise and peace; it is good to know at such times that these things still exist.
I stand up and look back the way I came, able to see all three of the mountain passes I had summited in the last 24 hours, even Tizi-n-Isuwal, scarcely visible in the distance. I feel the vague stirrings of… pride? No, not that, more of a sense of wonder and the knowledge of exactly how far I had come and how much I had seen. Turning to where the compass points I see the faint tracery of a piste, as fine as a distant spider’s web, angling straight up the mountainside, out of the basin and out of sight.
I start trudging toward it, looking at my boots, placing one foot stiffly in front of the other in the manner of a reanimated corpse. I stagger through ankle deep flowers, this time a thick carpet of shining buttercups. I cross the stream for a final time and look up. The piste lies straight above me, perhaps 200 vertical feet. My pace slows to a crawl and I employ a “rest-step” I remember my father teaching me, to use for high mountains, where every step is a small victory. This mountain is scarcely above 11,000 feet or so, but in my exhaustion, each step seems a small victory just the same. It takes me almost a half hour to reach the piste, I collapse and drink more water, also forcing myself to eat some bread; chewing it slowly and fighting back fatigue-induced nausea. I know I cannot let myself get sick, simply because what fluids I have, I want to keep. The sickness passes and I continue the climb; toward the top, at the base of the cliffs, is a snowfield. It is pure, clean, and cool and I drink in its cool crisp smell. It reminds me of home and energizes me in a way similar to the meadow which is now just a golden swath far below.
I stagger, gasping, onto the pass; my vision swims again and I think I am seeing double. Not another one. No. The map didn’t say there were two. But I shake my head and the vision stays with me; the trail drops away into a basin and there, on the other side, is another pass.


Resignedly, I shuffle forward. My phone beeps with its first signal since Tizi-n-Isuwal. I have a message from a neighboring volunteer. “What time are you headed down from your village on the transit?”. I call him briefly, biting back my first words of “Send help!” I speak normally telling him that I am not headed down on a transit today. When questioned why, I say that I decided to walk. “To (village name here)?” “Yeah, and it hasn’t gone great, I’ll tell you tomorrow when I see you.” I say. “If I see you…” He mutters, only half kidding. I hang up and put the phone in my pocket, transfixed by the distant pass as if it were a gun pointed at my head. One step at a time, left foot, right foot; rest and breathe. The air is thin and dry and offers little comfort.
I arrive much more quickly than I predicted and see the pass close before me. I stagger up what this time has to be the final summit. It is, and I am looking down at a village perhaps 2500 feet below. The mountain drops sharply in bands of cliffs and toward the bottom all is a swirling commotion of green and red slate. The village is a few huts surrounded by deep green fields. It seems close enough to touch. I pull out my phone and call the volunteer that I am to stay with at my destination tonight and announce my imminent arrival. “Ah, you may be too late,” he said. “I am pretty sure the last transit has left for the day,” I cut in, “I walked.” There is a pause on the other end and then. “You what? From where, and when?” I tell him, and there is another pause. “Wow, well I guess I’ll see you tonight then. Try to hitch a ride with a truck on the road; you realize it’s 16 more kilometers from the village you see to my village, right?”. What? 16 more?! “Oh,” I say “No, I didn’t, but that’s okay, I’ll see you tonight regardless.” We hang up.
I pick up my pack and start down the faint and treacherous piste that angles down the mountain. I am following the tracks of a woman and a donkey, the shoe pattern is distinct and leaves clear marks on the rock. I descend slowly and carefully, slipping several times despite my caution. The trail grows fainter and fainter and finally fades into nothing, leaving me in the middle of a steep scree slope that I would have been loath to navigate well fed, hydrated, and without a heavy pack. I am not afraid, merely sad and angry, and my feeling is reflected and magnified by a growling wall of black clouds oozing into the valley like a malignant force, trailing thick ropey curtains of rain.


I dig in with my boots and walking stick and skid downward, hopping from ifssi to ifssi, my legs screaming from each impact. I am almost to the slate layer when I realize that there something wrong with the contour, an inconsistency that I had overlooked when choosing my route. I cannot see it and then I do; there is a horizon line; that means there is a cliff. I skid into a drainage and see a sheep trail, faint but discernable, leading down a crack in the strata. I clamber down it, thankful for the discovery, and look back at the cliff. It is a 60 foot pour-off of solid grey limestone, a shepherds' shelter lies to one side and delicate streamers of flowers and shrubs hang down its blank face. I look back at the wall of cloud and think of how awesome this will be in a few short hours, with water raging off the brink, breaking into comets and streamers of spray and raging on into the river far below.
But I am numb and even this vision of beauty does little to inspire wonder in a mind and body so close to the brink. I descend more, this time on the purple and green slates, hitting a small cliff band each time the color changes. I soon develop an ability to see the cliffs coming based on the color and flow of the rocks ahead. I see a herd of goats trailed by a sheepdog, I quickly scale a low hill and find a route down the opposite side from the dog, which I am sure is less than friendly toward foreigners. I start down a small drainage and am almost immediately cliffed out again. High on the slope opposite me is a house with a dog lying in the sun outside the front door. I pause in the shadow of a gnarled juniper tree and drop my pack. I sit down at the side of the tree opposite the sleeping dog and drink some water, my head leaning on my pack. My vision swims and I fall asleep for a moment, waking with a start. Not yet buddy, you’re almost there.
I get up and find another way around the cliff, the dog still sleeps and I tread carefully. I am at the foot of a small waterfall when the dog wakes up; I scramble unnoticed onto a little used piste at the edge of a wheatfield. I look back to watch the dog. I am upwind of it and it doesn’t seem to notice me. It trots to the base of the waterfall, and sniffs the spray, then wanders up the opposite hill, on an errand of its own choosing. I let out a breath that I hadn’t even realized I had been holding. I follow the piste until it disappears and returned to the creekbed only to be forced to find a way around 3 more waterfalls of 20-30 feet in height. All of them flowing, and all of them beautiful. But I don’t see beauty, only coolness and an invitation to come, drink, rest, and forget. A siren song in flowing water.
I see something ahead; it is a concrete irrigation channel, situated on the canyon wall like an aqueduct. The village I saw has to be nearby! I look back at the pass, now a distant notch high above, and then start to walk, balanced on the aqueduct, confident that it will take me back to people, to safety, to rest. My tongue feels huge in my mouth and my lips are cracked and dry. The sun beats down on my rain-shell, but I am chilled from fatigue; I feel ill, and want to stop, but I force myself to go on.
I soon come to a group of men working on the ditch; I speak to them, my Tam sounding like the rustling of dry leaves. I ask for the road and they point; they are startled by my sudden appearance, but one look into my eyes and they do not ask questions. I run into other people as the fields grow thicker and the ditch broader. Naturally, I also start accumulating children, they ask me for things in French and make like they are going to shoot me with their sling-shots. But they hold back, eyes warily watching my walking stick. One of the older boys, maybe 13, initially torments me but then looking into my eyes he sees the weariness and pain there, and instead guides me to the road. I look in wonder at the mud walls all around me, this village which would have seemed so poor and small less than 48 hours before, now seems decadent and civilized; the children have left me for the moment and I am alone in the streets of the village. I pass through a tunnel and walk through an avenue of trees.
There is a truck on the road with no-one nearby. I collapse in the dust and lean against the wheel, bringing out the last of my water. The children reappear, this time saying nothing, simply sitting or squatting in a semicircle around me, roughly 15 feet away. Just watching. Their eyes shift from me, only when an older berber gentleman in a sport coat comes over to see what the fuss is about. I clamber painfully to my feet , I shake his hand and speak to him in Tam. He keeps my hand in his and places another on my shoulder; a sign of closeness, of kinship. He tells me the truck is not leaving until tomorrow, and that I was welcome to stay with him tonight and drink tea with his family. I thanked him but said, truthfully, that my friend would worry if I didn’t show up tonight. He helped me put on my pack and dispersed the children. He asked again if I would stay and I gave the same reason as before, adding that I must go; with a sinking heart I realize that I have 16 kilometers to walk before nightfall.
I start walking again, each step a new pain, I am hailed by a farmer who runs from his field and speaks to me, he also invites me to his house for the night, once he realizes I can speak Tam. I make my excuses and apologies and keep forging ahead. Off to my right I see a truck next to a group of laborers working on the road. I walk up to them and ask when the truck is leaving. They say tomorrow. I offer a small sum of money, the driver ups it to the point of being ridiculous. I shake my head and sit down to rest. A short rest turns into 1.5 hours and I speak to the workers in Tam about them, me, and the state of things in general. We drink tea together and I get up to leave. The driver motions for me to wait, and tells me he will take me half-way, to shave off 8 kilometers; another of the workers offers me a place in his home for the night. I ask how much the driver intends to charge for the 8 kilometers and he tells me it is a gift because I am tired and speak Tam. I don’t ask questions and crawl into the cab.
The driver takes me 8 kilometers down a winding river gorge and then tells me he will take me all the way to my destination for a fee of 100DH. I get out and walk, after thanking him for the free 8 kilometers of course. I limp down the road against a chill down-canyon wind. My American friend calls and says he is coming to get me with one of the local transit drivers for a very small fee. I walk on, covering about a kilometer more before I hear the sound of a motor. I step to the side and stick out one thumb. I realize must be quite a sight in my dusty red rain shell , and blue backpack. I try to stand a little straighter and even manage a smile; only my eyes belie the pain and exhaustion I feel. The door opens and my friend, a fellow PCV whom I have never met and know only from others’ descriptions, steps out onto the road. I stick out my hand; “Hi, I’m Charlie, it’s great to finally meet you!”


I soon got the rest I needed so badly and spent the next two days recovering and eating in the village I had worked so hard to get to. In the mirror, my eyes still looked tired and my cheeks were still hollowed, but I was safe and whole among friends; with the massive experience to process in my brain.
Three days after I sank into the seat in the back of that transit, I am standing at the window of a top floor apartment in the city of Errachidia. The sun is going down on the desert and the call to prayer echoes through the streets, clashing with the Eagles singing “The Sad Café” on the stereo behind me. The two friends I am staying with are off doing their own thing and I am by myself for a time, deep in my own thoughts. I look out at the city; the neon lights of shops and pharmacies are beginning to flicker into life and a soft breeze rustles the colorful rugs that hang from balconies and windows. People move on the street and I can hear the distant throb of music somewhere out of sight.
I look down at my little black journal, battered and scratched, and scan the entry I have just written:

“My friend, who thought the entire venture was insane and foolish, said that I unbelievably managed to pull it off with no illness, injury, or even real mistakes. I still catch my breath when I realize just what could have happened, what could have so easily gone wrong. But then I realize that it was all handled well… I drew upon skills and resources I didn’t even know I possessed… No false moves, no major mistakes, just fear, doubt, and adrenaline.”

And now? What do I feel now, looking at the darkening city? I feel clarity, humility, and a deep inner quiet. I feel that I gained a new understanding of myself and of the natural world at large. I take no pride in my accomplishment, just a sense of thankfulness, and the knowledge that I did what I set out to do. I searched for the beating heart of the Atlas and found it deep in that shrouded, forgotten valley. In that lost Eden; in that Hall of Giants, it was there and it was strong.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Heart of the Atlas, Part 1:

NOTE: Due to length, I am splitting this entry into two parts, I will try to publish the second half in the next two days, but certainly by Monday. Email if you have questions, but for now, enjoy.

On the desk before me lies a journal. It is small, roughly the size of a passport and just as thin. Its covers are black and scratched and its pages stained; the ink blurred with water and sweat. I remember it crisp and new only a few months before as my good friend, a Park Ranger in Nevada, pressed it into my hands as a gift. Only five of its pages have been filled so far, but it is the story contained in those five pages that I will attempt to convey in the following account. It is an account of a mere 48 hours in the Atlas Mountains but the events of those 48 hours, I feel, will shape the rest of my service here. So given the personal importance of these events, I feel that it is best to translate them to you in all honesty. I will not make myself out to be a hero, and I will not cut out the fear, pain, and doubt I felt.
These five pages have very little rhyme or reason, no structure at all really. They are simply a bulleted list of a strange shorthand, my shorthand, with words or phrases written to trigger my memories of moments past. Looking through the list I see the points begin neat and legible and end in a more desperate scrawl. Now, I will attempt to recreate the series of events from this list and let the memories flow from the little journal onto this page.


06/11/2010 – Day 104 in Morocco – 693 Days of Service Remaining
“Nishan”, my host father is speaking to me, his weathered face illuminated by the early morning sun; a cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth. “Nishan”, he says again, “go straight”; he gestures to a hazy mountain pass over my shoulder. The white landrover sits behind him, engine ticking in the cool morning silence. The mountains between us and my village are shadowy and wreathed in fog, their slopes a play of dappled light. I nod solemnly and point at the pass “Nishan, anikkin fhmgh” “Go straight, I understand”. He nods once and waves goodbye before getting back into the Land Rover and vanishing into the fog.
I turn around and look down at a large lake, named for a bridegroom, which shines like a mirror in the slanting light. My pack, not very heavy at 40lbs, already begins to bite into my shoulders and reminds me how much conditioning I have lost from the myriad of illnesses I have played host to in the past 3 months. I grip my stout walking stick, perfect for fighting off third-world dogs, and start to walk. Road underfoot, a barely discernable track, is soft purple soil almost the color of a bruise and contrasts sharply with the shifting turquoise of the lake that I am skirting. All around me clouds pour into the valley leaving the passes and canyons shadowy and mysterious.
I meet two shepherds who look at me curiously and ask me questions which I answer in my halting Tamazight. Next there is a man in a striped Jelaba, he is riding sidesaddle on a gray mule laden with goods; I greet him and move on. I leave the road and follow a route over a series of purple gullies, shallow here but canyon-like near the lake thanks to erosion and over-grazing. A mustard-like plant sways at my feet, I have no idea what it is. Nearby, I hear cascading birdsong and look to my left where I see a killdeer, or what would be a killdeer, except that it is black and white. The same and not the same… I top a rise and a broad valley filled with shifting cloud shadows spreads out before me. Herds of sheep move across the flat surface trailed by robed shepherds and small clouds of dust. Beyond the valley, the mountains tighten and the valley rises to the pass my host father had pointed to which shimmers in the distance.
The valley floor is arid and ravaged by countless decades of overgrazing; all of the plants have been reduced to small patches and much of the ground is simply dirt. I stride forward lost in thought; I think of my hero, John Muir. He spent much of his life walking alone in the mountains with nothing but bread and an unquenchable passion for life and the natural world. While I never hope to be as brilliant or as eloquent as Muir, I find his outlook on life a worthy goal. Passion, childlike wonder, and great love of simplicity are things that I strive for. Maybe I can learn more about this while I am here in Africa. “A man needs naught but bread and beauty…”
A patch of greenery at my feet catches my eye and I look down into a tiny patch of star-like morning glories, blooming from a crushed and unrecognizable be if chewed leaves. It is things like these that show the resilience of nature and give me hope for this fledgling park that I am hiking end-to-end. After all, it is my primary duty while I am here in Morocco to research and draft an Ecological Management plan for the park and its resources; everything I see, I see through that lense.
The sun blazes down on my head but the wind is chill. I am hailed by two dusty shepherds, a father and son named Haddou and Moha, and we speak briefly in Tamazight and they point the way once again to the pass, Tizi-n-Isuwal. I continue on and step into an akka or dry-riverbed filled with round, water-sculpted stones. I quickly enter a canyon and am struck by the silence. The canyon walls are angular and the beds of sedimentary rock are tilted toward the sky. The canyon is deep, narrow, and dry reminding me of “Blue Creek” in Big Bend National Park where I had worked two winters previous. I hear a crunch and look down realize all of the stone I am walking on is perfect fossilized shells and corals. I pick up a tiny cockle and roll it between my fingers, hefting it in my palm. It looks as though it just washed up on the beach, but I know it is millions of years old. It is from a time when this place was beneath the sea; long before the mountains were thrust violently skyward by the grinding collision of continent on continent.
The wind dies and the sun continues to shine without mercy; I shed a layer and continue. My gaze is drawn by what looks like an emerald on the canyon wall. It is tiny seep spring hung with lush, green draperies of flowers and leafy plants out of the range of hungry sheep. It is beautiful and perfect and makes me smile to myself. I round the corner of the canyon and see that the sandstone has met with shale and that water has been forced to the surface. The sudden sound of trickling water startles me and seems deafening in this silent defile. There are hanging draperies on all sides and colorful butterflies flit among the tiny flowers; above my head a pair of doves flush from a hidden nest in a whirl of movement and a rush of wings. This sudden life in the midst of such a barren place reminds me of the “Banta Shut-in”, a remote oasis in Big Bend National Park where the geology forces hidden water to the surface in deep, clear pools.
A pool at my feet is teeming with ephemeral life; insect larvae wriggle across the bottom and water striders scull lazily away from my shadow. Tadpoles swim back and forth; I take one in my hand, thinking of a passage in a Craig Childs book concerning tadpoles. In the passage Childs describes the tadpole as a “raven’s eye” glistening against the dry roughness of his palm. I look at my tadpole and see only what looks like a speck of mud against my hand, with two eyes that are regarding me with reproach. I gently place it back into the water and it swims away to the far end of the pool.
I continue on and the water dwindles to a trickle. I hear buzzing and look down to see the last pool of water alive with bees drinking their fill to take back to a distant hive. It is an echo of another time in Big Bend where I was hiking with my friend Katie in a narrow gorge called the “Devil’s Den”; there it was a blind leap off of a pour-off through a cloud of thirsty bees drawn for miles by the intoxicating scent of water. The canyon climbs on, hot and dry, and I see a rock cairn to my left. My gaze shifts to a small stone enclosure nestled into an overhang in the canyon wall. I go to investigate, expecting a food or water cache of some kind. Instead I am struck by the smell of death. In the stone structure lies not a carcass, but select parts of one. A sheep’s head, feet, and entrails lay strewn in the dust, swollen with heat and decay. The world is flies. I step back and wonder why. I see no evidence of cooking or splashed blood so why is there a carefully marked, carefully constructed stone enclosure full of sheep parts here in the middle of nothing? I realized just how little I know about this culture and these people here in the Atlas. Oh well, this journey will simply bring me one step closer to such understanding.
The canyon forks and I follow the side with the most recent evidence of water. It climbs quickly and I soon scramble up onto a high slope to get a view. The pass lies before me, bounded by high limestone cliffs; an all important horizon, over which lies the extreme unknown. I look down at my feet at a pile of sheep spoor made feathery by dung beetles. There are no beetles in sight now, but I have seen them in the valleys. Rolling balls of offal to unknown destinations, they are nature’s janitors. I think on John Muir again and his tendency to refer to all living things as “people”, a distinction which my scientist side dismisses as anthropomorphism but which my sentimental side enjoys. If dung beetles are indeed people, then they would be content ones at that; happy with their role in the universe that other creatures find disgusting and awful. I think I would like to meet a dung beetle; he would be good company once one got past his smell and general appearance.
Lost in my musings I crest the last rise onto Tizi-n-Isuwal and drop my pack; the view that spreads before me is unlike anything I have ever seen and certainly not what I expected after the ravaged lands I had crossed in the previous hours. The land falls sharply away below me and a rough trail, or “piste” can be seen winding down to the valley floor which is lush with the greenery of carefully cultivated fields and orchards. The village of Tirghist clings to the hillside opposite; it is a series of stair-stepped mud buildings with an incongruous yellow “sbitar” (clinic) on its far edge. Above the village rears a mountain as sharp and sudden as a meat cleaver; according to the map, this is Jebel Fazaz and it runs from west to east in a jagged spine of limestone. I can see other mountains from my perch and they also trend in the same general direction, sometimes for miles. Below, a dusty road winds into the village; my next destination. Before I leave the pass, while eating my lunch of bread and cheese, I receive a call from home. I speak to my father for awhile about what I see and my optimism for the remainder of the trip; we will not speak again until it is over, and that conversation will be far different.


The descent is rugged, but on a defined trail which is more of a comfort than I realize. The piste winds past huts of mud and stone, presumably occupied by shepherds that are out on the mountainsides with flocks right now. I look up at the gathering clouds, they are dark but not yet menacing and the weather is still quite warm. The juniper trees on the slopes are gnarled and wisened by the elements and on the road below I can make out the tiny forms of farmers leading or riding their laden donkeys from the fields back to their homes in the village. It takes about an hour to reach the valley floor where I spend some time speaking with a crew of construction workers in Tamazight, answering their questions with mounting pride in my linguistic prowess. I walked into Tirghist, followed by the usual stream of children who actually were not asking for handouts for once. I heard them whispering to eachother, trying to guess my nationality, finally settling on Arab; after all, what European would ever want to learn Tam? I was quite pleased with myself as I walked through the village and felt the stares rolling off of my back. I walked to the yellow “sbitar” and was invited inside by the doctor and a berber man with a University of Michigan Baseball cap.
The doctor made tea and we all sat and pored over my map; I spoke in Tam to “Michigan” and he in turn translated for me to the doctor who only spoke French and Arabic. Michigan advised me to turn around and take the piste from Tirghist to Tilmi and from there to my destination. I gestured to the (presumably) more direct route I had chosen and he nodded and said he hadn’t tried it but gave me the names of the passes I would be crossing and wished me luck. I finished my tea and threw on my pack, walking out the door I looked down at a dog half delirious with age and disease. It regarded me blearily and its tail thumped once before I move on. I left the village talking to an old berber woman and a young boy of about 13 they asked where I was going and I told them. They looked at me dumbstruck and we soon parted ways.
My road stayed high above the river and its shimmering wheat fields, looking below I saw the boy I had spoken with talking to a group of women on the riverbank who immediately looked in my direction. I wave and they wave back; I smile knowing that my story is being spread and that I am impressing the locals. Pride is so insidious.
The trail drops to the edge of the river and winds through a gorge of red stone streaked with white jags not unlike lightning. The riverbed is a black shale and hard underfoot; easy walking with little or no mud to deal with. Clouds roil overhead but I pay them no mind in the euphoria of the beautiful unknown. It is silent here save for the whisper of water over rock; even the wind has died away. The canyon widens and I see my pass, Tizi-n-Aroush, off to my left. I step out of the canyon onto an outcrop of shale. I pause to drink water and make water as well, looking toward the distant divide underneath the churning sky. There is animal dung on the outcrop and I realize then what will be one of the most vital epiphanies of my journey: where there is shit, there is a way. This means that if I can find the spoor of domestic animals, or even their human masters, it means that this way is used; this way goes. I understand now what Craig Childs meant in his book, the “Way Out” when he spoke of looking for animal sign to find a way out of a canyon or, in my case later, over a mountain.
I continue walking and pass a woman bent low under a load of hay, leading a fully loaded donkey and followed loyally by a black cow that was munching contentedly from an oat bag tied to her muzzle. The woman sees me and asks me for candy. I say I have none, which is true; I offer her water instead and she raises an eyebrow and points at the creek behind me saying “there’s water right there, why would I want yours?”. I flush and murmur an apology; my pride deflating a little at her bent form a the knowledge that she had done something far more strenuous every day of her life than I was doing with my clean blue backpack and designer gear. My peg was taken down a few notches.
I was following a small stream at this point, bounded by hanging gardens of moss and rushing cascades singing down the mountainsides. Massive cushion-like “ifssi” sprouted on all sides and, between them were wildflowers unlike anything I had ever seen. There was a spiny variety of Phlox and peculiar flower that bloomed at ground level looking for all the world like a Bachelor’s Button, but from a thorny “thistle” rosette. Many other beauties demanded attention but the show-stopper was a delicate raceme of scarlet orchids which sprouted from a marshy area near the trail. I stopped to admire them for a second and kept moving as I felt a raindrop splatter on the back of my neck.
I stopped halfway up the pass to rest, eat a bite, and put on my raingear. It was sprinkling but nothing had yet come of the storm and I was still hopeful it would blow over. My legs ached from the abuse of the day and from the wasting of illness; I could feel bruises blossoming on my now prominent hipbones and the shoulder-straps tugged hard at my upper back. I reckoned that I could camp soon and that it would be an easy walk to my destination the next day. I stretched, looking down into a pool of reproachful tadpoles, and wondered for the first time if this venture may have been a bad idea. Ah well, no turning back at this point.
I kept climbing and could see the pass in the near distance, another horizon between me and the unknown. I noticed that some of the ifssi around me had been burned to the earth and I remembered what I had been told concerning ifssi as a berber firestarter. Looking back, I could see plumes of smoke visible on other high slopes marking the location of burning ifssi and where shepherds were huddled around the burning bushes with their flocks, jelaba hoods raised against the coming storm. Grey rain curtains sweep the landscape behind me and I stagger exhausted onto the saddle of Tizi-n-Aroush.


My heart sinks into my shoes and become aware of my racing pulse and tunneling vision as I look down at the valley, the unknown. My pride evaporates and sweat appears on my palms; above me the sky opens and the rain pours down. I stare mutely through the driving rain at this vision of hell and look down at my wet map. According to the contour, the general shape of this valley is correct, but its rugged violence is entirely unexpected. Rocky hills and promontories all bounded by cliffs, wreathed by fog, and made grey with sheets of rain. Below me the land drops away suddenly in a chaos of wet scree and ribbed shale. The faint trail I was following vanishes entirely and I feel a sick dread. I shiver with the sudden cold and damp and know that I have to begin my descent.
I am cliffed out several times and lose my footing on the slick stone, saving myself with my stick from dashing my brains out in the narrow creekbed. I keep my ears open for the sound of floodwaters but I am still high enough in the canyon that it is not much of a worry. My mood descends as I do and I am exhausted from the day so far. My watch beeps and I look down at it, wondering why this time is important. I remember and my mood sinks even farther as I realize that, at this moment nearly 6000 miles away, two of my best friends are getting married. I realize how utterly alone I am, that I am in the middle of the Atlas Mountains in Africa, with no friends to help me and no safety net to fall into. All I have to rely on is my wits, my skill, and the mercy of my creator; the realization is terrifying.
I turn my ankle on a wet stone and fall heavily again my stick. I curse myself and my stupid pride, realizing what a wonderful life I left behind in America and how here, in the middle of nowhere, there is actually potential for my story to end unfinished. This is how is happens, I think darkly, this is how good people die, all it takes is one mistake to set off the spiral and that’s it… forever. But I realize that I have not yet made that crucial first mistake and continue on, carefully. I look up at the sharp crags and back at the pass, now high above me. I stop to drink water and raise my bottle grimly in silent tribute to my distant friends; friends that I was unsure I would get to see again. I curse myself again, this time for being a coward, and continue on, praying quietly for some comfort, some sign that I would make it out of this
The rain begins to lessen and then ceases entirely, but night is coming fast; I know I have only one hour to find a place to camp. In my peripheral vision, as silently as ghosts, trees begin to appear out of the mist one by one and then many. They start small and then become massive with huge trunks and weird umbrella-like spreads of dark branches. I know them at once and I stop to stare in awe; I am standing on the fringe of one of the last stands of old-growth “Atlas Cedar” on the planet. This tree is an endangered rarity and I realize with a start that this tortured valley is like an “eden” of sorts, a lost world untouched by time. I close my eyes and murmur my thanks; the giant trees have given me some small peace. But the fear stays, just under the surface, sitting in the back of my throat like bile. My hackles are up and my heart continues to race.
I see no sign of humanity save for a couple abandoned herder’s shacks and evidence of old trails, now fallen into disrepair and forgotten. I reach the confluence at the heart of the valley which is marked by a spire of red stone. I turn and shuffle exhaustedly up the other fork, my eyes scanning the ground for a place to camp. I almost settle on a spot where I could sleep half-inside the trunk of a fallen and burned out cedar, but I keep moving forward mechanically, not know what force is driving my exhausted limbs.
Ahead of me, on a bend of the creek, there is a two room hut of mud and stone. I had passed several like it, it is constructed the same as all berber dwelling have been constructed for millennia. But this one has people. People on the roof, people next to a smoking outdoor oven, kids running to meet the men returning from the mountains; around them a few dogs lay on the ground. One hand tightens on my stick and the fear rises. I set my jaw and raise my other hand, palm open, fingers splayed, toward these unknown people, seemingly the sole occupants of this forgotten place.
Activity ceases and all eyes are fixed on me, this strange European dressed in bright colors; it is as though I have fallen from the sky. One of the men strides toward me and puts out his hand. I take it and smile weakly, my limbs feeling suddenly heavy; I greet him in Tamazight. His has lights up and he looks at me incredulously. This mysterious stranger speaks my language? Albeit badly? He takes me by the arm and introduces me to the family, 7 in all, 5 men and 2 women. His name is Hassan, the same name as the one I was given by my family in the desert. I follow them inside, hoping for good intentions, and lean my pack against the wall of the hut. I am seated on a dusty rug next to a rusted woodstove which glows with a welcome heat. I am brought tea and a crust of bread; my exhaustion threatens to overtake me and I sway slightly. My every movement is apparent to the seven pairs of eyes that are watching me from the opposite side of the room.
The evening passes in a blur, my language is surprisingly passable and Hassan is familiar with the Peace Corps, being from a nearby town with modern conveniences such as… dirt roads. I am able to explain who I was and where I had come from to everyone’s mutual satisfaction and I am soon ushered upstairs to the other room I had seen where dinner would be served. Looking at the state of the cooking area and having been told that there was no bathroom. I knew that any food I took would be a dangerous gamble on my already weakened system and that I may not be able to make it out of this valley if I got sick. I told the family this before dinner was offered they knew I was not going to eat from the steaming pile of sheep organs and vegetables that watched being devoured. I kept taking glasses of tea and apologizing for my bad behavior, trying to appease the woman who expressed her consternation to me from behind her few teeth. I looked remorseful as I could and she accepted my apologies. I am accompanied to the “restroom” by Hassan who protected me from the family dogs who apparently wanted to eat me. I throw down my sleeping bag on the floor of the first room, the rest of the family sleeps in the other, next to the dying woodstove.
I lay awake for many hours listening to the bleats and coughs of the sheep outside and to the skittering of mice in the corners of the room. My mind is racing with the impossibility and surrealistic nature of my situation. Finally, toward morning, I fall into a dreamless and troubled sleep...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


15 hours of travel over the course of two days brought me out of my mountain village to the seaside Capital of Morocco, Rabat. I came here as part of my duties to the "Volunteer Action Committee"(VAC), a position I was elected to at the end of my training in early May. VAC represents the volunteers of Morocco to Peace Corps Staff, and to other people as well, we are the liaisons, in a sense. Dragged me unceremoniously out of my site and into the big city was a two hour meeting; but it made the trip worthwhile.
The director of Peace Corps worldwide, Aaron Williams, was visiting Morocco for the first time in his career and certainly for the first time in his 8 months as director. He was appointed by President Obama late last year. We had the opportunity to meet with him and air our few concerns about Peace Corps in a casual setting (or as casual as it could be, in light of the company). Mr. Williams turned out to be pleasant and down to earth, very easy to talk to, and full of stories about his work in Aid organizations including his start as a PCV in the Dominican Republic.
After the meeting we sat down to a meal of Couscous and I had the opportunity to sit at the Director's table to hear more from him, about his plans for the future of Peace Corps. I stared in consternation at my spoon and realized that I couldn't use my hands to pull apart the meat and eat Berber-style. So, I attempted to look like I had some semblance of etiquette, most of which I have completely lost and forgotten over the course of the last two months. The spoon felt awkward in my right hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to switch over to my left simply because it had become habit to do everything with my right. The Couscous was good, different from what I had been served in my training village of Ait Gmat, or in my site in the mountains. The conversation was stimulating and we spoke of many interesting thing at the table, most of which I can’t post on the public domain as they are unrealized ideas and best kept under wraps.
That essentially sums up the meeting, but I ended up spending three days in Rabat getting a full medical evaluation (I have parasites; don’t get worried/excited/envious). I did not mind this extra time, as there was so much to see in the Capital. Plus there was also something to be said for the basic creature comforts I happily experienced on a daily basis. These included hot showers, western toilets, real pillows, and soft beds. The night after the meeting, several other volunteers and I took a Petit Taxi down the winding, narrow streets until we got to a nondescript white wall with a small plaque that read “the American Club”. We flashed our Passports at the security guard, who determined that we were not a threat, and entered through the gate.
It was like stepping into a backyard BBQ. There was a lush green lawn spreading from an outdoor bar and patio; the air smelled like burgers and fries, with a hint of beer, and the only language to be heard was English—American English. There were several families there, drinking and talking with friends while the kids ran around the lawn and the playground that sat in the corner. I sat at a table, slightly dazed, and enjoyed a dinner of a hamburger and chicken wings while in one hand I held a frosty Samuel Adams (Boston Lager). I nearly forgot I was in Morocco until the sunset “call to prayer” spilled in from one of the Mosques outside the walls. We spoke to some of the other Americans, all here for different reasons, but most living in country rather than visiting. A woman from another agency invited us to a beach bonfire, but the taxi ride was too long and we walked back to our hotel instead—in hindsight, I wish I had accepted the invitation.
I got up the next morning and ate breakfast at “Toast” a Café near the hotel. Here their signature breakfast dish is also called “Toast” but it was so much more than that. It was two slices of toast with a slice of cheese and sunnyside-up egg on top; it came with orange juice and coffee. As the typical Berber breakfast consists of bread, olive oil, and coffee, I was understandably excited. The food onslaught continued, reaching its peak with a Royale w/ Cheese from McDonalds: Rabat, an establishment that also offers a burger on Pita Bread called the “McArabia”. Add fries and a coke and it was certainly a meal that made me happy, if not actually a happy meal. I know, I am traitor to everything I believe in—I ate at McDonalds for the first time in many years. But man, that burger was good and somehow, sitting back in my site the Atlas and thinking about the parasites I was told I have (and am currently treating); the guilt is just not coming. Dinner that night was at the German Institute and involved a bruschetta salad, pizza, and some more cold beer. Not losing sleep over that either. Why am I elaborating on food? To stress just how amazing it was to me, and how mind-boggling things I took for granted back home are now that I am deprived of them on a regular basis. To list a few, in no particular order:
- Beef: it’s what’s for dinner, but not here, and I am sorry but mutton is not an adequate replacement.
- Hot water: this is obtainable only with a butane heater, some of which are deadly.
- Pillows: I have mentioned this before but I didn’t realize what a big part of my sleep depended on a nice soft pillow to rest my head on. Hard and often rough couch cushions simply don’t suffice.
- Bacon
- Decent Beer: growing up around some of the best beer in the world has left with the opinion that no beer is better than bad beer, but even bad beer would taste ok when it is cold and socially acceptable.
- Toilets: when you are exhausted and ravaged from Dysentery, you have no idea how nice it would be to have something to sit on so if you pass out… ok enough said.
- Raw vegetables: These aren’t entirely gone, but they are rare and occasionally dangerous.
- English: I just miss not having a headache every time I talk, this will go away and it gets easier every day, but I miss days that didn’t focus entirely on trying to get my point across.
- Real Cheese: I am sorry Morocco, but “Laughing Cow” is closer to “Cheese Whiz” than actual cheese. Why is the cow laughing? Because it’s not f**king cheese, that’s why!
Ok, that’s more than enough, I’ll write an entire entry on things I no longer take for granted later… Eventually. Incha allah.
Ok, maybe a little about the city itself; please forgive the “stream-of-consciousness” nature of this entry. It’s written, like most of my entries, in a short time span and is entirely unplanned. So back to Rabat... It is a beautiful city; most of the buildings are white and many of the streets are lined with palm trees whose trunks play host to twining English ivy. Fountains spray and pigeons take flight against the white sky; in many respects, Rabat feels like an average European city. That is, until I see the swirling Arabic script on the store fronts or have the call to prayer carried into my hotel room along with the honking of car horns, and the murmur of conversations on the street; all hard “q’s” and nasal vowels. Walking down the street, the illusion of European normalcy is further shattered by the abrupt appearance of a massive wall of beige stone with yawning archways leading to the medina, or old city.
Inside, merchants hawk everything from traditional Moroccan clothing to Barbie dolls. The streets are narrow and winding; laundry is strung above the crowd and colorful rugs hang from the windows and balconies of the homes of the people who still live in this place. At intersections where the crowds come together, traditionally dressed water-sellers stand shouting the name of a particular spring from which they get their water. The water is dispensed from a goatskin bag slung against their back into one of 3-4 golden cups that hang from a bandolier across their chest. They are dressed in red, green, and blue, with wide brimmed fringed hats.
Sometimes the street passes under a building or a shade covering. One street in particular comes to mind, thronged with people and wares hang or sit on every surface. Silver teapots on gleaming trays, carved wooden camels and intricately enameled furniture beckon from some stalls, while still others contain ornate jewelry and ceremonial daggers from the deserts of the south. Every once in awhile I pass a “spice stall” and look inside at the wizened patron sitting among the baskets piled high with spices of every kind and color, each spice forming a cone above its basket. The smells are intense in this place; from the spice stalls a strong and heady aroma floats on the still air, mingling with the smells of livestock and human sweat. Further on is a smell of cooked food and I purchase a sandwich of spiced ground beef (called Kefta) mixed with scramble egg and sprinkled with even more spices. They are cheap and wonderful; I slip into garden and eat mine underneath the towering palms. I talk to another volunteer who is with me, and listen to an ancient Arab man admiring my watch from a nearby bench (zwina l’magana, zwina l’magana).
The next day, I return to the medina alone and navigate the narrow streets from memory. I know that the medinas in the major cities are the most dangerous parts to be alone and ignorant but they’re not that bad if you keep your head. Rule number one is to watch your valuables; I carry a backpack in the cities, but it goes under one arm if I enter a medina, so I can keep an eye on it. Also, do not express interest in any wares, just admire in passing unless you want a long and frustrating exchange with a merchant; which I could tolerate if anyone here spoke Tamazight. Interestingly enough, a being white kid who, when confused, lapses into an obscure dialect of Berber, in a city that speaks predominately Arabic and French, earned me more brownie points than I expected it would. More often than not, merchants would pull out their rudimentary English simply because I was gutsy enough to try Tam on them. One merchant in particular told me to go get married in the Atlas and bring my new wife to his shop where I could buy her clothing at a discounted price…
On the other side of the medina, after making it through alive, is the sea. The last time I saw the Atlantic was in the rearview mirror as I left Cape Hatteras last fall and suddenly I am faced with the same body of water but on the opposite shore. I walk down the beach for a ways; the social mores of Islamic culture are scarcely discernible here as young men and young women walk this way and that in their bathing suits. It looks like any beach on the east coast except the people are thinner and darker. I see a lighthouse further on and go to it. There is a guard charging a 10DH entrance fee; he speaks English and we talk about lighthouses and I tell him about my lighthouse in North Carolina. After a few minutes of conversation and questions, the guard looks around him and, seeing no one, motions me inside. You do not have to pay, but be quick about it, okay? I walk across the battlements around the lighthouse stand next to a rusted cannon watching the sun glitter like diamonds on the rolling swells. I enjoy the smell of salt spray and listen to the crash of the waves on the sharp rocks below, thinking of other beaches and other times spent on the seashore.
Reluctantly, I walk back into the city and re-enter the medina in search of another sandwich. This sandwich I eat in the dappled sunlight of the Royal Arboretum, filled with tropical trees and plants including a row of box-cut Ficus that are the size of buses. I sit and people watch for awhile as the palms rustle overhead and birds sing. A Moroccan couple in western clothing watches their children run ahead of them, partially covered in Ice Cream, and following them is a woman in a full veil, with only her eyes visible to the rest of the world. Men with long beards walk with their hands clasped behind them, clad in the plain white Jelabas of the devout. Older men pass wearing business suits, the outfit made Moroccan by the addition of a red Fez.
Wandering around the city after the arboretum, I came upon a strange and wonderful thing: a Cathedral. I didn’t expect to find one, but here it was. It appeared to be a modern construction, but with proportions similar to the Cathedral at Canterbury, in England, or the National Cathedral in New York. The door was open and I slipped inside. It was dim, and the only light came from a large stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Here, in the middle of an Islamic Nation, I was faced with this literally shining representation of God made flesh; I looked for a long time, awestruck. Despite the look of suffering in His face, I felt like I was greeting an old friend who I had not seen for awhile, just then realizing how much He was missed.
The next morning, I left Rabat, to return to my site, where I am now. But I feel that that journey, crossing the country alone using every approved mode of public transport, deserves its own essay, which I will post shortly. Until then, as always, thank you for reading.