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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 CafĂ©” 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.