Even along the auto route in Morocco they do not have, as yet, the endless blur of strip malls and traffic lights. Here is a field of poppies, sheep, a man in a faded blue hat to shelter him from the sun; there is the road, and on the other side the apartment buildings rise up sharply, line upon line, twelve stories high, their roofs bristling with satellite dishes and antennae.
In the fields, people are working. Men and women, dressed in djellabas with pointed hoods or with bright scarves tied around their waists and their heads, bent double. They work with pointed hooks, scythes, sweeping and cutting the field by hand. They gather fistfuls of hay and pile them on donkeys or carts or on their own backs, where they carry them. They are doing an honest day’s work, earning their bread by the sweat of their brow. I ponder this as we whiz by; I showered this morning and am still drinking coffee from my travel mug. The window is open and a fresh morning breeze blows in. If I think about it I can smell my perfume and the mousse to tame curly hair that I use. I could be a princess, visiting royalty, so different is my life. It is rare these days, in the West at least, to see manual labour like this. We put in an hour or two gardening and feel good. Even someone working as a landscape architect is on an entirely different level than these people with their stooped bodies and dignified faces.
For the entire 8 hour drive we will see people working the fields, long after we have left the auto route behind in a blur of flashing windscreens and toll booths. On steep mountain slopes, we will see sheep grazing and catch sight of their shepherd tucked into the shade of a small overhanging rock. Gazing down into steep rocky valleys, we will see brown rivers, and women scrubbing clothes in reds, yellows, brilliant blues and greens. Up steep paths zigzag donkeys barely visible under the pile of green stuff piled onto their backs and sides. Often I see women similarly laden, and once a young woman with a child on her back and over the child the pile of sticks and green plants, his tiny face and feet incongruous amongst the mass.
I don’t have pictures of these people. For one, we didn’t stop the car. For two, they don’t want to be photographed by me, my car throwing up a plume of dust as we skid to the roadside, me popping out with a digital camera, my children in the back seat playing Nintendo or listening to their MP3 players. It feels a bit too condescending to them, too “here we are on display for the rich white foreigners.” So although my intentions are good, I don’t photograph people much. Maybe someday, I’ll get a camera with a long lens, or I’ll spend some time in these mountain villages where the flat-roofed houses seem to rise naturally out of the rock’s strata, and be able to photograph my new friends. In this fantasy I have learned to speak Berber, which I think we all know is unlikely at best, and I have been accepted as an equal, also unlikely. In the meantime, I paint word pictures, and you will have to imagine their patient dignified faces carved by exposure to sun, wind and stars.
This is a tourist route. The road is made dangerous by the enormous buses, by the aggressive drivers of 4x4s who are used to conveying Germans and French and Italian tourists on their wild adventure to see an actual sand dune, meet an actual nomad, sip sweet mint tea under a tent. What fascinates me is the way the local people use it. I’m sure it is a godsend to them; that where before a hemorrhaging woman would have died, where before children had no chance to learn to read and write and have a chance at a life beyond a tiny hamlet of 10 houses, now the villages are all connected to Marrakesh, which is rapidly becoming quite a large city.
Also, the road brings commerce. At every hairpin turn a tiny shop is set up, perilously built out over a sheer cliff. Each tiny shop sells exactly the same things; a selection of couscous platters, shards of alabaster, and quartz geodes in amazing, sparkly, reds and whites and purples and golds and greens. If by chance there is a hairpin bend without a shop set up, there will be a man standing, his hands full of a big geode that he opens like a watermelon to show the deep red flesh. As you slow to navigate the turn, he will shout “20 dirhams!” at you and will often begin to run towards your car, so eager is he to make a sale. (Note: if you stop he will claim to have shouted “220 dirhams!” but you can bargain him down. We got small ones for 20 and one big one, for our bookshelf, for 40).
We don’t stop at all on the way in but we do on the way home. We tend to stop at places with miniscule, turn-out sized “parking lots” on the mountain side of the road (as opposed to cliff-side), so I don’t have pictures of the ones that overhang the precipices. But don’t worry; I will. One thing emerged clearly from this weekend: We want to go back.