Thursday, April 19, 2012

How to: Find What You Are Not Looking For & Rock a Kasbah

It has been exactly one month since we returned from Morocco and I'm looking through the photos, waxing nostalgic. 

Rewind one month ten days and we are in the medina in Marrakech: We come out of the guesthouse, and into the cool morning and quiet twisty gulley, high pink walls on each side, ornate  doors, slivers of blue sky. 

But the excitement of the place for me is about to happen next, emerging from the quiet alleys...
out into the shaded narrow ancient marketplace, the souks of Marrakech. Here it is, a maze of tight covered alleys fixed by guild and specialty, where pedestrians, motos and bikes, locals and tourists, cats and dogs, dodge each other and mix to find what they are looking for, sometimes what they are not.

But this time we were on our way somewhere else.

Leaving the narrow passages of the souks reminded us what we were hoping to find this time Morocco: a little adventure together, a feeling of freedom and authenticity and origins, a road trip with our intentions and a piece of paper from our guesthouse owner: We are to set off out of town on a road built by the French Foreign Legion and on to the ancient caravan route past the plains beyond Marrakech, into the High Atlas Mountains and out the other side into the Sahara with all landscapes in between, this is the Valley of the kasbahs, which we are hoping to rock along the way.

I want to see the High Atlas where many products in the souks come from: the silver jewelry made by village ladies, clay shaped into the beautiful ceramics and terra cotta tangines that line the city's stalls and cook on open-air burners, sheep's wool spun and dyed using saffron and other precious plants to make the colorful woven rugs, goats and sheep are traded and sold, olives from valleys are picked and cured or pressed, knives, spices, almonds, rosewater...

And almost immediately after procuring a rental car for cash, we gas up the little buggy at "Afriquar" (3 euros a liter and we are thankful for our tiny Euro cars), it is 9 am and we are immediately getting lost on the streets outside the walls of the medina, following signs we know are correct and are not. By 10 we are digging into the bags of dates and pistachios on the back seat (no doritos on this roadtrip) and asking directions to boys on bikes on the side of the road in broken Français and hand gestures and by 10:30 we are on our road East out of town climbing into the cooler, less cacophonous mountains and bright pieces of desert.

We kept the note in paw, which would lead us to our first kasbah in Telouet today after which "you will discover the cool nights and lush greens of a palmeraie, the amazing green oases popping up in the middle of extreme landscapes of nothingness, and, if you are really crazy, you will reach the Sahara by the end of the week."

To Discover a Kasbah: 
The road is quiet, pink, red, brown, yellow, green, flat, new, old, clinging, changing, climbing, descending at every curve.  The road to find the kasbah of Telouet, from the looks of this note, we must first reach the HIGH PASS to the other side of the mountains. I get excited when I think we are going over a mountain pass, any pass but this one called the Tizi- N-Tichka, is especially well-named and which I couldn't help but say over and over and over again to Jim before he had to say it better, in different accents, as different political figures: Abe Lincoln, Francois Mitterand, Fidel Castro before we got there and asked each other, "is this it? Is this TIZI-N-TICHKA? Who is Tizi and who is Tichka?"

The pass itself wasn't much, a cluster of little flags and I planted my own mental flag along with the mental flags I planted at other passes I'd already been, the Continental Divide (I threw up), the Rohtang Pass, the Keylong Pass, the Kunzam Pass, where there was snow, Tibetan prayer flags, a feeling of vastness and height, a feeling of passing from one culture into the next, of traveling into the unknown, of getting to the middle of fucking nowhere and being right up in the unknown. Those were passes to which all other passes are now compared it seems. 

This pass dropped us into the land of kasbahs and high desert according to our little piece of paper. What we found was a very crappy road:
  Finding the road, aka the "piste" to this alleged town of Telouet, indeed a tight left curve off the main highway which turns sharp just past the geode seller, a swath of brush, a pile of rocks, a very small sign. This very shitty rocky tire-splitter led us for nearly an hour for 10 of the 21 km into the desolate valley where we were supposed to find the former palace-kasbah-fortress in Telouet, formerly VERY IMPORTANT, a stronghold of the Glaoui clan filled with romantic ghosts that fucked French actresses and lobbed off the heads of their enemies. But where was it? When would it reveal itself to us and peek it's kasbah head up saying "Hello! Am I your first, you kasbah virgins? I am not going to be gentle with you." 

It was endless. Someone in the passenger seat started to second guess herself. We are committed now. The someone in the passenger seat was worrying about time and someone else who was driving needed lunch. The two someones wearing their adventurer pants were still on vacation damn it. It was already 2 pm. We were still 150 km from where we would sleep and at this rate, we would have to sleep with some sheep unless we got a flat tire first. "Do you think that's it? Is that a kasbah? Are we there yet? Are we on the moon? Can I eat your hand? The radio isn't coming in. Do you think they sell CD's in Telouet. Do you think the kasbah will be open? Should we not even go? You know, I may have not have even read the piece of paper right..." 

OH THANK YOU kids who came out of nowhere, a sign from God that we were near Telouet. We stopped and they threw a camel woven out of palm fronds into the car and asked for school pens. I imagined my nieces doing that, or myself at their age. The best I did was stand on the corner making peace signs to passing cars, never crafty or hungry enough to make palm frond camels and insist for things from people. We gave them a bag of dates and some pistachios.
And now: The sky is bright blue, the sun is shifting but the air is fresh and cool. The town comes into view finally, small, baked brown and cracked, a small sign points to the kasbah, messy piles of hay, broken down coops housing chickens and donkeys, a few houses, a hotel. There were almond trees blossoming past the tiny mud walls. It was a place we were not quite expecting, Telouet is like a ghost-town at 3pm.

At the end of this long drive we still couldn't see a "kasbah", but we still didn't know what we were looking for. 

Until there is was: a giant crumbling, formerly glorious, dangerous and filled with wives and servants and children and the Berber sultan's counsel with silver rings and kohl smudged eyes, and dignitaries and politicians, intrigue and mistrust, war-rooms and cool pools emerging from underwater springs filled with rose petals, James Bond himself must have been a guest, as were Tuareg nobles. This was a Palace-state to scramble. 

But first, lunch:
 some kind of (very delicious) tagine at the local hotel. We were the only guests save for one other lone French tourist who said his drive had taken so long, he didn't want to traverse the road in the dark and so was not even going visit the kasbah. What? 

and then after the last juicy slice of orange (sprinkled with cinnamon) we became royalty...ladies and germs, the Kasbah Telouet:

a kasbah left uneccessary when the French built a new road over the pass. See the stork's nest up in the turrets?

but the entrance looks like it's standing, made pretty for tourists

the old stables
and inside to... 
the salon d'honneur...
a work of art, the zelliges and gebs, crumbling from the outside in or 
the inside out, your pick.

onto the rooftop, with the storks, scouting 
beyond the ramparts for enemies and frenemies, the road back out of town...


Next installment: into the Erg Chebbi.


Marie said...


Elizabeth said...


I have to go there NOW.
Sending link to Robert so he can see too


John said...

Wow! Such great photos, and a dream-like narrative. It really does not sound real.

onesilentwinter said...

how i loved reading this. what an adventure, love that you kept going forward. so beautiful the work, i must go soon, one day hopeful.

Rebecca said...

Just finally seeing this! Don't get around the blog-o-sphere as much as I'd like these days. But these photos are truly beautiful Deb! I love all the light and shadow! They really make me want to travel!

molly said...

ahhhhhhhhhhhmazing!!!! you lucky ducks!