I woke up with the early morning rays of sun streaming through the pane-less window. Underneath me I could feel the hard concrete floor, bare but for a couple of thin blankets for nominal comfort. The white-chalk graffiti on the gray walls was illuminated by the warm light, pronouncing the messages of mischievous local youth and of travelers long gone. Outside the window, a sprawling dry lakebed lay beneath imposing mountains capped with snow, and far off in the distance, from a nomad camp, a rooster announced the arrival of the new day.
This was the second morning of a three-day trek through the Ait Bougmez Valley in the High Atlas. A bus to Beni Mellal, at the foot of the mountains, and then a grand taxi to Azilal through windy roads climbing up to the Amazigh town. From Azilal, another grand taxi twists through even narrower mountain passes and sharp drop-offs on a road paved only several years earlier. Prior to the road – our guide later told us – the easiest journey to Azilal was a two-day donkey ride in the summer. In winter, the snow would clog all the roads, and the inhabitants of the valley were entirely isolated.
More recently, trekkers and tourists have begun visiting the valley – marketed as “Happy Valley” in the various travel guides – with much more frequency, and many mountain guides and small hostels have popped up. Despite this, outside of the main administrative town on the paved road (which looks as if it escaped an old Western film), the way of life seems to have remained mostly unchanged by the introduction of modern amenities. Walking through the tiny villages, some only a cluster of mud-brick houses is like taking a trip back in time.
The houses themselves are constructed out of a mix of mud and straw, packed tightly into molds, and set three feet deep. Surrounding the villages are intricately irrigated fields, divided neatly into small family plots. Each plot boasts a mix of wheat, vegetables and fruit trees, dotted with beautiful irises, poppies and assorted wildflowers. Young men use traditional wooden plows to till the land, women with scythes reap the wheat, and donkeys laden with building material, hay or vegetables are used to ferry from section to section. Chickens loaf around the houses or walk importantly through the fields, and hens cluck angrily at cats stalking their chicks. Other than the power lines extending from house to house and across the hills, this scene would have been identical one, two or even five centuries earlier.
We left the time capsule after the three-day hike, and the driver of the minibus to Azilal informed us he would be continuing to Marrakech. For a brief moment we considered the idea – a hostel in the narrow streets of the vast medina, fresh orange juice from the many carts at the square, maybe an interesting new scarf at one of the souks. Yet the minibus would be departing to Marrakech only the next morning, and the extra trip would not make sense. In that moment I suddenly internalized that yes, I am leaving Morocco. That I will not see the ancient red city again, will not get lost in the maze of streets, will not be frustrated by the nudging vendors, will not marvel at the sea of tourists red-cheeked and wide-eyed by the heat and the snake charmers. In just a few days, taking a train to one of the oldest cities in the world, or a few packed taxis to mountain villages passed over by time, will no longer be a possibility. And with this realization came a great sense of joy and accomplishment. For four months I have lived and traveled, breathed and listened and tasted and explored, sampled from every town or city or region, and grew to know a country packed with opportunities. Morocco, it’s been a blast.