Volcano craters, wildflowers, and farewells

For anyone who still thinks of Morocco as a desert land, it must be said that the spring wildflowers just keep coming here.
P1030449 P1030448The colors are astounding at times.  And while some of these flowers are vaguely familiar, there are others that startle with unexpected forms or heights.
This little beauty pops up in parking lots and on the edges of paths.  I keep thinking that someone has scattered petals on the ground when I suddenly realize that the splash of color is a living, low-lying plant.

Last weekend, our friends the Dyes led a group of us on a walk into a volcanic crater; this weekend, we missed them so much we had to do the trip over again ourselves.

Jeremy and I tried to claim the landscape, but then Zoë had to show us how it’s really done.
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We stopped by the bouncing fallen tree,
whereupon James experimented with his camera until Zoë grew two heads.
Can you believe that’s clover?
I promise I’ll stop with the wildflowers soon.
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We ate our picnic on the side of the volcano this time.

Then James insisted on climbing up to the lip of the crater to look over the desolate plain to another crater, one that another friend later informed us was actually a sinkhole in this karst geology.
The cliff behind Zoë’s head and the rockslide below her right (stage left) shoulder are both more impressive in real life than in photos.

Part of what was so oddly evocative about the sinkhole was the way trees (even this lightning-struck wreck) seemed to rise out of nowhere.
Climbing back across the floor of the larger crater (sinkhole?), we met our Amazigh friends, once again digging up more bags of dandelion root (or dandelion related root).  The filled burlap bags are loaded on donkeys and sold abroad, perhaps for homeopathic preparations?  Perhaps for drinks? My poor Darija boggled at trying to understand what drinks would come out of the squeezing of juice from these roots.  I didn’t have the nerve to ask to take another photo, so I’ll have to beg the one from our friend’s camera at some later date.P1030520

Back at the house, Demon was soaking in the sun.  Just another couple of days before we all part ways: us back to Omar’s house, Demon to a new home.
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So many departures.  So much to miss.





Si and Dorrie were our first visitors, back at the end of October.
Then Meg came for a long weekend in January, but somehow we seem not to have taken any photographs of her visit.  Hshouma!

Mid February,  Martin, Sophie, Alice, Joel, and Gabriel dropped in for just shy of a week. Jeremy was predictably thrilled to have visitors!
They walked for miles to get to the giant pinecones of Michlifen, because it had rained and the car couldn’t get over the muddy pass.  Then we loaned them our car and they went off for a couple of nights in the desert before traveling on to Fès.  Snow, sand dunes, spectacle: Morocco has it all.

Then visitor season really ramped up.  Sarah PJ came for a week, and patiently shared her visit not only with Milla and Paul but also with Jim, Lilly, and Ruby.
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Bananagram skills evolved to a very high level.
The Minnesota Boltons enjoyed Michlifen…_DSC0631

and Fès, especially getting to know the carpet-knotters.
SONY DSCAnd then there was the desert–but that requires its own post.

A couple of days after the Minnesota Boltons flew on to Paris, James left for a conference in Detroit.  The day he returned, Anne, Martin, and William arrived for a few days visit.  They too went to see the giant pinecones at Michlifen
and enjoyed the Ben Smim valley
and they were here for Palm Sunday and the traditional donkey ride at Tarmilat.
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The day after they left, Rachel arrived for just under a week.  She treated me to an overnight at a very nice riad in Fès (Riad Rcif),

and we wandered the medina, even going so far as to visit a leather shop with an overview of the tanneries.IMG_2282IMG_2286

When I had to catch up on work, James and Jeremy and Rachel went and climbed a volcano near Michlifen on a very very windy afternoon:
After some careful persuading, Zoë agreed to skip a day of school and guide us around Walïlï; then we got seriously lost on the way to the old medina of Meknes.  Eventually, a kind taxi-driver led us practically to the gate, after which we managed to follow our noses to a restaurant.
Rachel is a more adventurous eater than anyone in my family.
SONY DSCIt was nice to get back to the Meknes Bou Inania: we like getting up onto the roof.

And one of those days, perhaps the last day of the visit, Rachel and I went to meet with Hassan the rug-seller in Azrou, where we each bought a rug. (Actually, I bought two, antiques I couldn’t resist.  Who knows where we’ll put them?)

At my request, Hassan dug out the old photo of his father posing with the American military unit he joined during World War II.IMG_1882Such a lot of history in every fold and tear, in every knotted thread.

In the fall, we had worried that no one would ever take us up on the invitation to visit.  But now, our Moroccan friends proclaim us nice people because of all our visitors.  This is Morocco: hospitality is key.  Visitors are a necessary part of street cred.  Thanks to all who have come!

Temara, Chellah, and guebbs

With James away at another conference in the States, the children and I decided to take advantage of the long weekend to visit Rabat (the beach!) and do a plaster workshop in Fès.

Jeremy spent long hours conducting the orchestra of the ocean. P1030257 P1030270 P1030269 P1030271He and I also worked hard on several major sandcastle developments.
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Prime real estate, except for that pesky sea rise issue.
We had meant to stop by the Oudayas on the way to the beach, but my unerring instinct for getting lost in Rabat did not fail me.  So we settled for a visit to the Roman/Islamic ruins of Chellah instead.
Zoë was unenthused about the number of people and guards: in comparison with Lixus and Volubilis, Chellah really feels like the extension of a capital city.

Still, the Islamic elements were beautiful.
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both the shrine and the baths.

And for a stork-fancier like myself, there was a lot to like.  I think there are 70 pairs of resident storks!
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Jeremy was enthralled by the movie being filmed on the grounds.

Zoë and I struggled to be patient in the heat.

Another sunset…
a sand burial…
and we were off to Fès to learn about plaster carving.

Abid, whom I’d met at the day of storytelling, met us and brought us to the garden of a small sanctuary, just off the Talaa Kbira.  We started with a glass of tea, and then settled into working with our little “Fas” plaques.

The plaster is dug out of the ground here, and there are still the lumps to prove it.  We had a little discussion about the difference between “plaster of Paris” and “natural plaster,” which ended with a little demonstration of how the plaster is mixed.
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Once it’s been mixed, it can be spread between two boards on a sheet of plastic: that strip of plaster is then cut into smaller plaques.
Once the plaques have been cut, they’re powdered with gray cement, wrapped in a little piece of cloth.  Then you trace a design onto that gray surface, wiping away the gray to leave a contrasting white pattern.
Once the design has been drawn, it needs to be outlined with a chisel (marbouh).  Then we begin to chip ever so gently away at all the remaining gray-coated plaster.

The chisel or marbouh is an extension of the hand and the arm and the mind.  The marbouh is held with the back of the handle cupped in the middle of the palm, the fingers wrapping forward around the handle.  The wrist is bent, like the neck of a stork.  The pressure exerted on the plaster is very gentle; the marbouh is to be kept level.
Unless you’re Jeremy, in which case anything goes…
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Once a certain amount of plaster has been chipped away, you can either leave it in a “raw” state (one particular aesthetic), or you can use some water and a paintbrush to smooth away any roughness on the surface.

Et voila!  Wala!

Erg Chebbi and Drumming

Jim, Lilly, and Ruby arrived for a week’s visit at the end of March.  Standard fare: Michlifen, Fès, Walïlï, Azrou–and then we took off for a couple of days down by Erg Chebbi.  We left Ifrane in the snow…

and a few hours later, we were on the edge of the Tafilalt oasis. (I was the only one cold-blooded enough to need a coat!)_DSC0872

Jim got to have a wild experience driving across the hamada on the “Berber highway” (no photos, alas), and then it was the traditional tea before we got on the camels.
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To try to deepen the experience a little, I had booked two drumming lessons with Bakkar: one for the afternoon we arrived, one for the next day, when we rode out of the desert.

We rode into the “deep desert camp” in order to have our first lesson there.
IMG_2079 IMG_2075I think it was the first time I saw rain in the desert._DSC1020We were so into the drumming we evidently missed a beautiful sunset.  So many precious things; so little time.  Still, we enjoyed a nice candlelit dinner in the tent, out of the wind and the rain.
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The day before we arrived, there was an immense sandstorm that built up a massive new dune.  Luckily for us, we had a quiet night, and a quiet dawn.
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The girls were pretty happy out there.
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They also invented a new sport–skipping down the dunes–that they eventually called “donkeying.”  Zoë’s most dramatic moment was the face plant.
_DSC1135 _DSC1137Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get on a camel again…

After riding back to the edge of the dunes, we spent another hour or so concentrating on those drumming rhythms.
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Bakkar was very patient; Ruby was especially focused.  In the end, he presented her with a drum to take with her.  A very generous gesture: Morocco at its best.
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Then we drove a few hundred meters to the Dunes d’Or to rest and recuperate.  This gave us time to luxuriate in the extravagant beauty of the sand (warning: Zoë does not fully share my fascination–and perhaps you won’t either…)

its patternsIMG_2153 IMG_2128and its inhabitants.IMG_2140We also had one more opportunity to watch the sun rise over the dunes.

And to finetune donkeying skills.

Zoë insisted I would love it, so I tried to follow the girls’ lead, but the sand was a little too hard and too level.
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So instead, we tried barreling over the top of a dune into the softer sand below:
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OK, I confess: that was pretty fun.

A Day of Storytelling at ALIF Riad

SONY DSCJess Stephens and Alice Barnsdale helped arrange a “day of storytelling” at the ALIF riad near the Batha square.  ALIF (Arabic language institute in Fès) let us use the gorgeous riad free of charge.  I used some Fulbright funds and Alice got her sister-in-law to produce and serve a traditional Fassi couscous for Friday lunch, plus tea and cookies in both the morning and the afternoon.
I borrowed Al Akhawayn tripods from Charles (rough but better than nothing), and we tried to set up four interview stations around the courtyard of the riad.

Cameras varied in quality, as did the Darija capabilities of the volunteers.  (Hearing my voice on the videos afterwards, I’m repulsed:  “ugly American” and “infantile” are the words that come to mind.)  The Fès university students were held up, arriving only after lunch, which meant that the early story sessions were a little choppy–and Alice was pressed into listening for most of the morning.  The birds drowned out some of our speakers, and in the afternoon, there were competing voices.  Not ideal audio conditions.  But the storytellers themselves were amazing, as were their stories!

Here’s a quick roll call.

Si Mohamed, master-braider: maker of Schlueh (Berber) finery.Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 5.23.10 PM

Abbas, master woodworker and the last carpenter in Carpenter’s Square.

Zin Abidin, master plaster-carver.
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Hajj, blgha (men’s slipper) maker.  A master of the craft for 70 years.
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Driss, his son Nouredine and nephew Azdeen, master ironmongers (knife and scissor-sharpeners; tool-creators)
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Mohamed Féris, a coppersmith in Seffarine Place
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Abdelkader, master dyer in one of the two remaining shops that work with sabra (vegetable silk) and other raw material.
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Plus a group of six carpet-knotters from the Ensemble Artisanal, who did not want to be photographed on that particular day.

The amount of footage to be watched, translated, edited, subtitled, and so forth is truly daunting–but the stories and the storytellers were so inspiring that I must and will find a way to make this all happen.  Insh’allah.

From Ait Bougomez to Ifrane

James got up early the next morning to climb to the nearer ribat while I stayed and held the fort (or held Jeremy, to be more precise).  In fact, he discovered that we were locked in overnight, so he had to wait until Brahim arrived before he could leave to go on his little trek.
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It was still early enough that the valley was misty, softening the views from the ruined ribat.
P1030138 P1030137Knowing my love of storks, he shot this lovely sequence for me:P1030123 P1030125P1030127
And then it was time to get back on the road for the long drive home.

We passed a group of people building a pisé addition to a house:

And the signs of spring were everywhere, fields of wildflowers on all sides.


Wandering through “the happy valley”

The gite was beautiful,
as were the surroundings,
P1020954 P1020961and we were a little slow to get started the next morning.

Ahmed arrived with a mule for Jeremy to ride,
and we set off,
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past irrigation gates, sheep grazing around an oven built into the ground,

shepherds with their sheep,
P1020985 P1020987or riding off into the far distance,
houses with fruit trees blooming like a puff of smoke from an invisible chimney,
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children playing, women washing clothes,
chicken on rooftops that look like fields,
baby burros and bee boxes,
spring blooms,
and who knows what all else?

James asked if he could photograph a bunch of boys we met along the road, and then he showed them the photo and a video as well.  When we saw that they had an old board with Qur’anic verses written on both sides–just as we had seen in the Nejjarine fondouq in Fès–we asked if they would read it to us, and they did!

Here’s the link to the video on Vimeo:
Boys reciting the Qur’an

Brahim and Ahmed wanted to stop for lunch at about 11:30, but we had just had breakfast at 9, so we wanted to push on.  Later, when we stopped for lunch, we understood the timing better: they had brought the ubiquitous pressure-cooker and tea kettle and proceeded to make first tea and then a bit of a feast while we lay about.
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All very imperial luxury: we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves.  Then Ahmed needed to go off to the souq across the river,
so we set off with Brahim to climb up to one of the ribats on the mountain-tops through the valley. But first there was quite a lengthy walk back along the valley floor, over the creek, past the sheep, the drying laundry, the stork…
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The ribat was still occupied by a single elderly guardian, set up as a quasi-museum as to how life there used to be lived.
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The central living space included a gas stove with the necessary kettle, a kerosene lamp, food basket, an old couscousier…
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plus a hand mill, with a water-bag and some long underwear hanging from the wall.P1030048 P1030051
The “rooms” were a little claustrophobic, to say the least, but the corridor seemed to wind around forever, and you could climb this “ladder”

and find yourself on the roof looking over the amazing valley.P1030061



Brahim took a picture for us, then Jeremy wanted to take a photo of Brahim…P1030063P1030071SONY DSC

On the way out, Jeremy experimented with what it would feel like to be on guard duty, sleeping by the door.

Then we climbed back down the mountain to meet up with Ahmed and the mule
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and take the long walk back along the valley floor to the gite.

It’s a little hard to see in the photos, but these depressions in the rock are dinosaur footprints (Jeremy’s crouching in one footprint).SONY DSC P1030096I like the way the dinosaurs seem to have stepped off the rock into thin air.

We also passed some women spinning, using something like a drop spindle without the drop–a spindle spun on the ground.
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When they saw how fascinated I was (and we tried to explain that I spin with a wheel but can’t work a drop spindle), they let me take a video of the process (screenshot above).

The evening light was quite magical, even if we were tired.SONY DSC SONY DSCJeremy was drooping, so I got up on the mule and he fell asleep leaning back against me, but he woke up in time for a triumphal return to the gite, leading the mule himself.

And after all this, Brahim fixed us tea and supper and a warm fire.  Such an extravagant experience, all around.
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Ait Bougomez: arrival

We went back to Rabia Qdima for breakfast that last morning in Marrakesh.
First, we were too early, so we started in a different cafe that wiped off a table for us and brought us tea.
We just loved watching the conversations, and the ongoing creation and commerce:
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On the way out, a herborist wanted to show Jeremy a little chameleon.  Jem didn’t want to hold it, so I did.
We lingered a little longer than James liked.  He had looked at the map, so he had a clearer idea of how long the road ahead of us was going to be.
The day was overcast: lowring clouds and sudden shafts of sun made for dramatic views of the mountains and valleys,
of traditional homes built into the hillsides, of terraced fields supporting those homes.
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At one point, we had to ford a river flowing over the road, which made us wonder if we’d be able to get back out after the rain came.  (Spoiler: no problem.)
We arrived while Brahim, who would be our guide, was out–so his mother welcomed us, and his wife fed us fresh hot bread and sweet tea.
  Then Brahim arrived to lead us to the Gite Imarin, on the far side of the river.
We had to pass through a small village in the gathering dusk, and they had been busy digging up the road to lay pipe through it.  It took a welcoming committee of about ten to help us get the car over, but finally, about 10 hours after leaving Marrakesh (and after a too-close encounter with a grand taxi that took out the wing mirror on the car) we had arrived.


We got to Marrakesh in time to take in the Djemma el Fnaa by night, with the Koutoubia presiding in the background.
This time, we let Jeremy stay up late so we could all wander by the food stalls, looking (on my behalf) for a halqa, a story circle.
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When we spotted something hopeful–a group of men standing close around a man with arcane objects–we sent James over for a closer look.
Of course it was impossible to grasp the meaning of what was being said…

The next morning, we had breakfast at the Café des Épices, overlooking the Rabia Qdima: a great spot for people-watching.
Little clusters of people, washing up against carts or stalls, deep in conversation:
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People moving through, on pressing business.
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People hard at work.  The henna station was particularly fascinating:
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And then there was the fashion shoot taking place in the midst of everything:
But no one seemed to take much notice:
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After breakfast, we tried to take in some of the Marrakesh Biennale.  A few of the exhibits were particularly interesting from a human geography / storytelling perspective.  “Shadow of the Smokeless Fire” combined a series of paintings with “soundscape” of voices murmuring story fragments (also posted on the wall in three languages):

Still more ambitious: a project that bussed participants from Marrakesh into surrounding mountain villages to make art with the residents of those villages.  Children painting rocks; groups gathering rubbish such as plastic bags (rubbish) to sew into blankets and clothing.  This project had already finished by the time we reached Marrakesh: photos of the project were posted.  It looked fabulous: I would have loved a chance to participate.   SONY DSC

When the children’s eyes started to glaze over, we went to visit our friend Hassan the woodcarver, with a shop around the corner from the Qubba.

He gave us all some tea (teapot, glasses, and stools all summoned up from multiple surrounding shops), and then he and a friend? neighbor? brother? dressed Jeremy up ready for the Sahara:

We had a late lunch on the run, and then headed out of the medina to find the spanking new Café Clock Marrakesh.  They were still painting!  In the afternoon Zoë had an oud lesson, in which she learned an Andalusian scale, an Arabic scale (with quarter tones beyond half-point of the Western sharp/flat), and two songs.  She thought she wanted me learning as well, but she left me in the dust within about 15 minutes.


Then, just before supper: storytelling, alternating between a traditional storyteller (haqayat, I think the term is) working in Darija and his young apprentices, telling traditional stories in English.  I loved both, even though I only caught a fraction of the Darija: the performance element was such fun to watch.

Jeremy got restless, so James took him off for a wander, and they discovered an argan oil shop where Jeremy was allowed to grind his own argan nuts!  What fun!
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Then, after the storytelling, and during dinner (with our friend Ellen from Amsterdam), Jeremy chatted up Sara, one of the storytellers, at the bar.
And before she left, Sara came and brought Jeremy her Skype address!  If this is Jem’s life at seven years old, how are we ever going to survive adolescence?

Ait Benhaddou and the Tizi n Tischka pass

The view from the road in Morocco is almost always fascinating.
  But famous filming sites are often the places one finds tour busses lined up, and the simulacrum of the place seems to turn tourists and Moroccans alike into simulacra of themselves.

This is not to say we didn’t enjoy Ait Benhaddou, just that what we enjoyed most were the little surprises.
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Jeremy loved crossing the river on the sandbags serving as stepping stones.
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Rugs drying on a rooftop are not exactly surprising in Morocco, but they’re a sign that real life still goes on underneath the tourist spectacle.  And I like storks in any context.
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We went up the cliff instead of the path, pretending to be invaders attacking the fortress–at least until Jeremy got too hot and bothered.
I swear this man’s single-stringed instrument sounded unbelievably like a jazz trumpet. He didn’t seem to have a large repertoire, but the one song he kept playing was really compelling.
P1020747 P1020741HFM: happy family moment.

Jeremy made friends with this puppy, who then liked us so much–and wanted attention so much–that he leapt at me repeatedly and ripped a hole in my trousers with his teeth.  So I chucked a stone at him (in his general direction, being careful not to hit him), and a group of young German-looking tourists promptly surrounded him with love to compensate for the ugly American.  I was tempted to wait and watch what happened when they tried to leave.

The view from the agadir or granary on the top of the hill really is quite spectacular.

But then so was the Tizi n’ Tischka pass.  Just past Ait Benhaddou, the earth itself turned the most amazing colors,
then coming over the pass, the climate changed and the landscape turned a stunning green.
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On to Marrakesh…