Sometimes the most rewarding trips are close to home. Lately, I’ve been feeling the itch to travel but have been a bit stuck at home because of family responsibilities, work and the weather. Yesterday, though I decided that I needed to take some time to go on a short jaunt from the town I live in, Sefrou, Morocco – a medium sized city in the Middle Atlas Mountains of North Africa.
My wife hates to travel this way, which is perhaps why neither of us have a truly satisfying time when we travel together – I don’t like to make plans. Instead, I walked down to the grand taxi plaza in the center of Sefrou (there are two others that serve other destinations but I’d never taken a taxi from this one) and I stood around for a while seeing if I could figure out where they were going. A taxi plaza is a nice place to loiter as everyone assumes you are waiting for a taxi to fill up and so you can just sit and people watch to your hearts content.
I heard that one destination was Ribat El Kheir, a berber town I’d heard of but not been to and the other seemed to be Asouta – more people were going there it seemed so I called my wife and asked her. Her response (about what I expected) “No, don’t go there, there’s nothing there, it’s too far, you won’t find a taxi back in the afternoon, the people there like to stare.” Oops – I probably shouldn’t have called. Once I promised her I wouldn’t go to this mysterious destination (this time) I jumped in the wait for the Ribat el Kheir taxi to fill up (since I hadn’t said anything about that destination and so hadn’t had to make any promises about it.)
I didn’t know how far or how long, but it was easy to find out it was 20 dirham which probably meant it was about twice the distance to Fes (10 dirham). After about 20 minutes, the taxi was filled with me and six other men. I wondered if I would be able to find a taxi back but knew that even if I didn’t I would be able to find a hotel, if they had hotels, but even if they didn’t I would be able to find a Moroccan family that would accept a donation in return for letting me sleep on a couch in their salon – I hoped.
I had no idea what to expect. I knew a Peace Corps Volunteer last year who worked with a group of women in Ribat el Kheir but aside from that, I knew nothing. The taxi ride took a little over an hour and let me tell you – it blew my mind. The ride to the village of Azzabba was fairly typical of the scenery around Sefrou high desert foothills, cactus, rocky soil, olive trees and not much else – but then the Middle Atlas came into view.
A bit of research when I got home means that you get to hear more detail than I knew as I saw things. Jebel Bou Iblane is the second highest mountain in Morocco and sits 3174 meters high and covered with snow. Like a small white lion, she crouched over the scenery.
But there was more. Soon we came to an astoundingly large river. The Sebou River begins in this region and then winds more than 600 kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the largest rivers in Morocco. Not only that, but it has carved out a sort of mini Grand Canyon that completely astounded me with massive red cliffs, rugged valleys, and more. Sadly, the Sebou is one of the most polluted rivers in the region due to open sewage and industrial waste pouring into it along its entire length. A beautiful river and a huge tragedy all in one. The stretch of the river I saw looked perfect for kayaking, rafting, fishing and more – but not a soul was doing anything but washing clothes along the banks.An historical note, the Sebou River was actually chronicled by the Roman Pliny the Elder.
A short distance further we passed through the city of El Menzel – which I visited later in the day – briefly.
About forty more minutes and we reached the surprisingly busy Taxi plaza of Ribat el Kheir. Both Ribat el Kheir and El Menzel had what looked like bright shiny new banks with bright shiny ATM machines – just a few years ago, finding an ATM machine in cities this size was impossible in Morocco, but it just goes to show how quickly this country is changing – though sometimes it’s hard to tell when you are living in it.
Ribat El Kheir is a name that was given to the town as punishment when the Berber residents rebelled against the former king Hassan II in July of 1971 – obviously, their coup failed. Prior to that it was called (and still is called by the residents) Ahermoumou or small white lion in Tamazight. The views of Jebel Bou Iblane and the Zloul Valley were nothing less than astounding. I’m not sure how to reach the mountain, but perhaps a later expedition will clear that up.
A shopkeeper I met told me that the city had once been an important stopping point for the railroad, but I saw no signs of it. Later research showed that a narrow gauge railway had run from 1925 until an unknown time when it was destroyed. Not sure if that was in a Berber uprising or perhaps World War II or even later.
A bit of hiking around and searching led me to the women’s artisanal and retail outlet that my friend the Peace Corps Volunteer had helped to organize and set up. A woman named Foudia gave me a tour, showed me how the rugs and textiles are made and told me the prices. Sadly, I hadn’t brought enough money with me but the absolutuely gorgeous rugs ranged from 300-1000 dirham ($45-$130) and were well worth the price. Peace Corps volunteers have done incredible work in Morocco but I’ve heard that this kind of economic training has been discontinued and instead the Peace Corps is focusing on youth development, which pretty much means English classes. I find that very sad.
I found my dream house in Ribat el Kheir, which is most likely owned by the richest person in the town. I wandered the many small streets, hiked a bit on the rough slopes and enjoyed the awesome views before climbing into a van heading to El Menzel. Designed to hold 12-15 people, it was soon filled with about 25 and we kept stopping along the way. Just 6 dirham, but tight, uncomfortable, and very slow since we stopped often for new passengers. A real life experience, that’s for sure.
El Menzel looked interesting but with daylight fading, I wasn’t sure how much longer the taxis would run to Sefrou and I didn’t want to upset my wife by telling her I’d be staying in this village for the night, though I wouldn’t have minded if I had gotten stuck there. I found a small town of nice parks and unlike Sefrou, there were plenty of spaces to sit on benches surrounded by plants and flowers. I don’t really know what is wrong with Sefrou – I suppose it is a victim of too rapid growth but every bench is quickly torn apart and the huge amount of garbage makes the plants not as enjoyable as in other places.
I found a very comfortable cafe (again, why can’t I find one like this in Sefrou?) enjoyed a coffee for five dirham and then wandered the streets where I found one of my favorite food carts, Baboush – African Snails in herbal broth! Mmmmm.
I think that snails would be considered haram by other Muslims, but North Africans love them and I have to admit – so do I, but since I have no religious prohibitions- it’s all about the taste. Finally, I grabbed a bag of popcorn from another street vendor and bought the two front seats of a taxi. Once four guys had filled the back seat, the driver got in and we drove off – the cost for my luxurious occupation of the entire front seat 26 dirham or about $3 versus $1.50 to have some other guy crammed in next to me. Well worth it as I snapped pictures of the canyons, the Sebou River, and the sunset on the way home.
Getting back home, my wife was just coming back from her mom’s house with the baby “Did you hitchhike? Where did you go?” She asked me.
“Oh, I just took a little drive.” I told her.