Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

Filtering by Tag: Atlas Mountains

History of a Trekking Guide

Our trekking guide Ali never went to school as is the case for many Berber children. He learned to read and write Arabic by attending morning and evening classes at the Mosque. His father was a driver and his mother, like many Moroccan women, was a homemaker taking care of the 7 children. Ali is the second oldest and went to Marakesh for a trip with his father to visit his uncle when he was 13. His cousin was studying French from a primer and he immediately felt a desire to study himself. For the next few days he followed her lessons, looked at her books and asked her about school. She told him he could buy his own book in the market for 2 dihram. He asked his father for some money but didn’t tell him want it was for. He went to the market and bought a French, German and English primer and began to teach himself. 

Ali (center) chats with a local (left) as we hike up the mountains.

Ali (center) chats with a local (left) as we hike up the mountains.

The following year Ali’s father died and he and his brother left the countryside for Marrakech to look for work. Ali started as a dishwasher but knew if he could improve his language skills, he could make more money working the front of the house as a waiter speaking to foreigners. He got another job at a shop calling out to tourists in several languages as they passed by trying to get them to look in the shop. He opened the shop in the morning, sprinkled water on the ground to keep the dusk down, dusted the merchandise and was given two hours in the hottest part of the day for lunch. 

Ali wore a blue turban the whole time we hiked.

Ali wore a blue turban the whole time we hiked.

Instead of going home or sleeping, Ali spent his lunch hours walking to the bus station to meet the bus from Agadir that came in around noon. He would practice his new languages with the tourist and offer to show them around the old Medina for tips. He learned from them what western tourists like, how to speak to them and interact with them and he earned a bit of money. 

I like Ali. He’s a slight but strong man. I imagine he’s around 50 years old with his salt and pepper hair and bad teeth. He has two teenage boys 15 and 17 and a daughter who’s 6. He smokes but always steps away to do it. His English and guiding abilities are unparalleled. He’s the best guide we’ve had either in Morocco or Senegal. He tell us unprovoked about the people, architecture, plants and customs of the Berber. He’s warm and funny and sincere. He seems to know everyone in every village and tells me he’s been guiding longer than I’ve been alive. “The mountains are in my blood.” 

Ali knows every trail, peak and valley in the mountains and is happy to share his vast knowledge.

Ali knows every trail, peak and valley in the mountains and is happy to share his vast knowledge.

It’s hard for me to imagine Ali as a young hustler obnoxiously calling for tourists to “take a look in my shop, I make you good price.” Or hassling road weary travelers fresh off the bus, “I take you to your riad, show you the Medina, you pay what you like.” These types of suspicious young men who hound me for my business are what I like the least about Morocco. The idea that they are practicing their English and that they have aspirations for more skills and a better job hadn’t occurred to me until Ali told his story.  

Ali’s first experience leading a trekking expedition happened innocently enough when he invited two German backpackers to visit his home village for a week. They stocked up on supplies of tea and bread and sugar and flour and Ali lead them through the mountains. They slept in his family home and he introduced them to the neighbors. The Germans loved the nature, the quiet away from the cities and the free flowing kif or marijuana that was available in the mountains. They suggested Ali start a trekking business. 

Ali likes the mountains as much as I do. We give the High Atlas a big thumbs up.

Ali likes the mountains as much as I do. We give the High Atlas a big thumbs up.

Ali liked to hang around in cafes that westerners frequented in Marrakech. He send and received post cards from the westerners he met and the cafes were good places to find people who would read and transcribe his post cards for him. It was at a cafe that Ali met the Scottish adventurer Hamish Brown. Ali would go on to lead Hamish through the mountains of Morocco as Hamish developed Atlas Mountains Information Services, took photos, documented the landscape and promoted tourism in Morocco. Ali helped coordinate the 90-day 1400km trek across Morocco which no one had ever attempted. Ali coordinated a visit for Mick Jagger when he wanted to learn about Berber music. He hosted mountaineering clubs and with Hamish’s help eventually received an official guide’s license even though he had never been to school.  

Ali wore button up shirts and jeans every day even in the heat.

Ali wore button up shirts and jeans every day even in the heat.

Ali’s quiet determination, tirelessness (he trekked in jeans and rarely seemed out of breath or tired) and preparedness with candied nuts, a water source, and communication with our cook and accommodations made me feel like I was in the most capable hands as I navigated goat tracks in 90+ degree heat (30º+ C) in the High Atlas Mountains. 

The High Atlas Mountains 

Abdil has a well-trained mule who wears a blue tarp outlined in yellow and orange embroidery that goes under his tail and neck. On top of the tarp Abdil puts woven panniers and in the panniers he puts a stove and tank of propane, a picnic blanket woven from sheep’s wool, plates, cutlery, two teapots, silver platters of various sizes, pots and pans, his own personal effects and any of our things we wanted to be without until the end of the day. 

Abdil’s mule grazes on the path while we eat lunch.

Abdil’s mule grazes on the path while we eat lunch.

Abdil doesn’t speak English and defers to our guide, Ali, for everything more than an indication that we’re finished eating. He has holes in both sides of both of his sneakers. He wears a green baseball cap and does the dishes in the river. I’m on a three-day hiking expedition in the High Atlas Mountains and I’ve never had a cook with a mule before. He makes lentils, tajines, and beautiful salads out of seemingly nothing. 

Abdil packs everything he needs to cook in the green panniers that sit on the mule’s back. Sometimes he sits on the mule’s back too.

Abdil packs everything he needs to cook in the green panniers that sit on the mule’s back. Sometimes he sits on the mule’s back too.

We start our expedition after lunch. Morocco is a country of late starts. As one shop keeper told us, “Europeans have watches but Africans have time.” It’s easy to forget one is in Africa while walking in Morocco. I saw dung beetles in clusters turning mule excrement into dirt this morning. I thought to myself about how I had seen the same large, shiny black insects “when I was in Africa.” I had to catch myself. Tanzania is Africa, but so is the Magreb. Morroco is every bit as African as Subsaharan Africa is African.

Abdil washes dishes in the river in his signature green baseball cap.

Abdil washes dishes in the river in his signature green baseball cap.

Abdil finishes the dishes and we head out as he packs the mule. Even with our head start he’ll easily pass us in less than an hour. All while we were picnicking under a tree near the river women were crossing the water in groups of 3 or 5 and continuing past the mule up into the hills. Some carried babies. Most carried nothing. All were covered head to toe in the long dress with long sleeves that marks many a Muslim woman. They wear leggings under the dress and cover their hair in long scarves. Some have hoods, all look hot in the heat. They shuffle along in flip flops or loafers, in stockings or barefoot. 

We ate our lunches on this sheep’s wool blanket that doubled as Abdil’s prayer rug.

We ate our lunches on this sheep’s wool blanket that doubled as Abdil’s prayer rug.

They are walking to a funeral. Last week a 20-year-old man was swimming in the river with his friends near the dam. He drowned and his body was taking to a hospital in Marrakech. They just gave his body back to the family and now everyone from the surrounding villages will pay their respects before burying the body. Our guide tells us the caravan of walking women is something of a party as they chat and gossip spreading the village news. Ali says they’ll put on their sad faces and start crying once they arrive. One women jokes with Ali and asks if we (the three America and two Belgian hikers) want to come to the funeral. He retorts saying we’ll go to the funeral if they’ll walk over the mountains with us. The offer is rescinded.

Abdil lead his mule for two days across the Atlas Mountains to cook for us. He left the second night and we packed our own lunches on day 3.

Abdil lead his mule for two days across the Atlas Mountains to cook for us. He left the second night and we packed our own lunches on day 3.

We’re walking on a mostly paved road up from the valley into the hills. When we get to a turn off, a big white car is letting out some of the village men to go to the funeral. Ali knows the driver and sends his respects to the family. It seems unfair that the men get to ride while the women walk but I don’t say anything. Instead I ask about the prevalence of cars and motorbikes. Ali says a new Japanese motorbike (the preferred country of origin) will set back an owner 8000 to 13000 Moroccan Diram, roughly $800-$13,000 which isn’t a small sum in a country where the per person income averages $8,000. 

Cars are more rare than motorbikes which are more rare than mules. Most people walk. The Berber people are the hill people and they are the oldest ethnic group in the world dating back to 10,000 BC. Many Berber, or Amazighs as they often call themselves, live much the same way their ancestors did: heading sheep, growing food, and ascribing to whatever religion is popular with the ruling class of Morocco. Over the ages they’ve been animist, atheist, worshiped the gods of Egypt, Hellenistic Greece, the Jews, the Christians and now the Suni Muslims. At night on our guesthouse terrace, I see Abdil praying on the carpet we used as a picnic blanket, folded into a prayer run, facing Mecca.