Saturday, April 07, 2007

Travelogue: March 25, 2007

The Secret Lives of Private Drivers

Today, we had a driver take us to Telouet, Morocco, a town of about 800 people in the Atlas Mountains, 3 hours outside of Marrakesh. We're staying overnight, and apparently so is our driver, who's basically just going to hang out until we tell him, "Okay, we're ready to go home now." This led me to envision a vivid, scandalous secret world of private drivers. I can totally imagine this guy keeping women in every village within a day's drive of Marrakesh, kids, families, telling each of them that's his homebase, and he just has to work a lot. He can pocket all the money he's paid for overnight trips, because he stays and eats for free with his local family. His wife and kids have never even left the town they live in, and he regales them with tales from around the country. He brings the kids something from the city...a football jersey or some foreign chocolates. Then, just like that, he's off again, driving us home before reuniting with another family -- perhaps his "main" family -- in Marrakesh.

But no. He spent the whole day chatting with the owners of the hostel we stayed in and watching football on the television (we watched with him for a while). Too bad.

"My Carrot Is Not Ready"

We spent most of the day on a hike through the Atlas Mountains. The terrain has this interesting chaparral character...dry, but alive. Not exactly what I intuitively associated with Moroccan landscape, but interesting.

The landscape has baby pine trees dotted around, and our Berber guide, Ali, explained to us that there was an official reforestation program going on in the area. Arid is at all looks, the area used to be lush forests. Telouet, however, had developed as a stopping point for caravans operated by many of the 100 or so tribes in the area, and as they used it as a camp more and more, the entire area was basically torn down to provide living space, construction materials, and kindling. We hiked up about for about 2 hours outward from the city before returning, and as we started back, we crossed paths with a small group of locals with donkeys, carrying massive loads of kindling with them back to town. It would have been infinitely easier for any of these people to just cut down some of the young pines on the hillside that's a 20 or 30 minute walk from the town -- and there's certainly no visible enforcement mechanism anywhere in the area -- but everyone respected the reforestation program and worked around it, even if it meant tripling or quadrupling their walk.

Ali's English took some work to understand, but once we picked up the accent, he turned out to be the most interesting part of the hike. He regaled us with legends about the area, how there was supposed to have been a large lake in the valley that was visited by Vikings, but that it had receded to the mountaintops. He told us stories about leading tourists and multi-day hikes between towns, and about overconfident French tourists nearly collapsing while trying to hike the highest peak in Morocco. And best of all, when we asked Ali, who's 34 years old and an otherwise very quiet and serious individual, whether he was married, he smiled us as slyly when he answered, "No. My carrot is not ready." It took us a second to process what he just said to us before we all started busting up laughing. "Ah," he responded. "You understand."

Berber Hospitality

Considering that the 4 of us were, as far as we could tell, the only people spending the night in Telouet that night, one would expect that the service would be good. But "good service" isn't the right way to describe it. The people here aren't taking pride in waiting on you because it means they're doing a good job or to attract more tourists or out of service industry convention. I get the distinct impression that they just view you as a visitor to their country, their town, their home, and as such, they are taking it upon themselves to make sure that you enjoy yourself as much as possible. They are genuinely concerned with your well-being, and they are more than happy to sit with you for a glass of mint tea and see how things are going so far.

Mint tea, by the way, is the simplest, most ingenious drink ever devised. First, take a pot of green tea. Then, add several mint leaves. Then, add sugar. Now, add more sugar. Now pour in whatever's left of your sugar. Finally, pour it in extremely extravagant fashion, extending your arm as far as possible from the cup. Aaaaaand enjoy.

My Moroccan Villager Knows More About the UN Than You

Ali sat with us over dinner, and that might have been the most interesting part of the trip of all. With our international cast of characters, Ali managed to have a detailed and intelligent conversation about anything at all. When he didn't know a word in English -- his third language, behind Arabic and French -- he graciously asked for help in finding it by working through the definition. He discussed Malaysian election politics with Sek, Egyptian theology and philosophy with Matt, and UNESCO and UN policy with Jung and myself. In fact, when he brought up UNESCO and Jung asked what that was, Ali proceeded to take out a piece of paper and map out the general structure of the United Nations and all of the major sub-bodies.

There's a castle in Telouet called the Glaouis Kasbah, which was owned by a historically powerful Moroccan family during the 19th and 20th centuries. After Morocco achieved its independence from France, the Glaouis were marked as collaborators, the family patriarch was banished to, like, Madagascar or some such, and the castle was officially taken over by the Moroccan king, who removed all the valuables and furniture let it fall into disrepair out of disdain for the Glaouis. Now, the exterior is collapsing and the structure looks hundreds of years old, but the traditional Arabic design interior is still lush. Ali laments that the castle hasn't been given protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it would obligate the Moroccan government to maintain the damn thing, and would drive countless tourist dollars into the local economy. But the Moroccan government has to officially endorse any UNESCO application, and the Moroccan king still has enough ill will toward the Glaouis to refuse to do so (or at least to create interminable delays).

All in all, Ali makes for an interesting human case study. People in the West, myself included, tend to presume that those who live in traditional cultures or small towns in developing countries just lack the "opportunity" to get out. That given the option, they would always move themselves toward the more urban, the more metropolitan. Ali spent 7 years studying in Marrakesh (which is where he learned his English), hated it, and came back to Telouet. His father was a blacksmith, and he does want more for himself, but that doesn't mean moving to the big just means owning his own business so that he can have more financial stability than his father did. He values the peacefulness of living in the Atlas above the "opportunities" available by moving elsewhere. He likes the chance to meet random people from different countries and to get to know them (the worst, he says, are "individualist" tourists, who don't want to talk or smile to anybody). Normally, when I hear that people like their rural lifestyles and wouldn't want to change them, I always assume that it's because they haven't been properly exposed to the alternative and don't know what their missing. But Ali had 7 years. So now...well I guess it's the sort of thing that makes you reevaluate your assumptions of what people want.

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