Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guest Spot on the Hammam

Featured contributer Edith Maxwell's perspective on the Moroccan public bath:

Farida, a mother with smooth skin and a big smile. My son's host mother for a college semester in Rabat, Morocco. She told John David she and her husband planned to treat him more as a brother than as a son, and since she's a scant 10 years older than his 21, it fits. We visit Morocco for 2 weeks, to see him, to tour the country, to understand his experience there. And, as it turns out, for me to accompany Farida to the public bath, the hammam.

Bath doesn't exactly describe it. More like a willing deep slide into into all the senses, no holding back. Daytime is women only at the hammam. When Farida says the word, she lingers on the double M, caresses the consonant like a hug. That fits, too.

Farida dons a black embroidered robe over her gray sweat pants and a white shirt, and covers her head with a black scarf. She takes her plastic basket of toiletries, a gym bag, and me down the alley to a half-empty storefront with dusty bare walls and large woven bags. A brown haze coats a metal scale. In Dirija, Moroccan Arabic, she asks for henna, and pays 10 dirham ($1.20) for a handful of powder twisted in a newspaper cone. We walk another block to the hamman. We give another 10 dirham each
to a man at a desk near the doorway, and then turn a corner to enter a large tiled chamber like the entryway to an American public pool. Sort of.

I, clueless, follow Farida's lead and take off all my clothes except underpants. Asking questions feels futile - our only mutual spoken language is French, not a first choice for either of us - so we follow the universal language of smiles, physical example, and goodwill.

We stash our bags behind the desk on a set of shelves. We grab a few blue plastic buckets and two small plastic mats, and move through a big door into a high-ceiling long room. It is dark and unpopulated. I follow Farida like a lamb into to the next room, a less dimly lit copy of the first. It lines up in parallel with the first and another beyond, three long chambers that the passageway bisects. The ceilings arch lengthways, perforated with dish-sized holes to the morning sky. The stone walls are dark with moisture and centuries of steamed human skin cells.

Farida sets the mats and her basket next to the wall near the doorway in the middle room. We carry buckets into the third chamber where a large trough steams full of hot water. We dip green buckets and pour them into our blue vessels, then shove them along the tiled floor to our claimed space.

Few spots are yet occupied. Two slim adolescent girls are already at work across from us, soaping and scrubbing, rubbing prim arms and legs over and over. Farida extracts a plastic baggie of the gooey black soap I have seen in the market and squeezes some into a plastic dish. She adds the powdered henna and a little water, mooshing it with one hand until the mix is combined. She scoops up a handful and rubs it on my back, gesturing to me to rub it all over my body. We still are garbed in underwear, as are the girls across the way. The soap mixture is dark, gloppy, smooth as it covers nearly every inch of my skin and hers, including my face. I massage it into her back, as well. We rub and rub, over and over, at a slow, relaxed pace. Farida rubs the mix into my hair and twists it up onto my head. I try to say the henna will turn my white hairs orange, but submitting to the treatment just seems right.

Farida signals to me that it's time to rinse. We dip warm water with a scoop from the buckets. For some reason I can't discern, it's now time for the underwear to come off. Mine, a dainty pair in white and pink, are now an unseemly shade of blotchy henna-brown.

A hearty woman in black bikini underwear greets Farida with Moroccan kisses: one on each side of the face, then repeat on the last cheek. The woman greets me the same way, smiling. I ask Farida her name. It's Baresha, and I tell her mine in the French pronunciation: 'ay-deet.' Baresha dons on a black abrasive mitt. Let the wild scrubbing start!

Baresha starts scrubbing me in a casual way at first that soon turns firm. She moves my body around in all dimensions. My arms and neck and back are scraped down, and then she manipulates me to lie on my back, all the while chatting in Dirija with Farida, who scrubs her own arms and legs. The treatment is both luxurious and painful. My head rests on Baresha's ample thigh as she sits splay legged. I close my eyes and submit to chest, breasts, stomach scrubbed and massaged over and over, wishing I had emptied my bladder more recently than I had. My legs are worked top to bottom and then my front torso again. She comes near to my crotch but always neatly avoids it.

She turns me on my side to face her and scrapes my pale skin over up and down. A large pendulous breast is in my face. I close my eyes again, loving it all. She turns me to the other side, extends my arm, scrubs my armpit, side, hip. Now I'm on my stomach, my chest resting on her warm leg, my arms resting on the tiles with heated water flowing over them. My neck, back, buttocks, and legs get the full treatment.

When I'm finally brought back to sitting, Farida laughs and shows me the multitude of particles rolled into tiny dark fibers all over me that have come from my skin. That ARE my skin.

All this time, women are talking. The place has filled up since we came in. Low voices, shrill voices. Greetings and negotiations. Children speaking to their mothers, friends catching up on neighborhood news. Not a word of it can I understand. The language echoes and merges. It washes over me as welcome as the bucket of warm water Baresha dumps over me, even as she still rubs and cleans.

I am sated as Baresha moves to another client. I sit back against the wall in a posture I seldom tolerate for long at home. The warm stone eases my back and my hip joints. Farida tells me she comes every Saturday. I wish I could, too.

Farida still rubs her own limbs. The two girls across are scrubbing each other, taking turns lying flat. They retain their modest underpants, now wet with henna glop and water, stretched across slim hips under beautiful beginning breasts. I wonder what they think about all the well-fleshed out mature bodies around them. Do they accept that they, too, will look the same in 10 or 20 years? Do they think they will break the mold and stay model-slender through childbearing and cooking for a family? Might they envision themselves as lawyers and doctors working out at a Moroccan Curves before they meet at the hamman to catch up on news? Perhaps that world already exists for local women.

Baresha comes to scrub Farida. She encourages me to go sit in the third room, the hottest of the three. I take my mat and walk in my new baby-skin nakedness around the corner. I am gazed upon - my skin is much paler than the rest in the facility - so I smile in my steamy daze and then sit. This room is warmer and steamier. I breathe it in as I press my back against the wall. A family consisting of a young-looking mother, her little sister, and a 4-year old boy in white jockey shorts sit on plastic stools, soaping and rinsing, the boy trying to wiggle away from the rough treatment. Two very dark-skinned old women scrub each other's backs. One arises to fetch more hot water on thick arthritic knees.

The steam overwhelms me and I return to Farida's side, who Baresha still scrubs. The girls are scrubbing on. I sit and watch. A woman across the room washes hair to her waist over and over. A pantsless old woman with long bright henna-orange curls and a big stomach walks around complaining in a high shrill tone that someone has stolen her stuff. She is indignant about it until her bag somehow appears from the changing room.

I see very little middle ground between the young, slim pre-childbirth women and those with well-padded hips, buttocks, stomachs. The older women are not active with the kinds of abdominal exercises that I have been working so hard to maintain at the Ipswich Family YMCA, and the younger ones apparently aren't concerned, either. Even beautiful Farida, 31 and having borne only one child, is amply padded and sports a hearty stomach area.

We have reached shampoo stage. I had rinsed out the henna earlier. Now Farida gives me her bottle of Prell, Maroc version, and I do my usual single application, rub, rinse, do not repeat. She offers me a round rubber object with spikes like a soap dish, but I decline. Turns out it is her hairbrush. She combs and brushes and shampoos at least three times.

Finally we have a bar-soap stage and a last rinse. The girls opposite are not finished. No adult is telling them to wash more, to clean better, to scrub harder. They have learned early how to luxuriate in women's company.

Baresha brings our towels into the steam room and we wrap up. In the changing area, Farida has us sit for a moment before dressing. We each give Baresha 30 dirhams, about $4, and as we leave I am sternly instructed to pull my shawl over my head so I won't be cold. We tip the desk woman about 25 cents and she tells Farida I am pretty.

We walk out into 75-degree sunshine, but I keep my head covered until we reach Farida's home, John David's home, 2 blocks away. My skin smells of henna until the next day, my toenails are tinged with orange, and my white hair is faintly colored a pale shade of hamman rust. I would gladly have this experience every week. Perhaps Ipswich is ready for a hammam? Or maybe not. Somehow Yankees naked scrubbing each other doesn't quite compute.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

MCA, Visitors, last hammam, gahh

I don’t mean to the bearer of bad news JD, but you have officially entered your last week in Morocco. Geez, thanks mind, as if I haven’t already been considering that fact. If time flies when you are having fun, then it soars like superman when you have a lot of stuff on your mind. And I’m not talking about Superman out for a carefree Sunday spin; rather, try Superman with three villains to catch, two damsels in distress, and maybe let’s throw in Grannie’s cat stuck up in the Maple. (I could do so much if my mind had super powers.) But the time, it winds down so fast. Where did it go? April is almost over, after that comes May, July, September…it’s nearly Christmas.

I don’t mean to scare you all, and if I did, don’t fret please (there’s still time to get your shopping done!). Hmm, speaking of shopping: souvenirs, gifts, tea, spices…I should probably get on that. Today I received a shiny new teapot from Farida and Rachid, which I am very excited about. It holds 4 glasses; tea for two, anyone? I also made an expedition to the Royal Institute of Amazight Culture in pursuit of Tamazight grammar texts for Papa, which I found in abundance. As I was told by the CCCL, these two books will be granted to free of charge!

Today I left a letter with Monsieur le Recteur of the institute with my request; the only catch is that I have to return tomorrow to acquire the actual books. The place is in the outskirts of town a decent taxi ride away, but meshi mushkeel, no problem, because they have a nice library that I studied Arabic in all morning while waiting for my request to be filled. Unfortunately it was not processed in time or something, I don’t know exactly how this free book thing works. Abdoullay, the co-founder of the CCCL and husband of le directrice Farah, told me that, due to their royal connections, the institute has a LOT of money (which is clear when you see the spanking new really cool building).

Hmm, could all that money represent some attempt, on behalf of the Monarchy, to somehow make up for the long history of mistreatment and marginalization that Amazight people have endured from the Makhzan over the past 5-10 centuries…mumkin-nuuwho, la 3arif- it is possible, I don’t know. However, I don’t think the average Berber (I have heard very few people, including Berbers themselves, use the word Amazight) Moroccan benefits, at least not directly, from this money. It could be an example of throwing money at a problem until it ceases to exist, or stops bothering you for money. From what we have learned, the Mouvement Culturel Amazight (MCA) is an elite urban club, a characterization which seems pretty accurate after this morning’s visit. If I learn anything else tomorrow, I will let you know. Also Papa, you will be getting a bill for my taxi fares, which came to all of 5 dollars round trip today. It seems like a lot more than that in D’s.

The 8 dirhams per dollar exchange rate is one, of many things, that will be hard to leave behind. 40 dirhams sounds like a lot more than 5 bucks, but there you have it. And the olives, orange juice, the Medina, the doors, the people…don’t get me started. But the friendliness of everyone, their general willingness to talk to you, to strangers, provide directions, advice, whatever it is you are seeking. This is can be off putting at times, especially if you are not in the mood to talk to anyone, but overall it is something I will miss.

Part of it has to do with the fact that I live in the Medina, part of maybe that I am a white-skinned foreigner, and there could be other factors too. However, I know that this is a general aspect of society here, not just something I experience as an American living in the Medina kadeema, the old city. Fadoua has explained the Moroccan GPS to us (I hope I didn’t use this material in a previous post…losing my memory, mumkin), which involves driving to the corner, turning right, going 2 km, and then asking the first person you see after the traffic light.

But seriously, asking people for help is a regular thing, it’s very common , and it’s encouraged in a way that I feel is somewhat lacking in the States. Sure I stop at a gas station from time to time, but in general I don’t talk to strangers very much back home. The individual’s business and privacy are respected very highly in our country, which I think can be a good and a bad thing. I think I will be more likely to talk to strangers post-Morocco, which is something that I think we should all get more comfortable doing. We can’t pretend like other people aren’t human beings having similar experiences in life. We are all swimming in the same sea, aren’t we? The individual must be respected in society, but I think the degree of this emphasis in the states has hindered our development as a collective group.

Ok, enough philosophy, back to souvenirs. Aura’s Dad told her to get something that she will want in her house later in life, which an interesting thought. I have the wool jacket and turban, and I plan on getting some leather slippers, so I am set in the clothes department. I sort of inclined to stop there and just focus on gifts for people. But then there’s that voice in my head that says, get something for your house later! Geez, thanks Mr. Lundee. If anyone cares to share thoughts or suggestions on this I would be happy to entertain ideas.

Visitors. I have thus far neglected this aspect of my time in Morocco, and I realize that this represents a gross oversight on my part. My only hope is that those people who visited me in Morocco realize that I have neglected an account of their visit thus far because of my personal schedule here and not because of any lack of love or appreciation for them. Well, now that that’s settled, time to move on to more important matters…

But seriously, it means a lot to have someone come all that way to visit and get a taste of Morocco and my life here. I know that such a trip was not possible for everyone who wanted to make it. I would have loved to receive my Papa or Allan (as in my father and brother, but everyone who might be reading this probably already knows that…it’s not like I tailor these posts to a certain audience) or any friends willing and able to make the trip. The next time, inchallah, though who knows where or when that will be.

I especially enjoyed jet-setting around Rabat with Jill feeling like we were independently wealthy tourists. I think we stayed at 5 different hotels, maybe 6, in the 13 days she was here. The exchange rate again bears mention here, because our “splurge” hotel, with breakfast included, cost less than a motel six does in the States. And then imagine if that motel six were located in Washington, DC…

Being a Hutchison-Maxwell, I think I have a natural affinity for the unpredictability and challenges that accompany life in a foreign country. I don’t mean to sound pompous, but it is easy for me to forget that some people are not as used to this whole travelling thing as I am. I think, therefore, that I am more likely to see the similarities between two places rather than the differences. It being Jill’s first time out of North America, this was a big trip in a lot of ways. Then there is the fact that Morocco is a little different than going to London or Paris for your first time off continent. Add in the fact that her boyfriend is living in the old medina with a Moroccan family, that the notion of vegetarianism by choice is practically alien here, the language barrier(s), and that pretty white women get a lot of attention here, and you see that this was not just any spring break trip. Oh yeah, then there was this whole Icelandic volcano thing, just a little icing on the cake is all. More like ash on the cake.

Considering all of the above, and the fact that we sort of shamed my family by thinking that Jill could stay over for a night or two (apparently Farida meant that Jill could eat with us and spend time during the day), plus the Baby naming party, which is another post for another day, I would say that Jill performed admirably well. I kept trying to put myself in her shoes and imagine Morocco through a perspective so much different from mine, but this was a difficult exercise. I truly enjoyed her visit in so many different ways, and I feel very lucky to have someone like her who cares for me and about me as much as she does. I don’t feel like I am doing her trip justice with this post, because it wasn’t all obstacles to overcome. I will try to provide a better account later.

The two visits I received, first from my Mom and Hugh and then from the lovely Ms. Ruddock, were not just great in themselves. In addition, they made me feel especially accomplished about my time here and all I was able to show them and teach them. Maybe that is because it forced me to acknowledge how much I have learned about language, culture, society, and everything else. It’s great to have that feeling of sharing, especially when you have such eager and able pupils. Maybe I should be a teacher, I kind of like that idea.

Tonight was my last hammam experience for a while. It was a bittersweet occasion, because as much as I like how clean I feel afterwards I can’t say I enjoy the stifling humidity of the place. It’s a surreal experience in there because of how hard it is to judge the passing of time, my lack of glasses, the language barrier (I don’t understand rapidly spoken Darija, and I daresay I might never, at least not when it’s bouncing around the bath), and the rainforest climate. Gah, I am glad I won’t be going to the hammam in the hot of the summer. But after I had finished washing, and while Rachid was finishing his routine, I would estimate that I spent 15-20 minutes sitting against the wall’s cool tiles and splashing myself with cold water, one Tupperware-full at a time. Mmm, those minutes felt so good, perhaps the best I have felt in the hammam so far. As with so many things in life, I find happiness and pleasure in such a balance.

Today it was hot, I would say the first real hot day we have had. We have had plenty of warm days, and some that approached the h-word, but I think this was the first hot day. I am glad that it is coming now rather than in March or early April, because I just didn’t bring enough shorts. Whether hot temperatures will make this week better or worse remains to be seen, but at least there is hope for decent ocean temperatures this weekend. I vowed to swim in this side of the Atlantic at least once, and it will be happening this weekend, finally.

Before then I have to finish (as in write most or all of) two papers, one a research paper on Moroccan women and literacy and the other an oral history interview with an older member of our Moroccan family. I have been trying to secure time with Rachid’s Mother, which has been harder than I thought it would be. If that doesn’t work out I will write about Rachid instead. As for female literacy in Morocco, did you know that the rate of female adult (15 and older) literacy, as of 2008, was 44.1 percent. The young (15-24 years of age) female rate is better, at 68.4 percent in 2008, but they both clearly leave lots of room for improvement. I will let you know what I find out. Oh then there is an Arabic and Gender class final, not to mention 4 skype dates, a party to attend, shopping, swimming, drinking enough fresh OJ to last me until I next return to Morocco, plus spending time with my compatriots in this whole thing. Let’s just say that there probably won’t be much sleeping going on. Meshi mushkeel, mumkin-anee an anaem b3da el-Maghrib, no problem, I can sleep after Morocco (literal translation, “it is possible for me I sleep after”…there is no such thing as a good literal translation from Arabic to English, probably not to any language). For now though, it is time to sleep. Leyla sai-eeda, good night. Peace, love, and all that jazz.

*update: successfully obtained two books from the Amazight institute this morning, finished my Arabic homework in the taxi, and skyped with Christoph before Arabic class which is in 5 minutes. I am officially excited about going to Germany again!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Jebel Toubkal

Money is important, but it is not everything in life. I like money precisely because it enables me to do things that I want to do. I am not talking about things like living comfortably, eating sufficiently, or having clothes to wear. Those necessities aside, I am talking about doing things that are fun, that get my blood flowing, that excite my mind and warm my heart and make me happy, thankful to be alive and healthy enough to experience these things, whatever they may be. Taking road trips north to go snowboarding, participating in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, riding my lovely purple bicycle Maeve (Papa’s money there), living and learning in Morocco for 4 months, receiving family and loved ones during said 4 months, and so on. Sometimes funded through my own efforts, most other times through my parents, whatever the source; the point is that money is required to do these things. It is for this reason that I like money, but it is for other reasons that you will never hear me say, I love money.

Is the possession of money a reliable indicator of a person’s character? No.
Is it regarded as such in the world today? By some, yes.
Does money bring power in this world? Yes.
Does power corrupt? Yes, absolutely.
Does money corrupt? Depending on the quantity, it may.
It is possible to put a price tag on a human life? For some, yes.
Is this a good thing? No, no, no. Life is not property.
Is money valued over human life and our ability to live indefinitely on this earth? By some, yes.
Why is this?

“If the destruction of the natural world and the immiseration of the majority of humans isn’t making us happy, why are we doing it?” This is the central question of the life and work of the writer Derrick Jensen, author of the introduction to Cunt. I often wonder the same thing, but a little differently and less eloquently. If way we go about our lives is so disconnected from the reality of, and harmful to, the natural world that sustains us, and there are so many different ways of living, more wholesome and beneficial to all parties concerned, why do we live the way we do? Why do we prioritize profit over people and the environment that sustains us?

The point of this discussion is to relate my experiences from his past weekend, a 50 hour mini-odyssey (because it was nowhere near a 20 year odyssey) whose climax was reached on the top of Jebel Toubkal approximately 10 minutes past the hour of 10 am on Sunday, April 4, 2010. The feelings that accompany such an endeavor, a successful one at that, are many and varied. The sense of accomplishment it brings is great, unsurpassed by perhaps anything I have ever done. The landscapes of the High Atlas Mountains are hard to describe, and their splendor, and the experience they provided me, have sparked a strong desire to do more hiking, climbing, and adventuring in the near future upon my return to the States. There is also the arrogant, and very human, feeling that I have somehow conquered this mountain and perhaps even own it in some way, which is of course ridiculous. Toubkal remains untouched in her (or his?) serene snowy valley (whereas I am back to the grind of class and family in Rabat), and she could have very easily conquered me (my sore legs can attest to that).

My pictures will be around to help me remember the natural scenery, my legs will be right as rain soon enough, and in my mind I send thanks to lovely Mother Toubkal, for I know in the end, nature reigns supreme. What remains is that sense of accomplishment. It is really a renewal of lifeforce and vigor, a refreshing break from the mundane routine that establishes itself in the frame of any life, even if it is one lived in Morocco. Of course a trip to the High Atlas is not required to break the routine, though it sure does help.

Why do we do anything in life (aside from our normal routine of work, school, sleep, whatever)? In my opinion, it is in pursuit of the absence of time. We are searching for those moments that crack the brittle yet far-reaching crystalline structures of the ticking clock that invade our lives and our minds, those moments that offer a clarity, presence, and focus which allows us to fully embrace the here and now, soaking it and loving it and ultimately, wanting more of it. I am talking about how I felt upon reaching the summit of Jebel Toubkal, or the pleasure that connects and enshrines a lovers’ embrace. How about the warm euphoria of dancing and singing around a fire, or riding your bike full speed down a hill and letting go of the handlebars, or spending an afternoon devouring a book without a thought of food or time?

Everyone has their own method of escape, and some are more successful than others at achieving such an absence of time more frequently. Hobbies, running every morning, taking drugs, art, sex, music, gardening, these are just some of many of the more regular pursuits that people engage in (and I am not passing judgment). This desire for escape seems to me to be universal, but I could be wrong. If so, then why? Maybe these are ways in which we are attempting to reconnect to our repressed innate animal instincts? We are, after all, just bipedal monkeys with big brains, sophisticated communication skills, and fancy tools. Perhaps the answer is merely that such pursuits are precisely that, pursuits and activities that are different from what we normally do.

Whatever the reason may be, it is in pursuit of such a break from the routine, and of adventure, and, unconsciously, of a timeless moment, that drove me to catch a train at 3:15 am early in the morning of April 3rd from Rabat to Marrakesh, 120 dh each way. After 5 hours of not-very-restful sleep, I alighted in the tourist capital of Marrakesh with my compatriots in this adventure, Ciara and Anthony. We found our way to the grand taxi stand, which is a good bit south of the Medina, and there joined forces with an older American gentleman, by the name of Rasmusen Sorren, and a young Moroccan couple to hire a taxi to the mountain village of Imlil (elevation 1740m). After some negotiating, Rasmusen (an ex-pat photographer living in Paris) and I got the driver down to 45 dh each, about $5.60. Imlil is the starting point for lots of the adventuring that occurs in the High Atlas, probably because it is just under two hours from Marrakesh. Located in the stunning Ourika valley, it was in this little town that our adventure really began.

I should note that we had a rough idea about prices to expect, information we gathered from guide books and the BU students from last semester who did the same trip. But it was indeed very rough, because at the Imlil guide bureau the price we were quoted (900dh each, 2700 total), for a guide, one nights lodging, and food, was a lot higher than what we expected (1000 total). In the end, after much wrangling and searching around town, we came back to the bureau and settled on just a guide for two days, which set us back 800 dh. We decided to handle our own food and pay for one night at the refuge separately, which turned out to be a much better deal for us in the end. After stocking up on some supplies (bread, ‘Vache qui rit’ cheese, dates, and oranges), and renting crampons (!) for 150 dh each, we met up with our guide and started the 5 hour hike up the valley to the Toubkal refuge. This is the base camp for Toubkal climbers, three stone buildings clustered together at the base of the mountain, 3207 meters above sea level.

Hassan is a normal looking man, medium height and slim. He is friendly, interested in talking to us and often checking on our condition, but he was also content to walk in silence while we gabbed in English. We impressed him with our Arabic skills, and I learned a few words in Tamazight from him, which I have since mostly forgotten: atfel means snow (which sounds like atfall children in Fusha). He led us to the refuge, through a couple of villages around Imlil, across a rocky valley floor, and then along a well-defined mule path, passing the Sidi Chamharouch zawiya/marabout (interchangeable words for religious brotherhood and shrine) and winding its way between beautiful mountain walls, along babbling streams, always up the valley. It was an intense hike in its own right, but the objective ahead made it less of an obstacle, or a spectacle, for me, though of course I enjoyed the scenery. We first reached atfel about 4 hours in, and we got to the Refuge an hour later around 7pm, 17 hours in, exhausted, and already feeling the effects of the altitude.

The refuge was crowded with fellow adventurers, most of them middle-aged Europeans with flashy gear, wicking tights and layers, chowing down on tasty and expensive meals. Then there was us three, eating the food we brought, drinking some free tea provided by Hassan. Let’s just say I felt a little of place, and I wondered what exactly I was getting myself into. But my bed (one of many thin futon mattresses lining the walls of big dormitory rooms, bunk bed style) was calling to me, and after “preparing my gear” (purifying water and laying out my clothes) I was asleep by 9 pm.

We woke up at 4:30am, intending to leave at 5 after a light breakfast. We ended up fumbling around in the dark and taking longer than expected to dress and eat. Hassan was also absent, and when he showed up after 5 he insisted on bringing us some tea. After spending a while getting our crampons on (we felt animalistic, like we had suddenly evolved claws), we were finally ready to go, the official departure time 6am. Let it be known that crampons, especially well-used and slightly antique “Kampercentum De Jong” brand crampons, should never, ever, be attached to new balance running shoes. The beauty of hiking boots is their ankle support, stability, warmth, waterproofness, and ability to stand up to the straps of crampons, most of which my shoes severely lacked. However, it should also be known that fierce determination, stout legs, and a strong will can overcome certain deficiencies that one might have in the mountaineering department. The ascent of Toubkal is relatively straightforward, requiring endurance and focus rather than any technical skills, and thus I was not too worried about my insufficient footwear. When we were halfway down the mountain though, I was very acutely aware of this insufficiency.

The snow was wet and slick, most definitely on the way out, though there was still a lot of it. For the first two-thirds of the way up, we were hiking up an established trail in the snow, following Hassan and taking many short breaks to catch our breath. The slope was steep, but there were never any scary moments near a precipice, no dangers of crevasses, or avalanches, or any of the other dangerous obstacles that mountains present that I have read about. As difficult as the hiking was, it would have been a lot harder without the crampons. They were a gift and a curse, uncomfortable yet very necessary for the ascent and descent. But there was plenty of mountain scenery to distract me from my slight physical discomfort, and falling into the rhythm of the rigor helped to distract my mind. There were also several other groups of climbers that attracted my attention, mostly because I wanted to note how well prepared they looked compared to our jeans and street footwear. On several occasions we gladly stepped aside to let a clump of these trekkers breeze by us, many of them without guides. I also noticed a few looks of disdain when they saw our equipment, or lack thereof. But no matter, because in the end, we all got to the same place.

About two-thirds of the way up the snow ceased, changing to loose rocky scree. We removed our crampons and started up this last stretch, which proved rather difficult because of the loose footing. Hassan was as nimble as a mountain goat, hardly ever slipping, his steps perfectly, unconsciously, calculated. Finally the slope began to level out, the ground ceased to rise up in front of us, and there we were, on top of a mountain. Woop dee doo! I don’t know what else to say, except that I was standing on the summit of the 2nd highest mountain on the continent of Africa. A big deal? In the grand scheme of things not really, though I am proud of my achievement nonetheless. We took in the view, which was truly amazing, and ate and drank snacks and water. After taking a bunch of pictures and constructing a rock sculpture, it was time to descend.

The ascent took just over 4 hours, and we spent about 20 minutes on the summit. Retracing our steps took about half the time, which was great because it meant less time wearing those infernal crampons. The way down was less of an aerobic exercise than a muscular one. Controlling the momentum of one’s mass as it wants to fall down a steep slope is very taxing, as you all probably know, and this is especially true coming down a mountain! But I was feeling great, and I actually ran down a couple of stretches just for the heck of it. We were back at the refuge by 12:30 pm, which means all together it was a 6 hour 30 minute round trip. Not bad, eh?

But there was no time to linger around, because we had a train to catch back to Rabat that night from Marrakesh, which was a 5 hour walk and a 2 hour taxi ride from that refuge. No rest for the weary, unfortunately. It is nice that things take less time when you are going downhill, because the walk to Imlil took 4 and a half hours and the taxi ride about an hour and a half. Because it was Sunday evening, and we were only 3 passengers, we paid more than double for this taxi (350 dh total). Or maybe it was the lack of someone with a name like Rasmusen, who knows. Despite these gains in time, we were unable to make the 7 pm train to Rabat. No matter, because that left time for a hearty meal near the train station (spaghetti bolognaise!), and we were not in a rush.

This night train ride is also a blur in my memory, though only after 11pm when my compartment fell asleep. Before that we had some good conversations, and in my fatigue my English and Arabic tongues loosened up quite nicely. There was a Marrakeshi high school life sciences teacher returning to tangier, where she teaches, with her daughter, a pair of Dutch girls vacationing from their study abroad semester in Spain, a young Moroccan studying Spanish, and a young couple living in Spain but vacationing in Morocco. It was a great mix of people. In all, it was a great weekend, no regrets whatsoever, and this weekend should be even greater!

I would also like to relate the happy news that in the wee morning hours of Wednesday, April 7, 2010, a young lad entered the world. My host Aunt Assia and her new son Yaesh (not sure about the transliteration) are both in good health. I hope that he has a long and happy life, inchallah.

Why try, when others have said it so much better

“Cuz it’s gotta be a lovely world
to sow the likes of this girl I know
and may she, may she sleep well tonight.

Cuz it’s gotta be a lovely world
to sow the likes of this girl I know
and I hope that she, she sleeps well tonight.

Mm mm mm, never you mind.
It’s sure to be alright.”

Part of “Sybill” by Chad Stokes