The High Atlas and Fatima's Farm:
We continued along the spine of the Middle Atlas rising at times to over 2200 metres (7300 feet in old money). The car struggled a bit and our ears constantly popped at each rise and fall over the peaks. The higher mountains are a place of sparse population and we saw only the occasional farmhouse built of the local rock.
At slightly lower altitudes, small farms with stone cottages were more numerous. Dogs and donkeys are everywhere. Despite our height, the High Atlas with the remnants of snow-covered peaks loomed on our right. The countryside here is harsh: dry and desolate with no trees, only small tufts of bushes. Primitive irrigation lends a swathe of green to a small area and then the dry stony ground reclaims the territory.
At Zeida, we stopped for a morning tea and coffee. A woman in ragged clothes covering her face with a cloth was begging and stayed close to the vans parked outside the café. We had read that abandoned and widowed women have the hardest time in Morocco. They usually cannot work and there is no social security system as such to help. Moroccans often give such beggars money, so I also handed her some coins as I returned to the van. Her thanks was humbling. She spoke a smattering of French, and over and over thanked me while clinging onto my arm and kissing it. The tattered scarf over her face was more to cover her shame rather than from any religious edict. My small gift to her was little enough but would have bought bread for a few days for her family. We should have given more - Russ spent more on an ammonite and a small geode for me with an equally desperate young man on the street.
Charity like this is compelling in circumstances like this. What is annoying and engenders great anger in us are the tourists who, feeling smug and pleased with themselves, throw sweets and pens out of their car windows at children. There is a huge difference between the children who smile and wave at you driving past, and those who scramble and run to the cars with hands, not waving, but waving you down. In one town, we had a rock thrown at the car by a young boy because we did not stop to hand out goodies. Such ill-thought out actions by Westerners only encourage a begging mentality which does no-one any good.
We turned onto a very small road, marked on our Michelin Map, but only just! Along this tortuous road, high up into the Haut Atlas is Fatima's Farm. Ray has known Fatima for 30 years and has seen her and her family grow the farm from a small holding of nothing to the sprawling farms buildings, crops and animals it is today. Fatima is a Berber woman with the chin tattoo of a married woman who has been through 3 husbands and has had 7 children. Many of the children are now married and there are 14 young boys and girls. Quite a dynasty and Fatima is a strong matriarch.
We parked up by the side of the road to camp for the night. In the afternoon we crossed the stream and followed the goat track to the house. We were invited into the cool building with its thick walls painted in the Berber colours of blue and yellow and sat on the floor with rugs beneath us and hard cushions behind. A daughter-in-law with baby on hip served us mint tea on low tables. Fresh baked bread came out with a dish of olive oil and another piled high with home churned butter.
As we walked back to the vans, Fatima arrived - she had been away over the mountain collecting feed piled high on a donkey's back. She greeted us warmly with hugs, and without any common language made clear how welcome we were.
After dinner a few of us went back to the farmhouse to join the family for some singing and dancing. Fatima, her sons and daughters-in-law, a married daughter visiting, and some of the children crowded into a room with us. Musical instruments appeared. Two shallow drums looking more like large tambourines without the cymbal bits were beaten in a rhythm I couldn't fathom or keep up with. A large upturned enamel plate became another instrument played with a pair of spoons. Some enthusiastic singing first and then dancing. We were all dragged up to dance - but women with women and men with men. Then mint tea was served. We could see the children fading fast and so opted not to outstay our welcome. Only one obstacle: it was now very dark and we had to negotiate the logs across the stream to get back. But no-one was lost to the running water and we went to sleep to the sounds of frogs.
Next morning, Fatima came around with some produce to sell - we bought some fresh eggs and asked for some bread. She hurried a young girl off back to the house. It took quite a while to get the bread delivered … it was baked for us and came back still piping hot.
After many photos and non-language communication - my fair hair was tusselled often by the women and remarked on amongst themselves - we left. A unique experience we would never have had if we had not opted to do some of Morocco by a guided tour.