“…Keeping watch over their flocks by night.” (8/17/2011)

(Roughing It, Moroccan Style: Part 2)

Once the sun was hidden by the mountains, only leaving enough light to see, Kim and I followed Mohamed to spend time with two shepherds, who stay in a stone hut by the lake every night with their sheep during the hot months of the year, May through September. (The remainder of the year, they travel to a warmer climate.) The one shepherd I interviewed has been doing this job for 22 years, only going home to his wife and five children when he is ill. Hassan Ait Mousa, 51, looks well into his 60s. His face is thin from long days without much to eat and wrinkled from the relentless sun of the Atlas.

His family visits him by the lake once each month to bring him clothes and food, purchased through the earnings he gets at the start of the year. He has a total of 500 sheep, 100 of which are his own. He earns 50 dirhams for each sheep for one year, bringing his total earnings this year to 20,000 dirhams, or about $2,600. Though he said his work is lonely, he knows that his money supports his family, which is why he presses on. Besides, he said he has become accustomed to the loneliness, and his flock and the one other shepherd with him are his family while he is away.

Though he looked worn, probably because he must wake every hour during the night to check his flock, he had a cheerful spirit. Honestly, I think he was glad to have some company or someone take an interest in his life. In between questions, he and Mohamed talked and laughed like they were old friends. I felt bad if I interrupted with another question, but Hassan didn’t seem to mind.

I must admit, the hour I spent with the shepherd made the whole 10-mile hike worthwhile. And besides, the short walk back to my tent was made perfect by the incredible nighttime sky. There were no lights for miles, with the exception of one tiny tent light, and that wasn’t enough to distract from the sky. The moon was nowhere to be found, but that made it even more perfect. I witnessed shooting stars and what seemed like galaxies. The stars filled the sky so much that the only way I spotted the Big Dipper was because those stars were the slightest bit brighter. As Emily Mueller says, “It’s like God placed a blanket over heaven and poked holes in the blanket.” I literally believe I saw a glimpse of heaven and God’s breathtaking beauty that night.

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Roughing It, Moroccan Style: Part 1 (8/17/2011)

At what seemed like the crackof dawn on Fri., July 29, Kim and I loaded up our packed bags (as in one bookbag, a camera bag, and a plastic bag of clothes) onto the four mules hired to take us, our stuff, and the Talbot family (a British family of six) to a giant lake in the middle of the Atlas Mountains. Before the trip began, Carolyn warned us about the length of the trek and the heat of the sun, but nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to experience, especially because camping doesn’t necessarily excite me like it does other people. But I did it for the sake of journalism, to be able to interview shepherds.

Four hours (16 kilometers or 10 miles) uphill, over rocks, streams and mountains. Within the first half hour, we were exhausted from contorting our legs in different ways to get over and around the stones. Each step felt like a death trap, considering how close we were to the edge of the mountain at some points. Our guides kept telling us that the lake was just over that set of mountains in the distance, but what they failed to mention were how many mountains that lay hidden in between.

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I probably sound like a downer when I say how hard this hike was, but at least we had the beauty of the rising sun over the picturesque landscape of the barren Moroccan mountains. (Mountains in Morocco don’t look the same as the mountains we’re used to in the U.S., or even Europe for that matter. They are a different beauty, made of different colored sand, stone and earth. And the only shadows on the mountains are made of silhouettes of other mountain peaks, since there are no clouds in the sky to block the sun.)

After climbing for about an hour and a half, we saw, from a distance, flat meadows of pale green in between peaks. But what resembled long meadow grasses to the distant eye were actually small shrubs of thyme, each bush no bigger than a bookbag, and no bush touching another. There were thousands of these shrubs, and at the end of the “meadow” was yet another set of peaks. Forgive the cheesiness, but Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” came to mind quite a few times as I was huffing and puffing up these giant rocks. I suppose it kept my mind off of the pain.

By hour three, my legs were giving out on me and dehydration was setting in. At this point, the mules carrying our bags, tents and other belongings, had caught up to us. And naturally, when one of the mule drivers asked me if I wanted a ride, I agreed without hesitation. So, I eagerly jumped on top of the layers of blankets and supplies that the mule carried.

Well, although my legs got to rest, riding a mule was no simple task, especially when the remainder of the journey included steep hills of pure stone. Not to mention, any wrong move by the mule, and I’d probably be tossed over the side of the mountain. The rocks beneath the mule sounded like clinking glass and gravel, not to mention that the mule slid a little with each step. I felt like I was riding a mechanical bull by the way I was sliding and trying to grip tightly with one hand to the reins and the other hand to the ropes on the load carried by the mule.

After another hour of balancing on the mule over about 5 more mountains, I finally spotted the lake, where we would rest for about 20 hours before hiking downhill back to the Kasbah.

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The lake is a famous camping spot for tourists, especially those on walking tours through the Atlas Mountains. You can normally find a handful of visitors each day, if not at least the shepherds can keep you company. A source under the lake constantly feeds it fresh water, although the shepherds bring their flocks to the lake and animals bath in it, so who knows how clean it actually is. Despite the cleanliness factor, the lake was still a wonderful place to sit next to and daydream. The noon sun was fierce, but the cool, heavy breeze off the lake seemed to counteract the intense rays. Not to mention, I had my floppy sunhat and sunglasses to help. I looked ridiculous, but I’m used to that by now.

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Not soon after we arrived — and after the mule drivers and other Moroccan men with us pitched the three tents — they bought a goat from a shepherd, slaughtered and skinned it. Thankfully I missed the slaughter bit, I did, however, see them skin the animal.

DISCLAIMER: If you don’t want to be grossed out, skip this paragraph and the video. Anyway, I’m not quite sure how they began the skinning, but it was almost as if they were peeling an orange. Two men held the feet, while another tugged at the fur in a downward motion. I was surprised at how cleanly and easily the skin and fur came off. (By the way, the goat was already decapitated, and the detached head sat closely to the event.) After skinning, they gutted the goat of its organs, only leaving the intestines inside. One man pulled out a piece of the intestine, stretched it out, and then, using his mouth, blew air through it, almost like a hose. Once, the intestine was filled with air, the man poured water into it, which cleaned out the rest of the animal.

While the men gathered around the gutted goat, another man built a makeshift oven of stone and mud. The “oven” looked like a box, with one end open, where the man placed the pieces of wood that he lit on fire. After putting all the lit wood inside the stone box, he used another stone to cover the open end. Once the fire heated the stone to a burning temperature, the fire was removed, and the goat inserted. And that’s what I call a “Berber oven.”

I spent the majority of the afternoon trying to sleep and read in the two-person, faded yellow tent that Kim and I shared. Notice the word “trying.” That is 1. after I got over the feeling of the rocks through the three inches of padding underneath me and 2.when there weren’t two 20ish-year-old Moroccan guys peeking into our tent, attempting to profess their love to Kim. (One of the men literally proposed to Kim and tried to convert her to Islam, because that’s required when marrying a Moroccan.) *Sigh* I guess I won’t be marrying a Moroccan. Oh darn. (Please sense my sarcasm here.)

While eating Moroccan tajine made over a fire for dinner, we watched as shepherds and their sheep rolled over the mountaintop and as the sun set behind them. Although the mountains were so close, the flocks looked like specks in the distance. Imagine the scene from The Lion King in which a stampede comes charging over a cliff toward Simba. Now, instead of the fast and huge wildebeests, picture slow and gentile goats and sheep.

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