When the bus pulled into Tingier (the town near the gorge) we new we had made the right decision. The town lay in a palm tree oasis lined valley just below an expanse of red desert with snow capped peaks as a backdrop. I never thought it was possible for one landscape to have all three palm trees, desert and snowy mountains. Incredible!
Upon arrival, we were instantly greeted by Abdul who offered his tour guide services. We chatted for a bit and he eventually led us to a local market where we got a delicious lamb and vegetable lunch for $3 USD total. When we broke the news to him that we weren't in the market for a guide, he suddenly abandoned our friendship. At least we got a delicious local meal out of it.
A few minutes later, Mohammed befriended us. We insisted on "no help" but he persistently followed us meandering through the city streets saying he didn't want money, he just wanted to be our friend. Finally accepting that we were fighting a losing battle, we gave in and figured we might as well take advantage of the situation. He took us to a vegetable market and a bread shop so we could get groceries, then waited with us for the taxi to the gorge.
Sam and I had not planned ahead for any part of this trip, so when the taxi dropped us off alongside a river at the beginning of the gorge with no hotels in sight, we were a little apprehensive. There was no one insight minus a few people trying to sell teapots and cookies on the side of the road. If we were in any other country, it would be unfortunate, but what is my motto about Morocco? There is always someone to help!
One of the men selling snacks immediately approached us to ask what we were doing. We told him of our dilemma, he said a few words in Arabic to the taxi driver and instructed us to get the in the car and the driver would drop us at his friends hotel. Perfection! And such effortless service right at our fingertips, every time! We ended up at a newly finished riad with quaint rooms and bright Moroccan decorations everywhere! And the rooms were only $12 USD a night...that is with a little bartering!
I think a "westerner alert" must have gone out to all the people in that town because by the end of the night the hotel was full of Moroccans wanting to befriend us. Sam and I were actually interested in this prospect as we had spent many evenings discussing the Moroccan culture and trying to pinpoint exactly what Moroccans do. We knew 90% of the population was a tour guide, but apart from that everything seemed a bit blurry.
I would have normally dismissed this sudden influx of Moroccans as coincidence, but we were the only people staying at the hotel and it was evident there was an underlying motive. The cookie seller was there, the taxi driver, some random guy we met in the oasis drinking beer, the owner of the hotel next door and Mohammed a local who invited us to his carpet shop. He was so insistent and we figured there was nothing to lose so we agreed.
Mohammed made us thyme tea as he displayed his carpets and told us of the local nomads and Berber people. The nomads live in caves in the mountains and make carpets and other goods to trade with the Arabics for food and clothing. When the cold comes they gather their children, animals and possessions and move to Western Sahara until summer returns to the mountains. Even if we weren't in the market for a carpet, we got some nice tea (thyme in tea is surprisingly delicious!) and an education in Berber and nomad lifestyles.
The next day Sam and I took a hike through the gorge. We heard there was a loop that took you through the gorge and to the top then down the backside of the mountain returning into town. Well, that´s what Sam heard...I knew nothing of this supposed loop, I was just counting on a day hiking to the top of the gorge and back down.
The weather that day was overcast and sprinkling on and off, so we threw our raincoats and a few sandwiches in the backpack and were off. By the time we made it to the top of the gorge the wind was blowing cold rain and there was no path to be seen. I asked Sam how sure he was about the loop and he replied with, "one percent."
I´m sure we could have made our own loop back into town, but I was reluctant to risk our chances in the mountains with the weather situation and not enough water or food for a bush waking adventure sure to lead past dusk. Before descending, Sam decided to hike to the highest rim of the gorge to take a look.
Sure enough, there was a small path leading around the mountain and through a valley back into town. It appeared to be shorter than the trek we had taken, so we gave it a try. Half a mile behind the mountain we came upon a small settlement of caves. There were about three caves in all with several stone built corrals and goats and chickens running wild. While quietly sneaking through the village and trying to discreetly take pictures, I noticed a family huddled around a fire in their cave. I pointed this out to Sam just as the family turned to notice us. They waved and motioned for us to come into their cave. I would have normally said no, but I was so curious to see the cave that I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
The cave was about ten feet deep with a seven foot ceiling. The back was piled with blankets and clothes and the entrance contained a small fire where they prepared meals. The walls of the cave were caked in dark soot from the fire inside. The husband spread a blanket at the end of the cave for us to sit on. Through a charades act and the two words we knew in Berber, “saha”-thank you and “besaha”-cheers, we introduced ourselves and thanked the family for inviting us in.
They poured us two glasses of thyme tea and handed us bread heaping with roasted vegetables. We ate our food wide eyed while watching the family chat and the children playing on the dirt floor. We were amazed with our luck and the opportunity to experience life with the nomads. We eventually thanked the family and continued on our way. The wife was even kind enough to walk us to the top of the hill near the caves and point us in the right direction. The rest of the hike was comparatively uneventful. The weather was decent and the scenery stunning.
We returned to the hotel that night amazed at our adventurous day and with Abdul, Mohammed, Rashid and the whole gang ready to greet us. After telling them of our adventures with the nomads we decided to make some coffee to warm up. Mohammed took a sudden interest in Sam's tin of instant coffee. He asked to look at it, and after inspecting the label and contents inside he offered to trade Sam some jewelery in his shop for the can of coffee. He insisted that his wife (me) would appreciate a nice Berber bracelet. Unfortunately, Sam is apparently not very appreciative of his wife and no deal was made.
Just ten minutes later, Abdul approached me and asked to see my iPod. He asked how much I paid for it and offered to make a deal with me--the iPod for a carpet. In all of my wildest dreams I never expected to be involved in the business of expensive goods trading, let alone exchanging my iPod--the single most important item I currently possessed--for a carpet to put in my nonexistent home. I looked at the iPod and looked at Abdul and responded, "I can't get Wi-Fi on a carpet, so no thank you." That will be my last dabble in any form of goods trading.
The next morning Sam and I packed up the backpacks and were off on a Thanksgiving Day adventure hitchhiking to Marrakech! I'm sure you know the rest of the story from there. Here are some pictures from the Todra Gorge: