We were on the road to Ait Ben Haddou — a very well known and highly visited kasbah in Morocco. We decided to take a back road, one that tour buses don’t dare drive in fear of donkey traffic (I still can’t believe that’s a real thing that I now consider when planning our driving days), and found that this back road was indeed the scenic route! The view down the valley, the mountains on the other side of the river bed, the surprisingly green riverbanks – it was all totally stunning. We turned a corner and standing majestically in front of us, perched dangerously on a cliff edge, stood a huge kasbah. According to the map, it was not Ait Ben Haddou, but we couldn’t just drive past this place, especially considering that in the car park, there was only one car — with a European license plate — and three camels.
When we stepped out of the van, a Moroccan man wearing a blue deraa, a traditional outfit, approached us. He stunk like cigarettes, his hands were leather, his fingernails were black with dirt, and when he smiled, he revealed just one lonesome brown tooth hanging from his upper gum. In French, with a few English words thrown in, he explained that he would take us to the kasbah. We’ve been burned before with these guys. They tell you they will take you somewhere, they show you the way, or they just walk in front of you, and then when you get there, they demand money, or more money than you offer (we even had a knife pulled on us in Fes because the guy wanted more! But that’s a story for another time). I showed some attitude, and told him we didn’t need a guide. Whether it was the loss in translation, or the fact that he just didn’t care, we found ourselves following him.
He introduced himself as Abdul, and for a man who has only one, brown tooth, he sure smiled a lot. I was still hesitant as we walked through the small streets. I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms. I’m just going to say it, I was acting like a bratty child. We turned a corner and Abdul walked over to a closed door. He unlatched it, pushed it open, and motioned for us to follow him inside. He led us down a dark hallway to a large, open room – an old mosque. The little bit of light in the room came from small windows in the ceiling, but even in dim light, we could see the beautiful colours the mosque was painted. Abdul said “very old, not used anymore,” and shook his head. I softened a bit, he had already shown us something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen, maybe this will be good?
We followed Abdul down some steps from the village into the river valley. He took us through the kasbah gardens. Here, he picked beans from the stalk, opened the pod and let us taste them. He picked almonds off the trees, cracked the shells with a rock, and again, had us taste. There were rose bushes, fig trees, pomegranates, and the biggest, possibly oldest olive trees I’ve ever seen. The kasbah was built in the 1200s. I wonder if these olive trees are from then? Is that even possible?!
After a quick tour inside the kasbah, we walked back through the village towards the van. We took a little detour to a house surrounded by a picket fence. Outside, hanging laundry, was a middle-aged woman. She smiled when she saw Abdul and said something in Arabic. A man of the same age appeared from the garden and greeted Abdul. Abdul asked him something. The man looked at us and nodded. Abdul turned to us, “my father, and my mother.” He smiled that lonesome tooth grin, and walked into the garden. He emerged again with a handful of fresh beans. He handed them to me, “for tagine!” he said. We thanked him and his parents — what a kind gesture!
Trigger warning: Please take note that the following part of the story may not be suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and those meat-eaters who prefer to buy their meat from the frozen, faceless section of the grocery store. Audience discretion is advised.
Back at the van, we asked Abdul for a butcher nearby to buy some chicken for our tagine this evening. He nodded and we followed him down the street. We stopped in front of a closed door, and Abdul yelled across the road to some men on the roof of an unfinished building. One came down, crossed the street, introduced himself – Ismail – and unlocked the door in front of us. Inside, at the back of the room, a bunch of chickens were wandering about, eating seeds from the floor. Oh dear. Ismail quickly grabbed one of the squawking birds, and returned to us. “Twenty minutes,” he said and smiled. I smiled at him, looked at the chicken, and then back at him. “Ok!”
Abdul put out a table and chairs for us to wait. A few moments went by and Ismail came back and sat down. He lit up a cigarette and we chatted for a while. He asked about Canada, about how long we have been in Morocco, and if we like it. I wondered if he had given the chicken to someone else to butcher then Michael turned to me and said, “he’s probably draining the chicken right now…” Ismail excused himself again. We sat with Abdul, in silence and waited. When Ismail returned, in his hand was a plastic bag filled with the freshest chicken I’ve ever had. He handed us another bag with a few vegetables and a handful of parsley and rosemary inside, “for the tagine!” he smiled.
Abdul was the loveliest lesson I’ve learned in Morocco. I was so hesitant, so closed off, and immediately expected him to rip us off. Had I allowed my negativity to win, we wouldn’t have seen such a beautiful side of the kasbah, toured the gardens, or enjoyed the fresh beans. We wouldn’t have met Ismail or had the experience we did with the freshest chicken ever. And we wouldn’t have tasted the most delicious tagine we have EVER made. If there is one thing I have learned from traveling, it’s that when you open yourself up to beautiful and wonderful things, beautiful and wonderful things will happen. Just another life lesson learned.
Read about my experience in a Moroccan Hammam here!
And read about some other Moroccan experiences here!