Ait-Benhaddou: through a mourning land of beauty - Have this woman washed and brought to my tent - CycleBlaze

Ait-Benhaddou: through a mourning land of beauty

Long, sweeping, luxurious descents rewarded our climbing
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MOROCCO is in mourning. The game didn't go well and it shows on people's faces. To beat Algeria mattered.

The ebullient bald-headed man came running from the Palace de Telouet, a restaurant we recommend wholeheartedly. We hadn't seen him when we went for the best breakfast of the trip, which followed the best dinner of the trip. We'd been served by a young lad whose name we never learned and who'd obviously had to be pulled from his bed.

Last night he reminded us of Yousaf, our broken-hearted friend of a couple of weeks ago. As has happened several times, he asked if we were married. It fascinates Moroccans. Coming back down to Marrakech in the rain, after the pass was cut by snow, a café owner gestured to each of us in turn and asked "Amie?" Was Steph a friend?

"Ma femme," I said, "depuis 27 ans." My wife for the last 27 years.

He made a clucking noise.

"Très belle," he said. "Quarante milles chameaux!"

He knew the routine for tourists. He'd doubtless offered 40 000 camels for every pretty woman who'd passed.

The boy in the restaurant asked the same question but kept off the rate for camels. We gave him the same answer. He said he wanted to get married. But he was only 22, he said, so there was no hurry. We told him of Yousaf, who wanted a simple girl to look after goats and provide four children. Our friend didn't mention goats but opted for six children. Morocco has one of the modern world's youngest populations and at this rate the average is going to fall fast.

The card he gave us showed his bald-headed boss was Mustafa or Mohamed. Those were the names beside the phone numbers but they were less than useful. Shout "Mustafa!" or "Mohamed!" and two-thirds of the male population of Morocco is likely to look round.

So, as we prepared to leave, Mustafa or Mohamed came running from the restaurant, not that long out of bed himself, to assure himself we were feeling well and that we would have a wonderful day. We assured him of both, then sympathised.

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"In mourning?"

He lowered his eyes and said: "We are all in mourning."

"You lost, I heard."

"We lost. And through a penalty right at the end."

"It's a pity."

"But we will play them again in the next round, and then we'll win!"

It was the African championship and it mattered.

The road rose and fell and became narrower as we left. In time the surface worsened and then vanished. The countryside became wilder, deep red, dusty, with isolated green trees pushing hopefully from the steep hills of earth and rock that surrounded us.

A beautiful-looking language, Arabic.
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We pedalled gingerly round stones and across shallow dried rivulets. After rising, the road fell gently into a flat valley. The river bed was dry and showed the rocks rolled along its length when the water was angry.

A small boy - who should have been at school - stood puzzled as two dusty Europeans passed in primary colours
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For no reason, a small and very dark boy stood where the path crossed the old waterway. He may have been supervising animals we couldn't see. He certainly should have been at school. All the other children we'd seen had been walking into the village with books under their arm.

"Stylo?", he whispered.

I'm beginning to think that either Moroccan children have an identical but equally tiny grasp of French or that ballpoint pens are genuinely scarce. I can't think they are. There seem as many pens as anywhere else. So maybe it's a challenge, a competition between schoolmates. Except that he wasn't at school. He just stood by the road, staring innocent but intrigued at what must have been the odd sight of brightly dressed foreigners sweating and coated in dust.

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Again, the countryside didn't let us down. It pulled itself up into a ridge with a deep valley to our right. Successive villages of timeless, ochre houses stood with dust all around, except for vividly green areas where irrigation favoured palm trees and argon bushes. The buildings, as ever, had flat roofs. The roofs overlapped the walls, another sign that it wasn't always dry here. Sometimes thin grass grew on the roof. The walls were thick and obviously cool. If there were windows, they were tiny and vertical, the better to keep out the heat. No sign of glass.

White stains of salt mark the land
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The tortured banks of rock and earth showed white stripes. Salt. We'd seen signs to a mine yesterday, although it must have been small because there was no more than a track leading to it.

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We stopped for a drink on a hilltop bend, the one-room café on one side and a couple of tables and umbrellas on the edge of the plunge on the other. The man in charge, gently smiling but unobtrusive, brought us mint tea, the world's most refreshing drink when it's hot. He poured it, as tradition and taste demanded, from a small, barrel-bellied silver pot with a rising, curved spout. As he poured, he raised the pot higher and higher until the pale brown tea fell in a sparkling stream and bubbled into glass cups.

"It increases the taste," he explained.

For a while he left us to talk to a friend who had abandoned an axe and a saw and a white sack on the other side of the road.

Home the workman, home from his toil
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Like all male friends, they grasped each other by the shoulders, exchanged four kisses on the cheek and then hugged each other with slaps on the back. And then, when the friend felt the time had come to get back to work, the café man came to sit at the next table, near enough to talk if we chose.

We chose.

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"You see down there in the valley?", we asked. He looked at the ruins of two kasbahs, fortresses, one on each side of the dried river. "Does that mean there used to be two villages originally."

He said it did.

Defensive positions on each side of the road show that neighbours don't always get on
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"And that they used to fight each other?"

He smiled at the valley's history and agreed that they did. Long before his time, of course. I could imagine the two sides repeatedly disagreeing about the precious water that flowed between them, enough that they'd fight over it.

Centuries back the two decided co-operation was the better path. Now life progressed quietly, everyone working on the palms, he said.

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Life had changed gently, though. Our map showed this was an unmade road, as it had been at the start. It was hardly an international highway now but it was at least surfaced. Although with precious little traffic to spoil our enjoyment of this rolling countryside of valleys and sleeping villages where donkeys carried loads and people waited for something to happen.

It truly was a day of days.

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