An Enigma in the Atlas Mountains


I did not know what to expect as our flight slowly made its descent into Marrakech.  I had been awoken by a text that morning from my father which announced that he and my step mum were heading out to find breakfast at a local vegan bistro not a block from our hotel. F85D3096-2CF5-4294-B660-1220DBA6CBD2I had politely ignored the invitation and opted to stay curled up amongst the luxurious down sheets that had been provided for me by the Four Seasons. Upsides when traveling with one’s parents: wonderful dinners and fancy hotels that have functioning showers and real mattresses, all provided for free and out of love from ones’ parental units.

After slowly waking up and taking some time to relax on my balcony, which provided a full 180-degree view of the beautiful Portuguese city of Lisbon, the three of us headed off to the airport to await our flight.  Now, sitting one thousand feet in the air above the once Moroccan capital, I began to wish that I had taken the time that morning to do a little more research on this ancient city. I had a half-baked image in my mind of a large desert stretching to meet the horizon with a built-up oasis on which the city itself was located, perhaps surrounded by a smattering of palm trees and olive groves.  However, the view from outside my egg-shaped window was anything but that.

Before seeing Marrakech, we passed over dry collections of farm lands occasionally highlighted by fields of green that must have been watered by some kind of underground irrigation system. IMG_6369Small villages began to pop up more frequently as we drew closer to the famous city, but still they were few and far between.
What caught our eyes even before the city could be seen were the great Atlas Mountains.  Their pearly white capped peaks stood in stark contrast to the dry, sandy landscape that continued up to their base. With our eyes so transfixed on these natural wonders we barely even noticed the beginnings of Marrakech.

Small square buildings, that resembled the desert floor on which they were built and stood no taller than four stories high, crammed together, in some places sharing the same wall as the neighboring structure.  An impressive array of satellite dishes decorated the top of each of these buildings, highlighting the western influence that has crept in even to the northernmost corners of Africa.

The city itself had been built in a seemingly similar fashion.  Here the houses grew even denser although the heights did not change.  We later learned that a city wide law banned buildings taller than five stories high, apart from the tower like mosques that could be seen peering over the city and its inhabitants.

After landing and finding our way out of the airport, which mind you is an adventure in and of itself, we found our driver who then escorted us to our hotel located in the high Atlas Mountains.  

(There was some dispute on whether this truly was the high Atlas or if it was technically the mid Atlas Mountains, but after many conversations with tour guides and locals it was decided that everything was the high atlas and its simply better to not question the name or label).

We were all particularly excited about this part of our stay for our hotel was no ordinary hotel. Instead of staying in the average hotel room we’d be sleeping in traditional Bedouin tents, also known as Berber tents (the native tribal people of the Atlas Mountains). IMG_6390
Much like Mongolian yurts, these tents are constructed using wood for the floors and large sheets of canvas for the walls and ceilings. The insides of these semi-permanent homes are traditionally decked out with local, handmade rugs as well as hand painted furniture. Our contemporary version also included a fully functioning modern bathroom with a claw foot bathtub.  Not to mention the back deck that included a hot tub. To say the least we were living it up like Berber kings and queens!

The drive to our tents gave way to gorgeous views of the Atlas Mountains themselves as well as the surrounding villages and farm lands.  Along the way we passed by a handful of women operated and owned co-ops that made items such as Argon oil and traditionally woven carpets and other textiles.  We were told that not only did these women work and live together, but they also were divorced and had created these communities in order to support each other as well as protect each other in a society where divorced women are not commonly accepted or treated fairly.  

The further we drove the more interesting things we discovered.  Along with these women led Co-ops we came across a market that was in full swing.  Interestingly enough this market, and the majority of other markets found in the Atlas Mountains, were only populated by men.  Men were the only people allowed to sell goods or own stall and traditionally in the area only men did the shopping while women were meant to stay home to care for the children and house.  In the span of one hour, the duration of our car journey, we saw many cultural nuances and unique quirks that I couldn’t begin to imagine what we might learn over the course of the next week.

Upon our arrival to our Berber hotel we were greeted with friendly smiles and warm cups of Moroccan mint tea. IMG_2362 2_FotorA beverage that we gratefully accepted for the temperature had dropped drastically while driving up into higher elevations.  A quick tour of the grounds and common spaces and we found ourselves finally relaxing in our respective tent castles, also gratefully warm compared to the outside air.  After catching our breaths and becoming acquainted with our new homes we headed back out into the cold night for dinner. That night we were treated to a set tasting menu made in the traditional Moroccan style and using the theme ingredient of that evening; Apples.


This one took me by surprise.  On our way up the mountain I had somehow missed the many apple groves growing on the sides of the hills and in many of the villages.  For some reason apples were not a fruit that came to mind when thinking about Morocco, or any place in Africa for that matter, and my first thought was that there was no way such a commonly American and European fruit could grow in such a desert-esc climate.  Oh wait. IMG_2472_FotorWe’re not in a desert and the weather, at that very moment, was actually the perfect climate for growing not only apples but squash and pumpkins as well. Shows you how much I know, and how much our preconceived notions of a place can be incredibly wrong.  So yes, on our first night in Morocco we were treated to a traditional Moroccan meal where each dish had been prepared using at least a little bit of apple. A fruit which at that moment was very much in season.

The one complication when eating with my family is the incredible number of eating restrictions that both my stepmother and father live by.  These include: No lactose, gluten, meats that haven’t been raised organically or humanely, sugar, and processed foods in general, although I will note that these rules are opt to change on occasion or have their occasional exceptions.  On the tasting menu prepared for us that evening almost everything, by some miracle, appeared to meet these guidelines. Everything except the lamb which was to be the second main course. Yes, there were two main courses, the first of which was an incredible fish dish that I still remember to this day.  To my surprise both my father and stepmother looked at each other and decided in that very moment to try the lamb. I was a gasped, “What!! The two mega hippies are going to eat the meat!!!”

“Why not?” Asked my stepmother, “Everything around here is the definition of locally and sustainably raised.  How could it not be!” She had a good point. IMG_4730_FotorOn our way to the hotel we must have passed hundreds of sheep and goats being farmed and herded by small children or elderly men up the sides of steep hills.  If you’re looking for local – this was it!. After tasting the lamb itself I must say it was most definitely worth it! Even the two pescatarians agreed!

However, the next day brought news that made all three of us question our faith in human judgement. The following day we decided to participate in a cooking class where we’d learn how to prepare traditional Moroccan food. IMG_6454We were greeted by a friendly local chef who started the class by showing us how to prepare a traditional Moroccan tagine — a slow cooked stew prepared in a conical pot. While veggies and spices sat simmering away we had time to ask him questions about the ingredients we were using and where they were sourced.  He explained that while the veggies and spices where all produced locally, the olives in particular were grown and cured on the hotels grounds, the hotel was forced to source their animal products (Meat, cheese, yogurt, milk, etc) from certified and licensed food vendors, many of which were far from local. IMG_6448This strange law, thanks to the Moroccan Bureau of Tourism, regulates food products served and sold to tourists, presumably out of concern for their health and safety.  Skeptically, I wondered how many of those regulations were enforced and supported by powerful commercial food producers. While we appreciated the reasons behind these laws, we also found it overly restrictive. We too wanted to eat safely and avoid any possible food poisoning scenarios, yet we also were yearning to eat locally produced and farmed foods for reasons of politics and taste! Isn’t part of traveling learning about the culture in which you have immersed yourself in and to live and experience their traditional way of life?  Our cooking teacher was delighted with our interest in the local cuisine and acknowledged that yes, these rules made it both harder for the hotel to obtain the ingredients he wanted to use as a traditional Moroccan chef and that, in his mind, they were in fact silly.

This newly discovered and disconcerting information took all three of us by great surprise.  My family only the other night tried the lamb served to them only due to the belief that its origin was local, specifically right outside the walls of the very restaurant they were eating in.  I personally found it to be incredibly disappointing, not to mention wasteful. IMG_4647_FotorThere was such an abundance of livestock around, that was obviously free range and sustainably cared for, that the idea that hotels have to import commercialized and certified meats in order to comply with restrictions placed by their countries government seemed backwards.  The other question this raises is how can our society believe that industrialized and commercialized food is healthier or safer than the products that we can farm/grow right outside our own front doors? Shouldn’t it be reassuring to see where and how your food is raised, rather than just pick up mystery meat in a package from the freezer section of Safeway that has a bunch of stickers boasting about licenses that we as consumers rarely even understand??

If this isn’t an example of the food industries ability to brainwash our population I don’t know what is.  It’s time that we as global citizens took a second to stand back and question what is healthy and safe? Are we more concerned with how our food looks? If the chickens are fat and juicy or if they are scrawny, if our apples are perfectly round or a little misshaped?  Or how our food is produced? Because yes, a whole chicken that you buy at the grocery store is most likely quite a lot larger than one that you might raise in your backyard, however, the one that you find in the freezer aisle is, I’m sorry to tell you, most likely pumped full of hormones and god knows what additives to make it look that much larger, while the one your feeding out of your hand through the chicken coop in your backyard is honestly a real chicken.  Just the fact that we must distinguish between what a real and commercially manipulated chicken are disturbs me… These should be common things that don’t need to be questioned.

I leave you with  two propositions my dear reader, next time you go to a grocery store and pick out a package of ribs check the labels and look up what they truly mean, if they mean anything.  My second challenge, instead of running to the produce aisle and grabbing the largest apple you see, find out where the nearest plant nursery is and try planting a local apple tree, it may take time and the first fruit you see on the tree may look a little strange but I promise you it will taste like no apple you’ve ever had before.  Limited on space? Start by planting a small pot of lettuce on a window sill in your home. Time will still be a factor but the reward is worth it and your mind can be at ease that what your consuming is in fact organic, healthy and safe. Something we sadly can’t say for the majority of food available on many supermarket shelves.

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