(14 March 2011)
Omar was probably 5 feet, give or take an inch. His arms were like elongated rocks, rough, not river-worn. He used them to pull us up over their real-life counterparts, little nasty guys that skidded beneath our shoes as we climbed toward a waterfall in Morocco’s Ourika Valley. Not much of a valley—a scrubby, sun-burned crack of earth in the Atlas Mountains, but a strangely beautiful crack, caulked by the bluest sky.
Jenny and I were wearing skirts. Not a smart choice for a day-hike— but then again, we were supposed to be strolling by the sea in the old Portuguese port-town of Essouira, snapping pictures of windows and walls, munching seafood. Not climbing to a waterfall in the Atlases after an hour-long shared cab-ride that we’d been duped into paying too much for. Story of the day. Our morning cabbie had talked us into taking a different bus to Essouira, then dumped us at a station of already-booked tour buses, taking off before we realized we were stranded. When we asked the ticket seller for the fourth time if it was really possible, could there really be no more buses to Essouira that morning, and he assured us for the fourth time that yes, possible it really was, we patched together a back-up plan and found ourselves in another cab an hour later, rolling down a straight slab of highway through random pockets of unfinished urban development, the occasional shanty-town, the odd estate whose tree-tops overran their garden walls.
Soon the road began to wind, and as we gained elevation, tourism revealed itself. Thin men and their camels, awaiting paying riders. Hut after hut of shining dishware and jewelry, tapestries flapping like over-sized Tibetan prayer flags in the breeze. Riverside cafes boasted signs for fresh tagines and cous-cous, but their chairs remained peopleless, and I wondered who it was that stopped here at these empty shops and restaurants. Who bought these lamps and earrings and rugs?
At Setti-Fatma, the farthest point in the Ourika that a car can go, Jenny and I got out and there was Omar, waiting for us. Well, waiting for anyone. We still weren’t sure what we were going to do in Setti-Fatma; in Morocco, not knowing usually means getting talked into doing something else. Omar smiled at us with his crooked teeth and said he would take us to see the waterfall and we said okay, sure, why not? He first took us down to the river to drink a coffee—the river a thin band of water flowing over prehistoric egg-like rocks—and then we were on our way up, into the mountains, passing water-bottle sculpture gardens and the occasional alabaster trinket vendor along the way. I’d worn what Jenny likes to call my Shit-Kickers—my sturdy leather boots—but Jenny herself was rocking saddle shoes, and the terrain was not treating them kindly. Every time she slipped or skidded I thought, Oh God, What did we get ourselves into, but Omar was always there, all five solid feet of him, and those five feet pulled and protected Jenny a long way.
Do you have children? I asked Omar as we puffed along. He told me he had four, three boys and a girl under the age of 12. We were speaking in French, and I took advantage of our time together to ask him some of the questions I’d been racking up since arriving in Marrakech: At what age do school-children begin to learn French? Is it common to go to university? What are some of the major differences between Berber culture and Arab culture? How has Setti-Fatma changed since you were a boy?
Omar must have a strong constitution because he was patient with me, answering every question with as much care as he could muster while still lending an instinctual hand to Jenny whenever she needed it. When we arrived at the waterfall, he melted into the landscape as we ran our hands under the water and took pictures, only to magically reappear the moment we were ready to move on.
Omar took us back by a different route, along the terraces the villagers use to cultivate figs and apples and almonds in the summer and autumn months. From up there we had a view of Setti-Fatma, a village that Omar explained had been completely built up and expanded upon since the ‘70s, when the influx of tourists really began. The color of its buildings remained true to the terrain—so much so that from this distance they were barely discernable against their mountain backdrop—but the architecture itself seemed far more modern than some of the other Berber villages we’d passed en route to the Ourika Valley. When we finally descended and crossed the river back into the village, Jenny and I began to swap looks, wondering when Omar’s tour would conclude so that we could find some food. But he seemed unwilling to give us up.
This is the town’s hamam, Omar said, indicating a patchwork of bricks that supposedly served as the village bathhouse. This is a typical house—the animals are kept here, down below, and the family lives upstairs. These are bags of grain. This is the mosque. This is a carpet shop—here, let’s go inside.
Omar ushered us into a rough earthen building absolutely packed with tapestries—every surface was covered in them, and even while I was protesting our entrance I knew the situation wouldn’t end well. I’d been told by several people before traveling that once you enter a Moroccan carpet shop, once you let the vendor begin to unravel his wares and describe their production, you’re absolutely done for, you’re nothing but significantly rude if you walk out without buying. But Omar had disappeared and Jenny and I found ourselves pulled in with the tide of magic carpets. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of the strangest bargain of my life, placing money I didn’t have on a blue and yellow tapestry I didn’t needed. But it was beautiful. And the salesman so persuasive. And I felt so anxious about being rude. And it was my birthday in another week. I would treasure it, I told myself, forever and ever. And so I spent 30 euros on a tapestry I’ve now draped across a chair in my bedroom in La Ciotat, that I look at every day and shake my head at and think, why on earth did I buy you, tapestry? I left a sweater in Spain for you so that Ryanair would let me bring you on my flight home.
Jenny and I left the rug shop with Omar leading the way, me cradling my brown paper-swathed tapestry like a baby. Hide it in your bag, Omar counseled me, and I did as I was told. Omar seemed on the verge of taking us some distance to some other site, and Jenny and I, our stomachs growling, exchanged a few looks before we finally asked him to stop. You’ve been so great, we told him. But I think we’d like to finish now and find something to eat.
Okay, as you like, Omar nodded. Jenny and I took a moment to collect our cash. Before the hike, we’d agreed with Omar to pay him 100 dirham—about 10 euros—and now we handed him 150, thinking he deserved the 50 extra, that he’d been so good to us. He smiled and said thank-you and then took off down the street, eventually disappearing into the cluster of people and houses, not to be seen—by our eyes at least—again.
It wasn’t until a few hours later, full of tagine and tea, that I realized what I’d done. It felt so righteous at the time, paying Omar those 50 extra dirham for his services. You go to a country poorer than your own and you assume any amount you pay is generous enough—you can’t imagine what it’s like to be as poor as the people you’ve traveled all this way to see, and so you do yourself a favor and you don’t imagine it, you just give cheaply and assume it’s more than enough.
But I paid twice as much for that rug as I did that man. That man who kept my friend from slipping down a mountain and told me all he could about his country. My rug slips from its chair and tells me only that I am a fool.