Due to a lack of planning, options for how to spend my last day in Fes were limited. We found ourselves in the midst of the Islamic New Year, a day when most businesses and tourist sites were closed, and a day that most Moroccans choose to spend with family. So for my last day in Fes, Abdoul was gracious enough to take us on a road trip through the countryside southwest of Fes. Having just met Abdoul three days earlier on the train from Rabat, he had become our self-appointed event coordinator.
Before we started on our road trip, Abdoul took us to a little cafe to meet the driver from yesterday’s journey around the Medina. We briefly met to discuss our plans for a trip to the Sahara desert and then on to Marrakech. I had been discussing this with Abdoul since we first met him, and he thoroughly agreed that it was an absolute necessity for us to do this trip as it was destined to become the highlight of Morocco. As we sat with the driver, Abdoul did all of the talking to negotiate a good price for us and to set up a good itinerary for our trip. We paid the driver a deposit and made plans for him to pick us up at 8AM the next morning for a five day trip from Fes to Marrakech via the Eastern countryside of Morocco and the Sahara.
With our next five days set, we were off to make the most of this Islamic New Year holiday. Honestly, neither Gary nor I had any idea where we were going or what plans Abdoul had for us. All he had conveyed was that he was going to take us to the mountains, and since he had yet to lead us astray we had no reason to question him. With a few stops along the way, to grab some freshly picked oranges for our road snack and back to Abdoul’s place for a couple things he forgot, we made our way out of the city into the sparsely populated countryside. Bumper to bumper traffic quickly turned into the open highway – a two lane stretch of asphalt amidst the dark rocky terrain interspersed with mounds of recently harvested onions covered with straw sitting on top of a built up rock foundation.
It did not take long to come into view of the striking Atlas Mountains. I sat in the back seat, Abdoul in the driver seat and Gary in the passenger seat in what appeared to be a 1975 Fiat hatch. Not necessarily my first choice for a road trip in the mountains, but it would definitely do for a free ride. As we drove along, the mountains getting closer and closer, my lungs filled with the exhaust fumes of this beast of a machine. Two choices presented themselves – eventual asphyxiation under the thick exhaust fumes or roll down the windows and allow the chilling mountain air to gradually drop my internal body temperature to numbing levels. Well, I chose the latter, and endured the invigorating mountain air as it struggled to dissipate the ever present fumes of the exhaust.
So we drove and drove and drove, with endless picturesque views surrounding us. The mountains gradually enveloping us, we traced our route through a pass in between two peaks. Soon we found ourselves on the other side of the Atlas.
With the mountain pass flowing ever so imperceptibly into a vast, open flat land ahead of us, the setting took on a different kind of beauty. We finally turned off the highway and headed down a long gravel driveway with only a questionable looking auberge standing eerily in the distance. Distinctively enough, it was called “La Kasbah.”
Still having no idea what we were doing out here, hundreds of different scenarios were running through my head of what could happen to me out here in the middle of nowhere with this Moroccan guy I barely knew. As we approached the locked gate serving as the entrance into the stone walled perimeter of the auberge, Abdoul looked at Gary and I and said “It’s gonna get crazy in here.” I thought to myself, “that was very comforting.” Abdoul had the type of personality that you never could really wrap your mind around. It was either something lost in translation or just his personality; considering his near flawless English, the language barrier seemed to have little to do with the downright dubious circumstances in which we found ourselves as guests on Abdoul’s “crazy” excursion. Mysterious circumstances nonetheless, there was no turning back at this point.
Well, not to prolong the suspense, fortunately, that was just Abdoul’s attempt at humor. La Kasbah was as far from “crazy” as one could imagine. There were two men waiting for us inside the auberge. They showed us around the rooms and the amenities of the completely vacant auberge, and set up a table with three chairs right outside of the large wooden gate that stood sedately as the entrance to La Kasbah. We sat down and were treated with beers and proceeded to just sit and relax under the clear blue sky and bright shining sun with the Atlas Mountains as our back drop.
To be honest, I was a little nervous as we drove up to La Kasbah and my mind ran through the different scenarios that could play out. The nerves quickly subsided as we just sat and totally relaxed. No worries, no disturbance.
As I looked around at the few houses scattered about the landscape and watched the two guys that worked at the auberge, I thought about how this brief moment of relaxation that I was experiencing is how these people spend most of their lives. Sure they have jobs and responsibilities that consume much of their days, but away from the chaos of the city, time in these mountains passes at a slower pace. The modern conveniences to which I am accustomed were nowhere to be found in the sparsely populated countryside. It was precisely the absence of those conveniences that allowed me to relish the moment for what it was – peace and quiet.
Just recently electricity had been introduced to this region as a drastic improvement to the lives of the people that call this area home. Next will assuredly be cable and then internet and their lives will forever be changed – for better or worse – the debate goes on. From my perspective, as an American able to just briefly soak in life in the Moroccan countryside at my own convenience, I would argue the latter. My perspective would certainly clash with those living in it day in and day out unable to escape it by their own will. And so goes the contradiction that plays out all over the world – of the traveler who shamelessly consumes the pleasures of escaping modern society in the midst of the undeveloped world yearning for the conveniences of modern society – a paradox if there ever was one.
We finished up a couple beers, returned to the exhaust filled Fiat and headed back toward Fes. Much to my astonishment, that quaint little auberge was our destination. We drove nearly 150 miles to grab two beers at a little hotel in the middle of nowhere, but I was completely ok with that. Not necessarily something you would find as a suggestion in a guidebook, but an unforgettable experience nonetheless. That day I came to better understand what is meant by “the journey is not about the destination.”
Abdoul would later tell us that he had never in his life driven on that highway, and he had known the owner of the auberge for a long time and had always wanted to come visit it. On account of the Islamic New Year and my brief presence in his life as a visitor to his country, I was happy to accompany him and give him a reason to go on his “crazy” excursion.