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We descend from the scrubby, red slopes of the Atlas Mountains and find ourselves in a different Morocco. Sand-colored plateaus jut into the sky; date palms fill narrow ravines in thick, lush groves. Against the barren landscape, the men of the desert cut tall, elegant figures, solitary and mysterious, wrapped in flowing blue and black robes and turbans. The ancient casbah of Aït Benhaddou comes into view, its adobe houses climbing up the hillside, all rectangles and right angles. We sit down to lunch on a patio overlooking the village. The temperature is perfect, the couscous delicious, and we’re content to just sit here for a while gazing out at this age-old scene.
A handful of kids awaits us at the shallow river that curls between the old village and the new. They are grinning and bright-eyed, and offer a hand to steady us as we step across on a bridge of flat stones. And then we pass through a high adobe archway into another century. What we have remarked about Morocco is that everyday things are hewn with such great artistry—-so that the humblest dwelling, the most unassuming street corner is adorned with brilliant tiles or bits of stained glass or elaborately sculpted stucco. Aït Benhaddou is no exception. As we wind up the hill of this village made of mud, we find carefully crenellated rooftops, geometric cutouts in the clay, wooden doors intricately carved and studded with brass. Out of simplicity, the villagers have rendered such beauty.
We stop for tea at the home of a Berber woman whose hands show the russet stain of henna. Her daughter, a lean teenager in jeans, joins us. She lazily plays with the net scarf that covers her hair. Her T-shirt is black and emblazoned with English words she doesn’t understand. Upon closer inspection, the decal appears to be, of all things, a personal ad calling for a "good-looking and muscular man who likes to cook."
We look out over these clay rooftops aglow with afternoon sun, sipping mint tea, contemplating the sparks of irony that flash when the modern world collides with the timelessness of the past.
Note: Sarah Erdman, a program director at National Geographic Expeditions, wrote these field notes on an advance trip while developing our expedition to Morocco.