I leaned on my knees to look out the car window as Morocco filled my eyes and my heart. In the early morning brilliance, we curved through the lowest part of the Western High Atlas National Park. Shadows shifted from peak to valley as we curved higher and higher into the green and blue world, spinning down before curving back up and higher around another rocky member of the national park.
The sky was blue. The trees were green, the ground was orange and rocky. The mountains dipped and rose in hues of purple and blues, surrounding us and holding us to the ribbon of road that twisted and tied us right there, at the moment, contained within the car and within our serves. I felt small, like a fleck of paint on a mural, and still profoundly aware of being part of the mural.
Riz and I were quiet, resting in the calm after our argument the night before and not wanting to disturb the view with too much noise. We listened to music, a funky low-fi vibe navigating the day as much as the map.
Along the mountain road, we picked up hitchhikers and delivered them to towns tucked into the wily curves of the road. Riz had been doing this from the offset of the road trip to Marrakech.
Driving into Imlil on the narrow road that followed the river, we collected two young women and four children. They crammed into the back seat of the rental car, the women shushing the children as they laughed and squealed. Riz started swerving dramatically on the road, jerking the car from one side to another, and I was laughing and squealing along with the children.
On the mountain road, we mostly collected men, pushing our things to the side in the trunk so we could give their sacks of potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, and tools a ride as well.
At one turn outside of Ouzoud, we collected a couple. He was tall and lean with a clean-shaven face and a white shirt, tinted with dirt. She wore a long black skirt and a long sleeve, black shirt. I marveled at her dedication to religious custom in the heat—not yet 10 a.m. and it was nearly ninety-degree Fahrenheit. The scarf she wore was hot pink; though she bent her shoulders forward, tucking her chin into her chest and cast her eyes down, I saw the hot pink loudness of her.
With the stray men in the car, Riz would talk in loud, rapid Arabic and I liked the song in his voice as he spoke, more confident and relaxed in his native language than he was with English. With this couple in the car, we were all quiet. Riz cast me side glances and smiles as if to reassure me in the silence, maybe reassure himself in the silence. I didn’t mind the quiet and I don’t think the couple minded either; they were holding hands secretly, their hands rested next to each other on the cloth middle seat and pressed together between their thighs.
“This is Morocco,” Riz announced, his energy rising and filling the car when it was just the two of us again. “People helping people. Do people hitchhike in America?”
“Not really,” I answered. “People are scared. I’ve only hitch-hiked once, and that was in Greece.”
“See! The world has forgotten how to take care of each other. We’ve forgotten how to depend on each other. Morocco hasn’t. I am showing you the real Morocco, Molly. This is the real Morocco.”
Riz monologued some more, his voice high pitched and battling the music. I smiled and nodded, the landscape accented his words. People milled along the roadside. I’m not sure what any of them were doing; Riz didn’t know either. There were donkeys loaded with sacks and tools, so I guess people had sections of farmland when the mountains gave them sections flat enough for the task of tilling.
I saw a pair of younger girls in the distance and watched them as we approached around a curve. They were struggling—and laughing in their struggle—to fix a burden to the back of a grey donkey. The donkey stepped forward as our car buzzed closer and the sacks leaned to one side. The girl on that side shirked and laughed while the other girl ran around to help her push the weight back to the middle of the donkey’s back. I pointed them out to the Riz, half wanting him to suggest we stop to help them but also to share their simple joy with him.
He nodded. “That’s the real Morocco,” was all he answered.
I was disappointed in that response and stopped pointing out the little love stories I saw along the road. The couple holding hands, the girls finding unbound joy in their burden; they were evidence to Riz’s point, rather they were points onto themselves.
We were aiming for Bin el Oudaine, a small town in a rural community, hugging the outskirt of the High Atlas mountains at 2,800 feet. In the late 1940s, early 1950s, the Bin el Ouidane Dam was built for hydroelectric power production and irrigation, producing 287-gigawatt hours and irrigating 695,000 hectares of farmland every year. The man-made reservoir lake is a sapphire-blue destination popular with tourists. Luxury hotels offering water sports and lake-front holidays grow a-plenty on the shores of the lake.
The reservoir lake slipped into view little by little between trees and around curves until we found the outer-most road that would twist us down to sea level. We collected an old woman on the side of the road—she sat near a guard rail, her face stern and expectant, watching the road for someone to pick her up and deliver her to the lake-side where she’d sell oregano from the sack she carried with her.
Riz loaded the fragrant sack into the trunk and we spun down the mountain, Riz spoke reverently to the woman and learned that her husband had died and her children moved away, and she went up and down that mountainside every day to sell her oregano—actual oregano; I’m not being clever—to tourist visiting the lake for a holiday.
The herbs warmed and filled the car with fragrance.
Along with the woman and the strong, earthy smell of her herb came a memory:
I was in Greece, spinning down another rocky cliff face in a taxi en route to the main port on the other side of Kefalonia Island. The driver only spoke Greek and I said Kali Mera no matter what time of day it was, but we managed to communicate in kindness nonetheless.
Along the drive, he smiled at me and pointed at beautiful things during the hour-long drive. Then he pulled over, leaving the driver’s door open as he jogged across the narrow mountain road, leaving me in a car, precariously perched between the cliff’s edge and the road. I watched him climb into the brush where mountain goats hopped up the rocks and munched at dry grass. He came back, baring a fist of oregano sprigs.
“Oregano,” he exclaimed, handing me the sprigs. “Oregano like flowers for you,” he said.
I laughed and pressed his “oregano like flowers” between pages of my journal, truly touched by his excitement and kindness. Every time I opened the notebook after that, the smell of oregano pulled me back in time to that Greek mountain road and that beautiful day as we spun down the mountainside towards the blue water of the Ionian Sea that sparkles like sapphires.
Morocco smells like oregano, too. The two places twist together in my memory now.
Blue water like sapphire.