Sometimes I dream that I am falling. Apparently, everyone does. But more often than that, I dream that I am flying, rising, really as the walls of the room grow smaller, the stars sandpaper the sky and I drift up and up, along, beyond. Weightless until caught by the clouds or the distant haze that cloaks the mountains.
Right now, life matches that the crescendo of that dream. The moment where my feet find land and my eyes blink awake. There is snow, I can smell it. There are ripe vines and low hedgerows that stretch across scorched, rust-coloured hills. I see the aged silver of twisting olive groves and hold in my hand more herbs and spices than I can remember or understand.
I’m in the blue sky of the Atlas mountains – and I’m feeling slightly faint.
My backpack carries water that gains weight with every step I take and I can’t help but empathise with the god whose name describes this place. Atlas. My muscles strain and my memory scrambles to recall the French that I know lives somewhere, so that I can talk to the man who walks beside me, Muhammed.
Muhammed is a guide from further down the mountain. He lives at the village not far from the dam, and he points it out to me more than one or two times. His legs are strong, although his knees give him trouble on the downhill parts. He shows me photos of his children, bright digital images that live on his mobile phone.
We left La Roseraie this morning, an idyllic little place that isn’t really small but that somehow deserves the word. Rose petals run amok in La Roseraie, with scarlet and peach petals that flutter through the fountains, the walkways, the bathrooms and the dreams of those who come here to sleep.
I lose the name of the first village we pass, but its walls are made of rough-smooth ochre. It creaks and curves with the slope of the mountain and children peer out of windows, past goats and through shadows to watch this strange white woman wandering through.
Muhammed wants to continue but I am keen to stay. Childhood, like an atlas, extends across the globe, unhindered by language, clothes or the sight of a dizzy foreigner close to the edge of collapse.
This next ascent should be trivial, but for some reason I find it hard. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so long sat down as I drove through Morocco. Perhaps it’s the altitude, the jetlag, the, er, rose petals. Perhaps it’s my age.
I guzzle down some water, mainly to buy myself some time. Muhammed’s dam seems smaller than ever.
As the soil crunches beneath our feet, my eyes drift towards the peak. We reach another village, where the walls are made of stone instead of mud, ready for the frost and ice that climbs this high in winter.
We pass a man. He invites us to tea.
We accept – and settle on the flat rooftop of his Berber house.
A child appears. She’s about five or six, I’d guess, although age range guestimates are not a strength of mine. She is beautiful, she is interested, she is shy, and she is fascinated. She joins her father, while her mother stays out of sight.
I feel awkward. Unsure, no, un-anything of what the etiquette for this should be.
Morocco is an Islamic country but I’m finding it hard to discern the rules. Take dress codes, for example. High street shops with lacy bras and string bikinis flourish in downtown Marrakech; yet on the beaches at Oualidia, the women covered up and I saw no-one enter the water.
This morning, when Muhammed suggested I covered my head, I swept a scarf around my skull to hide away my hair. He laughed and rearranged it into a turban with a kind of scarf mullet, leaving my straw hair akimbo. Heatstroke had been his concern; not manners.
So now what? Drinking tea with two men while a girl looks on in silence and her mother hides downstairs. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with culture or religion. Perhaps she just doesn’t like my face.
The tea arrives, tasting sweet and bitter, so different to England, yet exactly the same. This tea comes, Muhammed tells me, from China and he adds that Morocco’s the biggest importer of Chinese tea in the world. They add home-grown mint leaves and lashes of sugar and serve it without milk in clear long glasses.
The bread is fresh and flat, stretched apart and dipped in olive oil. The almonds are sweet. The girl is still watching.
Afterwards, I’m invited to look around their home. It has a traditional set up. Bare walls downstairs with rugs that cover the floor in woven red, cream and black. A window in the ceiling showers light across the kitchen, glinting in the stove, the utensils and the pots and pans scrubbed clean and lined up in formation.
The woman of the house moves from room to room ahead of me to make sure we never meet. The girl follows me everywhere and then reaches to hold my hand.
Outside, we troop towards the plateau, where we can see Muhammed’s dam, the peppery trees and olive groves and the almighty mass of the Atlas mountains heaving out of the earth.
We’re standing on concrete, the foundations for a new hostel that the village dreams will bring more travellers and more tourists to this little town. I look across the peaches, figs, lemons, mint, thyme and rosemary. Across to Muhammed’s dam. Up to the peaks and down to the young girl’s eyes.
I feel a flash of selfishness and the timeless tourism brainteaser.
I don’t want more people to come here, for there’s no way it could stay the same. I picture these alleyways clogged with tourists. Heaving with backpacks. Brandishing menus in English and suffocating the silence with brash, loud voices. I see the landscape daubed with concrete, a funicular scarring up the peaks.
Perhaps it won’t come to that. Perhaps it’s for the best. And after all, who am I to dash the dreams of those who live here and those who want to come? We can’t all climb mountain peaks – as my own aching limbs delight in reminding me.
I have been lucky, so tremendously lucky, to share brief moments like this around the world. Through tea, through hikes, through writing and photography, I have been able (cough, ahem, excuse me for a moment) to follow my dreams.
As my trembling legs tumble down the steep slopes of the Atlas, overtaking goats as well as common sense and reasonable speed, I reach the obvious conclusion. Ok, make that two of them.
Firstly, that everyone should dream as much as they like.
And second of all: that you should never skip breakfast before hiking to face the gods.
Lawrence of Morocco arranged the car hire and complimentary accommodation at La Roseraie. Hikes are available from the Roseraie on a guided basis (as above) or on your own – although the routes are not all that clear to follow if you decide to go solo.
La Roseraie is a beautiful, peaceful hotel with a stunning central pool and lounge area with a Moorish terrace that overlooks the mountains where breakfast is served. Staff are helpful and professional and the food – which carries a range of British and Moroccan dishes – is of a consistently high standard. Rooms are spacious, if a little on the plain side, with plenty of spaces for reading among the rose trees. Don’t miss the welcome tea and try to stay for a few nights if you can to make the most of the peaceful surroundings. Bliss.