The kindness of strangers in the High Atlas Mountains

The last time I wrote, I was in the High Atlas Mountains, battling what I thought was a minor stomach bug.  Travellers to Morocco are supposed to avoid the water – which is relatively easy – and any food that you haven’t peeled yourself – which is virtually impossible.  Much of the food is fresh, and salads are ubiquitous.  You just have to cross your fingers and hope that what you’re eating wasn’t washed in contaminated water.  Most of the travellers we met had some stomach symptoms.  I was unlucky.  Nine days in, I developed a significant case of traveller’s diarrhea.

The company that arranged our trip, Inn Travel, had booked us an inn in the High Atlas mountain village of Tamatert, which is located just outside the tourist hub of Imlil.  We arrived to the hubbub of a developing world Banff.  Busloads of tourists with their backpacks and walking boots disgorge onto narrow, dusty streets.  Lines of men in “traditional” garb hawk baubles.  Mules wait patiently to transport tourists’ luggage up the steep hills to their hotels.  Our mule’s name was Ida.

The inn, Douar Samra, is a half hour walk up a paved road and along a rough, rocky track.  Ida’s guide abandoned her and us briefly at the base of the track while he took another job.  Local women jeered and chucked rocks at her.  And I felt bilious, probably as a result of the fruit salad I’d eaten at breakfast.  This wasn’t an auspicious start.

Inn Travel describes Douar Samra as a “traditional Berber dwelling,” and promises that a stay here “offers a unique insight into traditional Berber life.”  Like most promotional material, it is at once accurate and misleading.  The inn is constructed in the traditional Berber style.  But there’s a reason why the houses surrounding it adopted more modern building techniques: the low-ceilinged rooms are small, cold, and dark.  The tiny ensuite toilets have curtains for doors.

Clearly, most Berbers are not over 6 feet tall

Oh, no!  Where do we put our stuff?

During our stay, at the end of September, the guests spent their indoor time huddled in puffy jackets in the common area where our bulk generated heat.  There is no electricity except in a couple of rooms and the owner’s office.  But there is surprisingly good wifi in the lounge.  Hence, a daily line up to recharge devices in the few available outlets.

The lounge and dining room

Douar Samra didn’t provide many insights into Berber life.  The staff is Berber, but French is their second language and English their third.  Conversation was a hilarious linguistic mashup as we tried to find common vocabulary.

My roiling stomach rebelled outright on our second day there.  Coping with travellers’ diarrhea in a room that lacks electricity and a toilet with a door is an experience.  Nothing quite beats stumbling around in the cold and dark, nauseous, with a headlamp strapped to your head.  (Thank you Julian for bringing them along!)

But if I had to get sick in the High Atlas Mountains, Douar Samra wasn’t a bad place to do it.

One of the staff, Mohammed, went on a mission to provide a bottomless pot of mint tea.  He assured me in broken French and sign language that it would soothe my stomach.  The following day at breakfast, he took one look at me and advised: “Dormez.”  At dinner that night, the cook made soup, which Mohammed told me was in deference to my stomach.  The other guests seated around the communal table encouraged me to share their vegetarian meal, and offered me herbal concoctions flavoured with honey and salt.

The food at Douar Samra was some of the best that we had in Morocco: chicken and vermicelli-like noodles, topped with icing sugar and cinnamon; subtly flavoured lentils and beans; a blend of chopped tomato and courgette (zucchini) that even Julian – who dislikes both vegetables — raved about.  Sadly for me, I didn’t get to eat a lot of it, but what I ate was delicious.

To thank Mohammed for his kindness, Julian gave him a Canadian flag pin which he wore on his uniform with beaming pride.  The morning we left the High Atlas Mountains, he hugged us both then placed his hand over his heart with a huge crooked-tooth smile.  Mohammed is illiterate.  He asked one of the other staff to write down his name and address.  He made us promise to write from Canada.

Douar Samra didn’t teach me much about Berber life, except that their houses are uncomfortable.  But I did experience a community where care transcends language, and where kindness is given wholeheartedly.  Even to strangers.  And perhaps that’s what Berber culture is about after all.


  1. Michelle Blain

    Hi Val. Sounds like an amazing adventure for you and Julian. I hope you are feeling a bit better. I think I lived on probiotics and pepto in China. Mickie

    1. Post
      Valerie Whiffen

      Hi Mickie — Good to hear from you!

      You are a clever woman. I read afterwards that I should have been on probiotics for travellers during the trip… Well, at least they helped me return to normal afterward.

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