Until now, our travels through the agricultural regions, the argan forests of the coastal areas, the Atlas Mountains and the cities of Fez and Marrakech had been delightful, intriguing, educational and productive, but not otherworldly; the Sahara would change that.
We departed from Marrakech relatively early in the morning, as we had a long journey ahead. I had come to appreciate why Fez was Hamid’s favorite city and Marrakech his least favorite: the serious traffic, heavy pollution and general hardship of life for the crowds in the streets reminded me of similar claustrophobic scenes in cities of India. At least I didn’t have Hamid’s job of negotiating the car through impossible impasses of honking motorcycles, taxis, tour buses, horse-drawn carriages filled with tourists, cargo trucks, laborers pushing overflowing handcarts and the occasional donkey. We were also fortunate to have stayed in a tranquil riad in the middle of the old city, the silence of its thick walls and inner courtyard a surreal contrast to the chaos in the surrounding alleys.
Our first stop was an aromatic plant garden that Hamid knew about. About an hour outside of Marrakech we entered a green agricultural region at the base of the mountains. Turning off the highway, webounced through a small village afflicted with the worst conditions we had seen so far: butcher’s stalls with hanging fly-covered carcasses were interspersed with oily auto repair and welding shops and vendors selling mountains of plastic wares, all covered with dust and trash from the rutted unpaved road. Another side road and then another and we were on a one lane track through an old neighborhood, where we stopped at a gate. Suddenly, we were in a peaceful enclosed garden filled with birds and flowers and hundreds of species of aromatic and medicinal plants.
I didn’t understand the whole story about the origin of this place, and didn’t really care. This garden had been created by a doctor, Hamid had said; they produced medicines from what they grew here.
It was nice to be surrounded by so many well-known botanical friends, all enclosed by high walls. Here were mandalas of mints, patterns of geraniums, rows of artemisias, hedges of rosemary and trellises of roses, interspersed with flowering pomegranate trees, arbors of willows, small groves of olives and figs and citruses, then more herb gardens. Water flowed through a simple aqueduct system, cooling the air and giving soft music.
We wandered through the landscape, enjoying its timeless peace. As I contemplated the stark contrast between what lay outside the walls and this tiny Eden inside them an old memory returned, an epiphany that dawned on me years ago in the rose fields of Rajasthan that has lived with me since: all that is needed to create a heavenly world is intelligent agriculture.
At the far edge of the property we found the manufacturing buildings, where the products were being made. Workers were busy stacking huge bags of herbs alongside grinding equipment; others were preparing for a distillation and others were packing boxes of finished products. It was obviously a large operation that relied on local farms for its materials, and the garden itself was primarily for teaching and a tourist attraction.
Our walk culminated at the boutique. Tasteful and elegant, with a large variety of products, it held promise. Yes, everything was made here, the young woman there told us. Yes, they ship bulk amounts to all parts of the world. We examined the offerings, hopeful of new discoveries.
But something was amiss, our noses said. We looked carefully at the fine print on the labels: synthetic this, artificial that, mixed in with the otherwise delectable and therapeutic natural ingredients.
Here in a microcosm was the condition of humanity, I mused as we drove out the gate of this little paradise back into the squalor of the village. The entire village could be as beautiful as the garden, and all our foods and medicines could be vital and pure, free of the pollution afflicting both the world at large and the small things we use every day. It seems like such an easy thing to do, if we only had the collective intelligence and will to manifest such a reality.
To be continued…