How Morocco and the Atlas Mountains Changed Life

Terry near the Atlas Mountains. We did not have many cares back then.

Every few weeks I’ll walk up the main street in the town where I live in in France and purchase a pink copy of the Financial Times Weekend newspaper. It’s all art and travel and cooking and even includes a magazine now and then titled How To Spend It advertising Cartier watches and including photos of tawdry lasses who transformed to posh gals by wearing Saint Laurent leather bustiers, silk bandanas and Wilson Swarovski crystal and rhodium plated brooches.

And then there are—after, say, a suave article about having lunch with author Hilary Mantel in a Devon restaurant—articles about travel.

One recent article was about Morocco. The author recalled his previous visit, 15 years ago, to the town of Imlil at the base of Mount Toupkal in the Atlas Mountains. He recalled how television was coming into the region, and the reaction of the local Berber people. He talked about Richard Branson’s new hotel, and mountaineering stores and ample cafes.


I remember something different.

Because I visited Imlil 27 years ago.

I had taken the ferry from Spain to Tangier and met a college friend who was a Peace Corps volunteer. We took various buses with two Australian gals I had met on the ferry from Spain to Morocco.

Once in the mountains, the four of us rented a massive room on the second floor of a huge stone building at the base of the Atlas Mountains. There was no running water or electricity.

We piled all sorts of blankets over ourselves on a deep rug on the floor in the middle of the second story. The huge stone room was round and surrounded by windows and had no furniture.

There were candles, but no lights. That was not because the place was trying to be romantic.

Earlier, for dinner, we had found the equivalent of a restaurant up a hill, a lantern lit hovel inside a stone building where they served soup with hunks of fat encrusted beef and chunks of bread. I remember leaving hungry, questioning the food.

But it was the only place to eat at in Imlil.

In the morning the girls sat outside on metal framed summer furniture without cushioned pads and they drank Nescafe coffee on porch tables. Terry and I went for a long walk on a winding gentle footpath before the foothills of Mount Toupkal.

We chewed some local substance to enhance the journey.


The day before, I had tried to take photos of brightly colored dresses of Berber children.

They threw rocks at me.


I wanted to move there, to live there, to rent a stone house and to practice my writing.

Backpack, Moroccan mountains, and different frames of mind.

That never happened.

But, days later, after the Australian girls had gone their merry way, Terry and I traveled more, this time on the back of his motorcycle. At the time I was hell bent on becoming a writer, but knew I had to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Write, write, write. I was tormented. I considered renting some stone home for a few months in the Moroccan outback and practicing my writing, trying to evoke the beauty of the desert in the same way that Edward Abbey had breathed life into his descriptions of the southwestern desserts of the U.S. in his book Desert Solitaire. One night, I think it was on New Year’s eve, we went to a disco in the big city of Rabat. They served alcohol and Terry was dancing with cute western women and I was agonizing about the truth that I needed to write! I felt intensely guilty about being in some disco while I should have been dedicating each minute to the craft I wanted to pursue. It was bizarre to be in the throes of fun and to feel so tormented.

Less than a year later I was off on my own adventure as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, where I practiced writing and began a career of overseas work. About ten years later, having worked in Namibia, Angola, Dubai, Thailand, the Philippines, Panama and Guatemala (during which time I wrote books during my free time—self-published because the New York publishing scene never embraced my words) I FINALLY came to a conclusion, on another New Year’s Eve in my brother’s trailer in Paradise Cove in Malibu, California: finally I knew how to write. I had practiced my craft for more than a decade, and the angst felt during that trip to Morocco earlier had vanished.

I had learned to smoothen prose (much as I had learned to belt sand tables while working ten-hour night shifts in a furniture factory in Boulder, Colorado, during college).

We had visited many places during that trip to Morocco. We took trains to Marrakech (no, sorry, Crosby, Stills and Nash—there is no Marrakech Express); we had wandered through markets in Tangier, and hand carried our self made pizzas through dark alleys to a local communal oven for baking in the town of Tiznit, where Terry lived in rural Morocco with his American girlfriend.

No doubt those locations have changed.

I recall watching Terry climb up windmills with a monkey wrench to fix the water systems in different villages. And recall seeing, and appreciating, deep crimson desserts of the countryside while we rode on that motorcycle.

Perhaps I may return.

But—this time?

No more itch to rent a remote dessert building in order to practice writing.

No more guilt at having drinks while at a club in Rabat.

Life moves on. We learn, we change, we learn to appreciate change.

And to appreciate life!


If you would like to read any of the three books I’ve written about Africa, click below:

Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi

The Deep Sand of Damaraland – A Journal of Namibia

Water After War – Seasons in Angola



Comments from Readers

  • Great one Tom, you are a great writer.

  • Tom

    Thanks Murph! It is now a joy rather than a chore. And we had some colorful experiences in Malawi, yes?

  • Tom

    David Kaye from New Jersey wrote:

    Brilliant!! You are talented!!

    {Thanks David, flattery no harm}

  • Tom

    I wrote this piece the day after returning from Italy to gather information for an article.
    Hours after writing this, Terry wrote (I have not heard from him in about a year of more) and said:

    “Hey I just read the article…My step brother called me from Berlin 2 hours ago discouraged stating he wanted to move to Italy and take some time to write. Lattice of coincidence…”

  • Tom

    This comment came from my friend Gareth. We studied for our MBA’s together at the University of Durham in the U.K. eight years ago. His wisdom and insight are stellar. He wrote:

    Hi Tom,

    Just read your Morocco & Atlas Mountains piece. Your words were thought provoking and enjoyable. Thank you.

    The first time I saw the Financial Times weekend ‘How to spend it’ was at the back of Durham’s MBA lecture theatre. It was from another world, almost a warning about having too much money.

    Recently at work a friend told me “money won’t make you happy but it will buy lots of things”. We were discussing [someone’s] next holiday plan, an expensive four month cruise around the world.

    Maybe it’s 1st world problem. Too many people chasing an elusive materialistic happy life. You’re recollection of Imlil reminded me that happiness is found in life’s simple things: a warm sleep on a cold floor; indulging in the view from a hill top; sharing time with good friends.

    I visited Morocco 12 years ago. It was during two weeks R&R from an operational tour in Iraq. I spent 10 days with Ali around the Southern coastal village of Taghazout. It was hot, dusty and dirty; we spent our time eating, sleeping and surfing. When it was flat we drove north and explored. I was happy.

    I smiled at the thought of you chewing local substance to enhance the walking experience. The best, most interesting and content people I know explore things for themselves and judge with their own mind what is right and wrong.

    I have learnt that life passes by while we’re busy planning what to do. Live in the moment, take pleasure in the simple things and be happy. I enjoy your writing… Have a great Sunday.

  • Love this Tom! I was just in Marrakesh and visited the Atlas Mountains about a year ago. I felt so at home as I did the last time I was in Africa. I’m sure it has changed a lot since you were there. They built a park at the top of the Atlas Mountains to provide opportunity for the locals to practice interacting with tourists to expand their horizons. (Clearly, also to try to put an end to their stone throwing habits:). The park is spectacular with a bridge crossing, the longest zip-line in Africa, donkey polo and a fabulous restaurant! We also had the opportunity to experience a tea ceremony with one of the locals. I have to admit that I was staying at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental…as you said we’re not at a time in life where we no longer feel guilty over the simple and not so simple pleasures, yet we are always grateful. Our security company said that Morocco is also very safe for travelers. Thanks for sharing! Happy travels!

  • Tom

    Wonderful Taya! My, how times have changed. It’s amazing how people complain about the world we live in when over a century ago there was no penicillin and no commercial airlines and people’s life spans were considerably shorter. The world, altogether, is improving. Thank you for your colorful input!!

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