Serendipity Rides on a Donkey

By Dana Slayton • Sidi Ifni, Morocco

Rocky mountain landscapes define most of Ait Baamrane territory, the Amazigh tribal group that inhabits the area around Mount Boutmezguida and Sidi Ifni. In the distance of this picture, you can see the Sahara beginning.

Over the course of a day-long hiking project, the small donkey who had been accompanying me, affectionately nicknamed Porsche, consistently outperformed every one of his human counterparts. While we scrambled for footing for hours along trails peppered with only loose gravel and the occasional shrub, Porsche simply trudged onward unassumingly, quietly and considerably less perturbed by the length and difficulty of our ascent up Mount Boutmezguida on a warm afternoon in January.

Considering that the extent of my climbing experience could easily be encompassed by my two-mile walk to school, it was safe to say Porsche became my inspiration that day. The Anti-Atlas mountains in southwestern Morocco lie far outside the scope of most treks and travels through the country, nearly thirteen hours away from my home in Rabat. They run almost directly into the Atlantic Ocean in the west and shield the country from the Sahara in the east. From the top of Mount Boutmezguida, you can see the beginnings of sand dunes in the far distance behind you and the white-crashing waves ahead.

The faithful Porsche. Photo by Sarah Kilbarger-Stumpff

The steep hike up the mountain felt like ascending the moon, with soft red dirt eventually yielding to abandoned terraces where the cacti stretched out their spiny arms to overtake the once-tilled land. At the tree line near the last tiny village on the way to the summit, even the sturdy cacti surrendered to sandstone. The final part of our climb, the steepest part in which I really and truly drew all of my strength from the rhythm of Porsche’s steady, certain footsteps, was almost quiet. The rocks did not echo with the sound of another human voice for a long time. It felt very much like walking in between worlds.

A herd of goats graze on the mountainside near the summit of Mount Boutmezguida in the Anti-Atlas mountains outside Sidi Ifni.

I might have missed the child approaching my little donkey caravan, so lost was I in the wild and beautiful moon landscape on all sides of me, had it not been for Porsche’s sudden decision to halt. It seemed that even my trustiest companion had become tired of moving. When I reached her — she had stopped a few paces ahead of me — I began the arduous task of overcoming the laws of nature that determined a donkey in motion would tend to stay in motion, but a donkey at rest, much to my chagrin, would tend to stay at rest.

“Yallah, ya Porsche,” I tried in Arabic. Let’s go, Porsche.

“Aafak, yallah,” I ventured again. Please go.

“Siiri, ya habiba dyali,” I urged her. Go on, babe. I expanded my arsenal of terms of endearment with every new attempt to get her moving. Despairing that my inspirational caravan porter had decided so inconveniently to desist from her task so near to the summit, I was startled by the approach of a boy no more than eight from behind me. He had followed us along the trail up from the last village we had passed, and he was chattering loud enough to break the settled silence that filled the air in the high mountains.

I didn’t understand a word he was saying. He approached Porsche and me, clearly addressing us directly, and likely attempting to advise me on how best to encourage my donkey, yet his speech bounced off my untrained ears without so much as a word of comprehension. When my guide reached our small, strange, stopped cadre, the boy was clearly relieved. A soft-spoken and knowledgeable woman from the area around Boutmezguida, she conversed comfortably with the child for a few minutes until, satisfied, the boy went on his way.

Turning to Porsche, she smiled and chuckled at my feeble attempts to make her move.

“This is an Amazigh donkey,” she explained. “The boy was trying to tell you how

to make her go.”

It struck me as quite an impressive failure on my part that I had not so much as considered this possibility. Living in Morocco, especially in a large, cosmopolitan city like Rabat, it was so easy to forget that every facet of life could change in the bled, the countryside.

A local man takes a break in this side street in Sidi Ifni’s blue-and-white, extraordinarily color-coordinated colonial quarter.

“What do I say to her?”

Arra,” my guide answered. “It means go in Tamazight.”

“Arra,” I repeated to Porsche, who, being an Amazigh donkey and all, responded immediately to the command once I repeated it in her mother tongue. The rest of our ascent passed without incident. When the shadows started to lengthen and our group had piled back rather precariously into the trunk of the van that had taken us to the base of the mountain, we waved goodbye to Porsche and her handlers, heading back to the nearby coastal town of Sidi Ifni for the best night’s sleep of our lives. The red cliffs and argan trees gave way to the whitewashed walls of art-deco buildings, reminders of the town’s half-century stint as a busy Spanish port even as the residents ambled about the streets wearing full melhfa, the hallmark garment of Amazigh people in southern Morocco.

Porsche and her stubborn refusal to move, like so many other instances during my time living in Morocco, was an inconvenience at first glance which ended serendipitously. As human beings, we are used to constant motion. It comforts us, so we have to stand still, to stop moving for a moment, to listen, in order to realize what we have been missing. Sometimes, all it takes is a voice. Sometimes, it’s a mountain. And other times, the most extraordinary moments — the most important adventures — come carried on the back of a donkey.

The author pictured with the faithful Porsche.

About the Author: Dana Slayton is originally from Richmond, Virginia. While she proudly agrees with the classification of her hometown as “The Paris of the South,” her heart belongs to Marrakech, Morocco. It is her favorite city in the world because of its constant bustle, exuberant spirit, and rockin’ music scene.

About Guac: Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.

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