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Ifrane and Azrou

During training, I had two getaway weekends. One was in a little place called Moulay Yacoub, and I've already mentioned that trip. The second was a double-whammy trip to a French Garden Town called Ifrane and nearby Azrou, situated in the Middle Atlas mountains.

Ifrane is a completely different world from Fes and its proximal towns. First, it's new. The French created it during the protectorate period as a Hill Station, a summer retreat for French citizens wanting to escape the oppressive heat of North Africa. Therefore, it is very European. It looks like somebody transplanted a Swiss town right into the middle of the Atlas Mountains (it's nickname is "little Switzerland"). The houses are very European, and one might think they were in Europe if it weren't for the giant stork nests perched atop the chimneys around the city.

Next we went to Azrou and checked into a hotel. Azrou is also fairly new, though it has an old section. It has very few tourists, especially compared to Ifrane, and is mainly used as a hub for hikers. My group set out early on Sunday for a long hike through the tree-studded alpine landscape. Our goal was twofold: to find the oldest tree in Morocco and to see monkeys.

We were successful in both. I was the first to spot a wild monkey (a Barbary macaque, which according to the Oxford Dictionary of English is "a medium-sized, chiefly forest-dwelling Old World monkey which has a long face and cheek pouches for holding food), about a hundred yards away through a patch of trees. The group stopped to look, and within seconds, we spotted two more. Soon, other monkeys were appearing here and there, eager to see if we would give them any food. We gave them some peanuts.

After seeing the monkeys, we stopped at a tourist-heavy spot (which had more monkeys and lots of dogs and donkeys) and had a picnic: bread, fruit, and cheese. I approached a European-looking girl who was holding some bulky gizmo and a little net with a plastic bag and asked her in Darija what she was doing, which was met with a frightened stare like I'd never seen before. I tried English, and it worked. The girl was French, and she graduated from college just recently, but couldn't find a job. She is working for a graduate student, she informed me, as volunteer work for one year in the Azrou area. They are studying the impacts of tourism on the monkeys. Her little pouch/net thing was being used to collect samples of pee, so they can analyze the stress levels of the poor things, and the boxy gizmos were used to record various data relating to the monkeys' behavior and numbers.

After our lunch, we hiked on, into a very large cedar forest planted by the French. The French, by the way, introduced a number of European flora and fauna into these places to make it feel more like home for the administrative officials who chose to vacation there. The cedar forest was naturally beautiful and beautiful, naturally. Plus, it was quiet - I dare say serene.

Through the forest, we eventually stumbled onto the oldest tree in Morocco, which was admittedly disappointing, as it was covered with graffiti and barren of any green. Plus, there were tourists galore. Oh, well.

That about rounded out our weekend. We caught a grand taxi back to Fes (about an hour drive) and I slunk into bed, sore from hiking but thoroughly pleased to have spent my last free weekend in training with people I love.

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