From my spot in the middle seat of the third row of the van, I lean forward and ask, “Toufik, how long have you been a tour guide?”
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” Toufik says, turning down the dial of the radio that plays a mellow instrumental song featuring a harp. Vivian repeats my question from her seat behind Toufik. I had volunteered to sit in the last row for today’s drive so that my two travel companions might feel less carsick in the middle row. The seat next to our driver is occupied by the woven prayer mat that accompanies him everywhere he travels—to the sea, the mountains, the desert, and back to the city.
“Ten years,” he responds, raising his voice so I can hear him clearly. “I’ve been doing this since I got out of university.”
“Oh, wow,” I say.
“What did you study?” Vivian asks.
“Physics and uh, chimie,” Toufik answers. Quietly, he adds, “I think that’s what you call it in English.” Outside the window, there are olive trees to our left and right arranged in perfectly spaced rows that start at the edge of the dusty road and spread to the tops of the gentle hilltops on both sides.
“You studied physics and chemistry?” I ask, impressed but also trying to subtly provide him with the correct word. When he’s not speaking in his native Arabic, Toufik tends to mix up English and French words every so often, as I’ve noticed during our excursions from Marrakech over the past three days.
Outside the window to my right, I see a man with skin that has been tanned and aged by thousands of days spent laboring under the sun. He walks along the side of the road, hunched over at a 45-degree angle with a bundle of straw on his back. The top of the bundle extends over his head, and he supports the load by holding his arms up to steady it from the sides. I wonder where he’s coming from, where he’s going, and how long of a walk it must be.
As I stare out the window at the changing scenery, Toufik continues, “I couldn’t find work in the subjects I studied. There’s not enough work here for those types of jobs, so I became a guide, and now I can show people my beautiful country. Now today, ladies, inshallah we will go to Essaouira, a very beautiful town by the sea.” He reaches up with one hand and adjusts his straw hat. “Very, very beautiful,” he repeats, gazing out at the long, flat stretch road in front of him. “And on the way there, we will see goats in the trees. Do you like goats, ladies?” He asks, as if it’s the most natural question in the world. Vivian turns around and lifts her eyebrows at me. I shrug. The only logical explanation, I assume, is that Toufik mistranslated the word from Arabic. Miller, who has been napping with her head pressed against the window, starts to stir now. She slowly sits up straight and readjusts herself in her seat.
“Goats?” Vivian asks. “Do you mean birds, Toufik?” The olive trees are no longer in sight now, although a different type of tree is starting to dot the landscape. It’s one I’ve never seen before— with thin, contorted branches that weave with no particular pattern. I later learn that it’s an argan tree, native to this region of Morocco.
“No, I really mean goats. You will see.” Toufik says. For the next twenty minutes, the four of us stare out the window in silence. I’m not sure what exactly we’re looking for in the trees—I can’t imagine the twisting branches of the trees can support the weight of fully-grown goats, nor can I fathom why the animals would be in the trees anyway. I’m on the lookout for birds or monkeys or some other type of creature that would potentially be hanging out in the argan trees.
I haven’t seen much activity in the countryside this far in the journey, aside from the man with the bundle of straw and a sheep herder tending to his flock in a patch of grass by the side of the road a few miles back. Just up ahead, I notice a few other tour vans parked on the shoulder with at least a dozen people standing around.
“What are all those people doing there?” Miller asks, fully awake now.
“They’re taking pictures of the goats,” Toufik explains. As we get closer, he pulls the van over and stops on the side of the road. In one of the argan trees stands a handful of goats perched on the branches, like ornaments adorning a Christmas tree. They stand still in their places, except for the smallest goat, which is in the arms of a boy who looks no older than seven. I watch as they boy carries the young goat to a smaller tree just behind the main tourist attraction. He places the animal at the spot in the tree where the trunk splits into two branches.
We watch the tree-climbing goats from inside the van—if we get out and stand with the crowd, we will be expected to pay the goat herder a fee to watch the spectacle he has set up. Miller, who has been vegan for years due to personal concerns about the well-being of animals and the environment, starts asking questions.
“How long do they have to stand there on the branches? Does that hurt their feet? Do they climb up there by themselves?”
“Don’t worry,” Toufik reassures her, “They stand up there for four or five hours in the morning, then they are allowed to graze in the grass for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t think they mind it.” Miller is quiet after that and continues to gaze out the window.
It seems curious to me that a job as a goat herder is a more viable career option than a chemist or a physicist, although as a tourist myself, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this peculiar attraction.