Tuesday, March 25, 2008


"This life is beautiful."

The Moroccan adventure...

It began at the crack of dawn, boarding a bus in Sevilla, not knowing a soul, but not minding in the least. I have a huge aversion to group tours, even those that last a couple hours, let alone a week, but I was told this is the only way a Caucasian woman could do Morocco, and I wasn't about to pass it up. On the ferry I met a group of girls (American study abroad students) and we became inseparable friends instantly. Juliana and Anique and I spent hours and hours on the bus together, processing all that we were seeing, sharing our lives, getting to that real straight talk about souls that we crave and love. Days later we would be dancing down a massive sand dune in the Sahara desert to the sound of drumming in our camp, unable to tear ourselves away from the beauty of the sand and the deep blue sky, striking warrior pose on the cliff like crazy moon-worshiping yogis, breathless, elated, and alive.

As we drove through the port town of Tangiers almost the entire bus of boisterous young travelers was silent as we looked out into the streets, not unlike those of Tijuana (in fact, Tangiers is often called the Tijuana of Morocco), filled with men, with hardly a woman in sight. The few we did see in those first few hours were covered, head to toe in the traditional burkha. I hated that this gave me a hollow feeling, but it was such a hollow town. Days later, as we crossed through Tangiers, sunburned, plump, and happy, we were again slapped with an ugly reality of this beautiful country that we loved, as young boys jumped on the back of our bus and tried to crawl underneath- to stowaway to a better life, with nothing on their backs. This was a stark contrast to the country we had come to love over the previous week. A country full of music, color, faith, beautiful simplicity, ancient practices, always a cup of tea and smiling faces...

The first couple days of the trip were spent making our way down to the Sahara. Although we spent a lot of time on the bus, we were able to see a lot of the country, from the capital city of Rabat, to the high Atlas mountains, to the Lake of Tears (a beautiful legend told to us one night by a Berber man), to desert oasis's, to the heart of the Sahara. We stopped outside of the Sahara at nightfall and transferred to 4x4s for the last stretch. I felt like I was in Indiana Jones as more than 15 SUV's tore across the open desert, each on their own frenetic path, racing to our destination.

The hotel was beautiful and luxurious. We were told that Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett stayed there while filming Babel. There was a huge feast and a never-ending drum circle after dinner. We danced outside under the stars and an extremely rare and brief rainstorm, and talked with a Berber whose story simply must be shared.

Jamal (pictured next to the fire below) can speak 10 languages, all of them European varieties and also Japanese, but has never set foot in a school and cannot read or write even his own native languages (Berber and Arabic). As a boy he came across a car that was lost and stranded in the desert, with a Spanish family inside. The first words he learned were "a la derecha" and "a la isquierda" as he directed them to his village where his family fed them and let them stay for the night. The next day, the family offered to repay him for his kindness by taking him with them to see his country. He went with them to Marakesh, and further west, where he saw the ocean for the first time. He said that he stood in front of it and wept. He could not imagine that a body of water that large existed...how could these people have so much? His whole life was spent in search of enough water to survive. For the week he was there he slept every night on the beach because he did not want to leave the ocean and the hotel felt altogether too foreign to him. He went back and told all his friends about the sea and vowed to himself he would go back. Knowing a little Spanish now, he began leading camel expeditions for tourists into the Sahara. This is how he slowly learned all of the languages he now speaks with an almost undetectable accent. When he was 12, having saved enough money, he left his family and went back to Marakesh and on to the ocean. A local shopkeeper noticed after about a week that he was living out on the street and offered him a job. He worked there until he was 18 when he returned to the desert to work in the hotels. He is now an internationally known musician who has performed for the king of Morocco and Spain. He will even be in New York and California for the first time in July!

The next afternoon, after spending a leisurely morning by the pool (and having the most ridiculous massage of my life- I thought France was intimate- yikes!), we loaded onto a long train of camels and road into the desert to camp with the Berbers. After arriving at our camp we all climbed a massive sand dune to watch the sun set over the desert. I traipsed a bit farther along the crests of the dunes to get a bit further away from the group. The desert has an amazing quiet and stillness that gave me such a sense of peace. It was an awe-inspiring ethereal experience. The rest of that night was spent around a fire, dancing to Berber drums and singing about Africa.

After the Sahara I could have died happy, but on we went to Fez. The medina in Fez was a completely different whirlwind experience. We spent a whole day wandering through the narrow streets, trying not to get trampled by donkeys loaded with everything from rugs, to construction materials, to coca cola cases. We were introduced to Moroccan spices, rug-making, and a tannery that was built in the 7th century and has been run by 25 families through the generations. There were stacks and stacks of animal skins, pools of pigeon feces (used to soften the skins), and a tremendous array of colors to die the leather. It was at once the most nauseating and fascinating of our experiences. And talk about nauseating...in the market chickens heads were chopped off in front of us and bloody goat heads hung as prized commodities, but I was thrilled by all of it. There is nothing I like more than a truly authentic experience...and lucky for me, I couldn't smell much of it. ;)

Morocco represented a lot of firsts for me...

The first time I was in an Islamic country. One of my favorite things about Moroccan culture, infused as it is with Islamic tradition, is the custom of saying "Inshallah," which means "God willing" (in Spanish, "Si Dios quiere"). It is said when someone so much as remarks on the itinerary for the day...our guide would say, "We will walk around the Medina and have lunch at the old palace around noon, Inshallah." Perhaps more meaningfully, it is said along with man's hope for the future..."I hope that one day you will return to Morocco and we will meet again, Inshallah." It is a constant reminder of their focus, their perspective, and their faith.

Morocco was also the first country I had been in with a true monarchical system. Even more foreign than the idea of a medieval age-style ruling king was the fact that everyone loved him! As we drove into Fez we were greeted by scores of people lining the main street that leads to the king's palace in Fez (for he has many). The king was due to return home after a few months away and the people were there to greet him as his car drove through. The western world and modernity are being woven into this uber-traditional society, but somehow without the cry for a voice, for representation, for democracy.

Although parts of Mexico have the same kind of poverty as Morocco, this was my first time in a third world country. My first time in Africa. I don't want to belabor this point because I know the extent to which the bleeding heart of Africa is exposed, I am sure many of you can call to mind images of poverty, so I prefer to tell the other story. As we reached our first stop on the way to the Sahara, a beautiful hotel bedecked with typically Moroccan rugs and ornate detail on every corner of every edifice, and were greeted by a rowdy band parade complete with a criss-cross trumpet arch (think AYSO soccer post-game parents tunnel) beckoning us through the front door, I became extremely aware that Morocco was putting on its best face for us. This was true of the whole trip. Everywhere we went we were served feasts, our heads were wrapped in colorful turbans, we were offered fine hand-made goods (and some not so fine), we enjoyed endless musical nights, for this is a country literally run on tourism.

Even with the prevalence of foreigners, however, this was the first time I felt truly foreign...a combination of being in surroundings that I could not liken to anything else I had ever seen and being treated as a bright, shiny, foreign good of some kind. It is a feeling of self-awareness and vulnerability that I had never before experienced. I have never been so aware of my skin, my hair, my eyes...and my sex. Men are so vocal, which I thought I had become accustomed to living in Spain, but no...much more so, in Morocco. One amusing example: As our group left the rug shop in Fez, a local store-owner sat outside his stall offering camels as payment, evaluating our worth as he saw fit. Dad, you will be proud to know that he offered 3,000 camels for me, well above the others. I think it's because all the girls took on these deer-in-the-headlights faces as we walked by, but I could not help but have a spark of laughter in my eyes. For the most part, I found the whole thing very amusing, but having been there I will give credence to the warnings for women to not travel Morocco alone...as much as I still balk at that fact.

With it's many faces, it's natural beauty contrasted with it's poverty-stricken cities, it's gracious and inviting culture and it's harsh and intimidating gender lines, more than anything, I will say of this country and it's people, Alhayatjamila, this life is beautiful.

I will return to Morocco someday, Inshallah.


Katie Miller said...

amazing matil, amazing.

Shyla said...

um, there are simply no words.

I absolutely adore you and love that you are letting us share this adventure with you!


Jonathan said...

That is a good trip! I just kept thinking of all the adventure movies I have seen and how you were in that world.