01/29/16

Emma and I had been staying in Sidi Ifni, a beautiful coastal town that has surf shops, beach-front cafes, and signs everywhere telling you to “relax”. We woke up late for our plan to walk from Sidi Ifni to Legzira, a tourist trap built right onto the sand. It was a three hour hike along the coast that takes you under naturally formed rock arches and over craggy goat paths dotted with desert brush. I had a lovely time, and I was amazed to find along the way, several huts constructed out of driftwood and any other sturdy thing that had washed ashore at some point. They are positioned inside caves that have been carved out of the cliffs by ancient waves. They are built and adorned by the indigenous Berbers, who live there year round, and fish for their dinner. I could not ascertain the legality of their homes, but besides the two of us, and the occasional jogger, I don’t think anyone knows they are there. If I can figure out how to get wifi there, I am moving in.

The reason you can’t be late for such a romp is because the tides come in around noon, trapping you in certain places on the beach with the ocean on one side and a sheer cliff wall on the other. Every time we turned a corner towards the end we were hoping to see a banner advertising tanjines. Noon crept closer along with the water, and at about forty minutes past eleven, we came to a cliff that jutted out into the sea. The waves lapped gently against the rock, blocking our path. We climbed out onto some loose rocks that were still sticking out among the waves and tried to assess our situation. It was decided that I would shed my socks and shoes, and scout out the other side of the wall. By the time my first shoe was unlaced it seemed like the water rose half a meter, and I began to have flashes of tomorrows headlines in my head as I finally waded out: “Dumb Tourist Smashed On Rocks, No Brain Was Found”. I waited for the surge to pull back out to the sea, and then ran (can anything you do in thigh deep water be called running?) to the other side. With a rush of adrenaline, I turned the corner to see what adventure lay ahead, and I found a French toddler in a red jumper bopping along the sand. We had found the fabled tourist city.

We ate a quick lunch in Legzira, and then walked up the hill to catch a bus to Tiznit. Legzira consists of nothing but five identical restaurants and a guy on a dune buggy egging you on in French to rent it. On the hill up we passed an entire town that appeared to have been recently constructed, but whose only resident we could find was one lost and mean dog. I was reminded of all those hotels and city centers they built in Pyongyang. They have individually wrapped soap in every bathroom, but no staff or customers. It was a perfectly preserved ghost town surrounded on all sides by dusty roads and desert.

At the empty highway at the top of the hill, we waited for a bus that we were told would come every hour. A guy dressed like a Sith Lord got out of a car that was headed down to Legzira, and stood a few meters away from us, waiting for a second lift further down the line. Emma and I decided that we could save a few dirhams by hitching a ride ourselves, so we tried to flag down any vehicle that passed by going towards Tiznit. Because of the desert terrain, we could see hundreds of kilometers in the other direction. This allowed lots of anticipation to build for each car that passed us without slowing. The sun was still high in the sky, but the wind from the sea kept me in my hoodie. The Sith sang songs to himself in Arabic that the breeze carried over to my ears. I sat in the dirt and wondered how someone who dressed as sharp as him had nowhere to be. His phone rang, and he spent the next several minutes screaming and laughing at the person on the other end. While I was waiting for him to finish so he could sing for me again, we noticed a car had pulled up to the road, and the driver was waving at us. Emma and I grabbed our bags and ran over to him before the Sith could notice.

The driver’s name was Abdir, and he is a dear. Abdir is a French teacher from a town just outside Casablanca. We are in the middle of Morocco’s summer vacation, and he was headed to see the rock arches at Legzira, but determined that the road towards it became “unacceptable”. Upon entering his car he tried Arabic, and then French on us, finally he laughed and settled on English, but not before apologizing in advance for his lack of ability. This apology came twenty minutes before he gave us a full history of the Berbers, and their struggles with the Byzantine Empire. All in coherent English.

We drove to Tiznit where we stopped for tea, and then on to Inezgane where he was staying, and showed us where to get a taxi to Agadir, which is our destination tomorrow. On the way we talked about our families, the king of Morocco, London, bicycles, America’s second amendment, and of course; travel. He is a wonderful human being, and the best friend we’ve made on the trip so far.

I am now in a crummy hotel in Inezgane, cheap even by Moroccan standards. But there’s internet, and a bathroom that may or may not have a shower, that I definitely just took a shower in (it’s hard to tell, and even harder to explain). My feet still feel like I’m walking on the rocky shores of this country, and the room at the end of the hall smells in a way that makes me hope they’re just cleaning a fish. But I am full, I am warm, and I am not out of money yet. No complaints.

Everything Here That Can Be Inflated, Needs Air

In London I continually marveled at how the urban landscape was so non-distinct that it took glaring indicators to remind me that I wasn’t in America. Therefore, it seems worthy of note that aside from Gueliz which looks like a zombie movie set in Miami, nothing in Marrakech feels like it could exist in America. Every three seconds someone or something fundamentally bizarre enters my peripheral (They only have two KFCs!). And once my brain stops trying to comprehend whatever it is I see, I smile. And so it has now become the habit of my travel companion and I to point out when something is actually reminiscent of our home.

The avenues outside our only good window meet in a T. Directly below us four children play a simple game wherein one of the children is not allowed to touch the soccer ball being kicked between the other three. Although it hasn’t happened yet, I have gone ahead and assumed that once this child who is doing all the running catches the ball, they will demand an informal changing of the guard. Their anguish will finally be at an end. That is a moment worth standing around for, when they embrace that relief. When they cease to be “it”.

Unfortunately, a position swap will probably not happen before dark. Those in control of the saggy ball each occupy one branch of the T, which gives them four meters in every direction to work with. “It” is simply chasing the ball from one foot to the other. Possibly hoping for one of them to get fancy, and slip up. But with that much space to utilize, they can afford to take a chance or two. A horrible strategy. You’ll just run yourself ragged doing that.

Just as I’m about to shout my expert opinions down at them, one of the children bends down to snatch the ball off the ground, and yells something in Arabic. At this, the three others immediately stand up straight, and calmly stride towards a wall. The one to the far right is still in the road when a motorbike whizzes past us, startling only me. The buzz of the engine is muffled as it turns the corner, and is gone. The children mutter something in unison, move back into their positions, and play begins again.

البخور

In Columbus, NJ there is a permanent farmers market coloquially known as “Columbus”. I say permanent both in the sense that it doesn’t get broken down or moved each day, and also in the sense that it’s been there since before I was born, and will probably be there long after I finally decide to stop spending my money on weird garbage. I couldn’t know it at the time, but Columbus was my closest approximation to life in Marrakesh. They’re fundamentally different places, but I do find myself sizing up the interactions and and smells relative to that cherished flea market of my home. The main difference is definitely the amount of haggling that is done in Marrakesh. I come from a long line of people who politely avoid confrontation, so there was no real preparation for that. However, my innate desire to not have strangers think I am a sucker has pulled more than its own weight in this regard.

Attempting to buy things in broken French, and disintegrated Arabic is enjoyable. Often the person behind the counter or register is not the one who engages me, but instead stares at me without turning away, or making any attempt to open communication until their English speaking friend appears out nowhere to help.

“You speak English?”

“Yes.”

“My English very good. What you want?”

“Laundry detergent.”

“What?”

“Laundry detergent.”

“…I’m sorry?”

“Laundry detergent. To wash clothes.”

“Are you speaking English to me?”

Other times it doesn’t go as well.

Having a notebook and pen handy has proved invaluable for facilitating discussions that would have otherwise ended with me thanking them profusely for literally nothing before scuttling away. This is only because I haven’t looked up the translation for “I am an unprepared fool”. My pocket notebook is now filled with symbols, numbers, and pictionary scrawlings that were used to negotiate a price, or just get on the same base level of understanding. They are written on the first blank page I come upon as I scramble to open it, so some of the ones in the back will double as mementos to rediscover six months from now. In one such instance, I spent eight minutes with a twenty year old man outside of his business. His stern face was framed by a sharp, recent haircut and he was idly scratching his one raised knee through the fabric of his blue track pants (I just described basically every male youth in Marrakesh). I had finally determined with certainty that he did not sell incense, and was turning to leave, when:

“Monsieur! Monsieur.”

He was walking towards me, pointing to my left pocket. I pulled out the notebook and pen and handed them to him. With a few smooth flicks he wrote down the word for incense in Arabic to aid the next unfortunate clerk that has to deal with me. And so, like a child with a note pinned to his jacket, I head deeper into the souks, dodging motorbikes as I search for another shop that looks incense−y from the outside.

Camel Burger

Camel Burger

It is easy to imagine a conversation happening a month ago between me and a particularly ignorant stranger about the food options in Marrakech, ending with them blurting out: “They probably eat freakin camels over there. Haw haw haw!” and me slipping away to go talk to someone else. But here we are, day three, and the menu at a delightful cafe in the Kasbah is placed in front of me. There she is for 90 dirhams (roughly $9), a camel burger. With all the trimmings.

I wish I had a string of adjectives to expound a unique flavor profile, but really, it just tasted like a burger. An excellent burger, but a burger all the same. The highlight of the plate was the slaw. They have weak jalapenos in this country, but the vinaigrette they tossed it all into was pitch perfect. I could have eaten an entire plate of just the slaw. It amazes me that restaurants in America still insist on including a ramekin of what they call coleslaw on the plate next to every sandwich. Who is this for?  I was twenty-five before I was served a coleslaw that didn’t come out of tub, and it was on that day I realized that the white sludge that was eternally being grouped with my pickle was intended to be “sliced raw cabbage mixed with mayonnaise and other vegetables”. Somewhere in the cocaine powdered pages of restaurant-history the devolution of coleslaw plateaued, and we were left with this slime that represents a refreshing salad from the past. We are still being served this idea of a slaw in every state in the union, and I want to know why.
Anyway, yeah, when in Morocco, get the camel burger.

This was the first time in my life I have ever held a camera a few inches above a plate of food.

Ooh La La La

The Arabic word for “no” is “la”.

This is one of the first words I would recommend anyone coming to Marrakesh learn immediately. The city’s main industry is tourism, and after five minutes on any street it becomes apparent how that situation works out. Every moment that you are alive and not from their city, you are an opportunity. Turning people down left and right in the middle of their strange sales pitches made me uncomfortable at first, but once I accepted that they are an incessant occurrence, I began to grow a tougher skin for it out of necessity. After one day in the markets it isn’t even unpleasant. You simply smile, and la your way down the road. Their spiels range from barking variants of “Hello. Yes. Sorry.” at you from across the way, to getting right in your face and shouting gibberish at you once they realize you aren’t going to stop. One choice example of the latter happened yesterday. When he suspected I wasn’t going to buy his oranges, a man in tattered brown clothes shouted in my wake: “Alright. Alright. No push like George Bush.”

Everything here is a commodity. If the people aren’t hawking physical items, then they are trying to scratch a few dirhams from you for their “help”. This can range from things such as directions, suggestions about where the best deal is, or permission to photograph something that doesn’t seem to belong to them. I have met several people today whose job exists solely because there are lots of tourists here that do not want to be rude to a stranger.

The shops range from boutiques with fine clothing hung on flattering models to stationary stores that use every inch of their modest confines to stack supplies like a warehouse. Dotted in front of, behind, and one time on the floor inside these shops will be a single man or woman sitting on a pile of their own secondhand merchandise that they are attempting to sell. A man in bare feet sat by the side of an intersection letting two emaciated cats have his stool. He went through a small mound of shabby shoes, selecting one caked with mud, or something else, and scraped it clean with a scouring brush. Having finished, he tossed it carelessly back into the heap before grabbing another shoe of a different color.

The unlabeled streets wind and turn in every direction. Residential areas mix with commercial space with abandon. Anyone reliant on the grids of Washington DC or Salt Lake City would be wise to prepare for an anxiety attack. All maps that have been offered to me are useful for the highways, but when you are navigating, or cutting through the souks, the maps are zoomed out to the point of being laughably useless. The ease in which I am acclimating to this place comes simply because no one has any expectations of me. It is difficult to get truly lost if you have nowhere to be.

Philadanhattan

Upon arriving in the airport, my fellow passengers and I were corralled into a simple maze of barriers leading to customs. Immediately we were partitioned into two groups: those with UK or EU passports, and everyone else. I am sure the other line was shorter, faster, and came with a complimentary glass of champagne, but I was pleased to be in my line. The miscellaneous designation meant that several in our assembly had foreign passports in exotic, dark colors. The game became determining where they were coming from (Filipinos have brown ones!). Lines that double back like this make for lousy people watching, however, as every turn brings the same faces over and over again. After moving forward only one row, I stared at a person with an interesting face long enough that he noticed, and justifiably stared back. A rookie mistake on my part, especially this early in the queue. I now had seven rows to pass this man head-on, conspicuously not looking at him.

London itself is a lovely place, but remarkably similar to some East Coast cities in America. Very quickly my girlfriend and I realized that a cheap laugh could be garnered every time a reminder of our current geographical position was said aloud to the other. It felt impossible to remember that we were actually abroad, and not just enjoying “Britain Appreciation Day” in Philadelphia or Manhattan. The major indicators of my location were all there: the double-decker buses and landmarks. But it is similar to seeing the St. Louis arch on posters and stamps your whole life, only to cross eight hundred and ninety eight miles, and the Mississippi to be staring at a mostly familiar object from what feels like next town over.

We only had two days to explore (this excursion was technically a layover), so while I am sure there are giant swaths of London that would have provided me with sufficient culture shock if I knew where to find them, I found the entire place to be a less grubby alternative to the metropolises of home. Sufficient access to t.g.i.fridays included.

The highlight of London was the public transportation. As my favorite thing to do in a new city is to meander, I really appreciated the ease of use with their trains and buses. There were no noticeable delays, and the maps are well organized, and everywhere. For twelve pounds, you can purchase a travelcard that you can use on any tube or bus in the heart of the city for twenty four hours. This alleviates your concern about missing something in the neighborhood you find yourself in, before moving on. This is a godsend if you are a colossal chump.

My left ear finally just popped.

A Short Piece of Fiction – Dedicated to My Mother, Who Probably Worries About This Sort of Thing Constantly

liability

I’m riding my bicycle to use the internet at Burlington County College. My geography at this time in my life is a treat. Even municipal roads in Pemberton are by necessity sweeps carved into beautiful clutches of NJ elm and pine. I follow the shoulder around a smooth bend when a thought enters my mind. Suddenly, I am on my back, watching the air in my lungs drift toward a bleak sky. My previous thought leaving my body. After gaining orientation, it occurs to me that I was just hit by a car, and I could very well be laying in the center of a lane.

The situation, still dangerous, requires me to borrow some recently released adrenaline. I leap into an action stance. I am standing poised, facing nothing but a commanding panorama of empty road. Nothing but trees and silence in every direction. With a feigned sense of outrage, I bellow down the way, “HOW DARE YOU! COME BACk here this instan—ehhhh. Mmm my-fucking-ass.”

Rubbing my backside, I stagger over to my bicycle, which is in the curb taking the entire experience in stride, despite being the one who absorbed all the impact. I hop back on, and with an unnatural scrape of metal, the pedal slides to a halt. The rear wheel has been completely dented inward, hugging and then bending over with the frame. I lean the corpse against the nearest tree, and begin making my way towards the campus again.

Before my head can clear, a black car appears, heading for me, driving backwards. Without another bicycle to take a second hit, I move cautiously into the snow bank and continue walking. Closing up the distance, the car slows next to me. A bald Haitian man frowns at me until the window is down enough for him to yell
“WHY DID SHE HIT YOU?”

“I don’t know, sir. I suspect it wasn’t on purpose. Although, she didn’t stop. I wond–”

“SHE HIT YOU. WHY DID SHE HIT YOU?”

“I don’t know. I was on the side of the road, b–”

“SHE HIT YOU. WHY DID SHE DO THAT?”

“Yeah. I don’t kn–.”

“YOU ARE NOT AN ANIMAL!”

I am appreciating the high standing I hold with what feels like the most intense person in 08068, but I can’t ignore the absurd pattern developing as he engenders my outrage for me. I thank him for stopping, and begin to carry on. Three steps away, I notice a minivan pulling around to park behind the Haitian who is now screaming “THAT’S HER! THAT IS THE ONE! I HAVE HER LICENSE PLATE NUMBER! THAT IS HER! MAKE HER TALK TO POLICE.”

“Well, I should make sure first that sh-”

“SHE WILL TALK TO THE POLICE.”

“I will go talk to her. Again, I appreciate you stopping. Have a great day.”

“YOU GO TALK TO HER.”

“I..yes. Yes. Thank you.”

I quickly prance away, through the snow drift to the minivan.  Inside is a woman waiting with the passenger window down. She has a look on her face that suggests the pilot light has gone out in her mind.

“Hello.”

“Hey, sorry about that.”

“Ah yeah–Well, I’m not hurt. I am grateful for that.”

“Do you know a faster way to get to 130?”

“Uhh..yes, sure. I just. Real quick. Think we should talk about my bicycle.”

She offers a confused nod.

“The wheel is completely broken.”

“Oh, ok.”

“I’m afraid that I am going to need you to pay for it.

“Oh, ok.”

She has taken her phone out of her lap and has become entranced by it. What I had assumed at first was a gesture of exchanging contact information seems more like idle scrolling with the rhythmic drag of every listless fingerswipe.

“I will get an estimate, and let you know how much it will cost. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

Without looking up. “Yes.”

“Right.”

Suddenly a thought materializes inside her head and she is back with me.

“I know 130 is west of here, but if I keep going this way, can I , you know, loop over? Does that make more sense at this point?”

I notice that the Haitian’s car hasn’t moved an inch yet, and I am taking his now opaque windows as a sign that he doesn’t appreciate waiting.

“Let me get your number, I’ll text you.”

She gives me her number, and I wait for her screen to react before I give her directions, and excuse myself from the scene. I approach the Haitian with a timid stride, somehow embarrassed that I am returning without the woman’s head.

”She’s going to pay for the bicycle, so everything is fine. Thanks again for stopping.”

The Haitian misses the woman drive away with her head tilted down as he is giving me a lesson on motor vehicle law. He has a scowl laid into his face like a deer trail. I am on my last iteration of “thank you” without starting back at the beginning, when he slides into gear and pulls off the shoulder, kicking shards of ice onto my boots. My slice of the world is empty again, and noticing the cold once more I head off walking towards the college. After I develop a nice sing-song crunch with my steps in the snow, I feel my pocket vibrate. It’s the woman. She thinks she’s lost.

The next morning I roll out of bed, feeling like I got hit by a car.