Monday, November 13, 2017

Travel Writing―Memoir Moments in Morocco

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” ~ Saint Augustine

As a writer I work with this―this material of traveling to Morocco and trying to make sense out of a world striking in its privilege for some and not others. Why me and not them?

The average person in Morocco makes 36,000 dirhams a year, which is the equivalent of $3,600. Medical insurance is nonexistent, no potable water, a hole in the ground to squat.

I see a man seated at an outdoor café outside the medina in Fez. He is probably in his early 50s, gaunt, a black mustache, sallow skin, his head shakes slightly this way and that as he tries to sip his coffee or tea. He reminds me of John at the end of his life. I mention him to my son as we wait on the street corner for our guide. “He looks like he has cancer,” I say. “Or maybe a stroke,” Alex says. Our burka-clothed guide explains health insurance is nonexistent, hospitals are overwhelmed, doctors scarce and available only to those with money.

“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” ~ John Hope Franklin

Our camels plod along the blue gray shore of Essaouira. A path of silver light leads us on toward the horizon as the late afternoon sunshine sparkles off the ocean. Entering heaven must be like this; the light, the shadowy silhouette of my son who I love like no other astride his camel … our guide leading us forward, his dog Mamouche, a copper-colored imp, scampering at our side.

I’m proud of myself, risking a camel ride, overcoming my fear. I know this is the high point of my trip and a moment forever seared in memory. When I first got on and the animal fell to his knees, I shrieked, I’m scared! I slid forward … and then―UP, UP ten feet off the ground! This fear reminds me what it means to be me … a cautious older woman who must keep her wits and not injure herself. I view the camel’s cap of nubby gray and brown curls. It reminds me of the fake fur lapel on a coat I wore in high school.

"Naturally my stories are about women — I'm a woman." ~ Alice Munro 

Traveling to Essaouira, a bohemian Moroccan beach resort provided a desperately needed change from the previous day spent in the high Atlas Mountains. I had begun to doubt the promise of this trip. The place was cold with tiers of brown rock, snow-capped at its highest point. Still I remind myself, I am in Africa. Africa!

The High Atlas is the second highest peak in Africa after Kilimanjaro and if I hadn’t been sick, I might have taken in the purity of black sky, pinpricks of stars, hikers carrying lanterns as they descended rocky trails. Instead, a head cold and altitude sickness kept me in bed under wool blankets fighting off the chills. I hadn’t been well enough to hike the steep trail to the guest house where a Moroccan family, a young wife who spent most of her time in the kitchen and her tall good-looking husband greeted us and said how lucky I was to have a son as they had three daughters. Instead, I rode a mule up to the house built out of rock, along with my fellow traveler, a woman nearing eighty with a terminal lung disorder. It made me feel old and being sick didn’t help. This illness depleted my energy, left me listless. It will take days alone when I return to Pennsylvania to feel well enough to resume my life and begin writing this.

“Of all possible subjects, travel is the most difficult for an artist, as it is the easiest for a journalist.” ~ W. H. Auden

That’s why Essaouira reinvigorated. Alex and I walked a mile along the sandy stretch of beach to the camels; the warm Atlantic waters swirling around my feet and ankles offering a baptism of renewal.

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” ~ Maya Angelou

The day before High Atlas had been spent in Fez, an ancient city, everything white and cream, no contrast, like a sandy slightly lopsided wedding cake baking on the hillside. Touring winding alleyways in the medina, the old city, left me unprepared for a marketplace teeming with feral cats and flies clinging to bricks of green and pink nougat. This, I thought, is where it all began, here in Africa, a place that to this day is another world; mules and donkeys carry their burdens to marketplace; a decapitated head of a camel, a kufi on its head, advertises a camel burger shop. I have this realization … people need to survive, to make a living. Who am I to judge?

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” ~ Rudyard Kipling

Our guide―a woman wearing a sea green head scarf and a white modified burka revealing her face―leads our little group of travelers to a truly horrifying place in the medina known as the tannery.

The stench is overwhelming from the carcasses of animals being turned into an array of handbags, jackets and shoes, belts and wallets and we had been handed a sprig of spearmint to hold to our noses so overwhelming the smell which is hard to describe although one word comes to mind―death―death of the innocent; sheep, goats, cows and camels whose sole purpose in life resides in being turned into a $100 handbag for a woman to sling across her shoulder as she returns to Fifth Avenue in New York, another planet from this place.

I quickly avert my eyes from the chalky gray pools in vats below the viewing balcony where the hides are dried and colored. I stumble into a small room filled with tourists. Thousands of handbags and leather goods hang from the ceiling and line the walls, pink and turquoise, bright reds and blues, bags studded and burnished brown … pointy-toed slippers, wallets. If the beach at Essaouira is heaven, then this, I think, must be hell. I console myself with the thought that I haven’t bought anything made out of real leather for years and know I never will again.

I have many other impressions of this trip ... the cooking school which trains destitute young women to make a living ... the eerie chants emanating from the loudspeakers in the mosques ... the call to prayer that awoke me at 5 a.m. every day ... the hospitality of the Moroccan people ... more for another day .... 

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