Monthly Archives: October 2013

On taxis and the fine line between strangers and friends

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In Morocco, you can take a taxi anywhere.

Tangier to Chefchaouen, for example, is a three hour ride for less than 40€… split six ways.

Because the only catch to the “grand taxis” that drive between cities is that they don’t move with less than six passengers… in a less-than-grand sized car.

(Okay, some other catches: the narrow, winding roads traversed by way too many trucks; the sometimes reckless passing maneuvers into oncoming traffic; and the one taxi we took that didn’t have a working speedometer.)

And so, as we squeezed in six backpackers, five huge backpacks, three small backpacks, and a guitar, I was thankful that I wasn’t waiting on strangers to fill up the car.

One of four shoved in the backseat, the guitar on my lap, I said, “Well, at least we’re not doing this with strangers.”

I had known these people—from Bosnia, Canada, Holland, England, and New Zealand—for less than twelve hours.

I guess my definition of “strangers” has shrunk in scope.

(But, for the record, I was right. We traveled together—by local bus, minibus, train, rowboat, tram, and one more daytrip by grand taxi, through markets, kasbahs, mountains, waterfalls, gorges, and desert—for the rest of my trip through Morocco.)

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I want to need less and feel more

All I know is that I want to live somewhere I’ll have to relearn everything: how to cross the street, how to order coffee, how to deal with people whose modes of thinking are utterly, intriguingly foreign to my own. I want to be uncomfortable, to be an outsider not just in my own mind but in the eyes of everyone who glances at my awkward, bumbling self. I want to figure it out all over again, to savor the small good moments, and I want those tiny triumphs (and inevitable failures) to mark my days, and I want them to add up, over the years and the miles, to a far, far larger victory—that of experience, memory, and language over the unstoppable decay of time.”

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The Morocco Conundrum

Really—though I purposely planned it this way—my first mistake was that I took the ferry to Morocco that was 12€ cheaper.

Because the 24€ ferry left me stranded 40 kilometers outside of the city of Tangier, with the vague understanding that a free bus (which turned out to cost 2.50€) would come around eventually to take me the rest of the way. And it did come, eventually, and dropped me maybe 2 kilometers away from the port and any possible sleeping arrangements—but I walked the Camino. So armed with a digital map of the city, I waved off the taxis and headed toward the water.

I got about two blocks before the Moroccan boy asked me where I was from and I answered—my second mistake.

Because now I had a “guide,” though one who promised he didn’t want anything from me. Said’s English was amazingly good, and as we walked together we talked about how he was hoping to take his Philosophy studies to the UK soon, with dreams of getting multiple PhDs one day.

I was probably disappointing, with embarrassingly little historical knowledge for a history teacher, and no clue about the current political ridiculousness going on in America. (“So I have to ask you, what’s going on with your government? …And how do you feel about Egypt? …Do you know much about Islam? And Morocco?”)

And then we got to the port, and suddenly my new friend was being greeted by an old friend, who was now also following me… but much more aggressively.

No, I did not want to stay at his family’s hotel and I was pretty sure the one I looked up on Hostelworld wasn’t closed for some holiday he was mentioning. And no, he didn’t really need to show me where my hostel was, because according to the directions I had a screenshot of on my phone, it was a quick right-left-right from the port, so I was fine thanks.

This, in addition to Said apologetically saying to me that he “wasn’t the same” as his friend and arguing with said friend in Arabic, made me a bit uneasy.

But then they led me into the Medina, and though I didn’t really have much of a choice, I let them—my third mistake.

And the Medina was a tangle of the narrowest cobblestone streets and Arabic street signs and now we were six or seven turns in, which I knew had to be wrong. And it was 4PM, but most of the shops were closed because of this holiday that they kept talking about, and then I smelled the worst mix of burning flesh and hair and we turned into a slightly bigger opening and there in front of me was a smoky mess of a trash can fire and a dozen kids, several of which were either holding the blackened heads of sheep on sticks, or in the process of sawing the horns off of different sheep heads, and next to the fire was barely enough room for me to squeeze by without burning myself or my 10 kilogram backpack that I had now been carrying for far too long.

There were two more sheep bonfires, one (failed) attempt at bolting from my “guides,” and a much harsher tone adopted (by me) before we finally found my hostel and my second “guide” asked me for a tip, which I forcefully declined much to his unhappy dismay.

The whole situation was exhausting, and I was angry at how much it shook me up. I didn’t leave the hostel for a few hours after that, and only with a few other guys going to dinner. And I stayed an extra night in Tangier, just to avoid potentially going through that process again to find a new hostel in a new city. It almost completely turned me off to an entire country.

And I still desperately want to believe that maybe Said was legit. Maybe he is just a decent guy who wanted to practice his English, and it was only bad luck that we ran into his friend who took me as an easy target. But is that naivety? Or really, I guess I know it’s naivety—but is that a bad thing? Is it okay to still choose to think the best of people, even in a culture that largely survives on the duping of naive foreigners?

Before they left, Said gave me his phone number, which I said I would call despite not having a Moroccan phone number or any way to actually keep my promise. So maybe when it comes to deceit, I’m not any different than his friend after all.

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T.I.A.

Morocco is an amazingly elegant country.

Yes, I even still say this as someone who walked into Tangier on the Muslim holiday during which every household sacrifices a sheep and roasts its head in the street. (No pictures of this… mostly because I was too shocked at the time, but we’ll say it was out of cultural sensitivity.)

Here, at almost any time of the day, you see dozens of men sitting in cafes together drinking mint tea and talking and people-watching… and no one is rushing or on their phone or demanding the check. Kids play in the streets, families congregate around public fountains, people make music everywhere, and a siren goes off five times a day signaling prayer time.

Even the annual sheep murder can be called an elegant tradition, with at least a third of the carcass donated to charity. (And, the meat was also delicious.)

I am in Chefchouen, “the blue city,” and it is beautiful and peaceful and I honestly don’t think I ever want to leave. Yesterday we went to the hammam, a steamy public bath where you can get a complete scrub-down and massage for about $5, and today we went for a hike in the nearby Rif Mountains for a swim in a waterfall (okay, it was really cold so I didn’t really swim). And there is mint tea and banana milkshakes and markets and new friends.

My only gripe about Morocco: women still seem to be mostly treated as second-class citizens. I have seen no shorts here, and local women are not allowed at the cafes. There must be some better compromise for living in a country with so much culture, but for now, I guess I will stick with wearing my new Moroccan baggie pants if it means I can wake up to this view.

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no8do

You’re empty-handed and heavy-hearted
Just remember on the way home
That you were never meant to feel alone
It takes a little while, but you’ll be fine
Another good time coming down the line

I am finished walking, and back to the type of traveling that I still haven’t completely figured out yet.

But—quite literally—time is money when you are away from home, so last week I bought a ticket and hopped an overnight bus to Sevilla. I was always jealous of those people who were bold enough to travel into the unknown on a whim; now I am one, and this makes me giddy beyond belief.

In Sevilla I rediscovered the joy of sleeping in the same bed for more than one night, and felt the familiar pangs of loneliness—two things I haven’t had since August.

But I also discovered bullfighting and flamenco and the butterflies that come with not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow, but that it could be anything.

A new Australian friend who’s been traveling for 10 months kept referring to our hostel as “home.” I think that helps.

One night outside a local flamenco club, a girl from the Canary Islands crossed herself while telling me I was crazy for walking the Camino solo, and that mi madre was also crazy for letting me go… Fair enough, I guess.

But then had another whim, bought another bus ticket, and let everything change.

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Lessons on arrival

“Everything you do in life will be insignificant… but it’s very important that you do it.”

The Camino is teaching me perspective.

This country does not revolve around me. The world does not revolve around us. The universe does not revolve around the earth.

And when the starry night sky makes you feel like you are breathing the heavens, or the ocean looks like you are soaking in eternity… you realize we are all just tiny blips on the radar of life—but still, we must figure out how to make our tiny blip the most meaningful.

———-

I arrived in Finisterre yesterday—the end of the earth. Somehow, without me even realizing it at the beginning, this has always been the true end goal. Santiago was just a cathedral in the middle. Finisterre is geographically the closest I can get to America, while still being thousands of miles away.

And as I watch the sun sink into the Atlantic Ocean, changing shape as it lowers beyond the horizon, I can’t help but ask myself why on earth I am here, when everything I know and everyone I love is on the whole other side of the planet.

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Lessons, week 5

It’s rained for the past five days now, leaving everything damp—our clothes, our shoes, our beds, and our spirits.

The rain also washes away the pretenses, and all of our flaws start to show through.

And here, there’s no escape from constantly being around other people, so as I pick up on annoyances, I wonder what others must be thinking about me.

But I also see my growth. A year ago one of my best friends introduced me to A Complaint Free World, and now this is something I try to always keep in mind. Plus, we are pilgrims—we should have no expectations, only gratitude.

When you are constantly walking somewhere new, every day is filled with first impressions. And it’s so easy to judge: people, food, locations. I want to be someone who looks closer, who is generous with her benefit of the doubt.

And even more than that, I want to live in a world where this is the norm. I know my students are judged every day just because of what they look like and where they live, and I have been given so many more opportunities because I grew up in exactly opposite circumstances.

Europe is strange in that political correctness is not nearly as widespread—their history is different, and in a way, it seems as if they have less to compensate for. But while I just can’t let the snap judgements go, I don’t really know. I can’t change a culture.

“When I first met you, I thought you were childish because you were clingy and very giggly and only talked about unimportant things. But now, after a month, I think you might be the most grown up of our whole group.”

My friend from Liechtenstein tells me this, and I realize that I guess I should just start with myself. I need to work on my first impression, too.

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