Lessons Learned in Morocco pt. 3
One December school holiday I decided to go to Marrakech. It sounds exotic as I write it, full of mystery and Crosby, Stills, and Nash and hippie road trips. Reality was a bit more mundane. I had friends I would be meeting and wanted to spend a couple of days in the city on my own as I checked out the story tellers in the J’ma El F’na (Gathering of the Dead), eat some snails stewed with wormwood (an ingredient in Absinthe), and check out the covered market for pottery and fiber arts. Still sounding fairly exotic, isn’t it?
As I stood in line to buy my ticket I noticed a rather distraught young man, blond, underdressed for the season – a sure sign he was from some place European, well north of Fes, where the climate made the fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit warm instead of chilly. I was dressed in a turtleneck, a sweater, and my silhem, a huge Berber cape that hung elegantly off my shoulders. The hood, unless the weather were actually freezing, doubled as a very roomy pocket.
I sidled up to this poor soul who was flummoxed about how to navigate either the time table, or the cash transaction. A word about how things have changed is important here. This was the early eighties. I have no idea whether the scheduling has changed in the last thirty years, but the signage sure has. In pictures of Morocco that I see on the net these days, there are snazzy electronic, automated signs at bus and train stations in major metropolitan areas. There was none of that, then. There was a chalk board with French on the left side and Arabic on the right side and times in between.The times were approximations and you needed to ask in order to find out if a bus were, in fact, running and whether it was a local or not. Even if it wasn’t a local bus it still stopped for everyone when they wanted to get off. There were just no regular stops between cities so there was a chance it was a quicker bus.
This young man was clearly out of his element. None of the normal tour guides, young men wanting to practice their English, or shilling for merchants in the Old City, had latched onto him. I was close enough to tell that he was trying to negotiate in a language that wasn’t his, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell where he was from. I asked if he spoke English and relief spread across his face. His shoulders unhunched and he moved into my line. It turned out he was a British university student, taking a year or two off to teach English in Italy and had decided on a whim to take his holiday in Morocco. He had taken a train from Tangier to Fes, but didn’t think Fes was quite what he was looking for. He was hoping Marrakech would be better; that was where his Italian pals had advised him to go. He was trying to be more relaxed about travel, more impulsive, more … he didn’t really know the right word, but it wasn’t working out terribly well, he thought. I agreed.
I took his cash and bought him a ticket on the overnight bus, the same one I was on. He was unseasoned as a traveller and not used to observing. As we rode through the night he had a million questions.
Why are they putting those chickens on the roof of the bus? We really don’t want them inside the bus with us and they needed to get them home somehow.
Where are those people going who get off the bus in the middle of nowhere? They are going home. The live in a village just over that hill. Maybe someone is meeting them with a car or a donkey. Or maybe they’ll just carry their stuff in a bundle until they get home. Yes, they know the way in the dark.
Why do they stuff mint leaves in their glasses of tea? It adds extra mint flavor and looks cheery.
And finally: It must be fascinating to be able to tell what people are saying. What are those men in front of us talking about? I started to translate:
Ahmed: Did you get anything interesting in Fes?
Miloud: Yes, I did.Ahmed: What did you get?
Miloud: I got one of those yellow screwdrivers.
Ahmed: Really? A yellow screwdriver.
Miloud: Yes. That’s what I got.
Ahmed: Why did you get a yellow screwdriver? Why not a red one?
Miloud: They are better than the red screwdrivers.
Ahmed: In what way? How are the yellow screwdrivers better?
And so it continued. As they inched their way through the conversation, I kept up a running translation. They were in no hurry, with several hours on the bus before they would part company. I had seen people make a contest of this sort of dialogue, seeing who could ask the most inane question without seriously advancing any knowledge.
My companion noted that this was far less interesting than he had imagined. And he was right. So much of what seems fascinating, is ordinary once you have removed the veil of mystery. But he was wrong as well. Dig even deeper, past the mundane, and there is genuine intrigue, subtle nuance. The artistry lay in propagating meaningless talk, picking ever finer nits, maintaining the social contract of conversation without risking anything serious. It sometimes seems that this sort of babble was lost to us in the sixties.
When the Wizard of Oz, in the film, proclaims “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” (in the book Toto simply tips over a screen and there he is, revealed), the wizard is worried that he is too common a figure to be terrifying. In that he is right, but consider the amazing illusions he has created, the humbug he has perpetrated on the population of Oz, and the hope he has inspired in the Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Dorothy. His balding, bespectacled exterior hides ingenuity. What is more, he doesn’t see himself as particularly interesting; he buys the dumpy old man exterior is the total of what he is.
It is not so much a matter of discovering what is exceptional about a situation, but rather learning that the familiar and the exotic are two sides of the same coin. Being amazed at the things we have only newly encountered, or haven’t had the opportunity to become accustomed to, or familiar with, puts me in mind of the World War I song “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?” Once things become familiar they are no longer exotic, but neither have they changed substantially. Sure “Paree” (and Fes, and Nairobi) are fascinating to a point. But eventually you need to get the laundry done, you’ll have to pay rent, you’ll have to find food, and, barring independent wealth, have to get a job where a bosses or clients are calling at least some of the shots. That is as mundane as it gets. And for me, the differences between strolling down the Champs-Élysées, mingling with snake charmers at the J’ma El F’na, getting splashed by Thunder Hole in Acadia, or watching wild strawberries grow in the field next to my house, are ones of opportunity. They are equally fascinating, and I’m glad to have done them all. This weekend I went to the Fiber Frolic with friends. One of them pointed out some fiber braids yak, vicuna, buffalo, or baby camel. Each was blended with silk and each was most scrumptiously soft. The excitement of finding those, and the potential for what mine (the grey yak that my daughter said matched the “skunk stripe” at the back of my own hair) equaled anything else I’ve seen. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10K hours it takes to become expert at something; I wonder how many hours it takes before the mundane and the exotic merge and everything you encounter retains that certain buzz of excitement?