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A romantic gesture…

I was awoken in the night by a sudden urge to….throw up.    Here we go again I thought…so I got up and found my way out into the desert to once again commune with nature, hoping I wouldn’t get bitten by a snake or scorpion, or whatever other critters reside in the Sahara.    Apparently Aziz was thinking the same, as he was soon by my side with a blanket and a bottle of water, offering what solace he could while I heaved up dinner (which I might add had been quite tasty).   Instead of making our way back to bed, though, he suggested we just make ourselves comfortable in the sand, and wait for sun to rise over the sand dunes.  And so we did.   Somehow we made our way to the top of the huge sand dune adjacent to our camp, and about a half hour later we were nestled comfortably under a blanket just in time to see the sun peek out over the distant sand dunes, casting its beautiful golden glow as far as the eye could see.  We sat taking it all in, and soon everything was bathed in warmth (nights can be quite chilly in the desert) and light, and we turned to make our way back down to camp.  As I rose to make my way down  down, I noticed our guide, who had been patiently waiting for us back at the camp, had made his way to the top of one of the lower sand dunes, and was in the process of drawing a large heart in the sand, complete with an arrow through it!    Clearly our guide was a romantic, and we were his dedicated audience.  Sweet…

The next morning was a different story.   Something had taken up residence in my body that wanted OUT, and in a most urgent way…consequently I spent the next two hours hovering in or near the toilet, conveniently located next to my “bedroom”.  This day was also Friday, the holy day for Muslims, and was the only day Aziz made his way to mosque for prayers.  Bless his little heart, he delayed communing with Allah in order to find some medicine for my protesting intestines, and made it to the pharmacy literally as the pharmacist was closing his doors so that he may himself attend noontime prayer, good Muslim that he was.    After seeing that I was made as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, and my taking the prescribed medicine, Aziz departed for the mosque, promising to “pray for me and a quick recovery”.

It must have worked, because within a couple of hours I recovered enough to regain mobility, and a healthy appetite once again, and was able to join the family for afternoon couscous.  Feeling brave, we then took the car we had rented (I ended up driving, as I did not discover until after the fact that Aziz did not know how to drive, being a stick shift!!) and made our way to Merzouga, a town two and half hours away which signals the end of the road, literally, and the beginning of the Sahara.  Because of our late departure, and a few stops along the way (the Blue Springs of Meski, which is a beautiful oasis), we did not arrive in the desert until well after dark.  Fearing our camel ride had been forsaken, we sought out a local hotel to spend the night there.   Upon our arrival, however, we were assured a camel ride would still be possible, and so we waited outside in the cool starry night drinking mint tea, while our trusty steeds were readied for departure.

Mounting a camel (or Dromederie as they are called there) is an adventure in itself, and I couldn’t help but marvel at my ability to stay seated while this huge, lumpy animal lurched to its standing position, with me clinging for dear life to the saddle bar.   My fears quickly disappeared though, as as we made our way out into the desert, and towards our remote desert camp.  The remoteness of Merzouga, a small desert city devoid of “light pollution”, meant that it was pitch black out, and the starts shone more brightly for it.  In fact, I had never seen them so bright, the constellations highlighted in ways that our ancient ancestors once took for granted while making this same trek, millenia ago.

As our two camels plodded along, led by our native Berber guide, I sat in awe as we distanced ourselves from civilization, and into a world that stood timeless.  For one blissful hour we rode along in pitch darkness, our guide finding his way by instinct, guided by the billions of stars that dotted the sky, unencumbered by city lights, silent as only a desert can be.

Meet the family…

In Morocco, several languages are spoken, namely Arabic, French and Berber (I’d like to add here that I speak none of them), and as a foreign {blond haired, blue eyed} woman in a male dominated Muslim country who has no command of the spoken languages, the laws, or the culture, I was just a teensy weensy bit dependent on Aziz for my survival.  Those who know me will understand this is not a condition to which I am accustomed; however, I have to say I adjusted admirably to this new status quo.  Oddly, it felt almost cathartic to be this helpless…I think I was needing to just let go for once in my life.   

And so it was, after spending a couple of days acclimating to life in the remote mountain village of Tizgui, seven miles from the city of Tinghir, the place Aziz calls “home”, we made our way to Errachidia, a fairly largish city about three hours away, where his family lives, and where he grew up.   We received a warm welcome (lots of kissing of cheeks and “hand swiping”, and it wasn’t long before we were sat down with uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, and parents, over a large communal Tagine – yummy vegetables surrounding some kind of meat in the center (usually chicken, but could be lamb or rabbit also) cooked in a clay pot, and eaten with bread (right hand only if you please), followed by mint tea.   The most I could do was sit there smiling and nodding, since conversation for me was limited to Aziz acting as translator, and lots of hand gesturing on my part when he was not present to translate.

{**  A note on “hand swiping”: touching fingers by swiping them with the person you are being introduced to is the traditional handshake here.  The first few times this happened to me, it was followed by the person wiping his or her hand on their chest while saying something in Arabic (which I initially and incorrectly interpreted to mean God willing I don’t catch any disgusting diseases from this icky foreigner (hence that is why they were wiping their hands off after shaking my hand); however, I was later informed that the hand wiping on the chest, near their heart, was actually a gesture of friendliness, and the Arabic words themselves meant more along the lines of peace be with you.   You have no idea how relieved I was to hear this.}

Later that evening everyone retired to their respective corner to sleep, be it in the salon (the Moroccan version of a living room), or some other room with a mattress in it.   Bedrooms as we know them are uncommon in traditional homes, as rooms typically have multiple purposes, especially in the case of the salon, a room which can act as a living room, dining room, and bedroom all in the course of a day.  I was given a room with a single mattress in it, while the men slept in the salon, and the sisters in yet other undesignated areas that housed a mat or mattress in them.

I slept well that night, despite the strangeness of my surroundings, and smiled to myself with a contentment I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Marrakech…

So…on January 31st, 2010 I found myself on a plane, landing in a country where I did not know the language, did not understand the culture, and where  the concept of  flush toilets was as yet unrealized.   This toilet thing (which everyone warned me about) actually worried me more than anything else, and the idea of squatting over a hole in the ground was not appealing to my Western sensibilities.   I found myself returning over and over during our flight to the cabin restroom, in an attempt to empty my bladder in the hope that perhaps I might not need to pee again for the next ten days, until I returned to this plane and its familiar flush toilet.   It was a long shot, but worth a try.

But the toilet thing turned out to be the least of my problems; for instance I had repeated near death experiences just trying to cross the street in Marrakech, dodging everything from speeding taxis, crazy moped drivers (correction, people there don’t drive mopeds, they aim them), donkey carts, bicycles…you name it, and it will run you over.    Then there were the not one but two eight hour bus trips through the High Atlas mountains, where the roads are so winding and steep you can get vertigo just looking out the window; rides in grande and petite taxis (airbags, seatbelts… what are those..?) that will leave even the soundest of passengers white knuckling it; and of course let us not leave out the proverbial food poisoning resulting in puking my guts out in the desert (ah yes, the beautiful Sahara), and a bout with diarrhea that left me rethinking my relationship with God, which until then had been reserved exclusively for deus ex machina.  

Although Morocco could be dangerous (and pervasively corrupt), it was also very beautiful…the landscape, the people, the way of life, the food, the mint tea, the colors…I was, slowly, falling in love with this place.    Yes, I was definitely falling in love…and on more than one front to…

Prologue…

“…there are two ways to meet life; you may refuse to care until indifference becomes a habit, a defensive armor, and you are safe – but bored.   Or you can care greatly, and live greatly – till life breaks you on its wheel.”  Dorothy Canfield Fisher