Sunday, March 13, 2011

journey's end

I made it to Kenitra. Friday, the 11th. The 11 month mark of Bryan's passing.

Took the morning train from Meknes, an hour and a half's journey away from the Imperial Cities and into the French-built urban sprawl on the Atlantic Coast that seaps out of Casablanca and Rabat. As I've traveled the last two weeks around Morocco, I've explained my mission many times. My grandfather at Port Lyautey as the French shifted power back to the Moroccans, his stories, his death in 2008. As they love George Washington and that snippet of American-Moroccan history, the people I've spoken to have seemed surprised and impressed that I have this link to Morocco, and that I've come so far to pursue it. But they remind me there is no real spot to focus my pilgrimage on. "There's nothing there now," they always say. The American base has long since been handed over to Moroccan forces. Kenitra itself is a not a tourist destination. An ordinary city without any sites in the guidebook, any reason to advertize itself to tourists.

I got in a taxi and told the driver to take me to the military base. He drove me through the suburbs of Kenitra, the Moroccan version of McMansions lining the streets, SUVs parked in the drives. Then a sudden thicket of trees and a gate. Base Militaire. Armed and uniformed Moroccans at the gate. I told one of them my story. He listened kindly as I strained in French to impress it upon him. "C'est interdit," he said apologetically. No one allowed in without authorization. I smiled and told him I understood, I just wanted to know where it was. God knows I looked bizarre: scraggly American with a bulging hiking backpack, standing outside the gate of a Moroccan military base in some unimpressive town. I lingered a moment, hailed another taxi, and found myself with a driver who spoke only Arabic. I managed to communicate I wanted to go to the train station, but the rest was a loss. He insisted on talking to me the whole way, sometimes turning to me as if waiting for a response. Je ne comprends pas, monsieur. He kept going. Whenever we passed a policeman he made note of this to me, pointing, "La police, la police," waiting for me to nod in confirmation (that's a cop all right), then shaking his head. I started to get nervous. Finally the taxi swung through to the station and I was overcharged (as expected) and caught the train to Marrkech.

Did it matter that the ultimate destination of this trip was so meager? A locked gate. Interdit. An ordinary, anywhere sort of city. I'm not sure what I expected. I think I just wanted to put my foot down. Kenitra didn't much matter-- the journey to Kenitra did. The six weeks of travel. All the Moroccan strangers who wanted to have mint tea and hear about my grandfather and tell me about George Washington. Kenitra was just symbolism. Through the six hour train journey I sat watching the rain turn the red clay earth a vivid and bloody scarlet. A family shared the compartment with me, the little boy, no more than 3, chomping through a Happy Meal before getting out his toy cars and using my backpack as a race track for it. His mother offered me some of her meal (it's considered very impolite in Moroccan society to eat in front of those who may be hungry). I thanked her and declined, returning to the window and the vast roll of Morocco passing away from the train. Her son raced his Hot Wheels down the straps of my battered backpack.

Yesterday morning I woke up in Marrakech and walked into the Djemaa el Fna. I hadn't made it as far as the orange juice venders when a girl came up to me; a young Asian in skinny jeans and red plastic sunglasses with a distinctly American voice asking, "Are you alone?" Well.... yeah. "Can we be alone together?"

She had arrived last night from Madrid, where she's studying for a semester. A friend was supposed to meet her but her flight from Rome was canceled, and 19 year old Alex from Chicago was alone, intimidated and sans French in Marrakech. So for the day I played tour guide. We went to the Palais Bahia and I explained what I know of the intricacies of Arab architecture, the symbolism of the zelij and the 99 names of God in calligraphy over the doors.  I showed her how to pick out a restaurant (always look for an outdoor place where Moroccans are eating-- it will cost half as much and likely be twice as good) and gave her a lecture on tagine, pastilla and the standards of Moroccan cuisine. We were treated to tea and a demonstration of natural medicines and beauty treatments at a Berber pharmacy. We went through the souks and I helped her haggle for a caftan and babouche. We toured the beautiful Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th Century Koranic school where young men went to live and worship and study. We had coffee on a cafe terrace looking over the Djemaa el Fna at sunset, the lamps coming on in the food stalls, the smoke curling up from the grills, the belly dancers and Berber musicians drawing in the crowds. We had fried sardines (Morocco's number one export, you know) and couscous at one of the grills where the garcons hang around, ready to charm you and tease you in virtually any language. Alex wanted to smoke hookah, so we caught the night bus to Gueliz (Marrakech's chic ville nouvelle neighborhood) and found a place. The waitress spoke little French but wanted to hang out with us, so between tables she'd stop and smoke her Gauloise and laughingly struggle to make conversation ("Demande ta amie.... si.... si elle mange avec..." she mimed plucking at sushi rolls from a plate. Ask your friend if she eats with chopsticks). A waiter teasingly warned us we'd never find good Moroccan husbands, sitting in sheesha bars. I asked him if he could find me a Moroccan husband and he laughed-- "Can you wait two minutes?"

We caught a taxi back to the Djemaa el Fna, had spicy tea with a riad owner who spotted us wandering and told us we were not allowed to leave Morocco until we had real Saharan spice tea. He gave me a lecture on ettiquette when I blew on mine to cool it-- it's a grave offense to Moroccans. It means you're in a hurry, that you don't honor your host enough to sit at leisure and talk. So we waited for our tea to cool, waited for the sheer fire of it to burn down our throats ("Moroccan viagra," Jamal joked) and made our way back towards our hotels. Alex thanked me. "Even if my friend had come, I don't think I would have learned as much about the culture or met so many people today," she said. I told her it was my pleasure, and it was. After traveling so long, after developing so much reverence for this country, it was good to go full circle: from culture shocked American princess crying in her room two years ago to solo traveler serving as tour guide and translator, salvaging someone else's weekend in Marrakech.

Tomorrow I get the flight to London, then on to Detroit Tuesday morning. I'm exhausted and malnourished and my clothes all smell, but I'm happy. For the first time since last April. I am happy.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

traveling across morocco with a chicken

From a Marrakech street vender I bought a battered copy of Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights. An Afghani who grew up in Britain, Shah and his wife bought a house in the shantytowns surroundings Casablanca, and the book is a narrative both of his attempt to make himself at home in Moroccan culture and to understand the rich and enduring tradition of Moroccan storytellers. At one point he complains to his maid that he still gets ripped off like a tourist when he goes into the Casablanca souks. Her advice? Carry a sieve. Because no tourist would be walking through the market with a sieve.

Today walking through the Meknes souks, I saw something unexpected. From the souks of Marrakech, Fez and Essaouira I've grown used to the sensory pleasures of Moroccan markets: heaping piles of olives, dates and figs, perfect cones of spices rising from buckets, leather babouches and caftans in every imaginable color, tagines, glittering silver tea kettles, carefully arrayed collections of Berber jewellery and rugs.  The Meknes market is different. With the beautiful Moroccan crafts are the less pretty practicalities of life: cheap made in China shoes, plastic toys, bottles of shampoo and packages of toilet paper, cardboard boxes spilling produce. I was walking through the lines of stalls and came upon a box of tiny, fluffy chicks dyed bright blue, pink and orange. Vibrating with life and huddling together, a pulsing box of babies. I stooped to pet them. "Deux dirhams," the boy said to me. About 25 cents. I've seen birds in the souks before: lovebirds and parakeets and canaries suspended from poles in their cages, waiting for homes. But what do you do with a purple chick? Is it a pet? A cheap plaything till it dies? And by what miracle does this box of chicks chirp away unmolested in a country that seems to have more cats than people? I held one in my hand, gently running my finger over the soft down. I thought about Tahir Shah and his sieve in Casablanca. What if I traveled across Morocco with a chicken? No tourist would have one, of course-- the boys would quit yelling "Hola, hermana!" at me. I'd have a little cage to carry her around with me and at night I'd spread her feed over the bedspread in my cheap hotel rooms and she'd sleep in the warm cup of my hand.

And at the end of the journey? I'd give her to a sheep farmer or an argan oil collective outside Marrakech and she'd lay eggs for the farmer and spend her life at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. It would be a great test, to travel over Africa attending to the welfare of something so small and vulnerable, and a kind of Zen exercise in freedom from attachment. Be at peace, little chicken. Inshallah, we will meet again.

My time is running out, though: tomorrow morning on to Kenitra, then back to Marrakech tomorrow night for my last weekend with the henna artists and Djemaa el Fna storytellers.

But next trip, certainly. Morocco with a chicken.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

george wash-ing-ton

A six a.m.bus from Essaouira to Marrakech, a seven hour train from Marrakech to Fez, and voila-- Kelsey of Arabia, alone in the Imperial Cities. Approaching Fez, one's approaching a tremendous fortress-- the world's largest Medieval city enclosed in stark and intimidating walls, and inside an impossible maze of blind alleys and steeply rising, sharply twisting streets. The medina of Marrakech is an exercise in patience and memory-- the medina of Fez is an exercise in futility. I arrived to my plush, British-owned riad to a flurry of apologies that they were overbooked and all they could offer me was a makeshift bedroom: a massage table padded with blankets in a room used for storing luggage, available at half the price of a proper room. The British proprietress seemed slightly repulsed when I enthusiastically accepted.

Riad Verus had an interesting mix of people of solo travelers that made up for my exasperation with Fez's impenetrable size and lay-out. I met an Australian sheep farmer on a year long tour of the world with stories of travels through India and Mongolia, South Africa and Kenya that belonged in the Thousand and One Nights. An Irish guy and I hiked up the Borj Nord to watch the sunset over the whole sprawling panorama of Fez, the lights flaring one by one across the city, the call to prayer rising from the minarets, then back down to the medina for tagine and talk about arthouse movies. I smoked hookah with an American girl working on her MFA in painting at Yale and her Moroccan fiance. "We need to find you a rich Moroccan husband with a riad so you can stay and keep her company," he told me. I told him I'd send for my hope chest. I don't think he believed me.

I gave up quickly on Fez. The philosophical and political heartbeat of Morocco, home to some of the world's oldest and most prestigious medersas, a university older than Oxford and Cambridge-- all of it is deeply embedded in the twist of the medina streets, and after all the leisrely cups of tea with the Essaouira hippies, I didn't have the stamina. So today I caught the train to Meknes and installed myself in a cheap hotel with what the proprietor referred to as a "Turkish toilet" (a hole in the floor-- I'm delighted they blame the Turks for this). Meknes is Fez in miniature. An easy-natured place with an illustrious imperial history (home to the infamous and strangely revered Moulay Ismail, who decided to give Versailles a run for its money and took a few Christian slaves to get the job done).

After dropping my bags at the Hotel Nouveau (with the Turkish toilet), I wandered into the medina. The covered market in the souks is a bizarre mix: half candy store, half butcher shop. You enter to teeming piles of Moroccan confections (gazelle horns, sugared almonds, nougat, baklava) and around the corner find stall after stall of dead animals and blankly staring, severed heads. I bought a mix of sweets and sat at a cafe in the square with cafe au lait. A man in a wheelchair, one leg missing below the knee and severe burns over his face, was wheeling around with a hand extended for alms. I put a dirham coin in his hand and extended my white box of sweets. He looked confused. "Le gateau?" I nodded and he grinned and selected a choice bit of nougat and nut.

I crossed the splendid, intricately designed Bab Mansour, the gate to the Imperial City and wandered in search of the tomb of Moulay Ismail. An old, toothless, skinny man in a baseball hat that said Jesus is My Boss came up to me-- the usual friendly rush of Bonjour! Ca va? When I said I was not French but American, he switched fluidly to English and asked what state. Whenever I say Michigan, I get a blank stare. Sometimes to explain I say, "it's near Canada" or "it's near Chicago" ("ah yes, I know Chicago" they always say). But the man had a triumphant look on his face and said, "The Great Lakes!" He drew the mitten in the air with his finger. "I have never left Morocco," he said, "but I know the whole map." He welcomed me to my "second country."

"Because, did you know, Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence. From George Washington. Did you know this?" This is an oft-repeated piece of history Moroccans extend as a greeting: within it, I think, an offer of solidarity as post-colonials, as old friends. The way Moroccans laboriously pronounce George Wash-ing-ton breaks my heart. I thanked him. My second country. His lined face and toothless mouth reminded me of my Papa (how it exasperated my grandmother when he wouldn't wear his dentures). He told me the easiest way to make it to the mausoleum and said that if we saw each other again, inshallah, perhaps we could have tea and he could practice his English. Inshallah, I echoed, and went off to the mausoleum.

Just a few days left in Morocco. How deeply I will miss this place.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

africa unite, cuz we're moving right out of babylon

This morning, after the rain had stopped and I was fortified with cafe au lait, I was walking through the medina and came upon a box of mewing kittens. I stooped to pet them and a little boy toddled up, no more than three years old, grinning at me and reaching to pet the kittens, too. I chattered to him in scraps of French and English, he to me in Arabic and toddler babble, smiling merrily all the while. Together we enjoyed the pleasure of encountering small, fluffy kittens in a box in the street, still wet with rain. He turned and ran to his mother, a veiled woman watching him on the other side of the narrow street. I stood. "Vous etes tres jolie, madame," she said to me behind her scarf. You are very pretty. I have heard this sentence about twenty times a day since arriving in Essaouira, from the boys in the street who want to know where I'm from and welcome me to Morocco, from hippie guys in the shops who want to show me Berber jewellery and embroidered caftans, who want to know if I like Cat Stevens and if I've been out to Jimi Hendrix's place yet. I'm not pretty, but I understand that I vaguely fit an ideal: a blue-eyed, busty American girl with a heap of dirt blonde curls and an easy smile, either brave enough or merrily stupid enough to be wandering around Africa alone. I thank them and pay no mind. When the woman said it I felt shy and flattered. Not the kind of pretty the boys want to believe, but the kind of pretty that will talk and pet kittens with a little boy on the street.

Any exchange with women here feels like a great privilege. Moroccan women are hardly an image of oppression: you see them in the street with their beautiful multi-colored scarves and caftans, whipping through the medinas on their mopeds or playing on the beach with their children. Very few are in burkas, but even those who are give off a certain proud mystery. The teenage girls in skinny jeans and pretty sweaters are no different than the girls I teach how to write poetry at Shelter of Flint. But women do not work in the shops, do not call out "Ca va?" in the streets, do not wait tables in the cafes or sit in those cafes, for that matter, and so traveling in Morocco makes you feel like a kind of third sex. Not one of the men, but not quite one of these women, either. That compliment offered on the street was gratefully received.

But back to those boys.

There are certain things you're not supposed to do if you're a female traveling alone in Morocco. You're not supposed to admit you're on your own, for one thing. You're not supposed to indulge the attentions of strange men. But the laughing charm of the hippie boys and my spiritual connection to them, my unspoken gratitude towards them, gets the better of me. Yesterday I sat drinking tea in a leather shop with a burly dreadlocked guy, Titi, who showed me pictures of the trips he leads through the Sahara and talked about music. As he poured tea he started singing Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." "Singin' don't worry about a thing, cuz every little thing gonna be all right." Bryan's brothers picked out that song for his funeral. Bryan had an unashamed love of Bob Marley. Often I'd climb up the stairs to the apartment and find him in the bathtub, his shaving mirror propped on a chair, listening to Bob Marley or Chet Baker (or on an espeically pensive day, NPR). It was one of many eclectic, lovely facets of Bryan. When he died, I used to walk around for hours at night listening to Bob Marley on his mp3 player. So to hear a guy in Essaouira sing that as he poured me tea, just hours after I'd spread the ashes.... A great stab of pain and a wave of wonderful sweetness hit me all at once.

Tonight I went into a clothes shop to find a souvenir for a friend. He requested "one of those outfits Arabs wear when it's hot," so I discussed this with a young shopkeeper in full Tuareg garb-- djellaba, a mile of scarf wrapped and knotted around his head. Uncertain of the Muslim gender taboos and whether it's ok to buy clothes for another woman's husband, I said it was for my brother. "What size is your brother?" he asked. About six foot two, medium build meant nothing to him so I drew a JJ-shaped outline in the air and the man sorted through piles of linen and cotton. His friend came in and they insisted on celebrating my purchase with a backroom jam. No joke. They broke out castanets and drums and their fingers worked fast and beautifully over the skins-- in this town of Jimi Hendrix's ghost and the Gnaoua music festival, all the hippie boys are musicians. The Tuareg boy, Yassine, asked me if I would go have tea with him. It's right at the top of the list things you shouldn't do: accept dates from strange young men in Africa.

So we went to a cafe on the port and had whiskey marocain. He told me about the Tuareg tribe in south Morocco, his family there, how he learned English from hanging around the gas station in his village where the Sahara tours would come through and fill up, the many traditional uses of that impressive Tuareg headress. As nomadic people, the Tuareg use the scarf to strain water, to sleep on when they have to set up camp for the night, to bundle things they need to carry. He told me he wanted an American girl to marry-- "The Moroccan girls," he said, "They just want money to buy nice clothes." I steered the conversation away from nuptials, but as he poured tea I imagined what it would be like, my first post-Bryan kiss from a tall Tuareg boy on a fishing port in Morocco, with the sweet aftertaste of mint tea in our mouths.

And then he started singing Bob Marley under his breath. "Africa unite, cuz we're moving right out of Babylon...." and I laughed. "Why you smile?" he demanded. Bob Marley, I said. I like him, too. He started telling me his favorites and we sang verses back and forth, me giggling. Sun is shining, weather is sweet, make you wanna move your dancing feet. Those tacky, infectious melodies universally adored. Bryan in the bathtub, the scrape of his razor and his cigarette dangling out of the ashtray.

Well, even with the romance of the port and the sugar buzz of the tea, Tuareg boys are still good Muslims. We exchanged email addresses and parted chastely.

Off to Fez tomorrow. I will miss this place badly-- this town glittering with significance on the Atlantic Coast.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

the end of the artist as widow

I woke full of the thought of it. I dressed and took the urn out of the locker and left the hostel. Walked down to the port, quiet still at 8 in the morning, and scaled over the low stone wall, dropping down to the the thick crunch of sea shells and pebbles. On the other side of the port the beach stretches away to the Atlantic and you can walk for miles with the camels and the girls who jog in their headscarves, down to the very end of Africa, perhaps, but this side is quiet, littered along the wall with broken wine bottles (shamed Muslims drinking in secret), no beach but slick stones leading out to the crash of the waves. I slowly, carefully picked my way to the edge. No one there but farther along the wall a fishermen with his line cast. I dug my hand into the urn and tossed a handful of ashes, then another, the dust spreading over my hennaed hand and dissolving in the air, stirring into the waves like milk. Then I upended the urn and let it all go. That was it. I turned and picked my way back over the rocks, over the seashells and litter.

I didn't cry. I had no psalm, no song, no prayer to recite. I've loved him since I was 14. I have grieved. I have carried his urn over my back across three continents. And I'll carry the pain back with me-- I'll declare it at customs. When the henna has faded and the only thing staining my fingers is the usual fountain pen India ink, I'll keep writing all this down, keep explaining. I'll take it to my grave with me. What song is there to sing, what prayer to offer? What god do you thank for a life that's given you so much so quickly? And what god do you blaspheme and curse when it's all taken away? To what god do you beseech for mercy, for the strength to endure your losses? Allah, sung from the minarets? The god of the tormented Krakow synagogues? The god of Spanish cathedrals or the god of Baptist churches in Flint's burned-out, boarded-up neighborhoods?

Does it matter? God of Moroccan strangers watching over hungry cats and lost Americans. God of widows turning sleeplessly in shabby hotel rooms and hostel bunks. God of grandfathers who fill your head with lovely places, like Spain, like Morocco. God of the beautiful friends and family you ache with love to go home to. God of uncertain futures. God of Marrakech henna artists. God of Vernors cravings. Hamdullah. Amen.

I neared the wall to climb back over and heard someone call, "Bonjour, madame!" I turned. A young man was standing there smiling. "Ca va?" Ca va bien, I smiled. After the constant lure of the Marrakech merchants, it's good to be back in this town and be able to smile and exchange pleasantries again.

"Are you a painter?" the man asked. No, I said, puzzled. "An artist of some kind, then?" he insisted. A writer, I told him. "Ah," he smiled triumphantly. "Have a nice day."

I couldn't stop myself. "Why do you ask?" I called after him.

He turned. "Because only an artist would be here, on this part of the beach, so early in the morning."

I threw the urn away. On the port, a trash can near the grills where men throw olive oil and spices on freshly-caught fish and sell you dinner for a few dirhams. That thick black plastic box tossed in with the orange peels and fish bones, with the empty crates and cigarette ends. We all die, the man in Marrakech told me. We must think of it everyday.

And thinking of it, I sat down in a familiar cafe and ordered coffee, wondering what to do with the day.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"I'll come across the desert with no shoes on, for I love you truly or I love no one."

During my day in Tangier, through the long wait between the ferry arrival and the Marrakech Express, I enlisted a personal tour guide. They wait on the port, flashing their official badges and readying to negotiate a price. The guidebooks say its hardly worthwhile-- another hustle in the Tijuana of Morocco-- but a middle-aged midget (is that pc?) with a faint American twang to his English approached me and I couldn't resist the idea: fresh off the ferry from Spain, American widow being led through the streets of Tangier by a midget with an American accent.

Through the tour Hassan gave me the usual scattered chronology of Moroccan history: Berbers and Arabs, Phoenicians and Romans, Portugese and French. I was more interested in having a Moroccan at my disposal to answer my long brewing questions: Moroccan politics, Islam, women, Gaddafi, the waning Obama enthusiasm.

And the feral cats.

Cats in Morocco are everywhere. In the streets, in shops and bus stations-- everywhere. Hassan told me the story of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him, I should add, sitting under the ubiquitous portrait of King Mohammed VI), who once sat to rest and had a cat curl up and go to sleep on his cloak. Rather than disturb the cat, he cut the cloak around it and forever granted the cat a special significance in the Arab world. Cats should be fed and made welcome, their quiet intelligence to be admired, Hassan said. Later that night at the station, I watched a man pluck a bit of meat from his sandwich and extend it to a scrawny, one-eyed feline prowling under the tables.

This morning, walking to the Marrakech Gare Routiere, I passed the men outside the terminal who unfurl their blankets on the hot cement and lay out their cigarettes and miscellany to sell. A cat was trying to get a solid grip on the scruff of her kitten's neck and drag it back to the cardboard box against the wall, where an unseen litter mewed and cried. One of the cigarette sellers jumped up and went to help the mother; not taking the kitten from her but, crouching low and bearing the weight of the kitten in his cupped hand while the mother quickened her pace and steered man and kitten toward the box. A neighboring vendor watched laughing merrily and calling to him teasingly in Arabic. My eyes welled behind my sunglasses. I'm not all that sensitive to the plight of feral cats, but it was the perfect image of Moroccan kindness to carry with me on the bus to Essaouira.

A year and a half ago, Bryan and I made the bus journey from Marrakech to Essaouira, this white-washed, sun-drenched town on the Atlantic where the fishermen drag in the sardines and the hippie boys go windsurfing and offer camel caravans out to the beach mansion where Jimi Hendrix and his entourage smoked opium and lived out their hedonistic Oriental fantasies. We caught a taxi from the station to the medina and were just through the gate when Bryan stopped, frantically patting his pockets and asked, "Did I give you the bag?"

The son of a bitch dropped the bag that contained all our cash and credit cards in the taxi.

In the most desparately ambitious French of my life, I dashed to the taxi rank and gave my frantic story to the next driver waiting (as I type this I can see his young, handsome face with Malcolm X glasses). He listened, sorted through my ranting French, and took great pains to make sure I understood what to do. Return to the station and find the security officer, who will have a file with picture IDs of all the drivers. Explain to him. He will track down the driver.

Laden with our bags, we rushed to the station, my eyes beginning to stream, Bryan chanting, "Please forgive me, please forgive me...." At the station we waited for the officer to return to his desk and I collapsed. A ticket seller with a weathered face visored by a baseball cap jumped down and crouched in front of me, smiling. "Pourquoi les larmes, madamoiselle?" Why these tears? He joked with us and tried to entertain us while we waited for the stern and uniformed officer with his hopelessly large box of mustached Moroccan faces. We walked back to the medina, two totally penniless Americans in Africa. We went to the police station where I further strained in my hysterical French, but there was nothing for them to offer. The bag was lost, not stolen. They typed up a report in Arabic and we signed it, uselessly.

Over the next three days, we lived off Moroccan charity. A hotel manager not only gave us a room on the good faith a Western Union would come through for us, but offered us a loan for food that we were too ashamed to take. The girls at the internet cafe let us run up a tab as we sent our SOS home. People in the streets of this small, easy-natured town approached us and offered help, seeming so genuinely concerned and stricken with sympathy for two careless, privileged white kids. A young man with good English and a love of America paid for our taxis and served as our translator as we went to the taxi office to see if anything had been turned in, if anything could be done. For three days, as we took our empty bellies as penance and went to bed early, hoping our wire would be there in the morning, we learned a lesson in humanity. Not just a rebuttal against the ignorant things people would like you to believe-- that Islam is a violent religion, that Muslims hate Americans, etc., etc.-- but that perhaps that primitive childhood lesson, never talk to strangers, isn't so wise. Our Western Union salvation came from Bryan's parents and when we saw all the familiar faces on the street we could grin and say yes, all was well. We could pay the hotel manager, the internet cafe girls (who humbly refused my offer of interest). And with the constant call to prayer from the muezzin and the Hand of Fatima hung on every taxi dashboard and shop register, it was impossible to separate that experience of sheer human goodness from God. I think it was here Bryan made his famous witticism, "I'm going to convert to Islam and change my name to Cat Stevens." I think he was only half joking.

We stayed in Essaouira a week. A man selling camel rides on the beach heard our story and, in the October off-season, offered us a room in a plush British-owned guesthouse for a few measly dollars a night. ("I like you," Aziz said to me once. "The British walk around here so unhappy"-- he turned down the corners of his mouth and blew out his checks in a Hitchcock-esque grimace-- "but you two smile.") Bryan chatted with the hippie boys in the music shops and tried out the guitars and traditional instruments. I'd leave him with his Coke and his sketchbook on a seafront cafe when I went to swim and inevitably return to find him sharing cigarettes and laughing with some hustler who'd tried to sell him fake Ray Bans or hash. Bryan had an easy, genuine charm that people warmed instantly to, and the men of Essaouira loved him.

When Bryan died, I couldn't think of a place better than Essaouira to scatter his ashes. The place where the most was demanded of us. We spoke often of Essaouira, how much we wanted to return there, the characters we met. Over the British rails, the Krakow trams, the ferry from Spain, the Marrakech Express and the bus to the coast, I've carried this urn and brought us both back. I've checked into the hostel where we shared our last few nights here (I expected to find the tacky Jimi Hendrix mural weeping tears of blood, but it's been painted over). I've chosen my spot near the port where the fishermen bring in the sardines and throw the heads to the hungry cats, as the Prophet Mohammed would want. I walked over the beach at sunset weeping. I walked through the medina scanning for familiar faces, wanting to stop the hippie boys and ask, "Souvenez-vous? Remember that handsome, broad-shouldered American boy with the ragged Chuck Taylor's and the Ali Baba beard? It wasn't so long ago-- say you remember, please, please, say you do. Priez pour lui. Pray for him. Et priez pour moi, s'ils vous plait."

Tomorrow I'll spread the ashes. Tomorrow I'll let go.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

marrakech, day 2

My second day in Marrakech. Woke with my Chinese (not Japanese, as my conversation with them last night proved) roommates still sound asleep and lingered over my mint tea and bread with honey and butter, reading. Into the sqaure, so much calmer, so much quieter in the morning, before the tourists come in and the snake charmers and monkey handlers ready to greet them. In my last post I mentioned the aggressive merchants, but I should mention the most aggressive are the women who do henna in the square. In their long caftans and veils, they overturn crates on the ground and sit with their syringes full of henna, calling after females relentlessly. If you come close to the vendors near the spots they've claimed, they come after you, syringe poised, reaching for your hand because as soon as their work is on your skin, you owe them. But this morning, with that syrupy mint tea singing in my veins, a woman called out to me in beautiful English and I couldn't resist. I sat on the milk crate and had my right hand decorated in exquisite arabesques and flowers, the henna curling up my fingers and down to my wrist while the woman, Jemilah, asked me how old I was, if I had a boyfriend, what Michigan is like, and explained the designs. "This one's for good luck," she said, drawing a flower in the center of my hand. "Soon, you'll have a husband." I smiled. In Granada, outside the cathedral a fortune teller seized me, dragging her sprig of rosemary over my hand, and told me I was a strong person, that soon I'd be married and have two children. It's all sillyness, but pleasant prophecies are nice to turn over in my imagination after a long time of not being able to imagine myslef happy ever again,

Somewhere in this journey, it feels as though my life circled back to me. After Bryan's death, it was like being shoved in a dark, windowless room with the door locked behind me. Like sensory deprivation. My sense of taste was totally gone-- for months I just ate tuna sandwiches dripping with horseradish so I could taste something. I had no desires, no interests. I slept poorly. I grieved myself into stomach ulcers that were further complicated by an infection, and I became sick. The process of mourning has been hideous. But somewhere on this trip I found my thought process shaken out of its dull repetition. Not grieving in Flint, but free to do as I wished in beautiful Krakow, Spain, Morocco, with grad school waiting for me and a new life to begin when this journey is over. It's as though someone opened that door, flicked the light back on and told me I was free to go. I don't have to sit in the dark anywmore. So there is still grieving to do-- Marrakech breaks my heart, the ashes will be scattered this weekend in Essaouira, and I'm still mending, still healing-- but I guess a sense of beauty and the richness of experience has returned to me. In the morning sun, in Africa, with a woman practicing an ancient tradition on my hands and promising me love and happiness.

Later in the day, after touring the Majorelle Gardens and having salade marocain in a cafe for lunch, I toured the souks looking for the right pair of camel leather babouches (slippers) for my sister. The Moroccan merchants, with their indefagitable charm, always ask, "Is this your first time in Morocco?" No, I get to smile-- my second. Today, with one man, I admitted my story. My dead boyfriend, me chasing his ghosts through the souks. "How many times he died?" the man asked. I was confused. Surely this man was Muslim, not Hindu-- how many times do we get to die? I quickly puzzled it out in my head. "Oh-- how old? 26."

"You have babies?" he asked.

No babies, I said. Just a lovebird.

"We all die," he said. "Sometimes very young, sometimes not. We must think of it every day. We will die."

I didn't say it, but I thought, yes, I do think of it everyday. We die. And everyday I choose to live despite that fact. In the brilliant sun and colors of Morocco, in the snow and industrial desolation of Flint. And I'm even learning how to be excited about living again.