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.