Morocco, Part I: Marrakech; On being a rat in an ancient maze

3 years ago plus 1 month and 9 days, there was suddenly a new person in my life, one who often makes me feel like a better version of myself. I’m grateful for this kind of human in my world, for we rarely find them. So today I flew to Marrakech, the place from which the initial contact was dispatched, to reconnect with this person whose presence makes my entire being feel at home, wherever in the world we may be. We’ve travelled a lot together, he and I: short trips and long. But this winter has been brutal in New England and I needed an escape. So, to what was intended as a long weekend for C, I’ve added a few days up front to justify the travel time and the airfare (I dream of the luxury of living Europe, where a weekend getaway really gets you away).

ch-exploringThe itinerary: Day 1: arrive in Marrakech; Days 2-5: visit Berber country; Days 5-8: meet my Calvin-like co-adventurer back at the riad for a few days of Medina madness.

As they say: Let’s go exploring!

The trip from the airport is via taxi, to just outside the Medina’s inner web, where cars are not permitted in the afternoon; then via hand cart, dodging donkeys (and scooters and bikes and other handcarts and shopkeepers and hawkers of Every. Possible. Thing. No, really.) To the riad, whisked away in those 8 minutes to a very foreign-seeming place. Marrakech is a whirlwind. The Medina, a labyrinth. I don’t quite know how to describe it without sound or colour. Even so, the riad is a kind of oasis; decked in carpet and copper lamps, wooden furniture, large cushions…warmth oozes from each étage. Within moments of arriving, I’m served traditional mint tea and Moroccan biscuits by a smiling, welcoming Abdul.

For reference, Marrakech’s Medina is the walled-in old city, a maze-within-a-maze that leaves you feeling at times like a baited rat that would do anything to find the cheese; or the riad, in my case. There are a few meandering main streets, barely wide enough for one car to pass: rues lined on either side by cafés, shops, and their wares on offer. The streets bustle with merchants and shoppers (and hagglers) and ogling tourists, one of which I’m about to become. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, walled-in in the 12th century, The Medina’s wall is a 19km stretch of stone, bounding the old from the new. A tangle of alleyways connects the “proper” streets (one must use proper as loosely as possible), and it’s here you find the homes and riads (the mansions of old that have been transformed into lovely guest houses). The 15 metre-high buildings create an inner sanctum of sorts, blotting the din of the Jemaa el Fna, and the market streets that radiate out from its madness.

Thus, my first half-day in Marrakech is a blur of light and sound and smell and primal tendencies. Between hunger, jetlag, curiosity and restlessness, I decide to go see the famed ‘Fna to catch a glimpse of this experience for myself, because it’s so much more than just an historic site. Literal translation is either “large open space” or “death” depending on which definition you choose; history tells of another mosque here originally, but it was erected pointing the wrong way towards Mecca and was replaced by the impressive 77 metre-high Koutubia Mosque in the 12th Century (Oops). Not-so-urban legend tells that Jemaa el Fna was also used for public executions.

Heeding warnings of pickpockets, scammers, gropers, and general miscreants, I set out. And after a couple of wide-eyed hours of wandering the ‘Fna and the streets nearest my riad, I turn back to go home. The late-afternoon frenzy at Jemaa el Fna is only just beginning and I’ve already seen snake charmers, Berber musicians, chained monkeys, tea sellers, fortune tellers, henna hawkers, would-be stalkers… I haggle (poorly, I decide, but it’s a first attempt) for a Taureg amulet, its price includes a story about Berber marriage and the need for keeping one’s many wives in different parts of the country (to ensure they never meet), since Allah suggests up to 4. And while Marrakech is a melting pot of old and new, Berbers and Arabs, Europeans and ex-pats, I feel more of the old culture prevailing in this part of the city. As a solo woman here, I feel a strange impulse to layer on more clothes, even though it’s warmish and dry and the only parts visible are my hands and head.

Google maps is utterly useless, and I find myself near, but not near-enough, to my riad. I’m lost, feeling tired, hungry, shell-shocked, alone amidst a bazillion strangers, and I’m trying to talk myself out of crying (in French, so at least there’s that). I see a clean-cut youngish man up ahead and ask him to point me in the direction of the rue. Note: I’ve momentarily forgotten this item in the list of potential Marrakech scams and don’t ask up front what the directions will cost me. I’m just grateful for a smile and some help getting un-lost. Moments later (we were, literally, one tiny alleyway away), we’re at the riad, where I greet my hosts and thank my guide (really, all I wanted was for him to point, not lead) and he says, gruffly, “you pay me now.” Hm. So I hand him a small coin for his trouble, knowing that all I have in my pocket are larger bills and a few Euro coins. He says, “50 dirhams.” (roughly 5€) To which the riad ladies guffaw and reply, “non… you go away.” And a shouting match ensues, in French-laced Arabic, where the only thing I remotely recognise goes something like, “she has a big fancy camera, she can afford to pay me…” to which we all reply, “a taxi would cost less, get lost!” Finally, some smaller coins are produced to shut the guy up, and he goes away hurling ancient curses at this Western witch, I’m sure.

I’m stressed now, a little freaked-out, hoping the rest of my trip won’t be as terrifying. But a hot shower, tagine dinner with an unforgettable courgette soup, another cup of delightful Moroccan mint tea, and the knowledge that in a few days, my smiling ami who has been here before will meet me and meander the maze of The Medina by my side. Tomorrow, I leave on a short tour to the interior and into the Sahara.

The score for Day 1 in Morocco – Marrakech: 1; Travel Girl: 0.

Read on: [Morocco, Part II]  [Morocco, Part III]  [Morrocco, Part IV]

What I did while you were on your summer vacation…

End of August, and the air begins to infuse that twinge of change that signals its slide into the darker, then colder months; like summer’s dropped ice cream cone melting backwards, in slow motion. And it’s about this time of the year when the call to faraway places becomes louder proportionately to the decline of summer’s sunny embrace.

I don’t tend to travel in the summertime. Instead, I become a tourist in my backyard. The morning barefoot walks on the beach, pockets full of seaglass, shells and beach treasure; a phone full of photos of wondrous scenes from low tide. While I squirrel away my time off, my friends and colleagues come and go, tales of beaches and family reunions and Disney crowds and Cape Cod traffic. Facebook fills with accounts of baseball games and road trips and tan lines and Coronas and roller coasters.

New England weather is finicky at best. And, at its best, the time to be in and around Boston is June through September. Sparkling sun, farmer’s markets, inviting forested trails, a city at half-population without its students, outdoor concerts and of course the beaches… The New England region boasts the highest per-capita ice cream consumption in the country, go figure! This summer’s weather has been spectacular at a cost: as I write, nearly 17% of Massachusetts is in extreme drought (73% severe!). Grass is brown, crops are failing, sputtering, dying. There are no local peaches this year due to a late freeze (where, exactly, is climate change not occurring?).

It’s also about this time of year that I begin to reflect on the summer that’s been, formulate some intentions for the coming dark season and maybe also foment some wishes for the coming year, as my birthday marks the end of summertime, which seems a day as good as any other to begin a new chapter or season of this life.

In these warming months, I’ve seen my dearest friend’s daughter graduate from high school. She, at the age we were when we met, going off to begin her next iteration of self. We went to a bookstore on her graduation weekend and picked out all the books I was reading at her age plus some more about this incredible journey of discovery she’s about to begin (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, The Alchemist, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Metamorphosis, to name a few). I find it surreal to be a grown-up sometimes.

I’ve seen sunrises and sunsets and walked miles upon miles on a stretch of beach of which my dog knows each and every rock and crag. I’ve dunked in the icy water, ankles screaming with their own ice cream headaches. I’ve spent meditative minutes that feel like hours on an empty beach in the early morning, listening to the sounds of soft waves on rock; seagulls and water birds providing the multi-part harmony. I’ve fallen asleep with the sun on my face, waking to a restless canine eager to go back in the ocean mingled with the fuzzy remnants of dreams of faraway places.

I ran a race, logged my fastest time in the 3 years I’ve done this one…my personal marathon at a 3.5 silly miles. I played bubble soccer, which is as hysterical as it sounds. I danced barefoot at a concert on Boston Common. I went to a going-away party for a friend moving back to Germany. I played Pokemon Go (briefly, then got bored). I saw Rodin’s masterworks. I held a forearm plank for 3:19 (ow, for the record). I ate watermelon for dinner. Ditto, ice cream.

There’s a shell of a castle up on the Hudson River. I wanted to go down there to explore, and in the process had a lovely weekend with a friend of the newer ilk, but one with whom I’ve felt an immediate camaraderie since we met on our trip to India. We walked in the woods by her home, ate local food and learnt some of New York’s history in the process.

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Life on the farm…and some first world irony

And, above all, my greatest treat of summer is going to The Farm. I am a member of an organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, which means that each year I pay a membership fee at the beginning of the season so that I have a place to go once a week to pick (and pick out) my allotment of fruits and veggies that I could otherwise buy at Whole Foods. Je suppose I’m something of a walking stereotype: I leave my spacious flat, remembering to bring with me the empty (free-range) egg cartons and my reusable bags. I get into my Prius and drive to the idyllic farm, relishing my weekly respite amongst the sheep, pigs, chickens, greenhouses and carefully-planted fields.

2016-07-03 14.24.48This is my 6th season at the farm. My CSA membership fee is non-refundable; so for better or for worse each year, my membership supports a certain percentage of their operating costs plus some CSA scholarships for local needy families. It’s a non-profit, so the money earned at the farmstand likewise goes back into the production. I like the feeling I’m part of something larger that at minimum puts locally-grown food on more peoples’ tables. As farm season approaches each year, I don’t know which I get more excited for: the lettuce and other leafy greens that simply do not taste the same from a grocery store, or the couple of hours each week I get to spend in a place that helps me shut out the rest of the world and reflect upon much simpler luxuries. The sun-warmed blueberries I pick with my own hands are superior than store-bought not minimally because of the hours I sometimes spend amidst the blueberry bushes photographing dragonflies. This year the blueberries didn’t make it. The late freeze. The extensive drought… where last year I made jam and froze enough berries to keep me through the stark winter, this year I gleaned one or two pints if even that (mind digresses to wonder if any of the talking heads in the media have stepped foot on a farm to see the effects of climate change first-hand?).

So this happened…Early on in the season, I received an email: “we regret to inform you that the sheep escaped overnight and have eaten all the peas.”

Gah! The snap peas each year are like prized candy. The time spent picking from the pea vines is like meditation in motion. I rue the karmic (Ovine?) irony. And I laugh a little bit because I wonder what the scene must have been in farm animal-land (Did they conspire? Did someone forget to lock a gate? Did they practice James Bond-like maneuvers? Baaaaand. James Baaaaand.)

It’s one of many first world ironies. As I get back into the Prius to go home, I reflect that I spend more for the privilege of fresh vegetables once a week for a few months than what some farmers in faraway lands earn in a year. I don’t even like peas. My annual pea consumption consists of little more than the ones I pick at the farm. That I am able to chuckle at what could have been a catastrophe on a farm in another corner of this planet is, in itself, a luxury. What to me was a cute inconvenience would be to a farmer in a drought-stricken area would truly have been a crop-pocalypse.

I’m grateful that the strawberry windfall in June enabled short-term memory loss of the sheep caper. And in August, the sungold cherry tomatoes make up in jam for what the blueberries promised but couldn’t deliver this year.

For me, spending summer close to home is grounding. It is an exercise in gratitude and appreciating the natural wonders we often get too busy to notice. Summertime is brilliant sunflowers and giant hibiscus and black-eyed-Susans and flowering, jasmine-scented trees; it’s ice cream cones and bare feet and outdoor music and beach BBQs and pot luck dinners and lazy afternoon people-watching walks and laying in the (now crispy) grass, watching the white of the clouds against the azure sky, breathing in the thick, salt-laden air.

And so it occurred to me this week, even as Halloween decorations begin to stealthily appear in the CVS, encroaching upon the Back-to-School paraphernalia (I shudder at the thought that Christmas décor will mysteriously begin to dot shelves once the school supplies recede), that I’ve yet to have lobster this summer.