KM1074: Final days in Morocco

2.25.2016

"I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness." — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

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Saturday, February 20

Late afternoon. What a pleasant way to roam. The walled city inside Essaouira is a pedestrian paradise (a people paradise, rather), where one can walk and wander and stop abruptly and turn around and rush across the skinny streets without the threat of death roaring by at every turn.

And because people walk, there are few destinations inside Essaouira. The journey is the destination. Space is well-used, all space, and any place seems as important and as full of life as any other. Everything is connected, and though the medina is nothing but confusing dead-ends and maze-like curving streets meant to baffle invading armies, it makes sense yet. This is a place where one can live.

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"Cars function best as exclusionary devices, as mobile private space. Even driven as slowly as possible, they still don't allow for the directness of encounter and fluidity of contact that walking does." — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

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Everything feels to scale. Every street has the Moroccan equivalent of a bodega, often no larger than a carriage, and I feel one could get next to everything they need for life within a five minute's walk of their home. It feels familiarly human, but it's the rare permanent instance of that fleeting, unfamiliar abstraction we all treasure to varying degrees of cognizance: a place made for people.

We know these places, in theory. We love them. The farmers' market. The block party. Pearl Street in Colorado, Church Street in Vermont, even that one block of Pennsylvania Avenue behind the White House. The National Mall, the county fair, a protest march in the main street, an awareness walk down Broadway, a marathon, a paseo. The barricades still raised after the parade. It's perhaps the one saving grace of Europe's tourism industry: the hopelessly charming alstadt, the old town, the public squares of Belgium, of France, the Gothic District of Barcelona with its skinny alleys and hidden basilicas, the enchanting pathways of old Tallinn. It's the street, or simply the occasion, where humans reclaim their right to the center of the walkway, where they climb from the ditches and move about freely in a truly equal public commons.

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"Afterwards we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people's comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home."  — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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But they don't make it easy to go fast! And so we find these little bastions of humanity charming for a time, or maybe a place to visit, and we abandon the notion that anyone can actually live that way: it's not sustainable. We climb back in our cars and drive home in three-thousand-pound vehicles carrying one or two small people, because that, instead, we deem sustainable.

How nice it would be to wake up, anywhere in America, and step outside onto a quiet street. How nice it would be to grow herbs in the front yard that weren't covered in car exhaust. How nice it would be to walk down Market Street in San Francisco the way it was designed to be traveled: on foot. How nice it would be to honor Pierre L'Enfant's plan for DC: a city not designed for cars, but for promenades, for leisurely strolls to the circus (those things we've reduced to "traffic circles").

Children can play here. I've seen them, just today, playing football in the wider streets, playing tag in the emptier alleys, and I feel happy knowing that not one of them will find their skull crushed under the unforgiving bulk of a road tire by day's end. Just a century ago, a driver who ran over a child in America was often mobbed, often beaten, but always blamed. Why were you driving so recklessly? Now a driver on her cell phone, speeding down the road, runs over a child and says she didn't mean to, and we blame the parents. Why didn't you keep your child out of the street? It's shameful.

Drivers aren't bad people. We're all drivers, to one degree or another. Driving makes sense at times. But car privilege is a sort that creeps up on us, turns us petulant, and the enlightened driver must understand that, particularly in an urban area, the speed limit is, whatever the signs may say, three miles per hour and anything but that driver has the right of way. The driver is a visitor on the road, an inconvenience, and honking because something "is in the way" misses the very point of "the way."

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"Sono's truck had been stolen from her West Oakland studio, and she told me that though everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents ... Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors (home, car, gym, office, shops), disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it." — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

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This is the key feature of Essaouira that I treasure: its humanity. Otherwise, it's not terribly exotic, not terribly Moroccan. Turn down a quiet alley and it could certainly be Dubrovnik, Venice, any of the final remnants of truly human civilization the world over. But after a few long weeks on the road, it'll certainly do for a rest.

Later. What a show! I was sitting in a courtyard a little earlier, with some tajines and mint tea, when an old French couple with folk instruments wandered in. They set up in the middle of the courtyard and played some beautiful music for almost an hour, and the small number of patrons at the various cafes watched and tapped along and took photographs and thoroughly enjoyed their contribution to the afternoon.

They took an intermission, then, and the man got out his hat and made the rounds, collecting donations. Suddenly everyone was curiously intent on studying the spices in their plates! A dirham is worth next to nothing, but none of these paying customers had any to spare. It was disgraceful. I felt it necessary to pay the share of the entire stingy lot.

The watering hole, indeed, was dry, but the thankless couple kept at it for another round. But just then, a pack of Moroccan buskers entered! The trio broke every unspoken rule of the busking community, encroaching like this, and the French couple was clearly appalled. They stopped playing, and eyed the three Moroccans curiously ... surely there wasn't enough sustenance in this dry little watering hole for the five of them.

The three approached the two, and the air was thick with suspense (actually, I don't think anyone else was paying attention; but I was enthralled). The French man raised his hands and brought them down on his drum, and I prepared for the cacophony, but no! It was harmony. They worked up a rhythm, these two groups, and an intercultural jam session ensued. It was lovely.

But the drama wasn't over. From the courtyard entrance a blind man staggered in, waving a cane wildly in front of him. He held out his hand for dirham, and now the stingy crowd was triple-taxed, with three distinct groups seeking donations that just weren't to be given. I saw the nostrils of the French man flare.

The jam session ended, and the Moroccans, clearly with no shame, walked about the crowd collecting tips. They couldn't have gotten but five dirhams from the crowd (and I certainly gave them nothing, the crooks), but the true insult came when they pocketed the money, offering none of their share to the French. Almost pocketed it, rather. On the way out, they slipped a dirham into the blind man's hand. He clasped it and smiled.

[Post-script: I feel it necessary to add a very important epilogue to this drama, well after its retelling: the blind man wasn't even blind! I saw him later that night, strolling along with his cane, eyes open and feet steady. What a satisfying final twist on the whole epic.]

Evening. Getting lost in the medina is a lovely way to spend the better part of a day. It takes very little skill to master: you just turn right, enter the first alleyway, and three hours later, you find yourself still coming upon delightful new surprises.

Eventually I found my way out, and even made it over to the beach, where I took a long walk on the shore. A storm rolled in, and I made it back to the hotel just before the skies opened up.

Sunday, February 21

Evening. A morning spent reading, an afternoon spent hopping from one cafe to the next. I stumbled upon what you might call the tourist hive, a large square where most of them were buzzing about, with pizza joints and trick monkeys on chains (deplorable), and buskers singing American folk (though one slipped in a Tracy Chapman track, so I certainly can't be mad at that).

In a later courtyard, I made friends with a stray dog, pet his oily scalp until my hand got slimy, and then read some more. Feeling has returned to the extremities of my right hand, though my left is still numb. This rest feels good for me.

Monday, February 22

Afternoon. Hardly anything to write, which is by no means to say nothing to enjoy. I think I'd like to live in a place with no cars; the pace of it suits me well.

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"It may sound ridiculous, but I feel I've been privileged to see man at this best, still in possession of the sort of liberty and dignity that we have exchanged for what it pleases us to call 'progress.' Even a brief glimpse of what we were is valuable to help to understand what we are. Living in the West, it's now impossible for most of us to envisage our own past by a mere exercise of the imagination, so we're rather like adults who have forgotten the childhood that shaped them. And that increases the unnaturalness of our lives. So to realize this past through contact with a people like [these] should help us to cope better with our present, though it also brings the sadness of knowing what we're missing ... Nothing is false there, for humans and animals and earth, intimately interdependent, partake together in the rhythmic cycle of nature. To lose one's petty, sophisticated complexities in that world would be heaven, but impossible, because of the fundamental falsity involved in attempting to abandon our own unhappy heritage. Yet the awareness that one cannot go back is a bitter pill to swallow." — Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India With a Bicycle

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I think I'm finally over tajines. They're delicious: a filling, healthy, stewed heap of vegetables cooked in a conical ceramic pot and delivered to the mouth in parcels of freshly-baked bread, but I fear I've had more tajines this month than one could stand for a lifetime, and I feel nausea at the thought of another plate. An unsatisfying pizza for now, then.

Tuesday, February 23

Evening. I'd hoped, by the end of my rest in Essaouira, to have learned the ways around this crooked medina like an old local. I have failed miserably at this aim. I feel just as lost as my first day here, or maybe my third at best: there are lovely courtyards I had tea in that I can no longer find, making it to the outermost walls is still a struggle, and every so often I've walked myself into a dead end and must, embarrassingly, turn on my heel and retreat.

But new discoveries still, on this last day. I spent most of it reading on the shore, to the sound of crashing waves and hungry gulls, and now it's night and the city is going to sleep and I'm sad to be gone before it again rises.

Wednesday, February 24

Late evening. Today's been a long one. No shade, few stops, no food, few services. A smooth road, most of the way, but four lanes and fast cars, though fortunately not a terrible number. Flat land, for the most part, and uninspiring scenery through all of it. But 127 kilometers down! Tomorrow, then, will be quick, easy work to Marrakesh.

I imagined I'd rough camp tonight, which ended up being my only choice, with no campgrounds or hotels to speak of, but even rough camping was a struggle in this barren landscape. I'd cycle for miles without passing a tree, a large rock, a ruin, or anything to hide a tent behind, and the flatness would stretch away from the road to the lonely horizon: everything featureless, nowhere a safe, respectable place to set up camp.

It grew dark, and the road narrow, and I'd dropped my rear light somewhere back on the coast. I wanted off the road. So when a bright, towering minaret appeared in the distance amidst a sparkling city, I wasn't fooled: I knew this time that it was no minaret, but the sure sign of yet another Moroccan cement plant.

And so it came full circle. My first night's wild camping spent outside a cement plant, and so my last. This one rested off a busier road, but with a high wall setting it apart. I snuck off the asphalt and onto the dirt and quickly pulled Yoshi behind the wall. It was quieter, calmer, and we walked a ways closer to the plant, but still protected by the privacy of the barricade. Here, next to a bald tree, I pitched camp.

Then: dogs. Always dogs. Every time I try to stealthily rest my head in this country, a dog in the distance goes crazy barking and yipping, and thoroughly endangering my anonymity. There's little you can do, for once the dog knows you're there it just howls, and silence won't make it forget what it knows, what it heard, what it smells.

There were several dogs, all barking, and thankfully they were behind some fence, I gathered, for they didn't charge. By the sound of it they were maybe a hundred meters away, so I did my best to not antagonize them with loud movements and went to work setting up my tent, blowing air into my sleeping pad, unfurling my sleeping bag.

Then: a loud, angry voice blaring over a speaker. The words were Arabic, or maybe garbled French, either way not words I understood. But I longed to, for in my head they were words of warning: We know you're out there. This is private property. Leave at once, or we'll release the dogs.

Or maybe not. I'll never know what the voice was saying. I heard it a few times, always sounding angry, always further riling up the mutts, but nothing has come of it, yet, and it's later now, and mostly quiet, and I suppose I'll try for some sleep and hope I'm left in peace until morning.

Cycled today: 127 kilometers

Thursday, February 25

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"At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest. But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty's sake, and invincible determination may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat. — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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Late afternoon. Three weeks after cycling out of Marrakesh's open center, I return, and it feels like three months. I'm different, and the city is too, and yet it feels familiar all the same. I've seen so much of Morocco, carried myself over a thousand kilometers of its country on water, salt, and tajine, and now I'm back at the start, my body and Yoshi's both maybe a little worse for wear, and I'm off the saddle and will soon be headed home.

Not just yet, though. I got here around noon after a long, uneventful morning and a long, uneventful slumber before that. I've been reading, and eating, and later I imagine I'll do more of the same. At sometime over the next twenty-four hours, I'll have to tear Yoshi into her little bits and pieces, and pack her away. Pack everything else, too.

Friday, February 26

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"Ever bike? Now that's something that makes life worth living!" — Jack London

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Final evening. And so, she is packed, and I am packed, and when the sun next rises I shall be watching it from the skinny window of a northbound plane. And so, my cycling adventure through Morocco draws to a close.

It was, as I look back, all I'd hoped it'd be: challenging but rewarding, trying but giving, sometimes relaxing and never dull and always beautiful. I feel I've seen a country as it was meant to be seen, a pace fit for humans. Days of desert, evenings on a remote coast, and always with no more than could be pushed, pulled, hauled, or heaved up and down the mountains.

I'll miss this, the Atlas out my window, the tireless drumbeat percussing from the medina. The wake up and go, get tired and sit, get more tired and sleep tune of these wandering, elongating days. I'll miss the friendly faces wishing me well on the road, miss the long afternoons next to a silver pot of mint tea. I'll miss that motion of the pedals, that work of instant reward, uninterrupted for hours.

But I'll be going home, to a comfortable city of gentle familiarities and some welcome rest, home to friends I miss and a girl I love. Home, to a little house, to a slumbering garden, to a place just yawning with the first hints of spring. Home to a dusty tent caked in Moroccan mud, to a disassembled bicycle begging to be put back together again. Home, for now then, until the next adventure.

Off I go.

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"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live." — Mark Twain, "Taming the Bicycle"

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