I have always had great difficulty in describing my experiences with words. Maybe this deficiency is the result of a writing education process that emphasizes argument over description, or perhaps I am predisposed to struggle with written recollection. In any event, the following essay is an exercise, one step upon the ascending staircase of my struggle to better interpret my own personal reality.
For someone who does not like to be uncomfortable, I certainly picked a strange place to go for my brief spring break. Two months ago, I never would have imagined myself wandering the streets of an old African city in a predominately Islamic country. Looking back, I still can’t believe that I did just that. Along with two of my more adventurous friends, I travelled to Marrakech, Morocco expecting a challenging experience. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.
Morocco was cold, not something you would expect from a desert climate. Temperature-wise, it neither cool enough to feel comfortably toasty in a puffy North Face nor warm enough to sport summer clothing. Despite the mild-to-chilly temperatures, the air was excruciatingly dry and would very quickly sap your body of moisture should you not hydrate regularly. The tap water was undrinkable so you’d have to keep a bottled water or two with you as you walked; I often found myself lugging around bottles of titanic proportions as we made our way through crowded, narrow streets, having to maneuver them through tightly-packed human appendages like a spaceship maneuvering through an asteroid belt (The image of the Millennium Falcon navigating through a treacherous asteroid field to escape the Imperial Fleet in the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back sprang to mind, minus the planet-sized, worm-like thing). The unusual climatic features alone were very disorienting, as I would often be too hot or too cold depending on my chosen outfit for the day or would spend much of an afternoon in a dehydrated daze. Being the creature of comfort that I am, I often found myself desiring to go back to our small hotel room for a recovery nap while my travel mates still wanted to cover more ground.
The pitchmen on the streets of Marrakech were aggressive and would follow you for as far as several blocks if they thought you might crack under pressure (Being someone who generally looks vulnerable wherever I am, this was not good). They’d try to get you to eat at their uncle’s restaurant or offer to provide you with various illicit substances (We were offered Hashish, among other things, several dozen times), often becoming agitated if you did not respond to their advertisements. As we walked through bustling streets lined with market stalls, or suuqs, we would hear various greetings in different European languages from shopkeepers trying to get our attention. The shopkeepers were substantially more polite than the more mobile pitchmen, if only because they were relatively stationary. We learned to not glance around at the suuqs and scenery too much in an effort to avoid the attentions of salesmen (Using the ‘just keep swimming’ strategy of Finding Nemo fame). I fear that this strategy, although effective in its intended purpose, may have limited my ability to take in the vibrant surroundings. Intimidated by the aggressive soliciting of some, I succumbed to distrusting the whole of the old market district, known as the Medina. This distrust turned to fear after an especially traumatic encounter with an older shopkeeper who attempted to intimidate us into purchasing several traditional Moroccan wool shawls and furiously kicked us out of his store after we refused to buy anything. In this respect, Marrakech is a different world, one in which your personal space is a commodity. Just as we accept being digitally barraged daily with ads via television and the Internet, in Marrakech you’ve got to learn to tolerate street sellers’ persistent intrusions into your personal space in pursuit the sale.
Marrakech seems to contain two very distinct cities; one, to the west, is architecturally very similar to many modern European cities while the other, to the east, felt like a collection of Arabic neighborhoods straight out of the prophet Muhammad’s time, with its narrow, dirt streets and simple, red-clay structures. Going between the two districts felt like going into and coming out of a time warp. While traffic organized neatly within a well-planned roadway system in city’s modern district, cars, trucks, motorcycles, horses, and camels careened from every which-way in the bustling old market district, somehow managing to avoid collisions with pedestrians and each other. In between playing real-life Frogger with taxis and horse-drawn carriages, I marveled at how drivers could operate in such uncontrolled chaos. Many drivers appeared to throw caution to the wind, hoping that other motorists would see their vehicles coming if a hazardous situation arose. This casual attitude towards the dangers of driving in the Medina may derive from an important feature of the Islamic faith that emphasizes acceptance of all fates, good or bad as God’s will; if a man’s future is already set out for him, why should he approach the present with caution? While dodging a wide variety of vehicles in the Medina’s central square, I found myself thinking that my life could end abruptly there at the hands of a careless driver or as a result of my own carelessness. I’d like to think that I’ll always be able to pull myself out of harm’s way, but I know that eventually I will be unable to save myself. Whether I bite it on the hood of an out-of-control PT cruiser (God help me if one of those stupid things takes me out) or after a long and painful saga of illness, death, the ultimate unknown, will someday silence me with a final, stifling embrace. In this way, our fates are sealed, preordained by something or someone greater than us. Even as I type this, I’m unsure of who or what, if anything is responsible for my continued survival.
I purchased gonorrhea from four brothers in the artisan section of the old market district. Before you begin to ask strange questions about me, I did not purchase an STD; the aforementioned gonorrhea is the nickname my travel mates and I bestowed upon an African bass lute, or Gnawa, I purchased from a suuq specializing in handmade musical instruments. The instrument took an astounding amount of money and effort to get back to Switzerland. Sometimes it felt more like a curse than cherished takeaway; I was tempted to ditch it at an airport on more than one occasion. Hence, gonorrhea. Anyway, one of the four brothers (who as far as I know do not sell STD’s of any kind) was trying to learn English and despite his limited knowledge of the language, was a very talkative fellow. His name was (and I’m assuming still is) Chafiq. Chafiq had us over to his suuq for tea several times during the duration of our stay in Marrakech and even led us to one of his favorite food joints one night when we were looking for cheap, authentic bite. Maybe Chafiq was just being a good salesman; after all, I walked out of his suuq with one of the pricier items in his collection. Regardless of his motives, Chafiq restored my conception of the Moroccan shop keep, a conception tarnished a day earlier by the frightening old man in the linens store. To Chafiq, we were not just wallets with legs; we were people, travelers who wanted to make the most of our time in his city. Sure he didn’t mind making a quick buck, but much more so he wanted us to enjoy being in his homeland. He wanted us to come back.
Stereotyping usually has a negative connotation when people talk about it; we often do not distinguish between good stereotypes and bad stereotypes, lumping them all together in one big bundle of prejudice and pre-supposed hate. Where most stereotypes go wrong is that they are invented by one and applied by many. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to formulate an idea of the whole based on experience of a part, which is what stereotyping is at its roots; however, stereotyping is an internal thought process that should not be outsourced to others. Sure, I left Morocco with several stereotypes of my own: Tangier is repulsively dirty; there are both friendly and nasty shopkeepers out there; don’t drink the water. What all of these statements have in common is that they derive from experiences I’ve had. Personal experiences. They might not apply for you (except for the ‘don’t drink the water’. Seriously, don’t) because these stereotypes are mine and not yours. As a traveler, I’ve had the unique opportunity to create my own stereotypes of a wide range of places, people and things. These attempts to understand have afforded me a more vibrant and complete worldview. Whether this worldview is correct to the last empirical detail is not important.