One of the interesting things I’ve noted about many PCV blogs is how much time falls between a vacation and the recounting of its particulars in a post. I used to attribute that to all the work that must have backed up in the person’s absence: she just needed time to play catch up. Now, having taken my first out-of-country vacation since coming to Moldova last June, I think I understand the real reason for the elapsed time is the need to get a more objective perspective on the experience. But you all know me better than that by now. To hell with perspective. I write it the way I feel it, fresh from the press. Though I did wait a week for at least a little cushion….
The first thing I noticed was the air’s amiability, its willingness to billow lightly like a cotton sheath about my body and refrain from teething its way into the crevices of my garments. I hadn’t quite prepared for it, having kept on the tights and the leggings under my sturdy canvas hiking pants, donned my jacket and wrapped my scarf about my head as if I were still gearing up for a bracing march through the hinterlands when we disembarked from our taxi to walk the 200 yards to our riad. To say that I over-prepared is an understatement. All through the trip I was amused by the jackets and hats sported by other tourists: apparently they must have traveled from warmer climes or possess a much lower personal thermostat than mine. The weather, usually in the low 60’s, felt balmy to me.
The next thing to snag my attention was the juxtaposition of colors, textures and patterns: tiles, pottery, doorways, spices, lanterns, robes, scarves, vegetables, the damn paint on the buildings – everything was riotously colored and intricately detailed, formulated with an appreciative attention to beauty, artful in its mere placement. After bland, non-descript Soviet architecture, mono-ethnicity, and the narrow range of winter food stuffs I left in Moldova, the richness of the Berber/Moroccan culture was a symphony of the senses. (To give you an idea, I took over 500 pictures – only 10 or 12 of them have a human subject. I was taking pictures of our dinner. I know Mom, I’m sorry.)
But by the time we were lost in the souk – the meandering maze of ancient shops that comprise the heart of the medina – the small irritation that would soon bleed into almost every aspect of the trip had blossomed. I had temporarily forgotten, sitting in my Moldovan bedroom dreaming of sunshine and spices, that yet again I was placing myself in the role of “tourist” in a foreign economy heavily dependent on consumer cash. This experience had irretrievably affected me during my trip to South America and was compounded last spring when I traveled with a group to study poverty in Guatemala. I did not exist in Marrakech as a unique individual arriving to engage with a new culture and people, ecstatically anticipating all the personal encounters and experiences that would litter my path, but rather as a walking wallet, bulging with money that enticed the vendors to the greatest heights (and lows) of fatuous flattery, witty double entendres, crafty cajolery, pitiful pleas, and – unfortunately outright resentment. Everywhere we went we were trailed by a cacophony of calls, some of it with physical accompaniment – an arresting hand on the arm, a body blocking your egress, or a hovering shadow trailing you to the next stall. Echoes of former trips returned to me and I think I was more immediately and negatively affected by it then my traveling companions. Admittedly, I was a tourist. But I think I had wished to pay for an experience more than I wanted to accumulate talismans. I did not do a good job of planning ahead to avert this. Next trip, I hope to remember this lesson and avoid the marketplaces whenever feasible.
But there were highlights: a trip out into the desert to visit a Berber village with a pit stop at an argan tree co-op where various health and beauty concoctions were formulated on site. (Thought the end result was a sales pitch, it was interesting to see how the seed was ground into oil and to learn about the miraculous benefits of this ancient oil.) We hiked up to waterfall and had lunch at a quaint café while being serenaded by a local troupe of musicians. We road camels on a beautiful stretch of largely empty beach. We watched the sunset from the ramparts of the medina wall in Essaouira. We met lovely people working in the various hostels and riads where we stayed. We ate at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.
And the beauty of the place won out in the end. All the colors and the history and the wealth of architectural detail coupled with the soft ocean breezes and the beautiful, warming sun – we couldn’t help but fantasize how different our PC experience might have been if we had been placed in Morocco, instead. (And then I happened upon – completely serendipitously – this blog by a PCV Morocco today and my wonderings were assuaged: http://quinninmorocco.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/peace-corps-is-not-the-greatest-international-development-organization-in-the-world. The PC experience is essentially the same wherever you land.)
I returned last week and am currently in a (very frustrating) holding pattern. My site closed at the end of the year and Peace Corps is assisting me in finding a new partner. But it a long, slow process, fraught with many pitfalls and u-turns, so far. It is hard to start off the New Year with no clear direction, no work in hand and none in my sights so far. But this is Peace Corps….poftim!