Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Solitary and Southbound

Today I slipped south out of Tiznit and into ochre hills covered in bent trees spaced so far apart you'd think they don't get along. It was my third long roadtrip in as many days. I've traveled south from Casablanca to Essaouria, Essaouria to Tiznit, and Tiznit to Tan Tan where I now sit. Each journey has been about five hours long, and I've got another haul to Smara tomorrow. Yesterday, at least, the day ended with my greatest shave yet. My barber literally kissed my freshly-smoothed cheeks when he was finished.

And today, at least, I was not on a bus. I managed to hitch a ride on a truck loaded with bottles of mineral water. It was not a cheap ride, but I figured if we got lost in the desert at least we wouldn't dehydrate.

It feels good to be back south. Once again, I am surrounded by women wrapped in great swaddles of coloured cloth, and every man my age or older has a tremendous beard and missing teeth. I am in the Western Sahara, but I am not sure if I am in 'disputed territory' yet. There were a few checkstops en route, but my driver breezed through them pretty quickly by dropping a ten dirham coin into each officer's hand. He turned to complain to me after each time, shaking his head and saying 'Morocco is zero!'

Since Moonira returned to Canada a few days ago I've been thinking a little about traveling with someone else and trying to write. I realized that in order for me to engage with another place enough to be able to write about it I have to travel alone.

Please understand. I love traveling with my wife. We had glorious fun on our honeymoon and in Morocco this month. It was two weeks of real hotels, Moroccan wine, ocean sunsets, sandstorms, leather slippers and walks along the beach. More than all this, though, I adore Moonira's openness to the world and her kindness to the strangers we meet. Each time we travel I discover new reasons to love her.

From a writer's perspective, however, when I travel with someone else I learn more about them than I do about the place we are in or the people that surround us. This is fine for a vacation, but I find that when I sit down to write about 'our' travels instead of 'my' travels that I've missed the details that good travel writing requires.

It is true that I wrote three magazine pieces based on experiences Moonira and I had on our honeymoon, but these were happy exceptions. In each case the story presented itself as a complete narrative. I wrote about a dinner we had in Istanbul, a night among drunk Georgian men in a Tblisi tavern, and a weird festival in the hills of Adjara. These stories came complete with characters, plot and drama. As a writer, I had to do little else other than remember. Other than these sorts of rare, 'ready-to-write' experiences, I find that I only catch all the nuancess I need as a writer when I travel alone.

I used to think, somewhat romantically, that the world only reveals itself to the solitary traveler. Now I believe that only the solitary traveler has the space to see what the world is willing to reveal.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Best Menu Mistranslation Ever?

Hello all.

The vacation is over and I am back on writer duty. I am in Essaouria now and will head south tomorrow. I will write a proper post soon, but in the meantime I want to pass along a little item from a restaurant menu here in Essaouria.

Apparently, at Restaurant des Arches you can order Filet of soil on the Mexican.

Sounds delicious.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

In Morocco with Wife

Most of those reading this blog will know that the reason why the updates suddenly stopped about a week ago was because this was when my wife, Moonira, joined me here in Morocco. We have been on vacation, both from our respective jobs - the research for the walls book being my 'work' - and, it seems, from this blog. Moonira is still traveling with me now, but I thought I should take a few minutes to let everyone know that I am still alive.

The vacation has been wonderful, though hardly relaxing. For all their wonders, Marrakesh and Fes are hardly the sorts of places where one unwinds. We spent our first few days in these cities and found ourselves in constant battle with taxi drivers, hotel touts, phony guides and vendors selling everything from carpets to hashish to the opportunity to pose with a Barbary ape on our shoulders. (We turned down all these offers). Aside from a kindly barber - Reda, who gave me the two best shaves of my life - all the Moroccans we met seemed interested only in separating us from our money.

I didn't feel at ease among the locals until Moonira and I got on the road, in the buses and grand taxis with everyday people who had better things to do than sell us junk. We traveled overnight to M'hamid, only a few kilometres from the Algerian border, where we undertook the requisite camel trek. Our voyage into the 'Dunes of the Jews' took place during a sandstorm but as my eyes filled with sand and my ass slowly turned to pulp I felt, for some reason, that this was a very Canadian thing to do.

There are many images from the last week I could write about: Drinking tea brewed from local saffron in Talouine and spiced coffee in the Marrakesh medina. Hitching a ride in Mercedes driven by a young man with stomach troubles. Drinking champagne on a Marakechi rooftop terrace. Walking through the palm groves of the Draa River valley. Sharing our taxis and buses with fabric-wrapped Saharawi ladies and Berber women clad in black shawls edged with dingle balls. Shopping for turbans and gilabas. And did I mention those wonderful shaves?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Algiers to Marrakesh

Five weeks ago, when I first arrived there, I didn't like Algiers very much. The city disappointed me because it was a place I expected to love right away and I didn't. In my journal I wrote mainly that the coffee was good and that the men constantly spit on the sidewalk.

But the last two days I spent in Algiers were altogether different, and I am not sure why. Maybe it was because I was leaving Algeria the next day and needed the pleasant farewell, or maybe it was because the skies were so clear and blue, but my last days in Algiers completely sold me on the city. I didn't notice the young men and women holding hands on my first visit. Or the good restaurants with cheap beer on tap. Or how the Casbah seems formed by some sort of civil tectonics, as if the houses were squeezed together along some fault line, buckled and rose, and now hover over the city in a tangle.

The last man to speak to me in Algiers was a taxi driver in front of my hotel. He offered to take me to the airport but I declined telling him I was going to take the public airport bus. Reflexively, he told me that the bus wasn't running that day. This was, of course, a lie, but it is the perogative of taxi drivers in this part of the world to weasel a fare by any means. It didn't matter that I knew he was lying, and that the bus comes every half an hour all day, every day. If he hadn't told me otherwise than he wouldn't have been doing his job.

I thought of him when I arrived in Marrakesh. The first Morrocan to speak to me was a taxi driver. He, too, told me the bus wasn't running and he, too, was lying. I told him his brother in Algiers would be proud.

I first visited Marakkesh with my sister in 1998 and, like Algiers, I remember not liking it much. But after last night I realized that Sonia and I had made a mistake a decade ago. We arrived at the central square, the famous Djemaa el Fna, in the daylight and watched as it slowly developed into its nightly madness.

This was wrong. Last night, the bus dropped me on the square after dark as the action was at its peak. I was thrown into the midst of it, and had to navigate the clouds of grill smoke, the acrobats, the musicians, the young men on mopeds, and stalls selling sheep's heads and snails and mint tea and lentil soup and fried fish just to find the right narrow street to follow to my hotel.

This is the way to experience Marrakesh. To be thrown in like a virgin into a volcano.