In the last few days, we’ve caught up with a Mexican friend who I met over a decade ago. I was on the trip of a lifetime (hopefully the first of many), a year on the road, Europe and Africa, and solo.
It was meant to be a trip with my boyfriend at the time. Then I dumped him. Then it was meant to be a trip with a good friend. And she, too, kept delaying the departure date and negotiating for shorter and shorter times on the road. And it morphed into a solo trip.
I never felt brave enough initially to plan a solo trip. But life intervened, and I got exactly what I needed.
When my old travel friend recently started getting closer and closer on his facebook photos, I messaged him. “Are you coming to Australai? Can we catch up?” And sure enough he was. A couple of catch ups ensued. He met my hub-in-boots, he met my j man. We made suggestions for his Australian leg of travel, many wines were drunk, and inevitably the old photo albums were rolled out.
It was many years ago we knew each other. In Romania, a large group of travellers and a few insane Brasov locals morphed into a crazy travel cluster. We put off other plans, for the sheer pleasure of hanging out. We drank beers in the Brasov Beer festival, and played three day long games of truth & dare, we played poker in Speedy’s house with so many people cheating the entire deck of cards was under the rug. We went on hikes and camping, we went horse riding, we visited Dracula’s castle in Bran, we shopped at local markets and cooked up feasts in the crazy grandmas house where many of us stayed.
Yet as Roberto flipped through my photos of that time, he asked me about Morocco. It was a great regret, he said. Like me, he caught the short ferry from Algeςiras in Spain over to Tangiers. And he found Tangiers such a full on assault that he got right back on the ferry to Spain. He never saw the place.
I remember getting on that ferry. There were only a few people on board. The water was not very rough. I put on my long skirt and flowing shirt. I put on my fake wedding ring. And halfway across, on the loud speakers, the call to prayer started. And the other passengers faced Mecca, and prayed. I felt, as we crossed that water, suddenly thrown, immersed in the unfamiliar, away from my comfort zone, a little lost. I was the only woman on board. I was travelling solo to a Muslim country. What was I thinking?
Tangiers took that discomfort to a whole other level. I seemed to hit the dock and be in someone’s Uncle’s carpet shop within about an hour. A man in a gelahbra collected a few travellers, and took us in his car on a tour of the city. Did I agree to this? I must have been insane. We saw spice markets, the kasbah full of children playing, crazy traffic where hatchbacks and Mercedes taxis butted up against donkeys hoofed with cut out car tyres.
Tangiers was too much.
After several hours of this tour, just like my Mexican friend, I felt the need to escape. EVERYONE was in my face. EVERYONE seemed to want speak to me, or touch me. Everything seemed worthy of my attention. So I bought a ticket on a night train to Marrakech, narrowly avoided buying a carpet, and killed a few hours in a tea house. I think I had no facial expressions. I was full of input, I was flooded, I was overrun.
I found the couchette in the night train terrifying. Random guards seemed to open and close the door all night, I was in the top bunk of three with no idea how to get my backpack into the storage area above the door. I felt like I was in a morgue, and they’d pull my bed out simply to attach a toe tag. Somehow, someone helped me to store my pack. Somehow, I slept.
In the morning, watching the sun rise over the plains as the train rattled along was beautiful. Then I realised it was 6am. I really needed to pee. And ALL THE TOILETS WERE LOCKED. At the time, this was apparently a common security measure to stop stow aways hiding in the loos avoiding ticket inspectors. But the train guard had slept in, and I needed to pee. Really really needed to pee.
Somehow I made it to the unlocking the bathroom phase of the morning, and I can still remember looking at the relief on my face in the mirror, after I’d been. Oh the relief. Somehow we made it to Marrakech. Where it was about 8am and I had no plan WHATSOEVER.
A few other totally unplanned events followed. I stood vaguing out on the train platform, only to encounter another Aussie from Western Australia called Tim, also travelling solo. Tim was organised. Tim had a plan. Me, I’d been on the road just a few weeks. I had no clue. I’m not sure I even had a guide book.
So Tim got me to a fantastic hotel overlooking the medina. I got a room. I found an ATM. And about five hours later I had somehow agreed to go on a trip the next morning with another random man with a minivan. Over the High Atlas Mountains, across to Zagora, camel rides into the Sahara Desert, a night in a bedouin tent. Just your usual day out.
The Sahara was beautiful. The moutains were beautiful. The bedouin were beautiful. I met a man in blue who had never seen a city or been in a car. I saw a million stars. I raced camels. I saw a camel spit ten feet and hit a man square in the back of his head. I ate with my hands from a clay pot, with juice running down my chin. This is me, in the early morning in the desert. I am on the bottom camel. It was 1998.
I returned to to the frontal assault that is Marrakech, from the peace of the desert to the hustle and bustle of the city, where two hundred identical orange juice sellers ask you to remember their stall number and return, because after all, their juice is the best. I returned to the beauty of the night markets, to the dancing songs of the snake charmer, to the children running and the hookah pipes chuffing.
It was amazing. But I did not enjoy it at the time. The desert, yes. The cities, no. Marrakech, Tangiers, Fez, they each have their own way of assaulting you, assaulting your senses. And I could not take it all in. I wrote and I photographed, and I wrote and I photographed.
But it was not until I left Morocco, that I liked Morocco. It was not until I looked through the photos, and read my diary entries, and thought about my days there, that I realised what a place it was. At the time, I felt under siege. At the time, I felt in danger for hours at a time (though it really isn’t that bad, as a solo woman you are on high alert). I felt hypervigilant. I felt mentally assaulted, sensory assault.
But whenever someone mentions Morocco, I say, oh you must go. You should really appreciate every day in Morocco. Morocco is amazing.
This is a place where sometimes I had to grit my teeth to walk down a street, looking for a bathhouse, in the guidebook I finally bought. This is a place where I sometimes cried into my pillow each night, or woke in terror at the incredibly loud 3am call to prayer. This is a place where I had to politely explain to the hotel owner in Fez why I had no desire whatsoever to exchange my English language novels for hashish.
And after talking to my Mexican friend this week, I realised something.
Morocco is just like parenting.
You cross an unfamiliar strait. And everything around you changes from comfortable to confronting. You are immersed in the foreign. It is a full on sensual assault. You are on high alert at first. There are beautiful things, but sometimes you can’t even see them at the time. Later on, when the sensory overload has passed, you can remember, and process, and appreciate, and you think, why didn’t I appreciate that more? But so much of it, at the time, is just about getting through. Is just about the next place, the next challenge. You introduce solids, they are sitting up. You deal with the early phase of crawling and all the bumps and falls, then they are pulling up and walking. You deal with walking, then they are able to unscrew the lids on poisonous substances and paint your carpet with nail polish.
And many many parts of it, you cannot appreciate at all until time passes. Until you have time to sit back and reflect.
I think that is why people constantly say to you Oh they are so beautiful at this age. Appreciate every moment. They grow up so fast. You won’t believe it and you’ll be giving a speech at their 21st, or dealing with an obnoxious teenager. Really stop and appreciate it.
These comments, to new parents, seem to put so much more pressure on us. Because not only do we have to get through it, we have to now appreciate every moment or feel extra Mummy (daddy) guilt for our lack of appreciation.
And it’s like Morocco, you know. I’m early on in this gig, but many phases of parenting, you appreciate and remember after you leave. When the sensory overload has passed. When the hypervigilance has calmed down into something more akin to the every day. When we flick through photographs and look at old facebook posts or blog posts and have time to reflect.
Yes, you have moments, many moments, that are like the stars in the Sahara Desert. Funny moments like camel spit. Insightful moments like a man who has never been to a city. These all happen too.
But most of it makes sense after the fact. When the storm of the new has passed. Parenting is just like Morocco.