It was April of 2009, and immediately upon our arrival in Marrakesh, I was accosted from all directions with the joyous cry: “La soeur d’Obama!“
Obama’s sister was a much better reception than I’d been expecting, based on my mother’s advice to me when I told her Pedro and I would be taking this trip: Don’t tell anyone you’re American. Say you’re from Jamaica. Foreigners don’t like Americans. I hadn’t found this to be true in any of the places I’d visited since I began my junior year abroad, thanks to the recent election of that eloquent, handsome Illinois senator to President of the United States. My combination of deep melanin and unmistakable accent was an invitation for complete strangers to stop, beam, and declare their love and appreciation for my President. Their eyes would gaze hungrily at me, desperate for some confirmation of hope — cajoling me to agree, to declare him the savior my people needed.
I was twenty-one years old, a junior in college, and in a perpetual state of capsizing, adrift in a sea of my own self-doubt and discovery. I took little comfort in the fixed parameters of my living situation, the petty minutiae of application letters and transcripts, rooming assignments and transfer courses. There was a profound sense of cognitive dissonance between my “study abroad program” and the act of studying abroad; I clung desperately to the carefree, wild life I thought I should be living, and at times sunk beneath the weight of my own insecurity and aching loneliness. It was an unwelcome stowaway from the dark corners of my dorm room back home, burrowing its way into my international sojourn. I traveled to escape it. I wanted it to drown in the crystal blue waters of Santorini, to be trampled in the cobblestones of Barcelona. I craved liberation — or, at least, validation.
Before our trip, I foolishly believed I could find it in Pedro. We had maintained a light fling during our years abroad for a few months now, a fling that had been a source of immense frustration and occasional happiness. At every turn, his utter panic at any semblance of an agreement between the two of us rendered my loyalty desperate-seeming and pathetic. His tendency for emotional vulnerability followed by bouts of sullenness and inexplicable diffidence gave me constant whiplash. We were so rarely in sync; he would push me away when I felt lonely; I would grow fed up right when he sought me out again. Our pendulums swung wildly in opposing directions, meeting in the middle only for the briefest of moments before careening apart once again.
Our romantic spring break trip, I quickly discovered, was taking place during a routine separation of our desires, and typical of the strongest forces of nature, like lust and love and heartbreak, trying to reconcile them became both exhausting and pointless. So I stopped, and let my surroundings romance me instead.
My older sister had visited Morocco a few years prior, while I was still in high school and saw her life as immensely cooler than mine. This trip was a dream come true. I did not necessarily have the money to finance it, as I had no job and no savings to speak of, but plane tickets are much cheaper in Europe, especially when you make a daily habit of trawling the web for low fares, as I did. My mother filtered money into my bank account, money that would be accompanied by half-hearted lectures to find a part-time job, to save better, to take full advantage of my time overseas. I tried, but not very hard, to follow her advice; I sought out jobs but didn’t follow through on applying; I deposited money into my British bank account and tried – and often failed – to maintain a healthy balance. I bought the bare minimum of groceries, and justified my frequent requests for travel funds with the amazing deal I found; my friends are all going; I have always wanted to visit this place! She kept indulging me, so I kept asking, doing my best to keep her abreast of the goings-on in my new life, to heed her repetitive calls to appreciate the opportunity I had, the likes of which she’d always only dreamed. I’ll pay her back somehow, someday, I resolved, as I stretched thousands and thousands of miles away from her, from home, from certain misery. Somehow. Someday.
You’re going to be asked all sorts of uncomfortable questions, I had been warned, by former study abroad students who had lived away from home during the Bush era. People will act like you’re to blame for the stupidity of the Republican Party. Instead, I found that I was offered congratulations. Your people have made it, their effusive well wishes seemed to whisper. Finally. Haven’t you?
Pedro clearly resented the attention I was getting — whether because he preferred to blend in, or because he was jealous of my warm reception, I wasn’t sure. He hailed from an Eastern European country, and looked vaguely Italian, or Spanish, and this didn’t arouse much excitement with the locals. “You would think they had never seen a black person before,” he would grumble under his breath. I smiled benignly and nodded, as I often did with him. The wide roads hummed warmly under my sandals, toes kicking up clouds of vermillion dirt, flaky cigarette ash. The sun hung bright yet withdrawn, the air growing cool more rapidly than I expected as evening chased itself into night. I rubbed the goose pimples from my arms as we traversed the winding corridors of souks, sidestepping woven baskets of chromatic buttons and beads; sprawling displays of candies and fruit; hanging drum barrels and intricately woven tapestries.
The first call to prayer was jarring: I had forgotten that it would happen, and I was easily startled by loud noises. I paused, eyes wide, unsure of what to do or where to go. Blaring, triumphant, and a bit grainy, the prayer sounded as if it were trumpeted into the air by an old stereo, aged with sacred antiquity. Five times a day, beginning at dawn, we listened to the stentorian chanting, and each time, I was struck by the solemnity of the moment, even as we were engaged in some totally mundane activity: untying dust-coated shoelaces before taking a nap, settling into a faded folding chair for an hour of email writing in a crowded internet café. After a few days, the call became a familiar backdrop in the foreign city I’d quickly come to love; when we ventured out of our urban settings, I missed it.
Tagine was everywhere. I became a vegetable tagine connoisseur; in other words, I was a broke vegetarian. I learned how to pour the tea. The more elevated the teapot, the thinner the pour, and the faster the tea will cool. Delicious, sweet, warm. I felt like royalty, sipping from a tiny cup, watching the pageantry of the bustling street from our vantage point of the cafe. For that brief moment, I was not a part. I was a spectator, anonymous and silent.
I watched Pedro eat snails at the market one night, fully expecting him to be vomiting in our hotel room hours later. He was fine. I stopped swigging from water bottles after brushing my teeth, wearied by the hassle and lingering paranoia of microscopic parasites, the horrible stomach bugs our guidebook — which we dubbed “The Bible” — promised. I used the tap, and I was also fine. Unbeknownst to me, Pedro had brought a bottle of Jagermeister for us to share — he claimed that the high alcohol content would stave off the majority of any dangerous germs we might encounter in our food or drinks. I thought the science dubious but appreciated the mini-thrill I experienced every time it was time to take another swig; nightlife in Morocco was not always welcoming to young women, I quickly learned. This –tiny shots straight from the bottle — would have to do. I welcomed the small burn, the illicit pleasure.
We watched sly magicians and full-throated singers, clapped for sinewy dancers and chaotic street artists. He hated the aggressive salesmanship; sneered at the frantic ploys for dirhams. I wondered if he was right; if I was a typical dumb American, heart bleeding with naïveté. I loved dropping money into hats, coins into buckets; I felt as if I was a part of something larger than myself, a idyllic rose haze that settled over me as I surveyed the open square flooded with food stalls, long tables, bulbous white lights, the cool, thick night, the laughing, swaying crowd. Meats and vegetables hissing and sizzling, releasing their spicy scents, more options than we could ever taste during our brief trip.
I reveled in it all: wasn’t this what I had traveled for, emptied my bank account for, stressed my mother out for? This round-bellied life? I could not tell where the delusion began and ended — if the grandeur and majesty of the ancient city we explored were truly changing me, or if I just desperately wanted it to, needed it to. I itched for some measure of authenticity in my own emotion, rather than this pale yearning for postcard-glossy memories. I felt erratic; I laughed too much and then sunk into sullen silence, begged that we rest for a few hours, grew restless and longed to jump onto a bus going anywhere, everywhere.
“Are you alright?” Pedro asked me one day, his voice low, irritating. “You seem dissatisfied, somehow.” I lied and told him I was fine.
I was a third year French student, downright Hermionean in my enthusiasm, awkwardly and delightedly fumbling my way through its linguistic labyrinth. If Moroccans didn’t realize I was American, they spoke to me in French: thrilling, terrifying. What I prided myself on, more than my technical knowledge for grammar or my ever-increasing memory bank for vocabulary, was my ability to mimic a French accent — all hunched over vowels, throaty rs, seasoned pauses and euhhhhs. I fooled them, most of the time. I felt accomplished, but still impossibly green, like a student of the world who had successfully completed kindergarten. This feeling was compounded when, in the same breath that I was complimented for knowing more than one language, I was berated for coming to Morocco without having learned Berber. The elderly cafe manager clucked his tongue at me in disappointment, and I offered a faint smile, a vague apology, quietly folding up my foolish pride.
I fell in love with the clothing around me: the long, flowing tunics and airy, billowing harem pants. I held out for a few days before succumbing to the urge to buy some for myself, resolutely ignoring Pedro’s sardonic grin when I emerged from a souk with a bulging plastic bag. Whatever, I thought, eyeing some white tourists arguing over a map, each of them outfitted in brightly colored harem pants, t-shirts, and Birkenstocks. I couldn’t possibly look more ridiculous than they did.
We strolled along dark beaches in Essaouira, the cool ocean water lapping against our feet. We gazed at the heavens and he asked me questions about God, about the solar system, about our places in it. And every response I’d been taught in Sunday School and Bible class sounded inadequate, not because I had begun questioning my faith, or was ready to admit it, but because the attempt to smother into mere words a vastness so haunting and sacred felt grotesque. We shuffled into bright, cramped cafés, way off the beaten tourist track and into the unmistakable territory of men. He stepped out to find an ATM and I itched beneath the questioning, appraising stares, immediately clinging to his side when he returned. He did not object, and we left quicker than we had come.
The bus ride to Ouarzazate felt endless, being jostled and jarred, sweltering and nauseated. I snapped photograph after photograph of the passing desert, dreaming of solid ground and five minutes away from the miserable, shrieking baby. I taught Pedro how to play MASH on a piece of crumpled paper I fished from my bag; we giggled as we predicted each other’s futures.
Boulmane Dades was a breathtaking desert gorge, peppered with lazily grazing goats, utterly devoid of sound. Humanity seemed such a lowly, inconsequential thing, my preoccupation with appearances and the nearest Western Union and relationships falling away like boulders from an overburdened cliff. Pedro and I hiked for hours, guzzling mouthfuls of tepid water from dusty bottles, taking refuge in the shade of overhanging rock, bending to watch a tiny stream trickle past. We taught each other silly dances and songs from our childhood, our raucous laughter sloughing away the layers of straight-backed, hawk-eyed vigilance that visiting a foreign city necessitates. We admitted that we did not want to leave; the very air seemed purer, the endless sprawl of nature at once terrifying and soothing. We separated for a time; he slipped ahead while I loped behind, considering the white-veined sky, the impossible notion that I would soon return to it, to hurtle back into the fray of my fake life: the slate grey seminars, the rain-soaked streets. I carried my journal in my bag at all times; I couldn’t stop asking myself questions, scribbled in French, ever-wary of Pedro’s wandering eye while I wrote. What do you want, Carla? I would query, and I mouthed to myself, ambling the wide, empty road, a solitary figure in my harem pants, my scuffed Chuck Taylors. What do you want?
Our hostel was more like someone’s home, spacious yet intimate, a calming retreat from the overwhelming open air of the world outside. Dinner was a family affair, followed by a group song, where we pounded on drums and shook tambourines and laughed ourselves sick, a group of complete strangers bound by the impossible coincidences of place and time. I was drunk on good food and good company, emboldened by the invigorating desert air, the peace we’d found in the gorge, but he eschewed our revelry and isolated himself in our room, which I found immature and somewhat hilarious. He was still such a mystery to me, but one I grew gradually more accepting of never fully understanding.
Later that night, we sat outside, not touching, barely speaking, our eyes trained on the inky sky. The stars glittered in incredible clarity and splendor, burning miles and miles away, and I listened to their dying whisper. If I tilted my head at this particular angle, the sky was limitless, boundless, and now, I was adrift in a sea of the deepest obsidian, utterly unmoored from the frenzied, provincial trappings of my own self-doubt and insecurities. Despite Pedro’s presence, I had never felt more with myself than right there, in that moment, at once floating in the wonder of this experience, this time, this place; I embraced all of the questions that had become refrains, answers that I couldn’t grasp (What do you want?), words that were making the gradual ascent from sound to meaning, and breathed.
Before I return to the fray, I thought, I get to have this. And then I stopped thinking, stopped scribbling, stopped wondering. It was so quiet.
Carla is a teacher, writer, and serial to-do list creator. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and imaginary dog. You can follow her on Twitter @carlawaslike.