Morocco - The Country that Travels within You ... i thought it was a strange tagline the first time i saw it. But it intrigued me and inspired me to return soon after my first short visit, to spend a few months in a country that remains within me, wherever i travel, in part because i picked up so many precious gifts from being there ...
The first time I encountered someone on the train who offered and shared her kitkat with fellow travellers in the same cabin, it still surprised me even though it was something I had read about. That was repeated time and again on the train and on the bus trips I took exploring the country. It seems such a simple and natural gesture for any moroccan, yet so awkward and difficult for me to simply offer a stranger to share my snack (only good thing was that it prevented me from snacking on the trips just so I wouldn't look rude snacking by myself). Finally, on the bus ride from Rabat to Chefchaouen, I plucked up my courage to respond in kind and offered the lady sitting beside me mandarin oranges; after she gave me an apple. And on the bus ride back to Rabat, I made sure I had two bananas so I could offer the passenger next to me one.
My student Mohammed offered to show me Salé on my last day after English class at the cafe in downtown Rabat with Younes and Rachid. We took the blue rowboat across the narrow strip of river and walked to the medina where we had tagine in a little local cafe. After lunch and tea, we walked to the old maderasah which was pretty much like the one in Fes. Climbing out of a window and onto the roof terrace, one could see the whole sprawling city of Salé. The old fort walls along the coast seem a lonely reminder of a once important stronghold of a bygone empire. We walked past the cemetery to the beach where surfers hang out to catch the waves... Mohammed is a surfer too, though he is too busy trying to make a living nowadays and has not gone surfing for a while. He insists on buying my ticket for the train back to Rabat, just as he paid for lunch and tea. I know it's in their culture to offer such hospitality and though I feel bad about him spending his hard-earned dirhams, I knew that the only thing to do was to say shukran and accept with a completely open heart and gratitude. It always humbles me to be the recipient of kindness and generosity from someone who we perceive has so much less than ourselves. Shukran Mohammed for sharing Salé with me and showing me that it matters not how much we have, only how much we want to share.
Taxis can stop and pick up other passengers along the way if they are along the same route, to fill up the taxi. There is a separate metred fare for each passenger and all's fair. This is a practice which I have only come across in morocco and yet it seems to make good sense. When public taxis can cater to more passengers, it can reduce traffic; taxi drivers can earn more efficiently and passengers have access to more taxis rather than having to wait for only empty ones. So why don't other cities adopt this practice as well?
The walls and doors along the narrow winding streets of Fes and any ancient medina look pretty much the same and one has no inkling of the economic status of the residence that lies within. Whether motivated by pure humility or a superstitious fear of having riches taken away if one flaunts them publicly...it doesn't really matter. Indeed it's a blessing not to be judged by one's facade and not allow others to do that.
FRIENDS ON THE ROAD
She got into the taxi after me and the taxi driver had asked her if she could translate something to me in english, which she did. She was going to Tetuan and i was catching the bus to Chefchaouen that afternoon. When she learnt i was travelling alone, she offered to give me her contact number in case I needed any help. Her name is Amal, which means hope. Then there was Houria whom I met on a train trip from Marrakech, who offered to show me Megamall in Rabat and Morocco mall in Casa. She's from Safi and works in Rabat for a chinese telecommunications infrastructure company. Friends are merely strangers we haven't met.
WASTE NO WHEAT
We're supposed to leave any unfinished bread aside and not toss them into the wastebin. Someone goes round the neighbourhood to collect scrap bread to feed the animals. I remember someone who used to do that when I was little...he came by grandma's house in the evenings to collect food scraps for the pigs. Waste not, want not.
When in morocco, do as the Moroccans would. The brilliant colours of the blouse caught my eye in that shop in Fes, so though i intended only to buy the black blouse with gold trimmings, i bought that too (plus the shopkeeper offered 500 camels to marry me :). Chelsea said she loved the colours and it's nice to give people something you love and know they would love too... so I left a note with the shirt to my roommate Amanda, asking her a favour to launder and pass the shirt to Chelsea since I would not be seeing her before I left for the airport. Chelsea emailed me and the best part is that she was inspired to leave a gift for the next volunteer... a moroccan gift chain.
BUILD AS MUCH AS ONE CAN AFFORD
It is common to see partially built houses... works in progress which could literally last for years. People start to build then carry on as and when they can afford, bit by bit. It's expensive transporting building materials to places with no roads. Often the last part is carried by mules, the Berbers' mountain MPV. No credit, no burden.
Aicha is the traditional cook who knows no recipes, only how to make the most wholesome, delicious Moroccan dishes with love. She worried about me on my early morning-before-sunrise walks to the forest park. She gave me a hug before she left to go home for Eid al Adha. She gave me an extra hug before I left on the last day. I made sure I greeted her sabah al khayr every morning when I saw her in the kitchen preparing breakfast. Aicha and I may not have had a real conversation but she spoke to me a lot.
The GRATITUDE Gate
There was this house I passed by every morning on the way to the urban forest, a house with no number, just a plate embossed with the word 'GRATITUDE' by the gate. i wondered why at first, then i simply took it as a daily reminder, that though we may not know what lies beyond the door, we can always be grateful for the present and also for whatever lies beyond the doors. Shukran bezzaf.
Life lessons...to be continued ......