Monday, December 19, 2011

Imagination Versus Reality

I do have a limit for adventure and I found it in Morocco.

We left Fes nearly two weeks ago and it’s taken me this long to even start writing about what we experienced there. I needed some distance to reflect upon, digest and then find words to convey what we encountered in this oh-so-foreign country. Some travel experiences evaporate the minute they’re over, others come and go imparting few residual memories, some remain a very long time and yet others never, ever leave. I have no doubt that our five days in Fes will fall into the latter category. But before they move permanently into my memory bank of journeys, I had to put some time between our experiences and communicating about them in an attempt to gain some semblance of perspective. And despite my resolve not to write about the sights, smells and feelings as a spoiled American or judgmental voyeur with little knowledge of Moroccan culture, those are my labels and will no doubt color my impressions.

If ever there were a destination whose reality did not match what I’d imagined, it was Morocco. Many of the sensory details I’d anticipated were there: beautiful tiled arches, delicately carved architecture, caftaned pedestrians on dusty streets, burdened donkeys in narrow lanes, deliciously spiced food, buzzing calls to prayer, men in bright leather slippers, and women in colorful headscarves. But I was in no way prepared for the culture of pervasive deal-making and inescapable subterfuge we walked into. My inability to discern who was telling the truth and who was trying to play me went against my basic nature of taking people and situations at face value. If, as Churchill said, Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, then Morocco is a high-pressure deal, hiding behind a humble presentation, disguised as a simple greeting. Everyone in Morocco wanted to sell us something; every urchin in the street had an angle; every Ali, Said and Hassan had advice; and everyone wanted a cut. After just a few hours in Morocco, we had no idea who was deceiving us and who was telling the truth. I like communications to be clear, I need to have the facts and I want to be in control. But nothing was clear in this North African country and I felt the sands shifting beneath my feet every time anyone spoke to us. I hated how it made me feel.

My fascination with Morocco began as a college student when my buddies and I occasionally splurged and went to the legendary watering hole in Worcester, Massachusetts, the El Morocco. Yes, the El was an institution that actually served Lebanese food, but the name got me wondering about this distant land called Morocco. And when I read that James Michener’s Drifters ventured there, I knew I had to follow. But Morocco on the page and Morocco in reality were two very different things. I was not prepared for how the country made me feel and my visceral reactions to what we experienced surprised me. Our five days in Morocco left me with the realization that perhaps some places should be left to dwell as picture-perfect postcards in our imaginations. Was the chasm between my world and what we found in Morocco simply too great for me to handle? Was the accretion of an overt state religion, the inferiority of women, incessant scams and subterfuge, rampant poverty and inescapable garbage just too much all at once? While I may never be able to fully answer these questions, I do know that I left a country I expected to love certain that I will never return.

Pictures of our adventures:

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