I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

*  *  *

Marrakech, Morocco…New Year’s 1996. Notwithstanding being ordered from our car at gunpoint on our way to a tribal village in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, or the human feeding frenzy I engendered with an ill-conceived act of kindness toward some Berber children there, Sande and I loved Marrakech.

Had the best mint tea of our lives in a makeshift café on the edge of the walled city, prepared by a happy guy with no front teeth wearing a homemade Moroccan hoodie.  His refreshing recipe: stuff several large mint leaves, straight from the earth, in a small pot of warm water, add a block of sugar the size of a baseball, and have at it. Undoubtedly, his missing teeth owed something to his prodigious consumption of sugar, but he made a damn good cup of tea.

Visited the weekly Berber market, just outside the city walls, where the “parking lot” held not one car but nearly a hundred donkeys. Even more surprising, the pack mules were lined up in almost perfect order, as if some unseen donkey park attendant had organized them. Meanwhile, the only blonde head for miles belonged to Sande, making her impossible to miss and quite popular.

Decided to relax in the hotel steam room one afternoon. Attendant said, “Go in the first room on your right.” Entered a large space the size of a boxcar, lit by a single overhead light, the walls a magnificent mosaic tile, the floor poured concrete with a drain in the middle. To my right lay a hose about six feet long and a wooden bench like prizefighters sit on between rounds.  Turned on the hose; damn near scalded the skin off my feet. Spent the next several minutes effectively assuming the lotus position atop the prizefighter’s bench, steam slowly filling the boxcar. Strangest shvitz I ever had!

The city’s main market square was full of the usual suspects—colorful purveyors of pretty much everything, but all with a distinct Moroccan twist. Snake charmers, for example, didn’t just settle for charm; they were of the kiss-and (hopefully) live-to-tell variety. Holding five-foot long serpents in their outstretched left hands, these guys taunted the vipers to touch tongues with them in a perverse Moroccan version of the French kiss!

The “tea men” were also intriguing, if sartorially odd. Impossible to miss in flowing red robes, hats that looked like one of my grandmother’s old tasseled lampshades and, draped around their necks, a string of gold and silver sipping cups from which they offered liquid refreshment poured from a canvas bag that hung at their sides. It was hot, but I wasn’t that thirsty.

Notably absent from the square were beggars. Prohibited from plying their “trade” inside Djamma El Fena, they more than made up for it at every exit point. Thankfully more charming than threatening, they were, nonetheless, insatiable.

Sande and I did the ordinarily unthinkable one evening by signing up for a “dinner show” at an old fort about half an hour’s ride into the desert. Billed as the Chez Ali Dinner & Horsemen Show, we figured it for precisely the kind of overblown tourist drivel we try to avoid, but one of the hotel’s driver/guides convinced us otherwise. I am forever grateful. It was a virtual cirque de soleil on horseback.  Amazing feats of horsemanship…and showmanship! One guy actually did a complete 360 on a galloping horse, meaning: he came off the saddle, slid down and under the horse, somehow avoiding its churning hooves, and came back up the other side. Not for the faint of heart!

Our pre-show dinner was equally special, served in a huge tent right out of Lawrence of Arabia. Sitting cross-legged in pillowed comfort, we sampled a seemingly endless string of delicious “finger food” (a la Lawrence, all food was “finger food” as our only utensils were God-given) served by an absolute sweetheart of a girl-child. I doubt she was more than ten or eleven years old. Wearing a simple white tunic with a rope sash at the waist, her angelic smile framed by a burnt orange headdress accented with beads of aqua, a gold choker at her throat, she is forever frozen in my memory, thanks to a picture Sande and I took with her that sits on a shelf in my office. A daily reminder of a magical night, and fuel for the imagination as to what became of our Moroccan Madonna in the years since.

As for the guns-drawn pit stop and the human feeding frenzy, I never did understand why we were stopped at a checkpoint (or, frankly, why there even was a checkpoint) at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. But, given the all-too-common news reports about Westerners being “detained” in North African and Middle Eastern countries in those days, we weren’t exactly blasé about it. Sande all but stopped the circulation in my right arm when a rifle butt tapped her window. Thankfully, our driver/guide was able to talk us through it. To this day, Sande remains convinced that there was something very wrong about the men who stopped us that morning, menacing and mercenary in appearance and tone. Had we been on our own, we might well have ended up poorer, or worse. As it was, I merely lost feeling in my right arm for awhile.

Less than an hour later, we arrived at our destination—a traditional Berber village in the foothills. Really more family “compound” than village, it consisted of three or four contiguous, but somewhat separate living spaces for a group of people who were apparently related. (Think the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port digs, but lose the privilege, power, pampering, and touch football games.) Built into the rocky hillside, with rudimentary wooden gates and stone walls defining individual space, it was an earthen maze.

A family elder met us as our car pulled up, undoubtedly having watched our vehicle gingerly traverse the circuitous rock-strewn road leading up from the valley below. Opening a small, but heavy wooden gate about six-feet high, he invited us to enter his family domain of roughly hewn brick-and-mortar structures, surrounding an interior courtyard of hard-packed dirt, deeply rutted from past storms raging down the mountainside toward the stream below.

Entering the “main house”—just three rooms, all with the same deeply rutted dirt floors as the courtyard, and ceilings that were built for considerably shorter people than myself—we met a woman and two young girls busily preparing some sort of flat bread in a dirt floor level brick oven. Appreciative of their welcoming kindness (they were preparing the bread especially for us), Sande and I accepted their gracious offer, despite the rather loose sanitary conditions of the kitchen and its chefs. It was an obvious roll of the health dice, but we could hardly demur. I survived. Sande, however, almost did not. By the time we returned to London several days later, she was quite ill…having contracted some sort of intestinal parasite. The price of homemade Berber hospitality!

For my part, I damn near lost an arm (same one to which Sande had effectively applied an anxiety tourniquet earlier) in a misplaced effort to be nice to a small band of Berber children who had been shadowing us since our arrival. Friendly, but cloying, anxious to show us their homes, they were just little tykes—cute, small, harmless. Until, that is, I decided to get all “Daddy” Warbucks.

Having stepped inside our car for the return trip to Marrakech, I rolled down the window to bid farewell to the little urchins and extend a hand full of pocket change. A few coins for you, young man; some for your adorable little scamp of a brother; one for the cute little girl over there; etc. Or such was my intent. What happened instead was: I put my arm out the window, hand full of coins, and eight wild animals materialized before my very eyes …ripping at my arm, clawing to open my fist, then scrambling for the coins that dropped to the ground. It was a mad free-for-all. Give credit to the adorable little scamp of a brother and the cute little girl over there. They were fearless!

Another reminder of a life lesson I occasionally need to re-learn. One man’s scraps are, indeed, another man’s treasure. And the man with the “scraps” is a damn fool to be cavalier about the other man’s treasure. 


T H E  E N D

Comments (0)

› No comments yet.

Pingbacks (0)

› No pingbacks yet.