Sunday, October 26, 2008

Road trip to Essaouira...and my big life decision along the way

The second day trip we took on our honeymoon last November was to the coastal town of Essaouira, about three hours away from Marrakesh.

We decided to economize by taking a comfortable bus, rather than a private car, to the town. That saved us at least a hundred dollars, and we probably didn't get any less of an experience. In fact, we got some experiences we probably wouldn't have had otherwise. But more on that later.

We departed the city of Marrakesh for a journey into the desert. For much of the drive, what we saw out the windows looked more like a moonscape than anything I had previously experienced on earth.

Occasionally, you would see some trees and buildings that indicated a farm of some sort. There were a few signs for argan oil producers -- in English for tourists.

We made one pit stop at a place that was all ready for us, with a cafe, restrooms, and shoe shine boys and a sort of Moroccan version of a mariachi band that descended upon us. Unfortunately, we didn't take any photos of the Moroccan tourist trap.

Our bus zipped down the two-lane road, overtaking smaller vehicles on its race to the coast. After the landscape had become more tree-lined, we had our first sight of Essaouira.

We were dropped off outside the castle-like walls of the old medina.

White-washed buildings alluded to Greece.

However, this was no Greek town -- check out the minaret.

Various cats and dogs walked through and slept on the street -- something we hadn't really seen as much in Marrakesh. Essaouira seemd to be a place where they could chill out in peace.

As we walked through the market, we saw many stores selling things similar to what we had seen in Marrakesh. We stopped at one shop that had decorative knives on display. The shopkeeper urged us to come in, and we decided to acquiesce.

When we didn't see anything that particularly interested us, he invited us to come to his back room. There he had us sit down on rugs, while he pulled out his treasure chest. Every Berber family has a chest in which they keep their most valuable things, he told us.

We were fascinated by this storyteller who showed us necklaces, one of which had seven charms to represent something having to do with marriage, so he told us. We had also previously told him that we were on our honeymoon. Hmmm.

Well, it was an experience, and we didn't feel bad paying for a memento of an experience, especially when it was a nice necklace. Unfortunately, I lost it the first time I wore it in the US, but such is the transient nature of life.

Anyway, when we did the usual bargaining for the price, he switched the game up. When we proposed a lower price, he asked, "What can you trade?" He wanted some artifact from the United States, which at this moment seemed very, very far away. We didn't have much with us. So he suggested Michael's jacket. Michael was willing to part with it, but I, being ever practical, didn't think it would be a good trade and wondered what he would do if he needed it before the end of the trip.

So I dug around in my bag and found a pen from a company meeting at the Princeton Club in New York City. Before I just valued it because it wrote pretty well for a cheap pen. But here in Morocco, it took on new meaning. With the Princeton seal and a New York address printed on it, it was a tangible piece of life in the U.S., here in the desert. The seller looked the pen over carefully, tried it to make sure it worked, and then declared it would be an acceptable trade. We agreed on a price, bought the necklace, and bid him farewell.

After we left, Michael remarked that we had probably gotten somewhat scammed and paid a far higher price than the necklace was worth. However, we did get a story...and a light went off in my head about what we should bring on future trips to the bargaining world: U.S. swag! Not only that, we got an exotic, romantic moment: sitting there in that back room with the rugs, watching intently as the seller took piece after piece out of his treasure chest. This was the Morocco we had hoped for!

After our shopping excursion, we walked along the austere waterfront.

We saw hundreds of small wooden fishing boats and a fish market right by the dock.

We finished our time at a cafe on the beach. There wasn't much sunbathing or swimming going on, this being Morocco and also in the fall. But it was still a nice place to relax.

Then we went to the bus station, where we wound up waiting an hour or so for a working bus to show up. While the bus in the morning had been quite new and clean, the one we got for the return trip was old and quite unappealing, with trash and chewed gum stuck to the back of the seats.

As it turns out, we spent a good deal of time in that bus, as our driver got caught speeding about two-thirds of the way into our journey. Speeding had not seemed a problem for tourist buses on the way out there. It seemed the biggest vehicle ruled the road, and that was us on the way out to Essaouira. We bypassed police checkpoints, where they had pulled over small cars.

However, no one was immune on the way home. When our bus got pulled over, the driver tried to negotiate with the police. He spent about an hour walking off with the police, coming back, talking to the Moroccan passengers, then going back to the cops. All the while, we waited in the bus or went outside for a little while. Michael and I talked to a European guy who spoke Arabic and told us what was going on. Apparently, the cops were demanding something like 400 dirhams (about US$50 -- a lot for a bus driver) to be paid on the spot for the speeding ticket.

It was getting dark, and I really did not want to be stuck on this desolate part of Morocco, just past the desert. I figured if every passenger chipped in, we could pay the ticket (or bribe, whatever it actually was). The driver continued to talk and smoke with the cops. Finally, he got back into the bus, and we were allowed to go. I don't know what transpired. But at that point, I didn't really care. We were moving. Finally!

It was on that long return trip, as the complete darkness of the desert transformed into a few lights here and there to groups of buildings by the road to small towns to the outskirts of Marrakesh to finally the heart of the bustling city itself, that I started to contemplate the world trip we wanted to undertake in 2008.

There were a few things that were gnawing at me. First of all, we had become acutely aware of how weak the U.S. dollar was. Even in Morocco, things were expensive for us! That did not bode well for a many month trip around the world. Second of all, I had this gut feeling that we needed to be making this trip for the right reasons. I had originally had the idea to go back when I was single. All doors were open then, and I was looking to see the world and let it help me decide my future. Then Michael and I got together, and it became our trip. But why? What did we want to accomplish on the trip? While we both wanted to see the world, the point was not going to be to decide our future. Our future was with each other.

I realized I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted out of the trip. The way I figured it, unlike some of our European friends, we really only had one shot in life to do a trip of this magnitude. I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of it. And something was telling me I wasn't quite certain at that point.

As it turns out, the economy in 2008 got even worse than we had imagined. Although the dollar has come back recently, it's not the economic climate in which I would want to just leave my job and hope for the best upon my return.

And it took the change in plans for me to realize in 2008 what I really want to do when we eventually take a world trip: find grassroots non-profit groups along the way, see how people are living, and how people like us can help make a difference.

It was the right decision to cancel the trip for 2008. I can't imagine coming back right about now to this economy. But it certainly was a difficult thing to discuss with Michael that evening, once we got back into Marrakesh. I'm glad, though, that that trip back from Essaouira gave me the clarity to think and listen to my gut.

1 comment:

alexlady said...

i always love hearing about your travels. i would have never thought to bring u.s. stuff... next time we go overseas i'll stop in times square for some statue of liberty pencil sharpeners!!