Friday, April 27, 2012

Words are superfluous

17-21.02 - Marrakech - Tighssaline, 291 km, five rides.

February 17th marks the day my solo travel in Morocco starts. So far together with Guido we managed to escape major problems and proved any opinions about drivers demanding money for a ride, extremely lecherous Moroccan men, overaggressive vendors to be wrong. Is it going to stay like this when I'm on my own? I'm a boundary-pusher living on the very edge, I thrive off the thrill of independent discovery. However, all countries I've explored before on my own significantly differed in terms of people's attitude to women traveling without any companionship. Will I look like an easy prey for salacious men or will people be more eager to help me as a single woman? However, my wicked spirit of adventure is stronger than my fears. I want to feel the panic when everything turns out to be totally different, I want my expectations to be turned upside down, I want to be surprised by the culture shock.

I have a host in Khenifra for tonight but decide to accept whatever the fate brings, following the rule "just go and see what happens." The mission to reach the road going to Khenifra, preceded by meandering through the souk having the Sun as my only navigation goes without any problems. The medina in early morning is absolutely unrecognizable without hollering vendors, strong aroma of spices wafting up or hustlers shouting "hotel hotel hotel! Snake snake snake! Photo photo photo!" Nevertheless, it's still a mess. By mistake I almost enter a mosque. Comparing the map with buildings I pass, I figure out I'm going the right way until I see this prominent building. Wait, wait... aren't these people the faithful Muslims? And why the street has suddenly vanished and turned into a courtyard? I have no right to be here! I quickly whisk out of this place, in case somebody notices that a non-Muslim has dared to pass the threshold of a holy place. On the contrary, their reaction is quite benevolent and even when I'm not visible to these people anymore I hear invitations to come in. Mission accomplished in 1,5 hour: I get out of the medina right where the road going my way starts.

I carefully choose my drivers, trying to stop only cars that don't look like total jalopies. My drivers are: man from mineral water-producing company, truck driver who persistently asks if I want to marry him in Morocco (harmless yet quite annoying), professor of Natural Sciences with three students, three men who offered to pay for a bus to Khenifra and, finally, the most interesting driver of the day, the experimental "let's see what happens."

It's a man working as a builder. He lives in Tighssaline, a small village close to Khenifra that I never heard about. He speaks very little French, stays calm most of the ride and shows me some photos of his kids. I like him from the very beginning; although the language barrier stops him from telling me more, he continues to speak in Arabic and from his delivery I can sense how proud of his offspring he must be. Suddenly I hear a sleepy voice coming from the backseat. Throughout the entire trip I didn't even notice there was a small boy sleeping in the car! He mumbles something to his father, after which the latter explains that his son is very tired and would like to go to sleep at home. At the very mention of home, he suggests: "you want to come home with us?" For a while I'm on the fence about accepting this offer. After all, my host is waiting for me and it would be impolite to cancel my arrival in the very last moment. On the other hand, haven't I told myself that I'd take every chance to venture off the path I intended to take? Moreover, it's already getting dark and I'd feel a little apprehensive of hitchhiking on my own at this time. Yes, I definitely want to come home with my driver and his son.

We leave the car at my driver's friend's garage and slowly walk home. He informs me: "the house is simple. But the family is very good."

I've been to simple Moroccan houses before but this one is definitely the most modest. It consists of a small kitchen, one room used entirely for storage and another where the family sleeps and spends most of the time. There's no heating or electricity and entire family sits buried under thick blankets. All of them dazzle me with wonderful smiles, none of them seems surprised to see a guest. Three little boys are pretending to play hide-and-seek behind their mother's back. Two older kids are working on their homework. A young girl who doesn't look older than eighteen years old is cooking a thick soup with noodles, probably harira. The little one who endured a long ride back home has already fallen asleep. Only a kerosene lamp provides some light and heat.

During the dinner, trying not to stay totally silent, I ask the girl about the names of all family members. She grabs my notebook and introduces all family to me. Her name is Rayhana and she's twenty-four (!), her parents are Wahid and Fatima, her siblings - Tamo, Hicham, Akram, Latifa, Zaher and Yassine. Only one sister, who's two years older that Rayhana is missing. That makes her the absolute boss of the tribe consisting mostly of kids who are at least ten years her juniors. Despite huge age difference it's so easy to see how much affection there is between all siblings. The elder sister patiently endures any games they young ones involve her in; together they dances, sings, draw pictures. Soon Wahid and Fatima also start singing Berber songs. It's probably the first Moroccan dinner I've taken part in where people focus on doing all possible activities but eating yet food almost instantly disappears from the table.

For the umpteenth time during this trip i wish I spoke Arabic, so I could know more who these people are, what is important to them and what they think about life. They live in modest conditions yet they are happy and optimistic, on the contrary to many Westerners who are depressed and unsatisfied despite their ludicrous wealth. Seven family members live in this tiny house, in this tiny room. How would I tolerate such conditions if I had to share my day to day life in Europe with so many people in a minuscule space, stricken out of my intimacy, with no claims to personal space? Would I have any hang-ups or seamlessly adjust to the crowd?

Nights in the mountains are very cold are we curl up under tons of blankets without even taking off all clothes. Equipped with these layers I don't even feel the window just above my "bed" doesn't have a windowpane or that there's no heating at home. Almost ready to fall asleep, I hear Rayhana whisper "do you want a bed?" and feel like a spoiled European when my generous host renounces the opportunity to lie her exhausted body on a comfortable bed, offering it instead to a girl who's probably never slept in such uncomfortable conditions. No, thanks. I like it, it's not the first time I've slept on the floor and as long as I stay with you I'll live like you. We all sleep on the floor, in the living room and in the kitchen, two parents, seven kids and one guest.

At seven in the morning some noises coming from outside wake me up from my sleep. It's Wahid working on the construction of the terrace. Rayhana is already preparing breakfast, the kids and their mother are still in their "beds." Sleeping in is a waste of time, so I jump out of my "bed" and go to the kitchen to see how I can help Rayhana.

Throughout the entire time of my stay with this family (three days!) this girl has never stopped to amaze me. Although she's my age, her everyday life differs so much from mine. The first thing I usually do when I wake up is to turn on the laptop. Actually, there's nothing I really have to do, so I read a book, go out or linger on the internet for hours. In contrast, Rayhana's duties start at dawn with baking bread, making tea, folding blankets, preparing the room for breakfast. After the meal she has to wash the dishes, clean common spaces and almost immediately start getting the lunch ready. Because of huge age gap between her and her only sister Latifa, Rayhana doesn't have a proper helper to relieve her in some of these tasks. Even her mother can't do too much because of her problems with walking. Like a mum, Rayhana she takes care of the smallest kids, helps them dress up or wash themselves. Every day is a repetition of the previous one.

I feel a stab of guilt when I recall how grouchy I used to get at very young age when somebody asked me to help with the household. I guess Rayhana doesn't have any say in this matter but she doesn't seem to be upset about it and carries out her tasks without complaining. Sometimes she even manages to do something useful and pleasant at the same time - like making a tajine together with a friend - perfect way not to waste time when your duties are piling up. I offer her my help as often as I can and never hear a refusal. I love this precious sense of usefulness when I travel. In many Moroccan houses I've been to before as a guest I couldn't even lift a finger to help - Moroccan mums used to doing everything about the house themselves always said there's no way a visitor will help the out. Here locals and newcomers do everything together. A European girl became a Moroccan girl.

This time the roles have changed - and it's Rayhana who voluntarily helps me with my laundry.
I love the fact that life in Morocco revolves so much around being with family and friends yet my need for freedom and independence makes me crave for following my footsteps, without the incessant presence of other people. One day I announce to Rayhana that I'd like to go for a walk to discover the vicinity myself. "Pas problem," she answers with a smile and, when I'm almost out of the house, adds: "attention!".

Getting a grasp on the village, I notice that vast population of Tighssaline doesn't look more than around forty years old. Big groups of children spend their time outside, usually unaccompanied by adults. Older kids look after younger ones. They get excited when they see a white person, shout "bonjour," want to shake my hand. None of them asks for money; all they want is a "bonjour" back and a friendly wave. These kids, though poverty-ridden always have a certain sparkle of light in their eyes. Their toys aren't the bounty of dolls, cars and games I used to know in my childhood, yet they still have a blast playing with objects they find or invent themselves. Simple things like broken car with no wheels, rusty spinning top, paper airplane or a wheel that can be rolled from a slope bring smiles to their faces. Beauty among struggle and strife. They're the best example of exceptional ingenuity, a proof that every resource you have can be used to your advantage.

Tighssaline is surrounded by green pastures and middle-height mountains. From the very beginning to orientate in this area doesn't give me any problems. You just have to look for the most prominent peaks, the mosque, small kasbah or massive red cluster of houses. I feel blissful tranquility when I see people disappear from my eyesight and finally recede to small dots on the horizon. After almost a month of always having somebody by my side I yearned for a lonesome stroll in the middle of nowhere. However, seeing Rayhana approach dashes my hopes about staying for at least a while beyond my guardian's scope. "Here you are! Please, don't ever go so far on your own!" she cries out. I'm sorry for having worried her, although I doubt that in this soulless place I could come across any dangers. What a comfort it must be to become invisible! In Morocco, in all honesty, solitude is something you sometimes seek but hardly ever experience.

Instead of wandering in a "dangerous" place Rayhana takes me to a local souk, together with three of her brothers and sisters. Just like the souk in M'hammid in Marrakech, this souk looks entirely Moroccan, and not a bit resembles a souk in any city or town where tourists flock and vendors are ready to approach them in every language you name. There are no stalls - most of the sellers display their products on the ground. Also the people look different - local fashion is definitely worth your attention. Men's clothes are usually dark, while women wear all colors of the rainbow. Did I ever mention that Moroccan women love pajamas? They wear them all day long, as well at home as outside. Can you imagine a woman in any European village going shopping and showing off a bathrobe with a big "Hello Kitty" pattern on her back? Moreover, I see nobody who resembles a tourist and even feel quite strange in my conspicuous clothes - they aren't very fashionable, they don't make me look like a rich European, but they definitely look more Western than Moroccan. It's boiling hot but I refrain from rolling up my sleeves not to differ from others more than I already do.

We carefully pick the most mature fruits and vegetables, Rayhana compares prices offered by different sellers an infinite number of times. When it comes to paying, I offer my contribution but she firmly refuses: "you can help us at home but when you want to pay, I don't like it. If you stay with us, we pay." When we pass a woman selling all different kinds of sweet pastries, four little brats pester their older sister to buy some for them, just before the lunch. She's reluctant in the beginning but after long negotiations finally gives in and gets two massive, sickly sweet chebakia cookies for each of them.

Back at home there's a surprise waiting for us. Rayhana's cousin, Loubna, would like to make henna tattoos to all girls at home, that's Rayhana, Latifa and me. This kind of natural tattoo is usually given to a girl who's getting married, for us it's only an elaborate decoration, without any special occasion. Loubna whispers something to Rayhana and then my host translates that her cousin would like to make the tattoo on my feet. I point to my shoes, showing that a nice tattoo won't be visible if I wear them all the time. "But it's for you, to look at it when you relax!" Rayhana tries to encourage me. "No, I walk close to ten kilometers per day and my feet are the last part of my body I want to look at when I relax," I'd like to say but it's not so simple to explain so I just say that I prefer it on my hand. My pattern takes one hour to make, so does Rayhana's, Mona's in very simple and is ready in half an hour. When I see the dry henna paint start peeling off, I rub my hands to remove it but Rayhana says to let it go off itself to make the pattern darker. I don't like the idea of dry paint flaking all over my "bed" when I sleep and don't know if the pattern will really be darker if it's already so dark but I take her word for it.

Meeting Loubna was not the end of getting to know Rayhana's relatives. Latifa insists that all three girls go to see Wahid's sister living one kilometer away. I go with them and get another invitation to stay in another house for another month. These people are just incredible. Even simply being with another person is a source of joy to them. I'd love to stay forever, not only with them but also with all beautiful people I've met during this and every other trip I've been on in my life. Why isn't it possible to be in more than one place at the same time? It would be great to share Moroccan hospitality, speak Danish in Denmark, discover lava tubes on Iceland, eat burek in Bosnia and Herzegovina or aimlessly wander in The Rocky Mountains in USA, all at once.

Politeness compels me to stay with my hosts and their family but this part of me which misses my own friends and family tries to bow out of this situation. Last days were full of exciting events of all sorts and I can't wait to share them with others, especially now when I don't have a travelmate anymore and the people I stay with speak very little French. I announce to Rayhana that I'd like to use the internet to contact some people and that I know where the internet café is so she needn't come with me. She's totally fine with this but as usual warns me to stay safe and be careful with people on the street.

On my way to the internet café I pass a woman and a man sitting in front of their house drying wheat. The man approaches me in fluent French which makes my heart jump with joy that I won't have to cope with suppression of thoughts anymore. I get involved so much in the conversation that I forget about my plan to use the internet. I tell them where I come from and mention I used to live in France. The man - Brahim - points to the woman, his cousin Mona, and says she's been to France many times and visited many other countries as well. He explains before it was easier for Moroccan women to travel, now everybody associates headscarves with terrorism, without any specific reason, since none of world-known terrorists comes from Morocco. He himself has never traveled outside Morocco but has lived in several places in the country. They have some family in France but haven't seen them for a very long time and only Mona has visited them in France. "Where in France?" I ask. "Rhône-Alpes, they used to live in Lyon, but moved to a small town, Sallanches, later." Sallanches? It's right at my doorstep! I'd never think I'd meet somebody who knows French town of no important significance here in Morocco. I feel as if I've met my neighbors, although it's impossible that our stays in France could have overlapped. An invitation for tea, or rather an order to drink tea with them, follows almost immediately.

Surprisingly they also invite me to stay with them for the night - or actually with Mona, since she lives on her own and Brahim lives with his aunt in another house. This puts me in a deadlock - I really wanted to hit the road tomorrow, but on the other hand I feel I still haven't reached the saturation point, that the time to move on is still to come. The older I get, the more time it takes me to fully appreciate a place and Tighssaline simply oozes with charming landscapes that fill my eyes and make any thoughts to change my location quite distant.

With a tint of shyness in my voice I say: "With pleasure, but I'm staying with friends and I can't tell them right now I'm moving to somebody else." "Then you'll come tomorrow, no discussions!" Brahim decides for me and informs me they're going to Khenifra at seven in the morning so I can come at noon. Mona tries to encourage me to go to Khenifra with them and I'd love to join them but I'm too polite to sneak out at the crack of dawn from the house of people who let me stay for a couple of days and who became my friends, saying "thanks, it was nice but I have some other plans, goodbye." I'll come at noon. Thanks a lot and see you tomorrow. Oh Moroccans, you never fail to amaze me.

It's difficult to leave my "adopted" family. I came to their home as a stranger, I'm leaving as a friend. Thank you, Wahid, for giving me much more than just a ride, thank you, Fatima, for your offer to stay as long as I like, thank you, Rayhana, for showing me your maturity and responsibility, thank you, Latifa, for walking hand in hand with me at night, thank you, little boys for introducing me to your games. Thank you all for giving me a chance to help you at home, a chance to give back 1/100 of the generosity I've been granted by Moroccan people every day for over one month of my travels. Thank you and see you later.

I rush to Mona's house. I'm excited about staying with her but at the same time I'm also wondering how much a communication between us will be possible if there's no French-speaking person among us. I haven't told her exactly what time I would come but I find the door to her house open. She's bustling about the kitchen, doesn't look any surprised when I come in. The items she's gathered on the table tell me she was about to make bread. As little as I can reciprocate for her kindness is helping her. Together we measure the ingredients, knead the dough, form two perfectly round loaves.

While the bread is being baked, Mona shows me the house. There's a living room outfitted with red carpet, the one where we drank tea yesterday, plenty of mattresses and TV set (present in almost every Moroccan household), another room with Arabic inscriptions on the walls and warm-colored, U-shaped sofas, small room for prayers and quite European-looking bedroom that serves as store room. Mona is very proud to show me the photos of her relatives, her clothes, headscarves, jewelery and cosmetics. How long ago I looked as feminine as I would wearing any of these beautiful attire she shows to me! Her vanity kit consists of cosmetics I've never used in my life and beauty tools whose functions I don't know. I have to admit, my appearance is very crude and Mona must have noticed this. She puts a floral headscarf on my head, takes out some of her cosmetics, shows me how to use them (frankly speaking, I've never had the slightest idea about the purpose of some of them) and reveals that's she'd like to use them on me. I dread at the very thought of having these colorful powders on my face so I try to explain to her that I never use any make-up, let alone on the road when the only things that cover my face and entire body are dirt and dust.

Mona takes me upstairs to the terrace. The view from there stretches from the typical red brick and clay houses in front to verdant meadows and prominent mountains in the distance. My attention goes to tent-like constructions I've never seen before. Mona says these are home-made hamams. To explain exactly how a hamam like this works in beyond the possibilities of hand gestures but she offers such pleasure to me the following day. Meanwhile she lets me see the view from every corner of the terrace. These hamams are like colorful spots dotting the ochre-colored sea of houses. When Mona points to more and more tents, I notice some symbols I've seen before on her fingers. "Tatouage Berber!" I exclaim. The moment I say these words, a wide smile that bears a mixture of gratitude and fondness appears on her face. Using only sign language she explains she's going to take me to her mother Aicha, who has plenty of tattoos like this.

She clenches my hand and takes me to a brick house just around the corner, much more modest than the place where Mona lives. An elderly woman sits on the floor. Her brown, weathered face is covered with Berber symbols, so are her hands. She's accompanied by another woman who turns out to be Mona's sister, Leia, who settled down in a house just on the other side of the street. It's another blatant proof of how much the Moroccans are connected to their relatives and how much they can't do without counseling and instructions of the elders. There's no day when they wouldn't drop in for the tea at each other's places. These women witness each other's lives almost 24/7 yet when I hear them talk it seems like they've just connected with a long-lost family member.

I wish I could understand Arabic. No word they say makes sense to me but they must be wrapped up in a very absorbing discussion. Their mouths never shut and the way they speak changes from sensational to excited to whooping. Even at the prayer time Leia doesn't refrain from chatting. In the beginning she tries to behave in a serious way but soon fails and comes back to the conversation. Her voice, only a while ago so sober, now changes into gales of laughter and sounds like the voice of a teenager who can't wait to share the newest gossip with her friends. No way to distinguish what is the prayer and what is a frivolous conversation. Another loud addition to sonorous calls of muezzin coming from a neighboring mosque.

We have lunch - tajine and bread, of course - at Aicha's place. The bread Mona and I made together is absolutely delicious. I have to admit it's the best bread I've eaten in Morocco and it makes me happy to know something I made tastes so good. Tajine is also divine. On the contrary, the behavior of my companions doesn't stand on ceremony - these women think little of proper table manners, slurp their tea, spit bones on the table, burp loudly. For sure I didn't expect Moroccan dinners to be any close to western affair but these manners are a little shocking to me. These women feel very informal in each other's presence. If I wanted to lick my plate after the meal, it would probably remain unnoticed.

In the evening all women flock to Mona's place. Just like at the lunchtime, there are no men between us. I've already noticed in some Moroccan households that men and women tend to lead very separate lives, on the contrary to Europe where woman/man-only spaces are sparse. Leia, who speaks a little French, clarifies that their family is not so traditional and it's very uncommon that men and women eat separately, but since men are the main breadwinners who come back home late from work, women barely ever wait for them with the last meal. Mona's son, Yassine is a perfect example, his shift at grocery store ends at 21-22.

All women barely talk, as if they've exhausted all topics during their meeting at lunchtime. Instead, the TV stays turned on almost until we split up. I remember that some years ago my nasty habit of reading a newspaper when eating was described as "very Russian." Here I could say that watching TV is as Moroccan as haggling on the souks, eating couscous on Fridays or excessive multi-tasking when driving. In Morocco I watch a lot of TV - whether I want it or not. Fortunately this time it's a music channel so at least I can listen to some of the songs I discovered thanks to my drivers instead of bluntly staring at some soppy soap opera. Wrapped in blankets, warming my hands by the heater, I feel indescribable joy of having a chance to live every single moment with these women who connected so much with a person passing briefly through their lives. I already know that when I revisit Morocco I can't miss this tiny village in Middle Atlas.

In the morning Mona prepares promised hamam for me. She sets the tent-like construction on the terrace and explains how it works. You place a gas stove inside the tent, put a pot with water on it and let it boil for around 10 minutes until the tent fills with steam, just like in a regular hamam. You also have a bigger bucket with cold water and mix both of them until you get the right temperature. The last and only time I'd been in a hamam in Morocco was on the second day in Marrakech. Now I can experience this feeling again, in more simple yet more resourceful way. How smart it is to make a home-made steam bath like this! I really enjoy the hot water burning my skin and fresh mountainous air in my lungs. Perfect contrast. I'm really thankful to Mona that she let me indulge in this delightful experience.

And then the unlooked-for goodbye comes... Both Mona and I cry helpless tears, both of us don't want this to come to an end. She begs me to stay one day more and my heart breaks when I have to tell her that the day I have to leave Morocco is just around the corner and if I linger too long in places on my way I might overstay and have to buy another ticket back to Spain. Mona understands but before I leave she wants to give me a little souvenir. Gift exchange is an essential aspect of building connections in Morocco. She hands me a red-beaded necklace and her floral headscarf, the same one she let me wear yesterday. It's a pity that my current lifestyle doesn't allow me to carry too much stuff, so that I could make more sophisticated gifts than my hand-made cards.

There's no way I can leave without seeing Mona's relatives. She grabs my hand and together we walk to Aicha, to Leia. We walk hand in hand, a Moroccan woman wearing pajama, slippers and colorful headcsarf and I, la blanche dressed in baggy clothes that deprive me of any femininity, the brightest color I'm wearing still darker than the darkest color of Mona's outfit. The kids we pass stare at this amusing scene, some greet me with usual "bonjour." the humor of this situation amuses me and I laugh through tears.

Even though Mona and I didn't speak any common language I feel I have shared a lot with her. I never thought that I could learn so much from somebody using just gestures and bits and pieces of Arabic and French. Seemingly barriers, they didn't stop her from being open and kind, just as they didn't stop many of our drivers before.

Sharing tears of joy with people who share no language with me was definitely the most enriching part of my stay in Tighssaline. I cherish the fact that there are still people who simply want to be with you, who don't have the need to kill awkward silence by talking gibberish and most of all, who weren't pounded in the theory that a common language is mandatory to speak with another person.

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