You can leave the Sahara but, it appears, it never leaves you. I spent an hour yesterday scouring the seams and pockets of my waxed canvas bag, trying to dislodge the fine grained sand, seemingly stuck by glue to every surface. My own little dunes. To little avail. I guess i’ll get used to dusting off the keyboard of my ipad every time i use it eventually.
The grains landed there as i watched the sun set, half way through my fifteen day trip through Morocco, my first visit to Africa. It was a rare moment of stationary calm in a trip that took me to a new bed every night. Sunset itself is a transition time, so it feels appropriate to start a reflection on Morocco as the sun passes over the horizon: Morocco made me welcome, divesting me of some stereotypes, whilst reinforcing others.
It’s always hard to retune, to re-contextualise from one culture to another, fast: day one and i left my own home in the morning, to walk over the threshold of an old riad in Fez that evening. One morning i left my house, via Starbucks, to catch the train to the airport, the next morning i threw open the door to see an old man drive three donkeys past me, each laden with rugs and vegetation. It didn’t require wild imagination to sense the differences here. The smell was enough to do that.
The heart of Fez certainly felt timeless: devoid of right angles, a maze of interlocked narrow streets, uneven textures underfoot, and the bustle of the souks and streets all around me. It was the best of my expectations made real. But easy to be blinded by the nearby truth: surrounding the ancient walls is a space tenfold the size, where more modern design aesthetics intrude, and more global brands invade. I passed Pizza Hut, Burger King, and McDonalds on the drive into the city, and everywhere, everywhere, Coca Cola: painted signs faded by the sun, in both Roman and Arabic script, throughout the country. Throughout the world.
Fez allowed me to tune in, but as i left the next day, a sense of the mundane pervaded: my Renault Megane felt very much in place on the freshly made road. Other modern cars, BMWs, Peugeots, and Dacias were everywhere. Sure, they were matched by ancient Datsuns with collapsed suspension, and beaten up Mercedes taxis that i bet had a million miles on the clock, but much of the visual grammar of ‘traffic’ was familiar. I’m not sure what i had expected, but modern cars make anywhere look the same, and stole some of the mystery away.
Not that they had the space to themselves: i rapidly adapted to roadways filled with donkey carts, mules, horses, the occasional monkey, cows, sheep, goats, indomitable elderly ladies, and frequent motos heading alternatively the right way, or the wrong way, down my lane. Driving in Morocco is nothing if not lively, although far, far, more polite and friendly than my experience would have been in London. I only got flashed and honked in anger once in my entire 3,000km trip.
Cultural grammar describes those things, those established ways of acting, the expected sequence of events, that we become familiar with, and adapt to, within our own culture. Part of the experience of travel is to be exposed to new grammars, but with it comes an underlying sense of displacement that takes time to settle. Simple acts, like buying a coffee, meeting and greeting someone, or paying for dinner, take on a new and slightly unfamiliar tempo and structure.
This is one of the things i love about exploration, and one of the greatest privileges of my life, the opportunity to be immersed with, exposed to, these differences. Some of my favourite Moroccan conversations took place where we shared no language, except gestures and smiles, or broken french and fractured Arabic, but where our shared intent shone through.
The last month has been busy for me: touring the North of England, a pass through London, one night at home, then into the heart of technology in Silicon Valley, and global telecoms in rural Germany, then straight to Africa for a holiday. I’ve spent two nights in my own bed. I remember learning something when on an expedition, about twenty years ago: we were hiking for a few weeks, pitching a tent in a new space every night. Walking every day. I noticed that, at the end of the day, as i started to seek out a space to pitch the tent, i was acutely aware of how ‘strange’ spaces felt, how some places felt ‘good’ to camp, whilst others felt not unsafe, but not quite right. It felt like an ancient instinct. But the next morning, after pitching my tent and spending the night, every space felt like ‘home’. Home, it turned out, is a notion we can construct remarkably fast. Even in just one night. The sense of belonging that you take with you when you travel is created by the people you meet, and your own willingness to be held in the kindness of strangers.