August 19. Today we leave Morocco and head to Portugal. My feelings are mixed. I am looking forward to less heat, less dust, less tagine, less anxiety about the water, fewer sick tummies (no matter how careful we were about the water), fewer 5 am calls to prayer from scratchy Mosque megaphones. I am also a bit sad. Sad that it will never again be the exciting first weeks of our trip, sad that we’re leaving our only stop in Africa, sad that we are now 1 country down on our 13-country adventure.
And sad because it’s hard not to feel like we somehow fell short in really knowing this place.
One grumpy evening, Coco (9) asked if we “are going to spend the whole trip just walking around looking at people and stuff.” And, if I’m taking a negative view, I could say that’s most of what we accomplished in Morocco. Yes, we’ve seen beautiful architecture, hiked amazing landscapes, and caught some semi-respectable waves in the Morrocan surf.
Yes, we’ve learned a fair amount about the complex history and culture of this old and complicated country. And yes, we’ve learned basic aspects of the Muslim religion that I am embarrassed to admit I never knew or bothered to try to understand.
But all of this exposure, while wonderful, feels like it has occurred at a distance from the actual people and true day-to-day life of Morocco. As if the 6 of us are just voyeurs observing the life of this place through a lens blurred by our different language, our relatively short time here, and our very obvious and stark foreignness.
To be sure, visiting Morocco live, rather than through a book or the internet, has allowed us to witness aspects of Moroccan life that we’d never otherwise see: children playing in the alleys of the Medina, late into the night, taking care of each other with little or no grownups around to ruin their games (one mother told us her kids stay up past midnight during the summer holiday and sleep until 11 am!); young men in football jerseys texting away on their smart phones as they ride their donkeys to the work (no room for cars on the narrow path to the souk); master embroiderers (all men) embellishing intricate jellabas as the Rio Olympics play on the flat screen tvs in their tiny shops; women chatting and laughing at the entrance to their local Hammam, the traditional Moroccan bath where women gather twice a week to gossip and socialize.
This feeling of separateness is in no way attributable to a lack of warmth or welcoming from the people we encountered. As we walked the market, hiked the trails, or lingered in the surf line up, the people of Tagahzout, Imlil, Marrakesh, Fez, Sefrou, Bahlil, and Meknes were (almost) always friendly, flashing encouraging smiles when we attempted to exchange a Muslim greeting or took the easy path with a universal “ca va?” The children especially were greeted with delight and affection (even a kiss on the check), especially blond little Phoebe (4). I have to believe these interactions, however superficial, are somehow meaningful and worthwhile for all involved. But they do not dissolve the feeling of being on the far outside looking in.
It’s probably presumptuous, unrealistic, and American for me to expect any more. Would it be possible to know the “real Morocco” (if such a thing exists) even if all of the barriers I mention above were removed? Why should these people want to share their real lives with us? Is this feeling of separateness just a more extreme version of the separateness we feel from people who live lives different from our own in the U.S. or just miles away in our own city? Is it entitled and annoying of me to even be asking these questions? Would it be better for me to stick with cute pictures of kids on camels on this blog?
Probably. But I can’t not consider what we can d do to make sure that, even with this perhaps inevitable feeling of remove, Brendan and I still accomplish one of the main purposes of this trip: to show the kids (and ourselves) that there is a big wide world outside of the very narrow slice of life we live in Chevy Chase DC, a world that is not just fodder for likable Facebook posts or compelling college essays a few years down the road, a world that involves people who are very different but, in many ways, very much like us. People we should remember and respect when we make choices back home.
Any thoughts or recommendations very much welcome. In the meantime, we’ll keep walking and looking.