ext. day. hot, dusty, tetouen. the crowded “metropolis” emerges from the desert mirage sheen of north africa. men in caftans, women in burkas. head coverings. arabic radio music shouts cacophonously-beautifully from the streets.
he’s alone in the middle of a crowded arabic city. alone? well, all five of his fellow passengers have abandoned ship. taxi, that is. several along the dusty road south from ceuta, the rest right here in downtown tetouen. the cab driver speaks only a little less fluently than his bygone pal, ali, but it seems that this “ouen” is tet-ouen, not chef-chaouen, proving not so much his inept skills of inquiry, but rather his total lack of fluency in arabic. so now he’s stuck in the wrong “ouen”, only to discover he’s another fifty miles south of chef-chaouen, his magical-mystical-moroccan medina of destination.
“tirty euros, my priend”, the bearded cab driver offers, revealing a mouthful of missing teeth.
“but i already paid you two euros for the whole ride.”
“chefchaouen very far. feefty kilometers up mountain.” he points into the desert.
“good prrrice.” he rolls his r-s. “verrry cheap.”
“verrry cheap, my priend.”
“how else can i go? is there a bus?”
the cabbie smiles. “boos? no problem,” pointing up an embankment in the opposite direction of the desert.
he stands there in the heat deliberating. should he just fork over the cash and be on his way? accept this misunderstanding as a casualty of traveling alone in a foreign culture? the price he pays for his stubbornness and independence? why didn’t he take that damn tourist bus from granada?
“twenty-five, my priend.”
he’s already pulled his two bags out of the trunk. there’s no air conditioning. money’s tight. he’s on an adventure…
“no problem,” the cabbie smiles, offering his hand. he can’t refuse it. they shake. he lugs his knapsack onto his back and starts rolling his travel wheelee across the bumpy, half-paved thoroughfare.
just on the other side of street, at the foot of the steep concrete stairway up the earthen embankment, he’s surrounded by begging children. selling chicklets, candies, moroccan trinkets. then mothers with swaddled, hungry babies; feels just like the mexican border at tijuana again. but african. kids offer to carry his bag up the stairs. he refuses politely. “no, shokrun”. he thinks that’s “no, thank you” in arabic.
he climbs the stairway, and finds himself shockingly out of breath in the stifling heat. but just as the cabbie has said, there’s the bus station right across the street at the top of the embankment. it’s inviting him into its garage–like bowels, filled with exhaust. there’s no pedestrian entrance to the station. no place to buy tickets. at least not from this side. only the blackened shoot of departure. maybe fifty buses all parked, ready to spray their passengers all over north morocco. he has no idea where to go, but two local guys run up to him grabbing his bags from him. “chefchaouen?” they ask. “yeah,” he says, pulling his bags back from them, before realizing that they’re porters trying to help him. he’s a marked man. white tourist in brown-skinned morocco. they’ve seen him before, even if it’s his first time.
he lets them load the larger of his two bags into the rear of the bus’ boot. it makes him nervous as hell; will he ever see it again? but there’s no other choice. no room on the jam-packed passenger bus, full of brown-skinned, thick bodied women and dark-eyed, rail-thin islamic men. they’re eating, talking, sleeping, hassling with children. he carries his well-traveled knapsack onto the ancient bus and squeezes it, along with himself, into a seat in the back, knees pressed into the seat in front of him. most of the dark eyes ignore him, while a few other heads turn to look at him. fish out of water, maybe he should have taken the cab.
after a few sweltering minutes waiting for every seat to be filled, the bus finally backs out of its stall, and pulls forward to the exit. half an hour later, it’s made a complete circle around the town – tetouen – dropped off a few locals, and pulled back into the station. why? because. he waits again for the seats to be filled. he has no power, no tools, no language. he’s an impotent gringo in a third world country. sure, he has cash in his pocket and money in the bank, but none of it can get the bus to move any faster, nor his ass any quicker to chefchaouen. the bus lurches backward. this time, mercifully, it descends the embankment, and heads north into the desert.
it’s flat on the outskirts of town. dry and chaotic. a few moroccan locals are sitting on the side of the road. men only. they look like stray dogs who haven’t worked or eaten in weeks. there’s construction everywhere. who knows how long it’s been this way, but it looks like they’re trying to build something between a convention center and a mosque. maybe both. multi-tasking. next time in town, maybe in about twenty years say, perhaps they’ll have it done.
the bus rumbles up the mountainside. there’s no air circulating; all the windows are closed. how can that be, it’s over a hundred degrees fahrenheit? the moroccans are just sitting there in the heat, crushed into this moving tin can. arabic music is blaring. he opens the window just in front of him. the hot desert air blows in like an inferno. oh, that’s why the windows are closed. he takes out his red hippie bandana, and ties it across his face, just under his eyes. his glasses keep the wind from blowing into his eyes, and he stares out the window. it’s poor. barren. and beautiful.
the bus is climbing the foothills of the atlas mountains. the hot desert air is blowing directly in his face. there’s no other choice but to drift into the desert’s spell. enter into one of its immobile travel reveries. time has become irrelevant. stuck on a moving vehicle for a period of time that has no announced arrival, it could be a two hour climb or a twelve hour trek, like across the north of sinai from taba to cairo. there’s no beginning and no end, just the constant movement of the bus. the sound of the blaring arabic radio, the smell of the slightly dungy air. no gas stations, no billboards, only the throbbing third world life of his fellow travelers.
he’s thinking of his wife. of the completely random way he met her in kuta beach on the island of bali. he was coming out of an indonesian bank with a twenty-four hour ATM machine, and he’d asked the first pedestrians on the street where he could find the matahari mall. a pretty balinese girl had told him to meet her there at six that evening, but he’d gotten turned around on the streets. so he’d asked the first two girls who had serendipitously appeared at the moment he was exiting the bank kiosk. they could have been anyone.
“excuse me, do you know where the matahari is?”
the two local girls look at each other and laugh. one is young and pretty, wearing denim shorts and a white tank top; the other is a few years older, wears a batik sarong, and acts like the big sister. the young one speaks some broken english, but manages to point him in the direction of the matahari. he thanks them both and goes off in the pointed at direction. the next thing he knows, perhaps a minute later, the young girl has caught up with him.
“i sew you,” she smiles.
he smiles back. “what? i don’t understand.”
“matahari. i sew you,” she smiles again, pointing.
“oh. ok. thank you.”
they walk together. two strangers. he, and the twenty one year old girl who would become his wife. she wants to show him the matahari. that’s what she says. so simple. so friendly. or… was she just a poor indonesian girl eager to meet a “boulay”, a westerner? he would never know. not even five years later, after he had spent that first night with her at his motel. they hadn’t slept together, but they had exchanged intimacy, longing, had bridged the chasm of loneliness between them. later, that same night, they had had their first volcanic eruption. he was joking, saying he thought she might have been a working girl, the way she was so open and unafraid to walk with him. she didn’t get the humor, and exploded at him immediately, throwing his card back in his face, reddening in her pretty brown face, spitting words of broken english and bahasa back in his face. storming out of the balinese motel.
he wouldn’t know six months later, after they had e-mailed each other for months. she had refused his invitation to america, but he had returned to bali to spend christmas with her. nor would he know after they had fought their way across the entire island of java during the islamic holy days of ramadan. nor after she had come to LA eight months later, giving up every thing and every one she knew, to start a new life in america. with the chasms of language, age, and culture between them. he wouldn’t know after more volcanic eruptions and trips to south america, after hard-earned green and social security cards, after seven failed written tests at the DMV, after hurled pottery, slammed doors, torn documents, after eight months together on a fulbright in malaysia. after her total dependency on him and his total commitment to her. after months and years of intimacy and trust together, much to the exclusion of all of his previous friends and acquaintances. after all this and so much more – the hardest , most demanding years of love and hate and trust and mistrust between them, he still wouldn’t know. why him? why her? had they actually been married for over two years now?
except now she was back in indonesia, visiting her family for the first time in over two years. a family that didn’t even know she had been married or that he existed as more than a mysterious and elderly sponsor or friend. a family she didn’t think could accept a marriage to a western man thirty years her senior who knew little about her culture, history, or religion. a family that was now seeing a poor young indonesian girl suddenly transformed into a dyed-blond, well-dressed shakira-madonna doll, straight from the wealth and promise of america. while here he was, on another solo adventure into the third world, the very place his wife wanted to escape. rolling up a mountainside, slightly smelling of animal dung, wondering if she would ever come back to him. wondering if he even wanted her to.
there’s movement on the bus. a stirring. not like on a intercontinental 747 arriving from frankfort to LAX, where all the euro-american women are brushing their hair and applying lip gloss to their twelve hour flight faces. no, not exactly that. but the moroccans are gathering their things, tugging on their clothes, pulling on their babies. the bus is approaching chefchaouen. and he’s stirred out of his own private idaho and back into the cramped bus. his legs are asleep from the knees down, and he tries to straighten them a bit over his crushed knapsack. he’s not sure, but he think there’s been a moroccan man, dressed all in white, looking over at him from the seat two rows behind. for the entire trip. every time he turns to look, the dark eyed man catches his eyes, then turns away.
he remembers the arabic dude and his son on the ferry ride over to ceuta from algeciras. he had just arrived by bus from malaga, and had been dumped downtown, several miles from the ferry terminal. he had followed the masses, all like immigrant cattle, and spotted a tall, be-spectacled arabic-dressed man with a young boy at his side. the guy had an air about him
“do you speak english?”
the man looked him over from head to toe and nodded. “are you crossing to ceuta?” the man looked over to the young boy, back to him, and nodded again. “can i share a taxi with you to the terminal?”
the man nodded again and this time said, “yes.”
they had gotten a cab. the arab man arranged the fare in arabic, argued over it when they arrived, and they got out.
“mind if i tag along with you onto the ferry? are you going to chefchaouen?”
the man looked at him with what looked like something between contempt and amusement. “no, we’re going to meknes.”
“oh,” he replied, not having ever heard of the place.
“follow us,” the man offered. and he did.
as he bought his ticket, showed his passport, climbed the escalator, waited in the terminal, was herded onto the ferry, he couldn’t help plotting out an elaborate fantasy about this man and his son. he had eked out that the two were from cleveland, ohio, had dual american and moroccan citizenship, and were going to meknes to visit friends. the man was carrying a laptop computer comfortably over his shoulder, something he, himself, would never have the balls to do. a laptop in the third world? not knowing where he would be sleeping or what kind of security he would be running into night by night. no, never. but this dude, he looked both comfortable and invisible at the same time in this north african port. like he was just walking around his neighborhood, like LA or new york, or anywhere in the first world. but looks were deceiving. what if -- he was an al queda agent? what if his computer was a detonator? what if he was going to a training camp in meknes, and he was one of the bomb makers, experts, or head trainers. what if he was going to detonate his computer right here on the algeciras-ceuta ferry? what if this man had no value for human life except as a martyr? maybe that’s why he was so aloof and cautious. what if…..
the ferry had arrived in ceuta. the cattle again stampeded off into their safe and antiseptic tour buses, and the arabic man and his son disappeared into memory towards meknes. now here he was on another bus, pulling into mystical, moroccan chefchaouen, and another moroccan dude was sizing him up from two rows behind.
he waited for the bus to unload, and walked into the aisle towards the rear exit door. the arab man in white stood up, looked at him, and pointed. he flinched and looked in the direction of the outstretched arabic finger. it was pointing to the floor of the seat he had just left. he turned abruptly, expecting to see a handmade bomb ready to explode. instead, what he saw was his shiny new CD player that had slid from his knapsack onto the floor. he darted over, picked up the player, and smiled appreciatively to the man in white. “shokrun”, he offered. the man nodded back stone-faced and left the bus ahead of him.