Just over a week ago, I stepped off an airport shuttle into the thrum of the Medina, the old city within Marrakech, to join an Unsettled retreat. This company orchestrates programs that mix structure with freedom, connection with independence, and work with exploration for people who wish to adventure in community. One of my local hosts took my bag and told me to keep to the right so I wouldn’t get knocked over by one of myriad mopeds sputtering along the narrow, often unpaved roads. Vendor stalls and tables lined the way. Smells of spices, fruit, cooking meat and smoke wafted through the air, inundating my senses. He led me through a maze of streets that became increasingly narrow and closed in by thick, high walls. We even passed through a tunnel low enough that I reflexively ducked my head. Eventually, we made a right turn into an alley. It came to dead-end at a darkened doorway. Was I about to step through a portal into a mystery?
“Welcome home!” said the resident experience leader when I walked, wide-eyed and jet-lagged, into the soothing, tile-filled courtyard of the riad. Her greeting made me relax instantly.
Later that day, the local host showed me and a few other travelers how to exit the labyrinth. He pointed out landmarks to help us find our way. These included a cluster of drains in the street, a painted sign on a wall, a metal door. Someone noted a banana vendor at one corner. As we walked, I noticed some clothing hanging outside and mentioned it to the group. Except a new friend pointed out it’s a transient landmark, bound to disappear at some point during the day and especially at night, leaving the traveler disoriented if not lost. When I first made my way to the main square, a chaotic jumble of craft vendors, fruit juice sellers, snake charmers, food stalls, henna artists and other entrepreneurs, I wondered if my brain would explode from the stimulation.
As my senses adjusted to the throbbing scene, certain people began to emerge from the crowd. On several successive days I passed a dignified woman who sat at the corner of one building and fried sardines in a pan over a coal fire. She had a low table and a few plastic stools for customers. She’d become a fixture in my mind, even though her business is portable. The afternoon I decided to eat at her tiny booth, she was not there. I had to laugh. She reappeared on a day when I’d already had plenty of food. Of course, she seemed to be frying up her most enticing batch of fish while I walked with others to a restaurant. Another day I spotted a man who displayed dentures and false teeth on a small card table in the middle of the sweeping main plaza. Since many people here don’t wish to be photographed (or will ask for money in exchange), I didn’t approach him. However, I have not seen him since and I wonder where he went. During a rainy afternoon I bought some fresh ginger juice from a man with a pushcart. I asked him if he was in that spot every day. He said yes. When I went to find him again, he had vanished. Later that day I stepped into a tiny restaurant at the edge of the market to have some lunch. A young man noted my order (sardines!) and then took off. He returned minutes later carrying a piece of bread, part of the meal. It made sense: why should they have bread if customers are scarce and a bakery is steps away? Life here is a moving mosaic, with the pieces coming together at the last minute and then reconfiguring to form new, temporary designs.
When I rely on a schedule at home to get things done, a little bit of randomness or a last minute change of plans can throw me off (at best) or drive me crazy (at worst), particularly if I’m trying to focus, concentrate or I am on a deadline. Capitalism, particularly in the United States, demands efficiency to maximize productivity. Many people’s expectations and behaviors are formed around that baseline belief. Yet the randomness here is mesmerizing and, because of its ubiquity, strangely soothing. Without any assumption that things should be orderly or comprehensible, it’s easier and perhaps necessary to relax into the unknown because “the unknown” is the default setting. That circumstances constantly change is a reminder to seize the moment because the tapestry of tomorrow might look quite different from that of today. One morning a bread seller is stationed at the corner. The next day, a fruit vendor has appeared, or the corner empties. Some days the butcher stands waiting to sell a few forlorn pieces of meat. Other times his case is full of different cuts. That the neighborhood around me is palpably in flux has helped me care for my highly sensitive and introverted self with less self-consciousness and fear of what others might think. My inner life and the state of my nervous system can be as changeable as the Marrakech weather, a kaleidoscope of clouds, sun, rain and wind. A few times I’ve joined a group activity only to peel off in the middle when my energy dipped and I realized I needed to recharge or move at my own pace.
There are an incredible amount of things to see and do here, not to mention eat and drink. It’s tempting to run around and try everything, to binge on freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, avocado and date smoothies and mint tea, and sample foods at market stalls and restaurants of all kinds. While appreciating culinary delights is part of travel, perhaps I need to remember to not chase novelty or indulge my gluttonous tendencies but instead to immerse myself in the fleeting pleasures and challenges that each day brings. As I mentioned to the experience leader after I arrived, I could probably park myself in one spot and not get bored. The parade of people on foot, bicycle and moped, or pushing wide carts filled with oranges or pastries, and who are wearing myriad variations of the djellaba, a long loose fitting hooded robe, is endlessly fascinating. Perhaps it’s because these people are in motion, embodying the transitory, that they inspire me to stand still, observe them and, in the process, connect to my own, impermanent self.
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