A spontaneous trip from Spain to Morocco leaves a traveler enchanted with both a new city and her travel companion.
Curly-hair, cheeky-smile, a backpack light on supplies — I think of Zak when I think of Morocco. An American in Europe with travel on his mind. “Come with me to Tangier,” he’d invited smilingly one night in Barcelona when the cervezas had been cheap and plentiful and my travels were only just beginning. By daybreak, we were at the bus station, still not quite sober; I assume I had said yes at some point.
Zak had taken me off guard, disarmed me with the promise of adventure. I could smell the markets of Marrakech in my mind, twirling curls of incense teasing past pyramids of spice, a spectrum of royal hues. I thought of snake charmers entrapping their serpents with syllables of sound; street magicians performing dark tricks before a gathered crowd; a team of dancing boys, leaping and twisting by moonlight; women covered head-to-foot in burqa, the faintest trace of a set of kohl-lined eyes. Before we had even climbed aboard the bus to Algeciras, I had been seduced by my own romanticism, lost in the memory of stories I had devoured as a child, tales of Arabian nights.
As we traveled south on endless Spanish highways, Zak told me the reason he planned to journey so far, to trade Europe for Africa, euros for dirham, supermarkets for medinas. Le Petit Prince, he explained, adding that his mother had read him the book in French as a child. Since then, thoughts of the Moroccan desert had mingled in his mind with the exoticness of his mother’s native tongue.
The shifting sands of the Sahara, the twining markings of a snake’s passage over the dunes. Zak planned to remove his shoes in the desert, if and when he reached it, and to add his own footprints to those left behind by centuries of travelers. We arrived with a screeching of gears at the dusty city of Algeciras in time to watch the sun dipping into a vast sea and spent a night huddled in a dorm room, waiting for the next leg of our journey, the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar.
His was the first foot on Moroccan soil, he the first to disembark from the ship at the bustling harbor of Tangier. Immediately, we were swept up by the strangeness of the place: men wearing long, hooded cloaks called to us from darkened doorways, hints of beaked noses and shaded eyes emerged as we passed. I felt immediately wrong-footed, set off-kilter by the sudden impossibility of Tangier. Tiny alleyways narrowed until daylight was blocked by the towering buildings on either side. In reality, they were barely two stories high; in my imagination, I heard footfalls in the streets behind us, the distant bustle of the souk left far behind.
“We’re being followed,” I hissed at Zak, pulling at the scarf I’d lightly draped over my hair, peering around with beaded eyes. He laughed at me then, as sure-footed as I was wrong; his traveler legs were as good as his sea legs had been when we sailed over the strait. Turning a corner, we emerged onto a busy main street, the instant hum of traffic and the brightness of the day banishing any panic.
“Hotel, sir? Need a hotel? I have a deal for you sir, follow me.” We had attracted attention—laden with our backpacks and air of disorientation, Zak and I were easy targets. The flock of teenaged guides that surrounded us offered endless choices, from hashish to accommodation to a guided tour of the sprawling medina. Zak chose one, and I felt calmer, trusting in my friend’s intuition to keep us safe.
“Said,” the guide told us when we asked him his name. “It means happy in Arabic.”
“Mr. Happy,” Zak laughed, wrapping an arm around the young boy’s shoulders and tousling his golden curls. “You remind me of a character in a book. We need a place to stay. I’ll bet you can show us something special.”
The hostel Touahine was perfect at less than twenty euros a night, near enough to clean. We entered through an ornate wooden door that I couldn’t resist sliding my fingers across, my touch lingering on the carved patterns of fruit, water, and trees. The ripe smell of tagine hung in the air, and I realized how hungry I was.
The walls were inlaid with colorful mosaics, and an intricate lamp lit the reception area in a warm, golden light. To save money, we shared a room, and as Zak showered off the dust from the journey, I changed into clothing that covered my arms and legs, thankful for the light shawl I had packed at the last minute to hide my shoulders and hair.
As I stood on our tiny balcony, the setting sun tinged the sky with a dusky rose. A sudden wail startled me, silencing the noise of the traffic below: the Islamic call to prayer, echoing through the streets. The centuries melted away as I stood listening, existing in all moments at once.
Weighed down by hunger and travel fatigue, my thoughts spun, and if it hadn’t been for my hands clasped tight on the balcony, I might have stumbled against the iron railing. I had told no one of my destination, and my family had no idea that I had left Spain for Morocco. At that moment, I felt disappeared from Earth, fused with a state of grace that existed nowhere else but Tangier.
As the muezzin continued to call, I understood then how far I had come from all that was familiar. From the graffitied streets of Barcelona to the timeless alleyways of Tangier. The train ride that had brought us here felt like a blur, the ferry trip a stone’s throw in consciousness, Zak’s guiding presence a touchstone in unreality.
As if from a distance, I felt that my presence on the balcony was tolerated, and perhaps even welcomed by, this unfamiliar city. I had been gently accepted, like so many of the other drifters that had been drawn to its cobbled alleyways. Like it or not, and in such a short time, Tangier had enveloped me and given me hope that I could learn to belong here.
The beauty of that wordless chanting was spellbinding, and when it ended, I felt bereft, my soul clamoring for the Adhan to remain endless through the night.
Zak had heard it too; I realized he was standing behind me, holding the curtain aside. The colors had faded from the sky, leaving behind a smudged dusk; it was still too early for stars. It felt natural then to turn, to touch, to melt into Zak’s arms. A kiss to preserve the perfection of the moment. The shape of his lips was an anchor to the present, the trace of his fingers a gossamer thread that fastened us firmly in time. “No one is ever satisfied where he is,” I murmured, and Zak pulled away, a questioning look on his face.
“You’re not quoting The Little Prince at me, are you?” he laughed, his mouth twitching into a grin. “But of course you are! ‘Le langage est source de malentendus.’ Words are the source of all misunderstandings.”
Laughing, we fastened the balcony behind us and left the room, our hunger sweeping us out into the night.