Thursday, July 7, 2011

Expedition Possible

  I'm watching a few minutes of "Expedition Impossible" on TV while I eat dinner, and the teams are in Morocco. And they have to ride camels. And they're WHINING about it. I'm having a hard time empathizing with them, given that they're in one of the coolest places on the globe... I've been there. In fact, my trip to Spain and Morocco undoubtedly and perhaps singlehandedly sparked my wanderlust and my foodie-ism.
  When I was a senior in high school, I traveled to Spain with classmates and Señora Sink, one of our favorite teachers. I hadn't been outside of the U.S. in many years (not since my family's trip to Germany when I was in 5th grade) so it was bound to be special. We toured Madrid, Seville, Toledo, and the Costa Del Sol; we saw the Alhambra and other famous landmarks, and sampled many indigenous foods. Some great (paella), some questionable (breaded tongue soaked in a vinegar sauce).
  We also took a day trip on a ferry from Algeciras, Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar into Tangiers, Morocco. Yes, my friends and I sang "Rock the Casbah" IN the Casbah! (Granted, we probably weren't the first, but it was still rather exciting.) Our guide led us through the narrow, winding, crowded streets. All the signs were in Arabic, and there were so many twists and turns that I knew that if any of us became lost, we'd surely never be found. We stayed as close to each other as we could, all the while trying to avoid gypsies, fortune tellers, salesman and children pawing at us, hungry for our money.
   We were taken to a carpet shop to see beautiful hand-woven carpets for sale. I wanted one, but they were expensive. So the salesman, driving a hard bargain, kept having successively smaller carpets brought out to me, hoping I'd cave.
   "I don't have the money," I said, starting to feel a little annoyed.
   "Does your friend have any money?" He said earnestly, looking at Matt, who happened to be next to me. Matt shook his head nervously.
   The salesman looked back at me. "Do you have a watch?"
   I was glad that I'd forgotten to wear mine that day, so I had an easy excuse. "No."
   "Does your FRIEND have a watch?" He looked at Matt again, who looked bewildered and slinked away.
   Eventually I bought a small, thin carpet, which I still have to this day—I keep it in my bedroom as a reminder of the experience.
   Later, we were making our way through the Casbah again, and men kept approaching our guide, a large, stern-looking, middle-aged man. They'd speak quickly in Arabic, he kept shaking his head and they'd move on. Later we learned that the men were trying to offer camels for the females in our group. That was fairly shocking to my 17-year-old brain.
   He led us to a restaurant that smelled incredible—the air wafting from it was thick with exotic spices. And it is to this day one of the most memorable meals I've ever enjoyed: couscous, skewered and grilled meats, grilled vegetables and things that I couldn't identify which were nonetheless completely delicious. While we ate, four men played traditional instruments including a sitar, and they set the stage for the whole experience. I'd never heard anything like it, and couldn't get enough. The music made the food taste better!
   (On a side note, months later, I was reading a travel magazine and happened across an article about Morocco—and the same four musicians were pictured, in the restaurant. Whether planned or happy coincidence, we had eaten at one of the best restaurants in the city!)
   Outside of the city we met up with a band of gypsies offering rides on their herd of camel. I couldn't wait to get on one. It worked like this: the camel is lying down on its stomach, gangly legs tucked in. You hop on, in front of the hump on a dromedary (or between the humps on a double). And as the camel stands, you lurch forward suddenly—they stand with their back legs first. Then you're thrown backwards as the front legs pop up. If you survive the whiplash, you're in for a sweet ride.
   The contestants on tonight's show were cursing the camel (and frankly, the camel were cursing back). But I find camel to be extremely interesting, and handsome, even. Just look at that profile above. They're unique and beautiful animals, and to me their stubbornness and independent nature give them personality and make them that much more compelling. (Sort of like taller, ganglier Shiba Inus!) Taking a real camel ride was a highlight of the trip for me for sure.
   Many of the students on the trip disliked our day trip. They couldn't read the signs or understand the chatter, they were suspicious of the food, they were uncomfortable being beseeched in the market. Morocco wasn't anything like home. And that's precisely what I loved about it. From that point on, I've always wanted to travel and see as much of the world as possible.
   I get frustrated watching "The Amazing Race" and "The Bachelor" and other reality shows that take unenlightened contestants to exotic and wonderful locales, only to have them complain about what makes them wonderful. The differences that frustrate them are precisely the reason we all need to experience more of the world first hand: There is a wealth of knowledge there for the taking, and getting out of your comfort zone stretches you in ways you can't imagine. And, in turn, makes you appreciate the familiarity and relative ease when you make your way back home.

   "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" is a great thing.

   One of these days I'd love to scan all my photos from the trip, which I have kept in a scrapbook for... 18 years now. I'd say it's high time I visited Morocco again.