A Short Story — Part II

So where were we? Oh, yes, just having made the Sahara Desert late in the day and headed off the beaten path onto a piste that our guide, Abdul, was unfamiliar with. And the car stopped. For those of you who are just tuning in, may I strongly suggest you go back first to the previous post, A Short Story — Part I, and read the beginning of this tale. Otherwise, you will be highly confused and really miss the whole point. For the rest of you, off we go, back to the desert.

The Desert Calls (continued)

Stefanie in a professional wrapped scarf, desert-ready head gear
Stefanie in a professionally wrapped scarf, desert-ready head gear

Abdul put the car in park, shut it off, and then restarted it. And then shut it off again and got out of the car. “What’s going on,” I asked David. “Are we out of gas?” No, we’re stuck, he informed me. In my mounting panic I envisioned us spending the night here huddled in Abdul’s car, awaiting rescue in the light. Abdul called to David and we both got out. Motioning him to the rear, Abdul instructed David to push up and down on the car above the rear wheel while he put the car in gear and tried to drive out of the soft sand. The temperature was cooling with nightfall and the breeze brought a bit of calm to me with it. As David and Abdul strained to gain advantage over the sand I looked behind us to see several forms in the distance walking toward us. Their figures were lean and fluid, as though shadows formed in the waning light. “Wait. Somebody’s coming.” Abdul and David stopped, and we all looked backward as the figures came onward, revealing themselves as a group of five or six young boys, perhaps 10 to 12 years of age, carrying a small, round washbasin, a water bottle, and a shoe. They trotted enthusiastically toward us the last several yards, exchanging excited greetings of friendship with Abdul. My fears evaporated with the boys’ laughter and camaraderie.

Soon, a phalanx of boys stood with David behind the car, ready to push at Abdul’s command. The boys’ figures appeared slight beneath their flowing robes, and their mixed voices cascaded into the night. I thought of summer nights at home when neighborhood kids and I had played until darkness fell, and I recognized a familiar excitement that comes with the day turned to dusk. A smaller, almost delicate, boy eased up beside me and slipped his hand into mine. “What eez your name?” he asked me. Startled and warmed by his unexpected touch, I answered, “Stefanie,” amazed at his knowledge of English. He told me he preferred to watch and let the others push the car from the sand.

With a crank of the engine and a mighty heave from David and the boys, the car jolted out of its rut. A thrill caught my throat as I leapt into the back seat and we set once again into motion, not knowing the way exactly, but glad to be moving forward again with possibility. This new spirit filled the car, and I felt a bit sad to so soon have said good-bye to our little heroes. Now there was blackness and I wondered at their ability and ease at such an age of making their way to wherever they might be going in the desert alone. But they had only laughed and waved as we left.

Our concentration now was focused on the beam of light in front of us, sweeping the rolling car track coming and going in the sand. I felt strangely resigned to whatever our fate might be in finding our way forward. We might just have to spend the night, but the morning would come and rescue with it. Suddenly, a larger patch of sand loomed in front of us and the Peugeot lurched to a dead halt. We hadn’t gone far, and as we clamored out of the car we heard the boys calling to us, running to help. They reached us out of breath and trailing laughter, once again throwing down their basin and shoe to help us on our way. In unison, they rocked the car back and forth, up and down above the wheel mired in the sand, and with great effort freed us a second time. With a whoop, Dave and I swept into the moving car as it spun out of the sand but were surprised to see that one of the boys had joined us for the ride. We were off without delay, this time with the boy posted behind Abdul instructing him in his ear on which track to follow, gesturing wildly when he’d missed a turn or over steered. The car careened into the night, sweeping over hillocks and through dips in the piste. We were no longer in the Sahara but on some strange, fantastic roller coaster, literally leaping through piles of sand, skidding around looming scrub, and knocking our heads on the ceiling, all the while through shrieks and peals of laughter. I held to the back of David’s seat as we exchanged looks of disbelief and sped into the night. Onward, onward, up and down, time unknown, unceasing. The boy’s directions remained sure, unwavering, as though there were signposts to tell him the way. He guided Abdul continuously, leaning over his shoulder, in rapid fire French. I imagined him saying, “This way, no there! There! Go up that hill, now there!” as he pointed and directed our way into the night.

In one strong motion like a homing device, our headlights suddenly latch onto a small, squat structure immediately ahead. Made of what appears to be dried cornstalks and sporting one paneless window, it appears as though a vision before us. And in front of it stands a tall, strikingly handsome, dark skinned man in a black turban and flowing blue robe, a sultan before my eyes, waving us in. Just beyond the cornstalk hut is a camel hair tent with a rug hanging in its doorway. We are home.

A Short Story

No, I’ve not fallen asleep, just experiencing distractions from daily life and deadlines looming overhead (which are now, thankfully, past). And then there was the ICE STORM. Capital letters don’t do its magnitude justice. But this is not about that. Rather, it is somewhat of a digression since our digital camera is still on the fritz and I am unable to post pictures of my progress on my latest painting. It is about Morocco, as I had promised, and coming along nicely in spite of the other things getting in my way.

But it is not for today, since it’s rather boring to talk about a painting one can’t see. Today I will paint a picture of Morocco in words, a tale from our first trip there, and one that had lasting effects on both Dave and me. This is a rather long tale, so I’ll give it to you in a couple installments. You’ll just have to tune in later to see how it all turned out. We did survive, you can surmise, afterall.

An open air market in Fez on our second trip

The Desert Calls

The front wheels of our car bump off the road in front of a sign that reads “Autopiste” and onto a spray of car tracks leading in several directions out into the barren dust illuminated in our headlights. We are at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert south of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, headed on our way to a 3-day camel adventure. We’d found our guide, Abdul, in the seaside town of Essaouira on the northwest coast of Morocco, a full day’s journey from where we find ourselves now, at day’s end, entering the Sahara.

Abdul grew up here in the desert in what he calls the family compound. He owns a small shop in Essaouira selling jewelry and trinkets to tourists, and when he can find willing adventurers, he brokers camel trips of various lengths for intrepid spirits such as ourselves. For a negotiated fee he’s agreed to drive us to our trip’s starting point in the Sahara, hire guides and camels, and provide all necessary provisions, such as food, water, and gear, for our 3-day trip. It sounded like the experience of a lifetime, and David and I were excited and dumbstruck by the prospect. Abdul had warned us that we would need to get to our turnoff into the Sahara before sunset, as the roads were weak and indiscernible, little more than tracks in the dirt. “The roads, they go like this, this, this,” he explained, motioning his hands in different directions and shaking his head to show their confusion. Since he no longer lived there and was now unaccustomed with the way from the highway to the compound, he would need the light of day to distinguish the right course through the sand.

Our day had begun with a maddening watch alarm failure due to its complicated instructions. We had awakened late on the morning of our departure from Essaouira and scrambled frantically around to meet Abdul and head south to the desert. By the time we met him just outside the city gate it was close to 8 o’clock and the day well on its way. Our journey took us up across the Atlas Mountains, where we stopped for lunch and a brief rest. We made several stops for photo opportunities, and somewhere outside of Zagora we stopped at an open market for our trip provisions. Heading south out of town we were further delayed by a slow convoy of SUVs also headed south. The sun was quickly sinking as we raced to pass them.

The twilight had enveloped us as we finally pulled off the highway onto the piste headed into the Sahara. Abdul had accurately described the lay of the road, if it were to be called that. Tire tracks led everywhere, each beckoning you to follow its lead. Ahead at the distant horizon the sun was slipping its footing, sinking into darkness. I looked behind us in time to see a bus discharge several passengers into the dusk. Where were they headed, I wondered, with no visible town or village or house in any direction? I watched them set off knowingly behind us, headed westward, just as though they’d been let off at some busy well-lit city street corner. As we headed onward I lost sight of them in the growing dark.

The first moments of panic bubbled up from the pit of my stomach as I looked out the front window trying in vain to determine the road. Abdul and David had spent much of the day amicably chatting, but now their voices were silent. Who was this man, really? What did we know about him? Instead of the headiness of a fantastic adventure about to unfold, I felt an icy foreboding in the pit of my stomach. What kind of foolishness had David and I gotten ourselves into? Maybe Abdul was taking us to some desolate place to abandon us and be off with our money, or worse. Why wasn’t he talking? Where was the jovial fellow now?

In an effort to steady myself I tried to think of something light to say, but nothing came to mind. Instead, all I could focus on was the closing way before us and the waning light. We rambled over a vague rolling terrain of sand and low scrub . Off in the distance I could make out the silhouettes of a few camels and a couple of lone people, but no lights of dwellings or distant towns. The car was moving slowly and I willed the heavens to help us find our way, to protect us. I regretted all our stops to take pictures, our time spent resting at lunch, our missed wake-up alarm, our decision to come on this journey to begin with. The car stopped ….

Stefanie

Dreaming Morocco

Madrasa, a boys' school, in Fez
Madrasa, a boys' school, in Fez

The smallest things can provide blips in your workflow. Our digital camera has gone off its head, and so we’ve taken it into the shop to have a technician look at it. So much for posting progress of my latest paintings.

Camera aside, I’m determining what my next piece will be. I’ve not done anything in a while that had to do with our world travels, and so they beckon. Dave showed me a picture from the New York Times of a scene from Marrakesh’s famous Djemaa El Fna, the greatest nightly food court cum street fair ever, which we experienced in 2000 on our first trip to Morocco. Sadly, we didn’t get back to Marrakesh in 2005, but I remember the nightly festival clearly and with fond memories. It to that date and to present remains one of the wildest experiences I’ve ever had. It is pure street theatre and purely Morocco, filled with amazing storytellers, musicians, hucksters, and a labyrinth of food stalls. We forwent the food back then, but now agree that we’re brave enough to partake the next time we’re there. And we have to go. Morocco has had its hold on me since reading The Drifters, and experiencing it has only added to its magic.

Fish for sale in French and Arabic
Fish for sale in French and Arabic

I pulled up the pictures from our electronic files from our trip to Fez and Meknes in 2005. It all came flooding back, immersing me in a feeling of timelessness, strange and pungent smells, and a bounty of colors and mystery. I like the personal dignity of the people, the men’s long gowns with pointy hoods, the bustle and bump of navigating the souks. There is a strange sight at every turn – goat meat hanging from a hook; small, whole fish for market, their names in French and Arabic script; silversmiths banging out their pots; the stench and color of the tanners’ row. Women drift by in clouds of flowing material at the periphery of consciousness, dark apparitions save for their exposed faces. Donkeys laden with a multitude of wares tread the narrow paths of the bazaars, forming an urban supply train as counterpart to the camels of the Sahara, and as time honored.

Expect some images brought to life in the weeks ahead. I dream of Morocco.

Stefanie