November 18, was Morocco’s Independence Day, the 58th anniversary of freedom from the French Protectorate lasting from 1912–1956. It was a milestone birthday of my cousin, Annette, a loving lady who hosted our family reunion in Kentucky last summer. And it was a marker for me.
Three months ago I landed in this country and began a new era in my life. I’ve thought a lot about freedom—independence I’ve gained and lost with this move. Much has happened on this continent and across the world since I decided last April to come. Morocco, vigilant to safeguard against Ebola, decided not to host the African Cup. I walk past military police daily guarding against terrorism; and while machine guns, dogs, and other precautions first frightened me, I am so thankful for the constant presence at home, work, and around town of these men in service. No doubt I have grown in faith as I trust God for wisdom, peace, and protection from without and within. I’ve thought about FDR’s epiphany: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and Paul who said to pray and fret not, to think on whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, and lovely. I try hard to focus on the good people I’ve met, natural beauty in this diverse place, and opportunities for adventure.
Life keeps all my senses on high alert here. I have never experienced—smelled, tasted, seen, heard, felt, and, bit-by-bit, learned so much in ninety days about the world and myself. Last month I checked off one of two Bucket List items for North Africa–reasons for choosing this job placement. Though I still haven’t made it to the pyramids in Cairo, I rode in a caravan to a tent where I camped out in the Sahara. Sharing a meal by candlelight with fellow nomads, listening to Berber guides play drums and sing by the fire under a black canvas studded with stars, leaving camp under a full moon and arriving at sunrise at our van before the 15- hour ride home were scenes in the sand I’ll never forget.
Though the two-day trip to Merzouga was long, the stops along the way were worthwhile in themselves. The first was in the Medina of Marrakesh where Monica, visiting me from Spain, and I were taken from the Le Caspian Hotel whose tour company organized the trip. I love their restaurant and trust their service. (Monica and I went there the first night she arrived for a rooftop drink and we ate lunch there the day we returned from Chefchouen at the end of this fall break.) The cost for 3 days/2 nights–transportation, breakfast, dinner, hotels, and camel campout–was 90 Euros–about 850 Moroccan Dirhams or $100 USD when we booked. From the hotel we were told to board another van where four of my coworkers were calling my name. They had booked through another company, none of us knowing we’d end up on the same trip that day. I’m so glad we did.
Crossing the Atlas Mountains which surround Marrakesh was surreal as watercolor peaks in the the distance came into sharp focus. Hairpin turns on cliffs’ edges summoned the same thrill I felt crossing the Swiss Alps and the Andes in Ecuador.
Ouarzazate, the Door of the Desert, is where films Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator, Babel, Kingdom of Heaven, Romancing the Stone: Jewel of the Nile, and Season 3 of Game of Thrones were shot. Being there was another dream come true. We climbed to the peak of the ksar , a fortified pre Saharan castle, Aït Benhaddou, which lies along the river where caravans traveled from the Sahara to Marrakech. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) lists it as one of 1007 World Heritage Sites (places of outstanding natural or cultural importance to the common heritage of humanity). There are more UNESCO sites in Morocco and Ethiopia than any other countries in Africa. Of the nine UNESCO sites n Morocco I have also experienced thus far the Medinas of Marrakesh, Fez, and Essaouira. Within Aït Benhaddou is an adobe Jewish synagogue; Jews and Berbers lived together in this region. Morocco has the largest Jewish community of any country in the Arab world. The Marrakesh Medina also has a Jewish Quarter.
After the two-hour tour of the city on the hill, we had lunch and continued our drive to the Dades Valley. The rocks and gorges reminded me of the American West and my favorite tv show when I was a child, High Chapparal. Over the miles of the fall break road trips, memories of my childhood traveled with me. I hadn’t eaten Pringles since a kid at my Mama Sargeant and Granddaddy’s house, but after rediscovering them at roadside stops they became my comfort food. (Later that week they’d become survival on the nine-hour public bus trip to Fez where the driver went seven hours without a food or bathroom break). When I arrived at our amazing hotel in the Gorge, I called my sister to tell her about all I’d seen. Turned out she was visiting my mom in Kentucky. They were looking at Mama Sargeant’s recipes and watching… yep, High Chapparal. This wasn’t the first time we’ve marveled at how we’ve stayed connected across the continents. Before I left, Penny said to remember every time I look up at the moon she’s looking up at it, too.
At the Hôtel du Vieux Château du Dadès located in the Dadès gorges, we had a traditional dinner–tajine–and breakfast before heading to our final destination. Sipping coffee alone in the crisp, cool air as the river ran over rocks below was a welcome change from the day before when late October temperatures were in the 90s.
At sunset we arrived at the main event.
My camel was crazy and codependent, throwing a hissy fit when he thought we were leaving the camel assigned to Monica. Though she’s a world traveler and possibly the most independent woman I’ve ever known, she said she wouldn’t have ridden mine. When I asked the guide for a different one the second day he said the camel was used to me and I could handle him. He was thin and cranky but settled down. My sister said we were a good pair—skinny and feisty.
Since moving to Morocco I am thinner and have been cranky sometimes too–the first from walking everywhere and the second from Moroccan food overload and carnivore cutback (meat sold in groceries can be tough). I quickly tired of tajines (like pot roast but with less seasoning than this Southerner uses). But thanks to the supportive community of colleagues, I continue to discover the treasure trove that is Marrakesh. In the past week… a new bakery, butcher, and expat restaurant where I attended my first Inter Nations social. Before that, a hamam on a hidden back alley. Thanks to my friend sharing her maid, I have more free time. Twice a month Saida cooks enough vegetable and chicken couscous for two weeks of lunches, cleans my apartment, washes my clothes, and organizes my life. She is a blessing. And though I’ve missed having a car to run to Kroger–open 24/7–and the freedom to go anywhere alone after dark, next to my apartment is a hanut–a one-room “minute mart” where my friendly neighbor rings up items from breakfast to late night from behind a counter. It’s a Moroccan version of country stores like the one my Uncle Henry had in Fairview.
Home. Maya Angelou said, “I long as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
Though I’ve missed a Tennessee fall (though 70 degrees today was nice) and the house my children and I still call home and I plan to return to one day, I will be at home Christmas when I meet Taylor and Cole in England. I am home when I Skype with my mom in Kentucky and my sister and friends in Nashville. And when I returned to Marrakesh from fall break, eating with friends at my three favorite places —Chez Joel, Casa Nova, and Beyroute —made settling in after a week on the road feel more like home.
As Thanksgiving approaches I’m thankful for the travel I’ve done but also for the “little things”–like discovering the closest thing to Target—the “big” Carrefour– where I bought a soft blanket and house shoes and a juicer to fresh- squeeze the oranges that grow big and delicious. Strawberry season just started. Last Sunday I volunteered with an amazing organization for girls (more on that later), and Mondays are fun thanks to my dance class with Moroccan colleagues that involves jangling scarves and Persian music.
It has been a challenging three months. True freedom doesn’t always mean independence. It’s about asking questions and not worrying if they sound stupid. I’m learning to reach out and ask others all the things I don’t know and help others who are struggling too. Not speaking French or Arabic makes me vulnerable, but it also helps me understand firsthand how the Mexican moms I taught in my Nashville English class felt. When I depend on God for wisdom, strength, and love I live from the desert to my daily life in wide, open spaces.