5.   Two Foreign Cultures

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright © 2003 by Paul Vanderveen

In Marrakesh, we drank lots of sweet mint tea with good froth or "turban" on the rooftops overlooking the spread-out city. We visited a carpet shop where experienced salesmen, reading us carefully, unrolled lots of carpets for our benefit, as they explained the different types and qualities. We said in Arabic "put it away" to all of them, as too expensive for us. The only other customer, however, bought three worth a few thousand dollars. A young American, he paid for his treks by selling his purchases back in the States.
     Before we left Marrakesh, we also visited the artisanal cooperative of the man who "recognized" me on the train, buying a few moderately priced gifts to take back with us. We were grateful for his friendly advice.
     We did hire guides only twice while in Morocco, both in keeping with his advice--once to take us across the "black Sahara," or stony desert, to an outpost near the Algerian frontier, where we climbed huge sand dunes and watched the sun rise. For this trip, we rented a small car for five days and drove first over the High Atlas Mountains, still snow covered, to Ouarzazate. The drive by Berber mountain villages was beautiful, although unnerving at times due to water damage to the road, few barricades on the high mountain roads, and boys stepping out onto the roadway to try to stop us so they could sell geodes, round stones broken open to reveal beautiful crystals in their hollow interior. They sometimes yelled as we drove past them, becoming more pushy with altitude. One boy, standing around a mountain curve, was not concerned that he was hard to see as he stepped into the roadway and then defiantly kicked off his sandals in front of the car, as though we would not dare run over them. Acknowledging these kids' existence was still far beyond our skills. Stopping seemed too dangerous for them and us.
     We did stop at a small, stone shop by the roadway where there were no kids. We did not buy any of the old man's expensive items, but I looked up as we got back into our car to leave. He smiled, and I smiled back, not knowing exactly why I felt reassured. I had been wondering where the parents of the defiant kids were and why they did not monitor their activities, fearing that perhaps they did. I was not sure how safe traveling through this region was, whether locals presented any threat. The old man, however, had shown us his products quietly, answering our questions, and I felt adults were in charge.
     After spending the night in Ouarzazate, we headed northeast along the desert and then southeast into it. On the narrow main road, the pavement was barely wide enough for two small cars to pass, but was otherwise in good shape. We drove through smaller towns, everything getting sandier, with fewer and fewer cars. Women were increasingly wrapped from head to toe in conservative black.
     At the end of the road, driving hopelessly in circles in a small town, we pulled up to a tiny triangular intersection hoping, without good reason, to find a road sign out into the desert to Merzouga. All roads seemed to end. Then "Ali Baba" rode up on his bike. He was a student, he said, earning his living as a guide. He showed us a worn photo album containing photos of satisfied customers with him in Merzouga. He seemed attuned to assessing our needs and wishes, telling us what he charged (about $6 in local currency) and that he would take us to the cleanest hotel in Merzouga. His information matched what we had learned from others, and he seemed trustworthy, so we hired him as our guide. He left his bicycle with some kids who were watching the negotiations and got into the car--and off we went into the desert where there were no road signs and no roads.
     The wind soon started blowing and soon we could barely see, sand blowing like snow all over the place, hugging the ground, obscuring the horizon. Following faint tracks this way and that, Ali Baba calmly pointed the way. He laughed at us as we crossed tracks in the blowing sand and, by force of habit, slowed down to look left and right for traffic. Through the dust, the afternoon was waning. Finally, 38 kilometers out, we saw something like mountains appear through the blowing sand--the dunes at Merzouga. We went past a little settlement to a Berber tavern with a cozy community lounge and no electricity. The prices were reasonable (about $8) for one of the few small rooms. There were bars on the window, even out here in the desert. The Turkish stall was outside. I had gotten accustomed to the idea that a hole in the ground was far better for hygiene than a toilet, for public facilities anyway, and didn't worry about running water because we'd be crazy to drink it anyway. Dinner (another $6, including soft drinks) was excellent.
     The huge dunes dwarfed everything. At nightfall, the wind stopped and dust settled. The night sky never seemed so bright. Finding a few other adventurers at the tavern accentuated our distance from the modern world. After dinner, we climbed the narrow steps outside to the roof and spent some time contemplating the stars. Jan could name many constellations, and we called the hotel our "many star hotel."
     Later, Jan negotiated with the camel guy, but the next morning before dawn we were disappointed when he would not give us free rein, but rather walked in front of the camels to the dunes, leading them like circus animals. We watched the sun rise and, from the top of the first dunes, could see sand stretching eastward to the horizon. It filled our shoes and pockets.
     The Fez medina, back over the Middle Atlas Mountains, was the other place, a few days later, where we hired a guide. Our informative acquaintance on the train had warned us that Marrakesh and Fez were very different cities, the inner city of Fez was a maze, making a guide necessary. We always tried to check such advice against other sources of information, but again found his good.
     The "old city" was a real throwback in time. In a narrow alley, we came to an area where we saw a very young boy working, holding yarn for his father, and our guide stopped to explain that formal education is not compulsory. Boys start to learn the family trade early in life.
     In addition to regarding children as family laborers, as in times of old, the old city featured severely cloistered women. The only women to be seen on the streets were rare tourists. Local women went out only in groups to the mosque to pray. Otherwise, they stayed cloistered behind closed doors and walls from an early age, not expecting to walk open streets, mingle in public places or see the light of day except through the typical large center court openings of their homes, or possibly when hanging laundry or praying on the roof. We were shown the interior, upper floors and roof of one of the houses. The city was picturesque, but we found it horrifying to contemplate a woman's life there.
     Morocco is a land of contrasts--a short walk from the inner city is the more modern "new city," where women seemed to have more opportunities, although far from equal treatment. In the countryside, we often saw women working, carrying heavy loads on their backs, while men sat around drinking tea--or stronger drinks, and smoking. In Marrakesh, we saw a young man gratuitously insult an single woman, apparently just for the hell of it.
     Jan and I were almost always together, and she wore a wedding band which a well-traveled friend had given her, with the advice to wear it if she ever traveled to an Arab country. (We also carried a very authentic-looking, but forged marriage certificate, in case we needed it to get a hotel room.) We were apart in public for only thirty minutes. During that time, as Jan walked a short distance from one hotel in Marrakesh to met me at another, lots of men--street peddlers and hustlers--harassed her, which never happened when we were together.
     My ways of acknowledging people's existence worked for her sometimes, but usually men responded to her quite differently, even sometimes when I was present, and she was understandably not as interested in acknowledging their existence.
     The only women we saw working with the public were in bank, airline and tourist offices--and in American fast-food franchises, one of which we checked out in Casablanca for amusement value. It was up to American standards in general--except that the urinals in the men's room, when the men's room door opened, were in full view of a dining table of four.
     In Senegal I had become accustomed to seeing people relieve themselves. Men in Dakar often urinated in public in the dirt, even by the side of a busy road in town, although they usually turned away from traffic. Women, and the more discrete men, would squat down, with their billowy clothes concealing what they were doing. I began to recognize the pose automatically, as I went on walks.
     While Morocco was cleaner, auto and motorbike pollution controls were non-existent, and the exhaust along main roads could be overwhelming. There were nice lemon and other fragrant trees lining one of the main Marrakesh streets, however, so the pollutants had a nice tinge to them.
     On our last night, our hotel room in Casablanca overlooked a major square, and I got up in the darkness with the morning call to prayer. In Dakar, we heard such broadcasts over the city. Now I wanted to see if anyone actually made it to the mosque across the intersection from our hotel room. Sure enough, some men did, though only a few.
     I had now experienced two foreign cultures. I found it exhilarating to successfully negotiate through these strange environments, noticing differences in languages, tastes and smells, customs, living conditions, attitudes and expectations of life--and occasionally finding commonalties despite vast differences. Some features of American life were beginning to stand out to me, as I became acutely aware of my former expectations because they went unmet. I noticed ways which I had long taken for granted or assumed were the only or best ways of doing things. The differences between Senegalese and Moroccan life accentuated my changing perspective on the United States, as my old expectations went unmet in different ways. I felt increasingly able to deal with strange situations I might encounter in different parts of the world.
     Jan and I discovered that we traveled well together, although we had known each other less than a year. We found our way around the medinas, protecting our daypack with some of our larger valuables by slinging it underarm, deciding where to stop and which alleys to head down, constantly talking to each other on the streets and in the crowded markets. We noted what we were observing, when we wanted to turn or stop, always aware of where our valuables were and which one of us was carrying our daypack. The other walked by it, usually staying a half-step behind to take in both it and the crowd.
     The day before we left, we decided to take a look at the Casablanca port. As we walked toward the port, away from crowds, we spotted two young men who had been walking toward us on the opposite side of a wide street. They crossed the street and circled up behind us. We both commented on the danger. As they realized that we observed them, one said, "French?," a couple times, the other guy hanging back a little. We both felt threatened. Our little Arabic didn't discourage them, and "leave us alone" in English didn't work. Then Jan went into action, making it clear that she was not the meek type and that we would both put up a fight. We stopped, and she said, "Laissez nous," pointing with her arm for them to leave us--and they did. We were glad to realize afterward that we had both noticed them, talked about the danger as they maneuvered behind us, and read the overall situation the same way, taking protective stances.
     After that, we headed back to more familiar territory, walking through a crowded local medina with no foreigners, but lots of local kids. One said something that was probably insulting to us, but for the most part we felt safer and stopped to make some needed purchases from friendly vendors.
     The next day, we took the train to the Casablanca airport. We arrived early--good thing, too, as the check-in clerk told us that we didn't have reservations. We told her we did, that we had reconfirmed them at their office in town ten days earlier and had stamps on our tickets to prove it. The airline people had assured us that we didn't need to reconfirm again, and we told her that. She had to involve a supervisor, but we got our boarding passes and window seat assignment, reminding ourselves that, in the developing world, it pays to count on nothing, get documentation and arrive early. We figured that, on any future flights, we would reconfirm a few times.
     Morocco was quite different from Senegal. Although somewhat wealthier, it was even more sexist, with a more virulent tone to the sexism than in poorer Senegal, where women could be refreshingly assertive.
     A charade was staged for the benefit of "rich" foreigners, but there was usually a way to break through it. Now I wondered whether my strategies--being relaxed and openly observant, learning some of the local language, offering ridiculously low bids, changing the subject, being demonstrative--would work in Senegal. The final challenge, I figured, would be the begging children.

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?  < Next
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. Un, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau