“You eat the food here?”
That was the question our guest asked. Tad was an American guy we met at a campground in Meknes, Morocco. We had invited him to join us for dinner the evening before and apparently he had been keeping an eagle eye on our activities, because he showed up again the next night as we were setting the table in our tiny tin box home, a well-worn, twenty-year old Volkswagon camper van we had bought from traveler in London.
Because we were planning to stay on the road for a year or more, our traveling budget was tighter than a snare drum on a diet, but Tad wasn’t just hungry. He was hungry for connection. So we stretched the rice a bit further, ate less of the chicken we had bought that afternoon from a butcher in the souk, and poured more of the nearly undrinkable Moroccan wine.
We had stumbled upon Tad wandering the medina alone several days before. He spotted our blonde hair and, when he heard American English come from our mouths, he latched on, leech-style. It was becoming difficult to shake him and since our travel style was exceedingly different from his, we were not getting what we wanted from Meknes. Tad’s question took us by surprise.
“What do you mean?” I asked him. “Sure, we eat the food in Morocco. We’ve been here for a month. Do we look like people who would go without food for that long?”
Fortunately he was polite enough not to answer that, but he told us he had been in the country for a month or so and had not eaten a single bite of Moroccan food. Tad was terrified of getting sick. The fact that he had been eating dinners made from Moroccan ingredients that I had cooked in our van or on the campfire did not occur to him.
Tad’s home in Morocco was also a VW camper van, but brand new. So shiny and modern that the only thing it had in common with ours was having 4 wheels. Our van was a poor, distant, red-neck cousin to his.
He had shipped his camper van from the USA to Germany for his trip to Morocco. Then he flew to Frankfurt to meet the van and stocked it tires-to-top with German food and water plus the suitcase full of American food he thought he could not live without for the duration of his trip. From Frankfurt he drove solo down to southern Spain and ferried over to Tangier. His ultimate goal was Marrakech, where he had planned to camp and live for a month or two. Instead, he stayed there less than a couple of weeks and had stopped in Meknes as he was making his way back north to the return ferry to Spain.
Marrakech would be a stop on our Moroccan road, so we eagerly peppered Tad with questions: How was the campground? Where were the best cafes with good vantage points for people watching? Tell us about the famed Djemaa el Fna, the great central square of Marrakech’s medina.
His answers included a few monosyllables, shakes of his head and shrugs, until he finally held up a hand, palm toward us to shut the conversation down.
“I recommend you not bother with Marrakech.”
Are you kidding me? Not bother with Marrakech? One of the great former Imperial Cities of the Moroccan Berber empire? The carnival that is the Djemaa el Fna at night, with its storytellers, musicians, and vendors of white magic? The beauty of the sun setting on the rose-tinted sandstone buildings that gave it the nickname Red City? Not on your life would we pass that up.
Tad was starting to seem a bit creepy to me. Really. Who goes to that much trouble and considerable expense to get somewhere, only to cut their visit short by a significant portion of time? I began to wonder if I had been cooking dinner for a freaky pervert who had been chased out of Marrakech by donkey-riding Berber hordes. We moved from the table to sit by the campfire, and over another bottle of wretched wine, Tad told us his traveling tale.
Insulated within the walls of his camper van and surrounded by cans of German food, Tad was trying in vain to recreate the magic of a trip to Marrakech he’d made decades earlier. His memories of that time were burnished with years of polishing: quixotic travel by motorcycle in the Marrakech of 1971, hand woven Berber rugs, mint tea at a cafe on the edge of the Djemaa. As his photographs grew faded, his recollection of the city’s legendary spirit and exoticism, made famous by Jimi Hendrix and the Stones, took on mythic proportions. He wanted a chunk of that exoticism to rub off on him again, so he took his middle-aged self and planned out the whole buy-a-van-ship-it-to-Germany-and-fill-it-with-food idea.
When, after all his planning, he finally got to Marrakech, Tad could see nothing in the present that resembled those high-gloss memories. No magic at all. He blamed it on the city itself. On the people who lived there. On Morocco as a nation. All that had changed. Surely he was the same person he had been in 1971?
Thomas Wolfe wrote “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory…”
Tad was discovering that he couldn’t go back to the spiritual home of his 20-year old self and the thought of it was crushing his traveling soul. Plus, he had miscalculated his intake and was almost out of the food he had brought along. The three of us quietly stared into the flames of our campfire, and then one by one we left to go to sleep. Tad would be leaving in the morning.
Early the next day, Brian and I came up with an idea. Instead of saying goodbye to Tad, we invited him to stay one more day in Meknes and walk with us as we explored the medina. We had one rule for him: Forget. Forget what he had been through on this trip. Forget what he had experienced years earlier in Marrakech. Simply take the day as it comes. He agreed to try.
The morning drifted by as we went to the cobbler to have my shoe repaired, admired the art of a carpenter and his apprentice as they created a table inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl, and drank mint tea across from a man wearing an ankle-length woolen jellaba, pedaling furiously on a bicycle with no wheels. He had attached the chain drive to a grinding disc for sharpening knives. Brilliant.
Along the way, we stopped to talk to people in our stumbling French or the few words of Maghreb Arabic we had learned. We would ask permission to take photographs, and we were never told no, which surprised Tad. He was used to snapping quick photos, then tossing a dirham coin in payment when local people shouted their objections. Tad’s version of wandering through the souks of the medina mostly involved Moroccans being pissed off at him and throwing his coins directly at his quickly retreating body. No wonder he wanted to leave.
Around lunchtime, the charcoal braziers were lit and the scent of freshly grilled lamb made its way down the lanes to where we were strolling. Food is my favorite time of day. I travel, in part, to share in the cultural joy that is a meal. As we began to search out a restaurant, Tad told us he would find his way back to the campground alone instead.
We didn’t badger him about it, but we cajoled as gently as we could and finally, he agreed, for the first time in his trip, to try eating the food of Morocco. We shared a lamb tagine dish, couscous and a roasted pigeon pie. It was life-altering, as most meals can be if you give them the opportunity. Maybe not for Tad, but he ate his fill anyway, did not get sick from it and perhaps more importantly at the time, gave us the night off from cooking dinner for him. He was gone when we woke up the next morning.
Returning to a place I have gone traveling is pretty rare for me. There will always be spots I haven’t explored yet and so I would rather go forward than back. The small number of times I have revisited a place, I know from experience to expect it will be changed. For my relationship with that place to have changed.
As it turns out, you can go back to places you have traveled previously. But don’t expect to find your former self there, in the winding lanes of a souk, among the raucous denizens of a local bar, or on the velvet-sand beaches where you dipped a toe in the sea. Or shucked off all your damn clothes and danced your way into the water. Because even if you could find your old self there, you won’t recognize them. And that’s the beauty of it.