« I can’t ride in small cars. I get carsick. »
Thus begun my conversation with the manager of Halali Tours in Marrakech, Morocco. Our group of fifteen was poised to embark on a twenty-hour round-trip drive through the Atlas Mountains; once we arrived at the desert, we would continue via camel.
The trouble was, the other fourteen Indiana-Jones wannabes were huddled in a French manifestation of the minivan. This is akin to an American sedan.
« Much room! » Beamed the (apparently blind) driver, sweeping his arm to indicate an elbow rest that would comfortably seat a pigeon.
I countered, « Can I have my money back, please? »
Those were the magic words. I did not get my refund, but the manager swiftly ushered the passengers from the sedan into a full-size van. There were even—I couldn’t believe my eyes—coach seats!
As my fellow troopers tumbled out of the original vehicle and regained control of their limbs, they formed a procession to shake my hand. I alighted contentedly, aware that this could be the largest passenger vehicle on the continent.
As everyone settled in, it became clear that we’d created a Van of Babel (successor to the Tower). Collectively, passengers spoke French and Senegalese French; Sicilian and Tuscan Italian; English and American English; Spanish and Peruvian Spanish. The driver spoke Arabic, and pretended to speak other languages by speaking gibberish with various accents. (We noticed.)
As the van lurched onto the road, my role transitioned from Whiny Advocate to Creative Translator: I speak French and some Italian, and my creativity filled the gaps (hopefully better than the driver’s gibberish). I grabbed the role with the unflappable enthusiasm of Phoebe Buffet at open-mic night. After all, though talking is a hobby of mine, I rarely have a purpose. Purpose was new.
Ten hours later: My marathoning jaw felt as if Joe Frazier had been jabbing at it. Worse, I sounded like one of the droning multilingual public-service announcements I have come to loathe.
« Quel’un a vu des chiens ou de chocolat a cet arret? »
« Ha visto i cani o cioccolato a questa fermata? »
« Has anyone seen dogs or chocolate at this rest stop? »
I was translating myself much of the time.
One reason why the drive to the desert was 10 hours was that we stopped no fewer than 18 times. The driver diligently delivered us to each of the shops of his extended social network—a suspicion confirmed when someone translated his greetings, which included « cousin, uncle, nephew, brother, boss man, and monkey boy. » The last appeared to be a term of endearment.
The most noteworthy store was a “beauty and butter” shop where all products were created in-house, out of nuts. The driver precluded this stop by announcing, « Now go we to a place of unmarried women. » I asked whether we were going to a nunnery or a brothel, but the driver and his family merely laughed.
Were these women single because they were mustachioed; too young to marry; or had they lived in New York City too long to find a man willing to settle down?
What I found at the shop appalled me. Six beautiful women sat in the hallway peeling and sorting nuts, then churning them in a tajine-like pot until a sticky brown goop oozed into an equally sticky brown bowl. Is this the fate of unmarried working women in this region? Having peeled and sorted almonds for two weeks this summer, I knew that if I were in their situation, I would pray for brain atrophy to stave off ennui. Or I would just poke my own brains out.
The next stop conveyed another line of women. These were aspiring Rumpelstiltskin’s, embroidering exciting tablecloths with surgical dexterity. They are only allowed to stitch for two hours each day lest their fingers lose their spring. Haven’t they heard of finger insurance? Jennifer Lopez’s bum is covered by one million in accidental. These women’s livelihood depends on sewing as J-Lo’s depends on booty shaking, right? Well, maybe not.
Nonetheless, J-Lo: I found a charity for you to support.
Back to the road. At long last, on the horizon, we spotted a jaundiced, misshapen, defecating lump…it was…not Homer Simpson…it was a camel! A posse of them. Our tires skidded gracelessly into a small dune. We had lived to tell the tale of our Saharan pilgrimage.
When the tour company had promised us a pilgrimage, I thought they were describing the trek in the desert–not the trek to it. But I learned a lasting lesson: the duration of a rural road trip correlates with the size of your driver’s family. Be sure to inquire about the family tree before embarking.
To Be Continued.