Silver Bullets

I have been traveling for six months. I had no expectations about who I would be or what I would have learned at this point in the trip. I certainly have changed and learned so much since leaving home, but ultimately I am still the same person.

I have been surrounded by the adventuring type throughout my travels. These are the restless people who flee from domesticity and are constantly between points A and B. Being surrounded by these adventurers has shown me that I am not one of them. My favorite moments of travel have been when I have become nicely settled in a place and have found a comfortable routine; not, as with the adventurers, when I am in transition.

I make no value claims on the superiority of either domesticity or wild adventure. I do think, however, that both should be experienced at some point in one’s life, at the very least for the sake of balance. Be that as it may the weight of my life is pulled more by the gravity of structure and domesticity rather than by that of adventure and abandon. I have learned this not through reason but through experience, although this conclusion about myself would have been easily guessed based upon my habits at home. Still, the only way I could have been sure was by actually trying adventuring for myself.

Had I not traveled, the world would seem unfathomable and unapproachable. Neither of these adjectives are in fact true of the world. Unfathomable perhaps in the sense that one can never see it all in a lifetime, but not unfathomable in the sense that it can never be understood. It is not unapproachable because it is populated by people, who, despite differences in dispositions and ideas, are all fundamentally united in their will to life.

Maybe, stripped of its unfathomable-ness and unapproachable-ness, the world seems smaller to me now. Some of the magic has been taken out of it, that’s for sure. This “magic,” however, is merely the product of romantic imaginings about the wonders of travel. The bio of the founders of Lonely Planet reads: “a beat-up old car, a few dollars in the pocket and a sense of adventure…” Such an image this bio conjures no longer holds any romanticism for me. In fact I think this bio is predatory. It preys on people’s desire for the greener grass in the same way that advertising agencies and market strategists do. “The good life is out there!” it says, “and you don’t have it yet because you’re not dropping it all to travel!” This sort of claim is of course false because it assumes there is in fact such a thing as “the greener grass.” Platitudinous as it is to say, the grass is the same color the world over: it’s the individual who decides his or her own patch is duller.

Yet for all that I have learned and grown by, I am, like anyone who has pinned his or her hopes on a silver bullet, a little disappointed. I wish I could report to you that traveling has fixed all my problems. I wish I could tell you that whatever you are suffering from can be relieved by dropping it all and traveling. It is obviously true that traveling will not magically relieve these problems, yet there is a bizarre kind of double-think that people seem to have about traveling: that traveling will in fact clear away all problems. Perhaps this notion is a by-product of the sentiment that one will never regret traveling. Maybe that sentiment is true, for I haven’t met anyone yet who flatly regrets having hit the road.

Regardless, you can take this small and obvious truth from me: traveling, no matter how far or for how long, will not solve your problems. You may grow in ways that only travel allows, but growth is no substitute for addressing the matters in your life that need attention. You have at all times the means by which you can confront the issues in your life. They are, after all, your problems, and will naturally be with you wherever you go.

Perhaps this essay appears cynical in its treatment of travel. That is not my intention. My intention in writing this essay is to give a fair account of the realities of traveling as I have experienced them and to explain why I have come home. The reality of traveling is that it is no better or worse than anything else one can choose to do in life. Again, I know this appears blindingly obvious, but the actions in your life have only the value you assign them. This makes life wholly wonderful because it asserts that there is no direct sure-fire path that guarantees happiness and success. Happiness and success can be had at any time, you just have to step out of your own way to find them.

As to specifically why I have come home: I now have a clearer picture of how I want to direct my life, and now that I have confidence in this direction I feel that traveling further would simply be a cost of time and money that might otherwise be spent pursuing what I now perceive as a worthwhile path.

That, and I miss my bookshelves. I also miss typing on a keyboard, (I have been writing posts on my phone this whole time) and of course I miss my friends and family. None of these elements, however, are the sole reason for my return. Home is the base from which I can work to prepare myself for the next step in life, and now that I know what that next step is, home is naturally the place where I should be.

When I left back in August I didn’t know what I wanted that next step to be, so despite my bookshelves, my keyboard, and my friends and family, nothing was really tying me to home. Traveling then was the right thing to do. I thought it would take a year for me to figure things out. It turned out all I really needed was half of that time.

Still, it has been an amazing experience. I am most grateful for the people I’ve met. The people who opened their doors and their hearts to a complete stranger. If anything has given me a sense of the redeeming value of life it is the people I have been lucky enough to call my friends over these past few months. You know who you are, and you are many. I would also like to take this last opportunity to thank all those who read the posts on this blog. It may be hard for readers to understand the sense of purpose and fulfilment they bring to writers, but let it suffice to say now that I am humbled by all those who took the time to read what I wrote here, as aimless as it sometimes was.

So I say goodbye to the road for now, although I am sure to see it again sometime in the future.

Hi Hi’s

We left Marrakech on the 2nd for a small Berber village a few miles shy of the Atlas mountains. We’ve been staying with our Berber host family ever since. Just like the last family I stayed with, this family too has a small child, a girl, who is quite bubbly and friendly with strangers.

Our first night here Billy and I sat and played cards with Khalid, a member of the family, while the little girl, Assia, watched on, occasionally grabbing a card and handing it to one if us as if she had just happened upon it and thought we might need it. After taking the card she would say “gooood,” and laugh like a little imp. Adding to her impish appearance is a nasty scab running across the bridge of her nose. Apparently she got the injury from running face-first into a table.

Our host family takes in guests from all over the world, so two-year old Assia knows a handful of English words: good, yeah, snail, bye, and banana being just a few, although we later learned that banana is the same in English as it is in Arabic.

When she wasn’t snatching the cards, Assia spoke long sentences to Khalid, and he would respond and she would keep talking. “What is she saying?” asked Billy.

“Nothing,” said Khalid, “she’s just babbling.”

Despite her babble, Assia has a language all her own. Every time she sees us she says “Hi Hi.” We naturally assumed she was simply greeting us, until one night at dinner Khalid informed us otherwise.

“Hi Hi is her word for foreigners. She calls all the guests Hi Hi’s.”

“All this time we thought she was being friendly” said Billy.

Assia grinned and began speaking to Khalid. “Yes. Now she’s threatening to cut off your ears.” I would dismiss this threat from two-year old Assia if I hadn’t seen how easily she can find the kitchen knife.

“Gooood,” she said.

Reggae 

I have never really liked reggae. I remember being seventeen and watching as my friends drove out of the high school parking lot, windows down, playing reggae at a not disrespectful volume but still loud enough for passers-by to hear the echoes of the drums and twang of the guitar.

Reggae, I decided back then, was for stoned people, or people who have smoked so much weed that they’re perpetually stoned. No value judgements here; I’m just saying it’s not really my thing. I wasn’t about to tell someone off for liking reggae, but I admit that I would make some basic assumptions about that person.

Luckily reggae is like soccer: it’s there if you want it, but it won’t interfere with your day-to-day life. This notion held true for my life back home, but it has not been true for life spent traveling, especially in hostels. At the hostel I stayed at in India reggae was basically unavoidable. It wasn’t just your classic Bob Marley, although good old Bob was there of course, but he was mixed in with the abominations that are reggae covers of popular songs. Not that anyone needed a reggae cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” mind you, but we discovered back in India that someone had indeed taken the piss out of that famous song. The laid-back reggae grove somehow cheapens the content of that song and robs it of all its strange sorrow. I was glad to leave many things behind in India, the reggae certainly being one of them.

Cut to two months later: Billy and I are sitting playing cards in the lounge of a hostel in Marrakech. Above the hum of activity cuts those famous opening notes. We look up. Maybe it’s the actual song? You can’t tell from just those first notes. But then the echoing drums and twanging guitar crash in, more jarring and inappropriate than the Kool-aid man stoned out of his mind smashing through a wall into a funeral parlor.

“Oh how I wish you were here,” goes the song, but I wish I were anywhere else.

New Years in Marrakech 

I left Taroudant on December 27th bound for Marrakech. Walking to my class on that last night I asked the other volunteers if they had any New Year’s resolutions. None of us had any. One volunteer said it would be nice to maybe get buff, but he conceded that it would be unlikely that he would make any effort towards realizing that goal.

The main gripe we had with New Year’s resolutions was that they encouraged people to put off bettering themselves until the new year. You have at all times the ability to start changing your life; you don’t have to wait for the new year to start getting healthy.

It may come as no surprise then that I have never made a New Year’s resolution. I have ideas and plans about what I want to accomplish in the coming months, but these aren’t resolutions in the sense that they are set out to be realized. If, for example, I don’t finish reading that dense book over the next few weeks I will be none the worse because I never made a resolution to finish it in the first place. Whereas if, for example, you make a resolution to get fit and 2019 rolls around and you’re still a couch potato then you’re probably going to feel pretty bad about yourself.

Sometimes New Year’s resolutions don’t feel like resolutions at all but rather wishes. People who have never written a page in their life suddenly resolving to write a novel seem more to be relying on the will of some errant wish-granting fairy than on their own ability.

But who can blame people for wishing? For my part I found myself desperately wishing that somewhere in the Quran there was some kind of clause allowing Muslims to drink on New Years. It was the soberest New Years past the age of twenty-one I have ever experienced in my life, because what better way to ring in the New Year than with a dreadful hangover?

The Angel of the Household

My host family has a one-year-old son. Despite my general indifference to children I have to admit that this little guy is cute. That is, until I leave my door open for a few moments and turn around to see my toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.

He also loves phones. He will take your phone and put it against his ear as if he were deep in conversation with someone on the other line and he shouts “ooh!” and “ahh?” Take the phone away, however, and he howls like a banshee on the moors.

He’s got an excellent set of lungs, that’s for sure. He should take up a brass instrument one day. In any case he is a big hit with company. Yesterday a few members of the extended family showed up for lunch and they didn’t give a damn about the three foreigners at the table. Not that I minded of course. They didn’t speak a word of English, so communication would have been difficult.

They loved that little boy though. Everyone loves the cute little kid, sometimes even when he’s screaming. As guests fawn: “oh I want to just take you home with me!” a strange look appears on the parents’ faces. It’s a sort of flash-back look, as if their minds are remembering last night, when junior threw a tantrum after the phone was taken away, and how he then threw his yogurt at the volunteers, all the while screeching in the language of dolphins from Hell.

After the flash-back has passed another look graces their faces, one that says: “I’m glad you offered!” He’s all yours! I’ll put the stroller in your trunk right now.”

Group F

I like all the groups that I teach: the little ones, the middle-schoolers, and the adults. I admire the adults the most, however. This venerable group shows up twice a week for their two hour lessons of their own free will. I admit to spending the most time on their lesson plans because I want to ensure that they get something out of the class, and I want them to see how much I respect them for trying to learn something new in adulthood. 

There is one student in the adult class, I’ll call her Amalia, who rarely speaks out and has low confidence in her ability, even though more often than not she knows the answer. In the beginning I wondered why Amalia was even in the class if she refused to participate. How much can someone learn if he or she doesn’t participate and just silently takes notes the entire class? 

The adults, group F, need as much speaking practice as possible, so I made a game out of basic introductory phrases. The previous class we had gone over introductions like “Hello, my name is___. I am from___. I am ___ years old,” etc. etc. etc. So I made name cards with new names, nationalities, ages, likes, and dislikes. I then put all the name cards in my hat and had the students pick a card from the hat and introduce themselves to the class as that new person. I had fun making the cards, (my personal favorite was Gregory, the one-handed and two year old man from Germany, who likes his grandchildren and dislikes teenagers and stairs) and the students seemed to genuinely enjoy the absurdity of introducing themselves as wildly different people. 

Amalia introduced herself as Brad from Brazil, a laid back surfer dude who liked yoga, reggae, and the beach, and who disliked bad vibes, his mom, and responsibilities. After “Brad” introduced himself the class was free to ask him any introductory questions, and someone asked “Brad, what do you do?” 

Amalia couldn’t think of a fictional occupation fast enough, so she said “nurse,” to which the whole class laughed. I thought the joke was that Brad, being so lazy, would be a terrible nurse, but it turns out that everyone in the class knows each other, and thus know that Amalia is actually a nurse. 

It then made total sense to me why Amalia was taking this adult English class. 

Cynics hold that man is essentially morally bankrupt, and only out for self-gain and pleasure. I don’t see any of that in Amalia, group F, or in any of the groups I teach. 

Taroudant 

I’m staying in a small city in Morocco. It’s not really much of a city at all come to think of it, at least not in the classic sense of tall buildings and the bustle that comes along with a large population. Taroudant is relaxed. You will find no one rushing from place to place within its narrow streets. People amble about, chat in groups in front of vendors, and mill about in cafés watching football and drinking copious amounts of frothy green tea at a pace that a sloth might call dilatory. 

It’s a life style that isn’t for everyone, especially because I’m told the slow pace here is due to high levels of unemployment. Regardless, a volunteer arrived last week and upon his first walk through the city he spoke of how he was “in love” with life here. But two days later he confided in me that he’s thinking of leaving earlier than anticipated. He feels like he’s not doing much here, not going out every night and constantly meeting new people. I understand his desire to go somewhere else. He wants excitement from a city that feels as content as a cat that’s sleeping in a sun beam on Sunday afternoon. 

I’m okay with the pace of life here, though. I imagine this relaxed lifestyle is nice for the retired among us, which would explain why my flight over here was packed with French people in their golden years. I’ve discovered a lot about who I am as a traveler. When I travel I like to eat a lot, walk around a lot, and mill about as much as possible. So Taroudant is perfect for me. There’s surely no lack of street food here, and walking along the old walls that surround the city is great way to get some exercise after sitting at the table for two hours, and best of all there are numerous cafés where I can sit and drink tea and no one will bother me. 

This couldn’t be my life though. It’s good to live like this for a little while, but my will to work and to be constantly engaged with something overpowers my somnolent travel ways.