Eyes Wide Open

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag

We won’t long forget the itch for travel the pandemic engendered; the unknowns and instability it wrought upon the globe kept us grounded and sequestered in a strange and unfamiliar world. Life as we knew it was gone and we wondered if it would ever return to normal. While sheltering in place in our collective new way of life, we “armchair” traveled, reminiscing about inspiring journeys of the past and dreaming of trips we would take in, we hoped, the not-too-distant future. My wanderlust rose to fever pitch as I counted the days, weeks, and months before my first post-COVID flight, albeit masked and gloved and armed with bottles of hand sanitizer.

“There is no more mind-expanding thing we can do than travel. It literally changes your way of thinking. It changes your perspective.” Phil Rosenthal, Host of Somebody Feed Phil

I have always longed to see new places and explore foreign destinations. I have been drawn to travel paraphernalia, vintage postcards, the classic uniforms of flight crews, wing pins and neckerchiefs, miniature bottles of spirits my parents would bring home after taking a trip, and luggage covered in stickers from distant locales.  As a child, I was enamored of the airline posters on the walls of the travel agency next to my father’s law firm, as well as the swag strewn around the agency advertising now-defunct carriers like TWA and Pan Am with the hopes of grabbing the attention of globetrotting prospective customers. 

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”   Ibn Battuta, Medieval Muslim traveler, explorer and scholar

I recently had the good fortune to spend ten days in Morocco with a group of colleagues led by Sourcing Africa. We started our journey in the relatively contemporary city of Rabat, traveled to Fez, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and finally four-wheeled on a four-hour journey through the rocky terrain of the  Atlas Mountains to the Agafay Desert, where we “glamped” for a night; we enjoyed a sunset camel ride and danced under the stars while a bonfire burned brightly and drove away the chill that set in when the sun went down.  Some took a soak in the bath on the outdoor porch of their “tent,” while others enjoyed a cocktail by the pool.  We were serenaded by a band of merry musicians and enjoyed yet another meal of traditional Moroccan food:  a selection of salads, tagines, and specialty pastry for dessert.  The night in the desert was the culmination of a trip of striking contrasts: ancient and modern, wealthy and poor, barren and lush.  

This life-changing and “mind-expanding” experience – one of the most affecting journeys I have ever taken – was a sensory experience at every turn.  I will treasure the lingering memories of the unfamiliar and exotic from this spectacular North African country – the sites, smells, and sounds will stay with me like a craving.  The journey proved that books, films, and photographs can’t capture the true essence of a place.  We must go to experience it. 

The strong “sense of place” hit me particularly when in the medina in Fez where we visited a tannery that makes leather goods using traditional methods.  The smell was atrocious, so vile that you are handed a large bouquet of mint to keep under your nostrils to cut the scent of pigeon excrement used in the dying process.  There is no way to have experienced this through a spread in a magazine; even the best “scratch and sniff” couldn’t capture the intense aroma or the dusty, dark alleys.  The memories will stay with me for many reasons. Not merely the odor of the place, or its ancient setting, but also the knowledge of the processes involved: the families who raise the pigeons, collecting the droppings to sell to the tannery, the mule loaded to bring the odiferous haul from outside the city walls down the narrow passages to the tannery located deep within, and for the tannery workers who turn the raw materials into dye and eventually gorgeous leather goods they sell in their market stall.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  Marcel Proust

These same strong memories will linger with me from the tile factory we visited where they make authentic Zellige completely by hand.  The sights and sounds of the factory were arresting: clay being hand thrown by a local man who squatted in the glare of the sun and tossed the wet emulsion in a perpetual motion before allowing the roughly-formed tiles to dry; hot furnaces loaded with now-glazed tile baking at 800-degrees, the wood fires to fuel the furnaces built from scratch by men who tend the hot ovens; the large group of men lined up in rows in a small room, cutting and shaping the tile once it had been dried – their mint tea and lunches warming on small burners next to their cramped workstations where they sat cross-legged for hours.  

There is much we can learn from foreign cultures where this type of manual labor and hard work continue day by day, no end in sight.  At both places we toured, the work from start to finish was grueling and dirty. But no one was complaining or grumbling.  The economy of Morocco is built on the dedication of its people to their craft, passed down through the generations, using their hands and doing their jobs with passion, be it the leatherworkers, the tile makers, the mosaic artisans, the wood craftsmen, the women processing Moroccan oil, or the metal specialist handcrafting an authentic light fixture. 

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leave marks on you.”   Anthony Bourdain, celebrated American chef, author, and travel documentarian

My recent trips to Africa, Europe, Canada, and even new places in the US, have certainly left marks on me.  These journeys have given me new and varied perspectives, both an appreciation for other cultures and a renewed appreciation for everything I enjoy in my “first world” existence.   I cannot imagine life without the opportunity to travel, to expand my horizons, to glean insight from new experiences, and to learn from the rich cultures of other places.

Lunch on the way to the Agafay Desert under the shade of a three-hundred-year-old pistachio tree.
Our marvelous local guide Rashid whose pride and knowledge of his country made the trip even more extraordinary.

“Travel isn’t always pretty.  It isn’t always comfortable…The journey changes you; it should change you.  It leaves marks on your memory, your consciousness, your heart, and your body.  You take something with you.  Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”    – Anthony Bourdain

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