Photo credit: Casey Carsello
I had dreamt of going to Africa for as long as I could remember.
In fact, at some point during my childhood, I had made a list of goals — a checklist of sorts, for the adult version of me — and tucked it away into a little cedar box that I had picked up on Mackinac Island during a class trip. Among the many listed — visit the rain forest, write a book — was this: Go to Africa before age 30.
And while I’m not entirely certain where that expiry date came from, by the time I am in my late 20s, I find myself living in Dublin, strangely conscious of this rapidly approaching, self-imposed deadline and suddenly determined to make it. After all, I reason, I’m not too far away — just a few hours flight from North Africa — and thanks to Ryanair, it is actually within my budget.
Marrakech decided upon, plans are made and tickets booked. I read everything I can in order to be prepared — guidebooks, blogs, articles — realizing too late that such attempts can only ever be made in vain.
From the very moment of landing, Marrakech is an assault on the senses.
It is hot and dusty, coating my skin in a thick layer of grime that is impossible to wash away. Afterward, I tell everyone I know that there is nothing like a heat wave in Morocco — a statement that I would later amend after spending a year living in Dubai. Still, it is unexpected, as is everything about Morocco.
The places that I have been so eager to explore soon terrify me.
The souks, an endless labyrinth, are hot enough that the sweat drips down the side of my face even while standing still. I had thought they would mean a relief from the heat, but here, even though the sun enters in only through broken slats, it is unbearable. Shouts from the local vendors mean that it is impossible to walk even a few steps without near constant harassment, the voices demanding that you look, touch, and in some cases taste the wares on display. “Lady Gaga,” they shout — the ubiquitous term they seem apply to all western female tourists. In one shop, lured by the promise of air conditioning, I end up paying too much for spices, pressing the dirhams into the shopkeeper’s hand, anxious only to get away from this man who stands too close and who makes me feel suddenly trapped in the tiny space.
I am aware, suddenly, that I do not belong
But outside, in the bright sun, I feel similarly confined.
I am aware, suddenly, that I do not belong — and in a way that has never struck me before. Here, where the cafés are comprised mostly of men and the foreigners seem to be somewhere else entirely, for I can see only a handful roaming the streets, I feel suddenly too shy to take out my camera. The vendors seem to grow only more vocal at the sight of it, others cry out for payment if they think their picture has been taken.
A sandstorm rolls in the night before my partner and I are set to take the overnight train to Tangier, and we spend most of the evening huddled in a restaurant, eating tagine in the suffocating heat. I have begun to feel as though I can’t breathe — the heat, the dust, the chaos of the city, is all too much.
At the end of only a few short days, I have been defeated by Morocco.
On the train to Tangier, we are assigned a sleeping compartment, to be shared with a young Finnish couple. The woman is a schoolteacher in Helsinki, though I never learn what her partner does, as he does not speak English and seems content to sit on the top bunk, dozing in and out of sleep.
“It’s a relief, isn’t it?” she says to me, smiling.
And though we haven’t said anything about how our respective days in Marrakech were passed, I know exactly what she means. Yes, it is a relief, to leave behind the chaos, to claim a moment of peace within the train.
Of course, such quiet does not last long.
The train compartment has been sitting out all day under the hot Moroccan sun, which means, of course, that the temperatures inside are soaring. Added to this, the train compartment is full, the tiny bunks and hallway packed with sweating bodies.
I can still recall, even years later, sitting on the bottom bunk and feeling the sweat pool underneath me, running down my legs.
The four of us decide to remedy this by opening the window in our compartment — surely once the train picks up speed the wind will be enough to cool it? But no, the window will not open, and even after the train attendant comes with a screw driver, he declares, eventually, that it cannot be opened. Still, he tells us not to worry, that the air conditioning will catch up eventually, we just have to wait.
But not everyone is willing to do so.
There are shouts now, followed quickly by threats. People have paid for an air-conditioned compartment and yet there is no air, despite assurances otherwise. There are words thrown around in Arabic, in French, words that I cannot recognize, except for the tone, which convey upset and anger, most everyone deeply unsettled about the prospect of a 10-hour journey in such unforgiving heat.
Eventually, the train attendant tires of these complaints, and after handing out a small bottle of water to the passengers, he disappears behind a locked door and is not seen for the rest of the ride.
Left on our own, knowing that the air conditioning is unlikely to begin working and the windows are sealed shut, we move into the narrow hallway of the train. Together, we somehow manage to pry open one of the windows about an inch. But it is enough to feel as though we can breathe again. We stay here for I’m not sure how long — long past when most people retreat to their compartments again, in need of sleep — our heads tipped toward the window, trading stories of our lives.
Eventually, we too crawl into our respective bunks and fall asleep.
I wake early the next morning.
The first thing I notice is the cold.
I almost laugh, realizing the attendant had been right — the air conditioning has caught up, just as promised. We only needed to wait. I pull my blanket around my shoulders and sit up.
In the quiet of the cabin, I watch the scenery outside: the sky is now light, and I can see flashes of green, of places that I do not know the names of and might never see again, in this country that is not what I expected it to be.
In that moment, I do not yet know how this journey will change me. How my days spent in Morocco will remain vivid despite the passage of years, while other trips blur and blend with one another. That soon this will translate into a desire to explore places that are similarly challenging, places where the language is entirely unknown, where I am once again where I do not belong. That not even two years will pass before I arrive back on Morocco’s shores, this time in Tangier. That this will be the place where my novel, Tangerine
, will be born, and that these initial experiences will help form and shape its narrative.
That I will be back, not just once, but a second time as well, and possibly more — the pull of Tangier, of Morocco, as strong as the currents of the Straits, inescapable once caught in its tides.
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has her PhD in English from University College Dublin, where her thesis focused on 18th-century Gothic literature, and a MFA in fiction writing from the University of Southern Maine. Tangerine
is her first novel.