Fiona Shepherd“Well, if you’re going to go, don’t eat the food. My God, you’ll be sick,” my Spanish host mother lectured from across the dinner table, bits of crumbs flying out of her mouth as she vehemently shook her head at me. She had just discovered my plans to visit Morocco. “It tastes disgusting any way.” I glumly looked over at the vat of unrefrigerated gazpacho that, prior to serving, had to be scraped of mold. I thought to myself that if she of all people thinks the food in Morocco is bad, it must be really bad. “They’re dirty over there,” she continued. “They’re thieves. You’re American, be careful or you’ll lose your shoes AND your socks if you look away for too long.”

Despite the “tsk tsk”s and warnings of theft, malaria and forced slavery, I booked my ticket with 3 other exchange students and left for Morocco the next week.

Stepping out of the Marrakech airport and into the chaos of the city made me choke with anxiety. I was immediately swept up by the buzzing of motorbikes, the yelling taxi drivers and the constant drumbeat that seemed to pulse from all corners. That night I lost all abandon and allowed myself to revel in the taste of spicy cakes, sweet mint tea offered by friendly vendors, fresh squeezed orange juice, and eggplant (oh, the eggplant!). To my dismay, after ordering what I thought was a pound each of dried apricots and nuts, I realized that measurements were in kilo and had to carry around 5 pounds of what proved to be snacks for the next month. I walked along the local medina’s labyrinth of traveling dentists, intricately painted dishes, snake charmers, and male belly dancers. It happened to be the week of November when Obama was first elected President. Upon realizing we were Americans, the proud Africans would cry, “ Yes we can! Yes we can! And we DID!” Newspaper covers showed a loving embrace between the new president-elect and his wife.

Marrakech Market

We spent 8 days in Morocco, traveling from Marrakech to the Sahara Dessert, camping under the African stars for 3 nights. Every moment was glorious.

Then, as we sauntered up to the train station’s ticket window on our very last day my friend sputtered, “I don’t have my wallet.”

We turned to look at her.

“I think I left it in the cab.”

An hour away from the last train of the trip, we began to panic.  After a quiet argument on how to proceed, we decided to look for the wallet. We sired a taxi, explained our situation, and were raced to the taxi Mecca of the city. The cab driver jumped out of the car and after exchanging words with a few men, he – and about 20 other drivers – picked up their cell phones and began dialing at once. Within five minutes, the cab driver that had originally taken us to the train station sidled up to our car, wallet in hand.  Nothing was missing. He drove away before we could offer any compensation, and we were promptly whisked back to the station so not to miss our departure.

“…we’re not as different as we may appear to be.”

As I settled into my seat for the last leg of our journey –  a 13-hour freezing train ride across the dessert, a ferry between continents, and a concluding bus ride to Granada –  I starting to recall the whirlwind of events that had just taken place.

I remembered the alarm in people’s faces when I told them of my Moroccan plans. Those people hadn’t been here, though; they hadn’t locked eyes with the henna-drawing Berber women, their dark skin and round joyful faces chuckling at my naivety as they took me in their thick arms to protect me from a nearby scuffle. They hadn’t been at the mercy of 100 cab drivers, or seen the glow in the eyes of a man who just witnessed the election of a Black American President. They hadn’t humbly accepted a charm for protection – a charm I still I wear today – or been mistaken for a famous pop singer by the neighborhood children. They didn’t realize that we’re not as different as we may appear to be.

Night Market, Morocco

Within a few weeks of returning to Europe, long after my cache of apricots and nuts was gone, I knew something was wrong. My stomach lurched and I realized that this was the beginning of a very uncomfortable illness. As I ran for the nearest trashcan I wondered to myself: “What must Moroccans say to their fellow comrades seeking Spanish soil and Iberian cuisine?”

“Don’t eat the food. My God, you’ll be sick. And anyway, it tastes disgusting.”


Words and photos: Fiona Shepherd