So, I’m sitting on a train with Caity, Avery, and Nicole making our way to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, for a training on how to educate people on healthy lifestyles and HIV/AIDs prevention, and I’m not really sure what it is about trains, but you can get lost in the moment staring out the window watching the world whiz by you. It’s almost like this strange out-of-body experience where you know you’re not physically moving yourself but being carried along hurriedly, and as you focus close up or far away, the speed seems to change. Far in the distance, you can focus on one palm tree that will remain in the window for what seems like an hour, while the little details of the foreground – the rocks and tracks below, a crop of sunflowers so close you’d think you could pick them out the train window – just fly right by you. And when you take it all in at once, there’s this strange overwhelming sense that even life is just flying right by, the little details mushing together with the big picture and all the while there’s the sensation of being carried through it all, even on days when it felt like you were struggling to put one foot in front of the other from shear exhaustion.
It’s things like that, when the world seems to throw the little details and the big picture together where you start to ask yourself how it all fits or whether it even should, as though life is a puzzle, and the different aspects of your life eventually come together to tell a clear story. The path that lead me here, from majoring in religion to following the footsteps of a grandfather who lived in Casablanca, almost starts to look like a linear path, a few chapters to a good story with intrigue, fate, and faith. As much as I’d like that, I’m not sure life is that clear or succinct. We like – we need – to find ways to make it that clear; we add a narrative to give us a sense of meaning and purpose, but sometimes, life can be a little more random than that, for better or for worse. We move from phase to phase and from unexpected moment to unexpected moment. Our plans, whatever they may be, don’t always turn out the way we wanted or thought they would; no surprises there – thought I’d be finishing my first year of PhD candidacy this June. But I live in Morocco, and still have yet to grasp that fact, especially considering how happy I could be doing something totally opposite of what I expected to be doing. We should live unexpectedly open to whatever comes our way.
Case in point, our first day in Rabat, we found ourselves across the street from a garrisoned wall that turned out to be the Chellah, or an ancient Roman city (which had been built over during the 13th century, as well). Rabat was the last place I ever would’ve expected to happen upon a major archaeological site with Roman streets, forums, or old graves paying homage to Constantine. But when in Morocco, expect the unexpected, I suppose.
But back to phases for a moment. I look around me, and largely, that’s what I see – that we move from phase to phase in our lives, and it’s pretty cut and dry how we do it, even though we take some side routes to get there sometimes. It usually involves some combination of school, work, a family, more work, maybe a little more school, and then helping the family follow the same cookie-cutter path we made. One of the fears I’ve had to face this year and the last, especially as I suddenly found myself headed to Morocco out of nowhere, is that my life might be headed in a different direction than I expected, one that doesn’t clearly follow some known path. Now that I’m no longer afraid of uncertainty and the unexpected for my life, my real fear is missing out on the cookie-cutter path – looking back and wondering what could have been if I had just settled down and been like everybody else. Or maybe that’s too arrogant of a view; I can’t be that different or that special. I can still see my life in phases, between college and summer camps, an archaeological dig, or living in Morocco. It’s like being on that train, and it all mushes together and tells a story, but I’m just learning how to make that story my own and live into it as carefully and as intentionally as possible. I guess, the reality is, we all have to do that one way or another.
Or to go back for a moment to the HIV/AIDs training. We happened to be in Rabat at the same time Shakira was giving a free concert – a concert that has gained a significant amount of protesting in the days following, given how much money the government spent to bring Shakira to Morocco. Many Moroccan online boards posted in the wake of the concert, “We don’t need Shakira; we need bread.” Some levels of violence appear to be increasing in many of these protests, mostly with police attacking protesters (one protester killed in the town of Safi), though the government is denying this. I had planned to attend the concert with Liz, but when we realized the taxis were charging ungodly amounts to get from downtown Rabat (near Parliament where protests have taken place on Sundays ever since 20 February) to Agdal, it just made better since to make a night of staying in instead.
In the days following, I made my way north with Caity, Avery, and company to Asilah, a town within a day’s walking distance along the beach to Tangier. My in-service training was taking place four days later in Mehidia, and four days wasn’t enough time to make the trek all the way back to the desert, so I figured I’d use the opportunity to see some of this beautiful country instead of returning home only to have to turn around and head back to the coast. Asilah is gorgeous and known as an artist’s haven of sorts, especially for ex-patriots who needed a place to find inspiration. The Old Medina there is a labyrinth of white-painted streets with blue doorways that seems to stretch on forever inside of a fortified city. Given that it’s the off-season, the lack of tourists gave us the opportunity to explore the city and its beaches on our own.
I decided on our second day there that I would go on a walk on the beach with a new friend, Galen Welsch. We weren’t sure how far we were going to walk, but we both agreed that tanning on the beach was just too boring for us, especially when there’s miles and miles of beach to explore. So, we left the girls behind and begin our walk in search for shells and marine life. After about two hours, we finally came across a shell or two, though nothing special, really. Then, an hour later, finally saw some signs of marine life, though all of it dead – a washed up octopus and a washed up eel were the best we could do.
And then it happened…
A day spent on the beach seeing almost nothing but sand and in the distance we saw what we thought was a cow. And then another. And then another. At first, we were denying the possibility that there were five cows – three laying down – on the beach, but soon there was no denying it. It is Morocco, after all. The cows watched us as we approached, laughing at them. Then they watched us as we kept walking, the rest of the beach completely empty for what looked like miles of nothing but two guys and five cows on a sandy beach. As I said before, in Morocco, expect the unexpected.
I had planned to head to Mehidia for my training after a few nights in Asilah, but we decided to leave Asilah a day early to trek further north to a town called Tetouan (I’ve mentioned it before, because it’s the town for which the Star Wars planet, Tatooine, is named after). When we arrived at the taxi station, an argument ensued, making it clear that the director of the taxi stand was trying to overcharge us and didn’t want to take us to Tetouan, so instead, we decided to go to Tangier. Not what I was planning, but whatever. Go with the flow, right?
I won’t go into every single story from Tangier, but one stands out in particular as worth writing home about. Tangier, you should know, like Asilah, is an artist community, mostly of ex-patriots, many of whom had established themselves there in the 1960s. The city inclines slowly from the beach, where you can see Spain in the distance across the Strait of Gibraltar. Atop the hill sits the medina, with its occasional, beautiful views of the beach and marina down below. Tangier was especially famous to the beat poet movement, so one of our first stop-offs was at the Cinema Rif Cafe, a hotspot for poets and artists alike, especially in the heyday of Tangier.
We sat down and chatted briefly with a Moroccan who was part owner of the cafe and who insisted on giving us free t-shirts, because he was aware of and respected what the Peace Corps was doing in Morocco. While we were sitting there sipping tea or coffee, we lost track of Caity only to find her later sitting with two older gentlemen in an odd setting that looked as though she had found herself in the midst of a scene from Alice in Wonderland. The two distinguished gentlemen she sat with, we would discover later, referred to themselves as Francisco, a Baron from Chile and an unnamed Duke from Ireland. As Caity tells it, she was taking a picture of the Cinema Rif when Francisco, wearing a grey blazer with black trim around every edge of the jacket (on a sunny day), his hair slicked back looked similar to Doc E. Brown from “Back to the Future,” called to her saying, “Excuse me, darling, why are you taking a picture of this fine establishment?” After she explained to them that she just thought it seemed like a picture worth taking, they prodded her with more questions, tried to guess where she was from, and eventually asked her to join them while they argued with one another over who was more knowledgeable about the city of Tangier, its history, and blabbed on and on about the politics of the ex-pat community. From our perspective inside the cafe looking out on this strange encounter with the Mad Hatter and Cheshire the Cat, it just became clearer and clearer that it was another one of those things, you know, that only happens when you least expect it. And so the list of the unexpected grew longer and longer.
After leaving the cafe, I found myself standing in the middle of the main square of Tangier when I got a phone call from another PCV I didn’t know was in the city when he saw me from his hotel roof. The next morning, we ended up taking the train together to Mehidia where I’ve been this week in training. I spent part of my afternoon today walking down another beach, wondering if I’d happen upon any cows only to happen upon a shipwreck instead. The hull was all that was left, and the ship appeared to have – at one point – measured somewhere between thirty-five and forty feet. By the time I walked to the ship – alone – I found myself along a stretch of beach where I could see nothing but sand and water for miles, no people, no buildings. Just me, an endless stretch of sand and an endless stretch of water.
Standing there at the shipwreck forced me to think back to my childhood. My parents made a point of taking us every year to Florida, something I’ll always cherish, and I can remember having my first taste of freedom being allowed to walk down the beach for miles and miles – several hours alone. As a youngster, it had been a place where I was most overwhelmed by some divine presence. Something about the rhythm of the waves, the never-ending nature of it or the very fact that the water would continue and nothing could bring an end to the life it gave as it slapped and beat its foams against the countless grains of sand below. Everything about it was eternal and beautiful, and standing in the middle of it – alone – you couldn’t help but feel as though it was you and God and nothing else. Nothing else mattered.
I found myself remembering and sifting through those same thoughts I used to think when I was younger; I found myself being thankful that I was in a place where I could now expect the unexpected. Sometimes, those unexpected things that come our way give us cause to be saddened. Other times, we giggle to ourselves walking by a group of cows who decided they’d spend a day at the beach. But whether we expect it or not, whether it’s some mix-up of the big picture with the finest details, we find our ways to give it all meaning. Some way or another, it all adds up and starts to make sense to us. Some way or another, there’s something eternal to it. I don’t know whether we give meaning to a life that has no meaning at all. I don’t know how much of the unexpected is total chaos and randomness at work. But I like the narrative we try to give to our lives. I like living into a greater meaning and purpose and feeling that great sense of divine presence overwhelming us whether we’re walking on a beach or just sitting in a cafe overwhelmed by things seemingly a bit more mundane. That’s something in my life, that beauty and eternity, which despite everything else that happens, I know I can always count on, always look forward to, always expect. Even when something unexpected comes my way.