Oh, Porto, in Story

A seven hour train ride from Marrakesh, and I was pulling into Fes just before the sun set.  My train was almost empty.  I guess it’s just not the time of year for Moroccans to be traveling.  The passenger car itself was this strange shade of emerald, and even the curtains blocking the view of the sunset were the same shade.  I don’t guess that shouldn’t be so strange, but the way the artificial lighting above flickered on and off against the emerald ceiling, I had this surreal feeling that I was in some run-down hospital.

Surreal.  I think that’s the right word for a lot of what the past day or two have been.  On the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel in Marrakesh, there was a heavy-set woman in a djellaba riding on the back of a motorcycle holding tightly onto her baby, and as soon as I saw the baby, Morocco just came flooding back to me.

I’m not sure if a vacation is supposed to be an escape or if it’s a time for rejuvenation, or what.  I mean, coming back, it was almost like I had just disappeared from the country for a week, placed my life on hold, and then when it came time to jump back in, it was as if Portugal had already disappeared, too.  Why is it when something so good happens to us, we struggle to find ways to hold onto it, to cherish and carry it?  When we experience something awful, we’re so good at carrying that memory around, so why can’t we carry the good memories just as easily?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for living in the present.  I think dwelling too much on the past, letting nostalgia carry us into the future is the wrong way to live.  But while I cherish the importance of the “here and now,” I don’t pretend that the past doesn’t shape the present in a powerful way.  And sometimes, that can be, or maybe should be, a really good thing.  And vacation should be one of those things we learn to carry with us, something we can recall to memory when we need to remember it, when we need something good to think about.

That said, I’ve got a lot of good things to think about for awhile, and I hope in the next month or two, I can reach in and cough up a smile on days when speaking Arabic is just something I don’t feel like doing or when class at the youth center may go awry.  I hope sometime next month, when I’m having a bad day, I’ll stop myself, close my eyes and go back to Portugal in my head.  Not in a way that makes me miss it but in a way that’s thankful that I was able to experience it, in a way that can recall it with a smile.

I’ll give you a very brief synopsis of the week, but I won’t bore you with everything that happened.  Nobody likes hearing about other people’s vacations – unless they’re going to that place soon.  Besides, there’s absolutely nothing I could say that isn’t told in the form of pictures, and I can’t say enough about how happy I was to capture Portugal in photograph.  You should check that out before reading anything else, if you haven’t already.

So, Liz Chon and I spent the week in Oporto, which is on the coast where the Douro River valley connects with the Atlantic Ocean.  In short, we walked.  We walked a lot.  In fact, most of the trip was just walking and eating some form of pig.  We explored the river on a bridge-cruise, took a trolley to the beach where we explored an aquarium, a fort, and a park.  We did a  day trip to Guimaraes, home to the Presidential Palace and a 10th-century castle that dates to the founding of Portugal.  I went inside the first church that I had stepped into in over a year.  And then into ten other old cathedrals.  Bought some new Adidas shoes.  Ate Subway, McDonald’s, and Burger King.  Tried to rekindle everything it means to be an American… but in Portugal.

Which is sort of a funny thought, right?  That going to Portugal in some sense would be – as much as we could make it – an escape to America.  I mean, we might have eaten Portuguese food three or four times during the trip, but mostly, it was a matter of bouncing back-and-forth between Chinese, Italian, and American restaurants.  And when I said I ate pig for every meal, I meant it.  I think there was only one meal I ate the entire week that included no pork, and I wasn’t even trying to plan it that way.  It just… happened.

But knowing beforehand that it was going to be a return to Western culture, some part of me had been pretty worried about how I might react to it.  Would there be culture shock?  I mean, I have been in rural Morocco for nearly a year now.  What would surprise or “shock” me?

Honestly?  Nothing.  I fell right back into it easily.  Almost too easily.  If anything, the culture shock was from this realization that there wasn’t much culture shock at all.  Maybe that’s because, unlike some volunteers in Morocco, I have running water and internet.  I live in a small city where I can get anything I need.  But whatever it was, nothing really shocked me in Portugal.

That’s not to say I didn’t have little, thoughtful moments, or even small realizations here or there that one might call “culture shock.”  Case in point, the last day in Portugal, as we headed to the airport, I was looking around the train station and almost exclaimed to Liz, “People look so different!  There’s light people and dark people and colorful people and hairy people and skinny people and fat people.  There’s so many of us, and we’re all so unique.”  You would’ve thought I was on drugs or something, but honestly, between djellabas and G-Star Raw, Morocco is a pretty homogeneous society.  I don’t mean that in any sort of negative way.  It’s just that America really is this pluralistic society with all sorts of different cultures in the mixing pot, so much so that we don’t really ever think about how most of the world, when you go to a country, the people there are usually one nationality, if not also one race and one culture.  But there’s no such thing as “American culture.”  There’s too much diversity in our society to pin it down to one thing that unifies us outside of, maybe, the Constitution and a handful of histories that further exemplify our diversity.  I mean, we’re like a culture of cultures, which actually says nothing.

Beyond that, I had one other moment that sort of hit me, namely hearing church bells instead of the call-to-prayer.  I’ve grown so used to the mosque ringing out five times a day that it was strange not hearing it.  It was even weirder hearing church bells instead or seeing statues or paintings of Jesus, something that’s been absent from me for over a year but was an everyday part of my life before this.  Walking into a cathedral, beautiful though it was, was a reminder to me that Church is not a building at all but a people.  A people loving other people.  And there’s plenty of folks who call themselves “church” but who don’t do that.  So, while stained-glass and ornate architecture are certainly something to admire, even unifying us with an identity, those things lack what really matters, or at least, that was the thought bouncing around in my head as I walked into a sanctuary or explored the catacombs below.

I guess whether it was church bells or plain, ole diversity, I can’t say that I had any serious culture shock, and that’s a good thing, I think.  It certainly made the vacation (and the return from it) a bit more enjoyable and manageable.

So, back to that seven hour ride.  The one from Marrakesh to Fes.  I think I was saying that it was this incredibly surreal moment where my passenger car felt like an old hospital room with flickering lights, though maybe that had something to do with how exhausted I felt.  As I stepped off the train and into the open evening air, the people were bustling about cramming into the stairway with raised voices, everyone eager to be somewhere else.  Taxis to Babujaloud were near impossible to get, and the medina – once I finally got there – was equally crowded and loud.  I’d stepped back into Morocco, this surreal little place where at any given moment, something could go wrong but by the grace of Allah, it just manages to hang in there.  An entire country that seems to be just sort of hanging in there… by the grace of God.  And I couldn’t be happier to be home from vacation.  Doing what little I can to help it hang in there a little longer.  Or maybe just hanging in there with it.



  1. Hello Philip,

    My name is Justin and I attend St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. I am in a class entitled Americans Abroad, and we are doing a project based on Peace Corps Volunteers’ blogs. My group and I have chosen to follow a volunteer in Morocco! Would you be interested in sharing with us some information? We’d like to know things such as…
    -your job in Morocco
    -your experiences assimilating to the country
    -assumptions that you had of the country/culture before you arrived
    -how have those assumptions been reinforced or challenged
    -new insights you’ve gained from being there
    -any insights gained into own sense of self

    Thank you for your time!!



  2. Hi! I got to read this blog coz i was looking for someone who could share a sentiment with me when it comes to travelling. Sureal. That’s how it really was. It was just so good that I just can’t get over it. I am from the Philippines and I had the chance to go to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. It was just plain magical that if I need something to make me smile, ill just look back and thank God.


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