Friday, July 23, 2010

I love monkeys?

After two weeks of traveling around the country in a bus, I had reached the point of too much togetherness. I was ready for a break from the group, but our guides were worried about letting us split up and go off alone. Youness expressed concern that I “wanted to have an adventure,” and he more or less made me promise to fight my natural instinct to wander off.

One morning in Marrakesh, five of us decided to go to the main square to explore. We were greeted by rows of carts selling freshly-squeezed orange juice and salesmen who will pour you a tall glass as soon as you make eye contact. We stopped for a drink, purchased mixed nuts from the next set of carts, and then proceeded into the medina.

It was crowded, and we knew it wouldn’t be easy to stay together. I turned to Paulette and said off-hand that no one should worry about me if I got separated from the others. Since I’d lived abroad before and I speak French, I would be fine. In a classic case of Be Careful What You Wish For, mere moments had passed before I looked up to realize my friends were nowhere in sight.

I knew they couldn’t have gone far, but with so many shops to look in, I couldn’t find them. They told me later on that they looked for me, but it must have been like a scene from a bad comedy – they stepped out of one shop as I walked into another and we crisscrossed each other’s paths. I imagine that the movie version would include an overhead, fast-motion shot of us darting back and forth and just missing each other by seconds.

Over the course of my travels, I’ve done a wide variety of things that were probably not so wise but seemed like good ideas at the time. In the interest of not giving my mom a heart attack, I won’t list them here. At any rate, I was mostly concerned that the other teachers might be worried about me.

It seemed like they might have gone back to the main square, so I retraced our steps. While I didn’t locate my friends, there was a whirlwind of activity to explore. I knew enough to keep my distance from the snake charmers, but I made the mistake of wandering too close to the monkey handlers.

Now, I have to say here that I think monkeys are awesome. In fact, my interest in them may qualify as an obsession. The only thing cooler than a monkey is a boatload of pirates. Needless to say, the day I went to the Hallmark store and found greeting cards featuring monkey pirates will go down in history. One of my friends even joked that I should bring back a monkey for him at the end of the trip.

Still, nothing prepared me for the moment when one of the men dumped a cat-sized monkey onto my arm. He dug into my shirt with his little claws and stared at me with his beady eyes. The handler wanted to sell me a photo of myself with the little beast, so he was having none of my protests. His mantra was “Il n’est pas mechant.” (“He’s not mean.”) You can’t just drop a monkey, so I backed away. I was holding the critter as far away as I could, considering he was sitting on me. In retrospect, I should have gotten the photo, but my brain wasn’t working so well in the 115-degree weather.

Eventually, I offloaded my furry friend. Other monkey men called out to me and gestured to their animals, so I hightailed it out of there before I had any more close encounters of the simian kind. My cell phone was out of minutes, so there was no way to contact anyone in my group. Armed with nothing but a dead phone and a bag of mixed nuts, I plunged back into the bustling warren of shops as I tried to wipe off the monkey dust. Based on the spots of my sleeve, I’m guessing the monkey wasn’t a big fan of showers.

The day was just what I needed. I dodged donkey carts, browsed through dozens of shops, and had time to reflect. Even better, I was able to indulge in my new-found addiction: “gazelle horn” cookies. One of the little boys at my school had been telling me for months about how great the sweets would be here, and he had even brought in some to share with the class. When I asked him what they were called, he showed me the package. Conveniently enough, it had been labeled “Moroccan Cookies.” While they were okay, the ones here are even better. Not quite as awesome as a monkey, but close. Plus, they’re much less likely to leave mysterious spots on your sleeve.

Time passed, and I located a shop where two boys who looked all of about 12 years old loaded new minutes onto my phone. Brilliantly, I then realized I hadn’t written down the numbers of any of the people who were with me that day.

Continuing alone, I wandered into the depths of the marketplace until I reached a place where people repeatedly told me to turn around and go back to the main square. After about the third time, I decided I should probably take their advice. I wove my way through the maze and stepped into plaza again. It was so hot that my eyes hurt – I hadn’t known that your eyes could feel heat like that, but apparently they can.

This time, I veered to the side to steer clear of the Monkey Zone. As I looked up, what to my eyes should appear like a mirage but my four colleagues. Paulette’s bright orange scarf stood out like a beacon and guided me back to them.

As I looked back on the day, I realized the lessons were clear: 1) wandering alone is good for the soul, and 2) if you see a monkey headed your way, dodge him while you have the chance.

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