In the Fez train station I read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley while occasionally looking up to watch people. Transportation hubs always offer a sense of relief. They’re filled with temporary people from all around the world and the expectation to comply with local customs is largely eschewed. The three shops in the station are bathed in neon and have westernized names: Smoothie Rail, Venezia Ice, and The Rail Shop. Here, I feel nothing but safe.
I am cleansed by the fear that comes from foreign travel. My survival in another place’s strangeness gives me super powers. I become socially apt, I have a stronger sense of witness, and I can see and hear details with amazing clarity. This hyper-awareness brings me closest to what I believe is my true self—a self that I struggle to unveil in my “real” life.
As I’m sipping espresso, a woman asks to join me. In a Russian accent she introduces herself as Shelby, then tells me she lives in Austin, Texas and works for an Iraqi refugee assistance group. Her unplanned visit to Morocco comes after spending a month in Algeria. She seems nervous and agitated, and I ask if she’s OK. She says that solo travel in these Muslim countries has been less enjoyable than she expected. She says she asked to sit with me hoping that the men in the station would then leave her alone. I say, “Well, why didn’t you sit with a woman?” She says, “Because you looked nice.” I can appreciate her passing her loneliness around.
After my short train ride, I check into a hotel in Mekenes and walk to the Musee dar Jardin in the medina. Lonely Planet calls it the best museum in the country, I’d call it a shame. It reminds me of when Kent and I went to a similar place in the Gobi and messed with a pile of mind-blowing dinosaur bones. Eventually a security guard shows up and asks if he can practice his english. His uniform hangs on his body like he’s just lost a ton of weight.
Back near the hotel, I hit a 4th floor restaurant for dinner. It’s nearly empty but can easily hold more than 100 people. It’s decked out with thick, marble pillars and kitchy statues likely meant to resemble the nearby Roman ruins at Volubilis. Tomorrow I’ll visit the 2300-year old outpost that once housed more than 20,000 people—but tonight I’ll just dine alone while absorbing the final rays of the Mekenes sunset.
A few tourists sit quietly in one corner, and a Moroccan couple, possibly on a date, in another. I choose a seat near a window and look out over a row of spotlit red and green flags dancing in the night breeze. Across the street is a building with crumbling walls, its upper floors collapsed into the first level. My stomach grumbles as clouds turn pink, then orange. Atop the building, rats race along the choppy cobbles until disappearing into jagged, dark holes. I wonder how old the structure is and if people walk by and think about the long hours spent constructing it. I think wonder if a closer look at the masonry would reveal fingerprints.