I asked the shop owner if she wouldn’t mind explaining the significance of the Portuguese rooster motif. She locked her arms on the checkout counter and leaned forward, eyeballing me over her glasses. “Yes, I would mind. It’s a stupid story. If you really want to know, it’s on a poster in the corner. Have at it.” I read it, and she was right. As I walked back to the counter she asked if I was American and with a wink told me she liked that Americans don’t leave our soap at home.
Her name was Paula, and we ended up chatting for an hour or so until the next customer came in. Paula said she didn’t always agree with America’s decision to intervene on the world stage, but she appreciated our willingness to do something while the rest of the world stood around and watched. She likened the US to a hormonal teenager. “You folks are still trying to get everyone to like you, but you’d never admit it because you think you already have all the answers.”
My trip was nearly over, and as I walked back to the hotel I felt excited to get home, but I also found myself wishing I had done more. I should have stopped at Gibraltar to see the monkeys. I should have tried to find the Kem Kem fossil beds in Erfoud. I should have taken an Arabic class. I should have gone to Essaouira where Jimi Hendrix wrote “Castles Made of Sand.” I should have made more of an effort to meet local people. I shouldn’t have been so selfish. Obviously, returning home was necessary, but honestly I’m most home when I am away. When I read about people who are living their lives wandering around the world, moving simply from place to place—I get a stomach ache. Even as I type this right now I feel my belly yearning.
I tried all night to retrieve my bag that was lost yesterday en route from Casablanca, but the Lisbon baggage claim kept telling me to call back in 24 hours. They assured me that Royal Air Maroc would forward it to the US once it was located. I wouldn’t see it again for more than three weeks, during which time I got one call from the airline telling me that my bag was in Miami and I could pick it up there.
After $112 in international phone charges and a dozen or so hang-ups or extended holds by the customer service desk, my bag just showed up on the front porch of my home in North Carolina. No knock at the door, no paperwork, just a tall blue backpack leaning on the stoop as if it was tired from all that traveling. A week later I got an email from Air Maroc telling me they were still doing their best to find my bag.
Leg one of my return flight took be east to Frankfurt where I had a six-hour layover and a chance to follow in my 1992 footsteps. Last time I was there the Polizei marched through the terminals wearing bright green uniforms with AK-47s strapped at the ready. It was December and I was headed to Washington DC to finish my initial Army enlistment. 22 years later, as I sat down to scarf a giant, salty pretzel and sip a tall Radeberger Pils Von Fuss, all these memories flooded back.
I caught an eight-hour flight to Toronto and was delayed there for four more hours. By the time I landed at RDU, more than 25 hours had elapsed sinceI left Lisbon and I hadn’t slept a wink, and on purpose. It was 2 a.m. when I got off the plan and I stalled before taking the escalator down to the passenger pickup area. For some reason I was afraid to see Katie. I felt like I had changed and maybe she wouldn’t recognize me, maybe I wouldn’t recognize her.
Now, I’m back home, smothered in creature comforts. I don’t have to worry about dysentery, bedbugs, the Sahara flu or aggressive hawkers. I needn’t be concerned about iffy medical facilities, pickpockets, corrupt money changers or lost freaking luggage. But I can’t wait to have these problems again, I can’t wait to sip gritty tea at a dirty table surrounded by a language I don’t know. Because there I can be myself. I can let go of this relentless need to prove myself and just live for living’s sake. When I’m away, I stop trying so hard.
Thanks for following along on my journey. I’ve greatly appreciated your comments and encouragement. It’s been a hoot. Much love to you all. -tom