Last year C took Z to Egypt. About the only thing I heard about that trip was how great the hotel swimming pools were. And the time Z locked himself in the bathroom and was chastised by a hotel employee who had to break the door lock with a screw driver. It’s almost impossible to figure out if a six year-old is reasonably impressed with 4000 year old pyramids. More often his memories seem to speak to his displeasures.
“Dad made me eat eggplant. It was gross.”
This year I wanted to have my own African adventure with this little man, so we booked onto a Family Adventure Company trip to Morocco. Eight days in a desert country where I could get the moss baked off my skin, my son could play with other kids on the trip, and we adults could all benefit from passive babysitting.
I must say again: it’s so amazing to get on a plane in London and be in a completely different culture in less than three hours. Unfortunately, that relatively short journey ended at 1:30 am. We arrived in the central town of Ouarzazate in total darkness, me buzzing from the wine I’d drunk in the transit terminal in Casablanca and Z hyper from the ice cream I couldn’t refuse him.
“Mom, you’re getting wine. Why can’t I get ice cream?”
“You’re right, honey. We all have our weaknesses.”
In the morning, the group of us met. Four kids ages 5, 6, 7 and 8 with Z the only boy. Four families, one like me, a single mom. Our guide Abdul sat us down to fill out insurance paperwork and lower our expectations of the trip.
“Sometimes the electricity works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the hot water works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Fortunately he didn’t say, ‘Sometimes the van runs and sometimes it doesn’t.’ The van was actually quite nice and it even had air conditioning.
Our first stop was the 19th Century Taourirt Kasbah, the sprawling clan home to the former power players of the area, now frequently a Hollywood backdrop. The guide, though endearing, spoke English with such a heavy accent that I could only make out snippets of information. “Servants.” “Old wood.” “Wives.” “Children.” “Main wife.” Huh?
That afternoon we pitched up at a much smaller compound where we would be the guests of a Berber family. Their property was walled and made up of the gardens, the house with a large kitchen, indoor and outdoor eating areas and, dotted along the edges, big canvass tents layered with oriental carpets and threadbare sheeted sleepmats. At any given time - wandering the compound - were two bent over elders, three young boys, a set of female twin toddlers with short cropped hair and dressed in the old clothes of their brothers, and a newborn baby, swaddled and bound and looking like a fat pupa. You had to be careful not to step on that one. This family fed us, their water was mostly hot and they had wifi.
And wouldn’t you know, we were just a five minute drive to a nearby hotel, where the kids frolicked in the pool and the adults drank beer. I had hoped that by coming to Morocco I would get a break from two of my less healthy preoccupations: internet and alcohol. But now I know I’ll need to remove myself from the comforts of a tour group in order to break those habits. Until then, cold beer on a hot afternoon was pretty damn nice.
The next day we all piled into “local transportation” which meant this van had no real seats, no AC and had likely just ferried goats across the desert. But it put us in the necessary state of physical anxiety we needed to be in for our next mode of transport: the camel.
Now, this is where Z and I very much disagree: I view camel riding as every bit as amusing and loads less terrifying than a roller coaster that uses g-forces to scramble your brain. Z didn’t see it that way. In fact, if I didn’t have two arms around him as we tottered across the desert for an hour en route to our camp in the dunes, he would start whining. Give the kid a gravity-defying trip of terror on a rickety old pier and he’s in heaven. Place him atop a loping ungulate on terra firma and he’ll whimper the entire way.
But then we were in the dunes. Glorious, golden sand dunes. Our camp had been set up by a team of advance bedouins who were enjoying tea when we arrived. All the kids ran for the nearest dune as soon as they slid off their camels and the adults were close behind. The sun was near setting and we walked the spine of sand up to the point where it met a crop of rocks and the highest point in the area. Z and the 8 year-old became synchronized sand swimmers, jumping and rolling in tandem then scrambling back up to do it again.
Our trip ended in Marrakech. C once spent time with his mother and sister in Morocco over twenty years ago and his memories of that experience moved him to advise me to hire a local guide to wander the streets with and act as protector and repeller of all the men who were sure to hassle me. But that has all changed. Sure, people encourage you to come sit down at their restaurant, pet their monkey or buy their wares. But there was no hassle about it. It was relaxed, friendly and fun even. But the most fun of all was shopping with Z.
Lord knows I don’t like to shop much. Even in an exotic place like Morocco, I’ve lost my interest in bringing more material goods into my life. What I didn’t expect was that shopping the souk with a seven year old was going to be, not about consumerism, but about interpersonal, cultural communication and the art of the deal. When Z first saw something he wanted, he blew it.
“Mom, mom, I want this, I really, really want this and it’s only 60 dirham!”
I pulled him outside the stall and had one of those very serious mother-son conversations with him, every bit as important as treating thy neighbor as thyself or your body is your temple.
“Z," I kneeled down and put on my most serious face. "Never, ever pay full price.”
After that we were the bargaining dream team. We would very casually decide what it was we wanted to buy, add up the asking prices and then lower our voices.
“So what do you think? Should we offer 120 or go down to 100?”
“One hundred!” Z was always the low baller.
And by god, it worked. If I was the one proposing the absurd drop in price, the shopkeeper would look pained, as though he were having a moment of uncomfortable gas. Then Z would see the resistance and swoop in, repeating the low offer with a flourish of his arms and the vendor’s head would start to bobble, his eyes would close, he would get just the vaguest hint of a smile and then nod. I cautioned Z not to be too big headed, at least while we were still in the shop. After we moved into the crowd with our purchases, we’d give each other a triumphant high five.
We ended the trip with dinner in a courtyard restaurant, a riotous jungle of cultivated greenery contained by slabs of marble. I think Winston Churchill might have sipped his scotch there. I sipped gin and didn’t worry about the exchange rate. The kids wandered on a scavenger hunt (find the elephant’s head…) and the adults grilled our guide Abdul about which tour company he liked the most (all the guides work for more than one).
After trips like this, I want to crawl inside Z’s brain and see what his memories are. What will have impressed him most? The swimming pool? The henna tattoo? Hours in the bus sitting next to girls singing Taylor Swift songs? I hope I’m around in twenty years to ask him, “Hey, do you remember that night in Marrakesh when the monkey jumped on my back?” “No, I don’t Mom, but I remember when that shopkeeper played Bionicle battle with me.”