Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Storm Cloud in My Backpack.


boys gutting fish in Essaouira surrounded by birds

The day that I turned twenty we had been in Morocco for almost a month.

After three weeks in frenzy of Marrakesh we had taken a bus to the coast and were staying in the most uncomfortable, most revolting self-catering apartment that we could ever have imagined. We acquired it through a Helpful English Stranger (wheeler and dealer) who lived in the town and whom we'd met in the queue in the pastry shop. We were tired of hostels, of sharing a bathroom with eleven other people and a cockroach, and we were desperate to cook our own meal after three weeks of eating bread and oranges (a diet which, incidentally, almost entirely removes the need to use the shared toilets). We paid a week's rent upfront and heaved our backpacks onto our skinny shoulders. We moved in and I feel asleep instantly on the misshapen shape, draped with a polyester faux fur blanket emblazoned with a lion's head surrounded by leopard print, the kind of which is inexplicably popular in Morocco. Nye bought a bottle of bleach and started scrubbing, desperate to rid the bathroom of the smell of fermenting human waste, a smell so strong that it was impossible to go into the room without gagging and which insisted that we block the crack under the bathroom door with towels in an attempt to stop it escaping into the rest of the apartment. It didn't work.

Looking back it's easy to wonder why on earth we stayed, why we gave our meagre resources to sleep in this stinking pit where no, we didn't have to share the bathroom but where we couldn't actually use the bathroom without tying a wet cloth over our faces. It certainly wasn't the 'cooking facilities' which were a plastic washing up bowl and a gas camping stove which leaked so badly we had to take it onto the roof to use. It was actually just a simple combination of youth and exhaustion. We were young, broke and Having an Adventure, therefore fairly willing to endure squalor (and oh the squalor) but more crucially, we were exhausted. Broken. I was wrung out, I was anxious, I was suffering with chronic fatigue and increasingly relentless abdominal pain. During the week of my period I collapsed to the ground all over Marrakesh, needing help to stumble to a quiet alley and then on to our hostel and bed. It was a small mercy that the painkillers available over the counter were twice as strong as at home. A black cloud had attached itself to me a few months before and while I had tried to shake it off, it was getting darker and more ominous. I cried a lot in Morocco. I fought with Nye and I spent a lot of time in bed, not sleeping. When I did sleep I was rocked by nightmares that I can still see now, as clearly as if I had them last night. I was 19 and I was trying so hard to have an adventure, to Travel.


I'd been saving money all summer, working to fund a solo round the world gap year that I had become too ill to go on. Morocco, until our money ran out, was what it had boiled down to. It was before cheap flights to North Africa were a thing so we had flown to Malaga in Spain, stayed in a creepy hotel opposite a sex shop and then got the bus to Algeciras on the south coast. I thought Algeciras was the saddest, most depressing place in the whole world, but that was before we had made it to Casablanca, a city that tore right into my soul. A town of shipping containers and desperation, Algeciras is Spain's gateway into Europe, its defences against Africa and those who would flee it. We boarded a ferry from which a number of passengers had been removed in handcuffs and crossed the straights of Gibraltar, churning past that weird, unlikely rock beloved of sea birds and tax dodgers. We lurched into Africa at sunset, the lights of Tangier twinkling in the fading orange and navy sky and the smell of hot dust drifting out into the sea. It was magic. It took us two days to get to Morocco and another twelve hours by train to reach Marrakesh. And when we got there it was another world, we had Travelled. And despite my pain and the storm cloud I was lugging around in my backpack it was the most wonderful, the most beautiful adventure.

I turned twenty in the coastal town of Essaouira. I opened the small gifts that had been wrestling with my cloud for space in my backpack on a rooftop overlooking the maze of streets. I ate a lunch of two pence breads stuffed with canned sardines sitting on an ancient seawall, watching the fishing boats come and go and tiny Moroccan children play in the square. We went out for dinner to an actual vegetarian restaurant, an establishment where the vegetable tagine didn't come with a chicken foot or a goat knuckle lurking beneath the squash, and we walked back to our vile apartment through the winding, cobbled streets that whistled with sea air. Those are my three memories of my 20th birthday; the rooftop, the seawall, the restaurant. The next day we left the apartment, a few days before the week we had paid for was up. Nye engaged in a fight with the owner, a puffed up business man in a shiny suit, and attempted to get the rest of our money back. I don't remember if he managed it or not.

We moved a few streets away, to the prettiest hotel that £3 a night can buy, where we were woken in the mornings by the sounds of the orange juice carts rattling down the street and the squawking of seagulls over the town's ancient fortress walls. When Nye went out for bread that day he bumped into the English guy who had brought us to that horrible apartment. He asked how we were getting on and when Nye told him that we had left the apartment early his friend laughed; “I can't believe you took them there,” he said, “that place is a shit hole.” The Englishman had the decency to look embarrassed. He offered to find us somewhere else but we were done with the help of charming strangers. Besides, we were planning to leave Essaouria and travel further down the coast over the next day or two. We'd had a tip from a surfer who worked in the chessboard shop and were planning to head to a village on the sea, one that had been forgotten by both electricity and plumbing and relied on generators and the water lorry that came to fill up the tanks every couple of days. Two days later Nye helped me to lift my backpack onto my shoulders, to settle its weight there on my back where I would carry it with me, 150km down the coast.

That is where I began my twenties, carrying my weight with me on my back. Now, almost exactly ten years later, my weight is spread all around, the dark cloud that I carried so close then has drifted off and is but a tiny smudge on the horizon. I turn thirty tomorrow, something that I've been looking forward to for the longest time. I'm ready to shed my twenties, to say that this decade of struggling, of striving, of being broken down and built back up over and over and over again is done. I know that it's arbitrary, that life on Saturday won't tangibly be any different from life on Thursday and yet when did I care about the tangible? Hardly ever, that's when.  

boys gutting fish in Essaouira surrounded by birds


Photos of young boys gutting fish,  Essaouira, Morocco. Taken in 2004, on a Pentax K1000, with Ilford film.