"What's it like, being in another country?" was the question.
What's it like, a life hand in hand with another, instead of hand to mouth with myself. Turn around to catch a glimpse of a shadow, you find it waving. Have I found out who I really am, when spun, lured, leaping to the other side, the sunny side, of the world? Hold on a while, while I soak up the warmth.
What's it like, being on a part of the globe I can't picture on a map. Dropped in the middle of a maze and am I the rat or Daedelus? Have I let Icarus drop to the sea as I grab a tan?
It's like anywhere else I suppose, and for most other people. You get by. You find familiarity and stick to it, trusting that interesting things are bound to happen. When old habits die, you find new ones.
It's like going to a party where you only know the people you came with, and so you either stick with them, or strike up a conversation with someone, or hug the wall and watch.
It's like waking up to find that the new day is just like the previous day.
It's a big hurry to get somewhere, instead of pottering along and stopping at wherever seems just fine for now.
TODRA GORGE, MOROCCO. Am coming down from flying across the Dunes and have now been shoved between the asscheeks of the Atlas Mountains. Dust and smoke are farted down the canyons, which shit out turd after turd of undigested tourist caravans. The night before: the madness of arrival, feeling the walls close in. The night before that: serenity, illusion, beauty, understanding. Now: my wife reveals that our getaway must be about me getting away, and all our previous adventures in this fairground were in the dumps, not the rose-scented gardens. Me, I still can't smell: damn headcold. My only excuse is these fine wings I'm testing. Trying to get higher. No, just trying to see what's around the corner. The trip, inevitably, will turn out to be a full circle.
What's it like? Smoking Gitanes in a cafe, any cafe. The one overlooking the whirling madness of the square in Marrakech, or the many orange-tinted mirrored one watching little dogs potter by an avenue in Paris, or the one next to a canal allowing water reflection ripple an ethereal chandelier on the ceiling in Amsterdam, or the one here in London where Robbie's still antheming the Millennium as the waitress cleans the counter yet again and the two gays have finally finished their third Kirin and spun off. Where was I? I'm here, and there, in the States, in one of several cafe's (the one with a living room and
bookshelf painted in the back), bars, streets, or in my undressed room, spilling moments of my life into the air, for her to breathe in, break the pattern, turn into pure oxygen.
ANYROAD, MOROCCO. We're on the coach. Cliff faces: Geodesic points crystalize, then shadow smear from sight. Dry-stone walls: Coals smoking zigzag up billiard table green fields, then plowed under as we cover distance. Waving children: Smiles pointed at Polarized windows, dustclouds overwhelm. Seascape, Mountainscape, Valleyscape, Plainscape: Telescoping out to
horizon, miles of possibility, we escape. Homes: Half-built, half-eroded, part of the scenery, abandoned. Kodak moments: stretch our legs, brush off entrepreneurs, click, stuff legs back in seats. Villages: Bustle activity movement next. Gates: Passing through to the other side. What is constant: Our hands held. Sometimes we're rubbernecking or eyes agog, and sometimes we're reading or dozing, but always, our fingers tap out messages.
"So, what is it like, being in these countries?" was just about how Father phrased it during a Thanksgiving night phone call. He was in a crowd of my siblings and other relatives on the other side of the world and sounded tired, distant, forgetful, or it could have been me, still buzzed from a night of food and spirits with k and friends. Still, Father was repeating news from his last email, and thought I'd just been to Paris when he asked about travelling. I didn't know what to tell him, besides the signs being in another language and old buildings appearing like half-forgotten myriad dreams, and McDonalds being everywhere. I mentioned how not knowing the native language is disconcerting. I babbled about liveliness, soul, character and then excused off a proper response with an email. When the familial obligation was fulfilled, I hung up and felt overwhelmingly lonely.
Distant. Ghostly. Caricatures. Reminding me of where I am in this world, and where I was.
TELOUET, ATLAS MOUNTAINS, MOROCCO. The Dusk of a New Year Settled Shadows from High Atlas Peaks to Smoky Ruined Kasbah, and on up to us as we waited for the stars to appear and our watches to synchronise at 00:00 on '00 AD. The requisite comments about the Millennium were repeated, salutations were given to other countries already celebrating, and, ohexcuseme, was it all for nought? For some of us, all of our senses were at their peaks, despite being peaked. I myself was punished for my wit: several helpings of cous-cous churned through my digestive system. While the earth spun the starfield, my stomach flipped. Less than an hour 'til and I was squatting over a hole in cement, holding my breath as outside a gentleman discoursed on how he abhorred the very revulsed action I was taking. Afterwards I lay on our bed, feeling pathetic, ill, myself, and very human. This was the way the year would turn? Not for me and my iron stomach! Soon, I was back on form, guzzling whisky, waking people having a wee nap. One of them screamed at my nudge. At midnight or so, spluttering sparklers were somewhat lit, cheap champagne was quickly quaffed, crossedhands held while circling around a hearty bellow of auld lang syne, and people were hugged, kissed, blessed, smiled on. K, entranced at the midnight stroke, witnessed a shooting star zip up the brief exposure to world communion. Or were we, up here, apart from the rest of the world? The one mobile phone in our group was out of network coverage, and the only other noise of the Valley was the careening bellows of dogs who were howling, we imagined, that there were people all over the world making a racket over something and get indoors before the fireworks start. On a shooting star, I wished family and friends in my home country a best of times from the end of the century.
What's it like? My passport now shows me having entered and left several countries besides the one I live in. It is filling up. Looking at it, one would think my entrance to this world was only a couple of years ago, even if I'm chasing past 30. Look again at it and one would get a hint at the dozens upon dozens of other countries I've slept in... Occupation: writer. Which means I read, there's a good half of the occupied world I've peeked into. And I invent and sure, that might not count for some but step into my mind sometime and take a gander at the suitcases packed with momentoes; dust them off --I often leave them disused after dallying around with various selves-- and hop right in to be carried to god doesn't even remember. And I dream: I visited my love across the seas in them, I'll have you know, and mapped out streets in cities I just have to visit in person to write the names down. I'm a smuggler, a pirate, a courier, a hiker, a spy, a bard, a cat, a journalist, a cartographer, a soothsayer, a liar, a prophet, a victim, a hero, a lover, an observer. I'm here and, now and then, there.
Sending email across timezones still confounds me. Untime, Nowtime, Pastime. I send out words and they are right there, I read words sent and I am trying to pin them down, trying to keep from replying with my initial emotional reaction, for if I do, bits of my soul are escaping me.
What's it like, being in another country? Before the latest excursion, I'd tell you it's like being one of the few individuals in the world, just like in my dreams, for In There, it's just me and whatever visitors drop by, whatever corner is turned by me or for me. I am here and the set the theater has put together just for me and my company sure looks fine. I see beauty and it's there just for me to appreciate. I see ugliness and it is there to remind me of my luck. You get this? I have an illusion of control over time and space, friend. Do you only exist when I meet you, talk to you, touch you? If I have a memory of you, are you still breathing? Are you in my country, travelling the hills, or in my city, turning your corners, or in my home, breathing my breath? Move an hour, two, eight, away and send me an email and you are back in my time and space.
Whisper, all the world's a stage.
TAROUDANT, MOROCCO. I can't keep her from crying. There is no solution to this problem. We're in the cul-de-sac of a dusty bumbling maze, taking refuge in a sunny-side of a mosque. One way out hurdles by, a hatchback Honda Petite Taxi, gone in the other direction. She still cries. We've been bumped and turned around. She's been pinched, prodded, stared down, cursed and spat on, one insult piled on the other. Before the hour is out, we will continue to be tumulted: asking direction from all the wrong people, being rescued by two men we met at the beginning of our troubles, and thus conned out of money --me tipping a few dollars while they pickpocketed several more within sight of the hotel-- and pride --her, groped by a rescuer. And I will end up feeling just as I am now, in the eye of the storm: helpless, ignorant, blank. I cannot be a hero and pull us to safety. I cannot be the me, and inspire the suddenly all is well through happenstance. I cannot be the husband and best friend and say all the right words. Right now, all I can do is look at her and keep from crying myself. A few yards away a young girl has been staring at her. The girl's face pinches and pinches and finally collapses as she, too, is overwhelmed by sadness and silently cries. The empathy will hold me together. It's Christmas.
CLUB BAHA, DRAA VALLEY, MOROCCO The bubbles stream up. My hair dries in the afternoon sun and warm wind on the roof of our hotel, a converted kasbah-like fortress. I keep forgetting that I have these bubbles with me, to blow and bring colour into my life; they are more a way of relieving stress than passing the time. I'm facing east, over the valley, and the land is turning gold. Below me is a spread of palm trees looking like a hedge maze: cool, comforting and green. More directly below, a group of villagers collect at the back gate of the hotel, waiting to perform some mundane service. They are mostly women and children. They point up at me and chatter and laugh. It's the day after Boxing Day and I'm just starting to feel like another human in the world again, instead of a pawn in a game. Tonight I will gape at the stars and drink in the Milky Way.
ERG CHEBBI, MORROCO I'm finally stoned out of my gourd and blowing bubbles. Our host murmurs, "ah, un diadem". Another Berber approaches a floating bubble and leaps three feet back as it pops; the rest laugh heartily. A few moments or an hour ago our host asks if I'm Japanese. A few moments or an hour later, K folds origami, which are passed around and admired or altered before set in the fire, joining the ashes of the pair of birds we've already let fly; written in the chest of these birds are wishes. A few moments or an hour from now I pull her up a dune to embrace in the moonlight dreamland. Off a ways, a fiery meteor plummets to desert like a tossed wad of flaming paper. If we went to find it and unfolded it, what would it say?
KASBAH AMRADIL It's on the 50 dirham note. We stand looking at the same perspective as engraved and wait while others explore. I pass the time blowing bubbles again and another girl is staring. The air is dusty and dry and each time one pops with a crackle near her, she jumps a little. She edges around to get closer to me, then further, as the spheres get closer. Her scuffs knock dirt into a small irrigation ditch and swirling clouds muddy reflection. She follows me, close, all the way back to the coach, watching the bubbles.
TELOUET New year's morning and all's well. We're waiting for others to wake up and pack up. Here in the yard, the front yard, the back yard, I pick up sparkler wires and cigarette butts. The young boys in charge of the luggage donkey show up as I blow bubbles. Huge globes drifting in cool mountain air. The boys develop a game: waving arms to get them to go up high, then tossing stones like a skeet shoot. One throws a stone at a time and always misses. Another throws a handful, scatter shot, and when hitting a bubble gets thwapped on the head by his pals. The third pauses, and throws, and hits most often.
What is this life like? I keep getting ahead of myself, and so, falling behind. One way I think of it is, you get used to it. Life throws you surprises, you get used to it. Life takes you into your wildest dreams and goes off for a while, you get used to it. Life returns you to the humdrum everyday rat race, you get used to it.
Striving and finding familiarity. I found dream architecture revealed in a first visit to Oxford. Likewise in Amsterdam, where a striking memory of taking a boat down a canal at night kept coming to the back of my mind. Morocco was a mishmash of childhood memories travelling across the States, from the Grand Canyon to the deserts. It was adobe huts and winding mountain roads, as shifting a contrast of landscapes as America, but in this trip, I went from west to east and north and south and down the rabbit hole in the center. And despite the comfort of a recognizable backdrop, there was no dialogue for the scene; the characters were there, the setting was there, but no stage direction. In North Africa, I was a tourist, not the visitor to the UK or Europe or PickAState that I was used to. In Morroco I was rich, ignorant, a scavenger, a body.
With previous travels, even though I was gone a few days each, returning to London was to an alien home, to a cartoon of my life. This time, home, I realized how much I missed colour, landscape, horizon, the stretch of sky, the blanket of stars; home was a half-shaken Etch-a-Sketch. I'm back in another country where I call home and am in a state of flux. I want to be more than I am, and thus forgetting who I am.
When I go somewhere, it's been the atmosphere and the texture that I bring back, hold onto. It's about the same with people I meet, poking and somehow uncovering the fog in the head, the snakeskin reflex.
A living being in another country
Being in another country is as hard for me to pinpoint as being in a relationship, and the parallels are significant. My relation, my father, asked me the question, and I could only relate the surface impressions. Behind the face are the emotions. I want to be able to answer, but is also means answering that it's like living here, in London, a country I wasn't born in. And what it's like living a life with another person.
Back in America, my home country, I lived with lovers several times. The last time, had moments of comfort and feeling life as I'd want it, and then things started to go wrong. We tried to solve that by moving to another state from my hometown, to a completely new town, and then things became horribly wrong. We had an illusion, or I had the illusion, that things could work out, and just as I thought I was, or we were, on the threshold of everything working out, reality set in, and everything was all wrong. I became, very quickly, a tourist in a fat corner of the Earth, where no one spoke my language, my passport was lost, my hotel room was infested with cockroaches, and I'd torn up my return ticket.
As I started to return from my breakdown in Bumfuck, Nowhere, the locals would mention that they'd thought or heard I was going home. I wasn't in the slightest. I did, for some visits, but I needed to get my bearing in myself before I ever did that. I'd lost my own map of myself, and for a while I blamed my former travelling companion in taking it. So I did some renavigations and found a faint outline of who I was and where I was. I was going deeper into nowhere, but at least I was still travelling. It took a while, but I befriended some people, made some connections, and out of the blue, after two years of wandering aimlessly, I bumped into someone to travel with. Now, I've been able to travel extensively, take some photos, and the landscape is emerging beautifully.
In Ait-ben-haddu, I'm reaching the top of this kasbah. Again, I've left k behind, just as I did at the first kasbah, diving into a clutch of nicknackshack buildings. Here, I'm ambling along avenues of mudstone structures, gambolling goatlike up stones towards the peak, past closed structures, past rubbish hovels, and now at the same height as a tower, which holds four scruffy kids giggling down at tourists from their spy point. I watch a few minutes and wonder about life up here and soon it germinates a small story in my head of a young scruffy girl who plays with the other kids who live in the town below. They pester tourists with various antics, cheap tricks, begging, throwing big rocks that turn out to be styrofoam leftovers from the last Action Hero movie that struck camp, giving tours to hapless hikers and leaving them on the dark side of the kasbah with no way down, collecting pens and currency from all over the world, making scrunched up ugly faces to ruin artful photographers' perfect portraits. At night, they go home, except for the girl, who I decide will be a ghost of the hill, with no memory, and will be here until the rains wash the place away.