From Morocco To America: One Rug, Many Memories

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about the surreal. As in, one of the most surreal experiences you’ve ever had. I’ve had more than my share; pretty sure I’ve at least mentioned almost drowning in Thailand, fighting a house fire, sleeping overnight in a deserted LAX, going to the top of Gibraltar, and going on a 900-mile road trip around Hawaii’s Big Island. But aside from a single photo – my only functional camera back then was an iPod 4 Touch – I haven’t mentioned my brief time in Morocco.

Back in early 2011, I was lucky enough to take a trip with my mother to Málaga. Most tourists traveling to Spain would rather spend their time in Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville. While we got to see that last one, I didn’t particularly mind. It was only my second time in Europe, and it was Pablo Picasso’s home town. No way I’d turn that down. If anything, I was more concerned with Mom. Back then, she and I approached vacations quite differently; she was typically spur-of-the-moment and incessantly pestered locals with questions, while I was a methodical planner and standoffish. We’ve both mellowed over the last few years. She’s far more willing to listen to my advice and navigation, and I’m bolder and more random in my adventures. But back then? We could barely agree on where to go for dinner.

Tension mounted when Mom found and signed us on with local tour group going to Morocco. I chafed at the idea; we’d been in Spain for only a day and a half, and she already wanted to visit another country? It was a foolish sentiment in retrospect – these days I’d kill for a $50 trip to another continent – but I was more concerned with logistics. How long would it take to get there? What would we see? Can the people running this tour group be trusted? Where is the American embassy in case something happens? Our cell phones didn’t work; how would we find each other in case we got separated? These questions are kind of important. This was happening in May 2011; the Arab Spring was just getting underway in Morocco. Mom just shrugged and said to roll with whatever happens, and I inwardly cringed and prepared for the worst.

The bus arrived around dawn. Two hours later, we were on board a ferry at Tarifa – a serious contender for the Windiest Port Ever – and en route to Tangier. For all you curious San Francisco Bay Area commuters out there, it was comparable to going from the Ferry Building to Jack London Square; nice accommodations, a little crowded, and far too brief. After taking another bus into the older part the city – the protests hadn’t reached that far yet – we stopped and had lunch. Not only was there live belly dancing, but the host generously gave me a little bundle of their spices after I asked and complimented the food. Didn’t declare that when I went through customs…

Afterwards, all that was left for the afternoon was exploring the medina. Take your favorite farmer’s market, multiply it by a hundred, and you’ll get a sense of what it was like. I could spend months exploring all the nooks and crannies. Everywhere you turned, there was another ancient arch, mosaic, stairs, and art. It’s more than a shopping area; this place has survived more than 2,000 years, maintaining the heritage and culture of its people. Like any typical American kid raised on Safeway and Costco, I was pretty sheltered when it came to shopping abroad. This section of Tangier rocked my world. It seemed to stretch on infinitely, each stand and counter crammed with every food and item imaginable. To this day, I still recommend the medina for anyone looking for fresh food; it may not be shrink-wrapped, but you’ll never find such an amazing and delicious selection anywhere else. I looked at Mom to see how she was taking it.

That’s when things started getting weird.

Like I said, Mom wasn’t exactly the planning type. But I didn’t know the extent of it until I realized she’d traveled to Africa fully decked out in heels and jewelry. It was like having a big, neon, “Look at me, I’m a rich American!” sign on her back. The local peddlers certainly noticed; we had a small group of people trying to sell her stuff the moment we were outside. Unlike other tourist-driven places, these vendors didn’t give up when we walked away; they kept following us. That’s worrisome, as my mother is about 4’10” and could be easily confronted or even grabbed by an aggressive passerby. I’m normally spared that kind of attention; aside from being a guy, my olive skin tone usually lets me pretend to be a local. But not here. I was bombarded with offers, especially for cigarettes. After being turned down, one grizzled old fellow just laughed and said, “Do not worry! I know America! I come to Alabama with a banjo on me knee!

I didn’t fully appreciate how weird that moment was until later. I was halfway around the world, deep in a foreign port, trying to keep an eye on my mother, surrounded by merchants, and being heckled by an old man singing the lyrics to Oh! Susanna. It was quickly forgotten, though. Mom had to use the restroom, and the only option was to allow one of our guide’s assistants escort her to one nearby. I could only watch in silent apprehension as she disappeared around a corner, and hope I was just being paranoid. I stayed with the tour for another half an hour, but she still hadn’t returned. I was about to talk to the guide, when we entered a stylish rug showroom. The Moroccan rug industry is huge; vintage works go for thousands online. But there I was, right at the source. In middle of it all, my mother was haggling with the merchant. Apparently, she’d decided to skip ahead of the group, went shopping, and wanted to buy one of the most expensive souvenirs ever.

I understand why Mom wanted it. It was a beautiful piece of handwoven art. The intricate patterns of browns and blacks were absolutely stunning. It could’ve been put on exhibit in a museum. However, it was also bigger than any floor in her house; at best, she’d have to hang it on a wall. I briefly tried talking her out of it, but she hadn’t spent all of that time negotiating with the merchant for nothing. They offered a special shipping service to America – for an extra fee, of course – but Mom politely turned him down and said we’d take it back ourselves. And by that, she meant me. How much she spent on it was her business, but getting it back home was suddenly mine. The merchant was kind enough to get the rug bundled, but nothing else. So, I awkwardly lugged 50-plus lbs of luxurious, authentic Moroccan rug through the bustling streets of Tangier, onto the bus, across the Strait of Gibraltar via ferry, and another bus back to Málaga. It was kind of like backpacking…if your backpack was huge, off-balance, and didn’t have any practical use. I got quite a few confused stares and questions from fellow travelers, but I could only shrug wearily and say it was Mom’s idea.

Getting the rug out of Morocco was tricky enough. But getting it to America required some Tetrisstyle puzzle solving. You think getting bags checked is tedious? Try smuggling a rug sometime.The only feasible option was to somehow cram the rug in Mom’s rolling luggage bag, but there wasn’t enough room for her clothes and toiletries. I tend to pack light, so there was just enough room for her stuff in my bag. It took a few tries (and a sacrifice of two boxes of chocolates, sadly), but we got it to work. At the end of the week, we got our hidden treasure through customs in Madrid and checked in with the airline without any extra charges. We thought we were home free…until we got back to SFO and discovered that the rug had gone missing in transit. Because it just couldn’t be that easy. I think I was more livid than Mom at that point; I hadn’t hauled that thing all the way from Africa for it to simply disappear. It was eventually found and delivered the next day, and my mother finally got the rug she’d wanted.

…It’s currently sitting in storage, bundled in the same rope it came with. Four years later, and she still hasn’t touched it.

That used to annoy me, of course. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate that surreal, wonderful trip for the sake of experience. If it weren’t for Mom diving headlong into things, I don’t know if I’d ever set foot in Africa, let alone make such a bizarre adventure otherwise. I’m thankful for it; sometimes the greatest adventures are the ones you never expect.

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6 thoughts on “From Morocco To America: One Rug, Many Memories

  1. I already “liked” this story posted on another website (linking to yours here, but a bit confusing).

    I’m glad to find the actual author page so that I can send my appreciation for your recall and telling of this tale; like the rug, its threads form an interesting pattern. How you describe place and people, the cultural aspects, is most interestingly realized in the mother and son—how their two “cultures” manage to get along. Thank you. It’s a memorable piece. It could be written as a play. You’re in San Francisco? Consider it! (and let me know if it’s ever staged)

    • I’m glad you liked it! And yes, I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area. I don’t know much about writing plays – I’m more of an essay and novel kind of guy – but it’d be interesting to do. Wonder if Mom would let me borrow the rug for a prop…Thanks for stopping by the blog!

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