It’s been quite a while since I’ve written – over a year, in fact. And it has been quite the eventful year. Let me start from the beginning.
In the summer of 2019, shortly following my trip to Tunisia, I landed a job at a media agency based in Barcelona, Spain. The company specializes in the production of special economic country reports for magazines, such as Newsweek and Foreign Policy. The goal of these reports is to inform readers about opportunities in different countries as well as to attract foreign investors to certain economic sectors. The company I work for makes its revenues from paid advertisements from companies who want to take out space in these magazines. It’s a super interesting and extremely weird job, which has kept me on the road constantly and has kept me learning something new every day.
My first assignment was in Morocco. Thus, in September 2019 I found myself on a flight from Nice straight to Casablanca. I met my colleague (we work in teams of two), checked into the hotel, and suddenly found myself in the middle of a large, empty hotel room.
The first two weeks in Morocco were incredibly stressful as I learned the ins and outs of the job. I had to get SIM cards for our phones; find and hire a driver to take us to meetings around town in Casablanca; negotiate a long-term rate with the hotel; book train tickets to Rabat (the capital, about an hour away); file receipts and make daily budget reports. I was up early every morning in a suit and tie, on the road. I’m calling new companies to schedule interviews while I’m on my way to interview others. I’m meeting and networking with Ministers and the CEOs of the largest companies in the country, then transcribing those interviews while replying to emails to confirm interviews in the coming days. I would have big breakfasts because there was no time for lunch or dinner. No time for meals, even on weekends, and I was lucky to have 5 hours of sleep per night, while working from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep at my desk. I nearly burnt out in the first two weeks.
And then, all of a sudden… peace. Sweet, sweet peace. As suddenly as I had arrived, the project was called off, and my colleague was flown back to Spain. I was told to stay back and take care of a few housekeeping items. But as far as it concerned me, I had a nice hotel, a daily per diem, and only a couple hours of work per day. It was adventure time.
I zipped off to Rabat where I spent a couple days walking around and exploring. After a long day of taking pictures and getting lost in the kasbah, I found just what I needed. Just past the medina, jutting out into the Atlantic, I stumbled upon a surf shack straight out of the 80s: Replete with posters of Point Break, bronzed surfer dudes with long hair, and a single broken shower head, I knew this place was perfect. I paid a few euros for an afternoon of surfing and spent the rest of the day swimming towards the golden sun; the salt, sweat, and wind wiping away any remaining stress from the previous week. I swam until the sun met the horizon, reds and oranges beaming out across the waves and bathing Rabat’s medieval citadel in soft yellowish hues.
Back to Casablanca the next day, I furiously searched for my next adventure. Ara Guler once said “life is like an empty film. Try to fill each shot perfectly,” and I think that’s beautiful. Damn it, if I was only going to be there for one more week, I would make it count. Through some quick online searches, I found exactly what I was looking for: a five-gear motorbike, rented out by a French couple who owned a hostel a few minutes outside of the city center. I quickly made my way to the well-to-do neighborhood, with its sun-drenched white walls dripping in bougainvillea, the moist air fragrant with the scent of tropical flowers.
After a few friendly exchanges and some paperwork, I was ripping down the Boulevard de la Corniche with the Atlantic Ocean on my left, a big goofy grin on my face. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of riding a motorbike with the wind whipping through your hair. I stopped for lunch in Rick’s Café – a remake of the set from the famous movie Casablanca – and was served chicken tajine by a mustachioed man in a suit and a red fez.
After lunch, I paid a visit to the largest mosque in Africa, and the world’s seventh-largest: Hassan II mosque. Built in the early 1990s, this massive house of worship sits confidently in the middle of the Atlantic like a lighthouse for the faithful, a beacon of solace for the pious.
Gazing up at the imposing minaret, I began to feel oddly emotional. I recalled a visit here with my parents when I was 12, and it felt strange to be here by myself all these years later. Something about being here felt like I had come full circle. As a 12-year-old, I took my first truly good picture here, and I remember the pride in having captured the shot.
As a kid fascinated with foreign cultures, this is also the place where I had my very first encounter with Islam, and it was my first-ever visit to a mosque. I remember gazing in awe at the ceiling of this marvelous structure, the kaleidoscopic collision of colors adorning the walls. It was so different from the cathedrals and churches I was used to, so foreign and so beautiful. Here I was 15 years later, having chosen to live in Indonesia and Turkey and all of these distant, wonderful places, back to the point of where much of this began.
After a short moment of silent reflection, I hopped back on my bike, kicked into fifth, and sped down the coast to La Corniche, the upscale beach area. I had always had a vision in my mind of driving to the beach on a motorbike to go surfing. I’m not sure where I got such a specific idea. Maybe it was from a movie somewhere, but it’s always been in the back of my mind. These are some of life’s most fulfilling moments: when the pursuit of a vision becomes reality. When you have an adventurous goal in mind, and you completely smash it.
Sure enough, I found a surf club right on the beach, and I happily spent the rest of the afternoon embarrassing myself in front of much more experienced surfers. With my head help up high, I triumphantly returned my surfboard and sat down at the bar to top of the afternoon with an ice-cold beer, a hookah, and an ocean view. It doesn’t get much better than that.
With only a few days left in country before having to fly out, I decided it would be worth going to Marrakech; an old imperial city in the west. Marrakech has a reputation as an exotic, wild place, and I was excited to see what kind of photos I could take there. I headed into the heart of the medina, a dizzying and disorienting maze of little passages, narrow walls funneling people and livestock through alleyways hundreds of years old. The smell of leatherwork, mint coffee, horseshit and dust all converge into a smell which gives the passing traveler the impression that this smell has probably always been here, and always will be. I checked into my hostel, a small riad – a traditional Moroccan and Andalusian- style interior garden that acts as the centerpiece of the hotel. Excited to check out the old city, I dropped down my bags and immediately headed out.
After walking around and getting lost for a couple hours, I decided to check out the Museum of Photography of Marrakech. I had heard good things and figured it would be worth checking out. I was winding my way through the backstreets when I was approached by a guy a few years younger than me. He politely asked what I was looking for and offered to show me the way. After telling him my destination, he beckoned me to follow him and started up some friendly small talk. We started to weave through smaller and smaller streets, with less people on each turn that we took. My instincts suddenly warned me something was wrong, and the next few seconds took on a slow-motion effect.
I saw him reaching into his belt, his demeanor suddenly threatening as his eyes turned black and he pulled out a blade. “Do you want a problem?” he menaced. “Give me your money.”
I read somewhere that if you’re ever in a mugging situation, the best thing to do is to stay calm and even ease the tension with a non-sequitur comment or a joke. It is a high-adrenaline situation for both parties involved, and if you can remain in control of the situation you can defuse the tension. Luckily, I had no cash on me at the time. I pulled out my wallet and showed him it was empty.
“Sorry bro, I’m out of cash. Do you take credit?” I smiled.
After a series of insults, he simply tucked the blade back into his belt and walked the other way. Shaking, I walked the opposite way. I bummed a cigarette from someone and sat down, trying to smoke my nerves away. I always knew that at some point, this moment would come, but of course it’s never in the moment that you’re expecting. I was glad that it was over with.
I didn’t want to walk around alone anymore, so I went up to a rooftop for a sunset view of Jemaa el-Fna, the main square in the city where tourists mingle with snake charmers and fire spitters. I befriended some backpacker types – a Korean and a Norwegian – and told them what had happened. They chuckled, and traded their own “getting held up at knifepoint in a foreign country story” (the Korean in Rio, the Norwegian in Cape Town). Ever in solidarity, I felt thankful for the camaraderie of fellow travelers and adventure seekers. Drinking a mint tea, watching this ancient city settle into dusk, I felt grateful for yet another notch in my traveler’s belt.