MOROCCO, SPAIN AND GREECE
...a recent 6-week trip taken by Cameron Powers... summer of 2000...
Exotic destinations, don't you think?
Here were the ideas:
Morocco... Gee, I've been to Egypt and had my fun connections singing and playing Abdul Halim's "Sawah" on my oud with a party full of villagers on the west bank of Luxor... But Egypt is into enough fundamentalist control to make life hard on dancers and musicians. How about Morocco? When my Moroccan friend Nabil extended connections to his family in Fes, how could I refuse? My son Loren and his girlfriend Lila, who plays marvelous violin, had invited me to travel to Fes to attend the World Sacred Music Festival... How could I refuse?
"It will be hot," Nabil had warned me... "But it's the kind of heat that makes you feel good," he added...
"Now just what kind of heat could that be...?" I wondered.
Spain... My armenian-american musician friends Souren Baronian and Haig Manoukian have been stopping to play in Spain for years... Granada, Sevilla, Andalucia... Flamenco... It all ties into the music... Plus, I can relax in the warm waters of a language I am comfortable in: Spanish!
Greece... Oh my God! I haven't been to Greece in 19 years! My children are half Greek. Their grandmother is still alive in Athens! She is 90. How much longer can she last? Coincidentally, my ex-Greek-wife, Leda, planned a trip to see her mother during the same overlapping period of time. My son and I would travel together to see his grandmother and I would re-awaken the Greek part of my soul...
"When you learn a new language, you gain a new soul," my father had told me. Indeed I had spent a year's time in Greece surrounded by Greeks; learning their language... even helping to translate Leda's ex-Greek-husband's novel into English... I wonder if I really still speak Greek...?
And all these years of singing Arabic song lyrics for the belly dancers without knowing what I was saying had led at last to a real desire to study Arabic. After all, I spent my 20's travelling and studying the Inca language in Peru... Arabic can't be that much harder...
They lost my baggage, not quite all of it, in Amsterdam. The baggage vortex... dozens of passengers arrived in Casablanca with their baggage lost in Amsterdam. Loren, my 23-year-old son had arrived 9 days earlier in Casablanca with the intention of travelling immediately south down the coast to the pleasant coastal town of Essouaira. He would then return 4 days later to meet Lila. They would then move on to Fes. I would join them there in time for the beginning of the Sacred Music Festival. But they lost his baggage, all of it, in Amsterdam. He slept in the airport with his bare legs wrapped in wet toilet paper to discourage the voracious mosquitos on his first night, then plunged into 10 consecutive days of baggage hell in Casablanca. It took them 3 days to find his missing goods. It took them 5 days to find mine. Somewhat paralyzed, making constant trips to the airport in response to the hopeful: "Oh they found your luggage, it will be on flight such and such...." "Sorry... Maybe tomorrow..."
All of the notes and contact information made in preparation: Nabil's family's phone numbers, contacts with other musicians in Morocco, Spain and Greece... all lost in Ireland, London, Paris... ...God knows where KLM and Transavia airlines sent my stuff, a thousand curses upon them both! Thank God for Air Morocco. They finally got my baggage on one of their planes, although I had never even flown with them, and it arrived 2 days after I had given up in Casablanca and moved on to Fes.
Here's the thing: I had decided "why not travel in a little more luxury this time? Take my laptop, stay in touch with music and poetry projects, maybe enjoy some air conditioning..." I had some memories of my hotel room as sanctuary/music practice room from a recent trip to Puerto Vallarta... I'm not as young as I used to be... This "benign" heart arhythmia I've developed: atrial fibrillation... Hey, with my 2 tablets of medication a day I seem to stay in rhythm... Part of my basic motivation for being 6 weeks on the road was to test my ability to undertake adventure with a little medicine and technological comforts as my ally...
Somehow I assumed I would get my baggage back and the fact that I only had 10 days worth of the heart rhythm medication with me wasn't worrying me. After all, I figured, surely I could order more through some pharmacy...
"Dad," my son Loren said, "you'd better cover all the bases. Part of the reason I'm staying with you here in Casablanca to help you retrieve your luggage is because I'm worried about what would happen to you if you ran out of medication..."
"You're right, I'll get right on it," I said.
So I sent e-mails from the local internet cafe to a friend back home to have some medication shipped to Fes.
It's like the trip hasn't really even had a chance to begin yet! Here we are in Morocco but we're obsessed with lost luggage and can't really focus on anything else...
Finally, with all luggage and meds in hand we can be in Morocco!
Call Nabil's family. Meet his brother, Imad. Very friendly and speaks a good bit of English. Morocco was tough for us linguistically. If you don't know Arabic or French, well... A few folks, mostly people under 30 years old, have studied some English. Imad took us to his home where he lives with his father, Abdrafie, his mother, Malika, and his sister, Btisami. There, we were treated to a warm welcome and a chance for Lila and I to play Egyptian Um Kalthoum pieces which we and Nabil's father all know... Abdrafie plays both violin and oud.
At our hotel, the Cascade, situated right inside the main gate, Bab Bujloud, to the most ancient part of Fes, Fes el Bali, we immediately met young Moroccans excited about our musicianship. We played on the roof of the hotel, watching huge flocks of swallows swirl through the evening skies.
"I want to invite you to my house," says Ali.... These are no empty invitations. Out of 11 or 12 nights spent in Fes, we spend 3 of them partying 'till 4:00am with young men we have met near the hotel, and 3 nights at Nabil's family's house, feasting and playing music, all the while "chatting" as best we could in our rudimentary combinations of arabic, french and english.
They all knew songs like Abdul Halim's "Sawah", Farid al-Atresh's "Hibbina", popular Mohammed Abdul Wahab pieces and of course Um Kalthoum-sung pieces like Daret el Ayam. We all sang together; the young men danced and when I began my vocal improv "mawal" "ya leili ya leili ya..." I was greeted by choruses of "Allah, Allah"... I knew I had found the right mix of traditional form and personal ecstasy. Two young guys, Majid and Mohammed took turns with me playing oud and I was astounded to hear their mastery on the instrument. That also freed me to add some elementary nay taxims, something I'm sneaking up on, not generally ready to perform... They provided such a receptive efforts for my efforts that I couldn't help but just laugh and laugh... ... not the best condition in which to play the nay, but oh well... ... which is more important... the music or the laughter? Lila was able to perform many of the pieces along with me on her violin. Young Moroccan women were not present at these gatherings, but they could be seen from time to time listening outside the windows.
Nabil's father, Abdrafie, played only Um Kalthoum pieces... We played and replayed the ones I knew and worked on some of the ones I didn't. We grew very fond of each other. Gradually, as our visits increased, the feeling of warmth grew with all of his family members although really Imad was the only one we could speak with. For lack of verbal connection we just kept picking up our ouds and violins. Abdrafie came to Fes el Bali from time to time to seek us out at our hotel. I was unable to keep up with all the invitations, partly because I got nailed at one point with the local dysentery and had to lie in my 100 plus degree hotel room with a 102 degree fever... this is not the kind of heat that "feels good"... I think maybe you have to be either younger or from the tropics to know what kind of heat Nabil thinks "feels good"...
The Sacred Music concerts proceded, usually two of them a day for ten days: Moroccan singer Karima Skalli, Moroccan oud master, Said Chraibi plus orchestra; Tunisian singer and oud master Loutfi Bouchnak; Pakistani Qawwali group, Rizwan et Muazin Mujahid Ali Khan; Angelique Ionatos singing from the Greek compositions of Mikis Theodorakis; the incredible dervishes of Kurdistan, Iran, who danced and played themselves into another world of rapid rythmic breathing and whiplash spinal motions; the beautiful Hindu voice of Aruna Sairam, female goddess incarnate from India and France; a French/Spanish/Gypsy orchestra, Tekameli; a mixture of Moroccan Islamic and French Christian religious chants performed at the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, an hour's drive from Fes; Hassidic chants of Karoline Zaidline from France; an energetic performance by a Moroccan rabbi, Haim Louk, who now resides in the USA, backed up by the 30 piece Moroccan orchestra of Mohamed Briouel... traditional Jewish/Arabic/Andalousian music which sounded primarily Arabic to me; the magical Algerian womens' chants of Houria Aichi, who now resides in Paris; an Al Jilal style band from Morocco which brought in the largest Moroccan audience; the Moroccan takht Attourat, the traditional Egyptian-style orchestra of Abderrahman Kazzoul.... there was a little more which I did not see, like Bobby Jones and the Campbell Brothers from the USA...
Carrie, a 23 year old girl who sings with me in Boulder arrived just in time for the last concert and to see a little of Fes. Loren and Lila left for Marakech and Essouaira. Carrie and I waited another day or two in Fes for the arrival of my package of medicine. It arrived. The carrier DHL told me the import tax on my own medicine would be the equivalent of eighty dollars. Since I now had retrieved my original full supply of medicine with my baggage and no longer needed to extra, I refused to pay the tax and told them to return it to sender. At last free of reasons to wait longer in Fes, I was eager to be on the train. A hungry ATM machine ate my VISA debit card on that same night... a friday... Furious, I vacillated between deciding to wait until monday and retrieve my card when the bank opened and saying the hell with it and abandoning the card. I chose to abandon the card. For the entire remainder of the trip I called VISA and Bank One help lines from wherever and whenever I could and was generally given strange runarounds in strange terminologies: "...your card has been charged out"...
"Does that mean that someone could steal it and use it? It was lost in an ATM machine."
"Sir, I said that your card has been charged out, there's nothing further I can do..."
"What does 'charged out' mean?"
"Sir, I can't help you any more..." click...
That would be a typical conversation when I could finally get through to the supposed right source, something I never did manage to achieve from Morocco. From Spain it was more possible to find phones that worked internationally.
What about American women in Morocco? How was it for them? We'll have to ask Carrie and Meagan how their second trip through the country went but it looked to me like Carrie was having a good time attracting young Moroccan men. They seemed generally to be pretty honorable and polite. The society has clear codes of honor woven into it. Last I heard, if one of them got so far out of line as to ask for a kiss, she would let him know that that wasn't the game... Generally it looked to me like Western women were enjoying their special status as honored guests. Moroccan women were buried in the families and seldom seen at the music parties. It seems like the arab/berber culture worships the feminine but doesn't give it much room to breathe. It's very hard to fathom what really is going on. The women generally look beautiful and well cared for.
Amongst the guys at the bottom of the social chain, the shoeshine boys, the beggars, we saw a lot of violence. Sitting at an outdoor restaurant in Fes, in the nouveau ville, the new part of town, I was amazed to watch the violent shoving and kicking between rival shoeshine boys. And these boys were in their late teens or early twenties. They had missing front teeth and generally seemed battered by not only each other, but also by the restaurant owners who would periodically attempt to chase them away. We learned the hard way that if you give a beggar a coin or a morsel of food from a restaurant you are inadvertantly inciting a violent scene. Word gets out amongst the beggars that you are willing to give, hoards of them show up and this incites violent attacks from the restaurant managers who don't want their places surrounded by these beggars.
The "friendly" slaps and punches young men exchange in their competitive bonding play (you know what I mean?) was much more violent in Morocco than many other places. Struggle for position on the totem pole, the hierarchy of local neighborhood power, was intense, somewhat frightening to watch.
An all-night train plus an all-day bus brought Carrie and me into Essouaira, where cool Atlantic sea breezes refreshed us out of the exhausted stupor induced by the 100 degree heat of the interior. World class wind-surfers criss-crossed the bay by day like swarms of gossamer winged insects skimming the water. Loren and Lila tucked into their hotel room. Carrie fished the market streets until she found a handsome young Moroccan to escort her to Tangiers so that she could move on to Spain and connect with Meagan. I found myself strangely lonely in Essouaira. I didn't find the musician community and didn't have the motivation to search since I knew we would be there only 2 or 3 days. I resigned myself to enjoying the coolness, sending some e-mails to various friends from the local internet café, and exploring the harbor. I became the target of the usual tourist hustlers who tried to lure me into the fish restaurants and the craft shops. Their energies were lost on me but I found it annoying. It seemed there were some overly stoned and destitute young Moroccans stumbling through the streets at night. Maybe Essouaira would be a great place to be with your lover. For me it didn't have the variety and magic of Fes. Oh but how welcome was the coolness!
We moved on to Marakech. The plaza was the highlight for us. We spent one night there wandering amid the snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, musicians and dancers. Drawn to a circle of belly dancers who appeared in the early evening I felt somehow hesitant to interact with a veiled beauty who approached me wanting to dance. A deeper look into the eyes above the veil revealed that "she" was a guy. I checked it out: most of the dancers were guys! I did see one female dancer whipping her spine back in forth to the music breathing herself into sufi ecstacy. Later that night, Lila and I wound our way through the plaza with our tape recorders surreptitiously recording the sounds of the circus. A few tourists were sprinkled through the crowd, but the vast majority of the gawking crowd were Moroccans. Lila was dogged by henna girls who would create decorations on her arms and then try and charge their fee. This extraordinary version of the Boulder Mall has apparently been seething with this activity every night for hundreds of years.
Our visit to Marakech was sandwiched with interminable confusion and waits for buses and trains. I vowed to ship my laptop and every additional ounce of extra stuff back home to Colorado as soon as possible.
Now ready to move on, tired of dealing with our limited Arabic and French, I felt ready for Spain. Another too-crowded all night train ride brought us to Tangiers. Early morning running the gauntlet through random ticket sales and customs checks landed us on a ferry to Algeciras, Spain. Then a bus to Jerez, where thanks to previous e-mail communications, we managed to rendezvous with Carrie and Meagan.
A tiny but neat hotel room serves as home base for the next 3 days or so. Meagan introduces us to her Gypsy boyfriend, the triumph of her 6 month stay. We did play some of our Armenian and Arabic songs in one of the town parks one night. Meagan and Carrie both knew lyrics from our band's repertoire back in Boulder. Meagan's Gypsy friend wanted to try singing his flamenco style over the tsifti oud accompaniment I was playing. Freelance videographers with impressively professional equipment asked our permission to tape us as we played... For the next two nights Carrie and Meagan stayed out 'till the wee hours at the local discos. So much for live music.
It wasn't until I moved on to Granada that I had a chance to hear a live Flamenco show. Although it was packaged for tourists and I'm sure lacked the passion of a family get-together, for me it was at least something.
Loren and Lila headed off to Malaga to spend some alone time before their impending two week separation. Leaving her beloved Gypsy community behind at last, Meagan led us on to Granada. Once settled into our hotel, Carrie wandered out into the streets and attracted another Moroccan fellow who proved to be generous enough to invite all three of us to his brother's apartment for an afternoon meal. Once again we found ourselves in the company of a group of 5 or 6 young Moroccan men who seemed happy to while away the hours discussing all the details of the modern world and the history which has preceded it... as best as we could in our assorted languages. At least here in Spain I had a fighting chance of carrying on conversations, since my Spanish actually works. Loren also was back in a familiar linguistic environment.
Of course an underlying element of our new young Moroccan friend's sociability was his desire to eventually ask Carrie if he could have just one kiss. Upon being told no it seemed like the friendship cooled a bit, but more from Carrie's end than from his. I was struck by how intimately they invited us into their home, encouraging us to look through the personal photos in their rooms, listen to the koranic recordings and other favorite music tapes. They made me a present of a cassette of a popular Lebanese singer I seemed to like.
Eventually we tired from the effort of cross-cultural communication and took our leave. They seemed to understand that we had reached our limits and said goodbye. But it was a very interesting and pleasant adventure which reminded us of the friendly nature of Moroccans in general. I did not find the Spaniards to be similarly inviting.
Loren and Lila had travelled to Malaga from Jerez in search of beach time alone together. When Carrie and Meagan left Granada for Morocco, I decided to go down to Malaga. They had been enjoying themselves and had even had some time for the beach, although it seemed that Lila had over-cooked herself a bit. They were ready to move on so we rented a car for four days which was to be delivered in Barcelona, our final Spanish destination.
Returning to Granada, Loren and Lila took in the elegance of Alhambre. I had already visited and found it to have an incredible tranquility. Surrounded indoors by inconceivable quantities of elaborate inlays and carved geometric shapes and outdoors by the most beautiful pools and gardens I have ever seen, I felt like just sitting down to soak it into my senses. Others were similarly struck and doing the same.
I found another Moroccan musician: Uzman Al Murabet. His name had been given to me by Souren Baronian. Uzman amazed me with his oud technique: he could sound like Riyad al Soumbati, the incredible Egyptian composer. Uzman runs a teahouse and a music school there in Granada. I would love to go back there and study with him. We sang a number of Egyptian songs together.
We moved on to Alacante, a summer resort back on the Mediterranean coast. I spent the evening in search of some form of live music and ran into nothing but walls of disco/techno beat. Elegant yachts moored in the harbors reminded us that multimillionaires must be wandering in our midst.
The next day, we drove further north and decided to spend the night in La Cava, a small village. Hoping to avoid the parking problems of larger cities, we pulled up in front of a small hotel. Indeed, the hotel owner and his wife served us a late dinner and befriended us as villagers are wont to do. Feeling reconnected to the simple things in life, we wandered through marshes the next day in search of wildlife preserves hoping to see the flamingoes promised by our hotelkeeper friend. Oh well, I guess the flamingoes were out to lunch on that day but the peace of the countryside did settle into us a little bit.
Arriving in Barcelona, the second largest city in Spain, we plunged back into the urban. Negotiating traffic and finding a hotel before turning in the rental car was another ordeal. Loren ran from hotel to hotel while I violated parking rules until we succeeded in establishing a foothold in the city. Barcelona is the home of Gaudi, the incredible architect who designed the cathedral called Sagrada Familia. The tall slender spires rising in clusters high into the sky was like fantasyland... eat your heart out Walt Disney... The main street, Rambla, supposedly the most visited street in Spain, was filled with the same kinds of silver and gold painted moving human statues made famous in San Francisco. Exotic bird vendors lined the edges of the street with their incredible selection of species availiable in cages. Not so exotic to my eyes were the caged chipmunks, imported from who knows where, maybe the American West.
Rick and Peter, members of Lila's band, "The Pickpocket Ensemble", arrived from San Francisco. They had paused in London to rent an accordion and a full sized upright bass. Travelling in trains, taxis and buses across Europe with the bass was no mean feat. I had just sent my laptop and every ounce of unnecessary baggage home from the post office in Jerez. Looking at Peter struggling to haul that huge instrument made me cringe with empathy. I learned that he had somehow had his pocket picked along the way. The Eurorail pass he was transporting for Lila had fallen prey to the thieves along with other of his valuables.
Rick told us he had a connection to a village party that evening. "Could be fun," we thought... "Also an opportunity to hear the Pickpocket Ensemble perform," I thought...
"Should I bring my oud?" I asked Rick.
"Absolutely," he replied, "I want to hear what you and Lila play together."
Lila had played with my band in Boulder for a year or two so we shared a certain amount of middle eastern and balkan repertoire.
As we drove toward the train station in a taxi, Rick mentioned that we would spend the night.
"Not such a good idea," I said. "Loren and I must check out of our hotel by noon tomorrow so we can depart for a long train trip across France and Italy to Greece tomorrow evening. We've already bought the tickets."
But assuming the nearby village was probably only fifteen or twenty minutes out of Barcelona and that we could take a taxi back late that night if necessary, we went ahead and boarded the train.
Crowded as usual, the passenger car yielded free seats in a scattered pattern. After settling into my seat for a few minutes, Loren came to me and revealed that Peter had had his pocket picked again as he boarded the train, losing the remainder of his valuables: drivers license, credit cards, etc... He suspected one of two black guys who were seated in the car. He was requesting my help because I was the one most fluent in Spanish. I looked at the black african kid sitting across the aisle from me, one of the "suspects." Noticing that I was looking at him he returned my gaze and gave me a sweet childish smile.
"This is not the guy," all of my intuition told me.
I talked with Peter. Rick, whose day job was apparently as a prosecutor in the legal profession, had encouraged him to accost these gentlemen. We acknowledged the delicacy of the situation but he pleaded for me to help him question the "suspects."
The conductor, a middle aged woman, told us that we should file a police report. "But what if he thinks he knows who it is and he's still on the train?" I asked her.
"I'll call ahead to the police," she said.
The train stopped at a small town. The other "suspect" got off. Peter got off behind him and motioned for me to follow. Reluctant to be involved, feeling like if I had been Peter I would have taken my lumps and not risked accusing a possibly innocent person, I was slow to respond. Eventually, out of a sense of compatriot duty to Peter, I followed him out onto the platform. He had stopped the black man up near the front of the train and motioned for me to translate.
"When he got onto the train carrying his bass, someone picked his pocket," I explained.
"He thinks maybe it was you," I explained, feeling like I'm in some civil rights movie playing the part of one of two white guys accusing some innocent black guy.
"You think just because of the color of my skin that I must be a thief? I sell clothing for a living." He pointed to the two large bundles he was carrying.
"Excuse me," I added, "I have simply been asked to translate because I speak Spanish..."
He gave me an understanding smile.
"How could I have picked someone's pocket while carrying all this stuff?"
Peter indicated that he wanted him to show us what was in his pockets.
The train accelerated out of sight, with Loren, Lila, Rick and all of our possessions aboard.
He showed us that his pockets contained only his own wallet, not someone else's. Peter apologized profusely and we went our separate ways.
It took an hour in a taxi on winding mountainous roads to complete the journey to Vals, a distance the train had been apparently able to cover in only fifteen more minutes. So much for the idea of returning easily the same evening in a taxi.
We squatted and chatted on the steps of the train station in Vals until Rick's friend, an American with a Spanish wife, showed up in his car to pick us up. Another half hour ride carried us further into the countryside, a lovely place to go... if only we didn't have to be back in Barcelona before noon. The village picnic turned out to be small and fun. I got to hear the Pickpocket Ensemble perform and others got to hear me and Lila play some Egyptian pieces.
The pearl in this gritty oyster of an evening turned out to be a man named Ricard Margarit. He has a musical instrument making studio there in the village in which he turns out violins and guitars with sympathetic string sets (a la Indian sitar) built in. I quote from his web page (www.tetracord.com):
Tetracord embodies the ideals of autonomy in producing both its own instruments and its own music. It invites the collaboration of anyone in tune with these aims, of anyone interested in working in the cause of good music, at a moment when hi-tech abuse, show-business and repetitive robotic rhythms are conspiring to undernourish the collective musical soul, by hypnotizing the musical audience into states of either neurotic frenzy or dull, almost comatose cerebral shutdown.
So there: a true soulmate discovered. I had the honor of grabbing my three hours of sleep in his workshop late that night. I encourage any of you musician friends to get in touch with him. Keep your eyes and ears out for musicians Zoltan Lantos -- violin, Georgy Olshanetsk -- guitar and Xavier Turull -- percussion, who are performing and recording using instruments made by Ricard... Check out their CD named "Nadir"....another minor miracle manifesting right here before our eyes on this very planet...
Rick's American friend was kind enough to rise with us at 6:30 am and deliver us to the train. We made it back to Barcelona before noon, checked out of our hotel room; Loren parted company from his beloved Lila and he and I went to the wrong station (quite a long walk actually) in order to leave on our train for France and Italy. Fortunately a shuttle connected us to the correct station and soon we were fifteen minutes away from boarding. We had spent over two hundred dollars for a sleeping compartment which would bring us to Milan by mid-morning the next day. Deciding to pull my passport out of my pack to have it ready, I discovered: that it wasn't there! With growing disbelief and apprehension I realized that the little pouch in which I kept my passport, my travellers checks and my $100 emergency stash of cash was not there. Surely it must be buried somewhere in the depths of my pack! Without finding it should I get on the train? What if we get to Italy and they send us back to Spain? Booking space on this train must be done several days in advance of departure... ...better just get on the train and gamble that I'll get through...
At each destination we faced another moment of truth... The conductor was kind enough to accept a photocopy, which fortunately I had made of my passport only a few days before, which he kept along with Loren's passport to ensure that we didn't get off the train somewhere in France during the night. He told us to report the theft, which must have occurred from our hotel room in Barcelona during the night when we inadvertantly were gone to the village, when we arrived in Milan. With much scribbling in quintuplicate, since the local police post's copy machine was down, we reported the theft. They told us to go to Rome and have the US Embassy issue a fresh passport. A phone call to the American Express office in the USA yielded the comment, "they won't let you into Greece from Italy without a passport..."
"What does some guy in an office back in the States know...?" I mused. Not eager to trade intended precious time in Greece for days of stagnation in Rome unless absolutely necessary, I decided to gamble again. Using one of our remaining credit cards (remember my principal debit card into my main account had been eaten by the hungry ATM 'way back in Fes), we snagged a little Italian cash. Loren bought an ugly looking cellophane wrapped cheese sandwich and I settled for a Coke. We bought tickets and boarded the 10 hour train for Brindisi.
All day we took turns crouching in more and less (mostly less) comfortable spots in the aisles and compartments, occasionally doing battle over the placement of our packs. (Whoever shoves theirs in first wins.) Hungry as hell we parsed our little stash of Italian money into little packages of cookies. Toward the end of the ride I hung in the food car drooling over stuff I simply didn't have the cash to buy.
Arriving in Brindisi at 10:00 pm, we stumbled onto the platform and followed the signs saying "Ferry to Greece." Yes, the boat leaves in half an hour... no time to look for food now... gee... this could be the moment when they send us back to Spain... or... maybe, just maybe, we'll be lucky... Hiking from the Ferry boat ticket office to the mystery location from which the shuttle bus was about to leave took another 20 or 30 minutes... Once aboard the shuttle we held on tight while the driver screamed through the harbor trying to make it to the boat in time... Zooming past customs offices either closed or politely pretending not to notice us we... you guessed it... simply walked onto the boat. I sat in an obscure corner while Loren surrendered his passport in exchange for a key to our room... Gee... guess I'm a stowaway...
Now: food. Yes, you can get Greek money and from the guy at the window... And yes, the cafeteria's still open... And damn that tastes good... We chugged out of the harbor. We slept a bit and at 7:00 o'clock in the morning we docked on the island of Corfu... Surely here they will discover that I have no passport... Too bad to have made it this far and then.... But: you guessed it... the boat docks, the ramps are lowered, the passengers simply wander into town. Again, we stride past customs offices which appear to be still closed in the early morning...
I'm in Greece! Jeez, Loren, what say we stay here for a couple of days and make up for the last 3 nights of mostly lost sleep? Sounds good. We rent a car, read our Lonely Planet guidebook, and drive across the island to Pelekas. Hotel room. Lots of sleep. Grocery stores, trips to the beaches... Restaurants with incredible views near Makrades and Krini. And yes... I really can speak Greek. So even when they spoke to me in English, I replied in Greek. How satisfying to exercise those old brain and heart parts... Painful too... But that's ok... When you're in Greece you're supposed to feel some of the pains of life....
And yes, the food... Getting cocky, I started assuming I had recovered from a previously acquired allergy to olive oil. Pouring it more and more liberally on my salads I sowed the seeds of truly incredible pain.
Realizing that we could fly to Athens in 30 minutes for only $40 apiece, we abandoned further plans of oversea and overland travel and plunged into Athens. Stumbling through the wrong neighborhoods for a couple of hours due to the fact that there are two "eleftheria" plazas in Athens, we eventually found Loren's grandma's apartment where Loren's mother, Leda, my ex-wife, was also staying for the summer. Walking and riding through the streets of Athens after so long an absence was a strange dream: oh yeah! There's Likavitos, the only hill in the middle of the city which one can climb daily to keep in shape and some sense of the outdoors...
What a joy to see Loren's grandmother, Elli... But what a miserable situation she lives in. Now blind and 90 years old she endures the heat, noise and mosquitoes of her little apartment in the summertime... housebound due to her blindness... dependent on others... She somehow remains cheerful while sharing the bad news that the doctor says her heart's still in great shape. She would rather die now, she asserts... Some things, like life and death, are beyond our control.
I called my old musician friend, Rowan Storm. Taking Loren and Leda with me, I journeyed across town to spend the first of several evenings with her and her friends. I took my oud. Rowan played percussion. We were on their apartment rooftop in Exarchia, the exact same part of town I had lived in during my first visit to Greece.
During the next few days I replaced my lost passport and lost travellers checks. I also endured increasing pain as my throat turned redder, lumpier and produced dozens of oozing white blisters. Only by playing music or by wandering the streets could I distract myself from the constant searing pain. Damn. I had been down this road a year earlier at home in Boulder, Colorado. Somehow, in my ecstasy of love for olive oil, I had overdone it and created a horrible allergy. Now I was faced with being in Greece unable to eat Greek food. If I ate in restaurants I had to plead with the waiters and cooks to make something olive oil-free for me. This does not come naturally to them and many times I was forced to simply eat at McDonalds.
The 100 degree heat and the mosquitoes and the throat pain combined and created discomfort I could only imagine relief from by activating the next part of our trip plan: a trip to one of the aegean islands. Another short airplane flight brought Loren and I to Samos, only 1200 meters from the coast of Turkey. In fact from the beach at Psili Amos I could look across to Kusadasa, a town in Turkey where I had enjoyed playing oud in a local restaurant the previous year... Again reading our guidebooks we rented a car and drove across the island to the village of Kokkari, settled into a little hotel and began to seek out island musical events: panayiria. A migraine headache, surely left over from Athenian stresses and strains, laid me up for the first night. But Loren attended the local late night outdoor festival and came back reporting having seen a live band with bouzouki, violin, keyboard and drums. The following night hundreds of villagers assembled to dance again. This time a different band: bouzouki, bass and keyboard with damn, you guessed it, drum machine in place of live drummer... It's true: they've killed the music. The musicians sit back and just chime in on top of the never ending never changing electronic beat (yes the same "repetative robotic rhythms" mentioned on Ricard's web page)... On two other nights we tracked down village music festivals on Samos and watched hundreds of people dance... but we never found another live drummer.... always the same disco sounding beat, even it was programmed in 7/8 or 9/8... Amazing! The songs were mostly the same songs they were playing 30 years ago! Just anaesthetized by the drum machine innoculation.... deadly soporific virus... The dancers worked hard to acquire their energy in spite of the horrible repetition... What are they doing? Going through the traditional motions: the traditional feelings and styles of zembekika, tsamika, kalamatiana, syrta... only once did they play tsiftitelli... suddenly sexy... everything changed... the Greek belly dance license was issued during just that one song... only one thing: the girls only dared dance with the girls and the guys only dared dance with the guys... yes, the guys entwined their legs together up close and hugged and undulated together in outrageously sensual moves... they became so outrageously sensual that people watching screamed with laughter. And then it was over. The song ended. And the mood dove back into the lighter syrta or the traditionally heavy zembekika... all much safer emotions... apparently.
During five days on the island of Samos we explored a number of places, taking our rented car on voyages by day and by night... And a couple of friendly restaurant chefs in Kokkari adopted me with promises of olive-oil-free cookery! By the time we returned to Athens my throat blisters were beginning to heal and the pain was diminishing.
What can I say? That's about it. A couple of more days in Athens visiting Elli, Leda, Rowan and then... back to the States. Loren flew back to Lila in Spain. They spent another two weeks in Spain and France before returning to California.
Morocco gradually re-emerged in my memories and I realized that we had been exposed to the most vibrant lifestyles there in Fes. Somehow the feeling of that mysterious ancient blend of cultures churning timelessly beneath our feet had burned its way deeply into our souls. Someday, before too long, I'll be ready to go back.
And I wish to express so many thanks to Nabil's family in Fes, who took the chance and offered the hospitality of inviting us into their home so that we would have as deep a connection as we had energy and time to explore. And thanks especially to Elli Papanastassiou, Loren's grandmother in Athens, for her never-ending patience, gentleness and understanding. And thanks to Rowan and her friends who totally opened their hearts and home to me.