Madonna will be in Malawi. And I’m betting Angelina will be in Angola. (It’s probably Namibia, but, for the sake of a little festive alliteration …. ) All my Brit friends are buggering off to Bali or sallying forth on safari. The prevailing mania for Peter Beard–ish world travel continues unabated, even during the holidays.
Who started the gritty-ethnic-vacation trend? I have no idea. But if you find out, please let me know. I think I might like to hurt that person.
Flash back to December 1990, when I was suddenly seized by the desire to have my hands painted with henna by a leathery-faced crone in some hectic, far-flung marketplace. This was weird. I am really more of a Yosemite/Miami Beach/Niagara Falls–type person. But the whole neo-hippie thing was gurgling. Everything had gone all Goa and Jaipur and Bangkok, and I—always a sucker for a new trend—decided that I would not be able to face myself in the upcoming new year unless the holidays were spent in some remote, difficult-to-negotiate locale. Souks! Camels! Sheep’s eyes! Bring it on!
What was goal? The goal was to have authentic experiences, and authentic experiences cannot be had in Wildwood, N.J. They can only be had in places with really dreadful plumbing.
As chance would have it, David, an old pal and onetime member of the 1980’s Brit band ABC—he was the little bloke with the big drums—was traveling through Spain. Would I meet him in Morocco? “How totally Paul Bowles! I would j’adore to!”
As I daydreamed optimistically on the ascending plane, I reflected on how fortunate I was to not be embarking on a safe, bourgeois Pollyanna vacation to Sausalito or Nantucket. Under normal circumstances, I might be spending the holidays in some namby-pamby place like Santa Barbara. Euccch! I snuggled down gratefully under my travel blanket.
Little did I know that I was about to embark on a carnival ride into the nether reaches of Hades.
Upon arrival in Tangiers, I collapsed into a cab and stared out of the window. The dusty streets which led to our hotel were teeming with men in djellabas, many of whom would soon be tickling me.
A polite man in a fez showed me to our room, where David was waiting for me. Bubbling with touristy excitement and thirsting for North African authenticity, we showered and donned what we perceived to be appropriate promenading outfits, and then we hit the streets. That’s when it started.
It commenced the minute we left our hotel, and it did not stop until we staggered back to our room, panting and disheveled, and bolted the door.
It is hard to define.
It was an unusual combination of good old-fashioned harassment and what can best be described as hysterical adulation.
Everywhere we went, we were shrieked at. We were followed. We were touched. We were patted on the head. We were picked up. We were hooted at in incomprehensible guttural dialects. We were scooped up and placed atop piles of rugs and cocktail bars. We were dragged into doorways and whispered to. We were goosed. We were fed strange things and then charged exorbitant amounts of money for them, especially when we weren’t even hungry. We were chucked under the chin. We were tickled.
Of course we tried running, but this only served to fan the ardor of our admirers, who seemed to have nothing better to do than chase us down goat-filled alleyways. When our pursuers caught up with us, they would celebrate by picking us up and tossing us around like a couple of rag dolls.
Our treatment was strange and quite bewildering to both of us. Even David, who had seen his share of fan hysteria during the screeching peak of ABC, was rendered speechless. It was as if we were a familiar, long-lost and much-adored circus act, which had, after years of touring, returned in glory to its place of origin.
In fairness to our excitable fan club, there was a definite whiff of Barnum and Bailey to our appearance. My friend and I both favored jaunty, vintage-y resort clothing circa 1966: straw hats, oversized Onassis eyewear, cabana shorts in loud cheeky prints and man-bags. I realize, in retrospect, that we resembled extreme, miniaturized parodies of American tourists. Think Duane Hanson–ette. For whatever reason, our pursuers found our appearance irresistible.
Day 2 dawned.
I asked the hotel concierge if the kind of treatment we were receiving was normal.
“No. It is something special just for you,” he replied with a warm, reassuring smile. “We like little people. We think it brings luck. We think Americans are tall, and you are not. This is funny to us.”
According to my passport, I stand tall at five feet four and a half inches. David is a tad shorter than me. Perhaps we should have gone to Borneo instead. We could have vacationed with the pygmies.
It was time to confront the truth: There was, it would appear, no remedy for our predicament. We were both short and, with no access to elevator shoes, we were doomed to remain short for the rest of our vacation. Our hearts sank. The remainder of our vacation stretched in front of us like a gulag sentence.
As we traveled from town to town—Tangiers, Fez, Marrakech and then Rabat—our situation was made much worse by the fact that we were now encumbered by our luggage. Or rather, I was now encumbered by our luggage. When David carried the suitcases, they dragged along the ground and slowed us down. When I, with my additional inch or two, carried them, they dragged slightly less, adding valuable nanoseconds to our ground speed. There were no porters to be found. We were forced to the conclusion that they had taken the day off work in order to celebrate our arrival.
“Hello, Americans!” “Bonjour, little clowns!” “Hello, tiny men!”
No matter how quietly and calmly it might start, every outing would eventually turn into a parade. It was like being part of some kind of pagan ritual. It was Pamplona. It was Oberammergau. It was like being the Olsen Twins before the Olsen Twins were the Olsen Twins.
The only time we could relax was when we were hiding in the drapes. Yes, I said “the drapes.” Every hotel window was adorned with excessively tasseled exotic curtains. These quickly became our “safe space.” Enrobed in these confections, we spent hours fashioning elaborate folkloric costumes and striking kabuki poses.
Though the citizens of our host country were clearly having a ball, there was, for us, the recipients of all this attention, no tangible upside. Our status as national novelty icons afforded surprisingly few benefits or freebies. There were no television appearances or state dinners. There were no complimentary cocktails or special celebrity discounts in the local stores.
Au contraire. When haggling in the souk for rugs or tchotchkes, we found ourselves at a huge disadvantage: The vendors were far more interested in calling in friends and relatives to drink tea and gawp at us than actually selling us anything. When we tried to get tough on the prices, they diffused our steely negotiator’s resolve with gales of laughter.
Day 5. Day 6. Day 7.
We cabbed it to a concierge-recommended cocktail bar. Former heavy imbibers, now tee- totalers, we ordered a couple of lemonades. Ensconced in the relative safety of this boîte, we eagerly engaged our fellow tourists in dialogue. We were hoping for tips on how to elude the locals. Surely one or two of them would relate to our predicament. Maybe we could while away the evening exchanging inspirational escape stories.
As it turned out, our fellow travelers had loads of advice for us, but it wasn’t about eluding the locals. As we chatted to this motley collection of foreigners, we quickly understood that something very different was going on. Not only were these people—mostly Swedes, Brits and Krauts—not being chased, but they were doing the chasing. Shockingly, incomprehensibly, these holidaymakers had come to this part of the world specifically to get inside the djellabas of as many of the locals as possible.
There is no way to express just how surprising this seemed to us. “These pervs are paying the locals for a bit of hanky-panky,” marveled David. “And we would pay any amount of money to have them stop chasing us. Deux lemonades plus, s’il vous plait.”
The whole arrangement made no sense to us whatsoever. We were having a hard time negotiating the purchase of a bottle of mineral
And yet there they were, a bunch of horny, over-tanned Europeans who had escaped the confines of their homelands for the sole purpose of inflicting their libidinal accumulations on this financially desperate population. I felt a rush of sympathy for the locals.
The penultimate day. The end in sight.
Back in Tangiers, we headed for the beach, where the fan worship continued. Armed with our new awareness of the sex tourism around us, we became missionaries of sorts. I quickly found myself advising the local lads to steer clear of these horny holidaymakers and to practice safe sex. I could see myself staying in this country and becoming a kind of Albert Schweitzer figure.
It was while strolling on the beach doing our Jehovah’s Witness routine that we finally had our authentic experience.
David grabbed my arm.
“He must be 75 if he’s a day!”
“Sunbathing in the nude, at his age, on a public beach too!”
“You have to admire his pluck.”
“His wha … ?”
“Wait a minute! Look! He’s not completely naked. Unless I’m very much mistaken, I think he’s wearing a toupee!”
“Oh my God! And … a colostomy bag!”
There he was, splayed out on the beach for all to see: an ancient, cadaverous bronzed tourist, roasting in the afternoon sun, wearing nothing but a rug and a bag.
The curtain had come down. We could finally go home.
Other people’s gritty ethnic countries, I reflected as we ran the gauntlet back to our hotel, are like other people’s relationships: It is impossible for outsiders to peek inside and truly understand them. (Iraq! Bonjour!) If you try, you are quite likely to end up spread-eagled on the sand with nothing but a rug and a bag between you and the midday sun.
Post-script: Under no circumstances let this story dissuade you from taking a trip to Morocco. It’s a gorgeous country, and my experiences happened over a decade ago. Recent visitors tell me that everything is now quite ungritty and positively Florida-ish.
Though time is a great healer, I feel I am not yet ready to test the veracity of these claims. And if you decide to head to Casablanca or Tangiers and are on the short side, I would strongly recommend that you pack those Balenciaga platforms.
Happy holidays from prissy Palm Beach!