Getting off the Bus in Marrakesh

My mom collects decks of cards from everywhere she travels. During our trip to Marrakesh, I decided to combine two separate quests: first, to lead a group, without a map or asking for directions, into the warren of the medina – a task that has always terrified me. What better way to overcome this dread than by taking on a second quest to buy my mother playing cards?

It was a lot harder than I thought. Hands quivering, body going numb, I headed with my group into the depths of the medina. The fear of getting lost brought back a childhood memory – my mom waiting at the end of the street to walk me home after kindergarten, except for that one day. It was a half-day at school, but she didn’t know. The bus passed my stop and the driver didn’t stop. Where is my mom? Where am I going now? Tears streamed down my face. I was terrified of being stuck on that bus forever.

Fifteen years later, the medina felt like that endless bus ride.

Douaa, our campus coordinator, led us down a congested street packed with locals and tourists, past small shops overflowing with handcrafted trinkets and mass-produced souvenirs, and restaurants serving pizza and grilled meats.

Finally, we reached Jemaa el-Fnaa, the grand square in the middle of the medina. Douaa told us we were free to explore on our own, as long as we found our way back to the square.

We set off. My friends and I gathered in a circle, and I chose to go left. We started walking, and I spotted a small brown shape perched on an older man’s shoulder.

“It’s a monkey!” I exclaimed, pointing to the patient animal snacking on the man’s shoulder. Distracted by it, I nearly bumped into a man holding a snake. I jumped back as if I’d seen a ghost, then quickly backed away from the three more snakes coiled on the ground.

We continued onward, the street leading us into another maze. My stomach sank. Then, I looked ahead and saw an alley splitting off in two directions. This is where I might find the playing cards! I led my group down the left path.

I tried to remember the turns, but the distractions blurred everything together. We passed a butcher with cuts of meat piled high on his table, swarms of flies buzzing around them. A few paces later, I decided to explore a shop. Could this be it? Eyes flitting around, I scanned past wallets, figurines, and countless magnets, but no playing cards. I frowned at my friend Devon, who reassured me. “Don’t worry, this was the first store, we have a lot more to go.” But we only had an hour and a half to explore before meeting Douaa back at the square.

We hopped in and out of a few more stores, with no luck. I was starting to lose hope. My phone showed we had 27 minutes left. “There is one more shop over here,” someone shouted.

What the hell, might as well try, I thought, entering the shop. My eyes scanned every single shelf. As I turned down the last aisle, something resembling a pack of cigarettes caught my eye.

Wait, those aren’t cigarettes, they’re cards! I picked them up, jumping and pointing to show my friends. The shopkeeper probably thought I was crazy.

“How much?” I asked him, grinning despite my exhaustion.

“Thirty dirhams.” Too excited to bargain, I nodded, ripped my wallet out of my bag, and scrambled for the right amount before walking out victorious.

With only eighteen minutes to escape this maze, I felt like a lab rat trying to find the cheese. I tried to retrace our steps but had no luck. My friends followed me as I briskly walked through the crowds, dodging stray cats and dogs. My heart raced, my palms sweated, I could barely catch my breath. Just as I had feared, we were lost. I was back on that kindergarten bus.

Then I remembered what my mom would say: keep going and don’t give up until I succeed.

So I did just that. I kept walking, glancing back to ensure my group was still together. Beads of sweat rolled down my back, my hands shook. Someone yelled up to me, “Do you know where you are going?”

I rolled my eyes. “Of course I have no idea where I am going,” I yelled back.

We walked in what felt like endless circles. We are going to be here forever. Douaa is going to leave without us. My stomach churned and I unzipped my bag, checking the time again. Nine minutes left.

Wiping away tears, we pushed onward. After a series of random turns, I caught a familiar whiff – the meat market. If we follow that smell, maybe we can find our way out! Sure enough, a goat’s head hanging from a hook greeted us.

A few more turns and we burst out into an open area. “That must be it,” I declared. I started walking faster, the sunlight blinding me after so long in the dim passageways. The monkey and snakes came into view. We made it! I had conquered my fears and returned from the metaphorical bus ride.

Just as Henry Ford said, “One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” Not only had I overcome fear, but I also had the deck of cards for my mom.

Caralyn Morell is an Education major at the University of New England.

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