It was the oldest play in the book, and I fell for it hard. I’d taken time off from college to travel in Europe and Africa, working my way from Paris to Morocco. Within two hours of getting off the ferry from Spain, I found myself in a rug shop, deep in the city of Tétouan. Apparently, I was there to negotiate for a rug, whether I liked it or not.
I’ve always been horrible at bargaining, and by the time I stumbled out of the shop, I realized that I’d just spent more than half my remaining cash. I liked the rug I bought, a striking red and black kilim, but I didn’t actually possess it. Like a fool, I’d agreed to let them ship it home for me. Blowing that much money all at once was dumb, but this episode ended up changing my whole way of traveling.
At the time, I was a pensive undergraduate poet. Naturally, I’d been going solo, mostly avoiding locals and other travelers. But I couldn’t afford that luxury any longer, and I wound up connecting with a trio of Canadian farm boys I’d met on the ferry. They were fun, friendly, and hilarious.
Also, poor like me. This altered the economics radically: we could easily split a $12 hotel room and have a local woman cook us a tagine for a few bucks more.
The four of us roamed the country, drinking in (and sometimes smoking) everything it had to offer. We stayed with hashish merchants in the north, hiked the Atlas Mountains with shepherds, and crashed on a beachside rooftop in Essaouira. Together we braved a locals-only hammam in Fès. We rode the cheapest buses on journeys up precipitous mountain roads, climbing onto the roof to help load bags (and the occasional goat). I struck up conversations in my bad French and got to know army officers, students, and families on holiday.
I filled my journal with observations about places that were so much more vivid and real than whatever was going on in my mopey adolescent mind. And when I finally returned home, there was a mysterious brown package waiting for me. It was the rug. I’ve kept it ever since, a reminder of the moment when I opened my eyes and became a writer.