The Intrepid Starling
Chapter 3: The First Goodbye
On their drive out of the desert, the tour van is nearly empty. Half of the guests stayed on for a trek deeper into the dunes, deeper into the sand and stars. Sam climbs into the front seat while Adrian and Marie take their usual places behind her.
“Only the three musketeers left,” says Youssef as he starts the car. “One final day for adventure together.”
On the drive away from the Sahara’s edge, the skies remain wide and bright. Soon, the sandy plains morph into bald mountains with shaggy sides. They are nearing the Dades Valley. In juxtaposition to the smooth dunes, these hills are textured with juts and divots as though a giant sculptor has sharpened his chisel against the rocks. Square houses cluster where mountains meet valley floor, grouped around a simple mosque. Minarets dot the landscape the way steeples punctuate the French countryside.
In between the towns are remains of villages past. Ancient kasbahs appear like fading sandcastles. Camouflaged against the terracotta landscape, the old fortresses are barely visible but for their high towers.
They stop to take a closer look and Marie asks about the symbols still visible in the crumbling façade. There is a repeated design pressed into the mud. It looks like a child’s drawing of a house—square on bottom, triangle on top. Only instead of straight lines, the triangle’s sides step up to meet each other.
“It’s an arrow,” explains Youssef. “The kasbah was much taller than all of the other houses. From far, you could see the arrow and know it was pointing to a place of protection.”
“And these?” Sam is curious about a symbol she’s seen everywhere. It is spray painted on the sides of bridges and visible in the recessed brick of houses. Here it is again, pressed into the clay—a vertical line with an open half circle at either end. It looks like two squat pitchforks joined together.
“They are early sketches for a satellite dish,” Adrian says in a professorial tone.
Youssef nods slowly and squints as though sizing him up for a psychological exam. “That fall in the desert really did something to you,” laughs the father of three and then tousles Adrian’s hair like he would one of his sons. “It means freedom, of course! It is the Berber symbol for a free man.” He pulls out his keychain where the sign is painted on a wooden disk. “You see, it is as if a chain has been broken.”
Sam traces the lines and thinks of her hometown where stars and stripes flutter everywhere. The flag is painted on the sides of barns and cross-stitched onto pillows. Her neighbors have made the symbol of freedom their own, just as the Berbers did when building these fortresses. She is struck by this shared celebration of liberty across time and space.
As they drive away from the historic site, Youssef proposes a final stop on their route—a visit to his sister, Sara.
The soothing smell of fresh bread greets them first, just before a twinkling-eyed, female version of Youssef opens the door. As they file in, Sam stops to admire the doorknocker. It is a brass hamsa—a hand of Fatima. The symmetrical, tulip-like shape is carved with delicate swirls.
Sara catches Sam’s eye and offers an explanation to the unasked question. “It offers protection against evil spirits,” she glides her fingers across doorknocker’s metal ones. “It is also said to bring good luck. That’s why you are here.” She releases the brass hand to take Sam’s, then leads her into the living room.
While they walk down the hallway, Sam recalls her uncle in Tennessee and his horseshoes hung above every door. The hamsa has a far more reverent history, but she likes the idea of both talismans bringing fortune to their respective houses.
Just as in the camp’s dining tent, and in all the historic houses in Fes, banquette-style seating lines every wall of the room. Sam tells Sarah how much she loves the design of the space because it allows room for everyone. “Yes, we need enough seating for our big Moroccan families,” Sara laughs. “Most modern houses are different than before. There are no new riads with their many rooms and large courtyards. We have conserved this, though—the salon Marocain. In most houses you will find this gathering place. It is where the living happens."
They join the others in a corner where a table is spread for tea. Glasses filled with sprigs of fresh mint await Youssef’s careful hand as he pours hot water from three feet up so it splashes and mixes in each cup. Fresh walnuts, hot bread, apricots and olives combine for a satisfying mid-afternoon feast. Outside, a stand of trees rustles in the wind and sunshine pours across the table.
Like old friends in a Parisian café, the five of them sit in their corner booth watching the clouds pass by. The travelers reminisce about their four days together as though recalling memories from childhood. They nearly fall over each other in laughter while trying to sing—for the last time—the words to the Berber song they heard a hundred times in the car. Youssef can only shake his head when Sara enunciates the chorus in an effort to help them. “It’s a lost cause,” he says and then corrects himself. “They’re a lost cause,” he concludes with a smile.
They leave Sara’s place just before sunset with only an hour left to drive. As they enter the city, Sam feels herself getting cranky. Ever since she was a little girl, she’s had the same reaction to saying goodbye. When she visited her grandmother in Guadalajara as a young girl, her parents always found her pouting when it was time to return home. She became irritable to the point that she refused to hug her abuela goodbye. To an outsider, she seemed spoiled, but it was never her grandmother she was refusing. It was the moment. If she gave in to the moment of farewell, her little mind thought, she was accepting the visit’s end. If she put up a fight, perhaps time would back off and slow down a little.
Now that she’s older, the familiar emotion of crankiness annoys her. It’s pestering, like a fly buzzing around her head. She tries to swat it away by focusing on their final moments together, but deep down she is irritated by the inevitability of all things coming to an end.
At least her inner tantrum no longer shows up to the outside world. At her hotel she warmly embraces Adrian, Marie and Youssef in turn. She is grateful not only for the memories of their days together, but also for the memories of each of them as the remarkable people they are. Youssef’s respectful camaraderie with other guides, Marie’s uncanny attention to detail, Adrian’s thirst for adventure despite his fears. She loves them for more than this short friendship. She loves them for showing her different possibilities of being.
The next morning, Sam’s taxi driver to the airport reminds her of the server in Fes. He is quieter, but laughs just as easily, his blue eyes crinkling as he glances in the rearview mirror. “Maroc is sad to see you go, but you will return,” he assures her. “I hope you has adored your time here. I hope you think we are very hospital people.”
Sam smiles at his valiant effort to speak what is likely a fourth language. Hospitable is a fair description, but falls far short. It is something the guidebooks might say to sum up a culture. It misses the details of sparkling humor and patient listening, gentle irreverence and laidback hospitality, religious devotion and everyday playfulness. Everyone she has met has been a perfect host for the first part of her journey. She knows she will miss them, but they have given her renewed enthusiasm for all that lies ahead.
“I love it here,” she assures the driver. “It’s an unbelievable country.”
“It is unbelievable,” he considers. “It is unbelievable, but it’s true.”