Mary had no trouble following the tour guide as the group descended from the coach and wound through the busy city streets of Fes. Even though her hat covered her eyes, just a bit, she could still see the red folder Stan held over his head. She followed his as best as she could from the rear of the group. She was always at the rear! Last one to get off the bus, last one to cross the street, last one to see anything. It made her sad. She was an old woman; the oldest on the tour, but no one pushed her to the front or helped her when she was confused.
She trudged on, trying to keep her eyes focused on that folder, but there was so much to see! A variety of colorful goods bearing the country’s logo hung in doorway after doorway, beckoning her to enter. She so wanted to stop for just a minute…but Stan kept plowing forward.
Mary stumbled along on the cobblestone sidewalk, occasionally stepping into the street when the way was blocked by a parked car, truck or motorcycle. More motorcycles than anything. They were a nuisance. Not only did you have to step past the angled front wheel, but more treacherous where the kickstands that poked out, creating hazards for seniors like her.
It was hard to keep up. Mary had knee problems that plagued her. In fact, the more she walked on this lengthy tour, the slower she got despite doing her best to hurry. Even when by some strange bit of luck near the front, Mary fell behind until she was at the end of the twisting line of fellow travelers, especially when she stopped despite knowing that she shouldn’t, to peer inside a store.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she caught up with Stan who had halted before a large stone archway. He told everyone to turn on their “whispers”, cleverly designed boxes that allowed the group to hear whatever was being said, even from the back. Mary loved that link. It told her which way to turn, what to see, when to step carefully. But it didn’t make her legs go faster!
“It’s going to be crowded in here,” he said, “so we have to stick together. No stopping to shop. Keep your eyes pointed ahead. The crowds will jostle you. There are pickpockets that prey on tourists, so keep your hands on purses and wallets. Any questions?”
Mary put her purse strap over her head and clutched it firmly to her chest. She never carried all her money with her, leaving a good chunk behind in the safe in her hotel room, but she didn’t want to lose her ID and other important things zipped into pouches and pockets.
It was noisy and seemingly chaotic where they stood. Thousands of people milled about, coming and going and standing still. In groups of two or three or four. Sometimes alone. Children scampered around, taking off across the square before her or dashing up the narrow winding streets visible from where she stood.
Hundreds of voices filled the air. High-pitched women’s voices blended with the bass calls of store workers, all vying for her attention. And hordes of souvenir-totters were descending upon the group. Women in burqas holding out sparkling scarves. Men with browned teeth displaying colorful necklaces and silver bracelets.
Stan warned the group to ignore the beggars, to not look at them or nod or smile. To put all normal courtesies aside, for anything that seem like interest would encourage the beggars to follow, to harass to the point of misery. After one final look at the group, Stan took off into the square, skillfully winding his way this way and that, taking advantage of any opening large enough for the group of forty to pass through.
Mary worked hard to keep up because the hordes intimidated her. Even when she tried to dodge them, she was pushed from left to right, banged into from behind and shoved from the front. Each of the unwanted contacts throwing her a bit of kilter, making it harder for her to keep her eye on that red folder.
Stan led them down a narrow corridor. On each side were carts of limp-looking vegetables. Underneath and from above and from all around was the smell of rot. Maybe it was from the wood or maybe from the produce, but it was nauseating.
In the meat market slabs of raw meat hung from poles overhead or were layered on wooden tables. Flies buzzed landed on the meat. Mary pictured the eggs deposited and felt her stomach constrict. She stumbled over an uneven stone and looked down to right herself. Blood pooled below, so Mary moved aside in order to avoid stepping in it. The worst of all was when she spied a pair of live chickens being held by their necks as they were weighed on a metal scale. The poor things squawked and tried to flap their wings, but the vendor squeezed harder, immobilizing them. Mary knew they were going to be slaughtered. She hoped it was done humanely, but feared, because of what she’d witnessed, that they would not. She shivered with disgust.
Next came textiles. Huge vats of blackish liquid stuck out into the narrow walkway making it even harder to pass through. Mary saw the workers pull out dyed fabrics, twist each section to remove as much dye as they could. It ran down the street, along narrow gutters that overflowed into smelly pools. Mary tried to avoid the pools, but it was hard because she had to focus on the group, which moved on steadily, not seeming to care whether or not she kept up.
Mary found much of this offensive. Yes, it was their way of life, their culture, the way things had been done perhaps for thousands of years, but it was still disturbing. She felt her nose wrinkle, then thought that this might offend the residents, so willed her face to smile.
When they turned to the right, the goods being sold changed. Colorful, flowing garments which Stan said were called djellabas. Mary stopped to write it down. In just those few seconds, Stan must have moved on, because she no longer saw the red folder.
Looking ahead while standing on her tiptoes, she thought she saw one of the men from her group turn to the right, so she went that way, stepping into a corridor so narrow that she could reach out and touch the walls on both sides at the same time. But she didn’t see Stan’s folder.
What to do? There didn’t seem to be anything of interest here, so she turned around and backtracked to the street of goods. There were vendors displaying kaftans for women. Beautifully decorated gowns with sparkly trim running down the front and on billowing sleeves. What looked like handmade buttons. In each stall, at least one man sat sewing. This intrigued Mary. She had been taught that sewing was women’s work, but here sat virile men, holding tiny needles between thumb and fingers, stitching in and out, in and out.
It was so mesmerizing that she forgot about keeping up. Until she was shoved aside by a burqa-wearing woman holding a tightly wrapped baby to her chest. That’s when reality called Mary back to the here and now. She hustled up the street, searching for a familiar head of hair or sweater or the red folder.
She thought she recognized someone familiar on a street to the left, so she turned that way. Ah, ha! She was right! There stood Stan, a worried look creasing his brow. “Where have you been?” he practically screamed. “I told you to stay with the group. It’s not safe to get separated in here.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m at the rear and I can’t keep up.” Tears pooled in her eyes.
Stan moved her to the front. “Stay close to me,” he said. “No matter what.”
Mary nodded and fell into place as the group took off. The street became a steep incline. No longer selling clothes, now the venders displayed tourist crap that called her name. Oh, the postcards! The porcelain! The jewelry! The figurines! The scarves and so much more! Mary wished that Stan would stop and let them shop, but he didn’t. He plowed ahead, an unfriendly couple that she didn’t know well pushing her forward.
Stan turned left and right. He climbed higher and then followed a street that dropped at a steep decline. The vendors no longer sold souvenirs, but sweets. Breads covered with flies! Strange-looking flat cookies and pretzel-shaped pastries also covered with flies! Nuts of all kinds. Some glazed with sugar. Some roasted. Some still in shells.
At one place Stan stopped to allow the group to taste the sugar-coated almonds. Mary didn’t like them, but many in her group did. Several bought some to bring home.
Mary would never have bought any of the food she’d seen. For one, there was no one at home for her to give them to. For another, how could she gift someone food that flies had been sitting on right before being scooped up? It just wasn’t right.
They moved on. To the right. Up a series of steps. To the left. Under a wooden archway. Straight ahead where remnants of roofs almost touched in the center. Looking up, there was a confused mass of hastily nailed boards holding everything up. To a Californian like Mary who was sued to earthquakes that took down buildings, it didn’t look safe.
Finally they entered a low doorway. Even five-foot Mary had to bend to enter. Inside were bathrooms that they were told to use and then to sit on benches that lined the outer walls. Hanging everywhere were carpets of intricate designs and beautiful, rich colors. Shortly after the group was settled, the sales pitch began. Carpet after carpet was unrolled on the floor. They were incredibly beautiful. The salesmen promised that they could be washed. That they wouldn’t fade or shrink or bleed, but Mary wondered how that could be possible. Supposedly each was made by a woman working alone for months or years. Each was unique, he said.
It was tiresome sitting there. The pitch didn’t end until someone decided to buy a small runner. That person was taken into a side room. Came out bearing a wrapped package. Two more bought carpets. Then they were allowed to leave.
Back into the winding streets. The crowd had thickened noticeably. Within a few blocks Stan was out of sight. Mary tried spotting the red folder, but not only couldn’t she see it, she couldn’t see a familiar face or jacket. She was alone. In a maze of narrow streets. Being jostled on all sides.
Before they got off the bus, Stan had cautioned the group that it would be easy to get lost. That the streets wound this way and that. That there was no logic that would allow a lost person to find their way out. He had cautioned them with the necessity of staying together. Mary hadn’t believed him. Until she entered the Medina. It was being in a war zone with sights and sounds surrounding her, confusing her.
Mary understood, from Stan’s dire warnings, that she could never find her way out on her own. At first she had tried to memorize what directions they had followed, how many rights and lefts and straight aheads, but in time, there were so many turns, so many streets, that she was totally confused.
She felt she was close to the carpet store. Maybe just a block away. And she believed that they could help her, so she turned around and went back the way she had just come. But at the next intersection, she paused. Had she come from the right? The left? Straight ahead? Mary didn’t know. Tears formed and began to drip down her cheeks. She pulled a tissue out of her coat pocket and wiped them off.
Mary peered down each direction hoping to find something familiar looking. To the right were carpets leaning against a wall. That must be it! So she hurried that way. But no, there was no low door. No step up. Just a stall like the hundreds she’d seen.
Thinking that this must be the right street because so far, all the goods being sold were clustered together, Mary continued that way. There were numerous carpet vendors. But still no doorway. She went on.
Carpets changed to shoes and leather bags. A stench filled the air. She thought it was from the leather being processed but she didn’t stop to ask. Mary knew her group had not passed this way, so she searched for a friendly face. Someone who might help her.
The men scared her even though she couldn’t those feelings. There was something about the determined way the vendors stared at her, as if she were a sandwich to be devoured. The women weren’t an option because they were all in too much of a hurry. She tried stopping one, but the woman shouted at her and slapped Mary’s hand away.
Mary stumbled forward, staring beseechingly at one face after another. She knew time had passed since she got separated from her group, but how much time? She didn’t know. Her one great fear was that she was so incredibly lost in the Medina that she’d never get out. That her group would board the bus and leave without her.
They almost did once. In Madrid they toured an amazingly beautiful monastery. Mary had been intrigued by the tapestries and stained glass windows. The gold figurines behind the altar. She knelt to pray. She closed her eyes and thought of her kids at home, hoping that her grandkids were doing okay. That her cat was well.
When she opened her eyes, her group was gone. Mary hustled down the center aisle and out the huge double doors. Followed the sidewalk to where they had disembarked from the bus. Just as she arrived, the doors closed. Mary screamed and walked as fast as she could. Fortunately someone must have heard her or seen her because the doors opened!
What if the bus had driven off? She didn’t know the name of the hotel. Didn’t speak Spanish. Didn’t know how to hail a taxi. Thank goodness she was saved.
But now she was in Morocco, a totally unfamiliar country, language, culture. She wasn’t in a big city where there might be police officers who could help. Or a store that beckoned lost travelers. Plus she was lost in a maze so confusing, so terrifying that even if she had a phone, she couldn’t tell anyone where she was.
Mary stumbled along, continuing to search for comfort. Tears streamed down her face and her arms and legs felt rubbery. Just as she was about to give up a boy wearing a soccer jersey appeared before her. He had a huge smile on his face. His eyes sparkled. Mary smiled back.
“Do you speak English?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I study English in school.”
Mary sighed. She understood him perfectly! “I am lost. Can you help me?”
The boy nodded. Her took her hand and led her in and out, down and up, left and right. Ahead appeared the huge square and the stone gate! “Thank you,” she said. “You saved me.”
“Let me walk you to where your bus will stop,” he said. “I will wait there with you until your group appears.”
He led Mary to a low wall and indicated that she should sit. It felt good to be in the sun, out of the dark maze. Here the crowds were further away, giving her a chance to breathe, to relax.
The boy stayed with her, as he said he would, until Stan appeared, the blessed red folder over his head. Mary cried out, held her hands in front, beseechingly. “You left me behind,” she cried. “I was scared.”
Stan glowered at her. “Mary, this is not the first time you’ve fallen behind. Why didn’t you stay near me?”
“When you left the carpet store I was the last one out. You left me,” she said. “This nice young man helped me. If not for him, I’d still be inside, lost.”
Stan smiled at the boy. “Thanks for your help,” he said as he handed the boy a coin. “Mary, follow me to the bus. Don’t look inside any stores. Stare at the folder. Only the folder. Understand?”
Mary nodded and did as she was told.
Back in the hotel she reflected on her narrow escape. Who was at fault? Herself? Surely not. She had tried to keep up. She had told Stan at the beginning of the tour that she was slow. It must be his fault, right?
Whoever was to blame, Mary swore to herself that from now on, she’d stay with Stan. The scare of being left behind was too frightening to contemplate.