Our marriage was built on traveling together. Then it was time to go my own way.
ESSAY | In Morocco, a woman finds her own footing
Essay by Kerry Neville.
When I was married, I followed my husband’s itinerary, and we adventured in happy agreement. He was my guide and translator and regaled me with his stories of things he’d done before we met: dancing with armed female soldiers in Tel Aviv; smoking hash in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt; sleeping on carpets in a shop in Istanbul; and motorcycling across Greek islands.
We traveled to Greece because he called it home. Romania on his Fulbright. Italy with an itinerary dedicated to his slow-food menu. And Jamaica on repeat since my husband was nostalgic for his dissolute college spring breaks there. He navigated the hawkers in Istanbul, the heroin addicts in Bucharest, the coke dealers in Negril — while I sunbathed, pushed the stroller and drank wine.
Our itinerary, rather than love, kept us moving together. But our marriage’s end was signaled by solo travel: He went to Greece for two months, while I left for a yoga ashram in the Bahamas. I no longer wanted an intermediary. No husband driving the rental car around mountains. No husband bargaining in the souk. No husband translating menus. No husband. Only me.
First trip, post-divorce, I wanted someplace rigorous. In the 18th century, Jeanne Baret, dressed as a man, became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1975, Junko Takei was the first woman to summit Everest. And in 1994, Liv Arnesen skied solo to the South Pole. All I had to do is get on a plane in Pittsburgh, and get off in Marrakesh and meet my driver.
At the airport, Khalid gave me a map, then pointed to the GPS monitor.
“I know how to go. You?”
I didn’t know anything. Where were the Atlas Mountains? Ouarzazate was where in all that desert? How many hours between Rabat and Casablanca?
Khalid wanted to listen to American music, so we plugged in my iPod and sang our way across Morocco to the Beastie Boys and Taylor Swift. He replayed Ray LaMontagne’s, “Hey, No Pressure,” trying to form his mouth around the words: “Anything you want your life to mean, it can mean.”
“You,” he said, “You no married? You go where you go?”
“Yes,” I said, trailing my hand out the open window through the air. “But at home, I stay with my children. Love keeps me from moving too far.”
On this trip, I bore some minor injuries of adventuring: I skinned my knees from a slide down a trail in the Atlas Mountains; blistered my heels from dancing to Berber drummers; and chafed my thighs from a three-hour camel trek in a sandstorm. In the desert, I didn’t shower. There was sand in my ears, on my neck and in my bra and underpants. Pointless to wash because it would just blow back again.
One afternoon, we passed a woman on the side of the road holding her veil across her face with one hand and waving with the other.
“We should give her a ride,” I said.
Khalid shook his head.
“Ramadan,” I said, reminding Khalid that she was likely fasting for the Muslim holiday.
He pulled over, and the woman climbed in. Her hands were hennaed, and when the scarf fell from her face, she smiled. No teeth. Ten miles later, we stopped at her village. She’d spent most of the ride haranguing Khalid. I was happy listening to her singsong Arabic.
Then Khalid switched to English, addressing me: “You go. Tea. I tell her you say to stop. A thank you. She say you are first foreigner.”
We walked through the dusty village. Faces appeared in the open windows. Her home had dirt floors, chickens and goats in a back room, no electricity, no furniture. A young girl, a radiant beauty with wavy hair and wide eyes, held a baby.
“Fatima,” the girl said, pointing to herself and then to the woman. “Mother,” she said, “Salima.” She guided me to a blanket on the ground. Salima lit the propane stove and set a kettle on the fire, then set a tray before me on the floor with some bread and a dish of grainy paste. The spoon and cup were filthy, but I ate and drank anyway because Salima and her children were watching me. It was Ramadan, so they couldn’t eat or drink for many hours. I ate because they’d given the end of what they had.
Salima stretched across the blanket and spoke to her daughter. Fatima translated: “Where was my husband?” she asked. “Wasn’t I afraid?”
“No husband,” I said, scissoring my fingers to indicate that we’d split. “And yes, but the world is here.” I was ashamed saying this, as their world seemed circumscribed by poverty.
Fatima translated for her mother, who cackled an answer. “My mother has no husband,” Fatima said, and scissored her fingers. “She says better now.”
Salima pushed herself up from the floor, disappeared into a back room, and then returned and handed me folded fabric.
“A gift,” Fatima said. “She make.” A shawl embroidered with gold sequins in a pattern of interlocking circles and arrows.
Back in the car, I showed it to Khalid, who said in reverence: “Special. Tribal. Family.”
One night, in the coastal city of Essaouira, I had dinner at a restaurant run by a father and his children. Two tables. The daughter brought me a vegetable tagine. I took pictures of the food to upload to Instagram, and the father asked if I could take their picture. They’d never seen themselves together.
I took a dozen. The father between his son and daughter. Their favorite was a shot where they were leaning into each other, laughing, easy with their love.
In thanks for the photos, the daughter hennaed my hands in an intricate design symbolizing an open heart. She spent an hour inscribing my hands while her brother fed me bites of pistachio cake. The father showed me drawings he’d made in prison — colorful, geometric mazes. He didn’t explain his crime.
“I looked out the narrow window of my cell at night,” he said, “and memorized the arrangement of the stars. Then I would paint that square of universe. I was free.”
His daughter rubbed garlic paste to set the ink. “Beautiful!” she said. “You will find a husband! If that is where your heart goes.”
It was late when I walked back to my hostel, but I stopped outside a cafe: Gnawa musicians jamming on their guitars and drums and tambourines. I’d spent days and nights wandering the narrow alleys of the medina, transfixed by its doors — red, saffron, azure, peach, green, violet — and by its sky above. Doors and windows, and now I could walk through them all, all on my own.
This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.