Right off the bat I will admit that I should just stop reading “Town & Country,” even though it’s a free subscription, and even if it is the only thing in my magazine basket besides “The New Yorker” and “Tricycle” when I am in the mood for fluff. Yesterday, taking a luxurious afternoon reading break, I flipped past the pages and pages and pages of ads for jewelry and designer bags, and arrived at a piece written by the magazine’s editor, about vacationing in Marrakech, Morocco. Momentarily, looking at the pictures, I was lost in a travel fantasy – flying into the Casablanca airport, drinking mint tea and resting during the blazing heat of the day, and emerging when it was cooler to shop the souks, sample street food, and watch people. We would end the evening having dinner at the home of the concierge’s mother (he would, of course, have been taken with us and wanted to show us the “real” Morocco) who would heap upon us tagines, piles of cous cous, bisteya, chicken with green olives, pastries and every other Moroccan dish known to mankind. We would communicate with lots of smiles and a mix of my bad French and their bad English; at the end of the evening we would walk back to our modest hotel full of new friends and different foods and that wonderful sense that a window has been opened and life looks fresh and filled with possibility.
This was not the dream of Ms. Fiori, author of the “Town & Country” piece. She was writing about the most famous luxury hotel in Marrakech, which had fallen on hard times, been renovated and reopened since her earlier visits. She was pleased to note that Marrakech had been cleaned up; fewer pesky beggars and urchins accosted her on the street, and there were new luxury boutiques in which one could shop, because most of the items sold in the souks were junk. She steered us towards indulgence in spa treatments, and dinning either in the hotel’s restaurant or two other fine dining establishments in town, cautioning that street food should be avoided. It seemed to me that her greatest wish was to be transported from her luxurious home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and whisked via pneumatic tube into a faintly Morocco-scented version of her regular life – clean, well-appointed, comfortable and safe. Like an old friend who complained that she could not find any “regular” food during her honeymoon trip to Greece, she wanted no challenges or changes, only a warmer, brighter venue for her customary American life.
I have taken that trip, although not, alas, to Morocco. My husband’s previous employer sent its top salesman on a trip every year, and we were dispatched twice to Puerto Rico, twice to Hawaii, and to Atlantis, St. John and Mexico. I grew up taking trips planned by my mother, who was a fabulous creator of experience and opportunity. In the days before the internet, she consulted books and magazines, wrote letters on thin, blue airmail stationary, and set up itineraries that took us off the beaten path in a manner well suited to a family with two children and a modest budget. In Assisi we stayed at a convent hostelry where we ate at long, communal tables, made friends with fellow travelers, and walked with them through the cool of the evening, finding the gelataria she had read about somewhere. In England, where we spent the most time, we made real friends, and spent one Sunday in a real, thatch-roofed cottage eating steak and kidney pie which required that my brother and I identify the chunks of kidney and hide them under a scrum of pie crust. It was never luxurious or insular, sometimes we were uncomfortable or found ourselves picking at bread because the only offering was whole, tiny fish, but it was wonderful. It was what I thought everyone did when they traveled.
On the company trips, however, we were generally ferried from the airport to a resort of some sort by air-conditioned bus, passing by palm trees, glimpses of the waiting ocean, and, in some cases, the neighborhoods where people lived in grinding, abject poverty. It was difficult for me to relax in the crystal-chandeliered lobby of a resort hotel while processing images of small, thin children chasing chickens in the dirt outside their ramshackle houses. I thought they must hate us, coming in with our fancy clothes and designer sunglasses, and I imagined that many of them had family members who made their living working at the resort, serving our drinks, washing our bed linens, and cleaning leaves out of the pools in the mornings. I found that separation painful, and in the places where it was most stark, I had a surreal sense of being not in that sunny, beachy place, but apart from it as surely as if I had stayed home and looked at pictures from someone else’s trip. The people, the humanity of a place were an essential part of my bearings, and as long as we were alien to one another, the life-changing magic of travel remained elusive.
The idea, on those trips, was that we would spend our three or four days in splendid isolation, lying on the beach or by the pool, dining “on the reservation” as my husband and I dubbed each resort property, and drinking…a lot. For most of our companions, this was really a great vacation; there was some golf, sometimes, and in Maui we all went to a luau, but mostly it was about sunning, drinking “on the boss,” eating expensive food, and venturing into town, if possible, only to shop for souvenirs or to find other places to drink. There was usually a sunset “booze cruise” which I found somewhat horrifying, having grown up sailng with my father, who taught us that no one should ever be drunk, or even careless and sober on a boat. Although we love the ocean, and the beach, we are not people who “lay out” in the sun, and we are not big drinkers. We were not enthralled to eat in expensive continental or Asian restaurants when we were in Mexico or Puerto Rico. Our goal, on every trip, was to find out how to get “off the reservation,” and to spend as much time as possible away from the crested robes and complimentary cocktails, and find the neighborhoods and restaurants and churches and schools that could tell us the story of a place.
We were still, clearly, tourists, and we didn’t kid ourselves that the disenfranchised locals in Mexico and Puerto Rico were going to ask us in for a pineapple soda, but we had experiences we could never have had at home. On our first trip to Puerto Rico we rented a car and spent a day in Old San Juan, looking at the miraculous colors and ironwork on the buildings, eating real Puerto Rican food in a crowded lunch spot, and happening on a square filled with pigeons and old ladies. In St. John we took the boat to St. Thomas and found a restaurant owned by Tina Turner fanatics who had covered the walls with her pictures, played only her music, and served Rob a whole fish with a look of stark terror on its face that rendered it inedible. He shared my pastels, instead. In Mexico we spent several enchanted hours in the center of the nearest town, eating at an open-air restaurant on the beach were local families were enjoying their Sunday rituals; after darkness fell, we were caught up in a street parade with costumes, horses, and be-sashed beauty queens. On the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, we got a little lost in the sleepy and unprepossessing “town,” and decided on a whim to climb a steep hill that led up to the ruins of an old fort. At the top, sweaty and exhausted, we discovered a perfect little jewel box of a hotel, very clean and low-key, with a restaurant that served us local specialties as we looked out over a vast swathe of ocean.
I do not mean to be ungrateful to Rob’s very generous former employer, who undoubtedly believed that a few days of sun and relaxation in a beautiful place was a lovely reward, indeed. the times we remember, though, the things that let us know that we were in a different place, are the things we discovered by leaving the safety and comfort of the reservation. Those discoveries, and the moments we spent getting to know our fellow travelers, are the things we still talk about, laugh about and dream about. And when we dream of going back to Maui, or to Pleya del Carmen, or to the Caribbean, and we do, we always talk about staying in a bed & breakfast or a funky little hotel near the center of town, checking out the local schedule for concerts, pageants and other happenings, and eating handmade tortillas, jerk chicken or plate lunches until we need a long walk along the beach to burn it all off. No boutiques, no continental menus, no spas, no tennis courts, no casinos, no insulation other than common sense and respect for our status as visitors. We will eat the street food, we will buy fresh fruit and exotic soda at the grocery store, we will try to read the local paper, catch a Sunday service, and soak up the glorious strangeness of a different place while trying, at every opportunity, to make connections based on the glorious familiarity of other human beings.
“Town & Country” will probably never find a place for our stories of stumbling into the wrong neighborhood, or confronting the shocking specter of a dead and accusatory fish to the strains of “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”, and that’s okay. Our travel dreams have nothing to do with aspiration, and everything to do with inspiration.