Thursday, February 16, 2017

On Being Polite

When I visited San Francisco a few years ago, I paid $20 for someone's mix-tape. He was just one of many different flavors of hustler native to the Bay area--catch a tourist's eye, give them a sob story about your path as a starving artist, get them to hold your mix-tape, and then kindly let them know that a donation is expected. And I know all this now, but at the time I went for it hook, line, and sinker. At the end of the day, I paid him $20 not just for the mix-tape, but just to get him to let go of my hand and let me walk back to my car in peace.

The moral of this story? I am not great at saying no to people on the streets. I'm not great at ignoring people, refusing to make eye contact, etc. If someone says something to me, I'm bound to try and say something back. I know that cities are full of people inventing new ways to get into my wallet, and I know that I'm ridiculously susceptible. So I do my best to be mindful.

Today I failed at all that. And everything went fine, but it gave me some new perspectives on how I need to navigate the world.

I was walking around the Rabat kasbah--a massive fortress-settlement by the sea, a centuries-old community surrounded by walls. Strolling under the walls, I hear someone shout something; I look up at one of the many men sitting on top of the walls. He tells me the entrance is near the stairs. I thank him and head to the stairs, where I find him waiting for me.

"Where you from?" he asks.
"The United States."
"You like Trump or Obama?" (In case anyone is wondering how aware people are of American politics overseas.)
"I like Obama."
"You come stay in my country anytime." (In case anyone is wondering how American politics are currently being received in Muslim-majority countries.)

I walk to the edge of the wall, taking in the view. He follows, pointing out buildings, giving me tidbits about the history. He is friendly, outgoing, and knowledgeable. When I turn away from the sea, he beckons me to follow him.

This is the moment where I know what will happen--he will give me a few bits and pieces of info before asking me for some money. I've fallen for it before, and I'm sure I'll fall for it again. Now is the time to disengage--to thank him for his time and walk away.

"What's your name?" I ask.
"Tarek. I speak 5 languages and I live in kasbah all my life."

And so I follow. What, after all, is the worst that can happen?

Before we go any further, I want to end the suspense and say that nothing terrible happened to me. Tarek continued to be a wonderful tour guide; he took me all through the kasbah, showing me little nooks and crannies, showing me things the other tourists missed. How many saw for instance, that one of the cannons defending the main entrance had a portion of the Koran engraved into its side? How many other tourists had the scripts on the walls translated for them? How many were taken to a back room where bread was being baked in a massive earthen oven?

And how many were invited back to Tarek's house for tea made by his mother?

I acknowledge that what I did here was very stupid, and that I'm really lucky that nothing happened to me. Tarek continues to be a polite host--regaling me, of course, with a sob story explaining why he needed money. He shows me the ugly scars adorning his left arm and hand that he claims were left there by a father that abandoned his family, and how sometimes he sits on his roof smoking, so that he can try to forget.

It is in this moment I realize that he might not be telling the truth about his scars--or that he is, but he is possibly not all there. I'm not afraid--the view is beautiful, Tarek is kind, and I can hear his mother cooking downstairs. But I acknowledge, in a disjointed, distanced sort of way, that this could end very poorly for me. I casually mention to Tarek that I need to meet friends in my hostel soon. He says of course. I'm sure I'm not the first tourist who has said this after finding themselves on the roof with him.

After we drink the tea his mother has brought us, we head back into the city. I tell Tarek that I need to leave, but that I'd like to help him and his brother (the excuse he gave for needing money). He says that would be very nice. I avoid the fact that I need to pay him--I am very much alone in a city that belongs to him. And so does he. Only when I give him money does he apologize that I'm 'helping' him. He says that I'm nice, and I'm always welcome in his home. At first, I was somewhat touched by this, and moved to think that he wasn't a bad guy--maybe he was legitimately in need. But upon reflection, this is the only part of the adventure that scares me the most. He wasn't apologizing that he needed money: he was apologizing because we both knew if I didn't give him anything, the very friendly visit I'd been having could easily take a different direction. He is apologizing for what happens if I don't agree to help his brother.

Dilemma #1: should I be mad that he got my money this way? After all, I had an amazing experience (up until I casually realized I could be in danger)--I got to see the side of a city most tourists never do, I got to chat with a local in English, French, and Spanish about his hopes and dreams, I got some incredible, first-hand contact with a culture that I'm sure I'll remember long after I've forgotten after other parts of my trip. And because of the exchange rate here, it didn't even cost me too much. He got the equivalent of $30 for me--wouldn't I have been willing to pay this had I gone through an official tour guide? I paid as much in London just to go inside a cathedral. Surely an hour-long intimate tour of the kasbah was worth just as much. $30 is no massive sum for me, but Tarek can feed his family with it for a month. Exchange rates are funny that way.

Dilemma #2: isn't the money irrelevant when I very well could have been putting my life at risk? I know I was lucky--Tarek was a scammer, but an honest and caring one who legitimately wanted to share his city with me. I'm not even sure scammed is the right word--I unexpectedly paid for a fantastic experience.

But how very, very stupid am I to follow a stranger into his home? If this had been another man, or maybe another city, or another country, any number of things could have happened. I wouldn't have been sitting on a rooftop terrace, drinking tea and talking Moroccan politics in halting French.

Dilemma #3: I am ultimately who I am. If someone asks me a question on the street, it's difficult for me to brush by. I'm not good at walking past beggars. For what it's worth, I'm used to believing in the best in people. This will maybe be the most difficult aspect of my trip--recognizing that the people who offer to help me don't want to help. That I am seen as a resource--and I am exactly that--whose worth can be extracted by means either gentle or otherwise. I acknowledge that, for my safety, I need to learn to be hard.

But what kind of a way is this to travel the world? How can I meet people, experience other ideas and perspectives, encounter other cultures, if I treat every walk down the street like a battle, if I make sure to shut down every person who comes to speak with me? Until Tarek, everyone in Rabat has been exceedingly kind--many people have stopped to wish me good day, or welcome me to Morocco. Maybe I'd been lulled into a false sense of security by the beauty of the ocean and the openness of everyone I'd met thus far. So how should I have responded to an encounter that I assumed, at the time, was just like all the others I'd had thus far? When is the right time to start pretending that the people I meet on the street aren't people? Sure, I realize there are lines to be drawn--speak, be polite, but don't follow anyone, don't let them convince me of anything, etc. But where does that distinction begin? I know I should have brushed by Tarek on the stairs. I should have mumbled something in German about not understanding, and gone my merry way. This would have been safe and practical. But it also wouldn't be me.

So this is my first major dilemma of my trip. How do I guard myself against the people who want to exploit me or do me harm without doing so in a way that makes me feel as if I'm turning my back on the world?

I legitimately don't know.

So long story short: I listened to the man on the wall, was treated to an amazing tour, and gradually realized how potentially dangerous a situation I'd managed to find. And now I'm not sure which face I should wear when I walk out the door.

So there's that. Morocco continues to be a learning experience. And don't worry--I haven't let this ruin my day, or my trip--I still had a great day seeing breathtaking things, and I continue to look forward to all my adventures to come. In 5 years this is a story I'll tell and laugh about.

But for now color me puzzled. There are plenty of Tareks between me and my flight back to the USA, and I have to admit that I'm not looking forward to looking each of them in the eye and telling them I have no interest in speaking to them or learning their story. But I suppose I'll have to. It's safe and it's practical.

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