During the summer before I turned 15, my parents sat me and my two younger brothers down, and told us that our family was going travelling for the next 8 months. Not only was this unexpected but I wasn’t the least bit enthusiastic about the idea. Now, two years later, I’m still haunted by a few of these memories. Here are a couple of our experiences. This is not just a travel memoir - it is a portrait of my family.
Everyday, an estimated 400,000 pick pocketing incidents occur around the world. In any given city, this means there are thousands of pickpockets, and my father was convinced that every single one had him squarely in their sights. In the months leading up to our trip, he questioned everyone we knew who had recently returned from a trip overseas about their assessments regarding pick pockets and scammers. Did they get pickpocketed? Were they scammed? What about anyone they knew? Well, did they ever think they might have? He read and reread the Lonely Planet chapter on Crime & Safety. His paranoia grew and grew. Before embarking on our trip he assembled what he believed to be a state-of-the-art anti-pickpocketing device. It consisted of a pouch secured with a chain to a belt loop on his shorts. This, he was sure, would outwit the canny army of pickpockets he would encounter. He wore this device everywhere, in preparation for the inevitable assault by the wallet lifting enemy.
We did encounter one quasi-extortionist, but it was at the one time my father wasn’t expecting it. After arriving sleep-deprived and disoriented in Marrakech, Morocco, we began exploring. The city, like many in Morocco, is divided between the old city (medina) and the new city. The former, as the name suggests, constituted the original city before the advent of cars and wide boulevards. It is composed of a labyrinth of alleyways, none of them continuing in the same direction for more than a few hundred feet and there are no street signs. On our first walk, we got lost trying to return to our Riad, a type of traditional Moroccan apartment. We wandered around for hours, stepping around donkeys and steaming vats of snails. Just when we thought we would see our Riad, or at least a familiar landmark, we would end up in a dead-end alley way covered with Arabic graffiti.
As our confusion was becoming more acute, a young girl came up to us. She was probably no older than eight years, and spoke broken English. She asked if we were lost, and when we answered in the affirmative, she said she knew where our Riad was, and could lead us there. Gratefully, in submissive obedience, we followed her. She led us for about 30 minutes, and then told us our Riad was right around the corner. She looked at my parents expectantly, and my Dad extracted a few Dirhams (safely ensconced in his special wallet), which he handed to her. She took it, nodded and held out her hand for more. My Dad handed her more Dirhams, which she took with impatience. My Dad, who saw scammers hiding everyone, had met his match. He kept giving her money, until she nodded, and departed. We walked to where our Riad was supposed to be, but it was not there. It was another hour before we found our destination, and the last time my Dad asked for directions in Morocco.
Turkey annually exports an estimated $7 billion of textiles to the world’s market. As we were travelling through the country, my Dad became intrigued and ultimately fixated on the idea of bringing back Turkish-made linens, such as pillowcases, sheets and towels. For my father, there are few words more tantalizing, more holy, than wholesale. Anything is better when bought at wholesale prices. He was convinced that by buying the textiles wholesale, he could erase our need for marked up products from IKEA and Bed, Bath and Beyond. Through some searching and wrangling, he finally located a wholesale retailer. Their headquarters were located on a dusty road, in a large warehouse. After arriving, my brothers and I commenced a very dull four or five hours, while my parents looked through the products on display, my mother weakly protesting. My father, however, was determined. Since the employees spoke only the most basic English, and my Dad, of course, didn’t speak Turkish, he solved this problem by speaking Spanglish. His lingua franca wherever we travelled, he spoke Spanglish with locals from Belgium to Ukraine, Portugal to Slovakia. Combined with a great deal of gesticulating, it was not entirely ineffective. They went back and forth, my Dad asking, “is the cottono muy bien?” My mom continued to be skeptical of the complicated logistics of shipping the linens, but my Dad was undeterred. The warehouse promised it would be waiting on our doorstep when we got home. Eventually, a deal was finalized, but this was just the beginning of the troubles.
Of course, when we returned, the linens weren’t there. Once or twice a month, my Dad received a phone call from a Customs officer at a port in Tunisia or Greece, where the shipment was held up because of a custom’s tax or shipping costs. Several hundred dollars would be sent, and my Dad waited expectantly for the package until he got the next call from Italy and then France, and the cycle would repeat. It ended up taking 6 months to get to us. Factoring in all expenses, the arbitrage opportunity had not only evaporated, but the shipping costs had caused him to pay 10 times as much as the linens would have costed in the States. It remains a sore subject between my parents, and whenever my Mom is really mad, she can be overheard muttering about our $85 washcloths.
Marks and Spencer may sound unfamiliar to Americans, but in the UK and Ireland, it is the equivalent of an upscale Wal-Mart. Whilst in Dublin, we stopped in one of the M&S stores in the evening to buy some snacks for the following day. When we got to the checkout counter, we found out that all expiring food is automatically marked down to 20 cents each, twenty minutes minutes before closing. My father promptly bought 25 sandwiches, 4 apricot tarts and sundry other snacks.
The next evening, and the one after that, instead of visiting the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw, or listening to Irish fiddle music at a cozy pub, my Dad insisted on running around the fluorescent lit food aisles of M&S, mentally marking the items that would be discounted that evening. As the seconds hand neared 60, everyone in our family (except me --- I thought it undignified) sprung into action. It had the planning and execution of a military raid. My Mom ran down the aisles with a cart, as my Dad and brothers threw sandwiches, cheese, dips and salads at her. For the next three weeks, we rarely had a snack or meal that wasn’t expired.
My parents, if you have not already deduced, are frugal --- you might even call them cheapskates. One of the ways this was manifested was by always getting only one hotel room for our family of five, even though only four people are technically allowed in each room. To get around this rule, we were often told to walk separately into the hotel lobby, and up to our room to avoid detection by the hotel staff. If we ever happened to be in the lobby together, we were instructed to not make eye contact or talk. This tactic of sneaking kids, or what my little brother Leo called “kid smuggling” was used wherever we went. None of us would have imagined that this miserly scheme would attract the attention of the police, and nearly lead to my parent’s arrest. But it did -- in Ireland.
After our travels through the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, we were in the airport in Belfast waiting for the short flight to Edinburgh, across the Irish sea. Before we departed, my Mom and Leo went to use the bathroom. While washing up, they were talking about the strategy our family used by going up to the hotel room separately. They rejoined us, and we continued waiting with our suitcases. Unexpectedly, a group of stern-faced airport police walked up to us, and curtly said they were investigating suspicious behavior. They asked for my parents’ passports, and took them aside, where they were briefly interrogated. As I would find out later, someone in another stall in the bathroom overheard their conversation, and not understanding the context, had been alarmed by the term “smuggling kids”. They had promptly alerted the police of what sounded like a child trafficking ring.
Indeed, my parents exasperated, even mortified me at moments, but that time of our lives together --- for better or for worse --- I will never forget. Will I ever see a wallet chain and not think of my Dad in Europe, or come across a bed linen sale and not instantly recall our trials? I doubt it, and that is why life is more amusing for me. Our travels, though at times felt claustrophobic, brought us closer together, and our home is now full of artifacts gathered along the way. The tajine dish my father promised to cook weekly Moroccan meals in, still sits on the shelf, untouched. These are tangible connections to my experiences, the good ones and the memorable ones.
Oscar Wilde said it best, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”