When we arrived at the Hotel Continental in Tangier and Mark pulled first a ukulele and then a lemon juicer out of his backpack, I wasn’t sure how to react. Amused, annoyed? Both seemed appropriate. When he continued rummaging through his bag, eventually producing four books—one of them War and Peace—I sighed and shook my head. We were off on a three-week backpacking adventure through Morocco, and Mark, my bumbling English companion, had equipped himself with a ukulele, a lemon juicer, and Tolstoy. I realized that if I didn’t end up assaulting Mark with War and Peace—its heft was nicely suited to the purpose—I would consider the trip a success.
I had just finished my Master’s degree in Edinburgh, and since living in Scotland is like living inside a wet plastic bag, I thought I would reward myself with a vacation. To finance my degree, I had worked part-time as a waitress in a North African restaurant. Those long hours spent serving steaming, fragrant plates of couscous and tajine led me to begin consulting Moroccan guidebooks and talking to friends who had visited the country. Between stories of sunset camel treks and silver treasures in bustling markets, everyone repeated the same advice: bring a man.
Morocco’s faux-guides, I was told, were notoriously aggressive. I heard of one woman, a veteran globe-trotter, who called home sobbing, begging a friend to book her a flight out of Marrakech after one day of harassment in the city’s medina. A man would scare off con artists, I was told, and, as an added bonus, do all the heavy lifting. It didn’t take much to convince me. I had already survived the Scottish summer—I wasn’t about to put myself through further distress.
As I began interviewing male friends, however, I discovered that they were all tied down to jobs—or, more significantly, girlfriends. With my departure date looming and “single” newly added to my travelling companion criteria, I must have mentioned my predicament to Mark. At the time, I didn’t know him very well. He was a friend-of-a-friend I’d met only a handful of times before, almost exclusively at Edinburgh pubs. In fact, prior to our meeting in Malaga to board a Tangier-bound ferry, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d ever seen Mark sober. Minor details, I told myself, trying to ignore the sudden realization that my heavy lifter was about as imposing as a paper clip. Still, he was single and he had a penis; he would do.
Yet just when one is counting on gender stereotypes, they have an annoying tendency to disappoint. Once in Morocco, while Mark strummed his ukulele, I haggled with taxi drivers; while Mark read his books, I planned our itinerary. Every morning, Mark would turn to me and ask, “What are we doing today?” I began to feel like his personal guide and translator, not to mention surrogate mother. I exploded one evening in the labyrinthine streets of Fez, tired and exhausted after an hour spent searching unsuccessfully for a hostel. “Do something!” I yelled at him, “Be a man!”
For someone who had sat through courses in feminist theory, I felt decidedly guilty when those words left my lips. “Be a man”—what was I, a 1950s football coach? Yet I didn’t know how else to articulate my frustration. I was tired of being the only participant in our daily haggle-to-death battles with hostel owners. It’s not that I wanted Mark to mount a nearby mule, sweep me up, and guide me to safety and security behind the doors of a hotel-riad; I just wanted him to participate. Traveling is not all beautiful sunrises, misty mountain trails, and intoxicating three-course meals. It requires strategy. Getting from point A to point B involves planning and, more often than not, a detour by point C. Two brains are better than one, as the saying goes; with Mark, it felt like my brain was the only one working, and it was dangerously close to short-circuiting.
I would like to report that by the end of the three weeks Mark was out in the medinas, haggling down stooped old ladies with the best of them. Sadly, this was not the case. He tried, bless him, but his testosterone just didn’t live up to its reputation. “Bring a man,” I huffed, watching a faux-guide lead Mark into his carpet stall. It’s not that I regretted bringing Mark along—I’m sure his presence prevented many a would-be Romeo from going any further than yelling “massage, massage!” at me as we walked by—but I couldn’t help wondering how the trip would have been with a more decisive partner.
Then again, a “manly” man probably would not have serenaded me with ukulele versions of the Velvet Underground. Or read Tolstoy to me as I fell asleep. On our way to the Dades Gorge, in a collective taxi packed with twenty people, Mark and I perfected our ode to the local cuisine: “Tajine,” sung to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Whenever I felt like heaving War and Peace at his blundering head, he would hum a few bars and my anger would dissolve as quickly as St. Petersburg snowflakes in the Merzouga sand dunes. We never did use the lemon juicer.