AartiT. SHER SINGH
Monday, July 9, 2012
We picked up a rental car in Lisbon and spent several days making our way down Portugal’s west coast.
We took a sharp left turn when we ran out of land at Sagres and jogged along the coast until we crossed into Spain.
We tasted the myriad of delights in Seville, Cordoba, Granada, and the “white villages” too.
Since we were in the vicinity, we made our way down to the shock of Gibraltar: an English bobby greeted us as we drove, literally, across the airport runway to hop over onto the Rock.
It was a jarring anomaly. Reminded me of the poor Japanese soldier found on a remote Pacific island in the 70s, still barricaded in defence of the island against the Allies. Somebody had forgotten to send him word that the war had ended three decades earlier.
Well, that’s exactly what seems to have happened in Gibraltar. Somebody needs to tell the Brits here that Napoleon is long gone. That it’s safe. That it’s time to go home.
Sure, England is cute -- in England! But in the middle of Spain, within hailing distance of Morocco? It felt like we’d walked into a flea market. People here are still celebrating Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, believe me.
So we fled. To Morocco.
Caught a ferry from the nearby Spanish port of Algeciras, crossed the strait and arrived in Tangiers.
We’d been warned about the city, that it was a den of hustlers, that they were a pain and could easily turn your life into hell.
Well, they proved to be worse. Moments after we were off the boat, we stopped to buy some Moroccan currency. I spent the next hour, however, trying to retrieve my passport from the exchange merchant. He claimed he was entitled to keep it until we were heading back 10 days later!
It got even worse. No matter where we stopped, for food or shelter, we had the distinct feeling we were being cheated. Barely two hours in the city and we had concluded we did not want to spend another minute there. It felt unclean.
Problem. We had been warned that travelling by road after dark, especially between towns and cities, was a definite no-no.
Fortunately, we’d also been told by traveller friends whose tips we treasured that the rest of Morocco was pure pleasure. My daughter and I had a quick conference and decided we had to get out of there, no matter what. We studied the map. Fes looked like it was five or six hours away. The mere thought of the imperial city warmed the cockles of our hearts.
It was already dark. We hurriedly picked up a basked of oranges for nourishment en route and fled.
We flitted through a range of foothills, in the shadow of the notorious Rif mountain range, and skirted away from Mount Tidiguin atop which, according to legend, Noah’s Ark had once rested.
Once night had blanketed everything in sight and we had left all signs of humanity behind, my daughter settled down to sleep. The further we left Tangiers behind, the more relaxed we had become. I began to enjoy the drive and to savour the fact that we were in Morocco.
Thus, we wove our way through a country in slumber. Very little seemed to happen around us, other than the occasional truck we had to jostle with for a share of the roadway. Transport trucks were always overloaded, the volume of their loads more than double the size and ambit of the vehicles themselves. Looking like Shriners scooting around on their invisible mini-bikes, the trucks would wobble along; passing each one was a hair-raising experience. There was never any danger of my falling asleep at the wheel.
The journey proved slower than we had anticipated.
At 10:00 pm or so, we found ourselves at a fork that seemed to have been missed by Michelin. And there were no road signs. I chose one direction and lumbered along slowly, waiting for guidance, divine or otherwise.
I saw a couple of dim lights ahead. I slowed down and stopped. Next to two police officers holding flashlights. There were a half-a-dozen frightened looking villagers squatting in front of them. The officers looked surprised, the villagers looked relieved.
A shake-down? Instinct told me not to be inquisitive. We exchanged a few disjointed words in Arabic: I was told to take the other route. I swung around and headed once again for Fes.
Approaching midnight, I could sense we were high in the mountains. The sky was crystal clear, but no moon, just stars. I knew we were high up, even though I could see little beyond the road; it was too dark even for silhouettes. But the sharp climb and the hairpin turns betrayed the terrain.
Suddenly, we seemed to arrive at the top. Of somewhere.
I stopped in the middle of the road: it was obvious there was no traffic for miles. I switched off the headlights, and woke up my daughter.
We stepped out and sat on the hood.
I looked up and realized why the Milky Way was called so. The space above us was packed with stars, as if all of them had been pushed closer to fit into the space available. The atmosphere, it appeared, had been vacuumed away to give an unimpeded view.
And then I noticed that the sky did not stop at where the horizon should have been. The sky simply cascaded downwards and then disappeared way down somewhere, way below our feet.
How was that possible? We looked at each other in astonishment.
Is this what Nanak saw when the sang his aarti?
The sky a platter
The sun and moon the lamps
Studded with pearls of the galaxies …
What a worship!
This is truly Your worship!
I felt dizzy. Vertigo! How high were we?
It took us a while to figure it out. We could see somewhere in the vast beyond that lay below us, lights from villages which simply became the continuum of the display of the sky, and hurtled the spectacle down to the plains, creating the impression that it was one seamless mass.
The solution to the riddle did not take away at all from the magic.
Is this how Yuri Gagarin felt when he first circled the globe in the Vostok? Is this the vantage point Archimedes was seeking for leverage? Is this what God looks down upon every time She glances in our direction?
We drove away, reluctantly, still without uttering a word.
We reached Fes in the early hours of the morning. The city of sleep. Literally. Not a soul in sight.
It was befitting. We weren’t ready yet to shed the glow we had felt standing at the edge of the universe.
Conversation about this article
1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), July 09, 2012, 1:18 PM.
Great article for us global adventurers!
2: Sidhu Damdami (Chandigarh, Punjab), July 24, 2012, 7:56 PM.
Narration is very powerful and captivating. It made me travel with the writer.