“You. What’s your name? Noemi, right –sorry. Listen, Noemi, I need you to do something for me. It’s important.” Frank was on his knees in the front seat of the van, turned completely around to face us. During our tour through Morocco, this had been his default position. As we drove past the Kings House, A famous graveyard, or an important marketplace, he would turn around and tell us the story of the places we were going to. Frank had the power that all good storytellers have, to turn these abstract places made of brick and dirt into emotions. To hook our attention and make us care. But now he wasn’t telling stories, he was giving orders.
Our trip was over. We had just left Chefchaouen after two days of the thickest rain I’ve seen in my life. Chefchaouen, (or simply Chaouen) is one long maze of staircases, shops, and doors. During the rain, it became a very real waterfall, with several inches flowing down from the top of the city toward the base of the mountain it lived on. We’d bought our trinkets. We’d taken our photos. Our next and final stop: The Moroccan-Spanish Border.
Spain still controls the small pieces of land it took from Morrocco during its days of empire: the Spanish cities of Melilla and Ceuta. There is a legend that Hercules raised two pillars on either side of the straight to warn sailors that they had reached the end of the world. One pillar became the Rock of Gibraltar. The second became Monte Hacho, the same mountain we drove past to reach to the border. According to legend, engraved on each pillar is the phrase Non Plus Ultra: “There is nothing here beyond.”
And that’s where we were, about to reach the southern pillar at the end of the old world. This is a place many people dream of getting to. Thousands upon thousands of sub-Saharan refugees have walked many nations to arrive in Morocco. They know that if they can cross into Ceuta or Melilla they have a chance of boating across to mainland Europe where they cannot be deported or pushed back until they have received a proper Trial.
But in Europe or Die, Vice news has reported that this has not been the case. That many refugees have died at the hands of the Guardia Civil while trying to cross. Some refugees have been shot with rubber bullets while trying to scale the coast. Some fell and drown. There are reports of those who do cross being illegally pushed back without a proper trial. [VICE news].
Riding in the van with us were two Moroccan Students, Omar and Kawtar. During the long drive from Chefchaouen to the border, they did their best to keep us entertained. Omar would give one of us his headphones, turn the music up full blast, and then make us guess what he was saying while we read his lips.
When the taxi pulled up about a quarter mile from the border Frank told us to say goodbye. He reminded us how much Kawtar and Omar would love to visit Spain if they could. He reminded us of how lucky the little blue books we had in our hands made us. That we could go almost anywhere in the world with no hassle at all. He reminded us to hold on to them like we would our own life. Then, it was time to walk.
“Noemi, I need you to call the taxi company and order five Cabs for us. Have them waiting on the other side of the border. I’d do it myself but I don’t Speak that.” Watching Frank speak Arabic was a marvel. Here, a tall skinny white boy was able to control his throat enough to speak with a similar fire to that of the locals. Knowing the language gave him power, and the ability to safely guide a van full of helpless Americans around the country. But as we reached the end of the world on the other side of that razor fence he was slowly becoming powerless.
But Noemi was not, and I could see her whole demeanor change as he handed her his cell phone and gave her instructions. Her posture improved, her pupils contracted. She was ready to accept the responsibility. I’ll admit that I was jealous. I had worked hard on my Spanish while in Spain, and the people who know me can attest that I improved astronomically. But I couldn’t compete with Noemi who was not only raised Bilingual but had a real social intelligence that I don’t have.
I’m good at facts and figures, at dates and data. But Noemi really knows how to live her life. She’s not as inhibited as I am. She reminded me of the reason I was learning to Speak Spanish in the first place. Not to have some badge of accomplishment, but to able to be more social with a new world of people. That’s what language does, it connects us. Naynay’s Spanish wasn’t perfect, but while I was worried about what tense I was speaking in, Naynay was having a fun time just telling a stupid joke to someone. For all of these reasons she was the best candidate to handle the challenge ahead of us, and she knew it. She was ready.
Making sure we all got across the border after Frank left us was going to be its own stressor, not to mention the matter of the boat. If we were able to cross the border and get into the taxi’s we would still need to make it into the port on time. If we didn’t we would be stuck on the wrong side of the Gibraltar with no guide to help us. If we missed the boat and were able to buy tickets for the next ferry, it was still a three-hour drive to Córdoba, and who’s to say that our buss would still be there waiting for us?
I listened as Naynay made the phone call. The signal was bad and she had a hard time hearing them but she made the order. I closed my eyes and listened to everything she was saying. If I had dug deep within myself and pulled out all the Spanish I had within me, if I had been able to think completely in Spanish, be fully present in that moment, I couldn’t have done half as good as she did. This hurt my pride a little, but not as much as it made me proud of my friend.
As we walked, Noemi was at the front of the pack setting the pace. I think she knew there would be stragglers, but that her role in all of this was to make sure that she didn’t slow down. That the people who did fall behind had a fixed point to catch up to. Frank was as doing his best to keep everyone on pace while also trying not to have a panic attack, constantly checking the time, trying to will into existence that we not be stuck on this continent. I did my best to try and speed up two girls who were about thirty feet behind the rest of the group, who really didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. But eventually, all I could do was tell Frank. Like a sheep-dog in appearance and demeanor, he bounded over to them and snapped at them to speed up dang it!
When we got to the border we had to wait by an office as Frank collected all of our passports and got them stamped. We clumped together under the small overhang of the big gate to avoid the rain. A long line of cars was on one side of us, hoping to cross. On the other side was nothing. I remember twiddling my thumbs feeling a little miserable. I’m an older brother and a lifeguard. I like helping people, so I felt useless. But I had to remember that one of the biggest issues in helping the patient is crowd control. There will be people that want to help, or at least want to rubberneck, and all they do is get in the way. So I had to remind myself that the best thing I could do at that moment was get out of the way. Do exactly as I was told, and wait. It was humbling and it was hard. But Noemi was an older sibling too, so I knew she had it in her.
Meanwhile, Noemi had snapped out of her serious demeanor and was laughing her deep belly-laugh that I’d become accustomed too. She was carefree in a lot of the ways I wish I was. She’s not afraid to party. She knows how to have a good time and is really good at it. While I was deep in thought, thinking about all the people trying to cross the border she was probably laughing about something really stupid and insignificant. That’s what she was good at. She could make almost anything into a good time.
I think part of the reason she and I became such good friends was that we were opposite and similar in perfect ways. I know that led to us pissing each other off all the time, but she was still there waiting for me every morning to walk to class together. Our apartments were across the street from each other so when we would walk to school, we would go together.
Once, she told me she wanted to write a book about her life. Because not enough people understand how hard it is to be Mexican-American. To be two things. To be looked at and treated differently because you’re so dark. She would rage at the number of people in Spain that called her Filipina or China because of her thin eyes.
She would say these things to me and say “You wouldn’t understand, you’re white,” which stung just a little, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true. Having Mexican Ancestors and being proud of that heritage is not the same thing as growing up Mexican-American and all the shit you have to deal with because of that. So, despite our friendship, there were things I couldn’t empathize with her on, so I just did my best to listen.
While I was abroad I grew a massive beard. This made many people, including my host father think I was Moroccan. I don’t know why– my skin is olive toned at best. But in a way, it did make sense. Nobody knows where to place me, but they always seem to want to. The common question I get when meeting new people only intensified in Spain: “So, what are you?” My friend Mayra who was also traveling with us taught me an answer to shut those questions down: “I’m Gio.”
But before she taught me this I would usually make people guess. The top contenders tended to be Persian, Armenian, Italian, or “some type of middle eastern.” But never Mexican. Never even half Mexican.
Once, while I was looking through my Tata’s old books, I found an autobiography by my great aunt. And in it, I found out that my great-great aunt was a Curandera, and that they trace their herbal healing methods all the way back to Morocco. So in some abstract way a lot of Latinos do have Moroccan Ancestry, but for any of us there to walk into Morocco and say “Ah, the motherland!” would be ludicrous. And that’s how I feel sometimes about my own family history, even though I’m just one generation away from it.
But at the border, nobody doubted my American citizenship. They did doubt Adriel though. You’ll remember Adriel from my story Sleepless in Sevilla. Like Noemi, he is Mexican American but people always call him Filipino. He was raised with more culture than I was but he often told me that my Spanish was stronger. This made me proud and sad. Proud that I had worked so hard at it. Sad that instead of getting it from bedtime stories and goodnight prayers, I got it from Spotify playlists and Duolingo. The three of us made an interesting trio. A case study on Mexican culture in the US. People defined by borders.
The guards stopped him. They had him stand against the wall. They stared at his passport and back up at him, over and over and over again. Did they honestly think this group of American students was trying to hide a refugee in plain sight? I kicked myself for not thinking of the idea first.
Frank walked through with us, but he wasn’t going to stay for long. He was still nervously checking his watch, trying to keep his cool. He crammed a fistful of coins and bills into Noemi’s hand and said: “You guys have to go now!” Noemi did a head count and talked to each of the cab drivers. I stayed outside of the cab with her until she was ready to go, but she was so in the zone I don’t think she noticed me.
Her demeanor only increased as we got closer to the boats. Frank was gone now and it was all on her if we didn’t make it. Even when we arrived she was rushing everybody up the loading dock and into the boat. I’ll admit that I thought that was a little overkill, but hey, she’s the boss.
Then, when we were all inside the boat she relaxed. She ordered a Fino now that we were on Spanish territory and could drink again. As the boat rolled out toward Spain, I noticed a huge statue of Hercules holding up his two pillars through the fog. In the background, I could hear the laughter of her and her friends, her deep belly-laugh distinct among them all.
(Previously a Separate Post)
My dear Audience, this is not a story. This is an announcement. It’ in response to my most recent story: The Razor Wall and the Magic Blue Book. I left some details in the story ambiguous. And I normally love ambiguity, I mean I’m a writer, obviously. But these details implied things about real-world people. So I have some stuff to clear up.
The main thing is that I unintentionally implied that Frank, my guide during the trip, left us before we were safely at the port. If you read the post it strongly implies that. I am not sharing stories of fiction with you. I write about what actually happened so it’s important that I clear this up:
From the beginning of our trip until the final moment when he could go no further he was with us. When we stayed with host families, he stayed at the meetup area until our families brought us, and the same goes for when it was time for us to go home from our daily outings.
On the morning we crossed the border he took special care to make sure that we were all able to cross, all while holding to a very tight schedule. That was one of the things that impressed me, not only about Frank but the entire organization we traveled with. That was what inspired me to write this story and my other story about Morocco: The Hamman. There were storms while we traveled, things that nobody could plan for or prevent, and they handled it with grace. They handled logistics so well that I was never really aware that anything wasn’t going according to plan. I love to travel and logistics is the least fun for me, so to have someone like Frank there with us allowed me to have one of the most memorable weeks of my life.
I think the reason the story comes off that way is the focus of the story. For me, the story was about my friend Noemi and her ability to rise to a challenge. I wrote about her ability to look out for her friends in a new and unknown place. To do that I focused only on her experience and let details about Frank fall to the wayside. I made it seem like Frank was replaced by Noemi.
This cuts out Frank’s half of the story. About how good at his job he is that despite his challenges, we were always taken care of, up to the last minute at the port. Everyone in the organization allowed me to feel safe and fully immersed in that beautiful country.
To tell the story of that morning in one paragraph: Frank briefs us on exactly when and how we are going to cross. The van parks, all heads are counted and continue to be counted as we walk. Once at the border each of our passports is processed and double checked. Once we cross we all get into taxis, including our guides. Our guides go with us all the way to the port to see us off.
Tiny details can have a huge impact. I’m going to remember that as I keep bringing you entertaining stories from around the world. Thank you for reading, and for sharing with me what my stories mean to you. It means the world to me.