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My friend Lilly is the traveling-est bug I know. Each year she travels to five continents, thirty cities not for business but out of relentless love for travel itself and unrelenting interest in other people’s cultures. Because she’s been doing this for the last two decades, she must have circumnavigated the world and visited every exotic island that appears as a speck on the map. I would, next time, suggest to her to enlist in Sir Richard Branson’s space travel for a change. Not only is she well traveled and intelligent, she’s very pretty too, having once modeled for a beauty soap but whose modeling career was side tracked by her strict parents.

Now she has homes in three cities and has four passports.

Most days in this humid Indian summer in the UK, I would be humming along the hum of whistling kettle in the kitchen while waiting for the tumble dryer alarm to implode. Then I would fix myself a cup of coffee before I embark on the monumental task of folding the wash while warm to spare me the trouble of ironing. The kid’s clothes at least. Mine I need to press because I am a neat-freak when it comes to clothes. I and wash and wear just wouldn’t go well in one sentence together.

Most days I would be on the top floor of this white two story house in Southampton. My  sister and her husband were off to work and I had already dropped off the kids to school. The house was all mine. So was the housework. I sorted my clothes from theirs and with the headset on my ears, ironed my clothes with passion to the music of Sarah Brightman’s Con Te Partiro, Andrea Bocelli’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Then I would shuffle among Sarah MacLachlan, Coldplay, Bob Marley and Jack Johnson songs and tears would be streaming copiously down my face onto my clothes. I didn’t need to spray water or starch on them.

I was homesick.

I was in the UK for a mini-sabbatical. I came in the throes of two successive miscarriages and my nieces, whom I and hubby raised for three years had been matched to schools in Southampton. My sister and my brother in law finally synchronized their work schedules, it was time for the children to be reunited with their parents.

I was in the process of weaning myself off them. The nieces were just too happy to be with their real parents. My sister and my brother in law were ecstatic to be parents once again. My husband adored them but could only take too many re-reruns of Kangaroo Jack  and Power Puff Girls and was relieved to have control of the remote again.  But I, their Mama Eva was doomed. I loved them like my own.

I have been treating myself to unlimited rides to outer zones of Hampshire on First Bus.  I went to St. Boniface church every Sunday along with Catholics from Kerala, Cochin and Goa,  some Filipinos and a sprinkling of whites. After mass, I’d take the double decker  bus and take a random ride until I’ve seen my fill of Southampton and I would go home and have breakfast. I studied the handbook on the hiking trails  and had walks in the forests of Southampton. My sister would bake me rice cakes and shove them under the door if I did not feel like going out. They invited me to hot air balloon rides in Blackwell.  But always I longed for home.

It was again one of those mornings that I forced myself out of bed to move along the same daily  rhythm of cooking, washing clothes, bringing the kids to school and ogling at the garbage collectors when the phone rang.

It was Lilly!

‘OMG, it’s you! Wassup, Lilly?’  (Thank you God! This is going to be a lovely day. This is the day I won’t be talking to myself)

‘Bestest friends told me you were in the UK’

‘Yup. They threw me one big send off party before I left’  (With about seventy people in his condo I had this funny feeling they were all there to make sure I really was leaving for a long stretch, if not for good ‘)

‘What’s keeping you busy?’

‘Umm, I’m writing posts on my MSN’s My Space about my charmed life while on sabbatical to keep my friends updated and drooling. (Lord forgive me for I know not what I’m saying. Can I invoke temporary insanity?)

‘I’m in Uluru now but I’ll be in Rome in two days for the Pope’s installation. Wanna meet up?’

‘Ugh, huh’  (Dear God, I want to switch lives with this girl)

‘Is that a yes?’

‘No. I can’t apply for a Schengen visa from here’ (I really want to switch lives with this girl)

‘My bad. Never thought of that getting in the way. From Rome I’ll be flying in to Barcelona and Madrid’

‘A-ha. I’m listening’ (God, are you listening? I want to live her life)

‘But if you’re really up to it, I can take a train from Madrid to Tangiers and we can meet in Fes. You don’t need a visa for Morocco. Let’s take it from there. Just book  a room in an Ibis hotel near the train station. I’ll e-mail you my itinerary. See you in a week.’

Click!

Ok!’ ( Dear Lord, life isn’t fair! Sigh!)


After having stayed in Fes for three days exploring  the Medina, the tannery, the souks, mosques, madrasah, climbing up inner city houses of Berber carpet weavers and the ancient nooks of Fes,  and after a lunch of couscous and chicken tajine while listening to the music of Mali singer Sangare, Lilly and I decided to call it a day and plan our itinerary. But first, we must slake off our thirst in this al fresco garden cafe that was recommended by Lonely Planet.

It was a pricey cafe but many people, mostly Europeans were there. We must have been reading the same travel guide. Either that or the place must really be exceptional.

Lilly and I waited for a uniformed waiter to come to us. Between her and me, she was the French-y one while I have limited mine to ‘Parlez vous anglais’ while tapping the shoulder of an unsuspecting English or French tourist and ‘Pardon’ or ‘Excusez moi’ to save my life.

I could see waiters were busy and we were prepared to wait. Until a vision came upon us, both Lilly and I were not prepared for.

He was wearing a loose gray cotton Billabong shirt and jeans. Something was telling me he was an anachronism in a place like Fes. He looked like he belonged in a runway. Or NBA court. Or Hollywood.

He apologized for keeping us waiting. He explained that it was a holiday so many people were in the garden. He came home from Rabat where he worked as a financial analyst, to visit his Dad, and help out in the family business. He was mixing drinks in the kitchen when he saw us.

‘So ladies, may I have your order?’  he said in an impeccable English with undecipherable accent. not a drawl, not a twang but did not sound bad either.

‘You’ve been to Australia?’ Lilly asked.

 

(God, give me some of Lilly’s charm and her guts)

 

‘Yeah, I was there last year. You noticed? I love to surf! I also love Bondi beach.’

‘It’s your shirt. I’m from Sydney’ Lilly said

‘That’s cool!’

(You’re Chicago based now, Lilly!)

‘We’re cooling our heels actually. We’re leaving for Marrakech tomorrrow’ Lilly confessed.

‘Oh, no, no, no. Tourists. You’re always reading those travel guides. You should ask from the locals. Why would you like to go to Marrakech when everybody is there. It’s a desert. It’s a jungle. Give me your book’

He pored over the appendix and scanned the page and when he found what he was looking for, pointed to a chapter on Essaouira.

‘This is where you want to go! That is Morocco’s version of the French Riviera!’

‘Wait, I didn’t get your name?’ I asked.

(Thank you God for giving me the guts, but why not  include Lilly’s French and charm?)

‘Oh sorry Miss. I got carried away. I am Ali.’ He replied, clutching  me  the guide book on his chest.

‘I’m Lilly. And she’s Eva’. Lilly said coyly.

‘I am pleased to meet you ladies. Now, like I said, if you should decide to go to this place, this is a new experience for you because all of Morocco you’ve seen desert. And hot places. This is by the sea. It’s the most beautiful seaside place in Morocco’

‘Actually Ali, that’s not part of our itinerary’ I said.

‘Actually, it is now.’ Lilly said grinning.

(I really really want to have all of her guts dear God)

‘Oh, that’s good. Here’s what you do.’

And Ali, while leaning on our table, went on to explain to Lilly  how to get to Essaouira from Fes while I sat there motionless and unbelieving that I would be this close to a creature this handsome, good looking, stupendously good looking he’s almost beautiful. If he were a chemistry equation, he would be

Antonio Banderas face +  Pau Gasol hair =  Ali

He had this long, curly dark brown hair, square jaw and nice teeth, captivating smile that infected his large, dark brown eyes. His skin was flawless and his shoulders were broad, his arms muscular and he was neat.  I regretted the fact that we met in Fes and not in Bondi beach.

Ali convinced Lilly that Essaouira was way better than Marrakech. How could we not trust a face like that?

‘Okay, Eva darling, we better get going’  Lilly said as she got up from her chair.

‘Well, I’m not doing anything now. I can bring you to your hotel and drive you to the bus station so you’ll save time. Is that OK?’

(I also want some of  Ali’s guts Lord?)

I have always trusted Lilly’s instincts. Between her and me, she’s the traveler and I was the bug.

Ali asked us to follow him to the garage where he emptied the backseat of his folders and books.

He drove a one year old BMW, a glistening black one.

When we got to the hotel, we hurriedly packed our stuff and checked out while Ali waited in lobby and helped us carry our stuff.

Then he drove us to the bus station. Lilly rode in the front seat where they talked about Sydney and Lyons and Grenoble and Serengeti and Rio de Janeiro and the world. I was eavesdropping but most of the time the talk was unintelligible as they conveniently would shift from French to English, English to French.

At the bus station, drivers and conductors were waving at him and he waved back, smiling. He seemed like a local celebrity. Maybe his family owned the bus company. Or maybe his family owned Essaouira.

He told the driver of the 6PM bus to ‘Take care of my  friends’. Lilly and I took our assigned seats. From the window I could see Ali waiting for the bus to leave and when it did, he smiled and waved at us.We waved back. Even in the afterglow, his dark brown hair and the contour of his lovely face were perfectly outlined. The last I remembered of Ali was his smile, a luscious, delectable smile. Lilly was humming a French canson, her eyes closed. She was smiling. I asked her what she was smiling about.

‘He asked for my phone number!’ she whispered and continued humming until the humming became more and more faint as she went to sleep smiling.

(God Almight, I really want to switch lives with Lilly even for just a day).

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