The woman on the bus next to me was somewhere between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five. Her short, black hair was tied back in two barbarically tight braids. Multicolored string bracelets decorated her arms, which were peppered with curled, black hairs. She was reading a pink hardcover book. “How to Make People Like You…The Right Way” the cover said. She hadn’t made much progress. She and her boyfriend had been groping each other hungrily throughout the two-hour ride, twisting their bodies into pretzels together on the vinyl seat and nestling their faces into each other’s necks.
At one point, she turned away from her boyfriend’s tattooed neck and stared at me, her eyes large and black.
“Can you shut that window?” she said. “It’s blowing like…a lot of wind into my face.”
I slid the window shut. The woman smiled at me. She had thick, silver braces bracketing her teeth, which only enhanced her disconcertingly adolescent look.
We were on a bus from Merzouga, in the Sahara, back to Marrakech, where my flight to Amsterdam left the next morning.
The balding bus driver spat something in Arabic, then switched to English. “Food. Drink,” he muttered, gesturing ahead with his hands. “Stop thirty minute.”
One of the gas station/café combos which populate the rural roadsides of Morocco appeared through the dusty glass windows. Our driver jerked the bus over to the side of the road, stepped out, and began furiously inhaling cigarettes as the rest of us staggered into the sunlight. My ass was numb. I stood in the shade of an olive tree and rubbed it as inconspicuously as possible, watching Braces and her boyfriend skip off the bus, biting each other’s earlobes and giggling. Save for them, four wrinkled French women, and a bony, sour-faced Euro (Hungarian? Czech?) who hadn’t gotten off the bus, the other passengers were all Moroccan.
The buildings around the gas station were mostly husks, dried out and crumbling after years under the heat of the desert sun. They looked like sandcastles, as if they’d blow over under strong breeze. The air was stale and dry, the kind of air where a single breath could travel a thousand miles. Men in djellabas lingered on motorbikes outside the café, talking amongst themselves. A herd of goats bleated from across the road. Little Isuzu trucks motored by, stacked high with wooden pallets and goat skins and breads.
I wandered around the deserted buildings scattered near the gas station, trying to stretch my legs. As I came around behind the station and among a cluster of vacant mudbrick buildings, doorless and windowless, I heard a crash. A yelp followed. It wasn’t loud, but it was distinctly the sound of a fall. Curious, I rounded the corner around the building to my right. A cluster of kids stood around another, who was squatting on the ground, clutching his knee. His pant leg was torn and blood was seeping from the knee. The kid hissed for a minute, biting his fingers, then took his forearm and smeared the blood away. He got to his feet.
There were around seven of them, all boys. The oldest couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve, and most were younger. As is typical in a Muslim country, the kids were all wearing pants and long sleeved shirts, despite the desert heat. Wary of letting them notice me and disturbing whatever they had going on, I backed off to the shade of another building ten yards away, where I sat down with my back against a wall to watch. The boys gestured to each other, pointing at the mud brick wall behind them. It looked like the boy had been climbing the wall and had fallen. It was maybe eighteen feet tall, and made up the backside of a building about half the length of a semi-trailer. It was a flat face, but little notches and cracks had started to form in the crumbling clay, just small enough for a little hand to jam into. I noticed that the kids were all barefoot. Their sandals lay clustered under a bush nearby.
With the one kid still clutching his knee, another challenger pushed his fellows aside and slipped his hands into two vertical seams set about four feet up the wall. He was wearing dusty brown pants, a scuffed cotton shirt, and a cocky grin. He slipped his hands back out of the holds and turned briefly, and offering a bow to his friends. They jeered at him, but he waved them off and started up the wall.
Owen Clarke, 20, began climbing in rural Alabama at age 11.