I read a story once about a near-sighted writer who, after having been engrossed in his writing for hours, took a break to rest his eyes. He slipped his glasses off and went to the window of his apartment for a breath of fresh air. When he looked down on the street below he saw a line of penguins getting into a banana. After retrieving his glasses he realized it was, in fact, a group of nuns getting onto a school bus. He decided he preferred the penguins getting into the banana a lot more. The lesson, I suppose; things aren’t always what they seem–and sometimes are more enthralling when left to their unanswered mysteries.
I had a similar incident last year while riding in Morocco. I was on a motorcycle trip with Hendrik von Kuenheim (the CEO of BMW Motorrad), a handful of BMW marketing people, and several journalists. Now it’s important to emphasize for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure, Morocco is a beautifully magical place where mysterious anomalies abound. From the haunting call to prayer of the muezzin, to the bustling narrow avenues of the Medina, to the smell of a thousand different spices wafting about the evening air at open market places, Morocco has charms beyond a western norm.
We had taken off from Marrakesh several days earlier heading east, traversing the mighty Atlas Mountains via a combination of wonderfully engaging (and pretty much empty) winding paved roads and single track, to touch the edge of the Sahara Desert. Along the way we entertained numerous visual oddities, unusual landscapes, and dramatic transformations of evening sky.
It was on the second to last day of our trip, on the return west, headed toward the Atlantic Ocean and our start point of Marrakesh that we came upon one of those penguins getting into a banana scenarios. It had been a long day in the saddle and it was getting late. We were engaged in that time-honored two-wheel game of racing the setting sun, trying to beat the approaching darkness to our hotel (and the waiting luxury of cold beer to wash away the dryness in our throats). The final stretch through the mountains was a sublime, curving masterwork of road building with a seemingly endless series of gracefully sweeping curves that perfectly rewarded the common desires of a motorcyclist.
The turns gradually steered us toward a narrow gap in the mountains, which the road engineers had accurately assessed was the only logical place to pour pavement to create passage. Tall ridges bottlenecked us through a wedge of red rock, drawing us toward a descent that ran down the other side. The cliffs created a natural venturi effect that drew a steady stream of air from the valley below and sucked it through the gap with impressive velocity.
As the pavement straightened out to make its way through the pass we were treated to a baffling sight. Perhaps two kilometers in the distance was the most beautiful array of strange, indigenous flora. It spread out over the surrounding area like some alien incarnation of vegetation bursting with a wonderful palette of bright, almost unnatural hues. The strange, translucent leaves of striking color were backlit by the last rays of the setting sun, the magic-hour light transforming them into even more vibrant shades.
We could see that the road was going to take us directly through this spectacular corridor of color. There was a palpable, yet tacit awe in our observations, with everyone staring ahead, privately absorbing this fascinating visual treat. Morocco had delivered an abundance of unusual sights over the previous days and I assumed that this phenomenon of nature, like all the rest, would be explained later by our guide. One of our group pointed at the scene ahead, wanting to ensure we all were seeing it. We were.
...things aren't always what they seem—and sometimes are more enthralling when left to their unanswered mysteries. "
Our speed rapidly eclipsed the distance, the road drawing us closer to the surreal garden of color. But as we approached the edge of this wonderland of vegetation it became apparent that what was creating this stunning scene wasn’t some strange North African, late-afternoon-blooming plant, but rather, thousands upon thousands of discarded plastic grocery bags whose colors ran the gamut of the rainbow.
These were the cheap, flimsy bags readily available across Morocco at most all grocery stores and small markets. They go out the doors of various establishments in the hands of customers containing fruits and vegetables and other odds and ends. As light as air when empty, the bags become airborne with even the slightest draft, where they begin journeys that take them wherever the wind blows.
The contours of the valley leading to the narrow pass in the mountains created a constant flow of air that was forever drawing these discarded bags up from the populated valley below. Their airworthiness made them perfect for getting sucked up from the villages where they had been set free–whether by accident or carelessness–once they’d served their purpose. As they were blown through the pass they got snagged on thorny branches of various species of plants. The result was a sad reflection of mankind’s indifference–which was strangely enthralling in its revulsion.
So, what had been perceived just a few moments earlier as yet another of Morocco’s beautiful mysteries, turned out simply to be the by-product of commerce. A colorful garbage dump created by a combination of natural elements and that most ubiquitous of human inventions. As we rode through the petrified forest of hot pink, wafer-thin blue, olive green, pale yellow, faded orange, and the ever-present clear opaque, we each slumped slightly into a sigh, body language reflecting disappointment.
We rode through the garden, the discarded grocery bags fluttering in the steadily blowing wind, their sun-faded plastic torn against the thorny branches that had snared them. The strange place was reduced to a retreating image in our mirrors, dispatched with turns of the throttle as we raced down the hillside and into the offending valley from where the plastic bags had begun their journey.
As the mountains receded behind us I was reminded of the writer in the apartment. A few moments earlier we thought we were seeing some magical aspect of this foreign place. But that first perception had been quickly dashed and became something else entirely. I’ll never forget the harsh realization when those beautiful, flowering colors transformed, all too rapidly, into something altogether quite different. I think back on that moment from time to time and remember how much I preferred the distant vision of the strangely beautiful and mysterious Moroccan plants flowering in the setting sun. SR