“We were homeless in Marrakech”: When budget travel with two kids goes sideways

“We were homeless in Marrakech.”

The first time my daughter told someone, I shot her the eye. People knew we spent summers in Morocco, but what happened in Morocco was supposed to stay there. My children weren’t to tell anyone — not even their father — about the smoke-filled cafés we frequented in Essaouira, or about the time we got stuck on a country road in hundred degree weather and had to hitchhike back to Ouarzazate.

That “homeless” summer, like all our Moroccan summers, there was another part of the deal — we did not travel in the way of tourists. We didn’t make hotel reservations, nor did we dine in lavish restaurants. Instead, we rented apartments in middle-class Moroccan neighborhoods, and shopped for our groceries in souqs where we could get to know our neighbors. We traveled within a budget that would let us stay in-country for weeks, and sometimes months, at a time.

That particular Moroccan summer, my children were aged two and seven. I was there in part to offer my children a different perspective on the world, but also to research the book that would become my second novel. At the end of each day, in a small notebook, I’d write a few entries under a line I wrote in block capitals: WHAT I LEARNED TODAY. Sometimes the entries were insignificant, as when I found the location of the Royal Gendarmerie school in Safi. Other times the entries were longer, as when I spent the day interviewing sub-Saharan migrants trapped in Rabat without work visas.

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Our temporary homelessness bloomed out of this situation, that after those interviews we traveled from Rabat back to Marrakech, where we supposedly had a VRBO waiting for us. But when we arrived at the apartment, we found that we’d been allotted one room that was the size of a closet, with one twin bed for the three of us. The shared “bathroom,” up two more flights of stairs, held a toilet whose seat was crooked on its hinges and a shower that can be described simply as “questionable.”

The VRBO owner’s mother lived on the first floor of the building, and she repeatedly asked him, in Arabic I didn’t speak, why I was traveling with no husband. The apartment, in sum, was a no. All our suitcases and bags were outside on the pavement, and I was deeply panicked at the same time I wasn’t about to let on as much in front of my children. Still, I felt myself telling the owner we couldn’t possibly stay. “Please forget it,” I said.

“I do have another apartment,” he told me, and so we loaded my and my children’s suitcases into the back of his small sedan and began driving across the hustling city of Marrakech. As he drove, I asked him questions. “Are the rooms bigger?” He said they were. “A bigger bathroom?” I asked. Yes, he told me, though there was no hot water.

It was a small hitch — we were planning on staying in the apartment for five weeks, but after all, my children were by then intrepid travelers, accustomed to cold showers. And the apartment was in a prime location. I was ready to take it, until he told me about the “one thing you might not like: I’m living in the apartment.” I fought back laughter at the same time I fought back tears. We were speaking in French that would have been difficult for my children to decipher without concentration, and they were then fighting, viciously, in the back seat of the car, for which I was grateful. “I can’t take that either,” I said. “Just take us to the train station.”

I felt suddenly nuts for bringing two small children, for two months, to a country where I knew no one and didn’t even speak the official language.

He dropped us and our things off at the Gare de Marrakech, where I sat rubbing my temples for four hours while my children ran up and down the escalators for amusement. With my dwindling cash I bought my kids a pizza and two bottles of Fanta from a train station diner. I felt suddenly nuts for bringing two small children, for two months, to a country where I knew no one and didn’t even speak the official language. Our return flight wasn’t for six more weeks. To change the tickets would have cost a fortune.

Finally, as the sun sank and passenger traffic dwindled, as the gendarmes began eyeing us suspiciously, I gave in and hauled our suitcases to a nearby Ibis, which was part of a mid-range hotel chain. On the one hand, we were lucky. Our problems were mostly logistical in nature. We weren’t the homeless of that country. We weren’t even the homeless of our own country. I could swipe a debit card, albeit reluctantly, and fix everything.

On the other hand, the cost of a hotel wasn’t financially sustainable for me, not for six weeks. And as my children jumped around, shrieking with laughter, in the one bed they’d have to share that night, I knew the space wouldn’t sustain our sanity, not for six more weeks. That evening, my seven-year-old wrote on the small lined page of my notes journal. “What did you learn today?” she printed, in her neat, fledgling handwriting. She was gently kidding, but I felt like a parental failure.

I left our tiny room to go sit in the hotel’s garden space. The only other person in the garden was a man wearing a white robe customarily worn by Saudi men, sitting alone with a bucket of five beers. He invited me to sit with him and, over a drink, I relayed my plight. “I have an apartment for rent,” he said, excitedly. “I can show it to you!”

And so began one more surreal Moroccan night. I woke my children and we piled in the man’s car, where he blasted rai music as we made our way to Gueliz, one of the more fashionable Marrakchi districts. And the apartment did not disappoint: it had hardwood floors, a sparkling bathroom. “I’ll get you at noon tomorrow,” he said, “and you can move in.” I went to bed feeling triumphant. I’d long said Morocco was like an abusive spouse. Two days out of three, it beat you. But on the third day, it always, always delivered.

Finally the front desk clerk told me I had a phone call. It was the man in the white robe, sobbing into the phone.

Shortly before noon, my children and I brought down our suitcases. Noon passed. 12:30. One o’clock. The hotel clerks, all of whom seemed to know the man in the white robe, eyed me with amusement. I walked to the train station and got my children more pizza and Fanta. Finally, at 1:30, the front desk clerk told me I had a phone call. It was the man in the white robe, sobbing into the phone. “My wife died,” he began.

“I’m so sorry!” I said. “When did this happen?”

“Six years ago,” he said, and the call turned more surreal from there. He offered to come back at four that evening, but a voice from the more reasonable part of my mind told him it was fine — we’d figure out something else.

My children are now 12 and 17, and they’ve spent a lot of summers in Marrakech. We did end up finding an apartment that day, and we’ve gotten ourselves through a number of Moroccan adventures in the years since, from the time my younger daughter was gravely ill in the Sahara to the time we all found ourselves deposited, by bus, in the wrong town.

And all these years later, what I would write in response to my daughter’s question is that we learned not that we were failures, but that we were all three tremendously resourceful. I’d say we learned that when the three of us were determined about a thing as a family, we could overcome anything. When I say my kids grew up partially in Morocco, I’m not exaggerating. The thing is, in traveling with them, I did, too.

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