Pop Culture Touchstones
As a baby boomer, most of my pop cultural touchstones date back to the 1950s through the 1970s.
Bob Dylan will always speak more to me than Jay Z; the Kardashians are only names to me. What is it they do, exactly? I have no idea.
My all-time favorite actors and actresses are long since deceased; some of my favorite movies were filmed in black and white. But many of them — along with popular songs, books, and TV shows — have played crucial roles in developing my love of travel, and continue to do so to this day.
My First Big Screen Experience
The first movie I can remember seeing on the big screen — around 1952 — was The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn; it was playing at my local theater as part of a double feature with another classic, High Noon.
The African Queen was an adventure tale set in World War I-era German East Africa and involved a tramp steamer, a fraught but increasingly close relationship between the strait-laced Hepburn and the hard-drinking boat captain (Bogart), and a long-shot scheme to blow up a German U-boat.
Though I was too young to follow all of the plot, I was mesmerized throughout the film: its depiction of far-off African jungles, rivers, and villages inspired my love of a continent that has remained with me for life. By sixth grade, I was compiling scrapbooks of articles about Africa and collecting stamps from there as well. When I got my first Belgian Congo stamps from a missionary visiting my home town, they became my prized possessions.
Not surprisingly, then, Africa was the first continent I visited after North America and Europe, and I’ve returned many times since, traveling to 20-some countries there so far. Would I have developed my lifelong passion for Africa if I’d never seen the movie? Maybe — but maybe not.
My first trip to the African continent was to Morocco in North Africa in the early 1970s. I was compelled to travel there after multiple viewings of my all-time favorite movie, Casablanca, whose screenplay I can recite almost by heart.
Once again, my favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart, starred in his classic role of Richard (Rick) Blaine. Casablanca was pictured as the kind of exotic, intrigue-filled city of my dreams.
As it happens, the real-life contemporary city of Casablanca isn’t particularly exotic at all, but I found all the exoticism I would ever need in two other Moroccan cities, Marrakesh and Fez.
Marrakesh was a must, of course, due to the hit 1969 song by Crosby, Stills and Nash, Marrakesh Express.
As I rode the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh, I kept humming the tune even as I wished the train really were an express. I naively boarded it without packing a lunch and had to watch a woman sitting across from me downing juicy oranges and some sort of delicious-looking sandwich as my hunger pangs grew and the train rumbled slowly through the desert.
But Marrakesh was worth every moment — a desert oasis whose central square was enlivened by the strangest collection imaginable of snake charmers, bizarrely dressed water sellers, jugglers, and storytellers.
I wandered the teeming souks for hours,buying a djellaba (a long hooded robe favored by Moroccan men), a goatskin canteen, a leather shoulder bag that smelled of tanners’ dye, and a hand of Fatima necklace, among other treasures that I keep to this day.
Would I have made it to Morocco without the influence of the movie Casablanca prompting my quest?
No doubt, at some point I would have — but to reach it at that time required:
- Getting out of my sick bed in Seville, Spain (where I’d had a temperature of 104 F);
- Sleeping between two chairs outside a bar in a little town in the middle of nowhere after walking ten miles in the dark (long story);
- Hitchhiking to Algeciras (where the ferries leave for Tangier);
- Being rejected by Moroccan immigration authorities in Algeciras because my hair was deemed too long;
- Catching a ferry instead to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta (which adjoins Morocco);
- Riding a bus to the Moroccan border;
- Having to convince the immigration authorities there — in French — that the big red “X” scrawled over my Moroccan visa was done at my request;
- Sleeping on a Moroccan beach without a sleeping bag and nearly freezing to death at 4 a.m.;
- Hopping a ride to Tangier on the back of a truck, where I finally got a hotel room again.
That’s how much I was inspired by Casablanca.
Travel Tip of the Day
If you get to Morocco, don’t miss Marrakesh, but don’t overlook Fez, either, where the old city seems like something right out of the Middle Ages. I say this even though I got the worst case of food poisoning in my life there — ironically, at a French restaurant in the newer part of town.