NONFICTION FINALIST: At the Donkey Hotel

 

Walk until the day becomes interesting. That’s the approach to slow travel that Rolf Potts suggests in his book called Vagabonding. It’s also my preferred approach—although I didn’t dare use it my first day in Fes. Founded over a millennium ago, Fes, Morocco’s second largest city, has 9,600 alleyways—or so I was told by several proud Fassis eager to guide me through the labyrinth. Fear trumping my pride, I joined two other women at my guesthouse, and we hired one of these guides. She (a rarity among guides—and bare-headed!) marched us through miles of dizzying, donkey-clogged streets, instructing us in the Five Pillars of Islam and the Six Articles of Faith. She pointed out the tiny windows through which women, not permitted to show their faces, could peek out to identify visitors. She led us to the famously smelly tanneries—rows of ancient stone tubs holding dyes that, seen from the leather shops above, form a muted montage reminding me of late Cezanne. As non-Muslims, we could not enter a mosque, but we could, and did, huddle by the entrance of the fountained courtyard and watch the men do their pre-prayer ablutions. We threaded our way through the market where butchers displayed severed camel heads. We peeked into a Fondouk, a hotel for caravans—stalls for camels surrounding a dusty yard, balcony rooms for merchants. And predictably, disastrously, near the wearying day’s end, we drank mint tea with a rug merchant.

Now it was day two, a Tuesday. I had spent half the morning with said rug merchant’s cousin who led me to the Post Office and helped me pack and mail home my new Berber carpets—all four of them. (It’s an old story, I learned too late: jet-lagged, eager-to-please tourist unfamiliar with the currency pays way too many dirham for rugs she doesn’t need and no longer even likes.) Yes, I had a serious case of buyer’s remorse—shame really, an experienced traveler like me!—but, with the deed done, I was determined to put it behind me and venture out on my own. No, I told the cheerful young man who must have noticed the lost look on my face as I stepped out of the P.O., near the edge of the old city. I did not want him to take me to the best restaurant (his uncle’s). I’d already been to the tannery and would visit the library and university with my group, due on Thursday. Today, I was going to—how I wished I could say it less haltingly—L’Ho-pi-tal Vet-er-i-naire.

“Why there?” The young man asked.

How could I explain? I’m a vet’s daughter. As a small child I watched my father pull slimy puppies out of a neighbor’s dog. As a teen, I helped out in his hospital, holding dogs and cats in awkward positions while he did any number of things they didn’t much like. More to the point, my parents have been travelling the world longer than I’ve been in it (61 years), and early on I learned that every trip, whether a state or continent away, will prove more interesting if it includes a visit to a veterinary hospital; better yet, if it offers a chance to perform a little impromptu surgery (as it did for my Dad in Bangladesh), or to diagnose a rare respiratory illness (that happened in Japan). What’s more, the ho-pi-tal made it into my Lonely Planet, which said the clinic was funded by the SPCA of Massachusetts, my home state. Surely that would increase my chances of getting a warm welcome.

“Just interested,” I told the puzzled youth. “Do you know where it is?” I pointed to the entry in my book, just then noticing the end of visiting hours: 1 p.m. That settled the cab vs. foot question. It was already after noon. “Do you know where I can get a taxi?”

Less cheerfully, he led me past some alleyways to a paved plaza separating the medina from the nouvelle ville. A taxi pulled up. I opened the door. “L’Hop-i-tal Vet-er-i-naire?” I said to the driver.

“Shukran,” I said, looking back to thank my escort.

“But there’s nothing happening there!” He said it so plaintively, I hesitated, but just for a moment before climbing in.

Barely a minute later, beside a parched weedy expanse, the driver did a U-turn and pulled up in front of a massive arched opening in a long white stucco building. On one side of the doorway, a tiled sign read: The American Fondouk; on the other, the equivalent, I presumed, in Arabic.

L’Hop-i-tal?” With its American and Moroccan flags and scruffy shrubs, it looked more like an embassy in need of a landscaper.

The driver nodded.

A slender man in work clothes appeared, greeted me in Arabic and French—Azami was his name—and led me into a large courtyard splotched with shadows from five or six leafy trees—more than I’d seen in one place since I’d arrived in Fes. Maybe that’s what gave the place such a tranquil feeling, that and the hush, the absence of people and storefronts and carts piled high with—you name it: olives, snails, herbal concoctions (one called “Viagra Turbo”) … Or maybe it was simply the donkeys—one lounging under a tree, another munching on some hay, and the outline of a few others in shadowy stalls surrounding the courtyard. True, the muncher had a bright green cast bracing his front leg, and the lounger a stitched-up flank, but compared to the beleaguered, dust-crusted donkeys crowding Fes’s alleyways—most of them weighed down by colossal loads—these looked as if they’d landed in a spa on the Riviera.

Tranquil is nice, but within seconds of scanning the scene, the boy’s parting words came back to me. Nothing happening there… nothing happening… Well, I told myself, you never know. I’ll poke around, take some photos, maybe attempt a photo essay—a new form for me.

“Mass-a-chu-setts,” I said to Azami, tapping my chest. He nodded and grinned, apparently recognizing that mouthful. We stepped into the first of the alcoves bordering the yard, this one brightened by a mural—a colorful, childlike Peaceable Kingdom. “Farrier,” the man said, tapping his own chest, then pointing to a nearby wall arrayed with ancient-looking tools and all manner of equine shoes.

“Ah, un blacksmith!”

He nodded. I grasped an imaginary pen and mimed the act of writing, in the old-fashioned way.

“Ah, un journaliste!” Like many of the Moroccans I’d met, his whole self came to life, even during the most basic exchange; unlike many Americans, he was not already a little sick of the whole business of conversation. Likewise, the housekeeper he introduced me to, a merry, round woman who spoke no English and little French. Still, we had fun, as I trailed her on her rounds, up some stairs, past the head vet’s residence to the roof garden and storage areas, past two resident guard dogs lounging in their roomy pen. Though stray cats scavenged every alleyway in Fes, these were the first dogs I’d seen. “Muslims don’t believe in having animals for friends,” Kareem, my friendly innkeeper had told me the night before. That’s how I guessed that the head vet wasn’t Muslim. Through her filigreed front gate poked the sleek nose of a Saluki, an elegant breed.

On ground level again, in one of the shadowy alcoves off the courtyard, I met the assistant vet, a beautiful, young Moroccan woman who’d studied in Rabat. Though soft-spoken, she also seemed happy to chat, explaining in her perfect English that the Fondouk—yes, as in the hotel for caravans I’d seen in the medina—was a free clinic catering to work animals. And yes, it was a sad irony that animals “lucky” enough to recover in this refuge returned to miserable lives of punishing work.

After watching her and a technician set a mule’s broken leg, I figured I’d leave, but the Fondouk’s entrance was now blocked by a massive wooden door. Was there another way out? Where was Azami?

Right about then, he flew past. “Emergency,” he said, looking over his shoulder on the way to open the door. Urgent voices, the sound of a truck pulling away. In walked a man in a djellaba, carrying a dark brown animal roughly the size of a greyhound. There was something biblical about the sight: a shepherd-like figure in his flowing grey robe and sandaled feet, his broad arms cradling—as he approached I got a better view—a baby donkey with gangly limbs.

As Azami led them to the farthest corner of the quad, a tall woman in scrubs burst in, her strawberry blond hair tied up in a scrunchie. If this hadn’t been Morocco, I might have guessed she’d been out tromping over the moors, so rosy, so hale and hardy she seemed. Clearly in gear, ready to take charge, she nevertheless stopped to introduce herself. “Gheeghee.” She put out her hand. “Spelled like Gigi, but in the UK we make it a hard G.”

I gave her what had become my stats: a writer from Massachusetts, daughter of a vet. As we hurried toward the examining area, she filled me in, her voice strong and breezy: For its first two days, the donkey seemed perfectly healthy, then on the third, close to death. Sounded like a classic case, akin to what happens newborns whose blood is incompatible with their Rh factor mothers. The newborn starts gobbling up its own red cells.

The donkey lay on a mat on the ground. Already one of the technicians had shaved his neck in preparation for an IV. Gigi and I, the assistant vet and two helpers huddled in close. The farmer stood outside the circle, silent and calm. The patient looked awfully sick—limp, immobile, eyes sallow and glazed. I studied his long, comma-shaped nostrils… his chest… I had a history of perceiving death in sleeping pets and people. Everyone else was proceeding as if this donkey were alive. A minute or two later he defecated. I deemed that a good sign.

While the lumpy pile of crap kept drawing my eye, the others completely ignored it, concentrating on inserting a pesky IV. Once satisfied that everything was properly connected, Gigi reached for her smartphone, and almost immediately began reading aloud in English—a jumble of chemical names and numbers, weights and measures. This wasn’t the first time that a smartphone had wowed me. (When mine was brand new I asked Siri the meaning of life. I don’t know, she said, but I think we have an app for that.) It was, however, the first time I saw how wide the gadget’s reach had already become, saving the day, I imagined, for doctors in Zambia, arborists in the Amazon.

Gigi stood up and on another cell phone punched in a number. “I don’t always have all the answers,” she told me cheerfully, waiting for the connection, “but I know who to ask.” In this case, her mentor from Scotland. The question: Use fresh blood from a horse that had recently been ill? Or two-day-old blood in the fridge from a horse that had been well? Later she explained that donkey blood posed the risk of another rejection.

I was pleased to learn a transfusion was in order. From living for years with a partner who had cancer, I was familiar with how quickly a transfusion could make her rally. My Fondouk story (now photos and text) was already writing itself as I envisioned its ending in a sped-up film version: Inert donkey twitches, then stretches his limbs; his eyes clear, he lifts his head, maybe even lets out a healthy bray—at which point, all of us encircling him burst into smiles, praise Allah, and embrace.

Gigi relayed the Scottish vet’s recommendation: Use the refrigerated blood, but not just yet. Force in more fluids first, so the donkey can pee out the toxins that have already built up.

“Any idea of his chances?” I asked.

“Slim,” she said, sounding, for the first time, brusque.

After that it was a waiting game. One of the technicians cleaned up the donkey’s mess, then disappeared along with the others. “Might as well put you to work,” Gigi said, pointing to a second black mat hanging sideways from some contraption. I rushed to it. My eagerness garbled my fingers but finally I managed to detach the thing, and together, Gigi and I slipped it under the foal’s spindly limbs.

On a nearby white board, Gigi wrote numbers and symbols mysterious to me. I took a few more pictures (permission granted earlier) and then got out my notebook. Minutes passed. “Could you come here again,” Gigi called. Something about the IV bothered her, maybe a bend. “Hold it here, just like this.”

Now this is important, I thought, already imagining how much my parents would enjoy the story. At 88 and 90 they were beginning to accept that their days of exotic travel were over. Now I could reassure them that they’d taught their daughter well, that she was brave and resourceful and could sniff out the genuine article, the unscripted, unmediated, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I liked this thought, but as I clutched the tube, I didn’t like what I saw: only the faintest sign of breath; just a dribble or two of pee. This wasn’t the first time I’d sat vigil like this.

Gigi replaced the tube with a new one. I went back to my notebook. As he had throughout, the farmer sat in a fold-up chair next to the sink and cabinets. I already knew that many Muslims objected to having their picture taken, and in this case, it wouldn’t have felt right anyway. I glanced over at him now and then, drawn to his stillness, his dignified bearing. Remembering what Kareem had said about animals not being considered as friends, I assumed that this farmer’s grave look was less about a sentimental attachment to this nameless three-day-old foal, than about feeding his family. A donkey could live for thirty years. In sprawling Fes, the world’s largest carless metropolis, donkeys carried crates of tomatoes, sacks of couscous, hoes, rakes, pitchforks, computers, refrigerators, extended families. Losing a foal was like losing a future pick-up truck, hitch, wagon, wheelbarrow, plow, mower, dolly, all in one. And of course there was no such thing as donkey insurance. I told myself all this, but when my eyes met the farmer’s, I thought I saw something more than bleak calculations. Though I figured I was as mysterious to him as he was to me—and probably more suspect—I still wanted to offer some fellow feeling. When our eyes met, I tried to beam him a message something like this: I know, my stake in this life is much less than yours, but still, I am here with you now, rooting for you.

And because he did not look too quickly away, I guessed he accepted my humble offering.

After that, things were calm for a long time, so long that I started wondering just how long this could go on. I scanned the scene—the sleepy courtyard, the shadowy stalls, the gigantic metal scale labeled Horseweigh. Would I stay all afternoon? All evening? I certainly didn’t want to leave before witnessing the transfusion’s magical effect. (Old dreams die hard, I guess.) My eyes returned to the donkey. By now I’d gotten used to seeing hardly, if any, signs of life, but this time, at almost the same moment, Gigi, seeing or sensing an absence, rushed over, knelt down. She placed her ear against his ribs, one second… two… then reassembled herself and did something I couldn’t have predicted. She lay her left hand on the donkey’s chest, just behind his front limbs; she cupped her right hand around his snout, pressing her fingers firmly against his left nostril; and over his right nostril, she placed her mouth. She inhaled deeply and blew with great effort, and then pumped his chest.

Breathe in… Breathe out… Pump…

In… Out… Pump…

Of course I’d seen depictions of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation—drawings and photos on pamphlets; handsome men on the TV screen working their magic on bikinied blondes they’d plucked from the sea. I’d even performed it myself about 50 years back while training for my Senior Lifesaving Badge. But I’d never heard of the procedure being used with animals, never even thought to wonder about it; and seeing it now, a few feet in front of me, in a life and death situation—well—such leveling between human and animal, such a stark expression of our kinship—the shock and beauty of it took my own breath away.

Gigi’s lungs didn’t fail her. She kept blowing and pumping for what seemed like a long time—long enough for me to start wondering how dead was too dead? Was it really still possible to bring this donkey back? Long enough for me to look over to the farmer and catch his eye again, both of us shaking our heads now—it was over, done.

Finally, Gigi, too, gave up. Stood up. No one said a word. The assistant vet escorted the farmer out. Before I knew it, the donkey was gone, too—carried away by the technicians. There seemed to be nothing for me to do but leave. Wanting to give my condolences, I walked over to the sink where Gigi was washing

“They almost never make it,” she said, “but I’m surprised he went so soon.” Her voice faltered, “I can’t help wondering if I shouldn’t have just given him the transfusion right away.” Who knows, I said with a shrug. Her eyes tearing, she turned away, grabbed a paper towel. “I’m going to get some lunch,” she said, her voice regaining its chipper tone, but her steps were heavy as she climbed the stairs to her front gate.

“The farmer was very sad,” the assistant vet told me when she returned. “He cried.”

I said my thank-yous and good-byes. Azami offered to call me a cab but I decided I would walk this time. Though the route was easy, what the petit taxi had done in seconds felt long and arduous to me. Stiff weeds clogged the road’s rutty shoulder. The sun was hot. The donkey was dead. I had my story but it had the wrong ending. And I kept wondering about the farmer. Where did he go? What would he do when he got there? Having spent almost all my time inside the city walls, I couldn’t even conjure an image of where or how a farmer might live. This distressed me, so I thought instead, about what I would do next.

The answer was easy. I was hungry.

*

Two days later, my official tour began. We were nine, plus our guide Mark, an American who decades before had come to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer and decided to stay. I liked everyone immediately, so of course I was eager to tell them my story, yet every time I sensed an opportunity, I let it pass. There wasn’t enough time or the mood wasn’t right, or—? I puzzled over my hesitation.

So the days passed, about ten of them. We meandered through miles of souks in Marrakech; we watched the sun set from the kashbah in Ait Benhaddou, near where Lawrence of Arabia (or was it Ben-Hur?) was filmed and a crew was now videoing actors for a TV series, The Bible. Most thrilling, we galumphed up and down sand dunes, me atop a camel named Jimi Hendrix, according to my teenaged Tuareg guide, and I must admit I was flattered he deemed me the heavy metal type, even though I’m not. Yes, for this major excursion, we had guides, and cooks, and porters and I was glad.

Then, during our next-to-last breakfast as a group, reluctant to leave our sunny rooftop, we started sharing our most memorable moments from the trip. I could have talked about that middle-of-the-night pee in the desert, just me and the wind-whipped sand and indifferent stars, but I chose to risk the donkey story and was glad. No one seemed impatient during the lead-up, and when I got to the mouth-to-mouth part, their jaws dropped, they were rapt. I broke the silence afterwards by asking if anyone had heard of using that kind of CPR on animals. None of them had.

“Are you sure,” Mark said, “that it wasn’t just for show?”

I was slow to comprehend. “I mean—” Mark said, noticing, perhaps, how I was staring oddly at my hand (Was it just for show? Was the coffee cup I was holding just for show?) “I mean maybe she was just trying to reassure the farmer that they’d done everything that could be done?”

I pictured Gigi’s lips cupped over the donkey’s closer nostril, her fingers pinching the other, her palm’s hardy, heartfelt pumping. I believed in it utterly. Yet now I wondered, remembered? a moment of doubt about the tightness of the seal—the donkey’s nostrils being so big, the doctor’s mouth and fingers so small. Then, the moment—if it existed at all, passed. “No,” I said, “I don’t think so. But,” I added, only because I distrust all certainties, “I suppose it’s possible?” I shrugged, gestured to the person on my left—her turn to talk—promising myself I would investigate further when I returned to the States.

Which I did. First with a quick Internet search: donkey mouth-to-mouth.

In Numbers, “the lord opened the donkey’s mouth.”

“Doctors Sadly Do Not Recommend Doing CPR to ‘Staying Alive.’”

So much for that. I studied my photos again, the careful placement of Gigi’s lips and hand, her tender, earnest gaze. There was nothing to suggest anything was for show. Third, I located the email address she’d given me, composed a delicately-worded message thanking her for her good work and the honor of witnessing—and assisting it, mentioning that I’d just sent off my donation, and asking her, for the sake of the piece I was writing, to confirm my understanding of her diagnosis and treatment. Near the end, as casually as I could, I relayed Mark’s question, and asked if there was any truth to it.

When, after a week or two, I still hadn’t received an answer, I checked the address again. It looked right. I reminded myself that I sometimes lose track of the messages I intend to answer later. I considered writing again, but instead began another Internet search, this time googling “equine CPR” with much better results. Several reputable sources affirmed that CPR “mouth-to-snout,” it was called, can be, and is, performed on equines (and dogs too. One post included a video and, although that one showed the use of a plastic tube attached to an accordion-like pumping gizmo, another text-only entry described breathing into the “up” nostril, and closing off the “down” one). Given my near certainty that, had Gigi been faking it, I would have seen it in her face, this settled the question for me. Still, as the months passed, I kept wondering: What if it had been just for show? Would that have changed everything? Anything?

I dropped my college philosophy course after the first class. (What do we mean by knowledge? What do we mean by “mean”?) As it turned out, I became an English major, and now I find I keep thinking about “A Worn Path.” Written by Eudora Welty, the story describes an arduous journey that Phoenix Jackson, a very old woman, periodically makes by foot in order to bring back medicine for her sick grandson. Struggling through thickets, over logs and barbed wire, she reaches the clinic, the nurse dispenses the medicine, the old woman starts the journey home and that’s it—the end. The story is often included in textbooks, and often, along with it, appears an essay Welty has written in response to the many letters she has received, letters asking if the grandson is, actually, dead. Welty’s response?

No—maybe—it doesn’t matter. “… the only certain thing at all,” she says, “is the worn path. The habit of love … remembers its way…. The path is the thing that matters.”

So what matters here in my Fondouk story—experienced, told around the breakfast table, written here? What matters to me, I guess that means.

You could say that I (petite, fearful by nature, raised before feminism’s second wave) have worked all my life to be brave enough to find my way alone to a genuinely foreign land. So I’m proud of that and glad I made it to the Fondouk. Even when not much was happening, I found things of interest and engaged in spirited conversations with strangers. Then, when the day turned really interesting, for an hour or more, I was no longer an infidel standing outside peering in, no longer a bareheaded woman seen mostly as a source of dirham or even as a writer greedy for material. That the donkey died, that matters too. Nonetheless, for a time I had a place within a small group. And when Gigi, for whatever reason, funneled her breath again and again into the donkey, we, rich and poor, dark and light, Muslim and Jew, all in the habit of love, breathed along with her.

 

 

11 Responses to “NONFICTION FINALIST: At the Donkey Hotel”

  1. Sheryl

    This is a beautiful story. Congratulations, Leslie. I am not surprised at all that you ventured bravely to find the unique experience, and were able to capture it so eloquently. You’ve been doing that as long as I’ve known you!

  2. Buddy

    I read this beautiful story in my sterile office, and, at the end, I was completely out of breath. Wow!!!!

  3. Bee Jouett

    So beautifully and tenderly told. The details of place build as the plot builds. Amazing how Leslie described her experience of moving from tourist to a deeper level of connection despite all the barriers such as language, class, race, skin color, religion. Seems very realistically told and I am left with such a warm feeling.

  4. Sandra Lawson

    Leslie’s story of ‘The Donkey Hotel’ was heavy, weighty. From the pent up heat and noise in the map of mazes that is Fes to the fatiguing reticence of the young man to take her to the animal hospital, this story book picture woven of words weighed upon me. The inevitability of the donkey’s death, the eye to eye conveyed communication between Leslie and the farmer, the absence of breath where you keep on trying anyways, were all brilliantly described. Levity arrived with Mark’s question, with the potential trick revealed, with the deep seated knowledge that what mattered was that which felt so genuine, so heartfelt, so loved.

  5. Beth Missie

    You brought me right there with you, and I cried too.
    And by writing so eloquently about your experience, you make it matter to me. You don’t seem to have suffered by dropping your philosophy class in college. Here’s to the power of prose!

  6. Donna

    I enjoyed this piece about your trip to Fes very much; it’s beautifully written.

  7. leslie Lawrence

    What a generous, articulate group of reader-friends I have! Thanks so much for
    taking the time to comment so thoughtfully.

  8. Dee Shapiro

    What a great piece of writing about a unique experience. So tender and exciting with humor and sensitive thoughtfulness. Brava Leslie.

  9. Nina F.

    So loved reading this story! For me it’s a treat when non-fiction reads as engagingly as fiction, and this one had me hooked from the first sentence. I feel as though I’ve had a glimpse of a world I will probably never see for myself, through the intimate lens of your visit to the clinic. You are about as brave and daring as anyone I know, and I look forward to reading more of your adventures.

  10. Clara

    Really enjoyed this tale by Leslie. She is writing so beautifully and confidently that the tale and its multiple fascinating details create an entire world, a world both exotic and — because Leslie shares her hopes, doubts, worries — familiar.

  11. Emily

    Wonderful re-telling of the tale Leslie shared with us, her ‘group,’ in Morroco. I hadn’t known about the follow-up & was pleased to hear she’d done so, even if ‘answers’ weren’t forthcoming.

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