The Sunday afternoon sun has almost set as donkeys cart goods through the narrow streets of this unfamiliar township in Northern Morocco. I can hear quarrelling in the distance as locals barter throughout the medina in an effort to get the most out of their dirham. I am greeted by the family who I’ll be staying with for the one night that I’m here in this secret village, and I am overwhelmed by the friendliness and hospitality they’ve already shown me. After only a minute of being within their presence, they’ve poured me a cup of traditional Moroccan tea and we’ve already begun talking about the history and authenticity of the Sacred Heart of Morocco, that is Moulay Idriss. After only a day of being in Morocco, I can tell already that over the next 2 weeks of exploring this beautiful country I will be discovering the richness of life that exists even beyond the tourist bubble.
They say that life starts at the end of your comfort zone. And that is exactly where your travel experience turns from a bucket list tick into immersion. I soon got over my fear of embarrassing myself when attempting the little Arabic I knew and quickly learnt to say “Salam Alaikum” to as many of the locals as possible, without hesitation but with genuine energy. People are the heart of culture and as soon as I learnt that the best education I’ll ever get is by living as they live, eating as they eat, and simply doing as they do, my mind was opened up to an entirely new travel experience; living locally, and now, there isn’t any other way I’d see a country.
Flash forward to Monday and I began my day sharing a train booth to Meknes with two other Australian girls I met in Casablanca, and four locals. They noticed the three of us struggling to get our backpacks into the overhead racks, and without delay two men got up out of their seats and lifted them up for us. We couldn’t believe this small act of kindness they had displayed to complete strangers. It was certainly something I had never witnessed before on a metro train in Melbourne. Upon arriving in Meknes, we were met by a local who took us on a tour of the old Kasbah, and as you’re probably wondering, yes, we did entertain ourselves to some 80s Karaoke singing of ‘Rock the Kasbah’.
Upon our tour ending, our new friend led us to the markets. There really is nothing like
weaving in and around the crammed one person pathways of a foreign market. You have to look down at your feet, so as to not step on a passing chicken or a fallen banana. But you also have to look up to assess the person ahead of you, what they’re carrying, what you’re carrying, and quickly devise a plan on how you’ll get around them. Farmers spread their goods across tables, on mats on the ground, or in woven baskets, and the bags upon bags of grains and vegetables were such a feast for the eyes! My goodness the colours of a Moroccan Medina. My eyes were drawn to the thousands of people interacting with one another. Many the local encouraged us to try the Moroccan delicacy of a camel burger. And so, sticking to my lesson of ‘eating like a local’, I squeezed into one of the hundreds of tiny huts in the old Medina with about ten other people, sitting around the oven fire. I tried with all my might to get the nursery rhyme ‘Alice the Camel’ out of my head, and I chowed down an entire Camel burger. Tender. I’ve never been an adventurous foodie, but after this first encounter with a Moroccan Medina, I grew more and more confident in eating as the locals do, tickling my tastebuds with many tagines and kefta balls. Soon enough I found myself almost feeling Moroccan, even learning how to cook traditional couscous from one of the mothers of a family I stayed with. This is what making REAL connections with locals is all about. You really do need to ignore your comfort zone, which can be scary and confronting, but once you begin travelling with this in mind, you’ll never feel the need to say “Yeah, I’ve done *insert country here*” because you will always have far more interesting stories to tell. Such as the first time you ate a camel burger.
We as humans love the feeling of being apart of a community. That we belong. And it is locals that connect us to a place like nothing else can. I was walking along the rubble streets of a quaint Berber village in the south of Morocco with the fifteen members of the fantastic Gecko’s Adventure’s tour I was with. A group of young girls were braiding each others hair as their brothers played with a deflated ball on the dirt road beneath them. Soon enough, a bunch of twenty something-year-olds were being beaten at a game of Soccer to the tiny athletes. We continued walking amongst the rubble when we were then invited into a lovely Berber woman’s home for tea. We were all a little startled by the gesture, but knowing that it is considered rude to decline an invitation for tea, we made our way into her house, ducking our heads as we entered her tiny mud brick home. We were so humbled by the fact that she would invite sixteen complete strangers to join her and her family in sharing a pot of traditional Moroccan tea. Again, you don’t come across that sort of openness back home to often. This woman’s name was Saaida and what she has taught me is something I’ll take everywhere I go. It wasn’t a direct lesson, more an invaluable experience that taught us more than any of the books could. It was simple: be completely receptive to people and new experiences. Saaida not only warmed our hearts with a cup of hot tea, but we left with full hearts. Full of such happiness and appreciation. Saaida and her family gave us the experience of uprooting ourselves from the familiarity of the everyday status quo to see that something new and unexpected can put perspective on things. There are a number of pathways that can lead an individual to gain an understanding of deep appreciation for themselves and the world, and by no means does that necessarily have to come from travelling, but by the end of this day, I felt my sense of gratitude had grown immensely. That night I wrote in my travel journal ‘I’d sacrifice 10 years of my life if I could be as happy as I was today for the remainder of my years’. I’m not talking about the sort happy you get when you have a couple of drinks, or you skydive over the Swiss Alps. It’s the sort of spiritual, or passionate happiness, that floods your heart and leaves you feeling as though you’re connected to something even larger than life. I never knew such a happiness existed until that day in Morocco.
Morocco is a land of endless surprises. People surprise me every day. Moroccans, they not only surprise you, but they reach out to your heart, cling on to it, and you never want them to let go. I met an ordinary man, of about 65 whilst wondering through Dades Gorge. His face was rugged, tired, but his smile would make the sun seem dull. I asked him what his secret to happiness was and the simplicity of what came out of his toothless mouth hit me like a tonne of beautiful, colourful bricks. He said “We are not rich in our pockets, but we are rich in our hearts.” I was left speechless, with the biggest, dorkiest smile from ear to ear. This is the reason why we do it. Why at 19 years old, I sold my car, left the town I grew up in, and with very little money, bought a one way ticket to the other side of the world. People. Are. Amazing. And there is only one way to realise just how amazing people are; talk; interact; don’t be afraid to mingle with a stranger. By all means, have your wits about you when travelling, but don’t let your wits hold you back from immersing yourself into a new culture.
How much you interact with other people depends on one thing: you. It’s the proactive travellers, who aren’t afraid to introduce themselves (or in my case, introduce myself as “camel”) that meet the most interesting people. If language isn’t your forte, go with one of mum’s most basic life lessons; friendliness goes a long way. A smile can substitute for a thousand foreign words. Having an engaging disposition will do the world wonders when networking with people around the globe, but also keep in mind to just be yourself. Be genuine. And soon enough, not only will you have a thousand stories about the interesting people you’ve met whilst on your travels, but to locals, you will be one of those interesting people that they had the chance to meet. How lucky you are to feel as though you could write a book about humans of the world. How lucky they are to of met such an authentic person.
Defining moments in your life are said to shape your being. I thought about this on a Wednesday, the same Wednesday I use to spend on Pinterest searching ‘Amazing Places to Live’. Only this time, I was camping under the hot Sahara Desert sun, sitting around an open fire, listening to three Berbers drumming. As a misfit traveller, trying to piece together an authentic experience, this night was a gift in itself. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with the local Berber people, smelling the beef tagine cooking in its clay pot, listening to the rhythm of the hand crafted drums, and feeling the Sahara sand between my toes. What simple magic life can be.