Moroccan Locals Ma-Rocking My World

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. 13112980_1074440555949891_24920575895459303_o

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.

12672135_1044992548894692_1519792302257319773_oFlash 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.13086816_1074447989282481_5951879822830454828_o 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 13123186_1074432119284068_5021952719206711835_oplayed 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.

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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. 13123365_1074440195949927_8914583100280923684_o

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Creating Hope in Kibera

Kibera is a place where the poorest of Nairobi’s poor live. Being the largest slum in Kenya, and the second largest slum in all of Africa, it hosts approximately one million people. These people live in tiny mud brick homes, built beside giant piles of rubbish, where hundreds of stray dogs with bulging tumours lay. Clean water is scarce and hygiene is unheard of. Roads and footpaths are basically non-existent. Replacing them are winding, rocky, muddy, litter-filled paths that are challenging enough to walk on without twisting an ankle.

Imagine living through all of this in a wheelchair.

If a child is born with a disability in Kenya, they are given one of two options: a) you are killed. Caring for such child is too much of a strain on the family. Or b) you live a life of sitting in your shack, staring at the 4x4m mud brick walls surrounding you, barely even existing. If a disabled child is granted life in Kenya, it is a bleak one.

But one Kellie Hall could not accept this.

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Kellie and her mother together travelled to Kenya to volunteer as part of an IVHQ program in 2012. Having signed up for a women’s empowerment project, they prepared themselves to be teaching women about Aids prevention, hygiene, domestic violence etc. but whilst they worked in and around Kibera, getting to know the locals and attempting to comprehend a completely new culture, they began to wonder where all the disabled people were.

Where are they?

What do they do?

What services are available to them?

The answers were horrific. As mentioned earlier, Kellie learnt that disabled people are either killed or left in their home all day to do nothing. There were no schools, no support groups, nothing for disabled children and adults to do with their lives, other than live the bleak existence their disability apparently entitled them too.

To say that disabled people in Kenya were ostracised is an understatement.

Though Kellie returned home to the United States after her placement was over, her work in Kibera did not end. In fact, it had only just begun.

Kellie fought blood and bone to get these people the better lives they deserve. She kept in touch with the local NVS (Networks for Voluntary Services) team she’d been working with whilst volunteering in Nairobi and through the help of such generous individuals (who I had the pleasure of working with whilst on my own placement), she managed to set up New Beginnings, a school for disabled people of all ages and abilities to attend. Suddenly, these people were given a chance to prosper, a chance to thrive, and most importantly, a chance to exist as a genuine member of the community.20170202_112113

Since the school has been formed, these people have so much to celebrate. Recently Kelly and her team created a crowd funding page to get the students better wheelchairs with bigger tires to make transportation around the slum a little easier. Overnight, they raised the money and have since brought new wheelchairs for students who so desperately needed them.

One past student Eva tragically suffered severe burns after her house caught on fire and sadly lost both of her legs. These last few weeks however have been hopeful weeks for sweet Eva who received prosthetic legs, thanks to the aid of such generous donations made to New Beginnings.

First Aid/CPR training with the local team last week was interesting to say the least. “Jen’s collapsed and we can’t find a pulse, what do you do?” Kellie said during role play. “We pronounce her dead” was the grim response. “She’s in God’s hands now” was their explanation. “No!!” We all exasperated. Though cultural differences proved evident during training, we managed to get the importance of CPR across to the team. It’s ok mum, the local team now know to resuscitate me for at least thirty minutes before they pronounce me dead. (Which is progress).

In all seriousness, these past four weeks that Kellie, her partner Pete and friend Ai have been able to come to Kibera have been more than beneficial for both the local team and students. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to meet Kellie and talk to her about the incredible devotion she has to this school and her kids. I can only hope that one day I’m able to be half as successful in this tough field of work as she has been.

Through all these triumphs though, there are of course challenges.16716217_1320715737989037_6010782955801124183_o

For New Beginnings to stay afloat, the school desperately needs donations. At the moment, New Beginnings is in search of a new home they need to relocate to in April and ideally, it needs to be a place more wheelchair accessible. At the moment, just getting to the toilet with a walker is challenging enough for the students in such crammed conditions.

There have been times when the future of New Beginnings has been so uncertain that Kellie has often feared she may not have enough money to keep the school open till the end of the month.

New Beginnings is not just a school for the disabled people of Kibera, it is a place where they can live their life free from discrimination. It is a place where they can feel safe. It is a place where their personalities are seen, rather than just their disabilities. I hate to think about what my friends at New Beginnings would be doing if this school didn’t exist for them.

I’ve always loved meeting people from Africa, but I never thought I’d get so attached to the people that I’d never want to leave. However, the incredible humans at New Beginnings have proved me wrong. Almost 3 weeks ago I met the most beautiful collection of people in a tiny mud-brick house nestled in the heart of Kenya’s largest slum. Three weeks later, and I begin to tear up at the thought of leaving them behind.

The people at New Beginnings have wrapped their hands around my heart and will hold them there forever. I feel so much worth here, and I cannot wait to get back to stay for a longer placement. If you’re reading this and have ever thought about doing some sort of meaningful travel, New Beginnings is the place to be.

Immerse yourself into these incredible people’s lives, and feel your heart grow.

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The Fragility of the 2017 World.

I’ll never understand how in this life, I somehow won the random lottery of freedom. That’s all it is, random. You could’ve easily been born in Syria and right now be living in a Refugee camp on the Jordanian/Syrian border, listening to the sounds of bombs landing on your neighbouring home, hoping, praying that it wasn’t your remaining family in the house that just turned into another mountain of rubble.

Or you could be a Yazidi women in Northern Iraq, captured by ISIS and forced into sex slavery. When they rape you, countless times a day, there is nothing you can do, but lifelessly endure the pain, for if you rebel, you know you’ll be publicly executed.

Or you could be a fourteen year old Tamil boy in Sri Lanka, abducted, and forced to join the army. Years after the civil war ended, you’re still stuck in this secret jail, being brutally tortured on a daily basis. Tears stream down your face as they whip you one last time. But you know this really isn’t the last time, because tomorrow morning you’ll wake up and have to live through this endless nightmare all over again.

This is our world.

How does that make you feel?

Why do I deserve to be happy when millions of members of our human race are suffering? I’m not writing this to instil guilt or fear into you. I want this to be your wake up call. This is what our world looks like in 2017, and it’s not good enough. Congratulations human race, we’ve failed. Dismally. And it is us who has to make it a better place. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. How could you turn a blind eye to this?! I refuse to stand idly by and not do a thing about it, so I’ve taken to the world of the internet to try to raise some awareness about what is going on in today’s world.

Women in Melbourne feel like we’re playing Russian Roulette every time we walk to our car in the dark. Boys in Uganda are being forced to join the army rather than go to school. Girls in Nigeria are to scared to go to school for fear they’ll be abducted by ISIS. Families in Guatemala are living on under $1 a day. My gay friends are bullied. Muslims are ostracised. We are witnessing the biggest refugee crisis since WW2, and somehow, Trump is president.

Everywhere in the world there is good and bad. Everyone knows it, so why do we let the bad get really bad? I feel confident in saying that all 904 of my facebook friends have the kindest hearts on the planet. And I suppose you would say the same for all of your facebook friends. There are more people living healthy, well-off lives than there are in third world countries, so imagine if everyone living in the first world donated just a small amount of money, or time to helping those in need, whether that be to those living on the streets, to a needy school in East Timor, or to domestic violence and abuse centre. Imagine if all 904 of my facebook friends donated just $1 a month to an NGO, that’s $10,848 a year put towards providing for a worthy cause. Imagine that for every one activist, all 904 of their friends donated $1 a month to an NGO. The effects of all these generous hearts has the ability to make a difference that could change the world.

So I’m starting with all of you on the internet. Hopefully through Mission Activism, I can inspire you to be the difference you wish to see in the world. I understand that in todays society, what Kim Kardashian is wearing seems to be more important than a person on Narue Island lighting themselves on fire, so getting the message out there is going to be tough. But this year I’m looking 2017 in the eye and giving it a little wink.

Challenge accepted.