“There are no foreign lands. It is only the traveler who is foreign.”
On my recent trip to Morocco, it was hard not to feel alienated and uneasy. The medina of Marrakesh is an assault on the sense; smells, sights, sounds, and most unsettling—touch. Merchants in the souks of the imperial city are aggressive, grabbing and holding tight onto your arm while directing you to take a closer look at their fare. Food vendors pull you by the hand to their cart, without so much as a hello. I had come to Morocco with my boyfriend, and even with a familiar face by my side, two days in the dusty red winding corridors of Marrakech left me feeling like Morocco was a place far too different from ours to understand. It was a challenge not to regard everyone in our path as a conman, let alone a potential friend.
What changed our minds, and our entire perspective on traveling really, was our trip inland, to the desert town of Merzouga. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, we found the time to think, and the space to breathe freely, and soon enough Morocco opened its arms to us. Little by little, our encounters with the people of Morocco became easier. It started simple enough, like when we were rewarded with a kind smile from a shopkeeper after mustering up the courage to say “chokran”, when one of our turbaned guide introduced himself laughingly introduced himself “Jimi Hendrix, because I’m a rock star!” As we trekked through the desert though, our connections grew deeper. Timid laughter around a campfire turned into belly laughs that had us struggling to catch our breaths. The obligatory music performance by our guides turned into an all out jam session. The silence of the Sahara was interrupted by sounds of good company—laughter, music, and a ton of dirty jokes exchanged in broken English, French, and Arabic. We never would have guessed that camel jokes could be so hilarious, but we swear, they were. We laughed until the fire died and revealed the millions of stars that we would be sleeping under that night.
The next morning, we left our campsite and headed farther into the desert, deeper into Morocco and its culture, to a nomadic Berber family compound. On the surface, this was about as “foreign” as we could imagine. Three earthen huts in the middle of a massive desert, a half day’s walk from the closest neighbors. A veiled woman peered out at us with dark rimmed eyes. A goat carcass mummified in the desert heat. But as the afternoon wore on, and we sat under the shade of a tree while our hosts’ family life continued around us, everything began to feel comfortable somehow. We coaxed a shy smile out of a little girl named Amina and helped her pull water from the well. Before long she was holding our hands running up and down the dunes that she knew so well, collapsing into giggles, and drawing pictures in the red Saharan sand. Amina’s father watched and laughed as we forged a friendship, and her older sisters motioned for us to come into their one-room home to show us the meal they were preparing. Though we didn’t share even a word of common language, we experienced the camaraderie that has been pondered and cherished by travelers since the beginning of time. A wordless friendship made up solely of smiles and gestures, kind laughter, and open minds.
As the sun moved across the sky, we said goodbye to our hosts and made our way back to Merzouga. Just as the afternoon sun began to cool, we reached the tallest dune in Erg Chebbi. We struggled to the top and, breathless, looked out across a landscape that only 2 days ago, had seemed like another world, but in this moment somehow felt familiar, like a little piece of home.