Unlearning the lessons we were taught as little girls…
This post comes to us from Bethany Toews.
The first time I traveled alone, I went to China. I was 20 years old. I had wanted to go with my boyfriend: my first love, my moon, my stars, my everything. But he had other plans, namely to dump me and start dating a girl named China (true story). So alone I went, broken-hearted, to discover China on my own, while he discovered China from the comfort of his own bed.
I was raised in rural America. I was raised to be afraid. Of strangers, of tornados, of God’s wrath, of pretty ladies with cleavage, of pretty much everything. Fortunately for me, the one thing I have always been most afraid of is a life half-lived. So afraid I head out nonetheless. Surrendering to the call of a heroine’s journey is only slightly less scary than staying home while adventure is something happening elsewhere to other people.
Morocco was no exception. Despite my years and experience, I was still nervous the night before my trip. I barely slept. When I woke at 5am to catch the early morning train to Munich, I was tired and anxious, but also, effervescently excited. From Munich, we took a plane to Lisbon, for 23 delicious hours of wandering the cobblestone streets and eating pastéis de nata and drinking vinho verde. Portugal is comfortable and manageable and familiar. I was hesitant to get on the plane to Marrakech the next day, not knowing what I would find on the other side…
When my fellow adventuress, Nadin, and I arrived in the Marrakech airport, I must admit, my first impression wasn’t pleasant. It smelled like a bathroom, a well used-bathroom. And then, the horrifying discovery that my worldwide cell phone plan did not extend to Northern Africa. Here I was, in a strange land without access to Google maps and Instagram. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I panicked. I scrambled. I paced around breathing through my mouth, trying to acclimate, trying to think straight.
And then, we were thrust out into the seemingly harum scarum world that is Marrakech — the covered women, the narrow streets, the cars, the mopeds, the donkey drawn carts carrying yesterday’s garbage. No slowing down despite the tight corners, people walking unfazed by the treacherous conditions of too much motion in too small a space. Calm on their faces as my heart raced. So much to take in. Too much. My first day in Morocco I was unsure if I’d make it through to the last page, the 11 remaining days of this epic tale.
Our first night, we dove headfirst into Jemaa el-Fnaa, the infamous night market. As we weaved our way through hundreds of bodies swirling in the dark, I struggled to feel safe. Utter and complete chaos. The florescent stands with pyramids of oranges stacked for juicing, the giant cauldrons full of steaming snails, the water peddlers with tin cups dangling on their chests, massive tasseled hats fountaining from their heads. I am sure I am not the first to use the phrase “sensory overload” in describing this experience. Gnawa bands competed for sonic space with their cacophonies of dueling sound waves. Ecstatic dancers danced and spun and shook to banging banjos and iron castanets. Vendors called, clanging, accosting passersby, inviting us all to buy their wares, to eat their treats. I wanted to wrap myself in gauze, hide out, retreat. That night I fell asleep nervous for the days ahead of me. I longed for the peace of my familiar bed. How would I survive this strange and unpredictable land? Would I make it out alive or get lost irretrievably to the unknown?
The next day something started to shift, my body began to adjust, my heartbeat started to sync itself with the rhythms of this new world. Humans are amazing in their innate ability to adapt to a new place. We are hardwired to readjust, it is the most basic of survival skills. What had just the day before been an indecipherable labyrinth of endless turns into unknown alleyways, suddenly started to feel like a maze I could master. I felt a calm settle itself in my belly, and a soft confidence arose. I didn’t necessarily know where I was going, but I knew I was finding my way.
And here’s where the real challenge presented itself, here’s where Morocco really shines. I started to understand that, if I was going to enjoy this trip, if I was really going to give myself to this mystical land, I had to start trusting strangers. I had to surrender to their willingness to lead the way when I asked for directions. If I was going to get to where it was I needed to go, I was going to have to start ignoring all life’s previous warnings to never get in a van with a stranger. I had to trust over and over and over again while I was in Morocco. Trust men at night in dark alleys when part of me was screaming, “No!” while knowing the “no” wasn’t coming from the part of me that really knows, it wasn’t the genius of my guts or the wisdom of my heart, it was my head that said no, it was years of fearful training. It was a lifetime of lessons forced upon me by fear-mongering old ladies at church and waxy faced newscasters on TV. “The world isn’t safe.” “Strangers are not to be trusted.” “Women should not travel alone.” But despite my head, my body said yes. My body quickly learned that I was safe, that humans are here to help each other. That strangers are just friends whose names you haven’t spoken yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I am under no delusions that the world doesn’t hide dangers. I am all too aware of the violence that lurks in the dark, especially for single female travelers. But I also know that I just spent 2 weeks traveling around Northern Africa, full of Muslims that showed such tremendous kindness in their eyes and in their hearts. When I smiled, they smiled. When I asked for help, they helped. When I was hungry, they fed me. When I was lost, they led the way. I can only hope that back home, I would offer the same to a foreigner in the strangeness of my land. That all people, everywhere, would realize that despite all the bad news, all the horror stories relentlessly shared and shoved down our throats, that they are just a small part of a much larger and all too often untold story. The daily desire of all of us, to live in peace. To sit down and laugh and share food with friends and family, to see new places, to learn new things, to find joy in sharing the glory of a sunset. I travel to remember that the more I trust, the more I am cared for. The more I open my heart, the more hearts I am lucky enough to meet. Life is so much richer when I trust in the kindness of strangers, when I believe that it is not violence, nor danger, nor hate, but love that is the currency which moves life.
Photos by Bethany Toews and Nadin Brendel.