Big State, Big Life is about doing more of the things that really matter. Travel matters. To do it, I’m willing to give up fancy clothes, concert tickets, top-of-the-line gear, and a season’s ski pass. I’d rather take my money and go somewhere.
Most recently, I took a trip to Morocco with a group of 12 Alaskans. The 18-day trip was designed to focus on the Berber culture and was a mixture of hiking/trekking in the Atlas Mountains and seeing the sites to the south of Marrakech. We had two guides, one that we all knew from Alaska and the other was our local Berber guide.
One of my favorite things about traveling to a foreign country is that it forces you outside of your comfort zone. I always come home with a better understanding of myself, people and the world. Here are 49 insights (in no particular order) from traveling to Morocco.
49 Insights from Traveling to Morocco
1. A well-matched traveling companion is priceless. My Mom was my Moroccan traveling companion. She’s fantastic. She laughs easily, never complains, and rocks the dance moves when camping in the Sahara. The best traveling companions are flexible, love trying new things, and have a sense of humor when things go wrong. (They will.) They know that getting lost is as much of an adventure as knowing where you are at all times. I have very close friends that I adore, but I can’t travel with them. When you find a compatible traveling companion, appreciate the heck out of them and plan as many trips as you can.
2. Traveling in a group has both pros and cons. Our group got along really well. We didn’t always have to wait for one person or put up with someone always having to be the center of attention. I’m single (but looking!) and don’t have any children or pets. I live alone and often spend many hours each day by myself. Don’t get me wrong, I love being social, but then I want to go home and decompress. For me, the constant stimuli of being surrounded by twelve chatty people 24/7 was the most challenging aspect of the trip.
The upside of traveling with a group is that you’re never lonely. If you get tired of your own traveling companion, there is always someone else to talk to. A local guide can provide access to cultures and situations that aren’t available to individuals. It was more acceptable for me as an unmarried woman to interact with the Moroccan men because I was part of a group. I also felt safer knowing that I had someone looking out for me and wasn’t “on alert” as much as when I travel on my own.
3. Everyone’s comfort zone is different. Traveling through Morocco wasn’t outside of my comfort zone (see #2). The people are generous and kind. They want you to like their country. As far as being hassled, it wasn’t as constant as I imagined. Sure, a man demanded money because I took a picture of a snake charmer, but I’ve been pestered way more in Cuzco and Saigon than I ever was in Morocco. I felt safe. The times I went out alone I did notice that I attracted considerable more attention than when we were traveling as a group but I never felt like I was in danger.
Others had no problems with the noisiness of our group but were much more on edge from the close following distances between vehicles, the windy roads with the huge drop offs, and the fear of getting lost in the souks. Each person’s comfort zone is different. Regardless of how, travel will push the boundaries of your comfort zone.
4. All the accoutrements of a western life quickly fall away. A suitcase with several changes of clothes, a good book, and my journal was enough. A few days without internet or cell signal and I didn’t miss it. Storytelling became our evening entertainment. Life got simpler. It was nice.
5. Two night minimum. Staying one night in a place doesn’t give you an opportunity to slow down and enjoy it. There are times when you need to cover some ground, like when we went to Erg Chebbi to ride camels, but otherwise, less really is more. Slow down.
6. Red hair and freckles can be viewed as freakish (in China, for example) or exotic and beautiful. Thank-you, ego-boosting Moroccans!
7. The body language of flirting is universal. (See #6).
8. It’s hard to tell how old someone is by looking at them. Yes, the attractive Moroccan was 17 years younger than me. (Insert creepy feeling here).
9. Your personal “hot buttons” will show up when traveling. Your emotional baggage is like an invisible carry-on that is always bumping along next to you. The stress of travel will often scatter the most well-packed contents all over. “Hot Buttons” are different for different people. When something makes you upset, it is because you have a “should,” an unmet expectation, or a fear around the thing that is upsetting you. My frustration of “they shouldn’t exaggerate and embellish” became “of course they do, they’re an artist and having something sound really impressive and amazing matters to an artist”. Having your emotional baggage show up isn’t a bad thing.
10. Moroccan soap doesn’t lather for s*%t. Said lack of lathering may cause one’s mother to throw away the soap. This might irritate you when there is no soap to wash your hands.
11. Annoyance passes. (see #9 and #10)
12. Berber’s sing and dance better than we do. Our rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” didn’t get a request for an encore.
13. The hopes for our children are universal. Our local guide, Calal, wanted the same things for his children and village as we wish for our own: peace and happiness.
14. I’m grateful to be born into a culture where I can choose not only to have a job, but to fly a helicopter. The only people who asked my about my job were people in our group or the westerners we met along our trip. None of the local Moroccan’s asked. It is very rare for women to work outside of the home. Given that our own culture often defines people by their professions, it was nice to drop this western marker of identity. You are not the things outside of yourself.
15. Wealth is all about perspective. Someone will always have more and someone will always have less. Comparison is the thief of joy. Wealth is about time, opportunity, access, health and well-being rather than dollars in a bank account. I’m incredibly wealthy. So are you.
16. Regular exercise keeps my body happy. (Too many days sitting on the minibus!)A tennis ball is great for massaging sore muscles.
17. It is a small, small world. I started chatting with some paragliders at the top of the Tizi N’Test pass, a mostly deserted, curvy road through the High Atlas Mountains. After chatting for about 15 minutes, we realized we know some of the same people.
18. Time operates strangely when traveling. Traveling brings one new experience after another. This gives the illusion of having been somewhere for a much longer time. When I’m traveling for several weeks, it often feels as if I’ve been gone for months.
19. It is worth it. Taking time off from work and saving money, and the piling up of emails and build-up of items on your to-do list are worth it. Go.
20. Savvy travelers have an open mind. They enjoy learning new things. They don’t make their own frame of reference the “right” way. From a distance, plastic bags blowing across the countryside can look like colorful flowers.
21. Some of the most unpleasant experiences are often the most memorable part of a trip. Challenging situations and the insights you have because of them don’t happen when you stay comfortable.
22. Interacting with the local people is more interesting than visiting tourist sites. Some of my favorite experiences were bantering with the shopkeepers to negotiate the best price for an item. Like the moment one man grinned when he realized I was teasing him after he’d told me, “three is a better price” and I replied, “and five is an even better price and seven is the best price.” I loved playing basketball with the village children, making a Moroccan snowman, and people watching at the port in Essouria.
23. Pise (mud brick walls) give me a headache.
24. Silence doesn’t equal unhappy. (see #2 and #23).
25. Moroccan food is less varied than I imagined. What’s under the tajine tonight? Lemon Chicken, couscous with vegetables, or roasted beef with vegetables, Berber omelet or an omelet with meatballs. Rinse, repeat.
26. Some foods are enjoyable at every meal. Olives, fresh baked bread dipped in olive oil, Moroccan salad (diced tomatoes, peppers, and onions sprinkled with cumin salt) are so tasty they are delightful at every meal.
27. You can’t plan the best part of a trip.
28. The best parts of a trip are different for different people.
29. You can’t worry about what you can’t control.
30. You will be fleeced while bargaining.
31. You will get a fair price while bargaining.
32. You won’t really care if you get fleeced if you like the person.
33. We have great dental care.
34. Many villages are getting cell signal at the same time they get electricity. In much of the western world there was at least a 50 year gap between the two. Like it or not, the modern world is flooding into the villages.
35. Moroccan’s love cats. They’re everywhere. Most don’t have an owner but because they are valued, the cats are often well-fed and cared for. Dogs aren’t highly regarded. I was encouraged to take the one I liked.
36. Mint sprigs are an excellent way to cover the acrid, nose-burning smell of a leather tannery.
37. Moroccan’s love sugar. Softball-sized chunks of sugar were routinely plopped into the mint tea.
38. One of my favorite aspects of being outside is looking for wildlife. I’m always noticing the donkeys braying, cats batting at my backpack straps at the table, the mouse flicking sand several feet behind him, a scarab scuttling across the dunes, or watching a camel chew.
39. Americans don’t value learning foreign languages. Many Moroccans speak at least four languages (Arabic, Berber, French and English). One of our guides could tell jokes in Arabic, Berber, French, English, Japanese, German, Spanish, and ? As he was fond of saying, Ah-Mazing!
40. Hearing a call to prayer multiple times a day makes you appreciate when you hear a really beautiful one.
41. The more you travel, the more you become an atypical American. Each country in your passport makes you father from the norm. But there are some really interesting people out there. (See #17).
42. I love Moroccan design.
43. The small stuff isn’t important.
44. The small stuff is really important. Lip balm. Lip balm. Lip balm. We fantasized about lip balm with sunscreen that didn’t taste bad.
45. There is rarely any protein served at breakfast in Morocco.
46. A plastic container filled with leftovers from dinner is a great way to have a mid-morning meal. I’m a frequent eater so breakfast at 8 am and lunch at 2 pm doesn’t work for me. A container of leftovers around 11 am made the trip so much better and helped avoid a nasty attack of the hangries (hungry + angry). A plastic container will forevermore be on my packing list.
47. I wish I had a better poker face. I’m terrible at hiding how I feel.
48. The best time to declutter is immediately after a trip. After living out of a suitcase for weeks, you know you don’t need most of your possessions.
49. Traveling makes you appreciate what you have and the people in your life and love home even more.
What surprised you? What are your own insights? What do you value about travel? Share in the comments.