Across the Strait of Gibraltar and approximately 20 miles by ferry from where I live is Morocco. Before going I was told by nearly everyone I encountered: “be careful there, it’s not safe for women”, “make sure you stay in by sundown and go out in the day in groups”, “dress very, very conservatively” and “be prepared for a very different culture.” The truth is, nothing prepares you for Morocco unlike a first-hand experience.
Morocco conjures in many minds images of exotic people, warm spices, colorful fabrics, hypnotizing music…every element of a rich culture. What you may not think of when you hear the name “Morocco” however, is the other side of the coin. The poverty. The filth. The crippled people left to fend for themselves on the streets. The 4 year-olds begging for a meal. The feeling as a woman that you are an object to be stared, yelled and whistled at and not a human being with thoughts and emotions.
Thousands of tourists descend upon Tangier, a main port city of Morocco, every year. They stay in the same ritzy resorts, and sign up for the same safe tours entrusting a guide to carefully and strategically take them through the nicer parts of town. I know this only from comparing my time exploring the city without a tour guide with girl friends, and by comparing it to the tour group we traveled with the following day. When the 3 of us ventured out to explore the Medina, or “old city” by ourselves, we witnessed a completely different Morocco than on the second day when we traveled with a bus full of Spaniards to the quaint beach town of Asilah, touristy camel rides, and the beautiful spot where the Atlantic and Mediterranean meet. Alone we experienced Morocco for what it was. More gritty? Yes. Less beautiful than the white-washed houses and stretches of coastline? Not exactly.
As a young woman traveling for the first time to a Muslim country, I knew I had to expect cultural differences. One doesn’t travel to Morocco expecting to party. Morocco offers a much deeper experience, but only to the open-minded traveler, which for me resulted in something so eye-opening, and a lot of time to reflect upon the things for which I am grateful. I realized I have taken the most simple things for granted: food, water, shelter, clothing. All of my worries seem insignificant and petty when my most basic needs are met.
A boy, no more than 5 years old begged us for food as the bus dropped us off one evening. The 3 of us gave him bread and the smile on his face after receiving the most simple of necessities has stayed with me. Whenever I feel like complaining about my life circumstances, I hope I’ll see his face and remember my blessings. More importantly as I discover what I’m meant to do with my degree and education, I want to remember how it felt to make the smallest of differences in one life. Yes, all we did was hand over a piece of bread. We didn’t create miracles. But for the shortest moment regardless of where we came from, and where the little boy came from, despite our language barriers, religious differences, and socioeconomic backgrounds, we were just people who happened to be in the same place at the same time, sharing much more than a simple piece of bread with one another.