slow travel

Making a Home Abroad

I have been in Morocco for almost two months now and so I want to share some of my initial and more current thoughts on the country, the people, and how it has become my home. 

a rooftop view of Meknes

a rooftop view of Meknes

Excerpt from my thoughts after being here a week and a half:

My time has been split between two cities. I started in Rabat and will return there to start my regular courses. However, I have a host family in Meknes for my orientation and Darija (the local dialect) class. So far they've been absolutely incredible to me and the other girl from my program. I was really nervous the night we got our families; worried that there would be a communication barrier, that they wouldn't like me, or that they would only offer me meat dishes (a true fear as a vegetarian). And while it isn't always easy or simple to cross cultures and live a different lifestyle, so far I've felt welcomed, understood, and included. 

There's a lot of places where they say the hospitality is great. But it's definitely true of Morocco. My family--which is the cutest, sweetest ever--welcomes strangers into their home all the time. They showed us gifts from past students and a trunk they keep with notes that the students left when they were going out of the house or wouldn't be home for lunch, etc. There was one instance where our host uncle took us to a village about an hour away. He bartered for the best taxi price, showed us a good restaurant, and then led a hike into the woods along the river. There we met up with his sister in law's family, who proceeded to serve all fifteen or so of us cake, mint tea, and fruit. When they heard that some of the students overpaid for a taxi and then the driver tried to charge them extra after he went to the wrong place, they family did their best to intervene and insisted on talking with the taxi driver over the phone. This is just a small taste of Moroccan hospitality. 

The hospitality and the kindness of people has still remained the most striking thing about Morocco a month or so later. What was unexpected was the ability of this country to continually surprise and interest me. Although I have become comfortable here and settled in, there are still situations that I find are strange and details of the culture that I struggle to understand. The beautiful part about study abroad is that all of the social, historical, and political aspects in class I see on the streets and at home. Because of this, I have a deeper understanding of the place I’m living, especially since Morocco has undergone colonialism, Arabization, and other sweeping, dramatic movements.  

study abroad trip to the royal palace in Rabat

study abroad trip to the royal palace in Rabat

The beauty of settling into a place is that comfort and knowledge: knowing where to get the best, cheap food; how to use public transportation; recognizing people on the street; having conversations with people on the train. I first knew I had a home here when I returned from traveling for a weekend and felt overwhelming relief to unlock my door, see my host mom, and flop down on my bed. 

Making a new home in a place comes with time and a little courage. Still I am trying to make friends with Moroccans in Rabat, as it often takes effort to get out of your comfort zone and grab coffee with the strangers you met on the train. Also, specifically in Morocco, it can be difficult to meet people on the streets as a woman, because very often you are too busy trying to ignore the catcalls and not meet any male eyes who might be creepy. I’ve been working on balancing my defense mechanisms and my instinct to trust of others. Other ways to feel at home can be exploring or just hanging out, doing what the locals do (here it's chilling at a cafe with friends for hours). Getting into a routine also really normalized living in Rabat for me. Saying hello to shopkeepers and neighbors always helps too!

It is a little bittersweet finding a home here, knowing that I will leave in under three months. Still I have a lot of time to enjoy plenty of mint tea on my rooftop, as the call to prayer reverberates eerily around me. 

the Rabat Kasbah, basically a walled, historic part of the city

the Rabat Kasbah, basically a walled, historic part of the city

I still can't believe this view is 10 minutes from my house

I still can't believe this view is 10 minutes from my house


Experiencing the World with Slow Travel

Slow and steady wins the race. This phrase is oft-overused and carries the connotation of hares and tortoises. However, it applies perfectly to my way of travel. That is not to say that I enjoy 10+ hour plane rides -- I simply enjoy 'slow travel.'

This means spending more time in a country or city than the average traveler. If you stay at a hostel in Southeast Asia, you undoubtedly run into handfuls of people visiting 5 or so countries in under three months, and visiting cities for two or three days at a time. I won't deny that I've done this when I have an itch to see a new place. In fact, I spent just over 48 hours in London, England. And I saw a lot. But the places I dream of returning to, the people I miss the most, the landscapes that fill my sketchbook are from the cities and countries where I really spent time. this usually means two to four weeks (the latter limited by my current funds and a U.S. passport).

For me, slow travel is when I can truly settle into a country, learn its customs, and meet its people as well as other travelers.

This also usually means that I am not staying in a hostel or hotel. Mostly because I could never afford to stay in such a place for too long. Better to spend two weeks living and working with an Austrian family an hour's train ride from Vienna. Better to create a makeshift family with three 20-somethings in the south of France, cooking dinner together every night. Better to bond with kids that can speak elementary-level English in Cambodia. (How I found such amazing opportunities.)

I wouldn't know how to count and say phrases in five or so other languages if not for slow travel. This way of seeing new places includes getting out of the touristy pockets where most people can speak some English. Also, it means really tasting a country, not eating at tourist-geared restaurants where the menu is not in the local language and everything is twice as expensive as the road-side shack.

This doesn't have to be in the middle of the country-side or even really after two weeks of travel. A friend at my hostel in Bangkok, Thailand and I sat down to lunch on a corner, where the red plastic chairs were filled with Thai business men on break. A fellow customer had to translate for me when I asked for my dish to be vegetarian.

So yes, taking more time to explore is better in a new place. But also, please explore deeply, finding the nooks and crannies of a new place. Travel to tiny villages and visit farms. Ask the woman at the market where to eat dinner. Get a little lost amid winding alleys and small shops. Drive until your car breaks down. (Yes, I have done that.) Learn to say more than 'thank you' and 'hello' in the native language. Talk to locals.

So take my challenge and really take the time to see a place and be there. Experience it.

This post was brought on by a conference I attended at Hostelling International in Washington, D.C. where Elena Sonnino of Live.Do.Grow. and Fran Holuba of the White House spoke about study abroad and young people in travel. Thanks for the inspiration!