Intro: How I Became a Traveler
Take a moment to ask yourself – where do you want to travel? Seriously. If you had your pick of any one place in the world, what would it be? And who would it be with?
You must have thought about this.
My next question for you is – why have you not gone yet? If you have a dream of going somewhere, why have you not pursued it? Allow me to momentarily play psychic: you can’t afford it. You can’t take the vacation time. You are just too busy.
Whatever your excuse to not follow a dream is, I want to tell you that there is a way.
I like to think that the desire to travel is a seed deeply embedded within each of us. We humans are inherently wired with a yearning to explore, to see the world beyond the walls of our upbringing and understanding. If we do not water this seed with passion, it will not grow. For the vast majority of people this seed remains dormant, withering away throughout the years, stifled by everyday life commitments and responsibilities. Routine poisons the soil that fertilizes our dreams so discretely that we don’t even notice their demise, until years have passed and there is nothing to show for our imagination but a barren wasteland of forgotten promises and regrets.
What does any of this have to do with my trip to Morocco?
Valley in Rissani
Ten years ago, two events came together that would eventually lead me to this country. First, I met my biological father. A father who had been absent from my life for 15 years, and who was nothing short of a stranger. Yet, despite the inexplicably complex reasons that had brought us to this situation, one thing was clear – if I were to get on with my life and deal with the struggles that I faced up to that point, I had to forgive him. Not for him, but for me. I will spare you the details of that long and strenuous journey into the inner workings of my mind and skip to the key takeaway: forgiveness is the hardest – and perhaps because of this, most precious – action I’ve taken for myself. Forgiving someone, especially when every fiber of your body says no, is cathartic as it is terrifying. It means letting go of a scapegoat, accepting all past suffering, and assuming responsibility for your happiness. Imagine that, and now take it a step further: to allow yourself to eventually love that person takes a type of courage that once discovered, fundamentally changes you.
The second event that eventually led me to Morocco was reading a book that would forever alter my outlook on life. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho found me shortly after my initial encounters with my father. This book taught me that my life has purpose. Everyone on this Earth has a dream, a role to fulfill (which Coelho dubs as the Personal Legend), and I won’t truly be happy unless I follow my heart to relentlessly pursue that dream. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this sequence of events nurtured a seed, the very seed I mentioned in the start of this entry, that over time grew, expanded, and eventually sprouted into a biggest dream: to become a traveler, to open my heart and my mind to all of the possibilities that exist outside of the bubble I’d known. I could have just as easily remained in this bubble for all of time, learning to be content with living a stable, suburban life void of risk and the unknown. But once I had a taste of how much my heart could open, the love that I could generate from connecting with a person that I initially knew nothing about, and how important it was to follow my dreams in my pursuit of true happiness – I knew I could never go back to living the life I knew thus far.
And so, I made a simple decision… I wouldn’t go back.
We all have dreams that we hope and pine for, and our biggest sense of dissatisfaction is rooted in our inability – whether by circumstance or lack of personal effort – to walk down the paths that will get us there. I spent years building the courage to begin mine, conservatively dabbling with the occasional trip here and there until the right opportunity came that would eventually propel me deep into my passion for travel. My father offered to take me on a trip of my choosing post college graduation; though I had traveled with him before, this would be the longest time we would have ever spent together on our own.
Morocco held a mythical allure to me due to The Alchemist: it was there that Santiago, the main character, understood the essential next steps he had to take toward his journey to achieve his Personal Legend. An immutable force within me (let’s call it intuition) ardently believed that Morocco held the answers, that it could teach me how to be a traveler, to let go of my old life and provide me with the foundations to begin my new one. I believed that there was no better way to understand my calling as a nomad than in the place that created them.
One of my favorite quotes from The Alchemist is: “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Little did I know, the universe had already carved the grooves through which my dreams could flow – all I had to do was allow my mind to be malleable enough to pass through them. This is a story about my first real journey as a traveler: through the Moroccan mountains, cities, desert, and oases, and – more importantly – towards my dream.
The mountains showed me that experiences are more happily lived when we let them come to us, rather than expect them to happen.
We encountered the savagely beautiful Dades Valley (also known as the “road of a thousand Kasbahs” due to the ancient Islamic fortresses lining the 100+ mile route) while driving through the Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges. For endless hours, my existence consisted of leaning back in the car seat, arm propped against the window, fingers frantically dancing to the rhythm of the warm Moroccan air. The landscape was exquisitely schizophrenic. Seemingly infinite stretches of quietude would pass when our only companions were flashes of arid red earth and the occasional gaping rock canyon off the side of the road. And then, as if that solitude had never happened, the Valley would rupture with life – such as when we unintentionally drove through El Kelaa M’gouna (Valley of the Roses) and saw previously barren lands transform into vast, exquisite fields of scarlet roses.
A glimpse of one of the many canyons scattered throughout the Valley
My favorite memory from the mountains was being abruptly interrupted by a large troop of wild monkeys taking their sweet time to cross the road. The mild annoyance I initially felt towards this unscheduled disruption quickly turned into a childlike admiration for the scene that unveiled before us. Many of the monkeys were not making the trek alone: clutching their furry underbellies and almost hidden from sight were tiny infant monkeys suckling their mother’s teats, eyes half-batted in sheer contentment. Completely indifferent to the minutes passing by, we curiously watched these monkey families interact in their own private world, unencumbered by their audience.
We eventually arrived at our picturesque hotel, located atop a quaint little mountain town. Hardly had I stepped out of the car before the buttoned-up, sharply uniformed staff welcomed me and found every way imaginable to make me comfortable. Polished and clean, the hotel boasted an immaculately manicured rose garden and a giant fountain surrounded by plush outdoor seating. It was all just as I had expected: beautiful, comfortable, and tame. The hotel was made for us visitors. The road, and what I saw along the way, was not.
From the beginning, my destination had been a clear focus, a self-imposed set of expectations of where I had to be and what I should find when I arrived. But while my destination was at the end of that road, the moments that most shaped me were happening in the present. As much as I’d like to think I was in control of my experience, my best memories occurred when I was a bystander. By sitting back and passively observing, I witnessed the amazing life that happens everyday in the Dades Valley, the raw moments that had no interest in pleasing me or catering to my needs. The pure awe of watching those baby monkeys lazily holding onto their mom’s fleshy underbelly… nothing in this world could have orchestrated that for me. The Dades Valley taught me that the best journey is about letting things happen to us instead of trying to make them happen. When we do, the universe has a tendency to present us with an experience that is beyond what we could have imagined.
The city taught me that chaos can open doors to meaningful human connections.
Many of Morocco’s cities are characterized by the medina, a typical Arab quarter featuring very narrow, walled, and maze-like streets. While the medinas in Casablanca and Marrakech held their unique charm, they were incomparable to Fez’s, a 1,200 year old, UNESCO-protected political and cultural capital. Little did I know that entering this labyrinth would funnel me into a human stream of chaos and disorder. Instantly I was swallowed by a cacophony of frantic merchants luring in their next sales victim, concentrated blacksmiths clanking away at copper, and locals hastily conversing in Arabic with agitated gesticulations. The tiny alleyways pulsated with the questionable olfactory cocktail of Arab spices weaved with the pungent scent of desiccated animal hide from nearby tanneries.
To make sense of this mess, my father found a local in the street and hired him as our guide. Yes, that’s right – just like that, we put the fate of our medina tour into a random stranger’s hands. And so we aimlessly wandered through every corner of the medina, peeking through the lens of a native. I saw the oldest tannery in the world, where a tanner proudly displayed a sea of stone vessels filled with odorous liquids and walked us through the dyeing process. I met a charismatic scarf maker who taught me how to wrap a dusty Keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress typically worn in the desert, around my head. I sat and chatted with fishermen as they picked through giant, snail-filled nets.
It was in this medina that I fully grasped that the most delightful part of a journey isn’t the attractions you see, but rather the people you meet. Meeting someone changes you, yet you can never predict when or how it will happen. This medina was raw, messy, and stripped of all formalities, the perfect formula for real human connection to thrive. I couldn’t have met these locals, each with something unique to teach me about their culture, without throwing myself into their environment. Had I allowed chaos to intimidate me from exploring the medina and interacting with its inhabitants, I would have risked walking away with a completed itinerary and no real understanding of the eccentric characters that breathe life into this place every single day.
Chaos is not a nuisance to a dream – it is a gift. In the pursuit of a dream, you often think you have a clear idea of what you want and who you want to become in the process. But the reality is, you usually don’t. You figure it out during the journey, which is filled with obstacles and surprises that often side sweep and knock you over. Having a dream isn’t the difficult part – accepting and acting on what it will take to get there is. Chaos has the power to bring your dreams to life precisely by breaking them down and helping you better understand all the intricate pieces that constitute the whole. It disrupts your expectations, topples all those pieces over, and forces you to evaluate whether you care enough to reassemble them. The mere act of deciding to do so brings you a step closer to realizing that dream.
The desert showed me that the best gifts in life can never truly be ours.
When I first saw the shaky outline of the Merzouga desert dunes from the road, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Even at a distance, the massive dunes were larger than life, glowing a vibrant, unearthly orange that intensified as we drew closer. We met our guide at the outskirts of the desert, a friendly bearded nomad of Berber descent who was well versed in the art of camel riding. I, unfortunately, was not. We laughed as I clumsily climbed onto the camel that would awkwardly carry me into the heart of the Saharan desert.
Many wonders of nature have left me in awe before, but Merzouga took it further. It stunned me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing every step of the way: endless mounds of bright, orange sand stretched before me, kissed by the radiant light of the setting sun. The sand was cool to the touch and unbelievably soft, like delicate silk slipping through my fingers. Though the dunes looked as tall as buildings, the sand would so easily give way under my weight that I could climb to the top in a matter of minutes and see an entire desert kingdom unfold beneath me. A kingdom pumping with life that I could never see, but consistently made its presence known via the tiny, ephemeral imprints that creatures left in the sand.
Looking out into the Skoura oasis
After running around for hours like a little kid in a playground, I rested on the sand, shivering as the last rays of scorching sun were replaced by the shy twinkle of stars at twilight. As night fell, so did all visibility. No longer did the world around me feel vast and endless, but rather confined to the faint glimmer of lamps from the distant nomad camp. And then, just like that, my best memory from the journey happened. Slowly, indifferent to the stark darkness of the night, a full alabaster moon began to rise from behind a giant dune. The moon emerged one sliver at a time, her pearlescent glow rhythmically intensifying with my awe. Smitten, I watched as this waxen goddess danced for her mortals against the backdrop of an ebony sky.
I desperately wanted to hold onto this sight, but it refused to be properly captured by my amateur camera. Perhaps not being able to “possess” this memory through photography was what made it so special – I had to make a conscious effort to love, absorb, and record the extent of the moment. There is a slight feeling of despair and sadness that comes from acknowledging that even photography cannot capture Nature. Humans have an inherent desire to possess but, like the moon in the desert, most beauty is fugitive. Ultimately, we are left with the most fickle capsule – our memory – to preserve the impact of what we are seeing in the present before it is lost forever.
It hurts to acknowledge that although Morocco meant so much to me, to this place I was just a passerby, one of many travelers coming and going in a fleeting instance in time. A speck of sand strewn about by the wind, carried from one place to the other in the vastness of this world’s magnificence. Such a realization only makes us long for more, fueling a fervent wish to impose ourselves onto a place somehow so that it may remember us. A carving on a tree, a photo of a message drawn onto the sand, erased by the gusty Saharan winds only seconds later… as much as we may fool ourselves otherwise, we cannot have ownership over Nature. We can only truly possess trinkets and material things, and even those can easily lose their value and significance overnight.
In the end, we own nothing. The most important gifts are loans, not meant for our sole possession: our primary being memory, a gift that may remain with us for the rest of our lives or be taken away without a moment’s notice. While such transience and instability may make us feel helpless, it also empowers us to live life to the fullest. From memories, we have the capacity to construct an eternity. Forever is seeing a full moon rise in the middle of the Saharan desert and feeling my heart burst with awe and humility for the sight that was bestowed upon me. It’s being able to always recall the spectrum of emotions that this Now, the present, made me feel… even after the details leave me. I do not possess this memory. I can only borrow it from life, and I will not suffer so long as I accept that while the memory may fade, the love I extracted from it will not. A love that transcends ties or explanations and, in turn, will never just be mine.
The oasis taught me that each dream is a stepping stone towards a larger journey.
When I pictured an oasis, I always imagined an isolated leafy island in the midst of a sea of sand, only reachable after a long, strenuous trek through the desert. After days of little more than sand and camels, seeing the Skoura oasis’ fluffy green palm groves was an unexpected (and a bit less dramatic) relief. While the desert was the pinnacle of my trip, the oasis aroused a feeling similar to the overwhelming wave of comfort and satisfaction that washes over every fiber of the body post-climax. As tends to be the case when you throw yourself completely into what you love, my travels through Morocco flew by way too quickly and memories were being created faster than I could keep up with. In the quietude and slow pace of the oasis, I finally had a chance to stop and process everything I had just experienced, allowing the full impact of what I had gone through to meld and crystallize into my soul.
My time in the oasis was as much of a lull between dreams as it was between cities, an incubation period during which I was able to digest everything that had led me to where I was. It was in the oasis that I fully understood that I couldn’t just lay this experience to rest and move on. My commitment to my dream of learning the ways of the traveler and upheaving mundanity from my life did not end when I left the country. Two years later, this dream has evolved into something bigger: I’ve found that my love for traveling is rooted in connecting with unknown people and places and experiencing how, once they let me into their world, I have consistently changed for the better.
Traveling through Morocco with my father revealed a hunger for travel, self-discovery, and human connection that I’d only previously felt in dull throbs. Perhaps opening your heart to love and change, even if it’s just a crack, is all you need to catalyze an avalanche of life-changing emotions and observations. Morocco taught me to seek adventure and spontaneity, to appreciate the little moments that we tend to so easily glaze over, and to curiously and eagerly learn from others, especially when I know nothing about them. Above all, it was in Morocco that I developed an unshakeable trust in myself – I dream for a reason, even if I may not yet recognize what that reason is. Your heart knows where to lead you when your mind has a million questions. And so follow it relentlessly, and pay attention to all the delightful little clues that life gifts you along the way.