I’ve never liked the idea of being a tourist. I much prefer a traveler, a wanderer, a soul looking for other souls. Always being a little lost with no actual desire to be found. I often think of the writings and words of Paul Bowles, a sincere explorer who found himself in Morocco while many American expats were flooding the cafes of Paris:
“[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”
I would like to believe there is a certain curiosity, a certain way in which one must interact with the world in order to become a traveler. It’s easy to book all-inclusive holidays on a coastal retreat, but it’s difficult to become part of the community around you, especially when you embed yourself so briefly. Becoming a traveler requires that you forcibly, consciously, continually enter yourself into a place of discomfort. To travel is to awaken yourself and your senses anew by an onslaught of foreign stimuli; sounds, smells, flavors, textures that are both pleasing and repulsive. To engage with the world outside of your place of comfort — to really reach out and seize it in all it’s mess and glory — you have to be willing to push yourself.
Boldness, fearlessness, earnestness. These are the traits of a traveler.
Maybe it was in the strand of Paul Bowles but this summer I found myself in Morocco with open eyes and an open heart. Let me stop here and say the Morocco in my mind was not some drug addled dreamscape filled with prostitutes and illegality that so many Westerners sought in days past, nor was it a time capsule of harems and archaic traditions. I was aware of the history of Morocco, of colonization, of the way in which the flow of tourism money has altered the character of cities, and of the social stratification that impacts many people in the country. My reasons for going to Morocco were rooted in a desire to see a place that would challenge my own perceptions and force me to reflect on my place as a privileged first-world American woman.
I went as a traveler, not a tourist. I went to be uncomfortable.
I slept in riads and avoided hotels. I ate from the same stalls where I saw locals sitting in plastic chairs and speaking with gusto, the kind of questionable-but-oh-so-satisfying establishments where I spent only 12 dirhams on chips and tavuk shish. I went to a hamam and met with local women who spoke no English or French and bonded over our shared cultural confusion. I avoided hustlers and found kindness in people who looked to help me without the expectation (and eventual refusal) of a few dirhams from my pocket. I made sure to say ‘salaaam alikoum,’ and ‘labas i-hamdullah’ to the elderly women who came up to me. Yes, I saw the historical sites; yes, I was in some ways still giving into tourism but I was self-aware and interested in seeing the city as the people around me saw it. Self-awareness is the first step towards opening yourself up to authentic experiences.
I know the question of authenticity is loaded, because authenticity for so many people walks this thin line between reality and Orientalism and eroticism of the exotic. When I say authentic I mean to say the open exchange of experiences that embody all aspects of a place, culture and people. (A tall order, to say the least.) I know Morocco differs regionally, differs by city and ethnicity; life in villages near the Sahara are different than life on the coast in Agadir, Casablanca or Rabat.
Authenticity is, in many ways, impacted by your own perspective and expectations.
It is because I went to Morocco with the expectation to learn that I found the excursion more fulfilling than many of my counterparts have expressed. Within all the discomfort, I found discovery. My authentic experience did not hinge on a need to see belly dancers, smoke hashish, ride camels through the Sahara, and buy bags upon bags of clothes and argan oil. I found more joy in spontaneous meetings and conversations than I did in the souks.
In the same city where I was chided by strangers on the street I would find myself only moments later looking out onto the cluttered sea of satellite-dish decorated rooftops, sipping coffee and writing home. Each moment was another face of the complex country but neither experience was more or less authentic. Rather, each was part of a larger narrative — a narrative I believe you would easily find in a place like Los Angeles.
If someone came to the country and the places I grew up, they would see the gluttony of the glittering city with it’s name brands and it’s famous faces. But they would also see the extreme poverty — maybe they would pass by the infamous Skid Row — and they would know we too have many faces.