An ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney home

DRIFT Travel magazine - - Inside This Issue - BY: SARAH CASEWIT

Feel­ing hun­gover from my 11hour flight to Casablanca, I ap­proach the im­mi­gra­tion desk where a friendly face with a bushy mus­tache greets me with “Salaam” (lit­er­ally mean­ing “peace”). Dazed from ex­haus­tion, I re­spond “Alaykum Salaam” and hand over my pass­port. He scans my ID page with a watch­ful eye. Name. Sarah Casewit. Place of Birth. Morocco. Na­tion­al­ity. USA. He looks up at me and asks in Ara­bic, “Where’s your Moroc­can pass­port? I can’t let you through with­out a Moroc­can ID.”

Stunned out of my stu­por, I re­al­ize my mis­take. Never speak in Ara­bic to the im­mi­gra­tions guy. It’s just con­fus­ing and leads to open-ended ques­tions about my iden­tity that I can’t be­gin to an­swer. I quickly switch back to English and play it cool. I say that I am an Amer­i­can who hap­pened to be born in Morocco, and that I am merely a tourist in his coun­try. My coun­try, too, re­ally, but I kept that to my­self.

I’ll be hon­est. I never thought I’d re­turn to Morocco as a traveler - es­pe­cially hav­ing lived here for 20 years. Isn’t travel sup­posed to of­fer per­pet­ual ex­cite­ment of be­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar place? Shouldn’t it have an ele­ment of the un­known by de­fault? That’s what I thought too, un­til re­cently.

Born in Mar­rakech in the late 80s and raised in Fez and Ra­bat through­out the 90s, I lived in a rel­a­tively un­touched Morocco, be­fore it gained world­wide fame as a boho-chic tourist hotspot; be­fore the big ho­tel chains took over the desert palmeraie. As a fam­ily, we trav­eled far and wide across the coun­try, em­brac­ing ev­ery as­pect of the cul­ture as our own. We used to spend our sum­mer hol­i­days in the azure town of Che­fchaouen, spring breaks in the Ourika Val­ley, and win­ter va­ca­tions ski­ing down the At­las Moun­tains.

My par­ents re­luc­tantly ac­cepted that their four blond chil­dren spoke ter­ri­bly bro­ken English and couldn’t name the 50 states. But hey, they started it. They made it a point to com­pletely im­merse us into Moroc­can cul­ture and raise us with its deep-rooted val­ues. Ara­bic was my first lan­guage and I knew lit­tle to noth­ing about Amer­i­can cul­ture. I went to Moroc­can pub­lic schools and had a very tra­di­tional life­style. Cous­cous on Fri­days-as is the Moroc­can cus­tom; hag­gling for slip­pers in the souk; get­ting kaf­tans made at the tai­lor; rid­ing pub­lic trans­port at age eight; splash­ing around the lo­cal ham­mam; and so on. This was a home to me and noth­ing out of the or­di­nary. But I re­al­ize this now: I was liv­ing ev­ery traveler’s fan­tasy child­hood with­out know­ing it and I am for­ever in­debted to Morocco.

I left Morocco to study religion and cul­ture in dif­fer­ent parts of the

world. I later had the op­por­tu­nity of work­ing in the lux­ury travel in­dus­try for some years, where I paired my knowl­edge with lo­gis­ti­cal ex­per­tise. Once I dis­cov­ered my love for travel and re­al­ized its trans­for­ma­tive ca­pac­ity on one’s soul, I de­cided to launch Naya Traveler with two like-minded and in­spir­ing women who share my vi­sion. It is per­sonal for me. I want to of­fer a way of ex­plor­ing cul­tures that pays trib­ute to my child­hood, to my in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in Morocco. Need­less to say, Morocco had to be one of our main des­ti­na­tions at Naya Traveler. Ti­tus Bur­ck­hardt, a fam­ily friend who ded­i­cated his life to pro­tect­ing the old Fez as a UNESCO her­itage site, once said: “In or­der to un­der­stand a cul­ture, it is nec­es­sary to feel affin­ity for its val­ues.” I have more than just an affin­ity to Morocco’s cul­tural val­ues. They are prac­ti­cally my own. So, I decide to go back to Morocco--this time as a traveler, which brings me back to the be­gin­ning of my story.

Be­ing a stranger in Morocco is... a strange feel­ing. It’s like meet­ing your ex af­ter an awk­ward breakup - we’ve all been there, right? Will he rec­og­nize me? Will I re­mem­ber him as I left him? Does he still think of me like I do?

The mo­ment I clear cus­toms, I am treated as a for­eigner and spo­ken to as a new­comer. It is jar­ring and leaves me with a sense of loss. Ques­tion­ing your own iden­tity when you think you have it all fig­ured out is quite a star­tling ex­pe­ri­ence.

How­ever, af­ter get­ting over the over­whelm­ing feel­ing of dis­con­nect, I start to see Morocco in a whole new light; one that is fed by my re­newed cu­rios­ity and reverence to its cul­tural di­ver­sity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion. My

mis­sion with Naya Traveler was to de­velop ex­pe­ri­ences that were true to the cul­ture, au­then­tic and unique. Thanks to this pur­pose that spear­headed my jour­ney, I be­came aware of sub­tleties that I had taken for granted as a child. The pal­pa­ble spir­i­tu­al­ity in peo­ple’s man­ner­isms. The strength of tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues to with­stand the in­flu­ences of mod­ern so­ci­ety. The daz­zling col­ors, sounds and smells that can’t be cap­tured on In­sta­gram. The un­shak­able faith peo­ple have in des­tiny and fate. The mind­blow­ing num­ber of sa­cred spa­ces in ev­ery vil­lage, town and city. My home coun­try is man­i­fest­ing it­self in a new light, right be­fore my very eyes.

Dur­ing my “re-fa­mil­iar­iza­tion” trip, I trace my foot­steps back to places I knew well grow­ing up and rekin­dle my re­la­tion­ship with fa­mil­iar land­scapes. I am com­forted by the strong ac­quain­tance yet in­spired by a re­vived sense of won­der. Mar­rakesh is even live­lier than I had left it, filled with an en­ergy that can only be found within its pink walls. Fez re­tains its medieval feel and un­de­ni­able sa­cred his­tory that re­ver­ber­ates from the an­cient al­ley­ways. Ra­bat, the sea­ward gem of Morocco, is still calm and col­lected yet newly dy­namic and metropoli­tan. The vil­lages of Imlil and Asni in the At­las Moun­tains are maybe more de­vel­oped than I re­mem­ber, but Ber­ber cul­ture re­mains strong and dom­i­nant. The far-flung vil­lages in Zagora, to my sur­prise, have not changed one bit.

The most defin­ing mo­ment dur­ing this jour­ney takes place in an adobe house, tucked deep in the High At­las Moun­tains, over­look­ing the Ziz Val­ley. I am sit­ting with a Ber­ber fam­ily on

the pa­tio of their beau­ti­ful home, shar­ing a pot of tea, home­made bread, and a bowl of ex­quis­ite olive oil from the lo­cal mill. The fa­ther has a kind face with sharp fea­tures and pierc­ing eyes--typ­i­cal traits of Ber­ber men from the re­gion.

He is telling me about life in his vil­lage and I share sto­ries of my child­hood spent near this val­ley. His daughter takes my hand to show me their sim­ple house: rus­tic car­pets and plush pil­lows seem to be the en­tirety of their be­long­ings. She de­scribes her daily life to me and asks me about my own. As we’re sit­ting on the floor, talk­ing and gig­gling away, I feel an over­whelm­ing sense of grat­i­tude for be­ing given the op­por­tu­nity to con­nect and learn from a lo­cal in such an in­ti­mate set­ting.

It is af­ter such ex­pe­ri­ences that I feel in­spired to cre­ate jour­neys that go be­yond the tourist route, that don’t just scratch the sur­face. Thanks to Naya Traveler, I am blessed, yet again, with the op­por­tu­nity to learn from Morocco and gain a brand new per­spec­tive. I am able to pair my past with the present in a way that al­lows me to fo­cus on the true essence of Morocco’s cul­ture and tra­di­tions. It is an op­por­tu­nity of a life­time--to de­sign trips with all my heart and soul.

They say travel should take you to new places and un­charted lands for the full ef­fect. This is partly true. Ex­plor­ing your own back­yard with a re­newed per­spec­tive and a fresh sense of ap­pre­ci­a­tion can be just as en­rich­ing, if not even more en­rich­ing. It can take what you al­ready know to a deeper, trans­for­ma­tive level and al­low you to pen­e­trate the in­tri­ca­cies of a cul­ture in a way you would have never imag­ined be­fore.

Fol­low Naya Traveler: @nay­a­trav­eler www.nay­a­trav­

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