It was a warm October evening on the rooftop terrace of a Fes riad in the old medina. Stars sparkled across the sky as lights flickered throughout the panoramic city sprawl. Over the decades our host, Hassan, has opened his home up to hundreds of travelers to share its history through what he calls, chez habitant tourisme culturel (at home cultural tourism). The beautiful riad is listed on Airbnb for a minimal cost, solely to appease a tax imposed by the government when you host foreigners. While sipping traditional Maghrebi mint tea out of small embellished glasses, we discuss the 18th century architecture adorning the home and he speaks about his Muslim experience with an honest pride.
Out of the four of us, only two could really communicate outside of hand gestures. The first, Laura, took French in high school about ten years prior, and the second was Hassan, who spoke French fluently. Laura translated her conversation with Hassan while I quietly listened. We learned that in Morocco and in his religion, you’re allowed to marry up to four wives as long as you have the financial stability to support them. Hassan makes a joke about his first wife in Casablanca being his workhorse station wagon, his second wife in Fes being a BMW, and mid-wink tells me I have the opportunity to be his new Maserati. I shifted in my seat, unsure how to respond. The liberal, feminist, San Franciscan in me would have been shrieking in any other setting. We were in a different world this time.
After a few chuckles he continued on to describe a world where despite the many varied religions, we ultimately just want the same thing: to be happy, healthy, and surrounded by the people that we love. We ended our tea time and were greeted by Hassan’s young son who ran up to tackle his sixty year-old father, giggling. The boy shyly smiled at us and carefully scurried back to his thirty-something mother draped in hijab.
Lately, more than ever, we hear about people completely uprooting their lives for a giant, transformative adventure. We turn to travel for experiences that change us, that make us reconsider and challenge what we know as routine. With that being said, simply showing up in a place or declaring six months to backpack across Thailand won’t facilitate this transformation; it’s the intention with each minute spent.
This small, thirty minute moment with a man from a completely different reality challenged me to be patient, empathetic, and present. In the moment, I shifted in my seat because layers of cognitive dissonance began to unravel. How could it be possible that a man who refers to his partners in life as vehicles — a man who replaces women with the next hot model every ten years — could also be loving father, a man who respects other cultures?
While I was questioning what I knew about the world, it wasn’t my place to judge him in this moment. I was there to learn — to immerse myself in someone else’s reality, not impose my own values. There are times where you look for comfort and relaxation on the beach at a beautiful five star resort that was built for vacationers. These times are lovely, but aren’t the moments where you are exposed to new ideas or challenge your reality.
This is a distinguishing factor when searching for an immersive experience. Immersive experiences allow you to see the world from a local’s eyes for a day. It’s understanding the joys and struggles of someone else’s everyday life. It might mean getting out of your comfort zone in an unexpected way, like talking to a sixty year-old Moroccan man over tea about his multiple wives.
"It wasn’t my place to judge him in this moment. I was there to learn—to immerse myself in someone else’s reality, not impose my own values."
In order to have these experiences, you need to approach each moment during your trip as an opportunity to pursue them. My friends and I could have easily brushed off the invitation to tea or booked a comfortable Westernized hotel further outside of the medina— these paths aren’t representative of the community we were visiting. Alternatively, we could have entered the conversation with walls up, ready to be on the defense of what our values were. Hassan actively invites people to his home to have these moments. The three of us chose a life on the road to continuously leverage these opportunities to challenge ourselves.
If you’re not someone who lives a life of constant travel, these moments to interact with a stranger might not come as naturally. VAWAA helps to facilitate these experiences and offer the opportunity to intentionally connect you with locals. Regardless of the type of travel experience you choose — whether it be as an excited host, a long term traveler, or a week-long adventurer — identify what your purpose for traveling is; the world will deliver.
Written by Zoe Nguyen