It was 2:00 a.m., and our bus had finally reached Marrakech. Now in our late twenties, Karina and I had become close friends several years before when we had both been living in NYC—she while finishing law school, and I while working at McKinsey & Company. Now I lived in the Bay Area and Karina’s home base was in London after she hadn’t gotten selected in the visa lottery (a tremendous loss for the US if you ask me). Being seas apart, we had planned a brilliant adventure to be together again. It started in Lisbon, down the coast of Portugal to Lagos, westward to Seville, down to Cádiz, and across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. We had had an amazing time perusing the blue Medina of Chefchauen, a questionable time in Fez in which we skirted away from creepy men who attempted to follow us back to our hotel, and a couple surreal nights in the Sahara Desert sleeping in the open air while bats hung on the large half-dome tent above us.
Marrakech was the last stop of our journey, and we had reserved a beautiful riad for the next two nights. We had booked cheaper accommodations throughout the trip, reserving our time in Marrakech to splurge. The photos of Riad al Massarah looked fabulous: Arabesque stone archways, a crystal blue pool in a terracotta-floored courtyard with bright decorative rugs, a rooftop dining area, and large plants sprinkled throughout.
However, we were running late. Our desert tour had been scheduled to arrive in Ouarzazate by mid-afternoon, leaving us plenty of time to get to Marrakech. Instead, we arrived in Ouarzazate at 8pm, and the earliest bus to Marrakech left at 9pm. While less crowded than the earlier bus would have been, this bus had some people who looked best avoided. We exchanged nervous glances, then slid into an empty row that had no other passengers in front or behind. As the bus bumped along the uneven westward road, we dozed off.
Some hours later, I woke from my stupor to Karina’s panicked whisper.
“Katie! He just touched my butt!”
“Huh?” I said, still dazed. “Who?”
“The guy behind us! He reached through the crack in the seat and poked my butt!”
“What?” I said aloud, now fully awake. I stood up and saw that a man we had passed when we first got onto the bus had taken a seat behind us. He was a skinny man with short hair and missing teeth. I glared at him with a menacing scowl. As we made eye contact, he made a strange, alarmed gurgling sound and recoiled in his seat.
“Let’s move!” I said.
Karina and I grabbed our bags and moved a few seats ahead. I looked back at him one more time with a look meant to convey that if he dared follow us, he would be quite sorry.
So by the time we arrived in Marrakech and walked down the dark streets, we were already on edge and wary of potential threats.
We couldn’t find our riad. We had printed a map with the location, but the Medina was a wild labyrinth of winding, narrow streets, and finding the street our riad was on was like finding a needle in a haystack. We circled around the approximate location. Some areas were completely deserted; if we got abducted, no good samaritan would be around to save us. We walked and walked, and eventually found ourselves on a larger street with more people. We were starting to worry we would never find it when someone called out to us.
“Hey ladies! Are you lost?”
There before us was a man dressed all in blue from top to bottom: a blue, backwards-facing baseball hat, a blue T-shirt, baggy blue shorts that reached below his knees, and blue Nike sneakers. He looked to be about thirty. He had a slight accent, but his English sounded superb. His voice was loud and jolly. He grinned at us as we stood facing each other in the middle of the cobblestone street. We were hesitant to trust him—what kind of hooligan is hanging out on the streets at 2:30 a.m.?—but didn’t have a better option. We told him we were trying to find Riad al Massarah.
“Hey!” He beckoned over a boy who looked in his late teens. He told him in Arabic to take us to our riad. The boy turned and we followed. As we walked, I checked the GPS on my phone to ensure we were going in the generally correct direction. Before long, he found the right street and the large wooden door to our riad.
Grateful, I rang the doorbell. No one answered. I rang it again and again. Still, no one answered. Karina grabbed the large metal door knocker and slammed it three times against the door. We waited—nothing. I turned to the boy.
“Can we call them?” I asked. He gave me a confused look. I figured he didn’t speak much English, so I made a phone sign with my hand to my ear. He nodded and I showed him the number on the map I had printed. When he dialed it, we could hear the phone ringing on the other side of the door, but no one picked up. He called a few more times as we incessantly rang the bell and knocked.
“Shit,” Karina said.
“Fuck,” I said. We looked at each other in panic.
“What do we do?”
We followed the boy back to the main street where the man in blue stood, leaning against a wall. I wondered if these guys just preferred hanging out at night, with the streets as the go-to hangout spot. The boy told the man in blue what had happened. The man in blue called our riad from his phone, and when they didn’t answer yet again he started thinking about where we could stay. He told us he would take us to a woman’s house where she has rooms that she sometimes rents out.
Karina and I looked at each other and shrugged, conveying we might as well. What were the chances we’d find another riad? So far he seemed trustworthy, but we were still prepared to flee or fight if needed. We followed him up the main street and then right down a side street. Soon he stopped and looked up at the brown stone abode that loomed before us.
He rang the bell, saying somewhat worriedly that he hopes she answers. Ten suspenseful seconds later, we heard her call from her window in Arabic. I guessed she was asking who was there. They exchanged a few words, then he turned to us.
“She was asleep but it’s good she woke up. She agreed to let you stay with her. It will be 400 Dirhams.” That was about $40. We thanked him profusely, and he said he would call on us in the morning. After a late dinner of bread and peanut butter, we finally fell asleep on two cots in a small room, safe and sound.
This is one of many travel stories where I’ve been in difficult situations and had to find a solution, relying on my own street smarts but also a hefty dose of luck. And over the years, there is no question in my mind that these experiences have shaped me.
In Agnes Callard’s essay “The Case Against Travel,” she argues that tourism is simply “locomotion”; that tourists have a “drive to collect souvenirs, photos, or stories” to prove they went somewhere; and that “Travel is a boomerang. It drops you right where you started.”
“They may speak of their travel as though it were transformative, a “once in a lifetime” experience, but will you be able to notice a difference in their behavior, their beliefs, their moral compass? Will there be any difference at all?”Collard, Agnes (24 June 2023). “The Case Against Travel,” The New Yorker.
I couldn’t disagree with this more. I, in fact, was fundamentally changed by two travel experiences in particular: visiting the remote villages in central Ghana, and teaching English at a high school in Chile, both of which occurred in college. Those are stories for another time. Still, it may be true that in most cases, a single travel experience won’t change the traveler much—their values may be largely the same, the things they like to do may not differ—but cumulatively, travel makes a hell of a difference. Those who have experienced a wider variety of scenarios—especially difficult ones that required problem solving—tend to have an enhanced intuition, perspective, and understanding of the world. In my case, my experience in Morocco and many other travel adventures helped me figure out how to roll with the punches, and I’m better for it.
Travel doesn’t have to mean going as far as possible, to the deepest corners of the earth. One can travel in their own country and still have the benefits of seeing new places, experiencing new situations, dealing with unknowns, and figuring things out. And the more one must do that, the humbler, more prepared, and more conscientious one becomes.
I’m not saying by any means that I would prefer difficult experiences to seamless ones—I would have vastly preferred staying in our posh riyad that night—but I do think that difficult situations are far more likely, maybe even inevitable, when traveling. After all, one must learn to navigate a new environment, perhaps not knowing the language. And in being forced to deal with greater levels of adversity, those who have traveled are better equipped to deal with the everyday problems we all face. Travel is not simply locomotion. It’s a mental exercise in fortitude.
And as a reward, the traveler gets the delight of experiencing awe-inspiring places, delicious new food, and new ways of life. To make it even sweeter, the wins are amplified. While it’s hardly a remarkable feat to make it to my favorite brunch spot near my home, finding my way through a foreign city to the “it” restaurant is cause for celebration. These repeated small wins are fantastic for building confidence.
A final point: just as with any hobby—reading, surfing, playing the piano—for some, traveling offers the pure joy of experiencing something new. It’s not about becoming “transformed” or becoming a more interesting person (though, I would argue that the cumulative travel experiences do make one more interesting, not because they have interesting travel stories but because their greater understanding of the world is apparent in every exchange). We all should do things that bring us joy, and do them as often as possible. Life is short.
The ability to travel has been a true blessing in my life. I don’t plan to ever stop traveling, and I hope I continue to be shaped by my journeys. I’ll never be stuck in my ways and way of thinking. I’ll constantly discover new things to learn and things I love. The world is constantly changing, along with all the possibilities and experiences to be had, and I want to be part of it.