The word homestay felt both exhilarating and harrowing as it rolled off my tongue. As a first time traveler I experienced a wide range of emotions in the days leading up to my trip.
So, how did I, a first time adventure seeker, find myself booked on Intrepid Travel’s Morocco Uncovered adventure in the first place? Well, as fate would have it I became close with a colleague in New York with a zest for solo travel. One day after a yoga class we started talking about our summer plans and realized we both had the dream of going to Morocco… only she was an action taker and I was still a dreamer. Jessie had been on several Intrepid tours before so she recommended that we book through them. About a week later it was booked and I was officially going on my first proper adventure!
My family and friends were surprised – and a little concerned – to hear that I was traveling to Morocco. This trip was a big deal. I had gone on “vacation” but never truly traveled like this before.
I was worried less about my physical safety and more about my ability, as an introvert, to handle this style of travel. I also worried whether people would like me. I knew, from my studies as a history teacher, a fair amount about Berber culture but to be there and to experience it all is a world away from merely reading about it.
We were a small group of only six people – four young women and an older couple from New Zealand. By the time we got halfway through the trip, I’d made lifelong friends with Jen from Boston and Belinda from Australia. We are in our late twenties and quickly bonded over a love of food, and well, let’s just say our experience at the hammam in Marrakech sealed our bond as forever friends. We are still active in our group chat almost a year later and are in the process of planning a roadtrip across America for next summer!
So, I felt comfortable as I expressed my apprehension to my new travel friends about the upcoming homestay… After all, staying in someone’s home takes away the safety net I’d just begun to feel…
But I needn’t have worried. The first evening in the homestay I was blown away by the hospitality and the breathtaking, endless Atlas Mountain views. I was surprised by the size of the home, and that Jessie and I had our own room and bathroom. After a night in the Sahara desert, where the heat did not seem to break, the cool breeze and shade was a true blessing. We quickly settled in and felt at ease in the beautiful home of our host family.
In the morning we were up early for breakfast on the terrace, which quickly became my favorite location to find a moment of serenity.
Then we set out for a hike led by a member of the family, Ali. Even our driver, Walid, came with us! Ali had a great sense of humor and instantly everyone was having an incredible time.
I was excited to hike. The trails were “undulating” and “sensational” just as Intrepid had promised. First we walked through the communal gardens in the Berber villages, smelling the wildflowers as we went. Once out of the gardens we climbed up a bit toward the mountains as we moved into another village.
We had stopped for a break up in this village, leaning against a building for shade when three young children came by. They were a bit shy but couldn’t help their own sense of curiosity. A little girl came to sit next to me and tried to speak to me in French. I don’t speak French, and instantly panicked but luckily Jessie does, so we talked about her beads that she had with her and exchanged names and smiles. The encounter with young Fatima reminded me to approach my travels with an open and curious mind and heart. It was an experience that will forever be with me.
Our next stop was for mint tea – a staple in Morocco – in a Berber home in the village. And as we sat there drinking and using a mixture of English, French, Arabic, Berber and Spanish to communicate I thought to myself that this is truly living. Here I was, thousands of miles from home, in North Africa, experiencing the beauty of a different culture and loving every second of it.
I had trouble finding the words to describe the experience in my travel journal later that day. I knew from that moment on that my soul needed more experiences like this one.
After the hike we spent the most memorable few hours helping to prepare dinner. Learning how to make tagine and bread are one-of-a-kind experiences. Watching the young girls use all of their upper body strength to make the bread in the ovens gave me such an appreciation for the meal that I was about to eat. It was fun to see that the men were in the kitchen, bantering and kidding with each other while doing most of the cooking.
But, I think for me, the most memorable part of meal prep will always be being out-peeled by a nine-year-old while preparing the carrots and potatoes! In my defense, I was distracted by her all-too-proud father showing me her homework notebooks filled with French!
Later that night we settled on the rooftop to enjoy our delicious homemade meal.
And then it was time for some entertainment. The family put together a beautiful presentation – traditional Berber clothing, drumming, and they even taught us some ritual dances! The dancers wore long, simple white garments and the women had on colorful hair pieces. They danced in a line, the men and women separate but facing each other. It was explained that this was the dance where you would try to line up facing the person you were interested in marrying.
To make the night even more magical, a group of female dancers from Israel happened to be dining with us! These women oozed a sensuality that is difficult to capture in words. In moments, the women had changed into their dancing costumes and had turned on some of their music, playing from a small boombox they had brought with them. The Berber music came from drums and felt very rhythmic; the Israeli music included more instruments and seemed to tell a story.
From there the night began to feel like a dream. The Israeli dancers joined in on our dancing and suddenly we were all a blur of traditional Berber dance, Israeli hip swiveling, and American and Australian swaying. The hugging, teaching, and laughing created an instant sense of empowerment. Dancing with these women of multiple cultures on a rooftop in a foreign country is one that will always be with me.
When the night was over I walked back to my room with Jessie and cried as we talked about how beautiful our experience had just been. In a world that can perpetuate so much hatred and exacerbate differences, here we were women from all over the world laughing and dancing together as one – regardless of religion or nationality. And that is exactly what the world needs more of.
My experience at the homestay and on the trip was so much more than what was articulated in the itinerary. I could never have predicted the bonds I would make with fellow travelers, the friendships cultivated with our guide and driver, and the chance meetings with locals along the way.
And the trip even brought my teaching to life in a profound and positive way. I was able to relive the joys of my adventures with my students.
And what an incredible adventure it was.
Ready to have the adventure of your life in Morocco? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours there.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Stacy Jacobs x4, Intrepid Travel x2, Stacy Jacobs.)