As I boarded my flight out of Marrakesh, I felt a sense of comfort and relief I didn’t think was possible on an airplane, but compared to the month prior, the quiet, familiar environment put me at ease as I sunk into my seat. I thought I had broken free from all comfort zones when I left everything behind in San Francisco last September. I packed light, let go of expectations and was ready to travel anywhere. Little did I realize there is another comfort zone that we carry with us.
We’re all conditioned by the environment we grew up in and these lifestyle expectations come along for the journey. I don’t mean needing to stay in a 5-star hotel vs a 3-star hotel, I mean growing up in a developed country with drinkable tap water, roads that separate cars from people or the freedom to show affection in public. There are many elements of our environment that we take for granted until we feel their absence. I had never lived in a place as drastically different as Marrakesh. Not only did I have culture shock but I was surprised to see how the environment weakened me – how it clouded my mind, put me on guard and prevented me from regular everyday productivity.
When I returned back to San Francisco for the holidays, I felt the stark contrast between the two settings – unsure of where I belonged in the vast range between them. People were excited to hear about Morocco – what was it like? did you love it? should I visit? I had no words then, no way to quickly explain the weight of my experience. It was during this time that I realized what environment I would need moving forward and in fact helped me get specific about my next steps.
Looking back, our drop-off point on day one gave every indication of what our new lifestyle would be like. We were going to be living in the heart of the Medina, the old city, which has a walled perimeter separating it from “the new city” in what is truly an incredible preservation of another era. The Medina has every type of good for sale in the souk from spices to sandals, donkeys are pulled around as delivery vehicles, live chickens are sold by the kilo, there are gender-specific bath houses and male-only mosques throughout.
Our van dropped us off on the edge of the Medina where cars could no longer pass. Instead the road was filled with wooden carts selling cactus fruit and bananas, men adorned with long robes, motorcycle exhaust filled the air and people pushed past us while we naively stood motionless in the middle of the street. It was thrilling to have all of my senses awakened, to arrive in a place so different than anything I’d seen before.
We followed our guides down the narrow lane where tarps and scrapped metal created shade, Moroccan flags hung high, and the colorful objects that we’d soon grow accustomed to, caught our eyes for the first time. We finally turned down a side street and approached a door without signage, unassuming from the outside that this was our 7-bedroom oasis for the month. The rooms welcomed us in with high ceilings, ornate wooden doorways and large awaiting sofas. We didn’t realize it yet, but this is where we’d spend most of our time.
I lived with 6 close friends and doting house staff who treated us like family. I woke up to coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice prepared daily. I was located walking distance to everything I could need. I recognize that I was living very well in Marrakesh and this aspect couldn’t have been better. What I struggled with was on a personal, soul-level connection to my surroundings. I felt extremely comfortable and cared for inside of the house, but was overwhelmed by my surroundings outside of it. Going from the chaos of the street to the tranquility of this haven would become a daily practice of exposure followed by recovery.
The first week in Marrakesh, like the first week in the other cities we had lived in was a transition week. I spent time getting to know the layout of the city, went to the grocery store, found the few places to buy wine, became familiar with the currency and its exchange rate, started noticing the cultural differences. I fell in love with my beautiful bedroom, our living areas, the rooftop terrace where we drank Moroccan tea and watched the sunset. I came to appreciate our location within the Medina and even felt safe leaving the house on my own.
The unique aspect of living in Marrakesh compared to living in Lisbon and Valencia in the two months prior is that the transition week never ended. The week of uncertainty and trying to understand cultural differences lasted the entire month – it never let up to allow me to feel completely comfortable in town or to ease into a routine. Everything stayed confusing, a bit deceptive, uneasy to understand or trust. I was constantly on edge and missed honest human connection.
There’s a certain pace you must keep when walking through the Medina to avoid motorcycles approaching from in front of and behind you, to side step unidentifiable puddles, to avoid the hands and voices reaching out towards you to enter a shop. Haggling is an art in Morocco and shopkeepers expect you to play the game, however it becomes exhausting when it’s expected for every single encounter of the day. I needed to use my down time to simply recover my senses.
By the end of the month I was completely drained. I couldn’t think much less write or accomplish any of the projects I had planned. Without the environmental support or personal boundaries I needed, I felt like I had lost myself.
When I finally recognized that I had lost my bearings and they wouldn’t be coming back on their own, I did 3 things to bring me home.
First, I baked.
I couldn’t think so I decided to use my hands – tools I could use without much thought. I bought the baking ingredients I needed from the closest store, took them back to the house and I found solace in the kitchen. Without any measuring cups, without any numbers on the oven, I made do. The smell of apple crisp which is akin to apple pie is so strongly nostalgic, it quickly warmed my soul.
Second, I went to synagogue.
I had been told there was a Jewish community in Marrakesh and was fascinated to learn what it’s like being a Jew in Morocco. A Friday night came around and with my friend Aliya, we attended a service at a nearby synagogue. I instantly felt at home hearing Hebrew fill the space, standing amongst other Jewish women and flipping through the prayer book filled with words I’ve recited before. We were graciously invited to a Shabbat dinner afterwards and were giddy to accept. There was little English spoken but for the first time that month no words needed to be exchanged, I already understood it all. Everything was familiar in tradition but entirely new in flavor, the wine poured continuously, the French, Arabic and Hebrew overlapping in the room was joyous. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Third, I practiced yoga.
We attended weekly yoga classes as a group, but I needed time without guidance. In silence and in my own space, I rolled out my mat. I had a hard time getting into my mind, to analyze anything about my body like I normally would. Instead I just moved. I moved without thinking, without instructing or critiquing. I just danced on the mat, allowing my body to be free, allowing muscle memory to lead the way, to show me and remind me what I already knew but couldn’t put into thought.
On my last day in Marrakesh, I found myself navigating the Medina surprisingly with ease. I walked in stride at a quick pace, bypassing the shiny objects all around. I ducked into a baking supply shop to buy brown sugar, then into the market to buy apples from the vendor I already knew at the price I already trusted. By then I knew where the bowls and tools were stored in our kitchen. I whipped up an apple crisp and this time having faith in the oven with no numbers, I popped in the dessert and took some time on the roof.
While I was more than ready to leave the next day, I felt the hint of sadness that comes with endings, when it’s finally possible to appreciate and value an experience for what it was and not for what it wasn’t. As I looked around at the rooftops surrounding mine, I caught the last of the sunset, the mosque lit up on the horizon and heard the final prayer service of the day echo throughout the city. In that moment I felt the frenetic energy unique to Marrakesh and rather than trying to turn it off or push it away, I welcomed it. In the past month it had pushed me to the edge, to a point where I didn’t recognize myself and despite the unsteadiness, I found my balance again.
The Lessons Learned
The greatest lesson I learned from this experience is that just because you may have the courage to travel anywhere doesn’t mean you will thrive everywhere. Through this experience I learned what my comfort zone is really made up of. We often refer to our comfort zone as something you should get out of, it’s your routine, it’s what is most familiar, it’s elements in your life you cannot even completely identify because they are so common. I will say that not everything about your comfort zone is necessary to escape. Being in a completely un-comfortable zone, I lost myself. I was grasping for anything that was familiar or comfortable, anything that would remind me of who I was or would spark a light in me. But if I was asked to name the elements of my comfort zone while living in San Francisco, I wouldn’t have known what they were. It wasn’t until I was living completely out of my comfort zone that I was able to identity my very basic needs.
When you’re in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar place you learn what characteristics make you who you are and what environmental elements help you shine. Knowing these things will allow you to find or introduce them anywhere you go. As hard as it was, because of this experience, I’ve figured out what those basic comforts are to feel secure and capable of productivity. These are elements that now help me navigate where to live in the world.
Because you may not always have your baseline comforts covered, it’s important to know how to find yourself while in an unfamiliar setting. Understand what can transport you to your roots or your happy place when you feel lost or in the dark. When you know how to spark your light, you have an awareness and a gift that can take you anywhere, through any situation. And in the future not only will you be able to create your own light you will be able to illuminate your surroundings to help those around you find their light as well. It’s one of the most important tools I will take with me in my life. For that, I wouldn’t replace my time in Marrakesh with anything.