Tonight is the first night I’ve slept alone in 67 days. Sprawled out on a pile of blankets on my roof, I’m itching to run to Radia’s and plop myself between my Moroccan brothers so we can sleep like tightly packed sardines under the stars. But tonight I’m forcing myself to stay alone with my thoughts. Just me and the moon.
The past five months have been busy with visitors, prompting this happy sardine-like sleeping. I’ve greeted over 20 loved ones with big “welcome to Morocco” happy dances and squeezed them goodbye with “see you stateside” hugs.
Back when I graduated high school, my mom wrote pieces of life advice for me on little slips of paper. “Hug your friends, and tell them you love them,” was one that I kept taped above my bed.
I’ve hugged a lot over the past six years since my mom wrote that note, but the hugs have never felt as sacred as they do now. Life has scrambled my friends and family all over. We wake up in the mornings in our respective places and live our distant routines. Despite the asymmetry of our lives, we manage to connect. We hug. And say we love each other.
Twenty years ago, my friend Michelle and I would hoist ourselves into the backseat of my mom’s minivan to drive to preschool. My mom would punch in a cassette tape. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” would echo through the van’s speakers. Michelle and I became our own chauffeurs as we grew older, but the song always remained ours. “I see friends shaking hands saying ‘how do you do?’” the three of us would hum along any chance we’d get. “They’re really saying, I loveeeee yooooou.”
Michelle’s visit overlapped with my mom’s. In June, the three of us squished together around a table in a dimly lit Moroccan restaurant in a southern coastal city. As we waited for our navy bean tajine, our song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” began chiming in the background. Everything in the universe seemed to be scheming for us to share that moment together.
Special shared moments have saturated the recent season of my life. Like when my college friend Hannah gave Radia a full body massage and found out that they have the EXACT same mole on their right shins. “Mole twins!” Han celebrated upon the discovery.
One weekend, Radia and I escaped to a fancy hotel in Fes, compliments of my forever trail friend Caitlin. We scrubbed dead skin off each other in the sauna. Explored the gym, which left Radia totally perplexed by the stair-stepper. Floated weightlessly in the pool. Scavenged the halls for people’s leftover room service meals. We even made friends with the housekeeping staff. Eventually our room transformed from a chic suite to a counseling safe space where Radia advised young female staffers about their marriages, children and work disputes. When we snuggled up with our down duvet at night, I sleepily said I felt like a mashed potato. Radia said she felt like she was in Belgium. “Batatat belgiqiet” (Belgian potatoes), we giggled as we drifted off.
Our outdoor team summited North Africa’s tallest mountain in June. We huddled up and barbarically belted, “WE ARE STRONG!” off the peak. Radia and I caught glimpses of each other’s teary eyes but swallowed our emotions since a thunderstorm was coming. We raced the storm down the mountain, but surprise snowflakes caught our tail end. The kids gawked at the sky and yelped as they caught snowflakes on their tongues for the first time in their lives.
My Moroccan family welcomed my American family to town by slaughtering a sheep. The following day, we lounged together with a sheep BBQ in the shade of a mountaintop pine forest. We played baseball with pinecones and sticks. “Batter up!” my brother Michael yelled as he winded up to pitch a pinecone to my 13-year-old Moroccan bro Abdelbari. We yanked tough fans of leaves out of small palm shrubs and wove them together into crafts like mini flags and boats. Afterwards, Radia’s husband recited a speech that he’d written in English. “Cindi,” he addressed my mom, “is the light of this family.”
My mom is the light that taught me the importance of embracing my loved ones and cherishing every moment we have together. “I’ll keep reliving all our memories until we’re together again,” she wrote to me recently.
Her lessons are simple, yet radical, and my experiences in Morocco have only intensified them. Here, there are no boundaries about who to embrace. Hug your friends, hug your neighbors, hug the mama next to you on the bus, sweaty hug the random shepherd ladies in the middle of your 100+ degree heat runs.
This summer, I’ve challenged myself to embrace total strangers. There’s something powerful in knowing that you will most likely only spend “x” amount of time with someone but choosing to wholeheartedly invest in that individual despite the constraints. My friend Réda (whom I met last year while we were both climbing the wrong mountain) has taught me to never pass up an opportunity to craft an unexpected friendship. One of the first things I remember Réda saying was a quote from Christopher Mcandless, popularized by the book and film Into The Wild. “Happiness is only real when shared,” he recited.
Réda lives his life passionately prioritizing quality time with others: with old friends from childhood or with random toothless fishermen that he’s met while hitch-hiking. With anyone. The inevitable gaps in between these shared moments are simply just allotted time and space to navigate to the next meaningful interaction.
In July, Réda and I backpacked through Morocco’s “Happy Valley” in the High Atlas Mountains, weaving through its lush green apple orchards and isolated mud home villages. Earlier this month, my 17-year-old Moroccan brother Yaakoub joined us as we trekked through a rocky Rif Mountain canyon that hides forests of marijuana farms and the clearest, sparkliest river I’ve ever seen. I walked aimlessly to escape into nature. Réda walked with more purpose: to build relationships. “To create contacts,” as he says.
Along the way, we met with Réda’s friend Hamad, a father of nine. His shoe-less young son had rough, leathery skin covering his hands and feet, likely from the cold. Hamad himself was sporting the exact same tennis shoes and jallaba (a traditional hooded robe) that he was when Réda first met him four years ago. As we shared a pot of tea, Hamad suggested he carry all of our gear with his mule free of charge.
We continued on without Hamad’s mule, which is when I began to realize that we were walking not just to connect with the natural world, but more so with the humans who inhabit it and give it meaning. We met fellow campers who delivered a pot of hot saffron tea to our campsite. And a young dude named Hossine who let us sleep in his family’s living room. His little sister couldn’t contain her giggles because of our absurdity, and she exploded every time I tried and failed to say I’m tired in Tamazight, one of the indigenous Moroccan languages.
We connected with a soft spoken shop-owner with big brow bones and sunken cheeks. As we relaxed in his humble shop, which boasts recycled advertising signs as makeshift walls, Abdolwahad talked slowly and deliberately about his passion for rock climbing and about the beauty of the river that flows through the gorge out his back door. Sleeping on the river’s edge is the truest luxury, he explained. His actions mimicked his precise speech, and he cracked eggs by gently striking them with a knife.
On Yaakoub’s first-ever night backpacking, fellow hikers welcomed us to camp after dark with a hot seafood tajine and tea. After dinner, we cannon-balled off rocks into a waterfall-fed swimming hole. Yaakoub and I (and our full bellies and hearts) floated in the fresh mountain water and gazed up at the stars. I asked him what he thought. “3adi” (it’s normal), he joked, trying to appear unphased.
We spent the last two nights of our trip with Réda’s friend Mustafa at his family’s mountainside home surrounded by marijuana farms. Mustafa bopped his head along with Bob Marley’s tunes and shared family stories with us over tea time meals. One time, Mustafa recounted, my father got so high that he ate 11 loaves of bread all at once. Each round loaf was double the size of my face, he described.
The undeserved kindness and devoted time from strangers has energized me, erasing my cravings to be alone. I suppose this is the result of living in a country full of givers. Givers of tea and time, laughs and experiences, mule-rides and encouragement, borrowed bathrobes and goofy family stories. And always more fuzzy blankets to sleep with than one can dream of. A country full of humans willing to give love, in a million different forms.
Here in Morocco, people don’t seem to worry about giving too much. Depletion is irrelevant. There’s a Moroccan saying that food meant for one person can actually feed two. Food for two feeds four, and food for four actually feeds eight people. There’s always enough to share, even if you’re Hamad and haven’t purchased new shoes or clothes in four years. Live with little and share it all, is the mentality that people like Hamad seem to live by.
I lived a more guarded life back in the states. Although I engaged in friendly small talk regularly and gave other random joggers thumbs up as we’d cross paths, I rarely broke my routine for strangers. I navigated life in a safe bubble: appreciating humans from afar but never intimately engaging with them unless I had a logical reason to do so. I held back. Too nervous. Too weary. Too busy. Emotional intimacy was strictly reserved for relationships that I believed deserved it.
Of my 22 years of living in the states, I didn’t once sip coffee or tea with strangers for the sole sake of sharing time with them. Reflecting on the past two years, I cannot count the cups of tea I’ve consumed with random people. Probably enough to fill an entire bathtub. Even here, I often have ulterior motives for tea sippin’: seeking friendship, building trust or even just alleviating boredom. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with this, but I do realize there is a special power in the times that we just sit and sip for the simple sake of sitting and sipping together. We mutually accept that nothing explicit or long-term will come of it, that we might never meet again. We trade stories and parts of ourselves. And we move on with our lives a bit more mindful of the humans around us and how these people contribute to elements of ourselves.
There’s power in vulnerability, and it took me moving across the world and spending two years blindly trusting strangers to realize its magnitude. To be vulnerable isn’t just to authentically expose my emotions and insecurities. It’s not just about giving, but also about receiving and accepting. It’s about sharing. Sharing emotions. Sharing time. Sharing tea. Sharing passions. Sharing all of what we can, regardless if we have bounties or not. It’s all interconnected. We need to give in order to have open arms to receive. We need to listen in order to be heard. We need to allow ourselves to love in order to receive it back. The ebbs and flows of human connection.
I have become the human I am because of what friends, family, teachers, peers and strangers have shared with me. Through life advice scribbled on pieces of paper and tea time conversations and long distance phone calls and elated reunions, the words and emotions we’ve shared have sifted through my psyche. Some have stuck, others have been lost or subconsciously buried deep. I can’t trace which interactions took root and sprouted into some lasting aspect of my being. I unfortunately can’t possibly rightfully thank all those who have shared with me.
All I’m certain of is this: the accumulation of my interactions and time shared with others have amplified my joys. They’ve stealthily provided hints of direction and meaning to my existence. I still don’t know where I’m going, but I trust that I’ll arrive to wherever it is as long as I soak up as much as I can from others and wring out as much of myself in return. As long as I support you and you support me. As long as we continue to share all of what we can. *Hug*