“I never asked you to follow me!” I yelled in French.
“You were lost!” the young man shot back.
“No I wasn’t! I knew how to get here.”
“You still have to pay me!”
“No I don’t – I didn’t want your help!”
I huffed into La Maison de la Photographie, slamming the door on the tangle of passages outside and the young man who had followed me here (and then demanded money for showing me the way). The aggression of Marrakech was exhausting.
A man sat at the front desk of the museum. His head shot up as I stormed in.
“Oh no, you have problem with the people?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “someone was demanding money from me.”
The man nodded. “Come inside, sit down. I apologize for him.”
My reaction was to assume he was trying to con me, too, but I eventually relented and sat down.
“I want to give you this book as a gesture of friendship,” he said, handing me a beautiful photo book of Jamaâ El Fna Square (the main square in Marrakech). I sat with him for about an hour, chatting and helping him translate the museum’s e-newsletter into English.
It’s hard to navigate the assault of the endless salesmen (and the one saleswoman who grabbed me, turned me around, and began shoving products into my hands). I eventually got to a point, though, that instead of being irritated by what was happening around me, I looked within. And this made all the difference.
While I travel to explore the place I’m going to, it’s my interior world that is constantly being examined.
It’s through noticing how a place affects me that I can begin to know it better; it’s my response to a culture that reveals the subtleties of the people I’m interacting with. And the subtleties within myself.
In Marrakech, my emotions were evoked every time I stepped out the door. There was no passivity. People didn’t walk down the street lost in their own thoughts or immersed in their smartphones. They interacted with everyone around them.
I began to respond to those who approached me with feistiness – I felt challenged and alive. In my home environment, I’m used to more private space – even when in public – and people “minding their own business”. But what began as a cultural clash turned into lessons about the culture of this city:
Marrakech is a socially-centred society that is human-driven, as opposed to a convenience-centred society that is technology-driven.
Tapping into the nuances of my reactions allowed me to see the nuances of this culture. Instead of clumping all men together as swindlers, for example, I began noticing and engaging with the many people who were genuine. I made friends and was treated as a guest instead of a tourist, invited into homes and even given gifts instead of being asked for money.
I also realized that they loved to banter. Most tourists are polite and try to escape the aggressive vendors as quickly as possible – or try to ignore them completely – but this only leads to more harassment. When I realized how emotionally frazzled I was while walking in the souq, I began to push back and call out the merchants.
They loved it. I would see them again and they would tease me but not try the hard sell. Less frustration bubbled up in me and more playfulness came out. It was by acknowledging what was happening in my interior world that I could see the subtle differences in the exterior world.
If we spend as much effort exploring our inner selves as we do our destination, we will discover deeper aspects of the place than exist on the surface.
It is the nuances of a culture that compel me to travel. We can read generalities and opinions in books and see places represented in the media, but until we arrive in a place and notice how we respond to it, it’s difficult to understand the deeper layers.
While a trip might take us halfway around the world, it’s still the interior journey that we must continue to go on.