The following post was written by Gap Year Fellow Georgia Morgan.
Time has become such a variable figure of measurement for me in the past several months. On one hand, as I look into the near future and see the date I fly back to the United States on my calendar, I sit in awe over how quickly my gap year has seemed to come and go. However, then I think more about all that I have seen, done, learned and overcome, and I cannot believe that this time last year I was sitting in a classroom at Apex High twiddling my thumbs until graduation. I had no idea what this next year would bring my way, but I distinctly remember knowing I wanted something more than what those mundane spring semester classes were offering me. An adventure, challenges, beauty, understanding, exposure, something! Now, here I am in the third and final country of my gap year, and I’m overflowing with so many emotions that I cannot even describe.
During my time in Morocco, I found it impossible to write about my thoughts, feelings and experiences because I felt as though I was being stripped down to my core with challenges both physically and emotionally. As these challenges presented themselves to me in what seemed a relentless fashion, I could feel myself losing stability. It was then that I realized that all my life I had relied on some form of structure and routine to feel comfortable. When those comforts were ripped out from underneath me, I felt panicked initially and then detached. Isolated, my challenges were completely manageable and expected when traveling and living with a host family. However, when they began to pile up, I felt like I was losing my footing. There was a period when I felt as though I was simply trying to get through each day, and that’s not the feeling I wanted during this year! Some of these challenges would come and go while others seemed to loom over my head throughout the duration of my time in Morocco. I won’t go into great detail about all of my challenges, but physically, some of the obstacles I faced were lack of sleep, battling sickness off and on, adjusting to a new and changing diet, ice cold showers and little to no privacy in my homestay. Emotionally and mentally, I was adjusting and trying to learn about and understand a completely new and foreign culture; doing my best to overcome the language barrier and miscommunication between me and my host family; facing constant street harassment each time I went outside without a male; learning about and from Dar Si Hmad while settling into my work and setting goals; and simply trying to learn more about and take care of myself. It was a lot! I was more prepared to handle some of these challenges because I had faced similar obstacles in Cape Town, while others were completely new and overwhelming to me.
I wasted a lot of energy telling myself that I should just “get over” this or that, when in reality, these challenges were real and wearing me down! There’s a difference between wallowing in our hardships and accepting the fact that something is very challenging and is enough! After reconciling with this and realizing what was happening, I came to this very unique place where I could see these challenges wearing me down day by day to my most real and vulnerable self. It felt unbearable at times and I questioned myself over and over again, thinking about every big decision I’d made in the past couple of years, the type of impression I want to leave on this world and how I ended up right here and now. But even then, there was a part of me that could see this as a clean slate for me to build myself back up into the person I really want to be.
I began a new type of dialogue with myself and finally really started to feel love, forgiveness, pride, understanding and compassion for myself. I accepted and validated my challenges and fears. Each time I was faced with that overwhelming and suffocating feeling, I wouldn’t feel better until I went off on my own, sat in the sun, and simply allowed myself to feel those emotions whether it be through crying, talking, singing or just sitting in the light. Then, and only then, did I start to feel better. I never wallowed in my sadness and frustration, but I did allow myself to feel it.
Now that I am outside of Morocco, it’s much easier for me to look at the culture and my experiences there from an analytical perspective. Of course, all cultures have contrasts, but I believe the specific contrasts I experienced and witnessed in Moroccan culture helped create this challenging environment for me that I needed to learn and grow in the ways that I did. Sexual harassment was a huge challenge for me throughout my time in Morocco, as it is for many women both foreign and local there. The men harassing me were extremely forward, invasive and felt entitled to my time; yet as a woman I could not do anything to confront it. The few times that I felt it was necessary for me to engage and get angry, it made no difference to them, simply because I am a woman. In addition to this contrast, I noticed how open with personal information many people were, while certain topics were completely forbidden to discuss. Complete strangers would share their life stories with me or explain their personal challenges and gossip. At the same time, one could hardly ever discuss topics such as religion, race, politics, gender or sexuality in complete trust. The third big contrast I noticed during my time in Morocco was the ability to be comfortable and open in places like the home or hammam, but anywhere in public, women especially were expected to be covered up and “presentable.” In general, I observed that women are expected to have a purpose in order to go out of the house whereas men can simply go out for leisure to meet at a cafe with friends or simply because they want to. Of course, I am being general here and these situations can vary from family to family and generation to generation, but this notion was definitely present. In the moment, I couldn’t see these contrasts so blatantly, but I definitely felt their presence as they shaped parts of my life and freedom there.
My first experience at a hammam was actually quite symbolic of the process I went through in Morocco. For those of you that may not know, a hammam is a public bathhouse widely used in Morocco for deep cleaning. There are separate hammams for men and women, and it’s essentially a big spa where you go to have yourself bathed by another person. It may seem strange, but it’s used widely in Morocco and is seen as a social, relaxing and cleansing experience. On my last weekend in Morocco, I decided to go to a hammam with my now very close friend and fellow intern at DSH, Sara. We bought some buckets, black soap and scrubs, and one of our host family members took us to her local hammam. We entered the spa and were greeted by two very friendly women who seemed happy to be a part of my first hammam experience. They asked us to undress down to our underwear and follow them into the bathing room. Naturally, I felt a bit hesitant to undress in front of a bunch of strange women and my good friend, but I quickly brushed those feelings aside and chose to own my skin and feel confident in my body just like the other women in the hammam who didn’t think twice about being naked. Just like stepping into a new culture, I had to be vulnerable and trusting. We followed the women into the bathing room which was very hot and steamy and a bit suffocating at first. We sat in the steam for a little while and I noticed all of the different women in the hammam with us, varying in age, size and body shape, but all completely comfortable and relaxed. I began to relax too, and I honestly really enjoyed being scrubbed and washed by this woman who was so used to this job. It’s a very intimate and empowering feeling to be completely comfortable in your uncovered body and be surrounded by women embracing their own. I’ve also never felt so dirty and clean in my life. I could see the dirt being scrubbed out of my skin, and to me it felt like all the weight and challenges that I’d collected throughout my travels were finally being stripped from my body. After about an hour and a half in the hammam, I felt clean (so clean), refreshed and exhausted. I’d been warned to make sure I drank enough water during and after the hammam, but unfortunately, I lost a lot of water in the hot room. The next day I was knocked back off my feet and was sick in bed from dehydration and forced to get the rest that I so desperately needed.
That’s why this experience was so symbolic for me: I had to be vulnerable and trusting to experience something beautiful. I was stripped free of the things that no longer served me, even though it was uncomfortable and painful at times. In the end, I felt fulfilled yet exhausted, and I was hit with an unexpected turn of events with getting sick. At the same time, I had a once in a lifetime experience with a new and dear friend of mine who I wouldn’t have met without working with Dar Si Hmad this year. If that doesn’t scream ‘Georgia’s Gap Year,’ I don’t know what does.