"A New Focus"
Solana Travel Writing, Spring 2021
Before I fell in love with getting lost around the globe, I was lost in a different sense. In fact, had someone told me back then that I was to become a border-traversing backpacker, they would have been met with quite the confused look. At 18 years old, I had hardly left my home state of Illinois. The world map, rather than an exhilarating display of endless possibilities, was something I was obliged to memorize for geography class. I didn’t even own a passport. All this was about to change; however, before I was to nurture my newfound enthusiasm, I had to face heartbreak as the final curtain closed on a former passion.
You see, before I began battling for legroom in the back of budget flights, before I grew accustomed to sharing sleeping quarters with several strangers, before all my worldly belongings could be stuffed into an oversized rucksack, I was someone else. I was an athlete. I won’t bore you by bragging about my bench press or shoving a dusty old highlight reel in your face. That guy is long gone anyway. It will suffice to say that each and every aspect of my life revolved around my sport: my schedule, my diet, my social circle, my aspirations, and my identity. So, when it all came crumbling down, I found myself disoriented, back at square one. I’ll spare you the trite tale of the injury that switched off the stadium lights for me. If I learned anything out on that field, it’s that the importance of how you fall pales in comparison to how you pick yourself up.
I’d like to say I hit the ground running, determined to seamlessly redirect the disciplined work ethic my athletic career had granted me right off the bat and into an equally worthwhile endeavor, but that would be untrue. Instead, it took time; time spent floating through a frustrating limbo, void of any trace of purpose in life, until one day enough was enough. I couldn’t stomach the insipid normalcy of my day-to-day dealings-with, not for a single moment longer. I shattered my piggy bank, told my mom not to worry, and off I went. Hello, Morocco. In perhaps still the most significant summer of my not so many years, I connected with a country and a culture that ignited my curiosity, pulverized my narrow perspective, and graciously tolerated my callow clumsiness. I was an English teacher. Well, actually, I was an assistant to an English teacher. In all honesty, when I accepted the position, I was enticed not so much by the classroom as by the rent-free dormitory bedroom offered to volunteers. However, through connecting with the individuals I met at the English academy, I gained something marvelously unexpected.
Morocco possesses enchanting tourist attractions; from Chefchaouen, the sapphire city scraping the sky in the Rif Mountains, to Al-Qarrawiyi, the oldest university in the world nestled snugly smack-dab in the middle of the chaotic and ancient Fez medina, to Volubilis, the melancholic scene of a once robust Roman city, now crumbling, scorched by the blazing desert sun. Each outing left me with a long list of questions, which I hungrily posed to any Moroccan kind and patient enough to teach me. I would stay up into the wee hours of the night, my phone’s screen glowing softly in the dark dormitory as I devoured one Wikipedia article after another about Moroccan culture and history. I was completely and utterly fascinated by the sheer abundance of knowledge that, before traveling, I was unaware even existed. Nevertheless, my awe before these momentous landmarks and their stories was eclipsed by the elation I experienced building relationships with people whose lives were so wonderfully different than my own.
It began with my roommates. I shared a dusty old, no-hot-water, lumpy-mattress, cockroach-infested Casablanca apartment with a Greek golf-pro, a Filipino Instagram influencer, and an Irish breakdancer. Immediately, my 18 year-old Midwesterner mind designated these seasoned veterans of the vagabond world as my personal heroes. They sat around, in our narrow sitting room or at the greasy-spoon café downstairs, exchanging anecdotes about their adventures, and my wide eyes followed the action like a tennis match.
Then there were my students; my walking, talking windows to Moroccan culture. From the middle-schoolers, patching together sentences that were almost grammatically correct, to the university students, who could likely sum up Shakespeare more succinctly than I, each enthusiastic interaction guided my journey through Morocco. The classroom even followed me out onto the bustling streets as, to my surprise, I got a rush out of bumbling through basic French phrases I’d been so reluctant to recite in high school. Suddenly, an activity as mundane as ordering a coffee was transformed into a riveting challenge. Against a backdrop of tantalizing novelty, my days rolled by like film, but rather than feeling the burden of being the star of the show, I roamed freely through the set, observing, thinking, and growing.
The most impactful memory from my time in Morocco took place in the small town of Berrechid. I often revisit these moments, the series of events playing out in my imagination as if they occurred yesterday. Each time I reminisce, my faith in the innate kindheartedness of human beings is uplifted. Berrechid, a suburb of concrete-jungle Casablanca, is not a tourist destination in the slightest. The only reason I found myself here was to fulfill my English teaching duties and do a much-needed load of laundry in the school’s newly installed washing machine (dryer not included; hang up your wet clothes on the sun-drenched terrace).
I was welcomed warmly by my fellow volunteers: three young friends from France, a Hawaiian biology teacher on sabbatical, a Belgian woman and her 6 year-old son, and a British university student. They insisted I accompany them to the “sheep sandwich cart”, the height of gastronomic excellence in this humble hamlet. When it comes to food, I’ll give anything a try, so I gave a resounding “YES”!
The mutton was magnificent; tender and juicy overall, crispy on the charred outer edges, accompanied with a creamy, tzatziki-like sauce and tucked into a warm, cozy pocket of pita bread. As soon as I polished off my first sandwich, I went back for seconds! We squatted on the curb right by the food stand, laughing and getting to know each other as a group of silver-mustached locals smoked cigarette after cigarette nearby. More than street food, this traveling house of grub was the social center of Berrechid.
I was a big fan, which is why it hurts me to admit this: the mutton man’s meat made me horribly, dreadfully sick. I awoke in the middle of the night and made a mad dash to the closet-sized bathroom in which I would spend the better part of the morning. Luckily, some antidiarrheal medicine I’d stowed in my backpack just in case allowed me to crawl from the porcelain throne back to my creaky bed, where I shivered uncontrollably, my mind in a feverish fog, for what seemed like hours.
One of the full-time English teachers, Fatima, a spunky young Moroccan woman with an impeccable British accent, noticed I hadn’t joined the other volunteers and came to check on me. Realizing immediately that I was ill, she switched into full “mom-mode”. She rushed to cover me with thick, warm blankets, placed a plastic bucket next to my cot, and prepared me medicinal Moroccan tea.
Being 18 years-old, the worst part of my food poisoning fiasco was the fear I felt being so far from home and so alone in my weakened state. What if I didn’t recover quickly? I had no idea how to schedule an appointment with a Moroccan doctor or even acquire what I needed at the pharmacy. It dawned on me that my wellbeing was suddenly in the hands of complete strangers. Fatima came to my rescue that day. She didn’t know me, yet she went out of her way to help me. Ever since this experience, I’ve been an ardent optimist about the goodness of our world and its inhabitants.
Upon my return, I glided briskly out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, already fantasizing about my next adventure. I had found my focus once again. This focus would drive me to seize every opportunity, during university and beyond, to ship myself off to some far-away land in search of learning. I would learn about my destinations; their cultures, histories, and languages. I would learn about myself and become a more compassionate person for doing so. Finally, I would learn about the innumerable, wildly contrasting yet interweaving, overwhelmingly beautiful combinations of moments, emotions, and connections that comprise the human experience. I’m eternally inspired by Fatima’s benevolence, and I’m eager to connect with more of the world’s wonderful people. Now when I gaze upon a world map, the lines and dots blur blissfully as I daydream of friendly faces, life lessons, and authentic happiness.
My name is Matthew Schultz. I a 23 years old, and I was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, USA. I became fascinated by traveling after a summer of teaching English in Morocco in 2017. Ever since that experience, I've pursued every opportunity to learn about the world and travel. I studied foreign languages and international relations at university, participating in exchange programs in France, Costa Rica, Azerbaijan, and Benin. Currently, I'm living and volunteering in youth hostels across Mexico.
I'm an aspiring travel writer. My short-term goal is to continue engaging in linguistic and cultural learning experiences around the world and documenting them on my Instagram and blog: "Mr. Go Abroad". My dream is to transform the travel industry by encouraging future travelers to engage in sustainable, learning-based tourism.
Leave a comment