The Case for Going off Script when Travelling

Many travellers know this to be true: the fun of planning a trip can be as much fun as going on the actual trip. I know I will gladly spend hours piecing together itineraries and obsessing over getting the best price on a flight.
That being said, there is a certain Zen to be found in going off script when travelling. Straying from set plans can lead to incredible and unforgettable memories. To illustrate this, I will recount what was by far my most memorable, unplanned experience that I ever I encountered during the tail end of a 6 month adventure in Africa.

 

My 5 month work contract in Mali had ended friend and had come from Canada to meet me in Morocco. We had been travelling around on a curated itinerary for about a week already when we made it to the beautiful, chilled-out seaside town of Essaouria. We had planned on spending a couple days there enjoying the sea, souks and hammams. During our first night out, we went to a seafood restauant and met our server Mohamed who would become our travel friend. There were no other customers so he was particularly attentive and he even indulged us with some music when I spotted a banjo in the corner. Shortly after, he invited a friend who came with a drum and we had our own private concert. We stayed and chatted with Mohamed and his friend until late and cautiously accepted an invitation to Mohamed’s for dinner the next day.

Essaouria, where the seaview rooms are amazing.

My friend was concerned about his intentions, but I had been living in a Muslim country for 5 months and had learned that invitations for hospitality were common and and offered earnestly. I reassured her that I had the Moroccan tourist police force’s number in my phone and we could leave if she felt uncomfortable.

Mohamed came to meet us in front of our hotel at the agreed upon time and walked us through the medina to his apartment. We climbed a few sets of stairs in the dark when Mohamed told us to wait where we were. As we stood in the dark on a landing for what felt like an eternity, we contemplated just leaving there. The situation did not look good on paper. Two girls standing on a dark landing, about to go to a man who we just met’s apartment. Just as our doubts were about to get the best of us, Mohamed reappeared and explained to us that he had to make sure the gate up ahead was open.

Once we reached his apartment, it was a dark tiny suite, with just enough room for a bed and a small table. Mohamed explained that this was where he stayed when he worked in the restaurant and that real home was in a small village about 40 minutes inland from Essaouria. I was curious to see if Mohamed would actually be doing the cooking for us, but it became clear that he would be ordering in. Very shortly after arriving, he friend with the drum from the other night appeared with couscous, tagine and some clandestine wine.

We devoured our dinner and then they treated us to some more music. I enjoyed the dinner immensely and was delighted when Mohamed invited us to have lunch with his family in the countryside. To me this was a chance to see Morocco far from the tourist track and enjoy even more famous Berber hospitality. My friend needed a lot of convincing though. She was worried that we wouldn’t get to do all the things we had planned to do in Essaouria. Eventually, I told her that I was going regardless of whether she came or spent the day doing what we’d planned to do by herself. I told her that to me this was too good of an opportunity to pass up and that I suspected we would be treated exceptionally well. With that, she reluctantly agreed once again.

Mohamed leads us up a footpath to his rural home.

The next day Mohamed picked us up in a taxi and we began our journey to the tiny village where his family lived. As we moved inland, the glorious blue coast gave way to tall trees and swaying wheat fields and we noticed the temperature rising the further we got away from the ocean. After a short drive, Mohamed asked the driver to stop on the side of the road and after he paid and we got out, he directed us to walk toward a field. We followed a narrow footpath across a creek and then moved up a hill with no civilization in sight. Eventually, a small farmhouse appeared on the horizon and Mohamed’s parents came out to greet us. They sat us down in their living room and served us tea and a plate of treats like olives, bread and argan oil and hard boiled eggs to enjoy on our own. We sat on small cushions on the floor of their modest house, decorated with only one picture of the family on the wall and a small television.

Mohamed prepares us mint tea before his father brought us some treats

Having been presented with that superlative Muslim hospitality that I suspected we would receive since I had experienced it before in Mali, my friend was humbled to the point of tears at their kindness. We enjoyed our tea and treats and regained our composure before the family returned to tour us around their farm. Once we had met their animals, inspected their garden patch and spied their argan orchard from a distance, they presented us with a delicious tagine and did their best to make conversation with us despite the language barriers.

Mohamed’s brother shows us how to ride a mule.

After lunch, they asked us if we wanted to walk around the village to meet some people who they had told we were coming.We happily obliged and as we made our way around the village we were invited into other people’s home for tea and impromptu concerts.

Random Moroccan house concerts are unforgettable.

Some of these people were very, very poor but were still so motivated to make a connection with us and show us some hospitality. All they seemed to want in return were smiles and some of the women wanted us to take our picture with them. To us, it seemed as if the entire village was celebrating our arrival and we were both in awe and humbled.

Us posing with the women and kids.

To cap off what ended up being an unexpededly perfect day in Morocco, we toured Mohamed’s family’s argan orchard and saw goats climbing in the trees before getting a taxi back to Essaouria.

Argan tree climbing goats.

The whole day had been an unpexpected adventure where we received the most amazing hopsitality from people who had substantially less than us, but still were kind enough to share their food and take the time to show us some of their world. I learned through this experience that often the connections we make with others are more valuable than most currencies in this world. No money exchanged between my friend and I and a tourist agency could have made this experience happen, only our friendship with Mohamed could.

A village girl shows us her cute baby goat.

During a rare quiet moment that afternoon, I asked Mohamed if we could offer his family some money to contribute to the cost of the food we ate, or if there was something we could buy the family in Essaouria as a token of our gratitude. He said there wasn’t and that everyone was just happy that we came. Still, we wanted to do something for them, so we had a picture of the family framed and we gave it to Mohamed before leaving Essaouria. He seemed to like it and it was the least we could do.

Mohamed’s family and neighbor indulged us in a portrait session.

To this day, that unplanned afternoon in a village outside of Essaouria remains one of my favorite travel memories and it never would have happened if I had not been willing to go off script.

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