Go somewhere far outside your comfort zone
To be sure that your friend is a friend,
You must go with him on a journey,
Travel with him day and night.
Go with him near and far.
— Angolan Proverb
To be sure that your friend is a friend
We arrive at Marrakech Airport in Morocco on a rainy, grey Tuesday in January.
The taxi takes us to the edge of the Medina. The hostess, Leila, is waiting for us. She hands us an umbrella, a standard black travel umbrella you would find in any London train station.
We go through the market gate, and we try to talk in our broken French. On the way, I nearly stomp on a litter of fresh kittens on the side of the alleyway. We back ourselves to the wall to let a donkey pass us with a cart full of fresh baguettes.
I have no idea where we are. Or what exactly we booked, now I come to think of it. It’s hard to tell when you are in an unfamiliar souk. The local riad hotel has a plain front door that could be mistaken for any other door in the outside alley.
Once inside, what a contrast. The riad is a calm oasis in the middle of a chaotic market. There’s a courtyard with a small swimming pool in the center, palm trees, and a wrought-iron table with chairs to take tea. Look up, and there are four floors with balustrades leading up to the open sky.
It would be best if you went with them on a journey.
The fireplace warms us up, and we drank fresh mint tea from a tall, silver pot. We hand over our passports to fill in the official paperwork.
I had only been with my now-husband for no more than three months. Watching him fill in his personal details still felt as if I was learning something new about him. It’s rare to see his handwriting.
Our rooms are ready, Leila said. The riad is empty in the wintertime, so she upgrades us to the bigger room on the rooftop.
From up here, you can see the Atlas mountains outside of the city. The temperature falls away at night. Marrakesh is a meeting point for West Africa.
The room is basic but clean. No television. No wi-fi. But the young man from reception has found us a bottle of Moroccan red wine. The mosques rev up their calls to prayer with one long wail.
The local imams are like medieval rappers, calling out to the faithful with their songs reverberating across the city. The moon is a sliver in the sky. Normal life is slipping away.
It is now getting dark. We venture out to the main square, Djemma el Fna, to find something for dinner.
Travel with him or her day and night
While we assess the square, amongst the monkey tamers and bag sellers, we have a standing snack of snail soup in a paper cup. Five cents. We decide on a restaurant stall, or should I say, the man in the stall decides on us, indicating we sit down at the front of his restaurant.
Out in the square, a wise, old African man tells his epic to the crowd gathering. A group of boys practice backflips and standing on each other’s shoulders, three high. I have the best lamb couscous.
The market stalls are starting to be packed up now. As we pass, a young boy shows us a wooden box that opens up like a Rubik’s Cube with a few flicks of the wrist. In a series of moves, you can unlock and lock the box like a puzzle.
“How do we find the way out of the Medina?” I ask in my average French.
Another boy pulls up to us; we need to leave right now; otherwise, they will shut the gate, and we will have to stay in the Medina all night.
“Lucky for you,” he says, “I will show you the way out.”
We follow him through the winding streets. Why I think to myself, I would never do something like this at home. The bright, swinging lights in the market disappear behind us as he guides us through the twisting alleyways.
This does not seem right. I look over and can tell my partner is willing to go along with it. Open-minded and relaxed, as ever.
But: dark alleyway, are you serious? I’ve got to find a way to slip out of here.
I widen my eyes to him, as code: let’s go. He misses my silent scream with my eyes. How do I get the message across without anybody catching on?
Outside the gate, the boy meets up with five other friends dressed in football shirts, as teenagers do worldwide. I want to stay calm, but I also want to get out of there as fast as possible. I can see some lights over in the distance, the same dull orange street lights you find along highways. Is it a highway?
As soon as I see some open space, I throw the boy some cash, way too much cash, and go toward the orange lights.
On the main road, outside of the ancient Medina, is modern Marrakech, like any busy road with a taxi rank. We jump in a taxi and find we were less than 2 minutes from our hotel.
Was he trying to rob us after all?
Was my partner too lax, or was I too paranoid?
Once we get back to the hotel, we sit on the rooftop and try to name the constellations in the African sky. With no television and no phones, we open the bottle of Moroccan red wine, thick and heavy but warms us.
Let it go. It happens.
Someone before us had left their battered Guidebook to Morrocco. We take turns reading out the Morocco section's history to each other in the glittering, cold desert air.
Go with him or her near and far.
This was when I knew we would get married one day.
A saying from Angola says the best way to know a true friend is to go traveling together. Placed in stressful situations, you get to see the real person; there’s no way I would have got married without traveling together first.
If you want to gauge if you could handle the vicissitudes of life together in the future, go somewhere far outside your comfort zone.
“I believe I have a sunny disposition, and am not naturally a grouch. It takes a lot of optimism, after all, to be a traveler.” — Paul Theroux
Only traveling together can tell you:
- How do you, the other person, handle the unexpected?
- How do you deal with money, especially on a budget?
- What happens if one of you gets food poisoning, or worse?
- Do you like to relax or always be on-the-go?
- Do you want to see every site or a sit-at-the-café-kinda person?
Not being able to travel this year has been an even greater test than traveling itself…
Stuck together, working together, inside for months on end this year, the vivid memories from traveling are what carry us through the difficult times.
We can do it. We’ve done it before.
So before you make your relationship more serious, put it to the ultimate test and go away on an adventure together, one day soon.