Uncharted Territories

Photo of Chefchaouen by UNE Dental Hygiene student Lindsey Bullard

At the crossroads of comfort and adventure, where the boundaries of familiarity and the unknown converge, I found myself faced with a life-altering decision. I could fly across the world and live abroad for four months, something I had never dared to even dream of before. Already nearing the end of April, I needed to decide within a few weeks what I wanted to do. So, standing on the precipice of my final year in college, I was surprised to be presented with such a unique opportunity—the chance to escape the cocoon of campus life in Biddeford, a place where I knew everyone and everything. It was a chance for change and growth, where I would hurdle myself through the unknown and force myself on a path of discomfort as I fought the uphill battle against crippling anxiety that has deterred me from following my dreams for my entire life.

Setting off for a trip to Africa was never something I saw myself doing, never mind studying in Morocco for four months. I have always battled with the weight of anxiety, fighting against the overwhelming thoughts in my head that everything and anything will go wrong. Signing up for this program led to an onslaught of these thoughts, burying me beneath the weight of possibilities. “The plane will crash. You’ll lose your passport and be stuck there forever. What if the school mysteriously collapses while you’re in class?”

It didn’t matter how many people I knew who had successfully participated in the program, there was no real logic to anxiety anyway. Each reason I could list for why I should go came with another reason to cancel it out. My mind was a cacophony of “what ifs” that played on an endless loop, holding me back all my life.  Until one day, I finally decided to put all my fears behind me. It was time to live my life for me, not my anxiety.

Each day I got closer to leaving, another rock settled on my chest, pushing me down, deeper and deeper. I began hiding in my room. I met with various doctors, asking about the possibility of anxiety medications. After mixed results, I tried to block the idea of leaving from my mind, putting it off entirely until the time came to pack. I had never been so excited or terrified before. I couldn’t wait to travel the world and see all the postcard-worthy sights we all dream of one day witnessing with our own eyes. But those “what-ifs” just kept coming back, telling me that it was a cataclysmically bad idea and that I should back out while I still could.   It is overwhelming to be trapped in the confines of your mind, unable to voice your worries. Battling these thoughts is hard enough on a normal day, never mind in an entirely unexplored environment where everything and everyone is new to you. Coming to Morocco was exactly that- new. I would be traveling alone for the first time, going abroad for four months, and I wouldn’t just be meeting up with people I knew or a place I was familiar with. I would be back to sharing a room with a stranger. I would be in class without a single face I recognized.  I would be in an unfamiliar country that had been advertised as unwelcoming towards women. But I would also be presented with countless opportunities for fully funded trips, cheap travel to Europe, and a unique, irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime experience that encompasses an entire semester of my academic career. I was sick of being a victim to myself, of letting the thoughts win for another second.

August 23rd arrived just like every other day, without fanfare or any extreme buildup. Things were relatively normal up until it was time to leave for Boston and everything began to feel a lot more real. I painted on a facade of confidence, refusing to freak out despite every bone in my body urging me to do so. In the giant hall of Logan Airport, standing off to the side of security, my family said their goodbyes. Even in my haze trying to track my paperwork and bags, I will never forget the looks on my parents’ faces. Neither was excited when I told them I was going to Morocco. They weren’t even excited when I chose a college out-of-state almost four years ago. As the youngest child, I knew it was hard for them to watch me leave home. But as we stood at the entrance to TSA, my shoulders shaking, my mom looked at me with tears in her eyes and reassured me as she hugged me one last time.

By the time the semester began, time seemed to be flying by as we were busy almost every day between classes, exploring the city, and traveling on weekends. Each new experience brought forth a new wave of panic that I forced myself to face head-on, using what little time I had to prepare myself for what was to come. I was thankful for the non-stop nature as it forced me to leave behind my worries. My anxiety fought for purchase as too many things would rifle through my mind, never having a chance to gain traction as we had already moved on to the next thing. I had finally grown comfortable here, finding my own group to fit in with and getting back into the groove of coursework. Most of the weekends away were manageable and exciting considering we were given an itinerary and were told what the hotel arrangements were ahead of time. That is, except for the trip to Chefchaouen. Chefchaouen was one of the trips I had looked forward to the most, already feeling inspired by the brilliant blue walls I had seen through the photos of past students’ experiences. It seemed surreal, the electric blue seemingly glowing in the sunlight of the mountainous city.

Then Douaa announced that we would be living with host families, all the progress I had made seemed to be sucked away, like a vacuum cleaner had been tasked with throwing me into a personal hell. I wasn’t anxious about the family themselves as we were told they had all hosted students before. I was anxious about the food and if I would be able to eat it. I was anxious about the living arrangements and how the rooms would be split up. I was anxious about being in the way of the family, a total inconvenience to their daily lives. I didn’t want the attention that would come with being a guest in someone’s home, with eating their food and sleeping in their beds.

The idea of staying with a host family dulled that glow, shifting from a lively blue to a bleak, grayer shade as my mind ran rampant with its worries once more. I tried to talk myself out of my panic, reassuring myself that it would be fine. I would pull up the itinerary late at night, seeing how much time was expected to spend with the families rather than the group. I counted the meals with them, double-checking who else would be with me. I would make myself have a good time, no matter what it took.

After a seemingly endless van ride to Chefchaouen, it was time to meet the host families. Douaa called my name alongside three others and a man slightly taller than me stepped forward, introducing himself as our host brother, Mo. He led us to his car, throwing our luggage into the trunk before driving us to his family’s home near the medina. Mo opened the door and ushered us all inside, leading us through the vast living room as he pointed to the different rooms.

“There are two rooms here, each with double beds; you can split up however you want. The bathroom is in here, and dinner will be served upstairs.” He pointed to each room in turn, asking if we had any questions before leaving us to settle in. I walked into the first room, rolling my suitcase behind me as my friend Peyton followed behind me with her luggage, Grace and Emma taking the room next door. We sat on the bed, unsure of what to do as we waited. Should we go out in the living room and interact with the family? Should we stay here and wait for them to find us? The four of us were at a loss, unsure of what we should do or what would be construed as rude behavior.

We were able to kill some time, playing games with our host sister, Meissa before she led us upstairs for dinner. The games had been the perfect distraction, allowing us all to loosen up and enjoy our time here, but dinner provided a complete contrast to that. As an extremely picky eater, I had been dreading meals with the family all week. I didn’t want to be rude and not eat the food they provided, but there were some things I just couldn’t force myself to eat, no matter how badly I tried. The last thing I wanted to do was offend the family and the mother who was so kind as to prepare a hot meal for us. It didn’t help that I had no idea what customs came alongside dinner with a Moroccan family. I was hoping I could just have some bread and was prepared to push things around with a fork to make it look like I had eaten more until I could grab a snack from my backpack. As we sat around their table, the feelings of hunger were nonexistent due to the twisting feelings of anxiety stirring in my stomach.

As Mo carried over a steaming dish I could feel my heart pounding, matching his footsteps as he grew closer to the table. Already this family had been so kind and welcoming to us, and I was about to ruin it all because I couldn’t just eat what was put in front of me like a normal person. As Mo finally reached the table he lowered the dish, placing it in the middle of the cloth-covered surface. I released an audible sigh of pure relief as I took in the dish that was clearly chicken, not fish, not lamb, and not some other perfectly normal dinner that I would’ve been unable to stomach.

I tried to keep a low profile the entire weekend, directing questions away from myself and trying to tiptoe to avoid attention. Despite everything, the family was incredibly kind and welcoming, offering us food and drinks and asking if we wanted to go out at night with them. Despite it all, I couldn’t get myself to act normal in any sense of the word, sitting on the edge of my seat as if they’d kick me out for any minor cultural infraction.

It was enlightening to spend time with people our age who are from Morocco and to hear about the differences in their culture compared to our own. The more I learned about them, the more irrational my worries seemed to be. When it was time to say goodbye, I found myself wishing we could spend more time with these families. I wanted to stay so I could truly be myself around them, unafraid of their judgments after they had been so welcoming.

Overall, my past few months in Morocco have changed my life more than the past three years in Biddeford ever have. Marked by the relentless onslaught of anxiety and the determination to face it head-on, I overcame the relentless “what-ifs” of life and have come to embrace the unknown. While overcoming the soul-crushing weight of one’s anxiety is not easy in the slightest, the journey has provided me with invaluable experiences and knowledge, helping me work through the limitations set by my own anxiety and serving as a reminder that anything is possible if you dare to make it a reality.

Tori Robichaud is an English major at the University of New England.

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated by the editor and may not appear on this discussion until they have been reviewed and deemed appropriate for posting. All information collected is handled in a manner consistent with our privacy policy.