Monday, December 30, 2013

Friendly is Better Than Not

I'm going to leave the following post up as a cautionary tale.  To be honest, I am somewhat chagrined that I even got to a place of such paranoia when what I should have been doing was staying open to the world.  So it goes!  Suffice to say that I went out for a lovely walk in  and around the Medina this morning and chatted with folks, both tourists and locals, and enjoyed myself completely.  Clearly, it is about attitude.  My takeaway, sure, be careful, but don't let the admonitions to avoid the pitfalls of travel convince you that you should do anything except engage the world.


Being in the Fez Medina has been completely exhausting.  Actually, so far this whole trip has been exhausting.  It's hard to imagine that I am finishing day five and have ten days ahead of me...I feel like I've been on the road for weeks!  It's an exercise in cultural immersion, and it's certainly exercised me thoroughly.

By the end of the day today I was thinking about some of the work I had done around cultural competence with the school district.  One of the strategies that is suggested for increasing your capacity to integrate other cultures is to find opportunities to immerse yourself in those cultures.  Rather than observing a culture from the safe distance of a book or a museum, or even through meeting an individual, this strategy involves leaving your own cultural setting and immersing yourself in the real world of someone else's culture.

Yeah.  So, here we are.

It's a bit unsettling that I am having this kind of emotional response to the difficulty of being in a completely different culture.  So much for being laid back and relaxed.

Over the course of the day I found myself moving from being a bit nervous all the way on through to being overwhelmed and fearful.  Fearful surprised me.  After a long walk this morning down through the Medina, up around the east side and then back through to the Riad I was pretty well shot.  It was a long walk physically, there are a lot of hills here and even though I bypassed some of the up part with a quick petite taxi I still did a lot of walking uphill.  Yet, even more draining was the constant battle to avoid being drawn into something I didn't want.  The fear of creating a commitment to purchase or go or do something because I couldn't communicate adequately, and also because I believed that the folks around me were motivated to get me to go or do or buy when I might not want to.  

And I think this last piece is the part that I most needed to reframe.  No one is trying to hurt me here.  This is a tourist destination, not some kind of boot camp.  It's weird how you can get inside your head and lose track of what's really going on.

Most of the people here are interested in providing a guide if I want one, to sell me things that are nice and mostly at really good prices, to help me find things...stuff like that.  These are friendly people. Walking around thinking, eyes front, eyes front, eyes front, was taking me to a place of fear and even potentially hostility, and the thing that kept running through my head was, that's not me.  I'm not that guy.  I like smiling at people.  I like saying hello.  The advice that you find online to not respond to folks that approach you may be effective, but it's not who I am and it doesn't work for me.  I'm not going to wander around with my head down because then you have to ask what the hell I'm doing here.

Now, there is an extent to which if you respond to a come-on you invite it to continue.  This is a real problem.  The solution, though, from my perspective, is to communicate more clearly; not to stop communicating.  So that's what I'm working on now.  Smile.  Say hello.  Be clear that I don't need anything or that I am just looking.  This seems to work.  Also, I finally figured out that I am surrounding by vendors and friendly folks who want to be helpful.  The more I ask for help, the more connected I am to this group of people.

It also helps that I have now made the circuit of this part of the Medina several times.  The three or four guys that seem to work the side street leading from the Riad to the main streets are starting to recognize me -- after all, there aren't a lot of big Anglos with long, grey hair around.  They may even remember that I gave them a couple of pitiful coins the first time they approached me, and that seems to have helped.  Also, I'm a big guy.  No one is going to bother me.

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.

It seems a little crazy, this whole thing, but it's real.  

The other piece of this is the very, very real extent to which I am not like anyone else I see.  In the course of the day I say maybe one or two other middle-aged Northern Europeans.  There are a few folks here at the Riad from San Francisco and New York, so they are out there as well, but we're pretty unusual.  There are lots of tourists, of course.  Folks from all over Europe, Asia and the Middle-East.  Lots of people lost and wandering the Medina.  Still, when I was walking the main thoroughfare outside the Medina this evening, I was the only guy wearing a bright blue jacket.  Everyone else was in black and shades of brown.  Lots of leather and wool.  It's a small thing but it was really interesting to watch.  

And people watch me.  People make eye contact and hold it in ways that I'm not used to...and it's got to be because I'm something unusual here.

Anyway, as I said at the start, this is all a good exercise in cultural competence, but it's a challenge all the same.  If it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm not.  The whole point of this journey is to get a better sense of what the rest of the world is like.  The thing I love about being in the old city here is that you can't escape the cultural difference.  It's a pretty complete immersion experience.  Western civilization is here, but it's on the other side of some thick walls and since you're usually lost it ain't nearby.

I'm trying to flip it over and think about the people who come to Minnesota or other parts of the US from around the world.  I think about how they tend to congregate together and separate from the rest of American culture.  I think about how hard it is to make that transition.  Imagine how fearful you would be.  Even the little experience that I am in now doesn't compare, since I bring an entire continent of privilege with me and the knowledge that at any time I can walk back to the Riad, head for the airport and never go out there again.  I am on vacation, not fleeing war or poverty or oppression.

Well, that's some thoughts for today.  I don't think I would say today was fun, but it was engaging and a good stretch.  I saw a lot of really fascinating people and places.  My goal for tomorrow is to relax enough to enjoy it more.  Smile more.  Laugh more.  One guy I talked to today, who was using his broken English to try and convince me to buy a tour of the Tannery (which he said would cost 600,000 something...I'm pretty sure it was supposed to be a joke) observed that they hadn't seen many Americans lately, and also that I laughed a lot.  He was making fun of my laugh on the way out, a little mockingly I think as I had turned down his sales pitch by then, but that's okay.  I plan to laugh anyway.

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