Photo: Vasin Lee/Shutterstock

8 Big Travel Mistakes Everyone Should Make at Least Once

Morocco Travel
by Alex Scola Jan 10, 2014
1. Travel alone.

It’s an overwhelming sensation stepping off an airplane and realizing you’re thousands of miles away from anyone you know. As I waited to be processed at Mohammed V airport in Casablanca, the feelings of isolation set in. The only familiar thing I had to cling to for the bulk of the trip was myself, and for the first time in my life I had the opportunity to really hash out what that meant.

Having returned from my trip in one piece, the idea of being alone or stranded no longer scares me, and I’m grateful to be liberated from the burden of that unknown.

2. Lose your wallet.

My first mission upon arrival was to acquire currency, so I headed toward an ATM. Patting my pockets, I felt no wallet. Panicking, I unloaded my entire backpack, and concluded that I was officially f*cked. My adventure had not even begun, and I’d already managed one of the biggest “no-no’s” in travel.

Eventually I met an officer who spoke enough English to understand my situation, and he introduced me to a local businessman. “This is Amine,” he said. “He will take you to a place for the night.” I tried to communicate to Amine how grateful I was for his help. “No, it’s no problem,” he said. “In this country, we say, ‘It could have been anyone,’ it could be me in your country, and we do as if it was.”

Amine decided to take the next day off to accompany me to the consulate and show me the city. I realized then that: 1) I had just made a friend for life, 2) I was having a “real” adventure, and 3) it was all directly attributable to losing my wallet, forcing me to reach out to strangers. Over the rest of the trip, I made many friends in a similar fashion, and learned firsthand about the customs and hospitality of the people of Morocco.

3. Go somewhere you don’t speak the native language(s).

Prior to my trip, I wrongly believed that everyone should speak my language. At major tourist destinations, many locals I encountered could speak some English (as their businesses depended on it), and I found myself annoyed by those who couldn’t. So when I (speaking only English) experienced the frustration that comes with being unable to communicate even the simplest needs (imagine trying to pantomime “I need to use the bathroom”), I radically changed those beliefs.

4. Have no plan.

My parents are planners, but once I hit my teens I ditched plans and entered an era of staunch commitment to flying by the seat of my pants. Planlessness freed me to be spontaneous, but also meant that my attention to plan-related details had atrophied since childhood.

When the group I had been following after Casablanca left our hotel to explore Marrakech, I missed the memo. With the burning sun overhead, I jogged to the main square and hit site after site, searching for familiar faces. Six hours and a dozen miles later, dehydrated and disoriented, I literally collapsed under some shade. A concerned passerby approached me and asked what had happened. He offered me a ride, which I graciously accepted — though I experienced second thoughts as he wove through traffic on his one-seated Vespa, with me clinging to the luggage rack.

We pulled up to the hotel miraculously unscathed, and I croaked, “Thank you,” to the man as he sped off. After rehydrating, I realized that my utter lack of planning got me into and out of some dangerous situations that day, but also allowed me to experience Marrakech in a few hours — in a truly raw and genuine way.

5. Do little to no homework before your trip.

After booking my trip, I bought a used copy of Lonely Planet’s Morocco guidebook, which sat unopened on my desk for the remainder of the year. Somehow, I had convinced myself that referencing it would be a cool-traveler faux-pas.

When I met with Amine the second day, he asked me what I wanted to do and see. “Take me to wherever you would take a tourist or friend,” I replied. After a brief walk past the ‘must-see’ spots, and some local cuisine, Amine took me to his favorite hangout — a pool hall. I didn’t need to speak French or Arabic to get my ass handed to me by these casually skilled billiards players. No guidebook could have compelled me to seek out a pool hall abroad, but the whole scene felt remarkably comfortable and became one of my fondest memories from the trip.

6. Take pictures of locals without asking for permission.

As the ever-naive traveler, I often viewed the locals as part of the experience to be documented. It was only a matter of time before someone informed me that it was impolite to do so without first asking.

The old lady I had snapped in the medina followed me, pointing at my camera and shrieking. “Mister,” a teenager called. “She says you must erase the picture.” Resigned, I did so in front of her, hoping to defuse the situation. She stared at me hard before hissing in Arabic and shuffling off. “What did she say?” I asked the boy. “She says someday someone may come into your home and take a picture of you eating.”

I realized then that I had been dehumanizing people throughout my travels, and I committed to be more respectful of foreign cultures and individual privacy.

7. Strive for the idyllic ‘postcard’ experience.

The end of my experience in Morocco was to be the climax of my adventure. I would ride a camel into the expansive burnt-orange dunes of the Sahara, camp under the endless sea of stars, and witness a breathtaking sunrise before heading home.

30 minutes into the camel ride, we were hit by a sandstorm that had been kicked up by an oncoming storm. With visibility waning and my adrenaline pumping, I watched our Berber guide sprint into the dunes, abandoning the group and camels. As the storms merged, I dismounted and followed. He pointed me in the direction of the camp before turning back and disappearing into the storm. Crawling into the closest tent, out of the onslaught of weather, all I could do was laugh. I laughed not only because I was alive, but also because this was accidentally the realest thing that could have happened, and somehow a better outcome than what I expected.

8. Go to a third-world country for ‘perspective.’

When asked why I was going to Morocco, I told people that, having spent eight years in expensive higher-education institutions, I needed to get a little worldly perspective.

When I arrived, I did experience culture shock, but not in the way I expected. I encountered metropolises with medinas, high fashion and traditional garb, and lots of iPhones. I realized that the Aladdin-esque scene I had expected was very dated, and that traveling to a third-world country does not mean going back in time. What I learned in Morocco was the deepest extent of my naivety, and to that end, I actually managed to walk away with some worldly perspective.

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