Meandering My Mental Maze and the Medinas in Morocco
Editor’s Note: Naum Kaluzhny, a Fuze employee, has been traveling and working abroad, as part of a four-month program with Remote Year. Read more about his journey:
“500 Durhim,” says the man trying to sell me a tea set in the heart of Marrakech’s medina. “500?” I respond. “No, no, I can get the same for 100 from someone else,” I tell him as I turn to walk away. After a few minutes we settle on 300 Durhim and I leave a proud owner of a beautiful tea set made for brewing Moroccan mint tea (Moroccan or Berber whiskey if it contains sugar). In fact, I have drank so much of this tea over the course of the month that it is all I can still smell and taste. Mission of the week: figure out how to ship back the dozens of souvenirs I have acquired.
Most interactions in Morocco are like the one I just described. Every cab ride must be negotiated, every purchase in the souks (markets), and even some restaurants are open to bargaining. I’ve been grateful for the negotiation skills I acquired at Fuze-- they have certainly been quite handy! The medina, especially in Marrakech, is massive; a labyrinth of alleys containing shops, restaurants, riads, and hordes of tourists trying to navigate their way through what feels like a different planet. A vibrant city with a lot of character and history, Marrakech combines the old world with the new, offering something for everyone.
This city, and country in general, opened my senses to a world I could have never imagined. This is the first Muslim country I have visited, and it did take some time getting used to the lifestyle, the daily hustle, and the Call to Prayer which is blasted throughout the cities and villages five times a day. The first time I heard the Call to Prayer I was shocked by its beauty and how the sound reverberates off the concrete buildings, echoing for miles. Although I am Jewish, I found the Call to Prayer extremely grounding, reminding me to stop and be present throughout the day and to really embrace my surroundings. I was also surprised to learn about the Jewish history of Morocco, and the everlasting influence the Jewish people had on the culture and architecture. I often found myself at sunset just aimlessly strolling through the medina, not looking for anything specific, but just thinking and observing, as if the medina’s maze represented my mind with all the shops symbolizing a different life experience, memory, a person, or the things I desire most.
This post will be a slightly longer one, as I have taken a break from writing for the last several weeks to reflect on my life, goals, and focus on my mental health. If you look at my Instagram feed or stories it looks like I am having an absolute blast every single day, exploring new surreal places, eating food that my taste buds can’t comprehend, and making life long friends from around the world. All of that is true, I am doing all of it and enjoying every minute. But what Instagram doesn’t show is my less exciting and more difficult day-to-day surrounding work/life balance, the struggle of missing my family and friends, and mulling over serious existential questions that will shape my future. The Remote Year program is not all fun and games. It was not created with the intent of being just another vacation. It is a life test, a physical and mental challenge, an opportunity of a lifetime, and a stark reminder that life is what you make of it and that happiness is one choice away. “It has been 84 years” since I left Boston… or at least that is what it feels like sometimes when I lay in bed reflecting on my day, trying to plan what the next adventure will look like. Before I know it, my Remote Year journey will be over, and I now understand more than ever the need to put my own wellbeing first. I often think that I am here on this trip to help others, which I like to think that I have, however, “always put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.”
Connecting within our Tramily
Two months prior to our group meeting in Cape Town, Remote Year set up a Facebook page where each member had the chance to introduce themselves with a short bio; a snapshot of who we are, what we like to do for fun, our careers, and our goals for the upcoming four months. I remember being stoked reading these, excited to learn more about each person and looking forward to sharing my life with this passionate and ambitious community. RY also provided us with Slack accounts which we utilized to start making plans, exchanged travel hacks, and learned more about what activities and events we could attend. Naturally some individuals were more active than others, with some people never partaking in the online exchanges. When we met for the first time in Africa it felt as though I already knew some of my fellow remotes. I had met one in Boston three weeks prior at a meetup dinner, talked with several others on messenger and Instagram, and did my fair share of Facebook creeping. I laugh at myself now for having some predictions about certain people, and for making assumptions about people’s lives and personalities before ever meeting them. Two months later, I still have so much to learn about everyone and I am surprised each day by how individuals and the group dynamic is evolving.
While we use Slack for organizing events and getting information from the city teams and our program leader, our main form of communication within the group is Whatsapp. Oh Whatsapp. How badly I want to throw my phone out the window sometimes after not checking it for thirty minutes and having to scroll through 100 new messages. (Update: my phone was stolen in Rome last week, so I got a nice break). However, this application is our glue, keeping us all connected 24/7 as the main go to for notifications, planning dinners, sharing cat photos, and making inappropriate jokes. More importantly, it is the app we use to support each other when the times get tough.
Life is messy and unpredictable. Things happen that are completely out of our control and unfortunately tragedies can occur at any moment without warning. The beauty and excitement of Cape Town and the freshness of the new adventure blinded me and others to what was happening back home and it made us feel like I was in a happy dream where everything going on was jolly and fine. Two weeks into Morocco we were all reminded that life is precious and the importance of keeping in touch with our loved ones. Like a snowball effect, one after the other, several members of our community experienced family losses due to unexpected circumstances, fell ill, or experienced personal turmoil. It was heart wrenching to see my friends hurting and upsetting when some had to leave for a while to attend funerals, doctors or just get away to recalibrate.
Although the tragedies and setbacks were painful, we came together as a community and connected with one another on a deeper, more personal level. We lifted each other up and formed a support system. I have never felt to such a great extent the “one for all, and all for one” motto which gave me faith and hope to keep going when I just wanted to drop everything and quit. Thanks to Whatsapp, we were able to send each other messages of support, well wishes, and condolences. When the individuals returned, they were showered with love and welcomed back into our family. This is what Remote Year is all about. It’s not just about the wonderful places we live in, it is about who we meet and live with. Without each one of these unique individuals, I would be just another stray cat wandering the streets (and there have been a lot of those).
Every Remote Year group has name. Ours is Kuungaga, which in Swahili means connect. I have stayed connected to my family and friends back home, to my boss and coworkers, and have made new connections with 50 individuals who would have been just strangers passing on the street two months ago. We proved this definition correct as our connections will last for the rest of our lives, and if not in person, then at least we have Whatsapp. Kuungana for life.
Over the course of the last four weeks, I had the privilege of visiting some breathtaking places, some of which that were never even on my bucket list. Our first excursion was into the Atlas Mountains, a stunning mountain range with snow covered peaks, rocky trails, waterfalls, vast open valleys and surprising greenery. After hiking up a majestic waterfall we then traversed a rocky path through a Berber village to have tajine on the rooftop of our guides home. As it turned out our guide is the mayor of two Berber villages and the father of the sweetest three month old whose piercing eyes are forever itched into my soul.
The following weekend we embarked on a 9 hour drive to the Sahara desert, stopping along the way in Aït Benhaddou, Ouarzazate (dubbed Moroccan Hollywood), where Game of Thrones and Gladiator were filmed amongst 60 other films and shows. I will say that eating a camel burger is far more enjoyable than riding a camel for three hours (although Freddy was a good boy and I would never eat him). We hiked up sand dunes, slept in tents, played drums around a fire, and had a dance party under a full moon. Praying I don’t have to pay overweight baggage fees due to sand that I will never be able to shake out of my clothes and shoes.
The coastal city of Essaouira provided a magical respite where we lounged by the ocean, stayed in the old Brazilian consulate, ate some amazing seafood, and where I steeply overpaid for a jellaba (traditional hooded cloak). At least the jellaba came with an impromptu tea and jam session with the shop owner.
During my last full week in Morocco, I had two friends from Boston visit me and it was a much-needed reminder of home and familiarity. Although we nearly missed a few trains and they definitely missed their flight back to the US, we traveled up north to Fes, Chefchaouen The Blue City, and Tangier. Fes is a very old city with a large medina and the home to Morocco’s largest tannery and leather shops. Quite content with my new belt. Tangier makes your feel like you are in Europe, with modern buildings, a theme park, and a busy port. Chefchaouen 100% takes the cake with its jaw dropping lush landscapes, blue colored buildings and never-ending photo ops. Throughout my adventures I would seek out interesting places to work form, preferably with a view. Sometimes I would take calls on the rooftop of a hostel, other times answer emails and create reports in a busy café. Fuze also saved me when I was stranded in Rome without a phone, unable to contact anyone. The desktop app allowed me to connect with my parents, the airline, and my fellow remotes to get the help I needed. The call and video quality throughout Africa and Europe has been the same as back home, allowing me to get my work done while being one click away from interacting with a coworker. Working from anywhere with a reliable unified tool has never been so easy. The digital nomad movement is growing and with Fuze, virtually anyone has the ability to be a full time employee from any remote location in the world. Never in my life did I ever think I would be working from the highest point in Chefchaouen.
Morocco is an extremely diverse country with starkly varying topography. If you ever plan on visiting, I will say that one week is not enough time to truly experience all of its wondrous surprises. It taught me to not be afraid of embracing new dramatically different cultures, to appreciate what I have right in front of me, and focus on doing the things that make me the happiest with the people that I care about most. Come for the tajine and carpets, leave craving Chinese food and smelling of random spices.
I finish this post from Lisbon, which will be my home throughout March. Although I have been here before I am very excited to be back in Europe and to live like a local instead of rushing through all the tourist attractions. Bring on the sardines and Fado.