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The Generosity of a Stranger

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 12:27 PM  RssIcon

The Generosity of a Stranger by Michael Castellano


I keep this portrait hanging on my wall as a reminder not only of the life-changing summer I spent in North Africa, but also of the generosity of a stranger. In 2008, I studied abroad in Meknés, Morocco. After studying Arabic for one year at my university, I arrived in al-Maghreb with the intention of improving on my Arabic language skills and immersing myself in Arab culture. However, as I left the country at the end of the summer, I realized I was taking with me a much more valuable lesson.

On the one allotted free-weekend in the program’s schedule—the last weekend of the study abroad trip—I decided to take an expedition into the Sahara Desert with three other students from the group. It was meant to be the adventure of a life-time and the culminating experience of what had become a most amazing summer. We were advised that the journey would be challenging, as mid-July is not the ideal time for wandering through the sweltering Saharan dunes. Most of the other students elected to visit the colorful markets of Marrakesh or take a stroll through the cool forests of the Atlas Mountains, but not I. My cohort and I were determined that we could not possibly return to the United States without experiencing the magic of the desert.

Our advisors were right: it was a difficult trip. The bus ride was long and cramped as we four made our way further and further from what had become our home-base in Meknés. I remember peering out the window at 3:00 in the morning, squinting in vain to see any signs of civilization in the distance. Alas, I could not see much at all except for an endless blanket of stars shining against the darkness.

The sun finally rose and we arrived early in the morning in Rissani, where we met our guide, Essau, who drove us to Merzouga, a small but hospitable town on the edge of the desert. It was here that I first caught sight of the majestic sands. I wrote in my travel journal, “As the sun rose, the desert was illuminated and I got my first glimpse of the Sahara. It was exactly what I envisioned Morocco would look like.”

Though none of us had slept much the night before, we were instantly filled with new energy (or perhaps just adrenaline) to take a tour of the village. After a quaint breakfast of khubz arabi and honey, we visited the open market souq, with its rich scents of spices and meats, and ventured out to the oasis where locals cultivate their crops and collect their water. Of course, after a few hours, we were forced to retreat to our auberge for mid-day nap in the shade.

The trip exceeded my expectations in countless ways. From sleeping on a rooftop to camping in the dunes, camel trekking by day to cous-cous dinners by the beat of a gnawa drum, it would be impossible for me to relay all the emotions I felt during my time in the Sahara. In my journal I scribbled,

   I almost don’t want to write anything about this trip. I don’t want to spoil it by attempting to put it into words. But I also don’t want to forget    it. Actually, I know I won’t forget it. I know this experience will stay with me forever.

There is one moment, however, that I consistently go back to that I feel captures the sentiment not only of this excursion, but of my entire summer in Morocco. On our last day in Merzouga, Essau took my friends and me on a jeep through the dunes near the border between Morocco and Algeria, where we most certainly could have been detained if we happened to drive too close. We must have been driving for hours and I soon began to realize why mirages appear to people in the desert. All four of us were hot, sleep-deprived, and physically exhausted from the harsh conditions.

Sensing our exhaustion, Essau pulled up to a house and said that he knew the residents and that we could rest here for a short while. A family, fabled to be the “oldest in the area,” greeted us at the entrance, and we four dusty and sweaty Americans graciously entered their home and flopped down on the floor. As one can see in the photo, the house was little more than a simple earthen construction with blankets and sheets—a typical Berber home. As we rested on the mats, a boy, the youngest brother in the family, offered us a tray of his country’s traditional shai mint tea. He sat down and curiously watched these strange tourists who were so obviously unaccustomed to life in the desert. The gesture was moving, and I was both humbled and inspired by his hospitality and willingness to share what little he had with complete strangers. This boy’s home truly became our oasis in the desert.

Now, two years later, I continue to recall this story. I use the experience as an allegory to express that we all have gifts to share with others. For me personally, my travels, education, and life experiences thus far have fostered a deep passion for helping people in need, and it is my goal to ultimately use these talents and abilities to assist individuals in developing communities. My summer in Meknés, Morocco played a fundamental role in this aspiration. In the spirit of the Berber boy from my photo, I look forward to discovering more ways in which I can utilize my talents and abilities to help those in need, and I will continue to keep this portrait framed on my wall as a reminder of my adventure in Morocco and the generosity of the Moroccan people for providing me with such a gift.




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