27 September 2019
I still recall the first time I stayed in the home of someone I didn’t know, in a country I was unfamiliar with, communicating in a language that I didn’t understand. Growing up, I was taught to not trust others for fear that something bad might happen to me. I was taught that if someone invites me into their home or offers me something to eat, I should question their intentions and probably not accept. Entering my first “homestay” at the age of 19, I felt an odd sense of isolation and vulnerability. I wasn’t sure how to immerse myself in a space that seemed to defy so much of what society had taught me. Would I be safe and comfortable here? Would my belongings be safe? How do I interact with these people who are seemingly so different from who I am? Nobody ever taught me of the kindness of strangers and I never heard stories or news reports which highlighted the many forms of hospitality around the world. I was never schooled on welcoming strangers to my home or exchanging culture and tradition with those who did not have similar life worlds to my own.
It wasn’t until I left the suburbs of Chicago by myself and made my way across the United States, from there to a farm in Switzerland, and then to Taiwan, that I found myself gaining a new understanding of people, and a new sense of belonging to the world. It was the second day of my solo journey when my hostel situation in Washington D.C. fell through and I accepted the invitation of a young woman to stay in her tiny apartment before I made my way to volunteer on a farm in Switzerland. A series of interesting and fortunate circumstances led me to stay in a number of homes and with countless strangers turned friends in the months that followed as I moved through Switzerland and then Taiwan.
I quickly realized that my feelings of vulnerability were powerful. The opportunity to live in spaces unique in comparison to what I was most familiar with, was an opportunity to learn about the kind of person I wanted to grow into being. I was humbled by these experiences and rather than feeling isolated, I began to feel more connected to the world and gain a deeper understanding of what it meant to be human. I saw less difference and began to make an effort to share the stories that might lead others to more readily accept and welcome what or who they are unfamiliar with. The challenge of stepping outside of my comfort zone in this way has become a challenge that I happily welcome again and again.
As an instructor, one of most rewarding aspects of this work is facilitating opportunities that allow students to gain new perspectives and open up to new experiences or life worlds. Yesterday, our students entered their first homestay experience in Azrou. I am sure that many of them felt similar to how I felt when I was 19 and bounced between homes and unfamiliar situations, using hand gestures to communicate my most basic needs over the course of a year. Their stories at our morning meeting today resonated, as I recalled all of the nerves and excitement tangled with endless cups of tea, meals that seemed to never end, and a burning curiosity.
Each student shared with us some of the highlights of their experiences so far. For some, it was being dressed up in traditional clothes or helping to cook meals. For others, it was trying to politely decline the third, fourth, and fifth servings of food that their families offered. Over the next 13 days, I’m looking forward to creating a safe and comfortable space for our group to navigate this experience, ask questions, and explore this piece of Morocco.
Although the students will spend much of their time with their homestay family, as a group we gather for lessons, hikes, regular meetings, and other experiences. Today, after our morning meeting, we visited an artisanal cultural center. Students will have the opportunity learn the basics of traditional crafts at the center multiple times throughout our stay in Azrou. The center was built many years ago and in the past several years has focused on preserving local culture and supporting local artisans in Azrou. Several of our students’ homestay families have relatives working at the artisanal center as stone carvers or weavers.
Attached are photos of each student as they were mentored in artisanal work.
Grateful for the hospitality, kindness, and lessons that we are all taking in during this homestay, we look forward to sharing new insights and experience from Azrou and from the families who have so graciously accepted us into their homes and into their lives for the next couple of weeks.