Sahara Desert Morocco SARAVUT WHANSET
It was two a.m. Western Sahara Time, the third night of my international yoga retreat. I was on the rooftop terrace of a riad in downtown Marrakech, watching a cat slink between the geometric turrets of the high walls overlooking the city, convinced I was suffering a panic attack.
I use that term lightly, as I’ve never had a panic attack before, and wasn’t sure I qualified at the exact moment, but it was undoubtedly the closest I’d ever come to the brink of internal chaos. How did I get here?
Physically, I’d boarded a TAP Air plane bound for Portugal en route to Marrakech Menara Airport. Emotionally, it began months ago, when I learned about the ethos behind Souljourn Yoga and met its charismatic founder, Jordan Ashley, who was 25 when she envisioned her NGO. She’d give her first TED Talk on the subject a few short years later.
She now oversees yoga retreats dedicated to improving girls’ education around the globe, the North African iteration of which, dear reader, I was currently an enrollee. A reluctant yogi and unlikely candidate for anything wellness-related, I was nevertheless enticed by the novelty of exploring Morocco and the community service element of the retreat. I hadn’t given much thought to the unwanted self-reflection that accompanies a twice-daily yoga practice in a foreign country surrounded by total strangers.
Who would have known it would be the latter I would find most disconcerting?
But, like all brilliant ideas, it started with the best of intentions. And like all good stories, it’s best told from the beginning. Which was just a few days ago, on the Moroccan coast of Essaouira. I arrived, of course, a day late, rushing from a friend’s wedding in Miami. Hungover, discombobulated, and anxious about a run-in with an ex-boyfriend, I was quite—perhaps aggressively—unwell when I joined the rest of the travelers on the second day of the Mystical Morocco retreat. The trip would take us from the Moroccan coast of Essaouira to the cosmopolitan city of Marrakech, and finally, up into the snow-covered Atlas Mountains.
Yoga, for me, isn’t about getting into shapes on your mat. It’s about using the mat as a jumping-off point to not only discover the world, but yourself as well.
I wasn’t that upset about missing a day, as the price wasn’t exorbitantly high—in fact, at under $4,000, Souljourn is a veritable steal compared to other retreats—many of which don’t prioritize leaving the studio (or Instagram-ready tourist traps) of, say, Bali. Plus, a portion of each registration fee supports global initiatives for girls’ education. Retreat participants witness firsthand the local communities of which they are the benefactors—we would be volunteering within Education For All Morocco on the second-to-last day of the trip, an experience I was already eagerly anticipating.
Though Souljourn retreats are co-ed, the participants are often (inevitably) female, a welcome yet unsurprising revelation when I arrived. A culturally immersive trip that revolves around community service and twice-daily yoga classes preaching self-reflection? I wasn’t shocked to learn I was joining an all-female environment when I entered the Riad Rebali that evening, yoga mat conspicuously not in-hand. (Told you I wasn’t your typical yogi.)
After our nightly practice, the 12 of us convened at the long wooden table for a homemade meal prepared by Emma Joyston-Bechal, the owner of this property, as well as Camp Adounia, in the Sahara Desert, and the gorgeous Riad ZamZam (the site of my later breakdown, where we were headed next.) Her charm and humor is not to be underestimated when it comes to enrolling in future Souljourn retreats in Morocco.
“You can get so much more done with women, without all of that male ego and sensitivity.” Emma observed to me over dinner. “Especially if you’re a strong woman. Men get upset.”
And indeed, the immersion into a group of complete strangers, complete female strangers at that, all within the age range of the twenties to forties, led by yoga instructors Alison Riazi and Jeanette Doherty, was intoxicating. Often, people put off trips until they have someone to go with them—or, I suppose I should clarify: I’ve been known to do that. Safari in Kenya? Wait until you’re engaged, I’d tell myself until it became evident to me that the last Northern White Rhino would become extinct before I’d be sealed off in holy matrimony, passport in hand, and boarding a plane to the Mara. This mindset propelled my sign-up for the retreat.
You can get so much more done with women, without all of that male ego and sensitivity. Especially if you’re a strong woman. Men get upset.
I’d always wanted to see Morocco, but it’s not the most accessible country to navigate as a female traveler alone. And, as much as I support the independence and self-sufficiency espoused by my fellow adventurers who are devout solo travelers, I prefer having some built-in company to share the day’s anecdotes with over wine at dinnertime. Plus, as a writer, I spend enough time in my own head already, thank you very much.
I’d discover that many of my fellow travelers were far more exciting than me, and with better anecdotes to share. Emma, in particular, with her British accent, entrepreneurial spirit, adorable children, and evident familiarity with North Africa, was an enigma from the start. After terror threats dissuaded her from moving with her family to Egypt, she settled in Marrakech.
“Well, I grew up in Africa. I was born in Uganda. And I didn’t want to raise children in the UK,” she told me. “There was no sun, no outdoor life.”
The iridescence of the Moroccan sun cannot be overstated. The sky in Africa feels different, looks different—vaster, with more translucent clouds.
But while the Kenyan sunrise bleats across the plains, the sun’s rays on the North African coast are decidedly subtler, though no less blinding. In the irreducible words of novelist James Salter, who wrote of the region: “The sky had a soft blue cast to it, the light pale and lacking contrast.”
If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.
I was visiting in February, and the wintry sky was particularly striking. Emma agreed: “It’s like you’ve done drugs. People have no idea how fantastic the winter is here. They go to the Canary Islands,” she flicked her wrist in dismissal. “And places like that.”
Over the next few days, as we rode camels on the beach and received hammam treatments at the spa, it wasn’t hard to agree with her pronunciation that places like that, like anywhere else aside from Morocco, were inferior.
We set off next for the ZamZam Riad & Spa in Marrakech. We would tour the ancient city under the tutelage of a charismatic guide who managed to make the otherwise unmanageable, winding city streets somehow navigable—even the most well-traveled of visitors would be likely to get lost otherwise. I admired the city’s cats, its jewels, its abundance of crafts and shoes and rugs, and anything you could possibly imagine. Truly—anything.
We stopped into Katoubia Herbal for some natural remedies and were given the ultimate aphrodisiac/health-imbuing tea on the planet. “No false migraine, no headache at night, no excuse,” the lady told us with a smile as we left the store, each clutching a plastic bag of the grainy substance.
The beach-to-city-to-mountain evolution of our trip would prove critical in enhancing not only my appreciation for Moroccan culture and heritage, but also for my own growing self-awareness (and accompanying self-loathing as well). Or maybe it was the twice-daily yoga sessions, the lack of familiarity with my surroundings, my feeling of not being at home within myself.
Which brings us back, of course, to the original “Zen and Loathing in Marrakech” with which we began our story. Perhaps my antipathy towards the wellness trend was actually deep-rooted in self-protection—maybe too much introspection was fatal for peace of mind? Perhaps I preferred to live my life like a Monet—nice from far but far from nice.
“The yoga pose is not the goal,” Riazi told our group while in savasana the night before, quoting the words of Rachel Brathen. “The goal is to create space where you once were stuck. To unveil the layers of protection you’ve built around your heart. To appreciate your body and become aware of the mind and the noise it creates. To make peace with who you are.”
Apparently, I was not at peace with myself, but rather raging a secret war. I thought of the last time I was ever in this part of the world, though actually when I’d last been on the Barbery Coast, in nearby Tunisia, I was similarly in shambles. I remember how lucky I felt to be there then, on the northern coast of Africa at Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, wondering whether I would ever be there again. Of course, this enlightened perspective was at odds from my self-pitying condition. You could argue that North Africa brings out the worst in me (or at least the most unstable)—but back then, I was reeling from a break-up, and today I didn’t realize I’d been reeling from anything.
I felt my heart racing under the covers in my bedroom in the riad and knew I needed fresh air. I hoped my roommate wouldn’t wake in her twin bed and notice my absence; or notice that the door hadn’t locked shut behind me when I scurried to the roof like a criminal. Furiously texting my friends for consolation, I sat on the roof convinced every decision in my life up until that very moment had been a grave error. And it was only now, sleepless on this terrace overlooking the Atlas Mountains in Marrakech, that I’d come to realize the reality as such.
The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was at a yoga retreat. And, incidentally, I had been devoting more time than I had in years to my psychological well-being. Perhaps it was the introspection, the namastes, the savasanas, the slowing down of it all—the latter a rarity during international travel. I’d signed up for my first-ever yoga retreat skeptical of my own enjoyment, but not fearful for my life’s survival.
I sat up there for hours before I slunk downstairs, back to the twin bed. I stayed up for several more hours and read the rest of my book (the appropriately haunting “Tangier”) from the light of my iPhone. I willed my heart to stop racing and eventually, finally, fell asleep.
The next morning, we headed up into the mountains for the pinnacle of our trip: the volunteer work with Education for All. The esteemed program provides housing for rural girls who would otherwise be unable to attend secondary school and was already a huge success. Far more impressive visitors were arriving that very weekend—Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan, to be exact.
We’d planned a day to visit with the girls, teach yoga, and do an arts project together. But the very beginning of the scheduled event felt like a middle-school dance, neither group intermingling. However, the moment I walked in and introduced myself, all language barriers faded away. Selfies, it was discovered, are the universal language. As are emojis. Hafida, Noura, Hanane, Fatima, Katie are best friends!!!!!! was written in my phone shortly after that, followed by nearly fifty cowboys, puppies, camels, mermaids, parrots, and fairy emojis.
It was lovely to be in an all-female environment. I read the sign on the wall: “If you teach a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a woman, a wife, a family, a mother, a nation.” It was similar to what Riazi had said during our practice yesterday—quoting Greg Mortenson, she reminded us: “If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.”
Khadijah, a 12-year old girl from the village of Tachdirte, is one of ten siblings—a side-effect of her parents’ divorce and two remarriages. When her father died when she was 10, she was distraught about the loss and about her future. She was depressed and worried she wouldn’t find the motivation to continue her studies. Plus, after the loss of her father, she was worried about finances: “I was concerned I wouldn’t have the motivation or the means to continue my studies.”
But with a combination of her siblings’ support (proof that more is merrier with brothers and sisters), and the EFA (which she learned about from a girl in the village), she persevered: “I dream of becoming a math teacher because I love the subject and the feel of calculating and solving equations.” Her dedication to her studies—and to my much-loathed math—impressed me immensely. Leaving that afternoon, it wasn’t difficult to believe that maybe the future was female after all.
Our final accommodation was the iconic Kasbah du Toubkal, the iconic Moroccan landmark that is one of the founding members of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. The otherworldly beauty of the landscape was utterly transporting, and I felt myself beginning to slowly slow down. To calm down. It was only Friday, and my trip had just started on Monday. Is it possible I’d attained enlightenment in a work week? (Not that such a concept applies to me as a freelance travel writer, but still.)
“Come to your yoga mat to feel, not to accomplish. Shift your focus, and your heart will grow,” Riazi intoned during our final practice.
To be forced to sit with yourself makes you become not only more comfortable with your own uncertainties, with yourself, because the self is uncertain, but also your surroundings. How much time did I busy myself to never feel alone, to never have a moment of reflection that lasted too long? Isn’t that self-awareness inverted into extreme self-consciousness—a conscious effort to ignore the self? I had simply been afraid.
“How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being. Otherwise, we all remain too frightened,” Riazi quoted Hafiz in conclusion.
Of all the wisdom received during these classes, I loved the Amy Poehler quote imparted by Jeanette: “People are their most beautiful when they are laughing, crying, dancing, playing, telling the truth.” In short, when they allow themselves to feel. To enjoy. To play. And in Morocco, I allowed myself to do all three.
But unlike most supposedly fun things I’ll never do again, I’d eagerly sign up next year. I’ve obviously already perused Souljourn’s upcoming retreats. They’re planning on doing Morocco again in 2020—just trading in Essaouira for the Sahara desert.
All of this time, I had been moving in furious motion. Never catching my breath, when really, isn’t life all the more worthwhile when you’ve taken a moment to look around, to smell the Moroccan coffee, to enjoy the view? Especially in the Atlas Mountains, it’s divine. Namaste.