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Coming home: How does it feel?

Part of me knew, from the very second my dad called me, I would go back home to be there for my family, but the rest of me took a few days to wrap its mind around it. Really? Is it really the end, already? I thought I had more time. (Oh, how fitting these reflections were).

Well, that’s life isn’t it? You work to bring yourself to a certain place and state of mind, think of what you want, who you want to be, start feeling like you’re getting a hold of your life, have an idea of where you want to go, maybe some plans and expectations and then- life happens. Changes everything.

How easily we forget this, even though we all know it: everything changes- always, constantly. That may be the only thing you can be sure of; you can’t be sure of anything.

Life, death, accidents, separations, endings, changes. It’s all about learning to let go isn’t it?

I knew that’s what I needed to do, I didn’t have a choice anyways. I had to let go of where I was, how I was, what I thought I would do, my life as I had come to shape it over the course of the past 16 months, the possibilities floating around me, the distance between me and ‘’my home’’. Most of all, I had to let go of the deepest (and deeply unsettling) sense of freedom I have experienced yet, as for the first time since I started travelling by myself, I had money in my pocket, a tent to sleep in on the road and a growing sense of confidence as a solo female hitchhiker, meaning I could literally do anything I wanted. Strangely, I also had to let go of the distance between me and ‘’my home’’, give up the idea of home as this faraway, almost theoretical place that was part of me, but I wasn’t a part of anymore. I had to give up the idea of not going back for another few months, or years. Strangely, I didn’t expect this to be an issue. People would often ask me if I missed home, if I wanted to settle down somewhere else or even if I would ever go back. I never even paused, of course I would go back, I wasn’t looking for a new place to live, I love Québec and our culture and our language, and my family, and I want to work here and blablabla. Yet, when came time to go ‘’home’’, it didn’t feel like going home. It felt like getting ripped away from my life.

I was expecting a shock, a moment of ‘’Wow, I’m going home!’’, I was expecting excitement, fear, happiness, something. Although I did have moments of joy in anticipation, surprising my family, seeing my bestfriend; I mostly felt numb, with pangs of sadness. I kept expecting the shock to come later (a bit like English people always expecting the sun to come tomorrow), at the airport, on the plane, when I would land, when I saw my dad, when I saw my mom, my grandparents, my sister, my best friend. In the end, it was like getting in cold water, mostly shocking, some laughs, some cries, a lot of asking why you’re going in at all, looking back at the land with every step, yet being in before you realize it, and surprising yourself with how irrelevant your anguish was, it’s like everything; it passes. Whether you want it or not, you get used to it, nothing dramatic about it, ups and downs, always. It’s cold at first, but you know it will start to feel familiar again, or rather you’ll stop feeling it, and sooner than later you’ll find yourself swimming again, and finding the land cold when you first get back to it- oh the irony of life. You will always be attached to your latest comfort. How easily we get attached to our latest comforts, how easily we forget that the next wave is coming, how we always struggle to simply enjoy the ride- even if we know it.

I wasn’t expecting to come home, so I can’t say it was any more or less than I expected, it was nothing and everything at the same time. Coming Home, and leaving a home at the same time, feeling like I belong, and not. Feeling stuck on pause, and fast forward, and backwards at the same time. Feeling like I’m coming back, but not really. Like everything is despairingly the same, and disappointedly different. In between I guess. Not here nor there. Home is where the heart is, we say, so a little bit everywhere I guess.

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5 tips for hitchhiking solo as a woman (by an actual woman, who actually hitchhikes)

Although I wish this wasn’t needed, travelling and hitchhiking solo as a woman will make you *feel more vulnerable. There are a few basics that can help you *feel safe and comfortable.

*I insist on using the word ‘’feel’’, as nothing you do can actually make you safer (except locking yourself in an ivory tower protected by a dragon, and then again). Indeed, you are never responsible for other people’s actions and the assault or abuse you might be imposed. Thus, nothing you can do can actually prevent it. That’s the harsh truth. However, there are some things that do help me feel safer, which is all I can do to increase my well-being and mental health as I choose to exist unapologetically in this world. I thought I would share my thoughts on this as I am tired of reading irrelevant sexist pieces on safety and hitchhiking that only come down to don’t do it.

1. Learn the basics to be able to communicate where you want to go, and where to be dropped off and only get in a car if you feel like you understand each other sufficiently.

2. Know the road. Easy if you have a smartphone and data, but also possible without (that’s me), take pictures of the itinerary, know the names of the highways and exits, identify smart dropoff points (like rest areas if you need to keep hitchhiking). Note the names of the cities you will cross and reference points for your final destination, especially when going to cities -it could save you a 2 hour walk.

3. Adapt to the country. This can mean a million things. It can be as simple as knowing how to signal cars, whether having a sign is useful or not, how to indicate the direction you’re going (cardinal directions, pointing, city name, road number?) or getting to know the rules and regulations around hitchhiking. It can also be cultural, learning about the customs and traditions of the country, such as knowing how to greet people, how women are perceived and treated and yes, the dreaded ‘’how to dress as a woman’’. Now, I hate to write this last point. As I wrote previously, I will need feminism as long as the words ‘’as a woman’’ will dictate the rest of the sentence. I am also very sensitive and conscious about victim-blaming and I believe that telling women how to dress or act to be ‘’safe’’ does, when you get to the bottom of that thinking, reinforce the idea that women are responsible for how they are treated, objectified and/or abused.

This being said, it is also true that women are much more likely to be abused or assaulted (whether they are travelling or not, but we’ll talk about that later). So, although I hate it and know that I am never responsible for an abuser’s actions, no matter how I dress, I also know and recognize that I need to do everything I can to compensate the added vulnerabilities due to the fact that I am a woman travelling by herself. (Yes, that’s what not having a privilege feels like -and the only one I don’t have is being a man…).

This being said, adapting to the local culture, and dressing accordingly, is not restricted to any gender. It goes (a little) beyond the oppression of women’s bodies (where their appearance and clothing is much more restricted and scrutinized). There’s also a thin line between adaptation, dressing like the locals (which mostly means exposing less skin and wearing looser clothes, for westerners) and cultural appropriation. This is a line I cannot write about, and I still (and always will) struggle with. Should I cover my head or not? Should I wear my scarf like a hijab for Friday couscous or would that be offensive as I am appropriating a religious symbol? It’s not up to me to decide. You need to ask. Every time, everywhere.

The good thing about ‘’dressing as a woman’’ is that, both for travelling, hitchhiking and adapting to non-western cultures, it gets down to the same thing: wear loose clothing that covers as much as possible, which will keep you cool and protected from the sun –in dry climates. In Morocco, following advices from other solo female hitchhikers, I also decided to wear a scarf on my head, simply covering my hair. Although you are never responsible for an abuser’s actions, and therefore, you can never prevent this type of situation, people are generally appreciative of the efforts you make to adapt yourself. Beyond dressing to be ‘’safe’’, adapting your clothing, and behavior, to the local culture and customs is also about respecting the country you are in and creating a bond with the locals. You have to remember that they have 2 seconds to decide to stop for you or not, and they are stopping to let a stranger in. Seeing that you wrote your sign in the local language, or that you are wearing something any other woman could be wearing or just looking like you belong there will not only make you *feel more comfortable, but it will also make the locals feel more comfortable, and more likely to stop!

Basically, it’s about dressing in a way that won’t make people think about how you are dressed: it’s about making your body invisible. I know, I know. But it is the reality of it. In 2018, everywhere in the world, that’s what we learn women need to do to *feel safe- even if it doesn’t work.

4. Allow yourself to say no. Again, this can be achieved in many ways, but you need to feel like you can afford to refuse a ride, and be prepared to do it, without any guilt. I suggest giving yourself plenty of time, planning short trips, starting early-ish in the morning (I aim for early, but usually start around noon). If you don’t feel comfortable anymore, always be ready to resort to other means. For me, it would mean stopping in a café to plan another mode of transportation as I squat the free wifi, but whatever floats your boat. This could also mean (or make it easier by) being more selective on your hitchhiking spots, where you start andwhere you get dropped (aka no highways, unlike what Vincent and I did a few times –ok I admit I did it by myself too). It’s easier to say no, when cars are slowly driving past as they exit the rest area, with access to food, water, wifi and toilets behind you than when you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere (hello Albania). Basically, having options can help you feel safer, as it may prevent you from feeling rushed and agreeing to a situation you don’t feel comfortable in. Having a place to go, but also a place to go back to if all else fails.

5. The friend card. Thankfully, I haven’t felt the need to use this trick yet, but for added security, or simply for your peace of mind/to test your ride, you can ask to take pictures of the license plate/driver and send it to a friend (or say you will). Obviously, I wouldn’t get in a car with someone who refuses, and their reaction might give you more information than any other question would (taking into consideration that taking pictures is not that common everywhere). More casually, if in doubt, don’t hesitate to mention your travel partner waiting for you, or discussing your friends in different areas of the country you’re visiting.

Just to be 100% clear, this is not to prevent abuse, as anything can happen without ‘’warning signs’’, or without feeling incomfort prior –and we should never hold victims accountable for their abuse or for preventing it somehow. Of course, hitchhiking is a risk, as is every day you decide to step out of your house- or stay in, as most abuse happens inside the comfort and safety of our own houses. Abuses happen, all the time, everywhere. That’s a reality we have to live with, unfortunately. From there, the only thing we have power on is how we choose to exist in this world, and deal with it – and I, personally, with all my privileges refuse to let the threat of abuse keep me inside. I also believe that debunking that myth of strangers = abuse will be beneficial to all of us. As a society, we need to get over our disproportionate fear of strangers, and start talking about abusers for who they really are –us.

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 Travelling ethically: A short introduction to my philosophy

Beyond the pretty words, what kind of daily choices do I make while travelling? What are my main ideas and principles on how to travel more ethically -or less unethically? (Also based on the most common misconceptions people have on how I travel).

1) I travel by land as much as possible, using my feet and thumbs (as hitchhiking does not increase the number of cars on the road or the number of KM- in general- but simply takes advantage of cars already on the road, see here for a detailed explanation of the impact of hitchhiking), as these methods are the greenest possible (except cycling). To cross water, I will try hoping on a sailboat heading my way. Otherwise, I use ferries for the shortest distance possible.

2) I avoid hotels, hostels and other institutions that are built or exist for the main purpose of receiving tourists, as these often generate unnecessary pollution. In many countries, the construction of the buildings themselves might be an issues. For example, in Albania, booming tourism has brought major investments in construction, leading to empty buildings everywhere or skyscrappers cutting the horizon on the coast. The maintenance of these buildings is often quite consuming, with constant lighting, everyday cleaning and massive laundries. Unfortunately, these institutions rarely bring a lot of money to the locals themselves, the vast majority being owned by wealthy foreigners, and high paying jobs being occupied by foreigners. Therefore, I would rather support the local economy and not damage the local environment by only using resources that are already there, and if an exchange of money is needed, making sure it is given directly to the locals receiving me. Camping outside (respectfully), or staying with locals, in the space they have, can reduce the impact on the communities and the environment to almost zero, and actually have a positive impact by sharing and exchanging with the local communities.

3) Local is the key. Whether it’s for food, clothes or to sleep somewhere, the priority should always be to promote local products and economy, or even better (to me) establishing exchanges with the communities that are not based on money. For me, it is often about carrying and sharing food with the people I meet. This can be a great way to give back, while keeping expenses to a minimum and focused on something essential, the need to eat. No matter the culture, no matter the language, sharing a meal has a beautiful unifying power. You’d be surprised by the generosity of people who have less than us (privileged westerners), such as the time Vincent and I offered bread to someone, who refused, and proudly showing his only possessions (a few fruits and a piece of bread), invited us to join him later to share our food, if we didn’t find a ride out.

4) Giving back. This being said, it is also essential to find ways to give back to the countries or communities we encounter. Giving back is a very general phrase. It can mean a lot of things, and can be done a lot of ways. The important part is finding the best way for you, with your capacities and limitations, to have a positive impact on the people and land you cross. Whether it’s cooking and buying food for the people who host you, getting involved in some of the multiple projects that inspire you, taking the time to speak and have a real interaction with a local or even buying (although not my favorite way) a handmade, local item, if you feel it is right. When we get stuck and have to use public transportation, or when we are in cities, we also see paying for public transportation as giving back and encouraging something positive –just a little cognitive restructuration to see this occasional necessity as a good thing.

 

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The pollution behind these words.

Did you know that: “Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times” (Glanz, J. 2012)? At this rate, the internet industry will account for more global warming than the Airline industry?

Internet is not the zero-waste, clean resource it seems to be. Every word typed, every picture uploaded, every undeleted email, every website created constitute infinite data that, although we tend to forget, needs to be stored. Continue reading

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Morocco Animal Aid and why I took a plane to Italy

I met Chris as I was walking back to my settlement on the beach of Taghazout with my one-night dog I named Picasso, who turned out to be Django, one of the many village dogs everybody knows and loves.

[Although they are free and don’t have a specific owners, I would not call them strays, but community dogs, most of them vaccinated and neutered, as part of a long-term research program in cooperation with multiple European countries, including France and Italy. A few years back, they started implanting and studying the impact of the neuter and release method to control dog populations in a safe, ethical and durable way. The project was going great and Taghazout and the neighbour villages were illustrated as revolutionary examples of beautiful cohabitation between human and dog communities. That was then.

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The safety issue (or my issues with how we talk about safety)

This is probably the most important and most ambiguous concept when you travel: Safety.

Everyone understands the general concept: keep your things safe, avoid looking like a lost tourist, be careful when it’s dark. My problem is this: sometimes there is very thin line between legitimate safety advices and concerns and racism and prejudice. Let me explain. Continue reading

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My first hammam (or how I fainted for the first time)

Back in January, during our first weeks in Morocco, Tchin, our newfound friend in Tetouan, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse: taking us to the hammam. Only problem, as a woman, I couldn’t go with them. Before going our separate ways, Tchin hurriedly explained to a local woman with her two children that it was my first time. Before I knew it, I was pushed in and the door quickly closed on the two only familiar faces I knew.

The waiting room. Moment of truth, how undressed do people get? I look around the room and see about 9 women simply sitting down, fully clothed, waiting in their coats. I find a place to sit and remove my coat keeping my eyes on everyone to figure out what’s happening. My appointed ‘’guide” and her children start undressing, but everyone is looking at me, so I remain in place, unsure of what to do. Then, the woman working at the hammam comes up to my guide and they start talking, vividly gesticulating and pointing at me. They make me stand, and my hammam friend puts my bag with hers, making sure I don’t have a phone or money first. Then they look at me and point at my clothes with confused looks. I finally understand that this is the room to undress (and still don’t know what the other women were waiting for). I should mention that, at this point, nobody spoke French, English or Spanish (Spanish is often the second language people speak in the north of Morocco).

The family starts walking towards another room, through a corridor with showers along both sides, leading to a warm square shaped room, surrounded with cold and hot faucets, where a few woman are washing themselves. I follow them in the last room, they call hammam, although I am still not sure what the difference is between the showers and the square, and remain standing up near the entrance, unsure of what to do. The woman quickly gives me a stool and points me to an empty space, where I fill my bucket and start pouring water on myself with a little cup. I slowly start washing myself, still unsure of what’s going on. Is this the hammam? Is there another room? Am I just supposed to wash myself?

Then, the mother comes up to me with a small bowl, filled with a muddy green substance saying ‘’Henna, henna’’, while the woman in front of me nods in agreement. I faintly nod, unsure (as I will be for the whole 90 minutes I would spend there). The woman reaches in the bowl, picking up a good amount of the scrubbing mixture and I raise up my hand, expecting her to give it to me, but she simply plops it straight on my shoulder, and starts rubbing me vehemently. She proceeds to stretching my arm out, strongly holding my wrist while she rubs down my arm, happily pointing at the skin curling up in the process. I laugh, surprised by her lack of boundaries, while she continues rubbing all my body with the mixture, touched (literally) by how caring she is towards me. As she finishes and walks back to her own spot, the other woman gesticulate, indicating to me that I should keep rubbing. I laugh and follow their instructions, rinsing a few moments later when they all tell me.

Then, I proceed to washing myself, thinking I know how the rest goes. I just finished rinsing the soap off when the mother comes back waving shower gel at me. I try explaining that I already used soap, showing the mediocre, 1\4 of a bar soap I just used, but she insists and starts pouring liquid soap on my back and, of course, starts spreading it with her hands. I give in, and wash myself for a second time. Unsure of what to do next, I start washing my hair with the same bar of soap. The woman next to me sees me, and quickly tells my assigned caregiver, who rushes to hand me shampoo, although I try explaining that my soap is sufficient. As it goes, I finally accept and wash my hair, a second time. I think : ‘’Ok, now I’m done for sure’’, when the whole family calls me and invites me to sit next to them, getting up to help me carry my bucket. I smile and follow, although I’m not sure how many more times I can wash myself. So, I sit next to them, rinsing, unsure of how long I should stay and why they asked me to come.

Then, another woman comes in with her daughter, and sits facing me. As they all do, the new comer starts asking about me, to the family next to me. Then she looks at me, and asks: ‘’Hables español?’’. ‘’Un poquito’’ I answer, so we start talking. Although I’m far from fluent, I manage to answer her questions about where I’m from, what I’m doing in Morocco, how I am travelling, my age and, most importantly, if I’m married. I tell her that no, I am not married and, along with the other woman to whom she was translating my answers, I get a surprised reaction. ‘’Porqué? Tu es muy bonita.’’ ‘’No quiero’’ I reply, and try explaining that marriage is not as common in Canada, when the two women working at the hammam walk in. They loudly start talking together and I stare at them with a confused smile, until they start speaking to me, using 1 word of Spanish every 5 words. I shake my head, saying I don’t understand. Follows a few minutes of complete cacophony, their loud shouts amplified as they bounce back on the walls surrounding us. Finally, the voices calm down to only one, and I finally understand. They are all trying to marry me to their sons, telling me how beautiful, tall or rich they are, of course! I laugh, and repeat that I don’t want to get married, thinking they will stop, but somehow their voices increase again, and they start asking if I have friends in Canada in Morocco. I am quite confused, and answer yes, of course I have friends, unsure of their question… Then, I understand again, they are asking if I have friends to marry to their sons! I say no again, and they go off laughing.

I think ok, that’s my time to head out, and the woman in front of me seems to notice it, as she starts asking if I want to go out. I say yes, and start getting up, but the family gesticulates to me, and I am not sure if they are asking if I am done washing, or if they want me to wash their backs… I sit back down and look at the woman in front of me, confused, and she asks again if I want to go out, so I nod yes, and look at the family, wondering if I’m supposed to wait for them. One of the woman working at the hammam comes in, warning me that the boys have left the hammam, so I get back up to head out. I grab my towel, and ask what to do with the bucket when I start not feeling great. I’m about to leave, when I turn to the family to say goodbye. They start gesticulating again, and I don’t understand anything. Until they say the word ‘’culotte’’, and I put the pieces together. Contrary to what you might expect (and what I expected), most women (at this place and time) went fully naked. So, they were basically telling me I should remove my underwear.

At this point, I’m feeling an urge to get out, as the warmth is getting too much and I am beginning to feel weak, so trying to explain that I don’t feel comfortable doing so is just too much. The  heat and the hour of pushing my physical boundaries as I allow a stranger to rub my body down and constantly have at least 5 stares on my naked skin + comments I do my best to understand, all while keeping a smile on is starting to get to me, and I just can’t bend on this one. Desperate to get out, I starting blurting out words in French, when the young girl takes the cup from my hands, dipping it back in the water, and losing my soap at the same time. I bend back down to grab it, annoyed and a little claustrophobic from their over care and then

Black out.

I gain back consciousness and open my eyes to see 7 worried faces looking at me, and twice as many hands grabbing me. I try removing myself from their grip, to get out of this damned hot room! But they’re still holding me. Finally, they understand and let me stand up, one woman strongly holding me as I zigzag towards the waiting room. I stumbled across the room, and fell down in an empty chair. Slumped down, head leaning on my left side, eyes barely open and white as a ghost, I was still barely conscious and felt weaker than butter. Luckily, the women brought my bags next to me, and I had a flash of consciousness: my water bottle! I reach out and instantly feel better as the cold liquid reaches my throat.

A few moments later, I fully came awake and was able to sit up. I started being aware of my environment, and the 4 hands around me, trying to place my towel properly on my shoulders. I pushed them away, and they finally understood ‘’Safi?’’ ‘’Safi’’, I replied. They stepped back. The more I drank, the better I felt, until I was able to move and started dressing up, so I could get out. I pulled down my top over my head, when I felt the hands of my neighbor on my back, untangling my top and helping me get it down. The woman quietly kept helping me dress, whether I liked it or not, which I was still unsure of. The women in the hammam popped in and out, checking on me and I felt quite amazed at how caring these women were- for the best and for the worst. I waved goodbye to the room, ready to finally get out but they kept urging me to put my hood on and zip up my coat- although I just had fainted from the heat. I resigned to just turning back and walking out, even if I couldn’t explain, I wasn’t going to let myself faint a second time. ‘’Well, that was quite a first time,’’ I thought, as I was heading out into the cold air to recover.

Footnote: Of course, this is only my first, personal experience. Not all hammams are the same, actually, each is completely different.

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Travelling solo part 2: Hitchhiking as a [privileged] woman in Morocco

After a year of travelling with my partner, fearlessly hitchhiking everywhere, it was time. I had to try by myself. As a woman, in a foreign country, I was scared. I mean, we’ve all received the same message; travelling solo is fine, unless you’re a woman. Throw hitchhiking in the mix and you’re just doomed.

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Travelling solo part 1: Existing in public spaces as a [privileged] woman

Trigger warning, this includes content about street harassment (and some swear words).

First, I have to admit I am no expert on travelling solo, and hopefully I’ll write more positive pieces on this as it goes. Until now, most of my travelling has been with a partner. Still, for many reasons, we ended up going to different places on a few occasions, leaving me to spend a month in Turkey by myself, travel in France solo and have the odd days by myself in Morocco. It was during one of those moments that it happened.

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Daily life of the average hitchhiker in Morocco

After months of travelling in Morocco, and a hundred amazing rides, there are just too many stories to tell them all. Instead, I will tell you about our longest journey, hitchhiking from Assilah Eco Village in Sidi El Yamani, all the way to Tagounite, going through the famous Tizi n’Tichka pass and taking a detour through Ksir El d Kabir and Kenitra.

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