Why I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture to show solidarity with Paris.

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If you’re on Facebook you’ve probably seen it around. The feature where you can layer the colours of the french flag over your profile picture. It’s a nice gesture. You can now show solidarity and support through a single mouse click. This might read as sarcastic, but let me clarify, I have nothing against this. In fact, I think it’s a great idea.

I do, however, feel a bit awkward about it. And this is why:

Bombings, shootings and terrorist attacks of all kinds happen every day. They happen in parts of the world that we’re so used to hearing these kind of horrid news reports from. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Then they also happen in parts of the world we mostly hear nothing about. After all, when was the last time a news outlet properly reported about the Crisis in the Central African Republic? About South Sudan?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And I get it. I get that this is a difference, because it happened in a country where terrorist attacks do not belong to day to day life. I get it because it’s Paris. It’s a city in a western country, peaceful, modern, beautiful. It is shocking to us because it happened in the midst of Europe, a continent that has been at peace for 70 years now. It is shocking because it could have happened to any of us. It could have been me and my family spending a nice evening in a café. It could have been my friends at a concert on a friday night.
We feel shocked because we’re so used to this security. We don’t know what it’s like to live in constant fear. We don’t know how to react when we’re confronted with so much hate, so much brutality.

We are so incredibly privileged. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you live in a European country and don’t have to fear for your life on a day to day basis, you are privileged. We should be more aware of this fact and never, ever, take this for granted.

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I am utterly heartbroken about what happened in Paris. Of course it has affected me as well, how could it not?

However, Paris is not the only city where terrorist attacks happen.

I am not just Paris. I am Beirut. I am Baghdad. I am every city that was recently affected by senseless tragedy and bloodshed. I am every town where parents kiss their children goodnight and don’t have to be scared for them and I am every refugee camp where parents worry about what kind of future their children may have. I am everywhere safe and calm and peaceful. I am both, because I am humanity and I am the world.

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Changes and Chances

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If you haven’t heard about the refugee crisis in Europe you must have been living under a rock. Lately I’m struggling to even call it a crisis. How dare we? A crisis? This? Compared to what these people have been through this is nothing. However you may call it though, it’s a tough job to coordinate and find a solution for. Daily, thousands of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries flee their homes because they fear for their lives. They pack whatever they can carry, and embark on a journey that is almost life-threatening in itself.
I’ve been very vocal in how I think about this for months. It’s a subject that’s very dear to my heart ever since I had the chance to closely work together with refugees during an internship a couple of years ago. It was eye-opening in so many ways. There are so many misconstructions and stereotypes that get perpetuated through the media and public. It’s heartbreaking to see these articles and vicious words when I’ve experienced nothing but kindness and thankfulness from the refugees and asylum-workers I’ve met back then.

Politicians play with the fear of people. And yes, change is coming. This will change our society. It might change the way we’re living but if we act now, if we are open-minded and kind, I am convinced that it will change us for the better. It is up to us to determine in which direction we will go in the future. Change is scary. Trust me, I know. It is terrifying. But do you know what else is terrifying? Having to leave your house, your family, your job. Having to leave your secure and stable life in your home country to endure inhumane and degrading conditions of refugee camps. Having to risk your life multiple times just to reach a continent where you don’t have to fear for your life day after day.

Fear is what makes it easy to portray refugees as something we should be scared of. That it’s okay to be hostile because they’re just here to steal our jobs and want to take over our culture and traditions. The key to combat these fears is, in my opinion, information and education. Don’t just blindly believe what people tell you. The fact that people still believe refugees and asylum seekers in Austria get a ton of money for being lazy is mind-blowing to me. They get 40€ pocket money per month and they are, in most cases, not allowed to work. They would love nothing more than to be a productive part of society, but our laws forbid this. Why can’t we see this as a chance? A chance to grow, a chance to learn more about other cultures. Why are we not thinking about all the things we could gain, instead of those we could lose?

And so we spent last Saturday marching the streets of Vienna to show our support and demand humane asylum policies. We danced and sang along to songs at the charity concert even though our legs hurt from standing for so long. We made new friends, met old ones and fell in love with Vienna all over again.

Vienna, you can be so heartbreakingly beautiful and kind. I want more of this. I need more of this. Please.

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Of dirty bitches, fucking tourists and mint tea on the house. Or: why Morocco was a struggle.

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It’s hard to find the words and structure a balanced blog post about something that has influenced this travel as much as the following. To write about something so close to my heart. To properly explain the why’s and because’s. I don’t think I can. Yes, I’ve traveled through the country for longer than just a couple of days, but still, I’m aware that my experiences are a glimpse of the overall country. And yet, five minutes into a conversation with another female traveler the topic would inevitably fall on the one I’m going to try to talk about in this post: street harassment.

When I first came to Morocco I posted a quick note on my tumblr, saying how I was largely left alone. How everyone had been super friendly. That changed pretty much the second I hit the “post” button. After that I was almost constantly harassed on the streets. It didn’t matter if I was by myself or with another group of girls. The only time it slightly lessened was when I was walking with a guy (or more) next to me.

I’m not naive. Of course I was expecting a certain kind of attention on the streets. Before I left I was warned by many people. I got told what to do, what not to do, how to behave, what to wear. By strangers and by my family and close friends. Most of it was common sense to me. Sure, I wouldn’t be wearing hot pants. I’d cover up. Respect the country, the culture and the religion. It’s me, after all, who’s the visitor.
I’m the kind of traveler who loves nothing more than to walk through a city with her eyes wide open, a smile on her face and a friendly word quick on her lips. I want to greet and interact with locals and aimlessly roam the streets so I can discover hidden spots.

Morocco quickly taught me the exact opposite.

You might want to know how a country can do this? Let me explain by telling you a couple of stories.

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I started my trip in Tangier, where I lived in an apartment in a good part of the Ville Nouvelle for three weeks. In Tangier especially, it was almost impossible to walk down some streets or through the Medina without getting shouted at, without kissing noises being made as I walked past. Without “Oh hello beautiful!” or “Sexy lady!” or “Oooh, spice girls!” or “Hello pretty flower!”.
I’m not exaggerating. I kinda wish I was, but I could not make these things up, even if I tried.

For the most part I figured out that ignoring them altogether was the best tactic. To just keep on walking if possible and they’d soon leave me alone.

Sometimes though, you aren’t walking. Sometimes you cannot outrun them. Sometimes you’re just sitting on a wall in a small park, enjoying a cool breeze and talking to two other people. And then, when an older man comes up to you and starts talking, and you ignore him, you get shouted at.

“Dirty bitch! Dirty! Dirty bitch! You bring Ebola to us Moroccans! Dirty bitch! Go back home and leave us Moroccans alone!”

How ironic, right? To get told to leave them alone when that’s what you’ve been doing all along? Right when it happened I was just taken aback by the obvious aggression aimed my way. Later, when I thought more about the words he used, the way he looked at us and the way this entire incident made me feel, an odd sense of sadness overcame me.

But that’s not all.

Sometimes you’re just walking through a souk and a young guy comes up to you and asks you if you’re married. And if you ignore him he starts shouting. And if you don’t and say that you are, in fact married, he’ll attach himself to you and say “Doesn’t matter, I’ll be the second husband” and hassles you for way too long.

I soon arrived at a point where I’d just block out everything and I cannot even begin to tell you how sad this made me. It’s devastating because I love nothing more than to interact with locals. I love nothing more than to throw a quick smile at random strangers who pass me on the street. But in Morocco I felt like I couldn’t. In Morocco, if I smiled at someone they’d often see it as an invitation to ask more rude or inappropriate questions.

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One morning I was walking through the souk in Rabat. I was just thinking how different Rabat was to Tangier. People were friendlier, I got hassled less and found myself breathing easier, smiling more. I saw a small girl crying in front of one of the stands and smiled brightly at her, hoping she’d stop crying and smile back. Hoping to be a small distraction. In the same second I gave my attention to this child, a Moroccan teenager walked past me and patted my shoulders down to my wrist. I quickly pulled it away, completely taken aback by what just happened. Is me smiling at a small girl an invitation to be touched however they please? I threw him a dirty look but everything moved so fast and a second later he was gone and I was standing there with an odd feeling all over my body, my skin crawling, and a sour mood replacing all the positive thoughts I just had.
Two streets further I was still stewing about what just happened when a street vendor looked at me, whistled and said “Ooh, you are beautiful! Welcome to Morocco!” And I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t stop. I didn’t look at him. I just kept walking and before I could help myself I said “Shut up!”
I kept walking and only heard an outraged “What???” shouted back at me.

I immediately felt bad. I immediately regretted it. This is not who I am. This is not who I want to be. This is not who I want to allow the men in this country to turn me into. And yet, the frustration boiled over.
Dear street vendor, if you really only wanted to welcome me to your country, I’m sorry. But please also know that this is not how you make us feel welcome. This is how you objectify us. This is how you make us more uncomfortable than you could possible know.

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On my way to find my hostel in Essaouira I was approached by a young man who offered me a hostel to stay in. I told him no thanks and that I already had a hostel. He goes on “It’s a very nice hostel, I can show you, follow me!” To which I replied “No thanks, I’ve already booked a hostel.” Then he flipped. “Racist!” “Excuse me?” “You’re a big racist!” I should have stopped and ignored him then, but sometimes I just can’t. So I asked him how already having a hostel makes me a racist. He obviously couldn’t explain it to me so he just declared one more time “You’re a big racist!”

A day or two later I was walking through the souks and stopped to look at a little bag. I picked it up, turned it over and the vendor approached me. “I make you a good price!” I told him that it was alright, I was just having a look. He went on and asked me how much I want to pay, we could haggle about it. I said it was quite alright, I was only looking and wasn’t even sure if I wanted it to begin with. Again, friendliness turned into aggression so quickly it made my head spin, and the vendor shouted at me “If you don’t want it, don’t touch it!”

It’s sad, you know. Sad and kind of stupid. Because even if I would go home later that night and decide that I did want that bag after all, I would definitely not come back and buy it from him. All the stalls in the souks basically sell the same things anyways and I understand that competition between them is brutal, but this is definitely not how you make a sale. I’ve never been annoyed by people trying to ask me to check out their shops. This is how they make their living, after all. And even though it can be exhausting to be constantly asked to look at this, or go into that store, it’s all fine by me. It’s the quick and sudden aggression that sometimes followed I have issues with.

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In Taghazout I was around when a british girl, who worked in my hostel, opened the door to welcome a group of guys who’d booked a stay there. They didn’t find the hostel right away so a local showed them the way. The girl said thank you to the local, the guys walked in and before she closed the door behind them she turned around and asked if the locals had, by any chance, seen a little dog. It was the hostel dog that had gone missing that day and everyone was worried. The local turned around and said “Fuck you, bitch!”
Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps he thought she should pay him for bringing her new customers, but since they had already booked this hostel anyways, what’s the point? If he wanted money for showing them the way, he should have said something to the guys, but it’s easier to lash out on women, right?

I also stopped asking people for the way. I knew that most of the time they’d expect money from me in return. If it’s a tour I agreed on, that’s fine. But if you only ask if you should turn left or right, and then are expected to pay over 10€ for that little piece of advice, then no, I won’t ask.
Locals would also attach themselves to us as unwanted, unasked for tour guides. Just telling them that it was unnecessary usually didn’t deter them so I took on to being super frank. I’d tell them right away that it was lovely of them to want to tell us a little bit about their city but that I have a travel guide and that I don’t have the money to pay them. They usually left even before completely finished that sentence.
I had a map on my phone and knew where to walk, and yet, people would tell me where to go, where not to go and then get frustrated and angry when I wouldn’t take their advice.

In Marrakech I was right around the corner of a palace I wanted to see when I was approached by a young Moroccan who told me that the palace was right around the corner. I said thank you, and that I know. Then he touched my arm. I quickly yanked it away and told him in no uncertain terms to not touch me. I kept walking and heard him scream behind me “Fuck you, tourists! I hate tourists! Fuck you! Fucking tourists!”

How bizarre? If you hate tourists so much, why do you care in the first place? The only explanation I have for that is that he could have wanted money from us, for pointing out the obvious, yes, but it’s not like that never happened before.

Then there’s the issue of men “owning” the sidewalk. I’ve noticed quite quickly that men will often not even try to make room for me on the sidewalks. For some reason this made me incredibly angry. I’m a feminist. And I firmly believe in the fact that I not only have the same right as men do, but I also deserve a space on the sidewalk. Especially when it’s clearly big enough for the both of us. I’ll try to make space for you if I see and feel you doing the same. Until that happens I will continue to not go out of the way. The couple of bruises on my shoulders and arms are worth this. I will not make myself small for you.

All of these things make it hard and tiring to travel through Morocco as a woman. It’s the constant vigilance, that’s exhausting. The fact that I won’t have experiences as rich as they could have been, which sadden me beyond words.

Every time I meet other female travelers it’s one of the first topics being discussed. The guys can’t really understand it.
But when you get asked how much you cost for the second time, I think you have every right to flip out. To shout. To make a scene. To tell them in no uncertain terms that this is NOT okay. That it’s derogatory and disgraceful. How can this not be the main topic of discussion?

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Let me make one more thing very clear. I have also met the nicest, friendliest and most helpful men here. I have seen fathers lovingly dote on their daughters, I’ve seen young men help elderly women down the stairs or give them their seats. I’ve been treated with kindness. I’ve been offered free tea in a restaurant, and high fives when I came back to my regular dinner spot for the 3rd time in a row. I got joked with and smiled at.
And this makes this entire situation even sadder to me. Because of the actions of some people, I often don’t even notice anymore when others are nice to me. When they warn me to not walk down this alley because it’s a dead-end. When they give me back money because I handed them too much or when they genuinely just try to show me the way and I’m immediately wary and think “How much money will he want for this?”.

But still, it’s tough. Some days are harder than others. Sometimes, the frustration level is high. Some cities are more relaxed than others, sometimes it’s better being in a group, sometimes it’s worse. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I embraced it as part of this experience, but sometimes it was almost unbearable. Sometimes I was so disgusted I could barely take it. Have I ever felt really unsafe? No. Have I been beyond annoyed to the point where I’d loved to scream and cry? Yes.

There are many possible explanations on why Moroccan men see and treat western women the way they do. We could blame it on the media, the pop music, or the poor command of the English language. I truly believe that sometimes people didn’t understand just how grave it can be if you call a young girl a “bitch” on the street. Is that an excuse though? No, I don’t think so.

I know that this post can be seen as a collection of negative examples. Of the single experience of a young girl who couldn’t deal out there in the big world. You are right, to a certain extent. These are my experiences. These are the stories that happened to me, but every single girl I’ve met along the way had stories just like mine. And yes, I am frustrated and saddened, but this trip has made me stronger in many regards. Trust me when I say that it’s not culture shock. It’s not the feelings of a scared little girl who’ve barely traveled before. It is not. I’ve been to many countries and I’ve seen people of many cultures get angry and frustrated but never have I felt this kind of aggression. Towards me and others. Never have I felt so unwelcome in a country.

Again, let me say one more time that you can, as a girl, travel to Morocco. You can walk through the souk by yourself, you can go have dinner by yourself, you can do it all. You don’t need someone with you. In fact, I urge you to. Just expect a certain level of harassment, but don’t let them get to you. Kill with kindness and you’ll emerge as a stronger, wiser, and better person in the end.

So please, travel to Morocco. The culture, the history, the architecture and the majority of the people are amazing.

Do it solo, do it as a girl. But be aware that it might be tiring.

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* pictures taken by Krystin Ross.

Ten-twentytwo in a hostelroom in Philly

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It is odd how close power and vulnerability lie together.

Even though I’m traveling alone, I’m not really traveling alone. It has occurred to me that I often use the term traveling alone the same way I used it when I was 17 years old, fresh out of high school and traveling through Europe, alone with a friend. Alone, meaning that I did not travel with my parents. I wasn’t truly alone though.

I traveled alone to Thailand, Togo, and Tanzania. Sure, I did meet people right away though. How could I not, when I was living and working with them 24/7? So again, I was traveling alone, but never truly by myself.

I pride myself on the fact that I’m doing these things. I do travel alone. I make the plans by myself. I go there, not really expecting to meet new best friends, but people with more or less the same mindset. People I’ve never talked to before. And people I’ve barely talked to since.

This year is different though. Once again I’m traveling alone, but now, sitting in this hostel in Philadelphia, truly alone for the first time in…. forever?! This has a new meaning to me.

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But the real challenge is happening right now. Right here on my bunk bed in an all-girl dormitory in the heart of Philly. Do I dare go out and sit in a restaurant on my own? Hostesses do not badger me to eat at their establishment as they did when I was walking around with another person. I’m just a random girl in a plain T-shirt and holey cotton tote bag, roaming the streets by herself.

Do I dare go and strike up a conversation with the random guy down in the hostel lobby?

Do I dare be by myself and find peace?

Do I dare say, “Screw it!” and make new friends?

I will have to step out of my comfort zone either way, so it’s win-win and lose-lose. It’s both and it’s terrifying and exhilarating. It’s empowering and making me feel vulnerable. It’s thrilling. It’s learning more about myself with every step I take, every word I say. It’s thoughtless words and middle-of-the-night facepalms. It’s my life right now. Right in this second.

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(Authors Note: This was written right where I said it was (in a hostel room in Philly at 10.22pm) but somehow got lost in the incredible amount of blog drafts that piled up over the years.
I ended up going for dinner by myself the next day. I ended up saying ‘screw it’ and got a table for one in the secret garden of a very cute little restaurant, having a lovely chat with the waitress and eating an amazing salad. Thank you, Philly for teaching me so much about myself and my capabilities.)