Dark and dusty, a sanctuary amongst the ruthless mountain beauty. The unforgiving peaks cut through the clouds and will of any who dare summit them. Drakensberg Mountain range is a cathedral of suffrage and unfathomable reward. Tears, laughs, and all in between. Embedded in this scenic hellscape is a cave, is a dark and dusty cave.
This hallowed hole offers protection from the relentless wind and bone-chilling air. It is the resting place of a weary traveler, where a boy, barely a man, makes his shelter from the harshness of the outside world. He stands there at the cave’s mouth. Looking out at the rain pounding on the rugged plateau of the mountain range. He knows it is impossible to continue with weather like this. He drops his bag, admiring the hole in the mountains he resides in. The black rock walls provide a feeling of stability yet roughness and pain. He enjoys it. He runs his hands across their smooth surface smiling.
The young man opens his bag and pulls out a pot and stove, preparing his meal for the day. He starts a fire with a small collection of sticks and cotton balls. He stares into the flames. He closes his eyes, taking a deep breath, then another, and another. He opens his eyes to reveal a melancholy face, longing. However, he looks back to the rocks again, and his smile returns once more.
“What are you cooking?” says the older man.
“Rice and beans.”
“Yeah, mine too.”
“Why are you in these mountains?”
“I’m summiting the peak. I’m summiting the tallest there is.”
“Because it’s hard. I want to do what is hard.”
The older man looks at him from across the flames. The lack of light discloses his face, but his eyes are ablaze. His eyes are the same as those that stare back at him, except they’re older, worn down, and tired.
“You think you will make it?” Asks the older man.
“I’m not sure, doubt has crept its way into my mind, and it’s spreading.”
“Don’t doubt yourself. Anyone can do it. Anyone can make it.”
“But why do it? Do you think you’ll get something out of it?”
“Do you think you’ll be saved?”
“You won’t.” Says the older man as he puts out his cigarette.
“Nothing is final. The crater you’re looking to fill, it’s not a crater at all. It’s a river. A river that ebbs and flows through time, never leaving you. Sometimes it’s calm. Other times it’s chaos, but it flows. That is all.
An elderly man sits on a rock against the cave wall, smiling at the older man. The young one is gone.
“What?” Asks the older man.
“You think you have it all figured out, right?”
“Not at all, kid, not at all.” The elderly man says with a smile.
“So what’s next for me then, where is the garden, where is the river leading to?”
“I don’t know.” He continues to smile.
“How could you not know?”
“We never do, there never was a destination son, just another river leading to another, and on and on.”
“So why go forward?”
“The view?” The older man barks.
“The view is one special sight, worth a thousand lifetimes. Those people, those moments, cherish and love them, it’s all that comes with you.”
The old man is alone. He takes one last bite of rice and beans before packing his bag and throwing it over his worn-out shoulders. He smiles again, walking to the mouth of the dark and dusty cave. He looks out at the sprawling mountains and rolling hills. The rain finally subsides, and the sun begins to peek through the clouds.
I’m searching for something stable, and I’ve found it. The surf is my crutch in these times of change. The tides of Gqeberha are different than those of the Pacific West Coast. South Africa’s Indian Ocean is a new beast, untamed in the landscape of my mind. The waves behave in a different process, but not an unfamiliar one of the home waves I once knew. The swell, the producer of the wave sets, and its energy is constant. Driving forward over and over again. Unlike San Diego, there seem to always be waves, granting me the freedom to leave behind life’s futility on shore and enter a pure state of mind. However, the wind dictates my quality of surf. It is my greatest enigma. One day it is onshore, blowing from sea to land, creating a chaotic mush leaving frothing surfers only with a bit of windburn and a lot of disappointment. However, as it seems, at amoment’s notice, fortunes change. The winds within the same day will flip 180 degrees. As a result, I am treated to vacant perfect waves. Well, the wind changes, but one thing remains constant: water’s unrelenting power.
The learning curve of the ocean is grand. At home, I am a novice, but here I am in infancy within my knowledge of the water. I know nothing about anything, but I have learned before and will learn again here. See, well, these waves are new; they are not unfamiliar. I know the feeling of riding down the line. I know what it’s like to wake up with friends at 6 am and get there before sunrise. However, here, in this place, it is different. My life treads a new direction, one I’ve never experienced before. In South Africa, every person, place, and thing is new. Every fear is 10-fold. Every shortcoming is exacerbated by uprooting my life and the subsequent loss of all comfortability. However, every moment pushes me out of my tight box, farther and farther. Until I feel I cannot go another inch. But the waves and my board stay by my side through it all. Acting as my tether to the ground as the storm of culture shock, pressure, and social anxiety whirls around me.
The ocean, through it all, calls me. When I am lost, it, no matter the upheaval in my life, shows me the way. My identity is mysterious at this moment. Like a mouse trapped in a desert, finding shade and protecting in the company of an oasis, that oasis, my life in San Diego, has dried up. I have nowhere to hide from the scorching sun. It looms on the horizon. My identity longs to hide, but I must face reality’s piercing rays. My life is gone. Nothing is normal except the peace I find in every breaking wave. The ocean and its graces have delivered me what was lost but not forsaken. Friends and a circle of positive individuals whose lights burn far greater than mine. They are new, yes, but not unfamiliar. They are foreign, but here in this new land, we are a part of the same nation. We are people. We are human beings bound by the same love of life. As a result, the storm has no power here. This land of South Africa has quickly become my home, and I am embedded within it.
The ocean, it calls me once again. We go at it together with my friends and companions on this new journey, reminding me home is not a place. It is a feeling, and when in that water surrounded by new friends, I feel at home.
Art by Milo Stibor, the homie*, follow him @milo.stibor13
I have been very desperate lately. I reach for a string to keep myself out of the all-consuming abyss of worry. The strings wear thin. I think soon I could fall in. Going overseas for an entire year is not a decision. It is a calling. Maybe even beyond a calling, more like a road from which I am irreversibly connected. The road leads into a murky cloud of uncertainty, a frightening but endlessly fascinating darkness. Now that I am departing in less than two weeks, I am closer to that dark cloud. I can begin to hear sounds radiating from its contents, laughs, cries, and everywhere in between. My consciousness fills in the lines in these waning hours in the States. I project memories onto that cloud, fantasizing about future moments for myself. However, my imagination and life experience are weak. I feel the gaps in my understanding and don’t know what will happen. Those gaps scare me as much as they excite. Gaps make room for questions. What will come of me when I am gone? Who will I lose in my life when I am overseas? Will I ever be the same again? Questions fly around my head like flies trapped in a jar, buzzing with incredible speed only to meet a glass wall. My thoughts, they too repeat this motion, hurling towards answers where there are none. The subsequent anxiety from the unknowables. It is strong. It is painful. But I am alright, remember, just breathe.
The cloud of uncertainty lies across the ocean in South Africa, specifically the port city of Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth). I know nothing of this place. I have never crossed an ocean for travel in my life. I am not familiar with other cultures on a personal level. I am not well versed in the schools of thought outside of America. In many ways, I am just another copy of the “Dumb American” archetype. However, where I see the difference within myself is my openness. I love people. They are fascinating and beautiful in their uniqueness. The discrepancy in people is what makes humanity the grotesque yet ethereal beauty that it is. I want to pursue this disparity, and I will go as far out on a limb as I must to get a piece of it. So I set my sights on South Africa, a place with a history and culture that mimics the enigma of us. From apartheid to the gracious heat of Nelson Mandela and all that is between. I want to come as an outsider and witness a life lived absent of the west’s supreme influence. I will record this journey here on this platform and within these words. To my loved ones, thank you for what you have done for me. To my friends, you inspire me every day to be better than I was the day before. God bless you all for putting me in the position to make a leap forward in the story of my life.
Something Small Right Now
Winds move across the desert, shifting the barren landscape side to side
Mountains rise tall, their peaks connecting this world to that of the divine
Rivers flow with crystal clear water, running and rumbling day and night, all the time
The ocean, vast and unmatched, housing the essence of life from where we came and from which we shall go, forever in a bind
There always was, and there will always be
For me, I am light amongst the endless cosmos, one single piece in the grand landscape of space and time
Yet I am changing
I am not going to be the same
I yearn for something, some assistance in this time of upheaval in my life, but there is none
I return to my breathe, I know my decision is the right one
I turn my head, looking up at the stairs, I am at peace
What I felt before I wrote: A different Age by Current Joys
How was your study abroad experience? My friends and relatives have continuously asked me this after my 4-month expedition to Morocco to study Arabic and migration in the region. This is a loaded question, and I have, in many instances, struggled to answer it precisely. My study abroad experience was filled with every emotion under the sun: extreme joy, shock, frustration, anger, gratitude, anxiety, and love, to name a few.
For some time, I was upset that my experience was not the all-consuming happiness and joy I had always heard when people referred to their study abroad semesters. But, what I had heard, and what many hear, is unrealistic. If an international experience is going to be truly valuable, you must be open to the positive and negative experiences you may have in order to benefit fully from the lessons it can teach you.
When I traveled to Morocco in February of 2022, I was filled with anticipation, anxiety, and excitement for what my next four months would entail, all the people I would meet, and the lessons I would learn.
I started my journey in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. On my very first night there, I learned an important characteristic of Moroccans, one that I would continuously be reminded of throughout my time in Morocco. I was first introduced to the genuine, incomparable kindness of Moroccans when I was walking down the street and locked eyes with a Moroccan who shouted from a distance, “You speak English, you are welcome in Morocco!” This interaction was preceded by the hotel front desk worker giving out flowers to my friends and me on our first night after we casually commented they were pretty. I was unaware that these interactions would become common in my daily life while living in Rabat.
A huge component of my program in Morocco was the homestay aspect. I was most excited about this part of the program and had imagined how I would meet my new family for months before arriving. However, the nerves and all of the “what if’s” circling in my head took precedence over the excitement. What if they didn’t like me? What if we couldn’t communicate because of the language barrier? What if I felt uncomfortable with them?
I had three sisters, a mother, and a father in my new family. My sisters were all around my age, but only one spoke English fluently. My mother spoke some French and Spanish, and everyone else only spoke Arabic. I remember feeling angry at my academic directors for putting me with a family where only one person spoke English.
What would I do if my sister, who knew English, wasn’t there? How would I communicate with the rest of my family?
I thought it would be impossible. But, it taught me an important lesson, one that I was not aware I would learn at all. Communication is so much more than language. It is touch, it is eye contact, it is a feeling you get when being around someone. Although I learned a good deal of Arabic, and it aided me in communicating with my family, I primarily communicated with them non-verbally.
This was a lesson I probably would not have learned if I had studied in Europe. In Morocco, I was literally forced to learn this lesson in order to communicate with the people I had grown closest with, my host family.
I remember being able to look at my host sister and know exactly what she was thinking. She would constantly use physical touch to communicate her love to me, and I would do the same in return. There was something extremely special about these relationships with my family, something I can not even find the words for, but am eternally grateful I had the opportunity to experience.
Another lesson I learned, and one of utmost importance in getting the most out of my homestay experience, was the value of vulnerability. I learned that there is an unwavering vulnerability a person must have when immersing themselves wholeheartedly into a new culture completely unlike their own. In order to truly get to know a different way of life and the people in it, you have to let go of everything you think you know about yourself and the world and open up. It sounds a bit cliche, but it is so important if you really want to get the most out of your experience. Try EVERYTHING, even the food that makes your spine curl, ask questions, even if you think they are stupid, and most importantly, be present.
There were many aspects of my overall experience in Morocco that did not go according to plan, but meeting my host family and the relationship I had with them exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds.
It was in Rabat where I became aware, first-hand, of the difference in the treatment of women in Morocco compared to the United States. I had been told that catcalling would be something I would have to become accustomed to, and that it was just a part of life where I was choosing to study abroad. However, I was not fully prepared for what I would experience.
When I left my home in Rabat, I left the shelter and protection that came along with it. In the street, I became an object, an object that was constantly being watched and objectified by most men I walked by. Although I was never physically threatened, I was slowly beaten down by words and began to believe, a little more each day, that my worth was determined by the comments men shouted at me.
It sounds backward, right? I consider myself confident with who I am and at peace with my inner self. But somehow, after hearing comments about my appearance shouted by every man and their son on the street, I slowly began to believe that I was, like they had been saying, just my appearance.
Going to Morocco, I never really believed this was something I would have to deal with. I expected my journey to be largely positive and uplifting, filled with memories of joy and excitement rather than exhaustion and frustration. But, because of this, I dealt with extreme anxiety that I had never experienced before.
The true lesson I learned from this had nothing to do with me or how I dealt with this anxiety but everything to do with Morocco itself and the gender norms present in this country.
The feeling of anxiety I got when walking down the street, being sexualized by men who I had never met before, was a norm in this country. My host sisters had grown up not knowing anything different. I speak from a privileged, white perspective and know that this street harassment is multiplied tenfold in severity for Black women. Black women in Morocco are subject to harsh harassment. They are often assumed to be sex workers just because of the color of their skin. As a white woman in Morocco, I did not experience anywhere near the same amount of harassment. Nevertheless, it is the norm.
How could something so culturally entrenched in a society ever be changed? Would my host sisters grow up and have daughters who were subject to this same kind of treatment?
I had learned about gender norms in multiple classes before coming to Morocco. I learned about countries signing agreements like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (which Morocco signed) and, in theory, how to diffuse more democratic, gender-equal norms in countries that are currently patriarchal. But what does this actually mean in the context of my experience in Morocco?
Although I still don’t have an answer to this question, it taught me an important lesson that I would learn in the context of studying migration as well. I, along with other Westerners, can not go into a country like Morocco and simply change these norms. Although many Westerners and western organizations may like to think they can, this is not how it works. The ability to change norms is done by community building, organizing, and true change coming from the people themselves. I learned that Westerners hold no secret ideas, weapons, or skill sets that make them any more valuable in helping women gain rights around the world. This experience gave me a glimpse of my positionality as a white, educated woman from the United States criticizing the treatment of women in a country that is not my own.
Where does that leave me? I struggled for a bit with how to process this new lesson I had learned, one that at first caused me massive anxiety. But, it helped me gain a new perspective, reshaped my views on gender norms, and gave me a new appreciation for my ability to speak up for myself in the United States. It has given me a newfound motivation to use my voice in the US whenever necessary, as my host sisters, in many situations, aren’t able to use theirs when faced with harassment and catcalling.
This lesson has given me a perspective on global human rights issues, one that, before I came to Morocco, was privileged and in essence, perpetuating white saviorism ideals. I would soon realize I was perpetuating these ideals in my rhetoric when studying migration too.
After 6 weeks spent in Rabat, I had the opportunity to do research or to partake in an internship of my choice, using the vast connections and resources SIT (my program provider) had throughout the country. I chose to intern at Diocese Delegation Migration (DDM), an organization funded in part by the Catholic Church that provides basic services to migrants, specifically Sub-Saharan migrants. The organization is located in the strategic position of Tangier. Tangier, right across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, is a large crossing point for migrants, as you can reach Spain on a speedboat from the Tangier shoreline in around 12 minutes. This is an extremely dangerous route but, in many cases, the only option that migrants have in hopes of securing a safe, meaningful life for themselves and their families.
I had the opportunity to work with Moroccan staff at DDM, as well as staff members from all over Sub-Saharan Africa. I taught English to the staff after the workday was over and assisted staff in providing services to migrants during the day.
I learned more about the world and migration at DDM in four and a half weeks than I had learned in my entire college career.
At DDM, I became aware of how Moroccans view themselves in terms of their positionality on the continent of Africa and the world. They view themselves not as Africans but as Arabs. They dissociate entirely from the continent of Africa and consider it a foreign land. My host sister once asked me if I had thought all Moroccans would be Black, like the rest of Africa. And Moroccan guest lecturers, professors, and others I conversed with constantly referred to migrants as “Africans” coming to Morocco.
I was deeply confused by this at first. How could you dissociate so much from your own continent? But then I realized that this is not dissimilar to the way Americans see their Southern counterparts. Latin Americans are not treated with a sense of comradery and community by citizens of the U.S. because we are all living on the same continent, but instead are villainized, dehumanized, and made out to be different from us, “Americans.”
This sentiment is deeply ingrained in the rhetoric surrounding migration in Morocco and informs the way migrants from all over Sub-Saharan Africa are treated.
Although I was not able to speak with many migrants coming in for services at DDM because of the language barrier (most of them spoke French along with their native language), I was able to converse with Nigerian migrants, who spoke English, and some Cameroonian migrants as well.
These migrants would often tell me about the discrimination they faced as a Black person in Morocco, and some went as far as to say that they wished they could return to their home country because it was too difficult for them to handle.
Specifically, one man from Nigeria made a lasting impression on me. I accompanied him and his son to a doctor’s appointment, and he opened up to me about his life and how horribly he had been treated in Morocco. He experienced this treatment not only as a Black man but also as an English speaker who does not know any French or Arabic (almost all Moroccans speak French, as it is a former French colony).
I was used to English being a colonizer’s language and a language of power. But, in this context, it was just the opposite. English excluded him from fully integrating with other migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and made it difficult for him to receive services in Morocco.
He told me that he had not had a conversation with anyone (outside of his family) in 4 weeks before speaking to me because no one around him spoke English.
He told me about the shame he feels, waking up every morning and begging on the street for money. This is his only source of income to provide for his family. But, he said, it was worth it to be in Morocco because, “If I make it to Europe someday, I have fulfilled my job for my children.”
This sentiment was shared among a large number of migrants I interacted with. After going through unimaginable hardships in their home countries, and making the journey to Morocco, the promise of what Europe can provide for them is their only hope.
I learned so much from speaking with migrants at DDM and am so thankful for the relationships I was able to build with them.
At DDM, a majority of the staff are migrants themselves. There were staff members from the Congo, Senegal, Madagascar, and Cameroon. While teaching the staff members English, I grew extremely close with them and was able to learn about their background and their cultures as if I was visiting these countries myself. I was able to attend a Senegalese religious celebration and eat Senegalese food, and my coworker from the Congo showed me videos of traditional Congolese dancing.
These conversations and relationships opened up my eyes to the diversity of cultures there are on the African continent.
Overall, the most important and impactful lesson I learned in Morocco was about my privilege and positionality as a white American studying migration.
I grew to understand the power of the American passport. I had no idea the privilege I held with just a tiny, navy-blue booklet. Americans virtually have the power and discretion to travel anywhere in the world, whenever they please, for however long they wish to.
This is something that can not be said about most other countries. My DDM coworker from Sub-Saharan Africa has been living in Morocco for over 15 years. He has never left the African continent and has been applying for a tourist visa to visit Spain (just 9 miles away) for years. He told me he worries he will die never having left the continent of Africa. He dreams of being able to travel around the world and experience new cultures but is currently unable to do so just because of the country he was born in.
He is by no means less than me or any other American with the power to travel freely. But, in the eyes of the law, he most certainly is.
How can this be, and how had I gone my entire life, even while studying international human rights, without considering this?
What gave me the right to intern at DDM without knowing the primary language of communication (French) and never having to know or confront any of the struggles these people are facing every day? I slowly realized I will never be in the same position as the people requesting services at DDM because of the immense privilege I hold. Even learning about all these different cultures and having the opportunity to write about them, is a privileged act in and of itself.
Before I studied in Morocco, my plan within my program was to come back to the US and tell the stories of the migrants who are often silenced and victimized. But what I realized is: that these are not my stories to tell.
Stories of migration should be told by those experiencing and living it. My role is not to tell the stories but to help amplify migrants’ voices and implement change in whatever way I can, using the direction of migrants themselves.
Before my experience at DDM, my aspirations in the context of migration were rooted in white saviorism and American exceptionalism. I thought, somehow, I was in a superior position to these migrants and could help them without ever going through, firsthand, the daily struggles they face. As a Westerner, I thought I held special power to go to Morocco and “help.”
I was taught these messages through the media I have been consuming since I was a child. I learned that Americans and the western world are more developed and, therefore, better equipped to help those in need, which clearly is not factual.
Being in Morocco taught me that I was perpetuating these beliefs in my thought processes and in my aspirations to “help.”
Morocco taught me a lot of things, but this was by far the most important lesson I learned. A lesson that will guide me and impact all avenues of my life going forward.
(Thank you to everyone at DDM, the SIT staff, and the SDSU Global education office for giving me the opportunity to have such a transformational experience. I will carry the memories and lessons I learned in Morocco with me for the rest of my life.)
When am I going to be free? What is freedom anyway? When am I, Jared Rowlen, going to be free from everything that holds me down, holds me back, holds me from doing the things I should be doing? I’m twenty now. Old enough to call myself a man, old enough for others to look and see the flesh and bones of a young adult. But when I look inside, what do I see but a young, ignorant fool hoping to achieve the impossible. I want to be free from this ignorance. I want to feel like I am the man I hope to be. The confines of my self-doubt and the intense external pressure of family, friends, and life often seem too great to surmount. But deep down, I know, somehow, I can and will be free.
In five days, I will depart for the country of South Africa for a year. A place that I know nothing about. However, I know that it is a place where the comforts of western society crumble. In 5 days, all this will be gone. All of this will be gone. My entire life will fade into the backdrop as my plane takes off from the ground. Family, friends, and the daily comforts of the west will slide away as I take on a new challenging adventure thousands of miles away. Sadness and a bittersweet taste have lingered on my tongue for some time now, as every time I see a face or location that has meant anything to me, it ends in goodbye. But today, that is not how I feel. Today something else has taken the melancholy place in my heart.
This morning as I said goodbye to my brother at the airport, I drove home thinking about the time we spent together. The memories of youth flooded my memory as tears began to swell in my eyes. Like a coward, I ran from these emotions. I grabbed my phone and looked for solace in music, a habit I implore often. However, when I hit shuffle, a song, Free Bird, by Lynyrd Skynyrd came on. As the song played, all the sadness inside swelled, but then quickly, to my surprise, faded away. Replacing it was a feeling of love. I remembered listening to this song with my mother, as she told me it was this very song that was played at her high school graduation. Her words stuck with me and gave new meaning to the song. For the longest time, this song resembled a finish line, the anthem of when I would finally break through the clouds and chains that confine me. The moment when I leave the chaos to enter the much greener, grassier plains of self-worth and success. But that changed.
I suppose my mother felt that same feeling I did when she heard the song all those years ago. Finally, she was the free bird and was posed to score high and leave all the problems and inadequacies on the ground below her. But, as life has it, it has a way of grounding you. Divorce, tight money, and the daily stresses of life can clip even the strongest bird’s wings. However, against the odds, she faced down the obstacles that plagued her and charged forward, moving to provide a life for her two sons so they too could have the opportunity to fly. But in doing so, she lifted off the ground again, catching a second wind off the backs of her two creations. She flies again.
Now she sees me off, that in five days, I too will be gone. It brings me back, back to where I began in this piece. I am looking for salvation in Africa but will not find it there forever. Nothing is good forever, but what I do hope to find is something pure, something that transcends my inadequacies in manhood, abilities, and career. I look forward to the opportunity to love. To meet different people but connect solely on the one thing that makes any person unite: love for one another. In love, one can soar forever. They can fly high above the challenges of life. Love for your fellow man or woman is the only true finish line. Love and human connection, when I fail at it, I am at my lowest. However, when I succeed at it, I truly become that free bird. Like my mother, who loved me so dearly, she put her life on hold to see me fly. Now I head to Africa to test my wings, but with my mother’s grace in my heart, I know I will find the connection I desperately desire. Thank you for reading, may love tread in your heart every day.
Oregon countryside, near my father’s farm, where the desire for something different was born
My soul is so grateful for my time spent in Egypt. I’ve transformed in the hands of my ancestors… This year my sankofa manifested and my perspective grew in reflection of that. One of the most important things I learned about myself and the world this year is that I have so much to learn.
It is my personal belief that our highest calling as spiritual beings of this world is love.
This is true no matter your religion, political opinion or past transgressions in life. The simplest summary of my spirituality is that we are called to love ourselves deeply, others as a reflection of ourselves and the world as an even greater and clearer reflection of us all. And that love will always find its way back to us.
I gingerly positioned my spices and utensils around the kitchen counter, like an underpaid Food Network intern. I hoped my effort could compensate my friend Ophelia for my clear lack of cooking skills. She didn’t seem to mind. We laughed at my constant checking of the recipe and my week-long commitment to vegetarianism.
My life story is filled to the brim with pivotal points. Many losses, gains, transfers and complete rebirths within my path have made me feel more than prepared for any change that will inevitably come. And yet the entire week before touring the Cape Coast slave castle, I felt an utter hopelessness in finding any way to prepare myself. How do you look your people’s enslavement in the face, and keep your own straight?