Don’t forget the peanut butter

Brooke Lake
Brooke Lake

My journey to the Middle East began with a jar of peanut butter. Creamy and smooth, delicious American-made peanut butter. It was a last minute purchase before I zipped up my trusty and well-traveled fifty pound backpacking bag and headed to Denver International Airport.

Since I have a bad case of wanderlust and my friends know me as the girl who is obsessed with traveling, trying new things and experiencing different cultures, I am frequently asked what is in my suitcase.

Watching a tenured traveler pack their suitcase is similar to sitting in on an organic chemistry lab — it is a meticulous and intentional process that could have devastating repercussions if something is forgotten, accidentally added or organized sporadically.

Allow me to break down my science for you.

Maybe this sounds silly to some, but I will intentionally leave items at home that I feel a strong affinity towards packing in order to force myself to not only learn how to travel lighter, but more significantly, to leave room for the kindness of others. I create space in my packed suitcase as well as in my heart for complete strangers to fill. Not in the sense that I want to mooch, but rather allow myself to have moments of vulnerability where I am in need, whether emotionally, physically or spiritually.

Think of it as like a trust fall; you do not necessarily need to perform the fall, but you deliberately create a space large enough to rattle your sense of comfort and count on the strengths of others to catch you.

Dearest memories of this symbolic ‘trust fall’ packing occurred when I traveled to my favorite yet tiny town of Tounfite, Morocco located in the Atlas Mountains. The long drawn out journey from my place of residency at the time in Meknes to the small village meant that I could only carry an extremely limited amount of luggage with me. I ditched almost all of my toiletries, jacket, extra unmentionables and beauty products and instead carried with me a single outfit and dedicated the rest of my bag space for gifts.

While staying in the beautiful yet antiquated family home of a friend located on top of a rocky dirt hill just past the quaint town mosque, my bags were not the only space filled with unwarranted gifts by the end.

I was given a cozy sweater without words ever being exchanged when the sun fell and the cold mountain air blew through the village.

I was given the precious hands of four and six-year-old Badr and Ashruf to walk with me down the hill to obtain snacks.

Henna decorated my hands and feet from the careful fingers of a twelve-year-old Berber girl who had never left the village. I felt exquisitely ravishing despite greasy hair, absolutely no makeup and covered in sweat while a fleet of Berber women of all ages sat till the wee hours of the morning with me to wait for my henna to dry. All the while we were laughing hysterically and sharing stories in Arabic and Tamazight.

Tagine, a quintessential Moroccan dish served in a clay cone pot, filled my empty belly after fasting for thirteen hours because of Ramadan. A woman who insisted I call her okhti (‘my sister’ in Arabic) instead of her name, slaved over her scalding hot stove in the summer heat while juggling two wild children, created this special meal for me joyfully and without hesitation.

This experience was terrifically life-changing for me because I allowed space for it all to occur. By not filling my bags with items meant just for myself, and convincing myself that maybe the lovely town of Tounfite, a town so incredibly antithetical to one I grew up in, could add to my understanding of what is important and needed in life.

It meant putting myself in situations far from my comfort zone and understanding, and sometimes I had to be harmlessly embarrassed due to my lack of knowledge in terms of language or custom.

Just as importantly, I made sure to reach out with pieces of my heart, soul and home (although I feel the scale tipped overwhelmingly in my favor).

As I begin my new life in Amman, Jordan this year I have an armful of goodies from the United States, an open mind for learning and experiencing and, of course, my peanut butter to give me a lip-smacking and comforting reminder of where I call home.

Brooke Lake is an International and Arabic studies major. She studied abroad in Meknes, Morocco and currently studies abroad in Jordan. She can be reached at letters@collegian.com