One of my closest friends and I are huddled together, shaking, trying not to vomit from the nerves. Yes, we’re both grown men, and there are girls our age present. Why are we doing this? Because we’re in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, stuck in a snowstorm on a paved road with no guardrails, sliding around turns in a van without snow tires 1000 feet above the valley below.
We didn’t sign up for this. Sure, we booked the Sahara-Atlas Mountains tour that put us in this situation, but it was supposed to be just leisurely camel riding and a calm drive through the mountains, not a scene from the B-reel of Cliffhanger.
Every single second I’m scared for my life, and particularly when the van lurches towards the edge of the road on some of the dicier turns. I keep thinking, “Well you’ve really done it this time, jackass, performed just royally…”
By the end of the night, I’ll thank the powers that be I bought this tour ticket.
The reason is that when, half an hour later, the van gets stuck, and I mean stuck for good this time, we’re forced to get out and walk, in freezing temperatures and falling snow to the next town to see if we can seek shelter for the night.
The next town turns out to be three miles away, but before we get there, we come upon a sheepherder who has a house on one of the peaks above the road. He immediately invites all of us in (there are nine of us, including our Moroccan guides) and serves us this the dinner he had waiting. “I saw your van go by and I thought you might get stuck, so we got dinner ready in advance,” he tells us.
The shepherd then gives us each a handwoven blanket, a large room to ourselves, hot water to wash our hands and bids us a good evening. In the morning we awake to coffee and breakfast, at which point he refuses to accept any sort of compensation, telling us that Islam teaches him that hospitality is an ethical requirement, not a choice.
This is not the first, and certainly not the last, time I’ve been in laughably miserable situations while abroad. From getting dropped off at the wrong village in the middle of a field during a bitterly cold Ukrainian winter, to following bandits in a Land Cruiser in rural Tanzania, I’ve time and time again found myself in situations that test my very grip on sanity.
And I will put myself in these situations as many times as life will allow.
Sometimes the Worst that Can Happen is the Best that Can Happen
The reason for my blatant disregard for my own comfort is that I have learned that by putting myself in trying, desperate situations, I accelerate my personal growth exponentially. Traveling with nothing but what you can carry on your back forces you into scenarios where you must get by on your wits alone, and causes you to think in new, creative ways you had never considered.
Consider, for example, my Slavic tundra predicament: I’m standing on the side of the road, I’ve only been living in Ukraine for four months, and my Ukrainian skills are less than stellar. I only know four or five people I feel comfortable calling on the phone, much less is willing to pick me up at midnight. But what choice do I have?
The next bus could be at 7 AM, it’s absolutely freezing. So what do I do? I think for a second, muster the courage, call my host family and fight and stretch my way through a sentence that will explain my problem. And voila! Without a second thought, my host father is by in half an hour to cart my sorry ass back to civilization.
This may sound mortifying, but as a result, my host father gets to brag about saving the silly American, and I find out I have someone I can trust in a pinch. And this is almost always how it works; you realize surprising things about both yourself and the world around you when you open yourself up to calamities you’re forced to solve.
Confront Your Worst-Case Scenario
If you’re contemplating backpacking or you’re just out of practice, take a second to consider your worst possible scenario. Maybe you feel you wouldn’t be able to communicate in a foreign language, or you’re not sure how you’d find housing, or you can’t fathom dealing with foreign foods and stomach issues.
Now consider what you’re doing instead of confronting the unknown because it scares you. Are you working a cubicle 9-5? Do you spend over an hour every day commuting? Are you working a crummy summer job bagging groceries between years of college? Are you really content to make the safe choice and forgo the daunting but likely spectacular?
And if it’s concern about your career or other commitments, recognize that backpacking will give you resilience, a steely resolve to make seemingly impossible situations work that will radiate to those around you. Employers will admire both your choice and the resourcefulness you exhibit, and likely wonder why they never did the same.
It’s time to buy that plane ticket and find your Moroccan shepherd. You’ll return with much more than just your backpack.