Nomadic adventures and cultural foibles


I am  nearing the end of my exchange, but before I say goodbye I am trying to squeeze every last bit of strange, amazing and cultural experiences out that I can! On this week’s roster:

  • Morocco—-
  • Is Zwarte Piet  Racism?
  • Economics of traveling abroad
  • Oliebollen


Every once in a while you get to settle debts with yourself, pay yourself the opportunity for something you dared yourself to do. For a long time I have wanted to travel to Morocco and traverse the dunes of the Sahara. For this trip that I had to save and plan carefully—especially as a woman traveling alone. For those interested, I’ve attached a few tips for women below this section.

The best part of my journey in Morocco was traveling to the Sahara, Erg Chebbi where I was lead by a nomad into the desert to sleep under the stars. I will admit, it was a strange and vulnerable sensation to walk into the desert, without any of my belongings and without knowing where I was going. However, about 5 minutes after climbing onto the camel I was laughing with joy and total exhilaration.

My favourite moment was resting with the nomad, “Bassu”, watching the sunset over the dunes while speaking in French. He was telling me a little bit about his life and in turn I shared some of mine. I was trying to explain to him how I have travelled a lot, often looking for my roots or a sense of home. And he stopped me and said, “Home? What do you mean?”

So I continued to explain saying that home is a sense of place. And he said, “Like a house?” I tried once more to say a place that you feel like you belong. And he said, “Like a room?”

I realized I was trying to explain the concept of home to a nomad and was failing miserably, which was actually very appropriate. It also made me realize what a lark my quixotic notion of being a nomad was because searching for roots or a sense of place is very un-nomadic, a nomad doesn’t even understand the concept of home!

In the morning I woke up to watch the sunrise over the desert— one of the most quiet and spectacular experiences I have ever had in my life. I have trouble putting into words because it was something so out of the realm of my everyday experiences that it didn’t feel like life at it, it felt like the secret to living well. That is to say, that leaving what you know behind, even for a day, can help you re-connect with something as ordinary as a sunrise.

Gender specifics for Morocco:

I had a guide while I was in Morocco. Typically I don’t do this because I like to travel alone, but the things I wanted to see could not be reached by bus. In the end this was a gift because my guide and I extensively discussed issues like gender roles, LGBTQ issues and safety in Morocco. Before coming here I had heard that Morocco has a reputation of being aggressive in their pursuit of woman. From an outsiders perspective one might think that this could be because of our Western style of clothing might be more revealing or the fact that our hair is no covered. But my guide spoke about it in a totally different way. He said that when he works with people from other cultures and has a very difficult time discerning what are signals or messages from western women.

For instance, he was working with a mother and daughter who were comparatively close in age and at the end of the trip they both gave him their email addresses. He was completely dumbstruck about who to contact or the conflict it would create if he contacted one before the other. For him the exchange of an email was a message, but to receive it from both a mother or daughter, or two girls who are friends was very confusing. Another example was that the last Sex in the City movie was filmed in Morocco and a few women mentioned it to him. He said, “Why did they tell me this? What were they trying to say by bringing up these words?” These are things we may consider quite innocent, giving an email address to keep in touch, or mentioning a movie title with explicit words, but they could have a much larger signification than we would intend to imply.


Here are a few tips for women thinking about traveling to Morocco:

  • Avoid clothing that could be considered tight and revealing
  • Wear a ring on your wedding finger if you want to avoid some attention from men (but if you wear a ring and flirt or pursue something with a man, remember that it can create false impressions of western women’s’ ‘values’)
  • Avoid speaking about things that may be considered personal (although family can be considered a safe subject)
  • Giving your email address or phone number to someone can be considered sending a romantic message
  • Referring to anatomy or sex is considered a signal


Is Zwarte Piet is Racism?

I’m going to level with you—this is going to be a bit of a controversial post. It would be easier to avoid this issue then to address it, but part of this blog is to unveil a variety aspects cultural experiences. As a precursor, let me say that many traditions exist that we do not question, have a troublesome past, or at the very least are so disconnected from the stories that originated them that they have taken on a life of their own. I mean, the easter bunny, I have no way to explain that.

Sooooo… the Dutch celebrate Sinterklass and if you are like me, you may know this, but don’t know the details. Here are the details:

Sinterklaas comes on a boat to the Netherlands with Zwarte Piet who is a ‘servant’ that he freed, Zwarte Piet was so thankful for this freedom that he stuck around to help Sinterklaas. Sinterklass looks like Santa Claus and Zwarte Piet is of moorish decent, but the more politically correct say that his face is black from the soot of the chimneys. If you think Sinterklaas is a jolly guy, think again. If you did not behave during the year not only do you not get presents, but he throws you in a burlap bag and takes you away with him to Spain. (Just as a sidenote, I feel like Sinterklaas picked a waaaaay better place to spend his vacation. North pole? Man, give me a beach and sangria any day. Sinterklass 1, Santa 0, but this is just about the only point I will award Sinterklaas)

This is my friend Selena who was greeted by a troop of Zwarte Piets.

But, in terms of Sinterklaas, what is troublesome is obviously this Zwarte Piet character. A few things counting against his political correctness: he is a former slave, still behaves like a slave to Sinterklaas and many of the advertisements or manifestations of Zwarte Piet today include people dressing up as him using black make-up on their faces. For these reasons, I suspect, there is graffiti around town stating that Zwarte Piet is racism.

 I asked some of the (caucasian) Dutch locals about all this Sinterklaas business and interestingly enough, the general response was, “It isn’t racism, it is just tradition.” My friend Lief (a Canadian I met here) had one of the best responses to this. He said, “You don’t get to decide.”


I will say that one year Zwarte Piet was turned into ‘rainbow coloured Piet,’ which was meant to address some of the aforementioned concerns. The people I have asked haven’t really explain to me why this amendment didn’t persist, but hopefully the change itself represents a start in questioning traditions that may seem benign, but could be harmful. This is a bit of reflection we could all probably do in our cultural frameworks.


Economics of traveling abroad

Want to know what the secret is to traveling cheaply? I’d love to say it is one website, or one trick, but that would be a lie. In actuality, the secret to traveling cheaply is pretty predictable— take time to research, be patient with things that will are less convenient. But since that isn’t very helpful,  here are some website and the pros and cons of trying to skimp on the top three things that eat your budget: transportation, accommodation and food.


Transportation: For flights to from Canada to your exchange location you can use skycanner or hipmunk to compare prices. To travel within Europe you want to look into cheaper airlines like Ryanair, Easyjet and Wizzair. These are super cheap, but the cons are that these small airlines may not be close to the city centre, may charge extra for checking in luggage and do not offer food in the price of the ticket. As a result, when you calculate your train ticket, travel times and food costs, it may be worth it to go with a more expensive airline since it could come out in the wash.


Accommodation: Hotels are too expensive and hostels can be unsafe or unpleasant.

Here’s an option– airbnb: this is a website that allows people with room in their homes to rent them out. It’s cool because you get to feel like a local, survey more options of price and locations.


Couchsurfing: You may have heard of it, you stay on people’s couches or guest rooms for free. It is free, but it is not a hotel, there are social obligations involved, which could be great or not so great. Sometimes I have felt like I made a new friend and they showed me a part of the city I would never have expected to see. Other times I have felt that I was not connecting with the host or that the room I was staying in was not clean or comfortable. I’ve done this a few times and recommend meeting your host in a public place to suss the person out and have at least a few hostel’s addresses written down in case you feel uncomfortable.


Food: This one is easy! Buy at least 2 meals from a grocery store a day and you should be square. If you are going out to eat, check to see if there is a tip already included or any extra costs that you may not be aware of. For instance in Portugal they bring a bunch of appetizers to your table that seem for free, and unless you say no, you are being charged for them.  In Morocco they distinguish between the ‘menu’ and the ‘carte’. Typically they give foreigners the carte which just shows options of pre-fixed 3 course meals, whereas the menu lets you order things individually.

Whether it is flights that arrive late at night, accommodation that is sketchy or buying food from the cheapest food vendor that will make you sick— taking the most economic road means increased risk. So go for it, but have back-up plans and an emergency fund just in case.




I know Oliebollen sounds like a name of a cartoon dog on a foreign tv channel, but this is no pooch! This is like the ‘timbits’ bigger brother. Oliebollen are goose-egg-sized-dough-balls that are fried and dipped in icing sugar…and they are amazing. Typically, you can get them from these adorable pop up stalls that have bright lights and cotton candy coloured counters. Often they sell Oliebollen, waffles and other sweet things that make you want to smack your lips. They are the closest thing to a donut that I have seen in the Netherlands, so if you are every hankering for a bit of home, this is the way to go.

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When my family emigrated from South Africa to Canada it was 1991 and I was eight years old. From an early age it was clear to me that my roots had a contentious history. Immigration shaped me by making me more skeptical of my roots and a more trusting of my wings. Travel has never just been travel for me; it has been a way to make order out of the world. In the context of my life, travel is a stratosphere of transformative experiences. For that reason I am now living in the Netherlands with the mission to find cultural subtleties, unexpected beauty and what wild diverse experiences this exchange has to offer!

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