Monica O’Hearn is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a current Fulbright grantee in Morocco. She teaches communications and literature and examines the ties between cultural memory and media studies.

The Tichka Pass: I joke that it’s the “widow-maker.” Nestled between the Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco, this winding path is neither for the weak of mind nor stomach. Cliffs drop dramatically on either side, and you realize that an inch of miscalculation on the road and you could meet an unfortunate fate.

If you let yourself overcome that fear, however, you realize that you are surrounded by one of the most breathtaking views you may have ever seen.

The Tichka Pass, like many other places in Morocco, is only accessible by the road. It is one of the many bus trips I’ve taken around the country. From Mediterranean beaches to the tip of the Sahara, I’ve discovered that bus travel has been the best way to explore the country, much to my own surprise.

I never particularly liked buses, but since my new host city had no train lines, it seemed as if I was going to spend a lot of time in transit. Instead of complaining about the stuffy air and bumpy roads, I decided that I might as well make the most of it. When I did, two important things happened: I learned more about Morocco, and I learned more about myself.

All photos are courtesy of the author.

I began by talking with the people seated next to me. My Moroccan Arabic is slowly improving, and I figured that after spending hours next to someone, I’d at least pick up a word or two. Instead of just teaching me new vocabulary, they provided unique perspectives into everyday life.

There was the young college student on the bus to Casablanca who received at least 20 phone calls from her overprotective father during the trip. Ring. “We’re still not there yet, Dad.” Ring. “I promise I’ll call when we’re close.” Ring. “Still on the bus.”

Then, the high school boy who knew every word of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” (I–and the rest of the bus–learned this through an impromptu concert), despite the fact that he spoke no English.

And then there were the indefinite number of elderly Moroccan women who gasped when they learned that yes, I live here; no, I don’t live with my family and I’m not married; yes, that means that I live alone. They love to draw out the vowels when they repeat the word for “alone”: waaaheeeedaaaa? Then, came the inevitable: “No, ma’am, thank you kindly, but I don’t think I want to marry your grandson.”

Eventually my feeble language skills met their limits, and I had a lot of time to stare out of the window. I’m far from what you’d call a “nature-lover.” I want to protect the environment, sure, but I’m also convinced that “camping” is a positive term to describe what Dante experienced in the first circle of Hell.

For a traveler like me, rolling lazily through back roads and forests is the perfect way to explore a side of the country that would otherwise escape your notice. You can experience the unique geography in your own way, instead of miserably enduring an 8-hour adventure trek. I can now safely say that I appreciate nature. Something about the grandeur of the terracotta-colored mountains or the endless expanses of olive trees has helped me value the beauty of the land.

Traveling can also be the ideal opportunity for self-reflection, but only if you find a way to make the time. There is always another museum to see, another restaurant to try, or another photo to take (or in my case, another 500 photos). For relentless jetsetters like me, it’s easy to define yourself by your travels and forget to consider the other parts that make up who you are.

In a bus, the distractions are limited; reading is hard, computer batteries only last so long, and when the sun sets, you find yourself gazing into the darkness. I have found that this is the perfect time for me to think about what it is that I’m doing: what I’ve learned, what I’ve valued, and how I’ve changed. When faced with miles and miles of nothing, the “something” that matters finds a way of making itself clear.

Bus transportation can offer a different kind of travel: an escape from the tourist chaos and a glimpse into a new world. It has become an opportunity for me to get lost in the landscapes and better understand the culture of which I am a guest.

I had meant my year in Morocco to be a time for new challenges and growth as an individual. Little did I know that most of that self-discovery would happen in a 15”x15” seat.