Just recently, I realized I’m technically one of nine siblings in my crazy blended family! Well, that is, I have five half-siblings and three stepsiblings. I am the oldest, and there are three other girls in the mix. My sisters are 11, 13, and 17 years my junior. To them, young-millennials, I’m probably ancient. At least I’m still on the millennial spectrum (one of the oldest, self-called xennials). 

Growing up, I lived with the two oldest sisters until I moved out and joined the military a week after graduating high school. They were 7 and 5 when I left home. Out of all of the siblings, I am closest to them, simply because we lived in the same house for a time. My other sister grew up with my dad and stepmother, and though I visit them (as often as I can with them living thousands of miles from me), I haven’t been able to get as close to her as I’d like. 

When I started my travel business, I decided to forgo the typical gift cards and trinkets for Christmas and birthdays. Instead, we would go on a trip of their choosing when they graduated school. 

The primary reason I did this was I wanted to take the time to get to know my siblings one on one in the way that taking a trip together can only do. 

The first sibling to graduate was my oldest sister Mikaela in December 2017. She graduated from nursing school at Northern Arizona University. We decided to go on a small group trip to Morocco. 

We share a lot of things in common: a love for art, music, and a weird/goofy humor, but we also have a lot of differences. When she was little, she was the family princess, and I was raised to espouse more masculine qualities. I had always felt like more her second mom than sister because as she was growing up, I spent a lot of time babysitting her. Certain difficult circumstances in our family forced me to take on a maternal and protective role to help us muddle through the extraordinary challenges we faced. 

I wanted this trip to allow us to bond as peers and as adults in a way we never had before. I wanted to break that “second mom” relationship we had. In hindsight, this trip did that; however, it wasn’t an easy relationship norm to change (mostly because of me and my PTSD). 

Me in Lagham Province on a Civil Assistance patrol. The men in back are local Afghan National Police. The children were local. We gave them pens and pencils.

Side Note: I’ve never publicly or internally acknowledged that I have PTSD. I know other combat veterans will scoff at me for self-diagnosing, but after living through thirteen years of depression, anxiety, and the occasional panic attack, I now admit that I have a form of PTSD. 

To be perfectly honest and no intended offense to anyone, Morocco was a challenge for me to visit. Before we set off, I had read things to prepare us for safety and cultural reciprocity. The advice to dress conservatively did not surprise me, and I had planned on doing so anyway.  But the more I read, the more I was concerned. I had always pictured Morocco to be a progressive Islamic nation, but I learned things that contradicted the image put forth by the Sex in the City movie. Only recently were women allowed to file for divorce.  Women are often openly harassed and called derogatory words. And in general, women’s rights nowhere equal to men’s.

What really triggered my anxiety around these factors was my time spent in Afghanistan as an Intelligence Officer for the US Army, a country inarguably void of women’s rights. After living there for a year, my perception of women’s rights in Islamic nations has understandably changed forever. I understand that Afghanistan is at the terrible end of the spectrum of rights for women in the Islamic world; however, after reading about Morocco, I was preparing myself for worst-case scenarios with my young, beautiful, blonde and blue-eyed sister

To temper my anxiety, I took whatever precautions I could think of to maintain our safety throughout the trip, including arranging more private tours and transfers than I might typically to avoid uncertainties on the road. 

On our descent into Marrakesh, I saw a landscape that looked jarringly similar to Afghanistan. None of my precautions had prepared me for this, and my anxiety once again returned. As dramatic as it sounds, the only way to describe it is that it was like a PTSD flashback. I had a physiological response to a landscape that I hadn’t seen since being in Afghanistan. 

A boy selling sunglasses for his family in Afghanistan.

My unease ebbed and flowed throughout our trip as I noticed men gawking at Mikaela. Several of them overtly hit on her, two of which said they wanted to marry an American woman and wanted her phone number. I already don’t do well in crowds, what with my combat veteran-imposed anxiety. But the crowded, chaotic streets of the Medina in Marrakesh was not far off from that of downtown Kabul. 

The final straws that broke the camel’s back were when we traveled through the villages on the way to the Sahara. I saw women in these villages wearing the full burkas reserved for the most extreme sects of Islam. As you can imagine, this provided ample flashback opportunity to Afghanistan where burkas are commonplace. 

A woman begging for money or milk for her child in Afghanistan.

The other (older) tradition we encountered in these remote villages was when we were lucky enough to be invited into a local villager’s house for mint tea. These authentic and immersive experiences were arranged by our tour company, G Adventures, and one of the things for which they’re known. The eldest lady of the household had a tattoo on her forehead, inscribing her husband’s tribe. 

I understand these are traditions of another culture that I cannot fully comprehend or embrace. It is so far removed from what I am privileged as a woman to experience in America. However, these (in my opinion) misogynistic practices make me feel as if we are just one step away from a situation like what is in Afghanistan. After experiencing what women and girls live like in Afghanistan, that thought terrifies me. 

Throughout the trip, I tried to maintain a balance of precaution and awareness (to keep us both safe). However, I also still wanted to achieve that new type of relationship with my sister – where I was not the maternal, protective figure, but a peer and friend. Given all my anxieties, you can imagine this was difficult. Not to mention the fact that my sister kind of looks like a Disney princess. Though she dressed conservatively the entire time, her big blue eyes and blonde hair attracted much attention. She is also a very kind; dare I say naively nice person to everyone and did little to discourage the gawking. (I love you, Mikaela.) 

My tale is not to discourage anyone from traveling to Morocco. I have a lot of very positive and inspiring things to say about our trip. If you bear with me, you’ll get to hear it. But I am very open about being a veteran and my time in the Army.  To gloss over the anxieties I have daily, or the ones that came to the surface during this trip would be disingenuous. I guess I thought it would be better to get the icky stuff out of the way first. 

So you might be wondering. Did this trip accomplish the goal of helping us bond? 

Yes! Absolutely! We had lots of time to spend with each other one-on-one, late nights talking and giggling in bed (and in the hammam treatment room). We got to experience the magic and wonder of a new world and culture in the company of 10 other young, cool people from all over the world with whom we are still friends on Facebook. We slept under the stars of the Sahara. We rode (I fell off into a thorn bush) horses through ancient ruins on the beautiful beaches of Essaouira.  We learned how to cook Tajin. We rode camels into the sunset on sand dunes in the Sahara. We climbed (halfway) up a huge dune to watch the sun set over the Sahara. We negotiated for jewelry with aggressive souks in the markets and probably still got scammed. We both battled a nasty cold. Then we ended the trip with a one-night stay in Paris, strolling the moonlight streets and eating crepes. 

I needed this time with my sister. I needed to spend time with her one-on-one without the distraction of other people like our mom, my husband, daughter, and our other sister. We love spending time with our family, but there’s a different dynamic. We needed to be together as adults to have time to discuss the real heavy stuff, not just the shallow surface stuff that we only have time for on brief visits. I now see her as an adult, and hopefully, now she sees me as just a sister or friend. 

This trip truly accomplished what I wanted it to – to allow us to bond as peers and see each other as sisters. The PTSD-induced challenges also provided the opportunity for me to acknowledge that I had compartmentalized the trauma of my experiences in Afghanistan. These flashbacks just showed me some of the things I still need to deal with. As hard as that is, admitting there is a problem is the first step to recovery, right?

Stay tuned for my next article, where I actually go into the details of our trip and talk about ALL THE GOOD STUFF about Morocco!

If you’re ready to go on a bonding trip with your sister, reach out to us by filling out our  trip planning form

Or, if you want to give your sibling the gift of travel instead of *things* this year, but don’t know what kind of trip the recipient would like, purchase one of our gift certificates – HERE

In the meantime….   

Happy  Wanderlusting!   

Ashley   

P.S. To keep receiving travel tips and inspiration and a FREE GUIDE, “10 Ways to Strengthen Relationships Through Travel”  CLICK HERE  

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