I was completely unprepared for my trip to Morocco. The social, political, and religious structures were all new to me, and I had no prior knowledge of the country apart from its location on a map. Most would find this nerve-wracking, but the unknown aspect of the adventure was thrilling and fueled the adrenaline within me.

I went to Morocco for a month-long study abroad program, open-minded and eager to absorb as much as possible. I stayed  with a lovely homestay family: a father, mother, four daughters, and one adorable cat named Fluffy.

Over  the course of the month, the other students and I explored the city and the medina during any free time we had yet, by the end of the trip, there was still so much left to see. I traveled to Fez (the leather city, or Mecca of the West), Meknes (the ancient Roman city), Chefchaouen (the blue city), the Sahara Desert, and Marrakech (the red city). Everywhere we went was stunning and radiating with vibrant colors. But the city that holds a special place in my heart is Rabat, a place that eventually became my home away from home.

Rabat is the capital of Morocco and probably the least touristy of all the places I visited. My host family lived in the heart of the old medina, but only 10 minutes away from the ocean.

The buildings in the medina are not skyscraper-tall, but because they are all the same color and tightly packed, you don’t have many reference points while walking through the residential areas. It’s like a giant maze of brown walls and skinny alleys. Eventually, I learned to love the architecture of Moroccan homes and buildings, and was able to navigate my way around without getting lost.

Once I oriented myself, I became more self-sufficient and was able to get pretty much anywhere — school, downtown, and other cities via train. Being able to navigate the city on your own is a milestone. Before studying in Morocco, I had always traveled with group organizations with leaders responsible for getting everyone from point A to point B. However, on this trip, I was with a group but had the freedom to do anything in my spare time. Nothing was scheduled except weekend trips, and I found myself going to the markets with my host family, boating to the city across the river, attending a free music festival, and watching the sunset on the oceanfront. I wouldn’t have done any of these things if I weren’t living with a local family, because they weren’t on “the list” of must-sees.

I even came to see my homestay family as more than just hosts. They were wonderful, and I really bonded with one of the daughters, who was only three years younger than me at the time. We would discuss boys, music, fashion, school, and Morocco in general. She would ask me about my life and what I would do for fun at home. It was funny to hear all the things she thought I did, most of which were based on TV shows. She surprised me when she said she thought jeans were cool. She had a couple of pairs, but apparently, for their family, jeans were very expensive. I was shocked to learn that a piece of clothing many in the U.S. associate with blue-collar jobs is praised and highly sought after by teenagers in Morocco.

Rabat slowly felt more like home than a strange, new place. I understood the lay of the land and the public transportation system, and I spent time with neighbors and new Moroccan friends.

On our way to school, we would often stop to buy a bottle of water and the young boy who worked the early shift would laugh at us as we tried (and failed) to order in Darij. Even the shop owners in the markets started to recognize some of us, which was great because bartering with them on pricing became much more effective since we knew what the real prices should be.

Rabat is Morocco’s hidden gem. The massive shops and street performances in Marrakech are enchanting to most, but the main attractions are not accurate representations of Morocco. A lot of the supposed “cultural experiences” are the definition of orientalism. People in the tourist industry tend to capitalize on the stereotypes western society has created throughout the years and cater to tourists’ expectations. This is not to say that you shouldn’t go to Marrakech, but explore outside the typical tourist spots in order to really experience the city. In Rabat they are not trying to trick you into believing they can charm snakes, own pet monkeys, or that flying carpets are a part of the culture. Instead, if you were to spend time in there, you would become a part of the city because its economy does not rely heavily on tourist attractions. Everyone is just living life.

At one point during my travels, I came to fully comprehend the difference between vacationers and travelers.

A vacationer will ask the locals, “Can you show me where this is,” while a traveler will find him or herself conversing with them, maybe even jamming out with them after hours in a speakeasy. A traveler seeks to understand a country and its people; a vacationer simply wants to see it.

My time in Morocco changed the way I aim to experience the world and motivated me to fully immerse myself within the true culture and bond with the people of the countries I travel to. Living in Rabat taught me that seeing Rabat was not enough; I needed to dig deeper and finally make the transition from a vacationer to a traveler.