When I arrived in Morocco I was newly orphaned and emotionally detached from everyone around me. Detachment was one of the many ways my fiancé Ayoub said I had changed after my mother died.

It was in the welcoming embrace of my in-laws, Fatima and Aziz, that I immediately felt a comforting peace in my soul. Their constant prayers for my mother and my family were felt across two continents. And without a word or any translations, I knew they understood my pain. From that moment on Fatima and Aziz treated me like their daughter. And it was an acceptance that my heart so painfully needed.

Fatima concentrated on loving me with food. A love language I'm all too familiar. Every visit to her kitchen flooded my senses with aromas as colorful as the spices that created them. Her kitchen consisted of the Moroccan essentials: a clay tagine to make the famous dish of the same name and the metal kettle that poured liquid gold, mint tea. On Fridays, she spent hours preparing couscous. It is a tradition throughout the country to have couscous and Fridays and I quickly learned to look forward to it.

Aziz was a protective father figure. Very protective. He was concerned that I would be taken advantage of because I was American. Of course, this was a fact I couldn't hide no matter how hard I tried. Anyone could see I was American. Aziz told me that nothing gave me away more than my white skin. And for that, he was always instructing Ayoub to keep a close eye on me and never let me be alone. In my "strong-feminist-woman-power" young adulthood, I would've viewed this behavior as controlling. But it gave me permission to relax and let my guard down. I enjoyed the art of just living without having to be on heightened alert as a solo female traveler.

Except for Khawla, my sister-in-law, the rest of my family did not speak English. It was the ultimate crash course in the Moroccan Arabic dialect, Darija. Communication consisted of various gestures, body language and referring to my knowledge of gender roles in an Islamic country. Fatima and Aziz encouraged me to practice my new vocabulary no matter how many times they had to repeat themselves. They were so patient and kind, much like the description of love in the Bible.

"They were patient and kind, much like the Bible's description of love ."

It is because of this love, I experienced complete heartbreak the day I left Morocco. I had no idea I would feel this way about Ayoub's family. I was hoping they would accept me, but to feel this unconditional love was overwhelming. In front of a very humble airport, Fatima cried as Aziz took my hands. He focused on my gaze and told me that they would always be my parents. They wanted me to remember that I have a home and a family in Morocco. In that moment I felt like I was losing my parents all over again, and I wasn't prepared.

Somehow I managed to get on the plane to continue my journey. Tears in my eyes and a prayer in my heart that I will soon return to the love of my Moroccan family . . . Inshallah.

Ayoub bought me a beautiful engagement ring in the souks of the Rabat medina. A ring I wasn't allowed to wear, at least not until Saturday. As the weekend approached I found myself at the mercy of Ayoub's plan to orchestrate an engagement party at his parent's home.

I'd already spent a good amount of time with Ayoub's family. They immediately loved me like their own and even call me Caría, a loose Arabic form of Carrie. Extended family members started visiting just to meet me. They gave Ayoub and I blessings for a beautiful life together. It was both surreal and overwhelming the love that was poured over us.

Meanwhile, Ayoub consulted with his mom and her sister, Mina, about the engagement party. All the details involved seemed important because conversations were always in escalated tones (later I discovered that ALL conversations in Darija are in escalated tones, i.e. sounds like yelling). The biggest challenge was finding a dress that would fit me. In an ideal world, I would've had enough time to have a dress custom made, but since Ayoub wanted to be "spontaneous", I was about to embark on finding a fat needle in a skinny Moroccan haystack.

" . . . I was about to embark on finding a fat needle in a skinny Moroccan haystack. "

Aunt Mina was on a mission. I knew if anyone could find me a dress, Aunt Mina could. She is the kind of aunt that takes matters into her own hands and gets things done, just get out of her way. I, along with Ayoub's sister Khawla, his mom, and Aunt Mina, walked arm in arm through the streets visiting several local dress shops. It was the moment of truth: time to try on dresses. The first dress was so tight on the boobs that for the first time in my life I felt like I was big-busted. The second dress never made it passed the hips, then there was the dress that actually fit, but I'm sure if I sat down I would resemble an exploding tube of buttermilk biscuits. I was beginning to lose hope, but at our last stop I immediately fell in love with a farasha (kaftan) on display: creamy white satin embroidered with dark pink cord and sequin detail. Aunt Mina slipped it over my head and it fit . . . perfectly. I was a Moroccan Princess. As an engagement gift, Aunt Mina and my future mother-in-law bought it for me.

Saturday arrived and Ayoub and I had a list of things to do, pack, and pick up. By the time we got to his parent's home, it was bustling with people and the aroma of my favorite tajine. Aunt Mina enlisted the best henna artist in the community to decorate the girls' hands and feet. Khawla had her hands done, while I had both my hands and feet. I felt bad that the artist had to touch a million blisters I had from breaking in new shoes. No amount of henna was going to make them look any better.

I had changed into my dress and emerged into the living room where the entire family was waiting. It was Ayoub's first time seeing me in my dress and anything traditional of his culture. He just looked at me. It was THEE look. Every woman knows that look, the look that only the man you love can give you, and it melts you on contact.

As Aunt Mina recited excerpts from the Qu'ran, Ayoub and I partook in the traditional Moroccan customs of feeding each other dates and drinking milk, the symbols of hospitality and peace. And FINALLY, it was time to exchange our rings.

I can't describe what it felt like at that moment. I experienced flashbacks of my life's many difficult times all of which lead me here. It's a true testament that you never know where life takes you, but trusting in the bigger picture, your higher power, your God, always leads you to exactly where you should be. And for me, I found myself in a foreign land, speaking a foreign language, and surrounded by so much love.

Ayoub and Caría

Remember the language exchange platform? Yes, the one I joined to speak better french? Well, needless to say, speaking better french didn't happen. I still had a long way to go, so I was back to conversations on the app.

In April of 2018, Ayoub and I began exchanging language lessons. His french was rusty, his spanish was excellent and his english consisted of Eminem lyrics. His native tongue was Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, and I wasn't quite ready to learn Arabic.

Over time our conversations turned from frequent to daily. We considered each other as friends and I always looked forward to talking to him. Then Ayoub dropped the bombshell that he was interested in me. Huh? I pretended like I didn't understand his english, but I was hearing him loud and clear. So being honest, I told him I wasn't interested in a boyfriend, foreign or domestic. He only replied, "I can wait." For weeks I tried to convince him of the many reasons a relationship with me was a bad idea. He'd say, "You don't see what I see, but I'm a patient man. I can wait."

And wait he did. It was nearly a year when it struck me that I had feelings for him too. Feelings I tried my hardest to deny. He had shown consistency, honesty and loyalty. Traits that money couldn't buy and I knew were very rare in these modern times. But for me, it would be the time we spend together that would show me the true character of this man. So, off I went to Morocco.

Ayoub met me at the airport in Tangier and he was immediately relieved that I wasn't taller than him. We went from being images on a cellphone to sitting next to each other in front of the airport, talking, laughing and carrying on like old friends. We then set off on a 19-day adventure through some of the most iconic cities in Morocco: Tangier, Chefchauoen, Fes, Marrakech and then finally to Ayoub's hometown Rabat, the country's capital.

" . . . no one could deny that together we were pure magic."

Our journey was sometimes stressful and other times uncomfortable, but no one could deny that together we were pure magic. He is an expert storyteller and I immediately fell in love with the way he described his country, culture and family. He wanted me to know everything about him and the kind of man he is. I observed his interactions with strangers: taxi drivers, food vendors, and everyday people. Not only was he generous, he'd make people laugh and treated them like family. It was in those moments that he reminded me so much of my father and I couldn't help but get emotional over it.

Gateway of the medina in Rabat, Morocco

During a beautiful afternoon in Rabat, Ayoub took me to the medina, the old city within ancient brick walls. We walked through the labyrinth of endless shops until we arrived at a jewelry store no bigger than my bathroom. My claustrophobia faded when the shop keeper brought out a thin gold band with a stone setting resembling a flower. I absolutely loved it. Ayoub asked me if it was a suitable engagement ring. "For me?" "Of course, for you," he replied. The look in his eyes told me everything I needed and wanted to know. Ayoub was more serious than I'd ever seen him. I only replied with the answer I prepared, in the event I was ever in this very situation, "Okay, let's get married."

The jeweler assured us that my engagement ring would be resized and ready to pick up within two hours. During the wait, Ayoub and I kept reminding each other that we were, in fact, going to get married. In retrospect, I think we did that out of complete shock. The reality hadn't set in, at least

The Ring

not for me. We were in the middle of dinner when Ayoub received the call that my ring was ready. I was scared, excited and nervous all at the same time. Those feelings quickly changed to disappointment when Ayoub told me I had to wait until the weekend to wear my ring. "Why do I have to wait until Saturday?" He just smiled and said, "Just be patient. You'll see."

© 2019 by Carrie Gallegos.