The Great ReadThe Voyages Issue
On visiting Morocco with a group-travel company that promised to build “meaningful friendships” among its youngish clientele.
Credit…Rosie Marks for The New York Times
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Imagine walking into a party where you know almost no one (pathetic) — a party at which I, a stranger to you (probably), have arrived well before you (sorry). Should this occur in real life, it is inevitable that shortly after your entrance, as you are tentatively probing the scene in search of safe ingress into social traffic, I will yank you, abruptly, into the middle of a conversation. I will turn to you and start talking as if you’d been involved in the discussion for an hour. I will lob questions at you that are tailored so that any answer you give can be right. Soon, you will forget I dragged you into this interaction; your easy popularity will seem, in retrospect, inevitable. You will most likely feel at least vaguely friendly toward me, because I so clearly want to be your friend. And the whole time I am doing this — because, despite your rewritten recollections, I am the one doing all of this — I will be thinking: Oh, my God, I’m doing it again. I hate this. I hate this. Why can’t I stop doing this to people?
Of all my bad habits, it is the ruthless desire to befriend that exerts the strongest pull on my behavior. Not that I want more friends — God, no. If anything, I’d love to drop about 80 percent of the ones I have, so I could stop remembering their birthdays. But because I can’t quit — because constantly pulling strangers into my orbit is what stabilizes my bearing in the universe — I have determined to double down. And so, in January, I booked a package vacation to Morocco through a company whose stated aim — beyond offering package vacations — is to help people in their 30s and 40s make new friends.
That millennials are the largest human adult cohort alive; in or about to enter their peak-earning years; less likely than earlier generations, at the same age, to live with a spouse and/or offspring; and highly susceptible to YOLO — a brain condition that makes a nine-day vacation to Croatia sound like a fun and affordable alternative to homeownership, which seems impossible anyway — would seemingly be enough to justify the existence of a travel company dedicated to serving them. Indeed, there is a nascent industry devoted to creating millennial-oriented travel package experiences of the type generally set aside for people much younger (e.g., Birthright Israel) or older (e.g., Rhine river cruises). In promotional copy, these companies’ sleek websites deploy the verb “curate” to describe the work of travel agents. Flash Pack, which aims to lure vacationers who would otherwise be traveling solo and marshal them into traveling bands of up to 14, is one such business.
What makes Flash Pack unusual is its “mission” — “to create one million meaningful friendships” — and a method of execution that it telegraphs with evangelistic zeal: “We obsess over the group dynamics,” its website explains on one page. “We absolutely obsess over the group dynamic,” it states on another. “We’re completely obsessed with it” (“it” being the group dynamic), Flash Pack’s 42-year-old chief executive, Radha Vyas, is quoted as saying on an F.A.Q. page intended to calm nervous vacationers. Another page, titled “How It Works,” opens with the promise that the company “obsesses over the group dynamic, doing everything in our power to ensure you’re comfortable and building friendships within the first 24 hours.”
With this intention, the agency stands in stark, even proud violation of a sociological paradox: to have many friends is a desirable condition; to plainly seek to make friends is unseemly and pitiful. Millennials’ broad acceptance of the taboo around extending oneself in friendship — perhaps an aversion to participation inherited from their direct predecessors, Generation X — is particularly irrational, given that millennials report feeling lonely “often” or “always” at much higher rates than members of previous generations.
Who, I wondered as I scrolled through the inviting images on the company’s home page, are the millennial adults drawn to a pricey international vacation for the purpose of befriending strangers? If I plunged into a trip chosen at random, would I surface to find myself flailing among social incompetents — phone-addled young people who yearn for real-life connections but are unable to forge them under normal conditions? Or would I be surrounded by the sociopathic winners of this great game — the Jeff Bezoses of friend-making? Obviously, my fellow vacationers would be natural freaks of some kind — but would they be so because they had overcome the intrinsic shame of seeking friends or because they were naturally immune to it?
The mystery started to resolve itself two weeks out from our trip, when every participant of the “Morocco Highlights” tour was added to a WhatsApp group and encouraged to introduce themselves — a suggestion we responded to with so much zeal you would think it were an assignment that constituted 60 percent of our grade; and we were determined to maintain our perfect grade-point average; and we had actually been secretly hired as “plants” by the school administration to sit in on this class, in the hope that we would contagiously motivate the real students to strive for comparable excellence, creating a domino effect that would boost the school’s rankings; and we would love to take advantage of extra-credit assignments (if they were available); and, actually, we had gone ahead and conceived and executed what we felt might be some edifying extra-credit assignments, in case none were available.
We sent portraits of our pets, announced which items on the itinerary we anticipated most eagerly and provided photos of what we loved most about the places where we lived (the mountains of North Carolina; sunlight gleaming off the Charles River; the solitary beauty of a Baltic beach, which, it was hoped even before meeting, some of us would “come visit one day!”). I wondered publicly in the chat if anyone in the group might be “superorganized” and willing to share a packing list. Within 60 seconds, I received in reply an image consisting of a tabular representation of our itinerary, each column head designating a day, underneath which was a cell listing the major activities of that day (extracted and paraphrased from the official itinerary), underneath which was a full-length photograph of the sender, wearing the exact outfit, including shoes and coat, she intended to wear on that day, for those activities.
When I asked Radha Vyas, who founded Flash Pack with her husband, Lee Thompson, to give me the profile of a typical patron, she described her clients as “decision makers or leaders” in their regular lives who “want somebody else to take control” of their vacations. “Lots of our customers are lawyers, doctors, and they’ve done really, really well in their careers,” she said over video chat from London — so well that they have developed “decision fatigue” from the litany of correct decisions they have been forced to make while scaling new professional heights. “They just want to turn up,” Vyas said. “Somebody tells you where to be, what time, what to do, what to wear, and you can just let go.”
My group’s official welcome meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m. the Sunday of our arrival, by which point nearly all pack members had taken it upon themselves to welcome one another in various permutations as they arrived at our Marrakesh hotel from Denver, London and beyond. I was still asleep, flying over the Atlantic Ocean, while the unofficial pre-welcome welcoming logistics began to be codified, and then continuously revised and expanded in the WhatsApp group. Before I got off the plane, most of the other travelers were already linking up, grabbing lunch, or coffee, or rooftop drinks at a restaurant near the hotel.
I had been distressed that my late-afternoon arrival (well within the company’s recommended arrival window) precluded my participation in the unsanctioned, prefatory socializing. But then, while I was waiting in line at the hotel’s check-in desk, I was approached by a brisk British stranger who gave an instant, slightly terrifying yet invigorating impression of uncanny competence, who asked, “Are you Flash Pack?” She had spotted the small brown bag containing a tiny hamsa-shaped welcome soap I had been given by a company representative at my airport pickup, and recognized it as the twin of the small brown bag containing a tiny hamsa-shaped welcome soap she had received, she explained — and so I was able to be unofficially pre-welcomed anyway.
There were 13 of us total. Each day of the trip, I would spend a little time privately trying to map the biblical significance of this number neatly onto our group, frustrated that no clear stand-in for Christ ever emerged. (If it was anyone, it was the vivacious and bubbly woman from a village called Burnham, which she described as “near Slough,” who was legitimately nice to everyone, and whose job investigating international commercial real estate disputes gave her experience performing little miracles in the Middle East.) Ultimately, the best I could come up with was that if Jesus had surrounded himself with 12 such team-oriented, schedule-conscious youngish (kind of) women, he might still be alive today.
It is a matter of historical record that Flash Pack has some male customers. However, there were none on the mid-February Morocco tour. What were the women like? Slightly more likely to be white than not, to be single than not and to not have come from the British Isles … than to have not not done that; but only just barely, in every category. Our average number of offspring was 0.15 per person, because only one of us had children. There were two doctors (American) and one pharmacist (not). There was a project manager; an account executive; a head of; and a director (not that kind). There was the “quantity surveyor” from near Slough, and a person whose job title was five words long, two of which were “learning” and “partner.” There was a health care data analyst and a person who coordinates tour logistics for adventure-travel companies, who insisted she was, in fact, on vacation. There was a woman who was Irish, which was not her job, but, my God, she was good at it; she owns a pug who apparently is a successful working actor, which was also not her job. We ranged in age from 31 to 45.
“Morocco Highlights” is an expensive way to make friends: The price of the eight-day trip (the first and last days of which are devoted to arrival and departure) starts at $2,395. This includes shared accommodation in twin rooms with another traveler, most meals and all group activities. The additional expense of round-trip economy flights brought my cost to around $4,165 — within $30 of the median monthly income for an American woman at the end of 2022. The price and premise all but ensure that bookers will spend their trip surrounded by people who share not only their approximate income level (high, though not so high that they could fly a bunch of their actual friends to Morocco) but also their principles about what makes a vacation successful (an efficient use of time; a wide variety of commitments; transforming strangers into acquaintances).
At 6 p.m. sharp, by the cold hotel pool, we officially met and were welcomed by Ismail, our guide. Ismail’s command of English — his fifth language, he told us, by way of apology — was so strong he was able to be genuinely funny in it. (“Call me Ishmael!” he said — and many people did, the whole time.) His opening remarks included polite yet firm advice regarding group punctuality: If you were going to be “five minutes late” for any activity, at any point, please send a quick note via WhatsApp informing everyone else. I thought of this counsel when Vyas told me later that as Flash Pack trains its guides, it makes a point of teaching them to instill confidence in their administrative abilities at the very first meeting. “Because if they don’t,” Vyas said, “our customers will try and take control — because they are natural leaders.”
Over the course of approximately 30 distinct group activities — several of which required rising before dawn — there were two or three occasions when people dutifully gave warning that they could be very slightly late. Otherwise, all 13 of us were ruthlessly on time, except when we were early, which was often. It was the most exhausting vacation of my life.
Picture a normal vacation. Now, picture an activity that would be the primary event of one vacation day — possibly of the entire trip. Now, picture scheduling it to happen first thing in the morning. And then, immediately after that, another diversion of equal heft, and sometimes another, and possibly a fourth. Interspersed within the tent-pole itinerary items are more options for spontaneous activities. That’s what every day of this trip was like.
We started our first morning barreling through the thousand-year-old alleyways of Marrakesh’s serpentine medina in stylish retro motorbike sidecars; then headed straight into a self-guided tour of the Jardin Majorelle, the electric blue cactus paradise restored by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent; then took another tour of a secret garden (quite crowded, perhaps because it is well advertised as Le Jardin Secret); then had the option to embark on a supplementary souk shopping excursion before dinner, which itself consisted of an hourslong walking tour of medina food stalls and ended with one or two more spontaneous opportunities for shopping.
The dinner tour was led by a young man named Abdul, who, like all the men who led any of the tours, was young, handsome and dressed as if he could, at a moment’s notice, be called to ride a motorcycle to the offices of a men’s fashion magazine for an emergency photo shoot. Abdul ushered us past corridors of pierced metal lamps that glowed with the diffuse light of distant galaxies, brightly dyed babouches perched in rows like colorful parrots and jeans for babies, stopping every few minutes when, all of a sudden, we would be handed things to eat: olives plucked from glistening heaps; shards of fried puff pastry; orange soup; a sheep’s eye; nuts. In fact, this is how most of our meals occurred, even in restaurants (where, invariably, we would be seated together at one long table): Food would simply be placed before us without anyone having ordered.
The first time the food magically appeared, at our welcome dinner on a terrace overlooking the medina, we were served warm glasses of mint tea and tagines, which — not realizing these were but the first of 900 glasses of mint tea and 10,000 tagines we would be invited to consume over the next week — we ate heartily. The announcement of the final course inspired me to declare, in case anyone was listening, that I am “a dessert person.” Ismail was listening. Exhibiting the preternatural ability to get out ahead of potential threats to mood that the company strives to inculcate in its guides, Ismail informed me, as gently as possible, that “dessert in Morocco can be just fruit.” I began musing excitedly about the various fat and sweetness enhancements to which fruit can be subjected, transforming it into dessert. Ismail held my gaze. With the delicate assertiveness of one determined to form a connection with a jumper poised on the side of a bridge, he clarified: “Just fruit.” (As darkly foretold, the final course proved to be just orange slices.)
We travelers were almost never asked to produce money for any service, experience or tagine. Those few times we were — purchasing souvenirs, for instance — the transaction was typically conducted on our behalf, in Arabic, Berber or French, by Ismail, who then told us in English how much colorful Moroccan currency to hand over. These encounters suffused our tour with an intoxicating ease. Each day was crammed with activities, but we were shepherded through them in a state of such perpetual mollycoddling that, increasingly, our travels around Morocco felt like trekking through a gentle dream world.
We were driven into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and introduced to a young Berber woman named Saida, who taught us how to make a meal (tagine) on her expansive living-room terrace, then gave us a tour of her apricot-colored stone-and-clay house. We were led virtually nude (not by Ismail), in trios and pairs, into a polished stone steam chamber where we were scrubbed, slathered, oiled and boiled until we resembled hot dogs fresh from the package. We were escorted across two lanes of traffic to an argan tree whose branches served as scaffolding for goats, and invited to hug the goats’ sweet, warm, soft babies to our chests. We were deposited before a squadron of ATVs and trusted to operate these roaring vehicles over a route of rocky desert terrain — pausing midtrip so that we could be guided, via graceful pantomime, through a sequence of photo poses — until, an hour later, we had driven ourselves to the sumptuously appointed canvas tents that would be our sleeping quarters in the Agafay Desert.
It is Flash Pack’s good fortune to attract the kind of control freaks for whom the delicious little thrill derived from living through an incident of well-executed planning is entirely distinct from, and in addition to, their enjoyment of the activity itself. “I like the way it’s being incorporated into the schedule,” the angel of near-Slough confided in me, reflecting with satisfaction on the way the ATVs did double duty as transportation and excursion. I was terrified every single second my ATV was in motion at the uncontrollable speed of 19 miles per hour — but I had to admit that I liked it, too.
The company’s terms and conditions grant it “the right to decline any booking at our absolute discretion.” In separate interviews, the founders described a postbooking process whereby a customer-service representative can internally “red flag” an individual who they suspect could pose a risk to the cohesion of the group.
“Normally, if there was a flag against the individual,” Thompson said, “we speak to them to make sure we’re managing their expectations and make sure they’re booked on the right trip.”
“One really cantankerous person can disrupt the group quite quickly,” Vyas said. The failure of a group to click, according to Vyas, can usually be laid at the feet of “one person whose expectations are completely out of sync with what we can offer.” A tip-off is when someone gives the impression of being “extremely demanding” about their personal preferences for the trip. While Flash Pack does not loudly advertise that customers are at theoretical risk of pre-emptive ejection from a trip (with refund) if the company suspects them of being the kind of person who will try to ram too many solo-vacation elements through the intricate itineraries on offer, it’s quite possible this threat would only make the offerings more appealing to the plan-loving, rule-following, fine-print-studying, steadfast competitors who form its client base.
About half the women on our trip had come to Morocco because they had always (or near enough) wanted to come to Morocco; the other half of the group had come because they wanted to take a trip of about one week’s duration sometime in mid-February, and the “Moroccan Highlights” tour satisfied this brief. If anything, those who ended up in the country by chance seemed especially delighted with how much they were enjoying a place that had never particularly occurred to them. Two members of the group — one British, one American — met on a previous Flash Pack excursion to Vietnam, during which they (as advertised) became good friends, such good friends that they decided years later to check out Morocco together.
An I.T. consultant on the trip who was a veteran of multiple Flash Pack tours, and of the U.S. Army, observed to me that on every vacation she has taken with the company, across four continents, every single participant she has met has had “a Type A personality.”
The notion of “A” as a “type” was theorized in the late 1950s by Dr. Meyer Friedman and Dr. Ray H. Rosenman, two American cardiologists who believed that most heart attacks suffered by people under 70 were directly attributable to an abundance of emotional stress. Such high stress levels, they proposed, were found in individuals who tended to exhibit a cluster of personality traits: “excessive competitive drive,” “aggressiveness,” “a harrying sense of time urgency,” feeling “vaguely guilty” when relaxing, etc. These were meant to be habits, not traits — something a person could unlearn. Yet almost from the moment the concept was introduced to the public, “Type A personality” has been used as shorthand to describe an intractable manner of being.
I had never thought of myself as Type A before my fellow vacationer’s observation. I had assumed the designation implied at least a moderate degree of neatness, which I have never exhibited. But the hallmarks she identified (per the American Psychological Association: “chronic competitiveness”; “high levels of achievement motivation”; “a distorted sense of time urgency”) all felt familiar. Later, when I learned that Friedman and Rosenman described individuals with Type A traits as “quite prone to exhibit a free-floating but extraordinarily well-rationalized hostility,” I became convinced. My tendency to mechanically entrap others into friendship seemed suddenly explicated: I do it because I have no tolerance for those who unintentionally imperil fun party moods by fostering atmospheres of social awkwardness.
I do not mean to suggest that all the women on the trip approached friend-making similarly. The lack of time for indecisive dithering was what made the trip soothing for me. For someone else, it may have been the ability to wonder, one afternoon, if it might be possible to get a tattoo while in Morocco — and then, by dinnertime, to have a brand-new tattoo, seamlessly facilitated by Ismail. But I contend that every member of our group, to some degree — to a very high degree — exhibited many of the traits designated Type A. I believe this because a vacation experience like the one Flash Pack offers — which promises a detailed itinerary, strict schedule, mandatory fun, controlled explosions of joy and defined periods of prearranged “free time” — is unlikely to attract a person who does not exhibit these tendencies, and also because by the end of the trip we had all memorized one another’s food allergies and were pre-emptively checking with waitstaff about them on one another’s behalf. (Vyas said that “stereotyping our customers as ‘Type A’” would be “a gross overgeneralization.”)
We awoke on the fifth day to a world of paradisiacal beauty. The clouds over the Agafay Desert were shot through with beams of gold at dawn. As the morning unspooled, these gave way to a creamy wash of slate blue and pearl gray, revealing our camp to be afloat on an ocean of gently swelling rocky dunes that stretched to the distant purple Atlas Mountains, whose peaks were luminous beneath fresh snow. The numbing cold of the previous day prevented us from using the pool that had, improbably, been built into the desert ground — and already it was time to depart. We were too committed to successfully executing the tour’s mission to be outright grumpy as we piled shoulder to shoulder into the van, staring down a three-hour drive to our vineyard visit. But it was clear to all, on the unusually quiet ride, that we would have to take proactive steps to turn the day around. And that well-intentioned resolve, I suspect, is what threatened to send the meticulously calibrated nuclear reactor of our group dynamic into meltdown.
From this point, the less said about Wine Day the better. Was there wine? Yes. Was there more wine? Yes! Was there anything else to do during the two and a half hours we were scheduled to be at the isolated winery — a period we were forced to spend indoors because of a cold drizzle — but guzzle wine? Yes! — I mean no! A little more wine before leaving? Wine! Did Wine Day bleed into Mixed Drink Dusk? For some. Was it followed by Shots Night? Absolutely. Was there a reason the 13 of us all dined together that evening, which was the only night of the trip we were not obligated by the itinerary to have dinner as one huge group? Friendship!(?) Did half our group end up at a club? Yes. Did two members of that half vanish when Ismail was not looking and sneak off to the ocean for a late-night skinny dip? Allegedly. Did this sort of behavior appear anywhere on the itinerary, an incorruptible document listing all legitimate activities? No, it did not. Had Ismail already formed an emergency recovery plan for the fugitives involving our hotel’s night manager by the time they sheepishly returned, wet from the sea? Of course. Did the unscheduled actions of these successful professional women threaten to cast a pall over Hammam Experience Day? Yes, but only because they detected (and confessed to us that they detected) the next day, through imperceptible indications, that Ismail was disappointed in them — a fate that would have been unendurable for any of us, who live to not disappoint others at any cost.
Of course, the controversial acts of Wine Day were arguably a direct result of what the company set out to do. Because the tour had outlined its goals — for everyone on the tour to relax and become friends — very clearly on its website, it had attracted, as participants, a horde of demented overachievers whose determination to relax and become friends far exceeded that of the average person; who would stop at nothing to complete these objectives; who had paid thousands of dollars to pursue these aims among like-minded maniacs. These two women, while violating the tenet that Flash Pack vacations are not only vacations but also group projects, in which individual whims must be subordinated to the needs and desires of the commonwealth, had, nonetheless, passed the larger test: They had found time, outside the packed schedule, to do the sort of spontaneous thing a pair of real adult friends might, in theory, do on vacation. Had their behavior in any way impinged on the remaining officially sanctioned good times scheduled to fill out the final two days of our itinerary, it’s possible the remainder of the group would have devoted a portion of its collective acumen and pragmatism to ruining these women’s lives.
But the next day we took a surprise excursion to a fish market, where Ismail arranged for a banquet’s worth of fresh seafood to be placed before us, and personally squirted soap into our hands so we could wash them, and then we did yoga on the beach, and then Ismail agreed to take us out for ice cream before bed, and everyone participated and was on time, and we still had one full day left after that. So everything was, in other words, back to normal.
Upon my return from Morocco, I awoke after dawn for the first time in over a week. Rather than dashing out of bed to learn to surf (and then, still in my wet suit, ride a camel), I luxuriated under my blankets. The obligations of my real life (work, chores) were a breeze compared with the responsibility of converting 12 strangers into new friends while participating in a full daily docket of group activities. In the WhatsApp group, my aggressive campaign to persuade everyone to stay friends forever was already underway. The vacation was over. I could relax.
Caity Weaver is a staff writer for the magazine. She last wrote a feature about spending time in a room engineered to be soundless. Rosie Marks is a photographer based in London and Los Angeles whose work focuses on people engrossed in their own worlds. She has published two books of documentary photography, including “Pretty Hurts.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified the location and timing of the photograph. The two women were in Essaouira, not Marrakesh, and it was not the final day of the trip.
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