Morocco

In January of 2015, I embarked on my first journey abroad: to study at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco.  It was an amazing year and I hope to go back one day soon.  These are the posts I wrote during my time there.

 

Tangier // طَنخة

On Valentine’s Day weekend, my friend Wendy and I decided to travel to Tangier.  We left Friday morning for Meknes, where we had to wait to catch the next bus to Tangier.  While waiting in Meknes, we walked around the city and ate at a nice cafe.  We were the only single women there but we are beginning to get used to this in Morocco.  Afterwards, Wendy had to withdraw some money from the ATM and while we were waiting in line, an old woman approached us and starting yelling at us in Berber until a security guard for the bank shooed her away.  We headed back to the bus stop and then while I was in the bathroom, an old man started chanting at Wendy.  We hopped on the bus quickly, not really sure what was happening.  Interesting experiences to say the least!  The bus ride was beautiful as we drove through the Moroccan countryside.  While the bus was stopped in the middle of the Rif Mountains, we saw a strange procession of men and tractors… we thought it might be a funeral procession but we’re still not sure.  After a long drive, we arrived in Tangier late that afternoon.  We headed to the medina to find our hostel, appropriately named the Melting Pot.  We talked to 2 Canadians who had just arrived in Morocco a few days ago and didn’t seem to be having a good time.  We tried to give them some ideas of things to do and places to see but they didn’t seem to want to leave the hostel.  Wendy and I were both frustrated because Morocco can be a little rough around the edges but you have to give it a chance.  You won’t learn or experience much by staying in a hostel, no matter where in the world it may be.
The next day, we woke up and had some delicious homemade msemen for breakfast.  We left our hostel and starting trying to find our way out of the medina.  While we were walking, a young boy starting asking us where we were from.  We just rolled our eyes and said we were Canadian because we were getting used to the unwanted attention and decided to have some fun with it.  The boy replied that he was actually related to President Obama.  We laughed but didn’t understand why Canadians would care much about President Obama.. We finally found our way out of the medina and headed towards the beach.  On the other side of the street, we noticed an old man across the street who trying to make eye contact with us while masturbating.  This was, by far, the most disturbing harassment I have received while in Morocco.  But we just looked away and kept walking, only a little quicker now.  It seemed to us that the harassment in Tangier overall was the worst we had experienced although this might be because we were traveling on our own, without any men, this time.

Finally, we reached the beach and walked along the ocean for a long time (Wendy’s phone said we walked 28,000 steps/12 miles in just 1 day 😳) even though it was pretty chilly.  We climbed over some rocks to get closer to the ocean for some for great pictures and we were even able to see Spain through the clouds!  We still don’t know whether we were looking at the Mediterranean or the Atlantic though..  It looked like it was going to rain so we left the beach and came across a great little shop.  The woman working was so nice and we each picked out some super comfy hippie pants and Wendy bought a jalaba (traditional Moroccan garb).  Then, we took a taxi to Cafe Hafa, a cafe that was highly recommended by one of Wendy’s professors.  There we sipped on the most amazing mint tea I have had in Morocco while watching the waves crash on the shore — I could have stayed there forever!  We noticed that these guys in front of us were rolling joints and smoking hashish, right in the cafe!  I was amazed that they were doing this so openly but in the Rif (where the term reefer comes from), it is all too common.  We headed back to the medina to shop for some souvenirs (found some great things for my family!) and got to practice our limited Arabic with the shop keepers, one even gave us a keychain for free!  We had been told that to avoid harassment, we should just keep walking and not pay them any attention.  While this may work in a lot of cases, we found that when we talked with most men (instead of seeing them as potential predators), they treated us with the utmost respect and we learned so much more about their lives, Tangier, and Morocco in general.

That night, we ate dinner at a fancy restaurant on the beach (splurge for Valentine’s Day!).  We realized then that people might think we were a couple — oh well.  We walked back towards our hostel and bought a donut that had cream in the middle, which was so delicious.  As we were walking through the medina, a man actually grabbed Wendy’s hair!  Her blond hair really seems to attract a lot of attention.  Apparently, he looked at his hand like he had just touched God in the flesh.  Never a dull moment!

In the morning, again, we ate a lot of msemen and talked to all the interesting people in our hostel.  The sick French guy was feeling better and he told us he was surprised that Americans would be studying abroad in Morocco.  We were glad to be breaking those ugly xenophobic stereotypes!  We headed off to St. Andrew’s Church in Tangier for their 11am service.  It was a really interesting service because everyone in this small group was either a European tourist or a sub-Saharan immigrant.  I was glad I got to go to church on Sunday morning, it was almost like being home!  Afterwards, we walked through the fish market, which was busy with activity.  It smelled horrible but there were lots of really interesting types of freshly caught fish for sale, as well as shark and eel!  Then we caught a grand taxi to take us to Cap Spartel, where Hercules supposedly connected the Atlantic & the Mediterranean to form the strait of Gibraltar.  On the way we saw the King’s palace where he spends about a month every summer.  When we arrived, we climbed around the rocks and soaked up the ocean views for a few hours before grabbing a bite to eat at the Cap Spartel restaurant.  It was such a wonderful, laid-back afternoon.  It did, howeve,r get really chilly and I finally understood why Tangier is a popular summer vacation spot.  We met our taxi driver and headed back to Tangier to pick up our bags from the hostel.  We bought tickets for a bus that left at midnight so we had plenty of time to kill.  We wandered through the medina one last time and bought some snacks for the trip home, including 2 kilos of clementines for just 6 dirham ($0.60)!  They were some of the best clementines I’ve ever had.  We then decided to go to a well-known movie theater, Cinema Rif, to see the movie Boyhood.  Luckily it was in English with French subtitles so we could actually understand what was happening!  It only cost about $2 and the movie was really quite good.  We sat in the Grand Socco (Tangier’s main square) and people watched until it was time to head to the bus station.  Interestingly enough, we saw 2 guys get arrested (for what, we don’t know).  We headed to the bust station where we met up with some other AUI students who helped us get faster & cheaper tickets.  The bus dropped us off at the gate at 7am and Wendy and I both headed back to our rooms for a nap.  Despite the chilly weather & sleep deprivation, we had a great time exploring a new area of Morocco.
 

Marrakech // مراكش 

So if you haven’t noticed, I’m not very good about blogging on a regular basis…  (sorry Mom!)  Writing just seems to take so much time & energy and in all honesty, I’ve been pretty busy over the past few weeks!  Between going to class, doing homework, trying to learn Arabic, making friends, and traveling on the weekends, there doesn’t seem to be much down time for me.  But this weekend, I finally stayed in Ifrane (اِفران) so I had the chance to catch up on everything and start writing again!  To make up for lost time, I’m going to do my best to post one blog everyday this week (ambitious, I know), starting with my trip to Marrakech, way back in January!

After being in Morocco for just 2 weeks, a big group of us international students decided that we wanted to go to Marrakech.  This was a relatively ambitious trip for a weekend because it’s an 8 hour bus ride from Ifrane to Marrakech, but we were excited to see “the Red City” so we packed a bag and hopped on a bus around 8am that Friday.  This was my first bus ride through Morocco and while I had planned to sleep on the bus, I didn’t want to close my eyes because of the astounding views!  The road to Marrakech goes past the High Atlas Mountains and we could see snow-covered peaks from the bus – always a majestic sight!  I also loved seeing donkeys hauling a mint harvest, shepherds guiding their sheep and everyday people just going about their daily lives.  Once we finally got to Marrakech, we grabbed a taxi and headed to Djemma el-Fna, the exciting main square of the old city.  We knew we needed to find a hotel before it got dark and eventually we found the most beautiful riad with decent wifi, big rooms, and comfy beds (what more does a college kid need?)!  Of course after our long journey we were starving so we found a restaurant that had a rooftop terrace overlooking the square and had some great couscous!  That night we decided to investigate the Marrakech party scene and went out to a massive club called 555.  They waived the Dh 200 cover for us so that was awesome!  By the time we got back to our hotel (around 3 or 4am), the square was completely empty — a very different scene from earlier that evening.

The next morning we checked into a cheaper hotel and met up with the other international students who had arrived.  We split up to investigate the winding streets of the souk.  Back in the square, my friends Abby, Wendy, and I got to hold a snake and played some of the street games.  That night we celebrated my friend Hannah’s birthday and had another crazy, late night out!  We even got shawarma at 4am and met some oth Americans who were studying abroad in Rabat.  Because a group of us didn’t have class on Monday, we purchased tickets for the 4:45am train while others left earlier on Sunday.  For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to stay up all night until we had to leave Monday morning so we would just sleep on the train, which left us with lots of time on our hands!  [Note: this was a horrible idea; maybe good in theory, but bad in practice. plus trains are not actually fun to sleep on!].  So we explored the Ville Nouvelle, where I found that there is a KFC & a Pizza Hut!  We walked through some of the beautiful gardens and stopped for some café au lait.  Later, we met up with our friends Mohamed and Anas who showed us the insider’s guide to Marrakech!  They helped us get deals in the souk and even gave us rides on Mohamed’s motorbike.  Cruising through the city at night was definitely one of the coolest experiences I have had to date!  Afterwards we headed to the train station early, boarded and eventually made it back to AUI, exhausted & disgusting.

While Marrakesh is still one of my absolute favorite cities in Morocco, it certainly can be overwhelming.  The merchants are aggressive, there are people begging on every street it seems and in square, the henna ladies come at you with their scary needles, and the snake charmers seem to come out of nowhere (with snakes!).  It can be stressful and even annoying at times but I also think there’s something powerful about getting lost in such a mass of humanity.  Just like the vast oceans and towering mountain peaks, busy Marrakesh reminded me how small we really are and how short our time in this life is, [Makes me think what we say on Ash Wesnesday: “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”] which I think is a good reminder every once in a while.  I know I’ll be back some day but until then, مَعَ السَّلامة  (good-bye) Marrakesh!

PS – I hope you noticed the Arabic writing throughout this post!  Now that I’ve learned all the letters, I am starting to be able to read and write in Arabic!  It is not an easy language at all, but I am enjoying the challenge.  Wish me luck on my midterm tomorrow.. 

 

the beginning // bdaaya

When I first stepped off the plane in Casablanca at 10am (about 24 hours after my journey began), I was relieved just to have finally landed in Morocco!  I quickly realized however that my trip would be far different than I expected.  All of the signs here are written in French or Arabic, which made me immediately regret not taking French in high school (Spanish is used only in the North here – I’m excited to test out my skills on a weekend trip to Tangier!).  Luckily the man I sat next to on the plane told me he was going to help me get on the train towards Ifrane.  I was a little wary of accepting this man’s help, after all I had only met him 9 hours ago, but I was so tired and overwhelmed that I gratefully followed him to the train station.  He helped me with my baggage and made sure that I got onto the right train.  I don’t know where I would have ended up, had it not been for this man’s kindness.  All along the trip to Ifrane, everyone was so kind and willing to help me find my way.  The Moroccans I have met have truly lived up to their reputation as exceptionally friendly hosts.

After a 4 hour train ride from Casablanca to Fez, I met the student ambassadors from AUI at the train station.  I was so relieved to have made it and excited to finally see the university where I would be spending the next 4 months.  I was also dying to get out of the clothes I had been wearing for almost 36 hours (ew).  Lucky for me we still had an hour long car ride to the university!

I finally made it back to the university and was able to settle into my dorm and meet some of the other international students who had already arrived.  Orientation started bright and early the next day where they treated us to a traditional Moroccan spread during the breaks: orange and apricot juice, mint tea (this is SO delicious), msemen (similar to a pancake), and hasha (a corn meal pancake).  Al Akhawayn’s campus is absolutely beautiful, it was designed to be similar to buildings in the Alps.  Even on the second day of orientation when it started to snow, Al Akhawayn’s campus is absolutely beautiful.  It was designed to be similar to buildings in the Alps and there are so many breathtaking views.  I’ve tried to capture the views in picture on Facebook but I’m afraid they fall a bit short.

My first week in Morocco was a little rough as I tried to adjust to life in another country.  Figuring out my way around campus, making new friends and just learning how everything works here was challenging and if I’m being entirely truthful, I wondered what on earth I was doing living in Africa thousands of miles away from my family, friends, and everything familiar.  But challenges are to be expected and I was glad to get into a routine once classes started.  I have an easy semester with only 12 credits (compared to my normal 19 or 20 – LOL) but I wanted to make sure that I had time to travel and enjoy time with new friends.  My classes will be both challenging and interesting as I’m studying Women in Society and Politics, Beginning Arabic, Islamic Art & Architecture, and Technical Writing.

Classes began on January 19th and we wasted no time getting to explore Morocco!  On the 25th, a group of friends and I took a grand taxi to Fez, which is about an hour away from campus.  We walked through the old medina, did some shopping at the mall (very similar to any American mall) and had a delicious lunch of tagine, tea, and a spread of Moroccan desserts!  In the medina, there are generally no set prices so people barter for everything.  With some help from my Arabic-speaking friends, I’ve learned to start low and not to give in until you get an acceptable price.  I was able to snag some good deals on souvenirs for my family & friends with my new skills 😀

People always make any experience memorable and my weeks in Morocco have been no exception.  I’ve travelled around with the 2 other girls from Dayton, Camila and Wendy.  We didn’t know each other really at all before we got here but in just a month we’ve become great friends.  I also met 2 other girls who live and go to school in Ohio, it really is a small world!  All of the international students are such thoughtful & interesting people and I have had so much fun getting to know them.  It’s also been fun getting to talk with Moroccan students as well.  I love getting to hear their different thoughts on everything from boys to politics to traveling.

That’s about it for this post but every week I’ll try to post some of the interesting things I’ve learned about Morocco. Starting with…

  • 40% of Moroccans are illiterate, 60% of whom are women; an astounding number
  • the average monthly income for a family of 6 in Morocco is about Dh 3000, close to $300 USD
  • Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation
  • Normally Moroccans only eat couscous on Friday (and is so much better homemade than when it comes in a box!)
  • AUI was founded with funding from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia so Al Akhawayn (which means Two Brothers) refers to the close relationship between King Fahd and King Hassan II of Morocco

Look out for my next post about my weekend in Marrakech soon! Ma’a salaam // good-bye!

 

marhaba al-maghreb! // hello morocco!

Well, I arrived safe & sound in Morocco!  It took me a while to set up my blog [mainly because I couldn’t think of a good name] but I finally figured it out and am ready to tell you [all 3 of you maybe?] all about my adventures studying abroad!

First, I know many of you are wondering why I chose to study abroad in Morocco.  Paris, Rome, London; there are so many other amazing places to visit, why on earth would I choose to go to a country where toilet paper is not normally found in public restrooms?  A few reasons…

  1.  I have always wanted to study & travel abroad and UD has an exchange program with AUI which makes it super easy to study here.
  2.  I’ve never been one to follow the crowd and while Europe is where many college students go to study [and a place I intend to see sooner or later], I couldn’t see myself there.  I wanted a different experience, so I chose to go to Africa!
  3.  Morocco is a beautiful country, filled with history and many different landscapes.  I can’t wait to see the Mediterranean and the coast of Spain, the beaches of the Atlantic, the ancient & disorienting medina in Fez, the snake charmers of Marrakech, the glitzy houses of Casablanca, and the beginning of the Sahara desert!
  4.  I have loved learning about the Middle East and North Africa in a few of my humanities classes at UD and I have always wanted to see all the wonders the region has to offer in person.  It breaks my heart that tensions are so high and that certain areas are consumed by violent conflict.  I know I’m just a 21-year-old from Ohio, but I fully believe that making personal connections across the globe and meeting & talking with people who may think, act, and live differently than we do, are the most important steps to peace.

Because this is such an incredible opportunity, there are a few people I have to thank:

Mom & Dad – Thanks for putting up with my shenanigans, as always.  I can’t imagine what went through your head when I first “Hey, I’m going to go to Morocco next year!” Thanks for still supporting me and loving me every step of the way.

Rachel – Thanks for letting me leave even though this is one of the most EXCITING semesters of your life!  I’m so proud of all of the things you have accomplished and you’re going to do so many even more incredible things in your life.  Just know that I’ll always be your biggest fan, wherever I am!

Auntie & Vince – Thanks for being my travel inspirations and allowing me to see the world through your eyes.  I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated your support over the last few months and I can’t wait to travel with you again in May!

Allie, Maria, and Sondra – Thanks for taking this journey with me and getting a little lost and confused in your own study abroad experiences.  I couldn’t ask for better friends and roommates to miss while we’re apart!

And thanks to everyone in my life who has worried about, prayed for, and encouraged me.  I appreciate you more than you know!

Well, I think that’s enough sap for one blog post.  I’ll do my best to post at least once a week.  I’ll fill you in on my journey, the first days in Morocco and my trip to Fez this past weekend soon!

 

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