The Long Night (or, the journey back from Marrakech)

If you haven’t already, you can read the first part of this adventure in The Red City.

(Mostly) written at Gare Rabat Ville, Sunday, 7:15 a.m.

After finishing up my escapade in Marrakech by reuniting with a friend for dinner, I leave the chaos of Djemaa el-Fna for the last time, and head for the train station. At almost 9 p.m., there are only two trains on the tracks, and only one with a lit sign: Tanger, it read. That’s me…I think. There’s no track for my train listed anywhere that I can find, but there can’t be more than one train going to the same destination this late at night. I climb into the still unlit carriage, and pick one of the many empty seats, setting my backpack on the seat next to me to prevent anyone from joining me unless absolutely necessary. A few more people straggle in, and after about 20 minutes of waiting in the dark, the engines start to hum, the lights flare, and we set off. The announcement reads off the stations that the train will be stopping at in rapid Arabic; I don’t recognize any of them, at least not as places that were on the manifest inside the station. I remind myself that there was only one running train on the tracks, so I must be on the right one, before settling back into my seat and leaning my head against the window, trying not to be distracted by the group of four young men across the aisle, at least one of whom is openly leering at me every time I look over. The one wearing an orange sweatshirt, hood pulled up and over his face, is the worst; he has to completely turn around in his seat to see me. It must be doing some damage to his back, to sit like that for so long. I set the alarm on my phone for 1:30 a.m., stretch out into the second seat which I managed to save, and using my backpack as a makeshift pillow, attempt to get some sleep.

I start to doze, but each time the train pulls into another unrecognizable minor station (Sidi Bou Othmane? Where the hell is that?), I wake up and get slightly more concerned that I somehow made it onto the wrong train. An officer walks along and punches my ticket, but glances so quickly that I doubt if he actually read it. Oh well. I’m here now, so there’s nothing to do about it. I look to my right, directly at the man in the orange hoodie, who is staring again. He looks away, but only for as long as I am watching. As soon as I turn my head back towards the window, I sense his gaze on me once more. It’s now after midnight.

A little before 1 a.m., I start seeing lights outside my window, which stretch out for huge distances in every direction. After all of the darkened stations that we’d passed through, this sign of life makes me feel much better. We are at Casa Voyageurs. I very briefly consider getting off, but now knowing that we are at least heading in the right direction, I feel more secure. I know that there will be stops closer to Rabat than this one, so I lay my head against the window and try to ignore the smoke that fills the carriage each time the train pauses on it’s journey. After a couple of minutes, the train is turned off, the lights go dark, and with the roar of the engines gone, the world seems eerily silent. We sit in Casablanca for nearly an hour. When the lights finally come back on, I look over. Grey sweatshirt across the aisle is smiling at me again, and not in a very friendly way. I look the other direction.

The train jerks forward as we pull out of the station, and I wonder if the stop was scheduled for this long, or if we were delayed. We are supposed to be arriving in Rabat in less than half an hour, but I know that Casablanca is too far for us to make that station on schedule. We next come to a halt at 1:53, the exact time that the train was supposed to arrive at Rabat Ville. I don’t know where this place is, but it definitely isn’t Rabat. Another officer punches my ticket, and appears to actually read it. He smiles, says “merci,” and hands it back to me, without saying anything else. I feel a little better now. The train keeps moving.

We continue to pass through darkness, lights sporadically cropping up with me thinking each time that we might stop, but it never happens. Finally, at almost 3 a.m., an hour after the scheduled arrival time, I start to see buildings outside my window, a few lit signs, and lights inside houses that stretched out for miles. Please be Rabat, please be Rabat, I think to myself over and over. “Rabat Agdar,” the announcement reads out. I sigh my relief, and briefly debate getting off here, just in case they don’t stop at Rabat Ville for some reason. I decide that the other station is probably larger and nicer, so I stay on the train, and a few minutes later hear “Rabat Ville” over the loudspeaker. I glance out my window, and recognize the platform from the last time I was in the city: I made it. The young men across the aisle are also getting off here, it seems. I don’t make any move to get up as the train slows to a stop. Only after they have packed their belongings and disembarked do I follow them down the steps. For once, they don’t look back.

I walk inside the station, which is much smaller than I remember it. More importantly, there’s not a single bench or seat on the main floor, and at this time of night, the other two levels are barricaded off. The café is still open, though, so after I glance around the station, I sit down inside. The server comes over and says “Bonsoir,” but my brain isn’t functioning at this point, and all that comes out of my mouth is “Thé.” He’s gone before I realize that he greeted me, so I spend the rest of my interactions with him being overly polite to make up for it. There are signs saying “interdit de fumer” all across the station, including on the café walls, but each time a man walks in and lights up, the only response is for the server to bring out an ashtray. After about 45 minutes of this, I can’t bear the smoke anymore, so I pay and leave. The large station entrances are open to the chilly night air, so I find an out of the way corner, and join a couple of other late night travelers in sitting on the floor to wait. It isn’t too uncomfortable, but within minutes, the station guards come and force us to get up. The two Moroccans are rather unceremoniously grabbed and pulled up off of the floor, but one friendly night guard explains in French and broken English to me that we’re not allowed to sit. If we want to sit, we have to buy something in the café and sit in there.

He doesn’t know the word warm, so he just keeps repeating that the café is more “chaud” than the rest of the station, and asks me if I want something. I reply in French that I got a drink there earlier, so I’m not thirsty, but I might get something later. Now speaking solely in French too, he asks if I have enough money, and offers to buy me coffee. I thank him, but tell him that I don’t want anything at the moment. He walks off, telling me to find him if I need anything at all. I spend the next two hours walking in circles around the small station, back and forth, back and forth, pausing occasionally to try to read the names in Arabic on the train schedule, check the time, or to glance into the café and judge whether the nausea and headaches caused by the smoke would be worth warming up for. From time to time, the friendly guard will stop and try to ask me whether I take my coffee with milk or not so that he can buy me some, or just to shoo off the group of three young men who are perpetually following me around the station making lewd comments in French in between whining “please, please.” I don’t know what they want, nor do I care. I politely decline the guard’s offer of coffee, tell him that I appreciate it but that I really am okay, and he tells me he thinks I need it because I have tired eyes. “Ça a été une longue nuit,” I agree. As I get more tired, my French is deteriorating, and I’m not sure how much of what I’m saying actually makes sense anymore. It’s at least correct enough that he gets my meaning, though, and he smiles and shrugs before going back to his work.

Just before 5 a.m., he walks over and starts talking to me. We discuss the fact that I’m traveling alone, which he thinks isn’t safe. He notes that there are men “très méchants” around. I nod my awareness. We talk about my family back in America, the trip that I just took to Marrakech, and where I’m going next. I tell him that I am on my way to Meknes, which as it turns out, is his ville d’origine. We talk a bit about Meknes, and then about Ifrane, my eventual destination later in the day. As the lower level starts to open for the 5:15 train departures, I wander off and down the stairs, where, miracle of all miracles, there are benches. It feels good to sit down after hours of pacing, but the entire lower level is open to the platforms, and with the sun still hidden below the horizon, the wind chills me to the bone.

To distract myself from the shivering, I pull out my kindle and spend the next hour reading War and Peace. The Moroccan girl sitting next to me has just finished her book as well; she turns and asks me if I speak English, and then asks for a recommendation. She says she likes classics. I tell her what I am reading, and she has me write the title out inside the cover of her book before thanking me profusely, kissing me on each cheek, and then getting on the 5:45 train going south. I spend a few minutes pondering how unfair it is of me to consider her a friendly stranger, whereas had it been a man in her place I would have made presumptions about his intentions and been far less inclined to talk, before deciding that this realization probably wasn’t going to change my future reactions much and returning to my reading.

By 6:10, I can’t take the cold anymore. I get up and walk upstairs, intending to get more tea, but there isn’t a single table to be had inside the café, and 90% of the patrons are smoking anyways. I walk back downstairs. I see another café start to open, but decide to give them a few minutes before I make my way inside. While I’m waiting, a nicely dressed older gentlemen next to me asks if I too am going to Meknes. He is from El Hajeb, in between Meknes and Ifrane, so we are heading in the same direction this morning. Unlike with most of the other men I have met in the past couple of days, I get a good feeling about him, and contentedly stand there as he chatters away in French. Luckily, I catch most of what he is saying, and we spend the next half an hour conversing about his recent trip to Germany, the rise of China and Japan on the world stage, and whether or not the English language is going to remain as prominent as it has been in recent history. I apologize for my somewhat broken French, and he shakes his head, telling me that French is the language of the past, no longer important. I tell him about an article that I read recently which suggested the opposite, due to the large number of francophone African countries that are on the rise. He remains skeptical. We move on to discuss the importance of cultural exchanges, and I explain to him that I am studying international relations at university, and that I’m in the middle of studying abroad at AUI. He replies that it’s a good university and a good chance for me, and smiles broadly when I tell him about the benefits I feel I’ve experienced from living in Morocco. After almost thirty minutes of dialogue, I excuse myself, and go into the downstairs café to get something warm to drink. I’ve now been in the chilly station without a coat for four hours.

In the café, I sit down and order, and the owner – “Tobibo, call me Toby” – strikes up a conversation. He’s not Moroccan, but rather from Sub-Saharan Africa. He asks if I’m French, and I’m not sure whether to be flattered that he still thinks I’m French even after having heard me speak the language, or just to think that he has no ear for accents. Probably the latter. We talk sporadically while I finish my drink, and he asks if we can skype so that he can practice his English. Too tired to do anything else, I smile and nod, with a warning that I rarely if ever am actually on skype, which doesn’t dampen his spirits at all. I say goodbye, and walk down to the platform.

When the train arrives fifteen minutes later, there is only one other person in my compartment, a young man, sitting by the window with his tablet out and earbuds in. I sit opposite from him and by the compartment door, closing it to block out the cool air for the first time in hours. It feels heavenly. Just as I thought we were going to get away with having the room to ourselves, a Moroccan woman walks in with two suitcases and a three or four year old girl, whom she lays on the seat next to me. One more young man joins us before we leave the station, sitting directly across from me and limiting my leg room as well. I quadruple check the train number this time, set my cell phone alarm for 9 a.m., and do my best to get some sleep. I was going to use my backpack as a pillow, but by the time I looked over, the little girl had stretched out her tiny feet and was using it as part of her bed, so I let her have it and double over in my seat, resting my head on my knees. A few seconds later, I feel someone poking me. I look up, and the first man from the compartment smiles and hands me a note reading “Tu as l’air fatiguée, viens prendre ma place, elle est plus confortable! :)” Or, for any non-French readers, “You seem tired, come take my place, it’s more comfortable!” I give him an “Are you sure?” look, and he nods and smiles again. He has translated the note into English as well, but giddy with the fact that for at least the last 12 hours or so, I haven’t spoken any English, but have managed to have multiple actual conversations, with actual French speaking people (i.e., not my French professor and/or classmates), I ignore the English translation. “Merci beaucoup” I whisper, as to not wake our sleeping companions, and go take his seat, which is indeed far more comfortable. Within minutes I am sound asleep, jerking awake only when the train stops at each station. At one point I hear the two men quietly conversing about going to Ifrane from Meknes, and I briefly wonder if they too will be in need of a grand taxi when we arrive, before dozing off again. At 9 a.m., I wake up in an instant, afraid that I may have overslept and missed my stop, even though it hadn’t been quite long enough. I force myself to stay awake after that, though, knowing we’re close. The train reaches Meknes Al-Amir first (the smaller of two small stations in town), and the man still sitting in my seat by the door hands me one more note before leaving. “Je te laisse mon numéro si jamais tu as besoin de quelque chose – Oussama.” This note wasn’t translated - my “merci” from earlier must have been convincing. In English, it reads “I am leaving you my number if you ever need something – Oussama.” The note was followed by his cell phone number. I smile and nod my thanks, still very appreciative of the chance to get a little much needed rest, but not wanting to wake up the others in the compartment. He returns the smile and leaves. I sit for a minute, then decide that I’m ready to get off the train, even if this isn’t technically my stop, and jump down onto the platform as well. Walking to the door of the station, the first person I run into is calling out “Ifrane! Ifrane!” I head over and join four other girls waiting next to his beaten up Mercedes, this one with a seatbelt and a plywood board preventing the front seats from collapsing into the back (this is the primary function of seatbelts in grand taxis, but the plywood is new to me). There are two Asian girls in the backseat with me, and though I don’t know where they are from, their accents match that of the Japanese girl in my French class. They spend most of the ride joyfully taking selfies and pictures out the window, before one falls asleep on my shoulder. I soon started to doze off as well. The hour of rest on the train had been just enough to make my body feel the sleep deprivation of the past two nights, and by the time I get to campus, it is all I can do to make the long walk back up to my dorm room and take a quick shower before collapsing into bed and sleeping for six hours straight.

Now, since this originated as a post about Marrakech, I guess I’ll give my conclusions on the city, in a paragraph written back in that quiet park on Saturday afternoon:

Maybe this isn’t the Marrakech that I was meant to see. It’s not the tourism-driven insanity of the medina, the hawkers with their overpriced trinkets, the snake charmers or the street performers with chained monkeys as their captives. It isn’t something that you’ll find listed in the guidebooks, but this is the Marrakech I will remember. The quiet parks every couple of blocks, providing oases from the rest of the city; the cat lazing in the sun on the bench next to me, both of us on an island in an ocean of trees; the breeze blowing just enough to keep me cool on a warm day, and the locals passing by, for the moment ambivalent about the white girl taking up one of their benches. This is my Marrakech.

Categories: Marrakech, Morocco, Rabat, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Red City

Written Saturday afternoon, 2 p.m.

Marrakech…what to say about Marrakech? It seems to be a polarizing place. Most people that I asked before coming here had a response of either “Marrakech! I love that city!” or “I don’t understand why it’s popular…so overrated.” I haven’t decided yet how I feel, despite being nearly halfway through my (admittedly short) stay here.

After arriving with a friend on a delayed train at nearly 11 p.m., and spending the better portion of an hour in the warren of alleyways next to Djemaa el-Fna, we were ensnared by one of the unofficial guides, who, walking in front of us with another man behind to block us in, led us down an unlit passage barely wide enough to walk through. Eventually, after a stop for directions himself, he did get us to our riad unharmed, where, of course, money was demanded (and paid). Past midnight at this point, I, at least, was beyond the point of caring. Before leaving, our guide helpfully pointed out that had we simply turned right one street sooner when we started our search, we would have been at the door of our riad in a matter of seconds. Good to know.

We eventually got to supper at around 1 a.m., with the colors and sounds of Djemaa el-Fna almost imperceptibly beginning to die down around us. This definitely doesn’t feel like the Morocco I’ve come to know in the past three months. Perhaps that is why so many people don’t like it here. It’s busy and lively, a never-ending stream of things to see and do, but there is a definite manufactured feeling about the whole place. Despite the fact that Djemaa el-Fna has been around since at least the 11th century, it feels as though it was built for tourists.

Saturday, though, was going to prove to be the real test of the city; this morning, I left my (it’s important to note, male) friend, and we went our separate ways, he to the airport and I to the train station to buy my ticket back to Rabat for tonight. Other than the usual calls of “Hey, beautiful,” “Ma princesse, vous êtes très belle! Where are you going?” and the general attention from taxi drivers suffered by everyone on the street, the 40 minute walk was surprisingly uneventful. I bought my ticket for this evening, sat down for a brief lunch, and then left the heavenly a/c to head back to…somewhere. I wasn’t quite sure where yet.

I made it back to the Place du 16 Novembre without trouble, where I saw an intriguing looking green area, in the midst of the otherwise brown landscape surrounding me. I stepped inside the iron gates, and found myself transported to a small, lush, quiet paradise, the Jardin Harti. It seemed as good a place as any to take a brief respite from the rays of sun beating down on me, so I sat down on a garden bench, pulled out a borrowed guidebook, and started flipping through the pages. Soon enough I found a section detailing the Bahia Palace, which sounded lovely and didn’t look too far out of my way. I stood up and kept walking, onto Avenue Mohammed V, the street which eventually winds back around to Djemaa el-Fna, AKA tourist central.

I hadn’t made it two blocks before a middle-aged man in a djellaba called out to me. I kept walking. Sure enough, though, I looked over, and there he was, still trailing me. Just keep walking, he’ll lose interest.

“Parlez-vous français?” he asks.

“Un peu,” is my reply.

“English? Where are you from?”

“America,” I answer. Why am I engaging? I should know better.

“Ahhh, American. Americans are usually nice! Why won’t you talk to me? You have problems with men in Marrakech?”

“A little,” I say in English this time, mentally adding Are you going to be one of them?

In response to my unasked question, he states “I hope I am not one.” Uh-huh, sure. “Where are you going?”

“Just walking.” I don’t know where I’m going, but it isn’t wherever you’re going.

“Go the other way, the other way is better.” I point out that I just came from the other way. “The square?” Nope. Stayed there last night. Been there, done that. “Do you mind if I walk with you?”

“If you’d like,” I reply without slowing down. He falls into step beside me. Less than a minute passes before he asks me if I would like to get tea with him later. One “non, merci,” and he fades into the background. Was it really that easy?

Exactly one intersection later, a second djellaba-clad middle-aged man found me waiting to cross. “Vous êtes française?”

“Non, je suis américaine.” I say, simultaneously changing my stance so that I’m facing away from him. He asks if I like Marrakech, I say yes. He asks what state I’m from, I tell him Texas. He says “That’s a good state!” so wholeheartedly that he drags a genuine smile out of me, giving him enough confidence to try to shake my hand and introduce himself. I half-heartedly respond in kind. In his Arabic accented English, he then tells me that he’s an American Indian…okay, then. Whatever you say. I smile and nod without replying. He asks if I’ve been to the medina, and when I say that I have, he informs me that a special market is going on, that only happens once a week. Sensing a sales pitch coming on, I’m preparing my exit strategy, when without prompting, he gives me a friendly pat on the shoulder and crosses the street. Perhaps I judged too harshly, and too soon.

I continued on my way much in the same manner until I spotted another small haven of green away from the dusty, busy streets with their honking hours and hordes of tourists (yes, I do realize I am one of them). Inside the park, tall grass surrounds rows of orange trees, there are nicely bricked in walls protecting flowerbeds, gravel pathways, and signs proclaiming things like “Arroser la nature, ne la rasez pas!” and reminding people to throw away their trash. I have spent the last part of my afternoon sitting here under the shade of the palms writing this, hearing only the sounds of chirping birds around me; somehow the chaos outside fails to penetrate the walls of this place, and occasionally I have to look around and remind myself that I am still, in fact, in Morocco. I stay for some unknown amount of time, unbothered by anyone for the time being.

But there is a man on the bench across from me. He stands when I do, and from behind me I hear “Hi! How are you?” I pretend not to hear, but he follows, then runs to catch up when I quicken my pace. “Do you speak English?” I nod. “Where are you from?”

“America.”

“What state?”

“Texas.”

“Do you like Marrakech?”

It’s strange, but I feel like I’ve had this conversation before somewhere…

It eventually ends with an invitation to coffee, which I politely decline, and we part ways on good terms. A couple of steps later, a young man in jeans and a backwards baseball cap yells “Hey!” Either out of habit or surprise, I glance over at the grass where he is sitting; he is making suggestive noises and motioning me over. I roll my eyes; his friends laugh. I keep walking, and before the laughter dies down, I get another proposition, this time in French. I have four more such encounters before I make it to the gate, maybe 50 meters away. Back into the fray, then.

To be continued…

P.S. Due to the amount of attention I was already receiving, and a distinct lack of interest in gaining any more, and also possibly just laziness on my part, my camera didn’t come out of my backpack a single time on this trip. Désolé, but text will have to suffice for now.

Categories: Culture, Marrakech, Morocco, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blue City

When you look up places worth visiting in Morocco, the town of Chefchaouen nearly always makes the list. Situated high in the foothills of the Rif mountain range near the northern coast, and seeming very isolated from the rest of the chaos in Morocco, Chaouen doesn’t feel quite real somehow. Nearly everything in town is painted some shade of blue, giving it even more the atmosphere of some kind of wonderland paradise. For this blue paint, I’ve heard two explanations: 1) That the town was painted by Jewish refugees in the 1930s, when it was still owned by Spain, and the color stuck, and 2) that the color blue helps to repel mosquitoes and other altitude-loving insects that like to bite humans at those elevations. I won’t claim to know which reason is the real one, but I do not, in fact, remember seeing any bugs around town, so maybe it’s working as repellent regardless!

In any case, I wasn’t able to see any of this until I’d already been in town for 12 hours, thanks to early afternoon classes on Friday, and a bus driver who was most certainly running on Moroccan time (read: late and getting later by the minute). My travel buddy and I finally arrived at the deserted bus station at around 21:30 (the ETA was over an hour earlier), and whilst in the process of looking for a taxi, were approached by no less than three drug dealers. Fun fact: the area around Chefchaouen provides some 40% of the world’s marijuana, and to some Moroccans, there is a perception that if you travel there it means you must be looking for drugs. After shooing away the dealers with many recitations of “la, shukran,” we stood on a dark street corner watching one, two, three empty taxis go by without picking us up, before finally climbing in to an only slightly sketchy van to take us to our hostel. After some minor miscommunications, one stop to read a map, and two more to ask directions, we finally made it to Hostel Aline, our wallets only 5 dhs lighter.

The next morning dawned early, but with breakfast came a majestic rooftop view of the surrounding mountains that at the time of our arrival had been mere shadows in the night. After a standard Moroccan meal of bread, tea, and various forms of sugar, we headed down into town for the first time. Unlike the medina of Fez, the medina of Chefchaouen is calm, clean, easily navigable, and fairly quiet. Only once did we have to wait behind a donkey-cum-cart, and although we spent a couple of minutes plastered against a wall as a van drove down a path that was never intended to be a road, it was a pleasant and peaceful place, with surprisingly unaggressive (but savvy) vendors.

We slowly worked our way towards the Kasbah, which lies at the heart of the medina. Though small, it has a lush garden and a great view of the city from the tower above the old prison. Under overcast skies, we continued our journey out of town, and up towards the abandoned Spanish mosque standing on a hill above the city. From the mosque, it was easy to see exactly how endless the landscape was: rocky mountains and lush fields stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, interrupted only by the occasional small town tucked into a valley. We sat on a wall looking out over Chaouen, the quietness only disrupted by the call to prayer ringing out from several different mosques in the surrounding area, but somehow it seemed to fit, the perfect background music to this otherwise desolate location.

I could have stayed up there all day, the ideal place to sit and consider the changes in my life this past semester, but the temperature was quickly dropping, and as we started our steep descent down a muddy trail, the rain started to come down. It fit the mood perfectly as we picked our way through the crumbling blue graves of a cemetery before walking back up into town, the staircase a veritable waterfall after the shower. We found a temporary escape from the rain inside one of the few restaurants still open for lunch, made a quick failed attempt to find a museum, and ended up at the small Ras El-Maa waterfall, before trying to find the CTM station to buy our tickets home for the next day.

The station wasn’t on any map we possessed, so we took the scenic route through the city, making more than one wrong turn but stumbling across some cool places as a result. Eventually, by following our instincts and remembering enough from that first dark night to know to go downhill, we managed to find our way to the gare routiere, where we were told that the 13:15 bus back to Fez was already full. Okay, 10:30 then. We’d have to wake up a little earlier, but at least we could get back to campus and have some time to relax before Monday morning classes.

After the tickets were bought, we spent an uneventful evening soaking up the atmosphere and eating some delicious food before our long trip back in the morning, which went something like this:

09:00 Alarm goes off

09:20 We put the finishing touches on our packing and eat breakfast

09:40 We catch a taxi to the CTM station

10:06 We arrive 24 minutes early for our bus

10:25 A CTM bus arrives, and we ask the driver if it is the bus to Fez.

10:26 The driver explains in French that we are an hour late and that it is almost 11:30

10:27 We realize that the “spring forward” half of daylight savings time in Morocco occurred in the middle of the night

10:28 We feel very stupid, but also manage to get tickets for the 13:15 but that is mysteriously no longer full

17:30 We arrive back in Fez, slightly later than anticipated, but in plenty of time to do our homework before Monday morning

I can now say, with only the slightest hesitation, that Chefchaouen has quickly replaced Rabat as my favorite place in Morocco. It’s a small mountain town with a big personality, and although there might not seem like much to do, it’s well worth a visit to this out of the way place. If you ever find yourself in Morocco and looking for a quiet place to recharge, Chefchaouen definitely gets my vote. My only regret is that I didn’t have more time there.

Categories: Chefchaouen, Morocco, Photos, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

¡Vamos a Barcelona! (part II)

If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can read part one of this post here.

By the halfway point of our trip to Barcelona, the shock of readjusting to a western culture had worn off somewhat and we started widening the scope of our excursions. On our fourth full day in the country, we finally decided to make the trip to the famed Sagrada Família Basilica, started by Antoni Gaudí in 1882, and still under construction. Even in its unfinished state – estimated end dates for construction are in the late 2020s, some 145 years after first breaking ground - the building is impressive enough to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During this leg of the journey, our combined lack of any sense of direction was highlighted even more than usual. After stepping out of the metro station conveniently labeled “Sagrada Família,” we immediately turned to our trusty map of Barcelona moving to check a side street and figure out what direction we were facing, oblivious to the masses of tourists taking pictures right in front of us. After about 30 seconds of discussing which direction we should walk, we turned around to try and find another street sign, and found ourselves standing in the shadow of a towering building surrounded by crowds and construction workers…well, at least we didn’t start walking in the wrong direction this time.

Given the line wrapping around three sides of the building and the €20 entrance fee, we opted to enjoy the architecture from the outside and then move on to another of Gaudí’s works and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Parc Güell. Up on a hill in the Gràcia district, the park provides yet another beautiful perspective of the city, although it was admittedly a bit smoggy while we were there. The site was originally meant to be a residential area, created by Eusebi Bacigalupi, the first Count of Güell, but after two houses were built and nobody offered to buy them, Gaudí took up residence there with his family. We spent a long afternoon wandering around the park, and decided with aching feet in mind to eat somewhere that we knew was near our hostel, relatively cheap, and…okay, actually, we just broke down and wanted to eat something totally familiar for the first time in over two months. We got sandwiches at Subway, and after so long without any American food, they could have charged me €20 and I probably would have happily agreed.

After our by then standard afternoon nap, we made plans to go to a jazz club for the evening, Jazz Sí. Unfortunately, in a moment of bag switching our directions got left at the hostel, so all we had to work with was the name of the metro station in closest proximity to the club. After 10 or so minutes of wandering the darkened streets of what appeared to be a Middle Eastern section of Barcelona – we got very excited when we recognized Arabic writing on store fronts, just like at home – we stopped to ask for directions and were led into a Pakistani internet café, where a friendly local let us print directions from his computer.

By now, you’ve probably gotten a sense for how well we read maps, so you probably won’t be surprised to find out that even with step by step directions, it still took us a solid 15-20 minutes to find the club, only a few streets over from the metro stop we arrived at. It’s a good thing we were born in the era of GPS. Unfortunately, by the time we managed to find our way to the club, we only got to hear the band play for about half an hour before closing time; fortunately, we had come on the one day a week that the price of entrance is a drink, so a €3 coke got me in the door, and as far as I’m concerned was a bargain for the fantastic music that we got to hear.

Thursday was our biggest day, our day to make the trip to the Monserrat Monastery, around 45 km outside of Barcelona. We grudgingly rose early, ate a light breakfast (take note: this will be important later), and worked our way to the Plaça Espanya metro stop, where after our usual couple minutes of being utterly lost, we eventually bought our train tickets and found the necessary platform. The hour long train ride out to the monastery was mostly uneventful, except when we glanced out a window and happened to see “الأخوين” – Al Akhawayn, the brothers, AKA the name of our school in Morocco – written on the side of a building.

We had just begun our climb into the mountains and were starting to marvel at the scenery when the train stopped and we all piled off. There were two options for the rest of the trip up: cable car or funicular. We opted to take the funicular up the mountain rather than the cable car, since we had been in one of those earlier in the week, so a few minutes later, we all filed into another train compartment and set off. We quickly learned that it was a bad idea to look down, not so much because of the height as our proximity to the unprotected cliff face (hint: the tracks ran so close to the edge that part of the train car was out past the ledge at some points), but the views were worth peeking at regardless. After another 23 minutes, we climbed out of the funicular, left the station, and found ourselves standing outside of a basilica overlooking the town of Monistrol down below, the buildings mere specks from our elevation.

We spent a while looking through the outdoor courtyard areas surrounding the church, and even managed to sneak a few minutes inside the cathedral before mass started. We then got on the even steeper second half of the funicular, for the trip up to the very top. I thought that the views from the mid-point were beautiful, but those from the mountaintops were absolutely breathtaking. At 4,000 feet above sea level, the air is clean and clear, free of pollution. There is a quietness and solitude about being up high that is unlike anything else, and after hiking out a ways, we spent a lot of time just sitting, staring out into the openness.

By this point, we had started to feel the first twinges of hunger coming on, but pushing that to the side, we continued hiking on, towards the Ermita de Saint Joan. Fifteen minutes later, the twinges had become pangs, and we had to take a breather in a cave to the side of the steep stone staircase we were climbing. We eventually did make it to the top, and after an impromptu photo shoot, climbed back down, the lack of food finally taking it’s toll, seven hours after we had last eaten.

Waiting on the train to leave. We need fooood!

Waiting on the train to leave. We need fooood!

After two of our three member band coming close to blacking out on the mountain, and in the train station, and on the train, we stepped outside of the metro and into the first restaurant we saw, which also happened to serve one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten. Granted, part of that is probably the memories of hunger talking, but that falafel and hummus tasted pretty delicious.

We had planned our week well, and seen everything we wanted to see and more, so we took Friday as our day off, our last day of r&r in Spain before heading back to real life in Morocco. We were certainly feeling the loss of our new home (and the damage the Euro had done to our wallets), and were all looking forward to getting back to Fez the next day, but we also wanted to enjoy every last moment of our time in Europe. We spent the day meandering slowly through the streets of the Gothic Quarter once more, stopping to translate graffiti and peer into local stores rather than for photo ops. We stumbled across a free art exhibit put on by students at the Universitat de Barcelona, found our way into the peaceful inner courtyard of a 9th century building which today houses a medical school, and more than anything just wandered, committing as many details to memory as possible before our imminent departure.

As the day wound down, we found ourselves heading in the direction of the beach one last time, to see the sun set over the Mediterranean. After an hour of playing in the waves before dark, and close to an hour regretting my decision to leave behind my towel after dark, we returned to within a few blocks of our hostel for our last meal in Spain, at the same restaurant that we ate dinner at that first night. Yes, the American diner. Judge away.

Less than twelve hours later, we walked out of our hostel for the last time, slightly zombie-like, bought a not quick enough breakfast, and went to the nearby bus station where the Aerobus had dropped us off when we had arrived. Then we waited. And we waited. And when the bus came, the driver said Plaça Catalonya and drove off. What does that mean? Do we need to walk to Plaça Catalonya? Was the bus going to Plaça Catalonya? With no good alternatives, we grabbed our bags and started walking for the nearby square, where, luckily, there was a line of four Aerobuses waiting for departing travelers like us. We paid the fare, climbed on with our unwieldy backpacks, and waited some more. At this point, about an hour and a half before the departure of our flight, and still sitting on a bus in seemingly no hurry to depart, we began mentally planning for how to get back to Morocco when we missed our flight. The plan involved taking a train to Almería, catching a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, and taking another train from there.

Luckily, no flights were missed, and three hours later we were safely on the ground in Fez. The feeling of being back in Morocco was amazing. Even being pestered by the grand taxi drivers didn’t seem quite as much of an irritation as before we had left…either that or we were just on a high from having converted our few remaining Euros to Dirhams. With a 12 to 1 exchange rate, our newfound wealth was exciting to say the least. We were just starting to marvel at how sane the driving seemed when we met up with a friend at the bus station, got into two petit taxis, and almost died a couple of times getting to the medina. Oh, Morocco. It’s good to be back.

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¡Vamos a Barcelona! (part I)

I had a bit of a crisis this semester about where to spend Spring Break. I’m studying abroad in Morocco, and, despite the fact that I’m spending four full months there, I felt like I should stay in the country, and take full advantage of being there; there’s certainly enough to see. However, after a long internal debate, I decided to join two friends on a trip to Barcelona, Spain, a mere two hour flight but a cultural world away.

We arrived in the early afternoon on Saturday, and after converting our remaining US dollars to a pittance of Euros, sat on the airport floor for about 20 minutes trying to figure out where exactly we were, before catching a bus to within walking distance of our hostel. The hostel itself turned out to be amazingly clean, comfortable, and modern for an average of €11 a night. Although my first evening was filled with money concerns after both my credit and debit cards ceased to work, the problem was resolved within 24 hours and I was soon able to turn my mind towards enjoying every moment in Catalonia.

The next morning, we opted to get our bearings in the city by taking a walking tour, free of charge, through our hostel. We were treated to two and a half hours of Barcelonian history, from the middle ages through to the present day. Our tour began sitting on the steps of a 14th century building, which our guide soon informed us was the King’s Square, Plaça del Rei, supposedly where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella met Columbus after his return from the New World and were fully informed of his discoveries for the first time.

At the start of the Sandeman's New Barcelona Tour, Plaça del Rei.

At the start of the Sandeman’s New Barcelona Tour, Plaça del Rei. I’m in the second row up, third from the left.

To the left of the steps was the executioner’s house. The poor guy was looked at as being cursed, so he couldn’t live in any of the more residential areas. On the upside, he had a short commute to work, as executions were public events which took place in the square, essentially on his front porch.

Today, the Museu d’Història de Barcelona (MUHBA) can be found inside of these buildings. We took advantage of the fact that many of Barcelona’s museums are free on Sunday afternoons, and went for a look around. The interior fully lives up to the expectations of what a 700 year old building should look like, and the exhibits are interesting, taking visitors from the Roman city of Barcino through to about the 18th century, or at least that’s as much as we saw before we got kicked out at closing time. The best part, though, can be found in the basement, where there’s an entire Roman city being excavated. You can still see the remains of the watchtowers in the city walls, the bath houses, the dying vats for clothmakers, the crucifix-shaped church, and so much more. The coolest bits, though, are actually the empty spaces: the roads. Glass walkways allow visitors to feel almost like they are walking where the Romans walked back in the day. Awesome. Most information in the museum is only in Spanish and Catalan, but thanks to the similarities of the romance languages, we were able to understand more or less everything, and had a fantastic time walking through history.

Back on the tour, we made our way around the corner and found ourselves face to face with the massive Catedral de Barcelona. Although there is evidence of a Christian presence on the site dating back as far as the 3rd century CE, and the foundations of the buildings are from the 9th and 10th centuries, the construction of the current structure began in 1298, with the cloister finally being completed in the 15th century. The Cathedral is free to visitors before noon and after 17:30, and oh was it worth the walk back. The inside is exquisite, with shrines and sepulchers dotted throughout the walls, and high, vaulted gothic ceilings. The centerpiece is the crypt of the martyred 13-year old Saint Eulalia, whom the cathedral is dedicated to. Today, 13 geese live inside the cloister, one for each year of her life. There was a mass being held in a side chapel while we were there, and the chanting only added to the atmosphere. It felt like a trip back in time.

After the cathedral came a stroll through the gothic quarter, including a stop at Plaça Sant Felip Neri. It’s a quiet, tucked away corner of the city, which you might recognize from Evanescence’s “My Immortal” music video or the film Vicky Christina Barcelona, depending on your tastes. Two sides of the square are made up of a church and a school. The church was favored by the famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who came to pray daily. In fact, he was hit by a tram on his walk to this church in 1926, and died three days later. The walls of the church are marred by the signs of a bombing which took place in 1938 during the Spanish civil war, and were left as a reminder of the 42 victims, some 20 of whom were children hiding in the bomb shelter below the church. The school remains in use today as well, marked by a banner protesting the educational cuts in Catalonia and children playing soccer in the square.

The Plaça Sant Felip Neri is near the entrance to the city’s old Jewish Quarter, which was our next stop. Although the modern Jewish population is scattered throughout the city, there are still very visible signs of Jewish life in this area, including street signs written in Hebrew. With building foundations dating back to the 3rd century, the Sinagoga Mayor de Barcelona is one of the oldest in all of Europe.

Back inside the Gothic Quarter, Plaça Sant Miquel is where the city council building is located, and also the place where we found ourselves in the middle of our second protest in as many days. Catalonians do seem to love their protests. Whereas the first was a large women’s rights rally, presumably organized to coincide with the international day of the woman, this was fighting changes in the Spanish educational system, which is reviewed and altered on a yearly basis. This constant policy shifting has given Spain some of the worst educational statistics in all of Europe.

Protesting changes in the educational system.

Protesting changes in the educational system.

At the Parc de la Ciutadella.

After walking into El Born, the so-called Soho of Barcelona and the current hotspot to live in the city, our tour ended in the Parc de la Ciutadella, a breath of fresh air among the towering buildings. We all collapsed onto a park bench in a state of semi-shock after learning so much history in so little time, marveling over all of the differences between here and “home.” Home, of course, is Morocco. As much as we’re loving our little escape to Europe, we all agreed that we’re feeling an odd sense of homesickness for our adopted country, in some ways more than we’ve felt for America since we’ve been gone. Once our shock and awe had worn off a bit, we got back on our feet, and went to check out the huge fountain further into the park, which was also partially designed by Gaudí.

Finally, at around 15:00, lunchtime. Tapas. More importantly, fresh vegetables, something that we hadn’t really had in two months. The meal was delicious, if painfully expensive, and it rejuvenated us enough for the walk balk to our hostel, where we took a short siesta.

The next morning, we got up at 9:30 to head out early and see as much as possible. Okay, that’s a lie. We intended to get up at 9:30 to get a head start, and then somehow a snooze button got hit and we slept until 10:45. Whatever. We needed the rest. After our late start, we meandered our way towards a metro station, where we caught the subway to the beach and the Mediterranean. Even right outside the city, the water was as clean and clear as we could have hoped, and amazingly litter free. The only downside? Despite the fairly warm weather outside, stepping into the water felt akin to putting our feet in ice water.

We laid on the beach, entranced by the blue-green Mediterranean water for some unknown amount of time, before dragging ourselves up and back to the metro station, and eventually our hostel. After a midday nap, we found ourselves back in the Gothic quarter, wandering through the timeless streets once more, before settling on dinner at an Italian restaurant. After two months of living on carbs alone, though, we all opted for salads and Spanish wine, which is oddly enough cheaper than many non-alcoholic drinks in Spain. I guess they have their priorities.

Tuesday morning we actually managed to get up with our alarms, and after eating a far too large breakfast at our hostel – it’s the only thing in Spain that’s all you can eat, so we made sure we got our money’s worth – we set out for the Parc de Montjuïc, located on a nearby mountain supposed to offer fantastic panoramic views of the city. We arrived at the nearest metro stop, figured out which direction we were facing, and headed towards the park…or so we thought. Actually, we were walking in the direction opposite from the park, and we trekked so far that we walked off the edge of our map before we gave up, double-checked a cross street, and realized our error. Oh well, I never claimed to have a good sense of direction. And, it turned out alright, because we had inadvertently wandered to the doors of the Arenas de Barcelona, a former bullring converted into an uber-modern shopping mall. Our reverse-culture-shock-daze returning, we walked inside, made our way up through four floors and eventually found ourselves on the roof of the building, with a 360° view of Barcelona.

We spent a solid 20 minutes just absorbing the views of the city, trying to etch every detail into our memories, before reluctantly heading back down and returning to our quest for Montjuïc. We opted to take the metro back to our original stop once more, where we saw signs for the train up to Montjuïc…inside the station, maybe 10 feet from where we had started our journey an hour earlier. Whoops.

We hopped on a very short train ride up the hill, disembarked, and got our tickets for the cable car ride the rest of the way up. After getting an amazing perspective on the city from the sky, we found ourselves standing at the entrance to the Castillo de Montjuïc, a 17th century fortress with stunning views overlooking both the city and the sea. We meandered our way along the gravel paths, pausing at the huge cannons guarding the walls from maritime attacks before eating our meager lunch of fruit and nuts, mesmerized once more by the view of the Mediterranean waves washing onto shore below us. An hour later we were back on sea level, with our main excursion of the day complete.

To be continued with our adventures from the second half of the week…

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Adjustments

It’s funny how quickly we can adapt to a new environment. Two months ago, the other exchange students and I were marveling at the fact that people in Morocco will pay to use a public restroom that doesn’t even provide toilet paper, let alone soap. This weekend, three of us stayed in a hotel and were equally amazed and excited about the fact that not only did we have toilet paper and soap, but even towels and indoor trash cans! We realized that our room held the first TV that any of us had been able to use since arriving in Morocco (although we didn’t even turn it on), and, best of all, there was hot water. True luxury right there, folks.

Right now, we’re whiling away our school break in Barcelona, and it’s an odd feeling. Stepping off the plane onto European soil almost felt like going back to the “real world” in some odd way. The tall buildings and wide open streets are reminiscent of America, although probably only because we’ve just come from somewhere that’s so very different; there’s even a Starbucks within walking distance. There’s relatively little litter in the streets, everybody we’ve met has spoken good English, people follow traffic laws, and, perhaps most shocking of all…we’re not the only white people around anymore. Until we speak, nobody knows we’re tourists (unless our wide-eyed stares and city maps give us away…).

We ate dinner our first night at a burger joint, decorated Americana style; I had a veggie burger on gluten free bread, and we all split a strawberry milkshake. Minus the fútbol game on the large screen TVs, we really could have been

Myself (left) and Meredith

Myself (left) and Meredith

back home. It all feels so, for lack of a better term, extravagant. Keep in mind, we’re staying in an 11€ a night hostel, so it really isn’t extravagant at all. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about how comfortable everything seems. Because while I love my life in Morocco – I really, really do – this is easy. In two months, I had forgotten how simple life in a developed western country can seem.

I’m wondering if it’s going to be hard to return to life in Morocco again, after even a week of this European ease; I hope not. Being away from my new life there has given me perspective though. Perspective on how much my priorities have changed in the past couple of months. Things that in January I thought might make my existence miserable, I don’t even think about anymore. It isn’t the big stuff that I really care about. It truly is the small things that make all the difference. For those of you back home in America: If you’ve got hot water, A/C, soap, and toilet paper…let’s just say that your life might be more comfortable than you realize.

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On being a female in Morocco

Or, more accurately, a very obviously foreign female.

Before I arrived in Morocco, I was warned many times, often by people who had never been here, but also by people who had, that as a pale, blonde, young woman I would face daily harassment and discrimination while here. Luckily, for the most part, I have found those people to be totally wrong. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been living in a town which sees many an exchange student pass through, one that isn’t a big center for foreign tourists, and therefore lacks the aggressive hawkers found in other major cities, but I haven’t been the recipient of scams or lewd comments or any of the other negative things that I had heard were common here, just the occasional ogling.

That said, I’ve had an interesting experience during the last 24 hours. For the first time since I stepped off the plane in Fez two months ago, I’ve been traveling without any male company. I’m with two other (female) friends from school, and although we haven’t been the target of any particularly negative attention, we definitely have gotten attention. We made it through Ifrane without any trouble, as predicted. When we stepped out of the grand taxi in Fez…different story. A very persistent man immediately walked over to us, trying to sell us a taxi ride that we said many times we didn’t want. On our walk to find a taxi somewhere further away, I heard cries of “Sweetie! I love you!” in English and something along the lines of “Très belle! Voulez-vous le mariage? (Very beautiful! Do you want marriage?)” in French – usually from middle aged men. We were barely five feet inside of Bab Boujloud, the gate to the medina closest to our riad, when a restaurant employee came out to try to get us to eat at his restaurant. We politely declined, but he followed us through several twists and turns of the street, insisting that we tell him where we were staying so that he could show us the way. We finally gave up on ditching him, and decided that, as long as he followed the road that our directions said we should be on, it couldn’t hurt to continue on with him – we’d be going that way regardless. He did indeed lead us safely to our hostel, after reminding us many times that we needed to go back to his restaurant to eat dinner. The jury is still out on where we will eat tonight.

A glimpse of blue sky through the massive Bab Boujloud gate.

A glimpse of blue sky through the massive Bab Boujloud gate.

Luckily, the hotel owners spoke fairly fluent English, and led us to their newer location a few roads back towards the gate, where I’m currently lounging on my mattress in the loft, looking down on my friends in their canopied bed below. We had two rounds of sugar and mint-laden tea plus some delicious lemony mini-muffins, on the house, with offers of more whenever we want it. As with anywhere in Morocco, there were many repetitions of “Marhaban!” – “Welcome!” – and that is how I feel. Inside the riad, with it’s door locked to the chaotic medina of Fez right outside, I feel safe and comfortable. It’s our own peaceful sanctuary in the city.

It’s important to note, though, that even walking the streets, I don’t feel unsafe, per se. Rather, I feel watched. I feel like a target, for vendors or pickpockets…purely because I am blonde and caucasian, and to an extent because I am female. I don’t think that anything bad is going to happen to me. I don’t think that I’m going to be kidnapped or raped or any of the things that my friends and family back home have talked about. I do think that, without preparing and using a lot of common sense, I will be scammed, overcharged, or the victim of petty theft.

Perhaps these things are true of my male foreign friends as well, but not to the same extent. Never, when traveling with them, have I received the kind of attention that I have in the past several hours. Simply having a boy from school by my side deters most local men from their cat-calls and marriage proposals. I’ve never had the company of a guide forced upon me, or been pushed that much to take a taxi. My female friends who couchsurf here always have an abundance of offers, while my male friends fight to find anywhere to stay. In some ways, I feel like a commodity that’s being bargained for.

I don’t want this to deter anyone out there from coming to Morocco; it’s an amazing country, with wonderful people, and I love living here. 99% of the time, I don’t have any trouble, and particularly once out of the tourist traps, harassment hasn’t been an issue that I’ve often had to deal with. Within 24 hours, I will be on a plane to Barcelona, and I was surprised to find how sad I am simply leaving my friends and my new home for a week. I don’t want to think about having to leave for good in May. It’s true that in other countries, Morocco included, women have to deal with a lot more than we do in the U.S., but if you let that deter you from traveling, you will miss so many amazing experiences, and you’ll never meet the people who are so genuinely kind and hospitable that it makes everything else okay.

Ma’a Salaama,

Alexandra

Note: For anyone coming to Fez, I booked at the Dar El-Yasmine, and am staying at a riad owned by the same people, Dar Tahrya. It’s amazing what $20 a night can get you, and I highly recommend it. 

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Rabat Ville.

This weekend, I ventured out into the world and spent my first night away from Ifrane since arriving in Morocco five weeks ago. Along with four other exchange students, I went to Rabat, which is quite a process, as there’s no train station in Ifrane. So, instead of just getting on a train, our afternoon went something like this: petit taxi → grand taxi station, grand taxi → Meknes, petit taxi → Meknes train station, train → Rabat, train station → hostel. Even with all the steps, though, it only ended up taking about 4 hours and a little over 100d ($12) to travel something like 200 km. Not half bad by American standards.

When we arrived, we realized that one of our group had left her passport back in her dorm. Whoops. Note to any future travelers to Morocco: if you’re checking into a hotel, legally, you must have your passport. Although the hotel staff spoke next to no English, I know some French, and one of the other girls some Arabic. Between the two of us, we could (kind of) communicate. Even when we couldn’t, though, there were many recitations of مرحباً (marhaban), the Arabic word for welcome. As long as we could manage to get a hold of the entry number they had stamped into our friend’s passport at the Casablanca airport, she could stay the night. After some frenzied messaging to her roommate, and a trip down to the local police station to get approval for her to check-in, the matter was settled. We ate a delicious dinner at the Marché –  for me, harira, a Moroccan vegetable soup that reminds me of Minestrone, and a strawberry smoothie chaser, because I haven’t seen a single smoothie since I’ve been here, and they pretty much make up an entire food group for me when I’m in America.

Back at the hostel we were invited by the owner to sit down for some mint tea. No matter how full or how tired you are, there is always room and energy for more Moroccan mint tea. Afterwards, we went inside, got into our PJs, chatted for a while, and then decided to wash up and tuck in a bit early, as we were all tired from our day of traveling and wanted to get an early start. In typical Moroccan style, though, there was no soap or toilet paper in the bathroom, warm water in the showers, or any form of heating whatsoever. The lobby, with it’s ceiling (or lack thereof) open to the elements, led directly into the dorms, letting in the chilly night air. Most of us swore off showering in cold water, and instead opted to huddle under the covers and warm up as much as possible.

Bright and early the next morning, we got up – most of us with icy extremities – and walked back into the Marché for breakfast. Unfortunately, big breakfasts don’t seem to exist in this country, so we made do with tea or coffee and a croissant, and set out for the day.

Breakfast, Moroccan style.

Breakfast, Moroccan style.

Our first stop was Chellah. Chellah are ruins on the site of an ancient Roman city known as Sala Colonia, which lay on one of the main Roman roads to the Atlantic. It was eventually added to by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, but was abandoned in the 1100s. Later, the Almohads began using the site as a necropolis, and in the 14th century, the Marinid dynasty added a Mosque and zawiya, or religious school. The Marinid sultan Abu Al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn ‘Othman (1297-1351) is buried there alongside his wife. Today, the ruins, which were damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, are a bit overgrown and unkempt, with the few still standing structures topped by giant stork nests, but are a peaceful and informative place to spend an afternoon. We wandered the grounds for a few hours, taking full advantage of the fact that, unlike at many other historical sites, there were very few restrictions on where visitors could walk. So, yeah, we were climbing all over the Roman ruins and wandering among the broken down pillars, through the 700 year old Mosque, and into the old zawiya. No big deal.

After our morning at Chellah, we meandered our way back towards the center of town, eating lunch at a crêperie and then making for the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current king (Mohammed VI). It’s a beautiful, spacious, calm area, fenced off from the rest of the city and guarded at each gate by mounted soldiers. Inside the fence, there are numerous white columns, nearly all half-finished, across from a massive minaret that looks like the top has been sliced right off. At the time of it’s building, the Hassan Tower was intended to be the largest minaret in the world, and it’s attached Mosque equally grand. Had it been finished, it would have held 20,000 worshippers, but after the death of Sultan Almohad Yacoub el Mansour in 1199, the building project was abandoned, and much of the finished work was destroyed by the same earthquake which damaged Chellah in the 18th century. Inside the white marble mausoleum across from the Hassan Tower, the architectural details are exquisite. Visitors come in on the upper level, and can look down on the coffins of Mohammed V, and his two sons, King Hassan II, and Prince Abdallah. There is also a cushion and bookstand for the Qur’anic reciter who can often be found next to the tombs. We spent several minutes just standing and soaking in the details of the building, which had guards at every door outside, and in every corner inside. There’s really no American equivalent that I can think of, but the images that my mind keeps springing to are of the monuments and memorials found in Washington D.C., namely the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

Once we had seen all there was to see at the Mausoleum, we turned our feet towards the Kasbah of the Udayas and started walking. The kasbah, or citadel, is located at the point where the Bou Regreg River empties into the Atlantic. It was built by the Almohads in the 1150s, on the site of the older Almoravid kasbah which had been destroyed during the fighting for control of Rabat, but was abandoned in 1199. Today, it’s a fairly quiet (albeit touristy) area of the city, painted all in blue and white, with glorious views of the ocean. We spent some time inside the world heritage site, took a quick spin through the garden – small, compared to those at Chellah – and headed back to the hostel.

After a quick wash up, we went for dinner near the train station. Admittedly, our motives for walking so far from our hostel were very, well…American. Two of our friends who were staying at the same hostel as we were had gone to the McDonalds in town, our first glimpse of American food (and ice cream!) in the nearly month and a half that we’d been in Morocco, and their talk of McFlurries was just too good to resist. In all fairness, none of us particularly like fast food back home, we had no intention to eat dinner there, and nor did we; we really just wanted the ice cream. In any case, we ate at a small restaurant called Baba Ganoush, which, rather disappointingly, did not have baba ganoush. It did, however, have the mediterranean/middle-eastern style food that I was expecting to be more prevalent in Morocco, and I happily dug into falafel and hummus. Yum. Afterwards, we attempted and failed to find McFlurries, and went back to our hostel once more. Within half an hour, though, the desire had grown too great, and we got a taxi to take us to McDonalds. The taxi driver spoke more English than most, and was quite chatty, but when he started a sentence with “Usually Americans ask me to take them to the other McDonalds,” we all cringed. We just turned into those people. Oh well. The M&M McFlurry was worth it, so judge away.

Enjoying our McFlurries.

After eating in the fanciest McDonalds that I’ve ever seen – three stories tall! – we returned to our hostel, where we stayed up talking about anything and everything for several hours. Bonding time completed, the boys went back to their room and the girls to ours, we stole blankets from the unoccupied beds, and with the extra layer of protection from the cold, slept comfortably until…10 a.m. Unfortunately, the snooze button got in the way of the others’ plans to get up and see the sunrise on the beach, but since I don’t care enough about sunrise (or almost anything else) to get up at 6 a.m., I was perfectly content, and we all needed the rest anyway.

We checked out, ate another petite breakfast across from the train station, and sadly set off on our journey back home. For everyone in the group, Rabat had been our favorite location in Morocco thus far, and nobody really wanted to leave. Homework was waiting though, so a train and a couple of taxi rides later, we were back at AUI, and back to shivering in the winter weather which had been so wonderfully absent during our days in Rabat. We walked back out to the Marché for a quick msemen and tea stop, as our breakfast had been less than filling, and then returned to our respective dorms to enjoy the water heating system which exists on campus, and rinse off the grime from two days of travel without access to soap or warm water.

The journey home. From left to right: Taylor, Meredith, Erin, myself, and Chris.

The journey home. From left to right: Taylor, Meredith, Erin, myself, and Chris.

Now, shower taken and homework (mostly) completed, I’m wishing even more that I was back in Rabat. Ifrane is a nice town, filled with wonderful people, but I’m a city girl at heart, and it’s difficult coming back to a place this small – 40,000 inhabitants – after only a short break into the 1 million+ world of Rabat. However, keeping me going is the knowledge that in a few short weeks I’ll be on a plane to Barcelona for Spring Break! Until then, it’s back to the grindstone, so, as always,

Salam from Morocco.

Categories: Morocco, Photos, Rabat, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t let me join the military…

Or at least not the cavalry. As I write this, my mud splattered boots are sitting next to me on the floor, my back is stiff, it’s slightly painful to sit down, and my fingers are so blistered that I can hardly type. My clothes and hair smell thoroughly of horses for the first time in nearly two years, and I couldn’t be happier.

Smile!

Smile!

When I found out that there was a horse riding club here at AUI, I was insanely excited; I rode for several years through junior high and high school, mainly doing English style hunter-jumper training, but haven’t had the opportunity to ride since I moved away to college. It’s one of the things that I miss most from my early life. When I learned that the membership fee for the club was a meager 150d ($18), I was more excited still: most equestrian clubs in the U.S. are far more expensive.

Today, we took our first trip of the semester, to a town called Khenifra, about 100km south of Ifrane. No, we didn’t ride all that way. We did, however, have get up at 5 a.m. to get a shuttle to the town, where we picked up our mounts. Now, I had been warned that these weren’t the easiest horses to ride, but given my experience, I wasn’t overly concerned. Boy, was I wrong. We were riding military horses, and as the club president, a professional level rider, informed me – after we were an hour and a half into the ride and I had nearly been bucked off of a galloping horse – these are the most difficult horses to ride in all of Morocco. Hmm.

At the stable

So deceptively calm.

Being military horses, they were trained quite differently from any other horse I’d ever ridden. The reins had to be held so short than any American mount would have been walking backwards; meanwhile, I was lucky to keep these guys to a canter. More importantly, the rein signals are slightly different, and by the time we took a break at the halfway point, I looked down to see my hands covered in blood from the leather being pulled through them so quickly and so often. When I was writing packing lists back in Houston, it didn’t occur to me to pack my riding gloves, half chaps, jodhpurs, or crop.

Luckily, one of the trainers who rode with us lent me his gloves, which was probably the only way I managed to make it back in one piece. After I had the gloves on, controlling my horse was significantly easier. Plus, the road back was rocky, up one hill and down another, and though horses have a tendency to want to speed up slightly when climbing on hills, mine was managed easily enough once I could actually grip the reins again.

We were riding for fun; everyone else was riding for transportation

We were riding for fun; everyone else was riding for transportation

When we got back to the stables, three hours after setting out, those of us who were experienced jumpers took turns going over the gates they had set up. I have to say, as much as I enjoyed the trail ride, and as gorgeous as the scenery was, I had at least as much fun going over those couple of gates. Jumping really is my equestrian home. There’s nothing quite like flying through the air on horseback; there’s a freeing feeling about it that just can’t be compared to anything else.

Jumping

After we’d all had our turns at jumping, we turned the horses over to their trainers, got a much needed drink of water, and piled back in the van. Two hours later, we arrived at the Marché in Ifrane for lunch (which turned out to be an adventure of it’s own, but that’s a story for another time), and by around 6 p.m., 12 hours after we’d set off, we were back on campus.

I suppose to some people this trip might seem fairly insignificant. I didn’t get to see much of the town of Khenifra, there were no museums or historical sites involved, and we didn’t even really get to interact with any locals, excepting the trainers. But, this trip meant two things: Number one, the ride was the first time that I have been part of a group composed solely of Moroccan students. Number two, it rekindled my love for riding. As sore as I may be right now, and as spirited (ahem, difficult) as those animals may have been, being on the back of a horse is one of the things that is guaranteed to put me in a good mood, always.

Although it isn’t what I expected when I got here, being a part of this club is one of the things which I’m most looking forward to this semester. I can’t wait to get back in the saddle again!

Categories: Khenifra, Morocco, Photos, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Settling In

After nearly a month in Morocco, I’ve started to settle in to the daily monotonies of life here. I can now find my way around campus without thinking about it, I know which restaurants in town are my favorites, and what cafeteria food is safe to eat. I have a fairly steady weekly routine of classes and homework, and in some ways, my life here doesn’t feel all that different from life in America. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule – for instance, I don’t spend my free time in America planning what mini-vacations I’ll be taking over the weekend – but overall, my life as a student just hasn’t changed that much from a year and 5,000 miles ago.

I, on the other hand, have changed, but that’s a topic for another post. The reason I am writing this is because I have been asked to discuss what my classes have been like here. In a lot of ways, they have been the same as any equivalent class I would take back home, so I’ve attempted to focus on the unique things about them. Here they are:

Books

  • Study of Islamic Civilization: I can’t help but feel that taking a class entitled “Islamic-anything” is going to be different taken in a Muslim country than in, say, midwestern America. This is a course taken with mainly Moroccan (read: Muslim) students, and of course, a Muslim professor as well. Although I’ve had some people suggest to me that such classes are somehow inferior, because of the professor’s perceived conflict of interest, I disagree. Having a Muslim professor guarantees that the topics are looked at in a positive light; perhaps, the balance swings too far in that direction, but I’ve heard so much negativity related to Islam in the U.S. that it might just balance everything out. When, for example, have you ever heard Shari’a, or even the concept of jihad, spoken about without a hint of a negative connotation? I hadn’t, until this class.
  • History & Cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa: The history of all of Sub-Saharan Africa for all of time? This course is admittedly a bit ambitious, even for a survey-level class. My interests have always lied mainly in the MENA region, and Islamic studies in particular, so imagine my surprise when this class turned out to be my favorite of the semester. Yes, that can partially be attributed to my feelings towards my various professors, but still…to get back on topic, I would put this class in the same category as the one above it. African studies courses taken in Africa are going to be inherently different from those taken anywhere else in the world. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the negative perceptions and misconceptions that the rest of the world has of the African continent as a whole, and being with people that were either raised or have chosen to live on that continent during those discussions has been a delightful experience. I can only imagine what some of the students back home might say to our conversations. Of course, the class is on sub-Saharan Africa, and I am currently in a North African Arab country which is culturally very dissimilar, but there’s a certain lack of judgement that comes along with being here, nonetheless.
  • History of the Arab World: I suppose I should have expected it, but this class overlaps far more with my Islamic Civ class than I was anticipating. In both classes, we spent the first week discussing pre-Islamic Arabia, and the past two weeks covering sira, or the life of the Prophet Muhammad. However, they seem to be branching off, as the Arab World class will be going into more politically-based discussions of the history and culture of Arabia, whilst my Islamic Civ class is turning towards the Qur’an. One of the difficulties of taking an English class (even at an English-speaking university) in a country where English is not the official language, is that between a professor who isn’t a native speaker, and a student who also isn’t a native speaker, both discussing complicated religious or political concepts, miscommunications can (and do) occur. Frequently. That said, I have learned a lot from this course already, and I’m hoping that by the end of the semester I will have a solid enough background in the history of the Arabian peninsula to be able to speak about the present day region with more understanding.
  • Consolidating French: I have less to say about this course than my others, as it’s the most similar to something I would take back home. It’s an upper-intermediate French course, with a strong focus on grammar. It’s incredibly difficult, and even though I’ll likely be able to hone my skills more here, I’ve been longing for my relatively simplistic French courses back home. Being taught by a professor from Marseilles brings a whole new level of difficulty to listening in class, as the lectures come fast and furious. And, assignments such as the 5-10 minute oral presentation followed by a solid hour of discussion, led by the presenter, are never far from my mind. Souhaitez-moi bonne chance!

Despite everything that I’ve said above, most things school-related are the same or similar here. Of course, there are some general differences. When I’m back home, I don’t have Muslim students throwing out Qur’anic references left and right that leave me scrambling to check names against verses in the holy book or ahadith. Oral presentations are ubiquitous: in my previous two years in college, I’ve done about as many oral presentations as I’ve been assigned in this single semester, and if anything causes me a mental breakdown here, it will be these, not culture shock. I’ve also never heard the word “discipline” said so many times as I have here. For all that the country as a whole seems to run 15-20 minutes behind, always, the professors here are sticklers for attendance and punctuality far more than in the United States. One poor exchange student wasn’t allowed into the classroom on the very first day of the semester, because he got lost and ended up being a few minutes late, and I have seen several other people refused entry in the time since.

Anyways, given my choice of major and my area of interest, I imagine that this semester will in some ways do as much for my education as all of the classes that I have gotten to take back home put together. Informative as those may be, being here, in an Arab Muslim country in the MENA region, provides me with experience that I can gain nowhere else in the world. Although my classes here are providing me with new challenges, I can’t wait to see what benefits those challenges will bring.

Categories: School | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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