Monthly Archives: April 2012

Free Verse Poem: Love in the Sand

Love in the sand, built up by caring hands.
Until the ocean washes it away
as the moon holds the tides
under her sway.

Ephemerality eternalized
only in the memory
of a moment’s touch.
The grit of sand under a fingernail,
a taste of salt clinging to your skin.

The sound of ocean waves
echoes in a shell held to your ear,
bringing the moment back
until you realize
it’s your own blood crashing,
pumping life into a memory
that no longer exists.

Is that all that’s left of us?

Has that ocean of time and distance
washed away
the love we built in the sand
all those years ago?

Waves crashing
until even the rocks give way.
Slowly fading
into the sands of time,
making a new bed
on the ocean floor.

Your lips move to answer
but I can no longer hear
over the sound of the waves
as I let the current take me
to where I belong
in the sand.

[Written 10 April 2012 on Banana Beach in Agadir/Aourir, Morocco and inspired by my friend’s drawings in the sand]

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The Wonders of Language

It’s amazing sometimes how much language can mean to people.  It’s something you don’t generally think of in everyday life, at least from my experience in America.  Other than some Anthropologists and Linguists gunning to protect endangered languages (learn more about it here), the most attention it gets in the States tends to be from people complaining about immigrants who don’t speak English.  Not exactly the most positive image of American culture, especially considering our own general lack of linguistic education (which I’m sure is a big contributing factor to such anti-foreign sentiment, but I digress).

In Morocco, language is important and everyone knows it.  People communicate not just with the words they speak, but also with the choice of which language they use.  Language choice can convey information about education, social class, upbringing, expectations (foreigners are often addressed in French), and cultural attitudes of the speaker.  The differences between French (the language of the colonizers and foreign elite), Darija (the everyday language of people on the street), and FosHa (the holy language of the Qoran and MENA’s lingua franca) are vast and carry very different connotations in their social use.   These connotations can greatly affect one’s perception of the speaker, leading to some interesting exchanges that can either help or hinder one’s cause.

Between my limited Darija, stumbling French, and halting FosHa, I am generally able to comunicate and make myself understood after having been here for about 7 months now.  I’ve found that the more Darija I use, the more surprised and happy people are.  They don’t expect foreigners to know the local dialect.  Even people from other Arab countries can’t understand much Darija, which is what makes FosHa so helpful.  Moroccans are often surprised when I speak FosHa too (as most European or Western tourists speak only French, English, and/or the language of their home country), but only the more educated, more religious, or those more enamored with Egyptian soap operas speak it themselves.   Whenever I speak Arabic (including FosHa, but especially when I try for some Darija), people instantly become more friendly, more open, and more excited to know me.  I’ve gained a lot more insight on Moroccan life and culture by trying to learn the language, and people repay my interest in small ways all the time.

I’ve already mentioned my encounter with the cotton candy man in Meknes, but that’s just one example.  Just this morning I went to buy water from a small shop near the train station (to avoid paying the more expensive price on the train) and greeted the man there with a short conversation in Darija.  He told me the price and then, after a few jokes testing my Arabic while I dug around in my wallet, refused to let me pay full price because he knew I was a student studying the language locally. I’ve only been to that shop once before (and not in a month or so)  but he remembered me and appreciated my efforts to learn about Morocco.  I know that long after the water is gone and the money forgotten, his smile will continue to warm my heart, serving as a reminder of the true value of cultural exchange and the ability of language (whether gestured, fluent, stumbling, or otherwise) to connect people all over the world.

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The ride to Chefchaouen was uneventful, if cramped. It took about two hours to get there and our mode of transportation was a Grand Taxi, hired just outside the DMZ of the Sebtan border. Grand Taxi’s are wonderful and relatively cheap. I use them on an almost-daily basis to get to and from school, paying only 3dhs (approximately ($0.40 USD) each way. Each one is a big old Mercedes that 6 passengers are crammed into: 4 in the backseat and 2 in the passenger seat. Moroccans don’t have much of a concept of personal space and a Grand Taxi ride is just one example of how you can get real close real fast with some interesting people.

For better or worse our group consisted of exactly six people – perfect for filling up a grand taxi and paying the cheapest price, but also meaning we’d be crammed in said taxi for two hours, hardly able to move. The ride wasn’t all that bad though, as there was plenty of new scenery to enjoy along the way. Chefchaouen sits in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco. If you’ve heard the term “reefer”, that’s where it comes from – Chefchaouen is arguably the cannabis capital of the world. My attraction to the place lies more in the gorgeous mountain scenery and the blue color it’s known for, as I noted in my previous experience there last semester, but all of these factors have helped the city earn a name for itself.

Our arrival in Chefchaouen was greeted by misty rain clouds .  I haven’t yet managed to visit the place when it’s sunny [and seeing as how I only have three weeks left here, I doubt I’ll have the chance this trip] but the imminent rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as we wound our way through alleys and gardens to some of the boys’ favorite hostel from their last visit.

Our evening was spent eating multi-course meals in the medina, getting to know the other people in the hostel, and wandering through the maze of blue-painted walls at night.  We eventually stumbled across one shop, situated between a mosque and a big, ancient olive tree, with one of the friendliest, most insightful and entertaining shopkeepers ever.  His name was Rashid and our time with him was so memorable we returned back the next day.

There were so many interesting Rashid quotes, from attempts to sell things for “potatoes price”, to the more philosophical “life is onion”.  He had a gift for relating anything to food, even licking one of his leather bags to show it is  “like couscous” and true Moroccan leather.  It’s people like him that epitomize the generosity, friendliness, and up-selling savvy that permeates so much of Moroccan culture.  Several of the guys purchased goods from him and though neither Monica nor I bought anything, pleading lack of funds (my ATM card had been eaten by the machine the first night), he gifted us both with a cloth bag each.

We spent Sunday morning hiking an old Spanish monastery above the town.  It was a short hike, but the view from the top was spectacular and we got great views of the city on the way down as well.

The others took the bus back home to Meknes that afternoon but my ATM card was still stuck in an ATM downtown so I had to stay until the bank opened Monday morning to retrieve it.  My friend Ben stayed the extra day with me and we spent the afternoon further wandering the town and exploring the old fortress (aka. kasbah) within it.   The gardens were beautiful, even in the still drizzly weather, and the tower had been converted into a museum exhibit, offering great views of Chefchaouen’s rooftops on the way up.

Thankfully the next morning’s card retrieval went relatively seamlessly.  I spoke with a lady upstairs at the bank and she had a whole stack of ATM cards sitting on her desk that had been eaten by the machine.  Mine was near the top of the pile and with a simple display of ID and a signature, the card was mine again.  I decided to try a different ATM to get money for the ride back, and as soon as we had our stuff, we were off to the station to get tickets for the three-hour ride to Fes, where we caught the train home.  Things certainly hadn’t worked out exactly as planned for our weekend adventure, but the trip ended up being one of my favorites anyway.   That’s one thing I love about travel: even through all the uncertainty, at times even having no money or no place to sleep, you can still have fun and enjoy the experience.

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Sebta in Photos

Before moving on to Chefchaouen, I’d just like to share some more pictures from my adventures in Sebta.  They all have very different feels to them but I had fun capturing different moments throughout the day.  Enjoy!

Walking the streets we saw some interesting graffiti, most of it the usual tagging or doodling but this caught my eye and made me chuckle.

Going in search of the big fort on the end of the peninsula meant climbing a pretty big hill but the views along the way were well worth it.  This house looks like it has a pretty nice set up, I particularly liked how it almost appears to be floating over nothing, overlooking infinity.

The walk down to the beach was full of color.  The football “field” was bright red and this yellow staircase lined with flowers emphasized the imminence of Spring, even though the weather had yet to clear up.

Field for football, ruins to explore, beach access, gorgeous views, and a crystal clear sea.  What more could you ask for?

Exploring the ruins of an old building by the beach, I climbed up to what used to be an upper floor to see the ocean and found some neat perspectives on the ruins themselves as well.

The front of the building was guarded by an old gnarled tree that had probably been there as long as the building had.

There’s always lots of different forms of life and color to be found in the ocean, especially at a beach as rocky as this one.  I’m just amazed my camera was able to capture both the shells on the rocks and the water’s surface at the same time.

I don’t know why I love black and white photographs so much.  The ocean always looks like it could stretch on forever and combined with these rocks for contrast I just knew I had to try something in B&W.

We all enjoyed the fresh ocean air.  Our time in Sebta was short but I think we’d all agree that it was time well spent.

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Adventures in Spanish Africa

Some of my friends and I recently returned from a weekend trip up to Sebta (aka. Ceuta) and Chefchaouen.   American entry visas to Morocco are only good for 90 days, but a quick jaunt outside the country (or to the part of northern Morocco still technically belonging to Spain) will get you the passport stamp necessary to stay (at least) another 3 months.

We were planning on staying the weekend in the Spanish territory known as Ceuta (known as Sebta to Moroccans) but soon found that every hostel and hotel in the city was booked, except of course for the most expensive one in town.  We wandered the town with our backpacks, looking for somewhere we could stay and knowing benches would not be comfortable in the drizzly weather.   We joined forces with another roofless backpacker wandering the streets but soon decided we ought to fill our empty bellies before continuing the search for sanctuary.   We ate at a Chinese restaurant where they not only tolerated our group’s lack of Spanish or my scattered attempts at translating for seven people at once, but then allowed me use of their pay phone to call every (booked) hostel in the guidebook, calling other hotels themselves after I asked if they knew of a place where we could stay the night.  After every number anyone could find had been tried with no luck, one of the girls from the restaurant indicated we should follow her and proceeded to lead us through the streets looking for a place to stay.

I’m sure we made an interesting sight with one young Chinese girl leading six Americans and an Englishman through the streets of Spanish Morocco in the middle of the night.  We tried three more hotels in person before grudgingly heading toward the four-star up the hill.   Evenly split one night would be 50 euros each: not too bad for a nice vacation, but far more than our student budgets wanted to cough up.  It was, however, our only option, and we decided to take it.

After dropping our stuff off at our new found home,  we headed out for a night on the town, starting at an Irish Pub.  My friend Ben was a hit with the bartenders, asking for and then demonstrating an “Irish Car Bomb”.   They got such a kick out of it they didn’t charge any of us for any drinks past our first, and made sure to get our Facebook names and pictures with us before we left.   The Pub was closing, so we went in search of somewhere that stayed open later, eventually getting directions to a club from a Taxi driver in Arabic.  We found some interesting statues on the way and then danced the rest of the night away, leaving the club sometime around 7am local time.

The problem with staying out late while calling a hotel home is that after just a quick nap, it’s time to check out and leave.   We complied, groggily winding our way and lugging our stuff to a neighboring coffee shop for some fuel to start the day.  Our plan was to explore the big fort on the hill before heading to Chefchaouen to spend the rest of the weekend there, but the fort turned out to be farther away and harder to get to than we anticipated.  We had fun exploring the peninsula looking for a way to get to it though, and saw some great sights on the way.  Eventually we gave up, knowing time was short, and decided to head down to the beach instead.

The boys and Monica all went straight for the water, but I paused to explore some ruins on the way first.  I had a lot of fun playing with my camera and got some good shots before heading down to join them.  The beach was full of interesting rocks and algae, there were also some jellyfish and I found when I got there that Ben had already been stung by one.   It seems New Jersey isn’t as good as California when it comes to “Emergency Education”, since he freaked out when I asked him if someone had already peed on it for him, but he refused all offers of urine from the group, insisting that it wasn’t all that bad, really.

After the beach, we wandered our way back to the main part of town to grab some food before heading off to Chefchaouen.  We stopped at a snack place run by Moroccans and got thoroughly confused as to what country we were in or which language we should be using since everything was done in a mixture of French, Darija, Arabic, and Spanish.  It was great!  The people were friendly and the food was just what we needed to get us on the road back to “real” Morocco to finish the weekend in Chefchaouen.

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Photography Fun

I just returned from a weekend trip to Sebta and Chefchaouen with friends.  Details on the events of our exploits are forthcoming but I’ve been having some fun with the pictures I took and I wanted to share some of them.  I just discovered some new functions in my photo editor and the trip offered some spectacular scenery that made for good shots to begin with.  Here’s some of what I’ve played with so far from my Sebta pics:

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